Sounds heard are sweet


Sofia Troncoso and Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 12

Sofia Troncoso

Here we are: back in the concert hall – not many of us, but enough to suggest that a corner has been turned. Will we get back to the ‘proper’ order of things and revert to valuing the packed-house syndrome as an indicator of success? Probably. but I suspect that any turning back to the way we were will take longer in the major cities because there’s so much to lose if something goes wrong. You could go the way of self-assurance and propose that people who attend serious music concerts and recitals are, by definition, non-COVID 19 carriers. But the virus is – as we have seen – indiscriminate and, although I may not be sweating and gasping all over you (as I would at a rave), there’s no confidence to be placed in an honest face – not these days.

Despite the ever-present risk, Musica Viva presented this Reconnect Brisbane program featuring the Camerata chamber orchestra in eight works from the Baroque or close to it. Chief soloist, soprano Sofia Troncoso, worked through three arias connected with the night’s Cleopatran theme, but the rest of the content had little to do with Egypt, the glaring exception being a sinfonia from Hasse’s opera Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. Relieved by some short pieces by Locke, and Biber (the inevitable Battalia), the evening’s major work was a Pisendel violin concerto, with Camerata’s artistic director Brendan Joyce as soloist.

I couldn’t see what was the state of play in the stalls, but there were meagre numbers up in the balcony of the QPAC Concert Hall. We were well-spaced out, mainly in clusters of two – but it seemed that many Musica Viva patrons were not yet willing to take the plunge and come out to a recital/concert. The auditorium’s side boxes radiating down from the balcony were pretty much empty and the ambience upstairs could charitably be called ‘quiet’.

I was sitting in the last occupied row, I think, and have to confess that the acoustic properties were lousy in this position. For a body like Camerata, which is not a dynamically volatile body like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the travelling power of their group product seems poor. But then, this room – its slight fan, its high roof, its plush seating and carpet – is not an ideal venue for transmitting performances rich in detail. For a Brahms symphony, a big Mahler, the Gurrelieder: fine. But my forebodings started when a chest of viols (2 violins, a viola, a cello, a bass and harpsichord) played the Curtain Tune from Locke’s music for The Tempest – which is the composer’s restrained musical depiction of the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not, punctuated by some intimations of Restoration storms. As far as I can tell from the score, a certain amount of repetition went on; no problem, and I’m sure it was common practice in the composer’s day while scenery was being hoisted into place. This reading proved to be plangent and restrained, lacking much bite from where I heard it and making you wish for a more aggressive approach that a group like the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra beings to this genre of composition.

Joyce then outlined the order of proceedings and led the full Camerata body – five each of first and second violins, four violas, three cellos and a double bass, with that harpsichord continuo – into Hasse’s Spiritoso e staccatoAllegroStaccato triptych which made a fine impression for its smooth unanimity of attack, but the quality of sound came up as wooly and without bite.

Troncoso gave an amiable account of Cleopatra’s last aria, Da tempeste, from Act 3 of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In the lower reaches of this piece, her voice melded into the strings all too readily. As it progressed, you could tell that all the fioriture was there but it proved uninvolving, particularly in the exposed middle section from bars 85 to 94. The highest notes required – A and G sharp – came over well enough in semiquaver patterns, not so well as individual quavers.

The Concerto grosso No. 7 in G Major from the Op. 7 set of twelve by Giuseppe Valentini made a novelty of sorts. In his program briefing, Joyce wondered why this writer’s name was not as familiar as those of Vivaldi or Corelli. Well, it might have something to do with melodic originality and a facility of expression that didn’t show so much debt to formulae. Certainly the score had elegance and the Camerata gave it their best, but the five movements – Grave, Fuga, Adagio, Vivace and Allegro assai – proved unexceptional, apart from the last which featured some unexpected modulations.

Joyce’s violin added a pliancy to the slow opening, while some predictable suspensions and close-order chording gave the Fuga membership of many another similar work. The slow movement didn’t extend very far, despite the introduction of ornaments; the following lively-paced pages brought into play some welcome subdued hugger-mugger action. But the finale, along with those key-changes, also held a more visceral attraction with much crescendo/diminuendo work and a deft juxtaposition of forte and piano passages.

Cleopatra’s Piangero comes earlier in Act 3 of Handel’s opera than Da tempeste and has become well-known here since Opera Australia mounted the work to showcase the Baroque talents of Yvonne Kenny and the trio of counter-tenors in the company’s ranks some decades ago. Here, even without the original’s flute, Troncoso sounded more persuasive with an admirable ability in communicating controlled passion, alongside an added benefit in having more room to gauge a smoother level of production. The central Ma poi morta strophes succeeded pretty well despite an unfortunate top note (scored or introduced, I couldn’t tell) and even if the semiquaver runs might have been less stolid. In this piece, the Camerata players showed the singer every consideration; even I could hear each note of the outer segments to this aria.

Matters didn’t get off to a good start with the Pisendel concerto because I somehow was labouring under the false expectation that the piece was in G Major; it was actually in D . Then the only violin concertos I could find by this composer in that key required oboes or oboes plus horns. Whatever the case, my resources for this were dissatisfyingly small. A short interlude for three solo violins (with harpsichord) in mid-Movement 1 made for a welcome timbral oasis, and Joyce’s solo line came powering up with excellent clarity. Once again, you would have liked more energy in attack; this is the sort of work that Il Giardino Armonico throws off with flamboyance and – when I last saw them – something like musical machismo. It might have made more of an impression if the Camerata’s treatment had been less polite.

An Andante followed period tropes, invested with a walking-pace melancholy and more opportunities for Joyce to shine in a few outbreaks between unexciting ritornelli. The 6/8 finale began with an infectious sweep that didn’t sustain itself; no fault of the Camerata but more Pisendel’s contentment with note-spinning. Speaking of which, the soloist was put to hard labour in this substantial movement which every so often impressed for its verve. Eventually, the work ended in about nine bars of unison/octave work that seemed rather threadbare after the triad-rich if orthodox harmony at play during the preceding pages.

Biber’s descriptive scraps never fail to entertain, but I was a tad concerned that this audience was going to applaud every movement. That trend came to a stop after Die liederliche gsellschafft von allerley Humor where the composer goes in for bi- or tri-tonality; a little touch of Ives in the night. I think most of the standing players did a bit of in-place marching during the violin/double bass Der Mars duet, which brought up memories of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s penchant for percussive footwork when performing Veress’s Transylvanian Dances. Still, this Battle is an easy accomplishment; nothing lasts too long and the scenes roll past – except for the final Lamento der Verwundeten which the Camerata dispatched with an admirable lack of maudlin self-indulgence. War is hell: get over it, as the former Cretin-in-Chief could have told you.

Troncoso ended the program with a stop-start aria from Vivaldi’s Il tigrane. Well, we say Vivaldi but he wrote only Act Two of this work; the outer acts by different composers have not survived. Squarciami pure il seno is sung by Cleopatra and is a fast-slow piece where the two tempi sit side by side rather than being confined to one or other of the work’s three segments. Here, Troncoso showed very willing in crossing between the schizophrenic Egyptian queen’s juxtaposed temperaments with an appealing limpid quality in the Lento interpolations.

An odd work, but taxing in its emotional vaults rather than in vocal technique. You could say the same about pretty much everything else we heard, apart from the violin concerto. In fact, the program mirrored the night itself in being not too hot, not too cold, not high-flying and not particularly popular in content. Rather, we eased back into going out to hear music. For all that, I’m not convinced that this is the venue that suits Camerata when working in this genre. The whole thing recalled those years when Melbourne Musica Viva presented its season in Hamer Hall; we got used to it over time but only realised what we’d put up with after the Recital Hall’s opening. I expect that there are buildings with a less booming acoustic around Brisbane and am looking forward to hearing Camerata in one of them some time soon.

From dream to trauma


Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

Friday November 6

Lana Kains

At last, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has blossomed from disbursing an endless variety of twigs and branches into presenting something very like a sturdy sapling. For the next four Fridays, the organization is in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to present music that features a body rather more substantial than those we have been offered so far. This opening gambit, conducted by TSO principal guest conductor Johannes Fritzsch, comprised three connected works: songs by Wagner and Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg’s ever-green Transfigured Night in its string orchestra format.

Even in the liberated social climate of Hobart, the TSO performers had to be socially distanced; so you had twenty-odd strings for the Schoenberg, all at separate desks – which made following the composer’s direction about ‘stands’ (from bar 16 on) pretty difficult to fulfil. But this can be a thickly wrought score on many pages while the programmed songs don’t ask for as much interdependence as the transformed sextet.

The TSO made a novel move by having Marta Dusseldorp preface two of the works with readings of the poems on which they were based. Before we heard the last of the Wesendonck Lieder, she gave an appropriately rhapsodic version of the lady’s Traume; and she previewed the Schoenberg with a sympathetic account of Richard Dehmel’s fraught stanzas of 1896. What she didn’t supply was any preface to the evening’s middle work which used verses that might have struck sparks of recognition from those familiar with Schumann’s Liederkreis, but for many of us would have proved less well known than Mathilde Wesendonck’s lied and Dehmel’s emotion-drenched stanzas where sorrow turns to ecstasy.

This piece was Zemlinsky’s Waldgespräch to an Eichendorff text that celebrates the legend of the Lorelei yet again. Still, as some latter-day insightful philosopher once sang, you can’t always get what you want and the composer gave the voice pride of place. Added to this, Hobart soprano Lana Kains made a pretty fair job of articulating the text cleanly and you hear enough clues in the clearer passages to give you the gist of the poet’s intentions.

Rather than over-tire Kains, Fritzsch and the TSO powers-that-be decided to eschew the vocal version of Träume and substitute one for solo violin with chamber orchestral support that the composer arranged in 1857 for a birthday performance below the poet’s bedroom window – shades of the 1870 Siegfried Idyll for wife Cosima; my, how he spread the riches around . . . eventually. On this night, the solo fell to TSO concertmaster Emma McGrath, who gave a sympathetic, stress-free account of the line after commentator Robert Gibson gave a lengthy salute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which groups are clearly taken most seriously on the island that wiped them out.

Wagner did little but follow his own vocal line, with slight variants like leaving no break at the end of Nichts vergangen and allowing a lengthy space for the song’s high F on the last appearance of the title word. McGrath employed a finely wrought and warm vibrato where she could, as well as a deft semi-portamento at appropriate places like the 4th and 6th intervals at und dann sinken. The composer also has the soloist join in the moving final five bars, unlike the poor Frauenstimme who has to stand mute through a postlude that always seems to be longer than it is.

He was about 25 when he composed his orchestral song (strings, harp, two horns) but Zemlinsky subscribed wholeheartedly to the late Romantic ethos, employing a harmonic language that stretched not far beyond Wagner, if not as far as his brother-in-law’s sextet written three years after Waldgespräch. Like their essay at the Wesendonck work, the TSO strings faced no fears with this G minor piece, having an easy time of it up to Letter B and the singer’s second line.

But the soloist herself was hardly over-pressed, so that the sudden small intervallic jumps at Schmerz mein Herz after a series of single notes made a warm impression out of all proportion to any actuality. The upward vocal leaps at the words O flieh! came across with telling power, as the Lorelei attempts to dissuade her prey. But the performance ran both hot and cold; for example, the upper strings gave excellent service just before Letter K in their treatment of a Schoenbergian phrase or two, but their ensemble work at Letter N where the opening motif is revisited could only be seen as sloppy. Counterbalancing this was the finely-worked line from Emma McGrath across the score’s last 35 bars.

Simply for reasons of length (the final Wesendonck lied about four minutes, the Zemlinsky a bit over seven), most attention focused on the evening’s final contribution, the early Schoenberg work that never seems to have been out of favour – unlike the gnarled masterpieces of later years. Fritzsch launched this successfully with effective crosses from solo lines to tutti in the first 24 measures: an excellent instance of balancing unevenly weighted textures. But it wasn’t roses all the way: at bar 29, the first violas took over the running, yet none too clear in their definition; and the violins, because of the afore-mentioned social distancing brought into effect found blending a problem with an individual voice surging through every so often. While the violas made messy work of their three-note pattern across bars 46 to 48, the violin lines at the octave made an impressive and stirring display at the Poco piu mosso change beginning at bar 69.

With the glide into E Major – one of the work’s marvellous emotional displacements – the approach and its achievement came over as scrappy, even more so at the spelled-out violin mordents in bars 124 and 125. To their credit, the three bass lines could not be faulted to this point, although their emergence across bars 145 and 146 sounded over-emphatic. But the ensemble delivered a persuasive weltering outburst when all mutes came off at bar 169. I would have preferred more of a whip-crack approach employed for the violin’s semiquavers in the repetitions across bars 175 to 177, mainly as a relief from stolidity.

Speaking of heavy-handedness, I don’t think I’ve heard a slower reading of the penitential passage from bar 188 to 200, though things picked up for the resumption of the work’s opening motif at bar 202, greeted with plenty of punch from second violins and first cellos. An eloquent, well-proportioned attack signified the start of the Man’s reassurance at bar 209 and McGrath span an exceptionally luminous line from bar 255 during the first transfiguration sequence. Something went wrong with the fp cello harmonic that penetrates bar 251, but the rest of the fluttering wove its anticipated magic.

For the first time, I appreciated the spectral four bars of communal ponticello playing from bar 266: a startling shift in sonority, here carried off with equanimity. Later, the body gave a fine realization of Schoenberg’s hothouse freneticism beginning at bar 303, eventually driving to a powerful climacteric in the universal triple forte explosion of bar 337. Again, the course didn’t stay smooth with a messy first viola phrase at bars 344-5. But relief came quickly with a fine sheen to the group’s timbre in the dynamic breaking-down from bar 356 onward and a flawless chording (because of so many solo lines?) at bars 368-369.

From the bar 401 A tempo to the score’s conclusion, you are in a luminous sphere, luxuriating in music of incomparable beauty that you wish would go on far longer than it actually does. The TSO achieved these hushed pages with a high degree of success even if – as usual – the six pianissimo harmonics in bar 414 were not quite universally secure. But I’ve always thought they make the following D Major chord and its susurrus dissolve all the more satisfying as a leave-taking.

The players fared well in this score which presents so many difficulties, especially long sections where the writing is active and thick. They came out of the struggle with a bit of skin missing; on the other hand, they gave Fritzsch a ready response with no shying away from Schoenberg’s demands for fully-bowed enthusiasm. This piece and its predecessors made an excellent introduction to the TSO’s talent, enough to rouse interest in further Friday entertainments from Hobart.

Unknown Handel, some of it


Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

Sunday March 8

                                                       St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

You can’t fault the idea behind this concert: to expand our experience of Handel as more than just the composer of the most famous oratorio in Western music.   You would have expected Graeme Morton‘s choir to provide the bulk of this 75-minute entertainment – and so they did with nine works, the last two of them unexpected because very popular, even if neither of them has anything to do with Messiah.   But Sunday afternoon also included two soprano arias – one of them that famous Handel hit, Let the bright Seraphim – plus an organ concerto and a concerto grosso from the famous Op. 6 set; well, not the whole of The Cuckoo and the Nightingale but just the opening Larghetto and Allegro  .  .  .  and not the complete No. 11 concerto, more’s the pity  –  only the opening Andante larghetto e staccato and its pendant Allegro.

When the choristers emerged, they reminded me in size of Melbourne’s Ensemble Gombert, a group I’ve been listening to with admiration for many years.   Like the Gomberts, the Brisbane group numbered about 19 singers – although one of the more ridiculously irritating questions of the afternoon concerned a missing singer.  Twenty were credited in the program; by my deduction, 5 sopranos and 5 altos, 6 tenors and 4 basses.   As far as I could judge, there was indeed a bass quartet, imbalanced by 7 tenors.  The sopranos numbered 4, as did the altos, although one of the altos sang that famous soprano aria but stood among the altos.

Of course, if the performance itself is engrossing, problems like this fade into the background.   The fundamental difficulty with this Handel compendium was that it was being given in the wrong building.   As cathedrals go, St. John’s is not particularly large (long) but it has a high ceiling which means that a lot of air space has to be filled.  Morton’s singers sounded much too faint and underpowered for this program and, when the parts subdivided, the output was dissipated even more than in a normal SATB setting.    Their supporting orchestra was populated mainly by Queensland Symphony Orchestra personnel: the associate concertmaster Alan Smith led a string decet in which everybody was a QSO regular except violinist Iona Allan and violist Belinda Williams who has played in past years with the orchestra.    Both oboes came from the QSO corps, and the solitary brass player, Michael Whitaker on trumpet, is a freelance musician of excellent quality.   But even this small chamber-size ensemble proved too powerful for the choir.

Of course, the building’s acoustic would be eminently suitable and flattering for a cappella singing, atmospherically suggestive to a high degree during major services and Evensong.  But it was hard weather for all concerned trying to make a fair showing of Handel’s pages, even the more harmonically bald ones.    Your voices tune that concludes the ode Alexander’s Feast opened the afternoon’s first of four sections: In Praise of Music.  Nothing here to frighten the fishes – a fair number of high As for the sopranos and a solitary B flat, but otherwise the work is not taxing.   Unfortunately, only sopranos and tenors were perceptible throughout.   Things might have been even more difficult if the two horns that are meant to join in the mesh at Let’s imitate her notes above had been present; as it was, we settled in for a lopsided sound where the cathedral’s echo distracted from the score’s rapid-moving clarity.   Still, the orchestral fabric sounded exact and engaging.

One of the program’s two Solomon extracts – the chorus Music, spread thy voice around – began without a solo alto, I believe; not that it mattered because the output in this quiet movement was reassuring with regard to the choir’s linear integrity although once again the basses failed to impress.    Soprano Cheryl Fiedler made a straightforward attempt at the famous Samson aria although her interpretation was pretty unvarnished in terms of personality, but Morton whipped through the aria without finding space for any of those pesky fermate that most singers love to interpolate.   Whitaker’s trumpet obbligato, despite the best intentions of the player, dominated the voice in duets; unfortunately, in the last echo effect sequence in the words their loud, Fiedler began with a leap of a 5th instead of a 4th – which wouldn’t have mattered except for the trumpet’s necessary duplication of what she should have sung.

You missed out on some necessary bite during the final Samson chorus, Let their celestial concerts.   Not only bite but some dynamic oomph would have been of great benefit here, although you have to wonder what the outcome would have been if the original’s second trumpet and timpani had been brought in to the complex.   After this, the movements from Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso proved an amiable interlude, well-balanced and notable for a spirited solo contribution from leader Smith.

The briefer second division of this program, In Praise of the Divine, comprised two choruses, both from Judas Maccabeus: the near-the-end Sing unto God, and the concluding Hallelujah, Amen.   Both ask for three trumpets and timpani, as well as the ever-present oboe pair.   Again, in jubilant works like these, you need a sonorous, carrying choral sound and the requisite majestic power came through only sporadically.  As well, I missed the alto and tenor soloists at the start of the first of these works.  Division Three,   In Praise of Love, began with May no rash intruder (the second Solomon excerpt) which suited the muted choral output even as the sopranos were divided, although the whole could have been given appropriate colour if Handel’s two flutes had appeared.   The second aria soloist, soprano Elodie Geertsema, worked her way through Endless pleasure, endless love from Semele.   Like Fielder’s, this is a good voice best heard as a choir member rather than being asked to project an oratorio/operatic character.  The process here became something of a trial as the singer carefully negotiated the technical hurdles; an effort, not reassuringly secure.

Mourn, all ye muses from that odd masque/opera/oratorio Acis and Galatea (the heroine’s name given an odd pronunciation by the chorister who read an introduction to this segment) came across with some sensitivity to its context, although a change of texture – some crescendo/diminuendo phrasing – would have been welcome.   The split tenor line could have contributed to the textural smoothness of this small chorus.   Phillip Gearing, organist and choir director round the corner at St. Mary’s, Kangaroo Point, played half the F Major Concerto on a chamber instrument that the Brisbane Chamber Choir gifted last year to the cathedral; a handsome and suitable offering as an alternative to the building’s impressive W. J. Simon Pierce main instrument.   The smaller organ, also by Pierce, has five stops only, so Gearing was constrained in his operations.   You might have wished for maximum volume in the first movement where the soloist was not really in competition with his string escort.   Nevertheless, the work’s chirpy first Allegro succeeded markedly, the elegant passage work from the soloist a welcome pleasure.

Finally, In Praise of the Hero took to the mainstream with two choruses familiar to everybody, not just Handel lovers.    See, the conqu’ring hero comes from the oratorio Judas Maccabeus has always impressed me as the British answer to America’s Hail to the Chief, even if the brassy President’s theme song has become debased by its association with liars and charlatans.   The Handel piece opens with 2 soprano and 2 alto lines, moves to 2 sopranos before the eruption into SATB and a full orchestral accompaniment.  In Sunday’s arrangement, the hard-worked Whitaker and Gearing gave an instrumental backing before the full orchestra entered, minus Handel’s two horns.   But this was one of the program’s more successful events as the interpretation boasted some of the brio and flourish (if they’re not the same thing) of the original composition.

Sadly, the afternoon ended with the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest,  this reading unhappy from the outset as the orchestral ritornello was dominated by the oboes’ repeated quavers above the first violins’ scene-setting semiquaver arpeggios.   The original two bassoons were absent, as were the requisite two extra trumpets and timpani needed for the thrilling sonorous explosion when the choir enters.   But here the choral forces were not sufficiently strong in volume and forcefulness to give these all-too-well-known pages enough affirming power.  Even the tension-relieving change to 3/4 at And all the people rejoic’d sounded uninspired.  But I believe that the most taxing hurdle that the singers had to face was their sub-division into 7 lines – except for the body’s most populous entity, the tenors!

Did the exercise reveal much of the unknown Handel to us?   Well, yes and no.  We really know a good deal of the composer’s work because a large amount of it has public currency.    Both the solo arias, not just Let the bright Seraphim, are familiar; that particular organ concerto and that specific concerto grosso feature among the more frequently performed numbers in Chrysander’s catalogue; as for the Samson choruses, if you know any one of them, it’s Let their celestial concerts; Zadok and See, the conqu’ring hero are Handelian cliches.   So a touch over half of the 13 elements on this program are not in need of resuscitation; nor did they expose any unrevealed parts of the Handel canon.   Nevertheless, as a tour d’horizon where you were given a varied selection, this program fulfilled its intentions.  Both the choir and its able scratch orchestra deserve thanks, particularly for giving exposure to some relatively arcane offerings.   It’s just a pity that this event had to be relocated from its original venue  –  St. Andrew’s Uniting Church, a few doors down Ann Street  –  which might have proved a more congenial environment for this strong-boned music.










Many points of pleasure

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm



The observances across this year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth are bound to be many and varied, yet I suspect that few will cause as much interest as this concentrated dose of the composer’s symphonic output.   Later in 2020, at various venues, members of the ACO will play the String Quintet in C minor, the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for string quintet (why?), all the cello sonatas, the Cavatina from the Op. 130 String Quartet arranged for string orchestra, the first movement of the Op. 18 C minor String Quartet in its original form, Movement 3 from the A minor String Quartet for string orchestra, and the Grosse Fuge  –  one of the ensemble’s calling cards.

To perform the first three symphonies, Richard Tognetti (celebrating 30 years at the artistic directorial helm of the ACO) and his 17 core musicians were joined by 14 extra strings, all members of the Australian National Academy of Music, and 13 wind players of mixed provenances, with the inevitable Brian Dixon on timpani.   An ad hoc combination, then, if one calculated to give us an aural experience in line with Beethoven’s own auditory experience, the string instruments using gut and the wind employing period instruments, ensuring that the orchestral families sounded balanced.   Fine in theory, except that these three performances were dominated by the first violins.  As it should be?  Perhaps.

Needless to say – but I will – the readings were exhilarating throughout each of the twelve movements, the musicians making the most of every opportunity, both written and unwritten, to highlight or underline dynamic contrasts and to confront the score with an energetic response at every turn.   Mind you, by this stage of the organization’s national tour, the ACO/ANAM/guests’ readings had reached a point where they were as good as they were going to be with eight almost-consecutive preceding performances on the trot, Brisbane the last port of call.   Which probably explain Tognetti’s insistence at the end of the Eroica in going round the band, congratulating/thanking each participant; a well-deserved recognition for a sustained professional mini-odyssey.

While the E flat Symphony No. 3 is a repertory warhorse, battle-scarred from two-plus centuries of usage both good and bad, the first two symphonies are rarely aired by state orchestras, who are ever eager to take up the public’s reliable investment in the well-worn and familiar.   And I think some of us would have gained the main benefit of this exercise through experiencing live, vivid performances of these two remarkable constructs rather than by waiting to see what interpretative quirks peppered the night’s final offering.

For a thoroughly worked-in concert, this occasion did not begin well, the opening movement’s pizzicato chords in the Symphony No. 1 given scatter-gun treatment until the third one reached a requisite level of congruence.   The remainder of the Adagio introduction worked to better effect before the first violins rattled into the Allegro proper, its first subject setting up the night’s modus operandi with a spiky attack.   The rapid crescendo-decrescendo device was worked heavily inside phrases, and the designated sforzando notes were delivered with a very powerful punch from all string quarters, to the point where succeeding semiquavers tended to be lost.   Further along, you were pressed to work out whether the wind had been taken by surprise or the string corps were champing at the tempo bit; whatever the case, you could sense a discrepancy, a slight lack of uniformity.   With distracting frequency, Tognetti kept turning to the players directly behind him throughout the night – encouraging their efforts, for sure, but also appearing to urge the pace.

Another feature of the string texture, notably in the first two symphonies, was an abstention from vibrato at certain stages, carefully selected hiatus points where the fabric could benefit from a change in timbre.   This made for an attention-focusing version of the Andante to the C Major symphony where, after adjusting to some unusual pitch peculiarities from the upper woodwind, the ensemble gave a perky account of pages that less conscientious bodies stroll through at ambling pace.   Straight away in the third movement, the strings impressed with their short bowing stabs which gave an urgent character to the outer sections.   If you were looking for faults, the only questionable product in these pages came towards the end of the Trio where the violins’ passage work sounded scruffy on the first time through.

The finale’s Adagio opening came across as a splendid, minuscule piece of musical theatre; not so much searching for resolution but consciously teetering on the edge of that infectious break into this work’s light-fingered vivace finale.  Tognetti set a blistering pace for this movement proper, again urging his colleagues onward and achieving a commensurate response from the wind forces, at the same time giving them room to be heard, particularly bassoons Jane Gower and Lisa Goldberg whose gritty sound-colour came through in exposed moments, even if their work involved no solos.

At the slow opening to the D Major Symphony, I was nonplussed by the timbre of oboes Helene Mourot and Lidewei De Sterck which sounded rough-hewn, even for period instruments.   But, by the time we came to the interplay between woodwind and strings at bar 29, the oddity had been evened out, chiefly by the introduction of other wind players.  Once again, the ACO/ANAM string players attacked the first movement Allegro con brio with lashings of piss and vinegar, probably assisted in maintaining their stamina by the absence of an Exposition repeat; they were but passing this way once.   To my ear, one of the most remarkable points of play came in the violin triplets beginning at bar 187: a model of delicacy and restraint in a performance notable for its weltering activity.   It certainly shone when compared with the movement’s last note: a sustained semibreve D which sounded over-aggressive and coarse.

With the following Larghetto, the playing presented  –  for once  –  as slightly affected and dulcet in the extended main melodies, which in fact contrasted tellingly with intermediary passages where the players took to bowing in alternate briskly detached notes and something close to saltando.   Still, the modified reversion beginning from bar 158  demonstrated the ACO’s ability to find new facets to familiar sentences, ensuring that you never felt that these performers were going through the motions, but rather were concerned with re-presenting material with many unexpected shifts in balance and dynamic.

In the second half of the third movement’s outer segments, notes tended to disappear in the violins’ descending scale phrases, but the Trio proved to be hard-hitting and volatile with reliable horn work in the last 14 bars of the second half.   Tognetti led his forces through a break-neck account of the Allegro molto finale, urging his first violins by way of repeated exhibitions to them of the style of attack he required.   Occasionally, this generated sparks, as in several punchy repetitions of the quirky figure that punctuates the movement’s first theme; less often, the concerted string corps sounded hard-pressed, caught in a chugging action.   At certain points, the wind in ensemble work came across as unbalanced  in their handling of the second subject where the strings thin out or offer functional support.   Yet the end result was persuasive, capping a determined and cleverly crafted interpretation.

It is hard to find strikingly new facets to the Eroica.   Performances that emphasize  harmonic shocks or emphasize the thematic brusqueness in each movement have little capacity to raise eyebrows in this jaded age.   Tognetti’s reading found plenty of drama and a vehemence that didn’t teeter over into lurching from one overwrought climax to the next.   Most praiseworthy was an over-arching integrity in delineating each of the four movements’ characteristic shapes, encouraging the sort of consciousness in us listeners of large-scale paragraphs being woven seamlessly together – something along the lines of Furtwangler’s achievement with Bruckner symphonies.   As a responsible director, Tognetti brought a combative drama to the chain of discords starting at bar 180 of the first movement, but he ensured that they grew organically out of the preceding 132 bars.   The reading’s transmission of continuity ensured that this large-scale Allegro con brio kept you engaged across its wide length.

The second movement of this symphony, Beethoven’s funeral march, is a taxing interpretative test, mainly because conductors have to decide on whether or not to stress the score’s potential for pathos.  To my mind, it requires more of a stoic resolve and needs to be taken at a speed which takes just as much notice of the assai as the Adagio in the heading.   Following from several previous stages during this concert, you were startled that Tognetti’s sound made so significant a difference to the upper strings’ effectiveness; when he had settled his forces into the desired performance mode, he played with a carrying timbre that noticeably enriched the band’s output.   Through a combination of sympathy and discipline, the musicians generated a cogent, composite account of this bold expression of controlled grief.

Particularly admirable was the orchestra’s restraint and care with details in the symphony’s third movement/scherzo; the control exercised by all involved up to the half-way point’s fortissimo explosion, coupled with an abstention from a hefty chugging sound continuum, ensured that the success of the score’s first half was repeated.   Later, the three horns grabbed your attention by working through the Trio with no signs of stress that weren’t associated with their instruments’ natural abilities.   The following set of variations that constitute the symphony’s finale offered another high point among several across this concert’s length thanks to a vigorous approach and an ability to weave each variation into the next and to infuse each of them with individuality.

As on previous occasions (not all, but quite a few) when the ACO puts its efforts into treating a solid orchestral Classical/Romantic masterpiece, you came away from this concert with positive reactions.   During the E flat symphony, you could delight in the performers’ unanimity of effort and rich palette of colours.   But just as memorable was the biting address invested in this work’s two predecessors.   Yes, we will be treated to more large-scale Beethoven over this year from other organizations and ensembles, but the memory of this event will be lasting and its level of accomplishment could remain our benchmark for the remaining ten months of celebrations.







The vision splendid – sometimes



Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 28

                                                                      Brett Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tepid response to insightful brilliance


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday November 18  


                                                          Richard Tognetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Brilliant, even with the dross


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday June 4

                                                                 Richard Tognetti

These smaller concerts that the ACO gives in the Murdoch Hall of the Recital Centre are something of a gamble.   While the main series in Hamer Hall attracts respectable numbers, those mounted in the more acoustically clear space can be depressing affairs; not from the performers’ point-of-view, I hope; nor from the experiences of those patrons that come along to something that falls out of the usual season; but definitely to those of us who can see and hear splendid music-making being given to a half-full auditorium, as was the case last Tuesday.

No soloist was being touted, neither the ACO’s better-known visitors nor the recherche artists that the organization brings to our attention.   And your casual concert-goer isn’t going to be stimulated in the hip-pocket by the trifold promise contained in this particular night’s title.   By this stage, though, you’d think that concert-goers with any discernment would be aware that this company can be relied upon to make the mundane into the extraordinary . . . well, most of the time.

As a tuning exercise, Tognetti and his ten colleagues opened with the Alcina Overture by Handel, followed by a sequence of seven dances from that opera that ended in a brisk Tamburino with Maxime Bibeau’s bass and Julian Thompson’s cello helping out as percussion, the whole company  concluding the set with a machismo-flaunting ‘Hey!’  As an introduction, this pointed to the night’s approach: all-out vehemence tempered by rigorous ensemble work, probably best exemplified in a sarabande where personnel cut in and out of proceedings with seamless fluency.

This Handel bracket lacked the original’s oboes doubling violins and also the usual harpsichord underpinning to give the rich vein of melody some spikiness.   Still, the group avoided Hamilton Harty country with a precisely judged cutting edge to their attack, even if the two-cellos-plus-bass made for an amply solid bottom line.   Every so often, you might have wished for more weight from the first violins – all three of them – but occasional imbalance seemed a small price to pay while witnessing this zestful performance.

Another filler came with Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the slow final movement to the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 of 1980 where the book was emphatically closed on Meale’s leadership of the Australian contemporary music world by his reversion to tonality   –   a movement of the times but one that produced little of much value, particularly in this instance.   The piece is a violin solo, articulated with clear dedication by Tognetti while his companions provided an endless chain of supporting triplet arpeggios.   Nevertheless, a sensitive rendition offers little compensation for the piece’s aimlessness and eventual monotony, the prevailing texture breaking up only close to the end, by which stage the listener has given up expecting anything but dated blandness.

On this occasion, the Respighi was the Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. III, one of the fertile composer’s most worthwhile exercises.  The four movements are presented to performers as very open plan, with some dynamic markings and differentiations in articulation, e.g. pizzicato.   But any interpreter has plenty of room to move to colour what are bare-boned pages.  So Tognetti made a large feature of accelerandi in the opening Italiana, giving an interesting tidal motion to three pages in which many organizations aim for the easily achieved saccharine.

The ensemble made gripping material of the following Aria di corte, this suite’s most chameleonic element.   We had the opportunity to admire the timbre of viola Elizabeth Woolnough, moonlighting from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and shining in the opening and closing strophes of this movement.   Her sombre solos stood in excellent contrast with the sprightliness of the Vivace sections and the rolling rich chords of the central F Major Lento segment – a testament to this body’s uniformity of address and sustained delivery.

Respighi’s Siciliana found the ACO once more in accord during the movement’s driving central climax between bars 39 and 56 with some bracing triple stops from both sets of violins.   This ferocity continued in the concluding Passacaglia where each section gets a moment in the spotlight.   Here, the group’s recovery rate was shown to fine effect in the change from the powerful block chords on display from bar 24’s Energico to the bounding Vivace that breaks out eight bars later.  Further, the crackling unanimity evident in previous movements came to the fore in these concluding pages to riveting effect.

Peteris Vask’s Viatore for 11 solo strings (and hence tailor-made for this ensemble giving the score its Australian premiere) is dedicated to Arvo Part, and it shows.  The voyager of the title could be you, could be me, could be an extra-terrestrial; whichever it is, the travelling is conducted along straight lines.   Vasks offers us two theatres of action: one depicts the universe, the eternal which is depicted by high violin arpeggios and brings to mind Ives’ The Unanswered Question; the second outlines the voyager’s experiences on earth and consists of full chords beneath an aspirational melody.   These two elements alternate, the voyager theme rising in content and power before the score fades into the supernal.

You find it easy to engage with this work.    Its content is simple to imbibe, especially as the elements offer no challenge to instant comprehension and Vasks eschews the need for linking passages.  This night’s audience clearly engaged with the work which enjoyed a performance that brought out its passion and delicacy.   If I thought it over-simple and wanted a faster progress for the voyager, that’s probably a sign of crotchety dissatisfaction with a contemporary urge to under-intellectualize the process of composition, leaving the few goodies you have on the surface and thereby worrying the listener that the cosmic or spiritual depth proposed isn’t very profound at all.

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge followed attacca, doubly welcome for its brilliance of construction and sheer personality.   Here was an exhilarating tour de force from each member of the group involved: the elan of the top three violins during the Aria Italiana, a white hot fervour radiating from the Funeral March, Tognetti’s idiosyncratic solo during the Bouree classique, an impossibly fast Moto perpetuo, and an extraordinary fusion of Fugue and Finale.  It’s a young man’s work, jam-packed with scintillating flourishes which found an obvious response from this remarkable set of musicians.

I wasn’t sure about the personnel required in the Chant; I made a loan of my mini-score 50 years ago, never saw it again, of course, and can’t verify the facts.  But it seemed to me that three violas are required in this movement; hard when you have only two on board. But that was the only questionable question mark over a demonstration of expertise the like of which I haven’t ever seen exercised on this sparkling piece.   If you missed it, too bad, but I’m sure it will linger in the memories of those of us lucky to be witnesses to a display of the ACO in superb form.










No one like him


The Melbourne Musicians

James Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew

Friday May 17

                                                                 Elyane Laussade

Frank Pam and his expanded orchestra began this program with a collection of German Dances by Haydn in an arrangement by Bernhard Paumgartner.  The Austrian conductor apparently found some merit in extracting Haydn pieces from their original settings and fabricating suites like this one which originally comprised 12 elements but Pam & Co. only player 10 of them.   Probably just as well as the third one had to be re-started.   I’m not sure what came unstuck although, in the early movements, the horns weren’t covering themselves with glory in terms of articulating some pretty easily achieved notes.

Indeed, the rendition of these simply-framed pieces – at least two of them familiar from the master’s catalogue –  laboured under an ongoing tempo disadvantage.  Pam would attempt to beat one in a bar – obviously assuming that the band could fall into line when given a down-beat – but the indecisiveness revealed that matters might have been more enjoyable for all concerned if he had hammered out three beats until the players felt confident in their work.   Yes, once the labourers had settled to the task, things went swimmingly enough and the five woodwind gave plenty of spine to the more forward tutti passages.   But a little more pre-determination and consensus on what was required would have lifted the experience to a higher level.

Speaking of such, Elyane Laussade gave a fine account of the solo part in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F Major K. 459, one of the knock-out gems in the sequence of works that this composer produced in the form across his career.   No, it wasn’t a flawless performance from everyone involved; even Laussade seemed to lose her place in some first movement passage work near bar 211; I’m not sure that the second oboe was au fait with the work’s style all the time; Kaye Duffel’s flute solos in the middle Allegretto at bars 44 and 60 sounded over-powered for their context; and the one point in the progress of this movement where the counterpoint gets complicated and players should be observing the conductor, these players were not as solicitous about their group tempo as you’d expect.

Much of the 12-strong string corps’ efforts worked well enough with only a few signs of nervousness from an over-anxious violin.   Their corporate contribution was often submerged under the wind septet so that tutti interpolations were dominated by flute-and-oboes in combination.   But the initial Allegro‘s argument remained clear and carried out with determination; if the middle movement could have gained anywhere, it might have come with a slower speed so we could luxuriate in the Figaro woodwind figuration.  Laussade gave a deft animation to her outline of the finale’s main theme, but you noticed (for the first time, in my case) the length of the movement’s first ritornello – from bar 24 to bar 120 – chiefly because, across its ;length, you missed some bite from the upper strings.   What was needed was not just an attack, but a driving attack on this jubilant set of pages, particularly in that sudden attack of the D minor fugatos between bars 288 and 321 where skill and pleasure combine to brilliant effect.

Dittersdorf’s F Major Symphony Kr. 70 is an amiable, straightforward construct with no particular distinction to it.   As in the night’s first work, this easy-going work suffered from indecisive attack, its first three movements all opening with an anacrusis, although the second Rondo is more of a gavotte than anything else.   Once under way, the general momentum carried all along.   But even the final Allegro – a simple 2/4 with everybody playing block-chord quavers while the horns belt out the crotchet pulse – sounded unsure at the outset.   When the whole body seems to be feeling its way, the results are bound to come across as leaden-footed; nobody is in a hurry to rush on towards the next unknown territory.

This lack of assurance also cruelled parts of Haydn’s Symphony No. 55 in E flat, the Schoolmaster.  Here, the demands ratcheted up several notches, just at the wrong time as the musicians were betraying fatigue and this is not music you can stroll through.  Pam managed to set movements off with more success but the shaping of this symphony’s optimistic sentences seemed to be a work in progress without many signs of near-completion.   Even the solo for cellist Laurien Kennedy in the Menuetto‘s Trio reached some questionable pitching in the homeward stretch after the bar 65 fermata.

I suppose what you missed throughout were bounce and elation.  It takes some skill to animate a passage like the strings-only passage from bar 123 to bar 140 of the first movement but playing it without phrasing inflections is not an option.  And this work’s solid second movement variations need explication and clear definition for their riches to emerge.   A few more in the string body might make a difference but the problems of entering into the music with informed unanimity of intent and unflagging attention to the work’s internal processes require a more informed approach from the core players in this venerable organization.


The Mass as opera, but who cares?


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

                                                            Okka von der Damerau  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Keen work from stand-ins


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

                                                                      Michael Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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