Cramped and cramping

CAMERATA RE-MASTERED

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 5

Orava Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crown of thorns between the roses

AUSTRALIAN WORLD ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

City Recital Hall, Angel Place

Thursday June 3

Alexander Briger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANAM scores again

KONSTANTIN SHAMRAY & ANAM ORCHESTRA

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday May 11

Konstantin Shamray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hues of youth

THE FIREBIRD

Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Friday April 23

Samuel Choi

One of the great critic’s put-downs I can remember was applied to a prize-winner at the International Chopin Piano Competition. The reviewer wrote, ‘At least most of the notes were there.’ I think this might have been applied to Ashkenazy in 1955, but it could have been anybody in that rarefied, self-regarding world where musicologists rather than performers worry a potential flattened third to death. Still, as opposed to regarding such a comment as negative, it seems to me that the writer was offering praise: it is something when a pianist can get nearly all the notes out, even in a well-worn field like Chopin’s oeuvre.

All of which is a preamble to considering Samuel Choi’s efforts with the the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 last Friday in a well-attended program from the Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra. In fact, as far as I could tell, Choi managed to get out nearly all the notes and held his own in this work which, in its first half, resembles a series of lightly-accompanied solos and straight-out cadenzas with memorable orchestral links. While the soloist encountered some perilous moments, mainly in the Allegro con fuoco finale, he enjoyed considerable success with the highly exposed Allegro con spirito part of the opening movement. In fact, his only obvious difficulty throughout this long sequence of emotional ups and downs came at about bar 261 when the ante-penultimate and penultimate arpeggiated chords came to inaccurate conclusions.

But for small slips like that, the major part of this movement showed a fine technique at work allied to loads of preparation as in the accuracy of the massive double octave passages that preceded the above-mentioned arpeggios from bar 251 to 259, and later in the thrilling build-up after the main cadenza at bar 611 where the onward drive is irresistible but a nightmare for the soloist, particularly when the triplets arrive in bar 620. And you could find a good deal to admire in Choi’s avoidance of dynamic excess, those mighty opening chords pronounced with confidence, not braggadoccio, and he showed a willingness to take part in segments rather than dominating the output at every point as at the flute doubling at bar 218 and which lasts with other woodwind up to bar 234.

Mind you, the process might have been more successful if the first flute had been more assertive, but only clarinets and bassoons mounted a challenge in this movement, while the brass made their combined mark with as much self-confidence as this corps in most other orchestras does, even if the horns were unexpectedly accurate (which back-handed praise comes from one all too used to student ensembles in Melbourne and Sydney, and hence inclined to be fretful in advance).

Along with Choi’s fine, often well-nuanced reading, the other arresting factor in this concerto’s duration was the quality of the Conservatorium strings. Here was fine ensemble work from a body that responded to conductor Peter Luff with precision and, as far as I could tell, commitment from first desk to the rear echelons. No scraping, no imprudent isolated entries (well, maybe one), no self-regard from anybody but a professional approach from each group – and all carried off without soupy vibrato but a keen responsiveness that ensured exactitude in block chord explosions, like the hammer-blows that interrupted Choi’s double octaves between bars 251 and bar 257.

We heard the first flute en clair announcing the Andantino‘s first melody, before Choi took up the tune over a mild string susurrus, a passage that was probably too restrained from the soloist. Later, his delicacy in the central Allegro vivace showed an insight beyond his years, and he handled pretty cleanly the exposed jerky angularity of the occasional 8-bar solo as well as making a restrained helter-skelter charm in one of the concerto’s most genial passages, from bar 99 to bar 114.

To my mind, Luff’s pace for the finale seemed a touch stolid but it proved comfortable for Choi, which is the only criterion worth considering, after all. You could have asked for more definition in certain odd sections, like the accidentals/acciaccature between bars 29 and 36, but you balance against that the splendid meld from action to lyricism that heralds the movement’s D flat Major second subject. In treating this noble theme after its string statement, Choi arrived at one of his interpretative highlights with an excellent mastery of sustaining a line surrounded by arpeggiated distractions. As expected, the violin entry at 234, rising out of the twitchy, skipping preface, proved an increasingly impressive fabric, an ideal combination of pliant and solid. Choi’s double-octaves solo sounded flawless to me, a show-stopping ‘filled’ fermata before the relieving climax of Tchaikovsky’s Molto meno mosso and the compelling last four bars that I suddenly realised prefigure the same point in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3; wonderful how these obvious comparisons become clear after about 60 years.

To follow, in this interval-less concert, Luff and his forces gave an eminently respectable airing of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. For this work, woodwind and brass forces changed personnel, except for the bass trombone who stayed in situ, alongside an un-named tuba performer; the timpanist also changed. Here, you were more able to appreciate the disciplined input of this band’s five double basses, all low strings making an arresting demonstration of pianissimo playing in the opening six bars. Bassoons and clarinets sounded unusually prominent in the following strophes of Stravinsky’s Introduction, given the feathery light opening with the faintest of bass drum rolls, the whole disturbed only by the clacking of an unfortunately incontinent woman in front of me who decided to take a toilet break between the two programmed works and – of course – came back in late

Even the sforzandi from second violins and violas that introduce the title character came over as crisp as you could wish, while the Variation de l’oiseau de fer, packed with instrumental tachisme, found few faults in this group’s rhythmic balance and that vital ability to attack and retreat on a pinpoint, punctuated by some eloquent outbursts as at Number 17 in my old Boosey and Hawkes score. The Ronde showed us a more forthright flautist and oboist in play, although the whole woodwind group and first horn gave this dance a particularly straight-speaking character, even the small one-bar contributions handled sensibly and without elongating languor.

In the Danse infernale, there’s something of a release for the players who have been doodling impressionistically up till now. The sound was brilliant and velvet-thick in turns (for the latter, Number 15 at the D flat Major key signature change), and the musicians responded with excellent agility to Stravinsky’s sudden piano cut-back at Number 21. Despite the usual brass leisureliness when negotiating the block chord work starting at Number 22, the orchestra kept on track for the gripping accelerando and Piu mosso pages that surge and ebb dynamically until the difficult triplet-rich last bars. It’s not that the work is rhythmically taxing – much worse was to follow in 1911 and 1913 – but the pace is hectic; to the performers’ credit, I couldn’t detect any hesitations or missing threads in the fabric, least of all from the first trombone and his glissandi either side of Number 13( which, to be honest, I would prefer to do without).

Once again, the strings surprised by their polish in the divisi passage at Number 4 of the Berceuse, the players generating a persuasively lush timbre despite the use of mutes (nearly) all round. But it’s hard to miscalculate in this soothing nocturne during which the brass are given a rest from their labours, in preparation for the excesses of the Final where the composer does a Tchaikovsky and dresses his one theme in multiple guises. This last movement enjoyed full bowing, a powerful trumpet/trombone combination in its central pages, a reliable first horn for the first 8 bars (which came off with minimal stress), but I would have preferred the slashing detached string chords that the composer later employed at the Doppio valore page.

Still, this performance and that of the concerto were of an impressive standard, particularly for an observer steeped in the frailties of student orchestras. In spite of Luff’s imperturbable direction, or more probably because of it, the Conservatorium musicians looked and sounded keenly involved throughout the evening’s work, thoroughly prepared and showing evidence of relishing their encounters with these two repertoire warhorses, written when Tchaikovsky was 34 and Stravinsky 28; harbingers in both cases of the chains of masterpieces to come.

Youth breaks through

INTO THE NEW WORLD

Melbourne Youth Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday March 21

Brett Kelly

Over the past year, it’s been hard to ferret out live orchestral performances. Not that they haven’t been going on in some form or other but most organizations have wanted you to revel in recordings and tapes of past triumphs. Well, you can hardly blame them: pandemic restrictions have militated against large groups banding together as was their wont to work through the repertoire. To be honest, looking back in this way hasn’t appealed to me, even if the only chance to hear live music means that you have to be content with chamber groups or solo programs where contiguity is manageable or irrelevant. I’ve seen the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a concert under the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall banner – in fact, I believe several programs were broadcast from Hobart – but Sunday afternoon’s transmission from Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium impressed me as the clearest indication yet of orchestral life returning to normal.

Mind you, I wasn’t anticipating a youth orchestra. In years well gone, I’ve listened to – and reviewed – the Australian Youth Orchestra, and even a few chamber ensembles populated partly by secondary school students, but childish things were put away after I stopped secondary school teaching in 1997. So this New World program brought up a sense of deja entendu, not least for its mixture of ease and ambition. Director/conductor Brett Kelly opened with some sectional samples – Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, then Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a freshly-written percussion trio by an MYO member, the woodwind-and-brass Scherzo alla marcia from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8, another brass/woodwind (now with percussion) extravaganza in J. Cook’s reduction of the first Pomp and Circumstance – before everybody knuckled down to the big last Dvorak symphony.

It’s a young person’s product, the Strauss Serenade: written when the composer was 17, but packed with hurdles concerning production and dynamic control This tredectet opened benignly enough with an oboes/clarinets/bassoons combination of fine weighting, and this characteristic continued across most of the brief score’s duration. The bugbear of intonation problems soon reared up, however: from the horns in octaves at bar 25, somewhere among the 4 players negotiating F sharp in bar 46, the horn/clarinet downward scale in bar 60, the horn quartet at bar 71. Not that anybody was off-pitch for a notable length of time, but these blips stuck out from an otherwise satisfying sonorous mesh. And specific members made excellent contributions, like the supple oboe solo at bar 81’s Tempo I, and the restrained second clarinet and first bassoon duet from bar 167 to bar170.

Dur4ing the initial bars, Elgar’s Serenade impressed for its push/pull phrasing – a real piacevole from everybody. In these pages, the first violins impressed for their confidence in attack, still going strong at the Letter F/bar 92 recapitulation, with only a touch of looseness about the bars 109-110 change-over to blot an otherwise amiable surface. Elgar’s Larghetto was handled with a straighter bat, the second violins unsubtle in their bars 10-11 exposure, and some points made little sense like the hefty attack on bar 34’s first note. Still, these details were counter-weighted by a passionate first violin- and-violas duet starting at bar 54, while the last 12 bars came across with impressive restrained eloquence. Later, in the Allegretto, both violas and cellos matched each other very successfully; a disappointment, then, to have the pace pushed too hard after the key change at bar 42, such doggedness also detracting from the upward motion at bar 68 that should lead towards a placid conclusion to the score.

Substituting for the Fanfare pour preceder La Peri for brass by Dukas, a burnished showpiece that was dropped from the original program, MYO percussionist Joseph Fiddes wrote a short trio, Percussion 2021, for himself and colleagues Madeleine Ng and Felix Gilmour. This involved marimba, timpani, and (I think) glockenspiel with wood-block as a side-dish. A brief interlude, possibly in E minor, the piece proved active and packed with syncopations, winding up in an impressive accelerando plus presto (or the other way round?) finish.

Also a surprise replacement for the Dukas, Vaughan Williams’ scherzo asks for crisp delivery, here well illustrated by a deft first trumpet solo of 8 bars (repeated) at Number 3. For a work that doesn’t ask much in terms of rhythmic complexity, the simple suspensions two bars after Number 8 came over as slovenly. Things picked up noticeably in the latter part (last 7 bars) of the movement’s trio but the final unison woodwind demi-semiquavers failed to register, and not just because of their pianissimo marking.

J(eff?). Cook’s arrangement of the first Pomp and Circumstance march served to show how much of the work relies on non-string forces. Naturally, you miss the warmth of timbre in the big theme, but the bustling elements don’t suffer from the abstraction of string forces. This reading emphasized the pomp and came across with few signs of refinement in delivery, as witnessed by a fair dose of clutter accompanying the jump into Letter G (and later at Letter P), and an unorganized belting of the chords that accompany the Land of Hope and Glory tune at Letter K. The piccolo that spikes out over all at the Molto maestoso 5 bars after R seemed just slightly off-true, which put a sealant on an inescapable sense of musicians operating outside their potential, the results blunt and blowsy.

Then we arrived at the big canvas of Dvorak’s E minor Symphony: a gift to its interpreters and their audiences alike. After a long interruption, any orchestra would have needed time to feel out an interpretation of this familiar score, let alone a set of young musicians who put this program together after a rush of full rehearsals conducted across a short space of time. So Sunday’s performance necessarily moved between various levels of achievement. Across the four movements, certain stretches made a positive impression, mostly in ensemble passages. The greater part of the introductory Adagio worked positively, despite an over-eager violin anxious to hit the Allegro molto proper. A fine flute and oboe duet emerged at bar 91, setting out that G minor melody thrown off by Dvorak with his habitual prodigality. Later, when the same tune is given in the major beginning at bar 129, the ebb and flow in ensemble phrasing proved exemplary; just what you’d expect from a professional body.

After the first movement’s development pages began, the horns came under more exposure – not just with the occasional solo, but more with the need to administer plenty of stentorian chords which, in some cases, proved flawed. As well, the upper strings would have profited from more definition and prominence, even in restrained passages like the repetitions beginning at bar 269, as well as observing the conductor’s wish to disallow any racing ahead. I also noticed a lack of upper string power at bar 408 where everyone else has abrupt chords, leaving the violins to slash out some exhilarating upward arpeggios that should cut through the surrounding full orchestra blasts. Speaking of which, what comes with regular rehearsal is reliability in chording – the complete consort belting together – rather than some of the splayed results we heard in his movement’s final pages.

Another highly congenial ground was established for the Largo by the brass/wind/timpani combination chords across the first four bars. The MYO cor anglais would have enjoyed greater success with one of music’s most recognizable melodies if she had enjoyed stronger lung power, ensuring that the minims at the end of each two-bar phrase lasted their full length. Yet again, the strings were urging forward at bar 27 through a passage that calls out for indulgence. At the key change to C sharp minor, Un poco piu mosso, another flawless first flute/first oboe doubling brightened the atmosphere by its purity of ensemble; further along, some momentary carelessness marred the loaded final violin quavers in bar 82. Another pacing problem arrived at the staccato flute solo in bar 90 which was taken very rapidly, making matters hard for all involved before the sudden brass outburst at bar 96 which finishes all shenanigans before the cor anglais tune returns. Finally, the whole string corps might have made more of a point at their final forte point finishing bar 112 before the moving collapse to the concluding bass chords (another detail that would have gained from a good deal more Molto adagio).

The orchestra fared better the second time around with the Molto vivace‘s initial 59 bars. Further into this movement, the strings were showing signs of fatigue at the Tempo I resumption but showed more dedication with the poised leaps from bar 193 onward. With their arpeggio bursts during the coda, the MYO horns had mixed success, faring better with the consequent loud block chords that thinned out efficiently from bar 285 to bar 291. A few pages further on, at the Allegro con fuoco, trumpets and horns made a fair showing in the movement’s main theme, the sound solid and aggressive. While the violins scrawled unhappily through their exposed line at bar 120, the violas emerged from the ruck with distinction in a substantial patch of passage work from bar 154 through to bar 171, keeping a firm collegiality of attack and phrasing.

While the brass held their fire at the bar 190 tutti, they more than made up for it later, at the mighty dominant-based declamation of bars 208-213, I’m not sure what happened in the all-horn stringendo at bar 271 but the effect was not as exhilarating as expected and the subsequent pages proved to be something of a trial as Dvorak urges towards an apotheosis that eventually ends in an ever-welcome final bar of transfigured woodwind and brass, giving us a soft landing after all the rhetoric.

Taken as a whole, this performance let itself down on details, points where the score is demanding and others where you would not expect to find difficulties. Kelly kept his young musicians on the move, every so often making a distinctive point but usually determined to forge ahead. In the end, the MYO made a valiant effort at a too-well-known masterpiece, keeping their communal head with very few serious lapses and presenting us with an honest reading, even if the final pages proved to be something of a relief.

Sounds heard are sweet

QUEEN OF THE NILE

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

FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE

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

BEYOND MESSIAH

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

 

                                          Beethoven

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

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

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.