The vision splendid – sometimes

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 28

Brett Brown

                                                                      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 Rodgers’ Carolling: 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

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday November 18

Tognetti

                                                                  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

RESPIGHI, BRITTEN & VASKS

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 MOZART PROJECT PART 2

The Melbourne Musicians

James Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew

Friday May 17

Elyane+copy

                                                                   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?

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

Okka

                                                             Okka von der Damerau  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Keen work from stand-ins

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

Michael Collins

                                                                   Michael Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

SEASON OPENING GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 16

Lu Siqing

                                                                          Lu Siqing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Bach with a bit of bite

BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday March 9

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                                                                   Melissa Farrow 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Symphony in need of a firm editor

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Thursday February 28

Marsalis

                                                                  Wynton Marsalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi

A LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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