Power from four likely lads

AN EVENING WITH ORAVA QUARTET

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Saturday October 17

 

Orava Quartet

Using the resources of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music which is being celebrated, as usual, in Townsville, Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett inserted this popular Queensland ensemble into their strong Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series, yet again showing that lockdown means nothing to administrators with a will. Mind you, the program was a brief one, with only two scheduled works: Haydn’s Sunrise Op. 76 No. 4, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 of 1924. Lucky I hung around at the end because the group came back to play a filler in the third movement, Tres lent, of the Ravel String Quartet.

It turned into a bit of a lop-sided hour with the Schulhoff score gaining most from the Oravas’ attentions. As expected, the young men made much of the vehemence to be found in the odd-numbered movements, but they were able to present an attractively dawdling version of the problematic second movement Allegretto and surprised with a non-indulgent treatment of the final affecting Andante – not flawless but assuredly insightful, living up to the composer’s emotional addresses (and distresses, for that matter).

The quartet’s score begins with a forte sempre dynamic direction across the board; the Oravas were quite happy to intensify the one term and obey the other. You could not want for any enthusiasm here in a Presto that owes much to Bartok and a little less to Stravinsky, and the pace was pretty inflexible up to two bars after Number 11 in the Philharmonia/Universal Edition score when the pizzicati, au talon and arco melange halts and the four lines come together in a four-octave-wide unison stringendo before a ferocious reversion to taws.

It sounds like an onslaught and in some ways it was, but the players found room for a bit of tempo flexibility along with the pressing motor-rhythms, so much so that the effect was far from freneticism for its own sake. The ensemble was crisp and exact as the players set out the ordered clash between modal and dissonant writing that started in D and ended in C. The result was pacy and entertaining to hear as the machismo level in the Townsville theatre took an upward turn.

Violist Thomas Chawner dominated the following Allegretto, his partners giving him an unobstructed field for his Number 1 solo. And he did not disappoint, generating a malleable and accurate line that exemplified the malincolia grotesca that Schulhoff required. Not to be outdone, cellist Marek Kowalik took up the reins after the the Tempo I marking: a 17-bar lyric of remarkable variety. All players made the sudden sul ponticello Nachtmusik a startling motion-packed melange before Chawner returned for a brief, acerbic cadenza leading to the last lingering and opening-recollecting violin solo; the texture quietly restless until the fade to darkness with a final squiggle from the top line.

It’s an unusual set of pages, organized but whimsical, and packed with effects that, for the most part, don’t get in the way. What I carried away was an awareness of the executants’ respect for every note and its placement, especially in the passagework of communal demi-semiquavers in pianissimo parallel motion. A turn back to the muscular broke in with the Allegro giocoso, a highpoint emerging at Number 2 with some gripping duets in fourths and a burst of unison work – the kind of fierce action that suits this group to a T. Nevertheless, five bars after Number 4 where the dynamic of the potentially Slovak melody is blazoned out, the composer’s forte enjoyed an upgrade to fortissimo. No wonder: this jaunty, affirmative and tautly written genre of composition presents an irresistible temptation to overload on testosterone.

In late Mahler mode, Schulhoff reserves his slow movement for the quartet’s finale: an Andante molto sostenuto of grave introspection, doubly telling after the hefty folksiness of its precedent. The cello has all the running to begin with, the bar-3 high A sharp not enjoying the most secure of treatments. But the landscape of dejection enjoyed some expertly accomplished interventions, like the viola and cello harmonics punctuations following Daniel Kowalik’s brief cadenza straight after Number 2, even if these sounded over-emphatic under the first violin’s sweet, atonal solo line.

The players completed their task with a moving account of the death-watch beetle mutterings in the final segment after Number 4, although the strictissimo sempre in tempo of the preceding violin two-bar cadenza proved to be something of a moveable feast. But the group made telling work of the quartet’s final, twitching bars in which several commentators have found intimations of Schulhoff’s concentration camp death 18 years later; stretching their levels of prescience, I think, since the writer’s state of mind at the time of this composition was more likely shadowed by his in-the-field experiences of World War I. Whatever your opinion, this haunting passage concluded an interpretation that successfully balanced brio and placidity, often on consecutive pages.

Opening their debut MDCH appearance, the Oravas ran through their chosen Haydn with its inane title. First violin Daniel Kowalik surprised with his rubato approach to the first aspiring theme, and you were unable to pick out a steady pulse until the semiquavers kicked off in bar 22. Still, the ensemble showed its teeth at places like bar 54 with a few bars of upper-level orderly scurrying. And, to their credit, the group stayed consistent in their schizoid interpretation, changing to ambling pace whenever the ‘sunrise’ theme emerged.

Along with the interrupted impetus approach, you could be surprised by individual touches as well, like the ringing top A flat from Daniel Kowalik at bar 85, the well-judged prefatory ritenuto at bar 108, cellist Marek Kowalik’s attention-grabbing slight delay at bar 166, and the clarity at work in the players’ output during polyphonic interchanges like those beginning at bar 130. Not that the balance remained perfect throughout. In the second movement Adagio, a sudden rush of blood meant that the first violin’s G across bar 2 disappeared in the forceful subsidiary E flats from second violin David Dalseno and Karel Kowalik. Urgency wasn’t actually in play here but the pace chosen seemed to me to be on the quick side.

Countering the steady-pace regularity came odd spots like the pause before starting bar 27, the reason for which was hard to fathom unless the group considered that the first violin’s leap from a staff-top G to a low E pointed to a need for opening a new sentence. A slow-down move at bar 35 heralded a pace that sounded more like an adagio. Later, progress came to an arresting halt at bar 51 for the first violin’s quaver rest, possibly to highlight the main theme’s resuscitation en clair. Dalseno took his time over his exposed semiquavers in bar 60, but then I would have liked more time expended on the C minor fermata chord in bar 65.

I liked the hesitant start to the Menuetto‘s main theme, as it made a point of the determination invested in the following measures, but it might have been varied with profit further down the track; you didn’t have to utilise that tic all the time. Haydn’s enigmatic Trio enjoyed a welcome equivalence of speed, rather than being slowed down for its minor/chromatic suggestions; the result gave a fine drive to the whole section, although – again – I thought the fermata at bar 97 could have been sustained a tad longer.

Another idiosyncrasy appeared early in the Allegro finale where both violins inserted a slight comma after their last note in bar 3 – and repeated this quirk every time the pattern was repeated. Nevertheless, these pages passed along with plenty of sustained fluent action, the only question mark coming through at the Piu allegro of bar 110, after which the dovetailing of lines could/should have been smoother. Yet you had to admire without question the full-bodied unison octave work at bar 161, these musicians relishing a final welter and carrying it off with refreshing panache.

To cheer us up after the Schulhoff, the Oravas decided to play the Ravel movement, but I’m not sure if you could say they lightened the mood overmuch. Possibly the players see this piece as a benign nocturne, which is fair enough as a general view of its main body, with some superb interludes based on the first movement’s initial theme. More memorable than worrying about this choice of program extra, the reading included some splendid moments, like the viola’s richly pointed contribution at the key change at Number 1, and again at Number 2; and like the subtle pause at six bars after Number 2.

I missed out on the cello’s pedal E three bars after Number 5 – surprising, since the lowest line is marked piano while the other three parts are pitched at pianissimo; but then, perhaps it was my equipment at fault. Later, I missed the distinction in diminished dynamics in bars 6 and 7 after Number 8. But Chawner made a welcome, direct and expressively balanced reappearance at Number 9, taking his colleagues into a fine conclusion, especially a carefully calculated interpretation of the last seven bars. It made for a reassuringly ‘sweet’ ending to the night but a better result might have been achieved by outing Ravel’s second movement Assez vif, which melds rhythmic excitement with this some of this slow movement’s subtle shadings.

It was a well worthwhile exercise, in the end. These young musicians have been successful in forming a musical alliance that works exceptionally well, four voices distinguished from several other high-profile Australian ensembles for a practically flawless purity of intonation, and an equally reliable balance of output that is so good that you notice immediately those few places where it falters. And, of course, their program gave us a welcome reminder of what ‘normal’ life looks like in a state that is coming closer than most to cultural resurrection.

Small force gives enjoyment

CAVATINA

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday July 10

                                                                   Rachael Beesley

I’ve heard this ensemble once before but in a more expanded form, I believe.   Friday’s proceedings gave us a Reader’s Digest ARCO with only a string sextet at work, performing a five-part program of composers whose life-spans intersected and who all fell into the special interest area of this organization.   But it was a tad unsettling because some of the program content could have gained from more string weight, particularly in the upper two lines, while the focal piece might have fared better if it had been left alone, unexpanded, in its original form.

The ARCO co-artistic director, Rachael Beesley, headed the performer list, supported by co-violinist Anna McMichael.   The group enjoyed the services of two violas – Katie Yap and Simon Oswell – while Natasha Kraemer’s cello was reinforced by double-bass Emma Sullivan.   As for the music, the night led off with Mozart’s F Major Divertimento K. 138 which was paired with Franz Xaver Richter’s Sinfonia a quattro in B flat Major – written some 30 years before the athletic Mozart and comparatively uninspired.   This evening’s title work referred to Movement V of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, the one where he had to write a manageable alternative to the original concluding Große Fuge.   While you can tolerate dilations like the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s full-scale re-scorings for string orchestra of well-known quartets, this version with the added viola and double bass weight skewed your attention.

Moving definitely into the Romantic period, the group gave us Rossini’s Sonata No.1 in G Major which asks for a pair of violins, a cello and a double bass.  You usually hear it from a string orchestra without violas but here it worked functioned easily with four players.  The night ended in Mendelssohn’s early symphony No. 10 in B minor: one movement but with two viola lines, which at last sort of explained the necessity for both Yap and Oswell.

It’s always a delight to hear late Beethoven, especially the string quartets, but the Cavatina from No. 13 is puzzling in its own right.   Only 66 bars long and following a magnificently dense Andante and a clear-as-light tedesca, it presents as a semi-sophisticated ternary lied with a remarkable economy of material and expressiveness.  Taken by itself, it makes less an impression of spiritual hiatus than it does in its linear position during the complete work.   Still, even if it made a less-striking-than-intended appearance here, the players did it justice.

For one thing, they adopted performing practice from Beethoven’s era.   In her preliminary address, Beesley told us they were aiming for a period sound by utilising certain techniques, not to mention employing gut strings.   One of these devices was a liberal application of portamento which came into its own here; for example, in the first violin’s emerging out of sotto voce at bar 24 with a cadential theme, the downward and upward 5th leaps gained extra warmth by being given slight portamento.  The piece is top-heavy with luminous moments, one of the more prominent being McMichael’s surge to prominence six bars from the end with a critic-silencing pure delivery before the final consoling fade-to-benevolence.

At the program’s centre, the Cavatina stood out for various reasons, not least for its emotional depths in pretty light-hearted company.   More tellingly, it was the only piece of pure chamber music on offer, despite the additional instrumental weight; nearly everything else could have done with more players, like the Mozart frivolity.   Along with its companions, the D Major K. 136 and B flat K. 137, the short F Major score has become almost as popular as the later Serenade in G – certainly with performers.   You could find unexpected pleasures in this interpretation which removed a lot of the flashy sharp-edged quality that you get from plenty of modern ensembles.  Indeed, the tempi of the outer movements appeared to chug along, totally dissimilar to the crispness and bounce you expect from a body like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra or its glittering big brother.   Yet what a delight to hear clearly the two lower lines which are always drowned out.

In the opening Allegro, I liked Beesley’s subtle unbalancing of symmetry in bars 44, 46, 48 and 50 which sat in easy complement with her chugging lower support.   But even more striking was the caressing approach from all concerned to the simple lyrical beauty of bars 81 to 86 – finely phrased and timbrally balanced.   You could find further agreable moments in the following Andante like the nice deviations from metrical regularity between bars 9 and 12, as well as in a mirroring point to this during the movement’s second half, although I was sorry to find that the group did not repeat this segment.  On to the concluding Presto and we were back in the jog-trot territory of the opening; nothing wrong with that – in this playing context – but you forfeit some of the swashbuckling bravado of passages like the last episode, not to mention the sparklingly busy main theme of this rondo which only really disappointed in a slushy passage near the last bars.

Richter’s sinfonia is set out, like the preceding Mozart, in quartet form and it also could have gained from more heft.    Its initial Spiritoso rushes up hill and down dale without showing much for the energy involved; not a memorable tune anywhere in the work’s fluent motion after the opening arpeggio pattern.   It seemed like good exercise work for the violins but your attention was only momentarily arrested by some suspensions.   The  Andante with muted upper strings wove a pleasant sextuplet/triplet web above a pizzicato bass line although in this work I wasn’t upset by the lack of a second-half repeat.   Richter’s Presto finale followed the opening movement’s lead in having no memorable melodic material to relieve its chains of scales and suspensions.  Admittedly a short burst of unexpected modulations in the second part pulled you up short for about 10 seconds and the whole score enjoyed an exemplary execution.  Yet, this was another divertissement; sadly, set alongside Mozart’s brilliant burst of adolescent inspiration, it paled into padding, particularly if you compared the two works’ finales.

Responsibilities seem more evenly divided between participating personnel in Rossini’s early sonata where – eventually – everyone gets a share of the limelight.  A product of the composer’s 12th year (the following Mendelssohn symphony was written when that composer was 14), this work has grown in popularity, although playing it as written in quartet form is rarely done, most organizations choosing to flesh it out with extra bodies to three of its lines.   You think for a while that the opening Moderato is going to be an uninterrupted gift for Violin 1 until you reach bar 45 where McMichael’s generous timbre enjoyed the chance to shine for 20 bars.   Here also, the players did not repeat the first half – disappointing because the performing accidents would have been useful to hear at length, given that this sonic ambience would have been more familiar to Rossini than the flamboyance of a group  like I Musici or I Solisti Veneti.   Kraemer worked with deliberation through her solo starting at bar 125, even if it turned out to be a shorter version of McMichael’s earlier exhibition spot.   By the end of this segment, you had a pretty fair awareness of this ensemble’s ability to oscillate between a biting attack in solo work and a more round-edged delivery in ensemble passages.

The plain Andante eventually springs to life at bar 19 where the first violin enjoys a skipping passage all-too-reminiscent of Dvorak’s Humoreske; not the Italian composer’s fault, of course – he came first – but it’s a welcome jeu d’esprit in a repetitious and predictable set of pages – see bars 32 to 47 – before Rossini revisits his first melody.  The Allegro that finishes this sometimes-remarkable piece of juvenilia includes another cello solo of 8 bars, preceded by a double-bass solo of the same length, both welcome break-outs for Kraemer and Sullivan who had no hesitation in pushing themselves to the front.  As an entity, the sonata sounded more relaxed and easy-flowing than in the hands of others determined to find a dormant Paganini in its amiable progress, all too often delivered with steel strings and lashings of Latin flair.  And it strikes me that the sonata gains considerably from more friendly treatment like the ARCO’s in both personality and warmth, however fuzzy.

Some idiot once told me that all of Mendelssohn’s early symphonies – 12 of them – have two viola lines.  Because I’m trusting and lazy, it’s taken a while but this performance helped to lay that myth to rest: only Symphonies 9, 10, 11 and the Sinfoniesatz have two sets of violas.   The ARCO sextet made a fine showing in the initial Adagio with an energizing clarity during the chromatic slide in bars 22 and 23.   But the whole effect was undermined by the lack of violin body strength in a score that, as it moved forward, showed that it wasn’t chamber music by making more deliberate, even cruder statements than in the smaller-framed format.

The tempo of the work’s main Allegro proved to be slightly variable in execution, close to off-balance towards the end of the development if recovering when not involved any further with working at exploring material.   But the playing reached its highest point of achievement in the brief piu presto, an invigorating 30-bar concluding burst with a bustling power across its active top four lines.   At only one movement long, calling it a ‘symphony’ is a bit of a stretch; even Webern managed two.   But Mendelssohn knew enough about juxtaposition and thematic eloquence to construct a convincing musical scenario.   Still, it was a pity that what we heard was necessarily limited in its power to involve.

It’s a welcome sight, watching even a small fragment of the ARCO performing; on the job in this dire time for artists across all fields.  The orchestra’s approach and products are far removed from most other ensembles who exercise their communal virtuosity without concern for what is of prime interest to musicians like these who dedicate their art to resurrecting original timbres and styles.   With these re-creators, you hear – even in constrained circumstances like those obtaining last Friday night – a strong semblance of what composers like Mozart and Beethoven might have expected to experience themselves, if probably more accurate in articulation, more refined in phrasing and dynamic balance.  Thanks to this sextet, we enjoyed a positive remembrance of things past – warm, slightly gruff, gemütlich.

 

 

 

 

 

November Diary

As I’ve relocated to the Gold Coast, the musical events outlined below (few as they are) relate to Brisbane and its environs.  Fortunately, some of the organizations and ensembles that perform in Melbourne also appear in Queensland’s capital – Musica Viva, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian String Quartet.  And there may be the chance to see what’s become of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the 20 years since I last heard it live, as well as the possibility of getting to a Camerata performance at last, and perhaps opportunities to witness Queensland Opera grappling with Tristan and Aida.

 

Friday November 1

TCHAIKOVSKY AND BEETHOVEN

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

Alondra de la Parra, chief conductor of the QSO,  introduces this program with a work that springs from her Mexican family’s heritage: the Sinfonia No. 2,  Las Antesalas del Sueno, by Federico Ibarra Groth.   Well, it’s arrestingly different to be invited to explore the antechambers of dream, whatever and wherever they are; all you can do is withhold judgement until the 10-minute score has reached its termination.   Matters become more predictable when Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic, fresh from a short recital tour (Hobart, Melbourne Sydney) with Ensemble Liaison, fronts the Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto.   De la Parra fills out the night pleasantly enough with the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 which will give the QSO woodwind ranks plenty of scope to exercise their bucolic talents.

 

Saturday November 2

MUSIC BY THE SEA

Orava Quartet

Town Hall, Sandgate at 7:30 pm

These players have enjoyed remarkable success, both in this country and in America and Europe.   I’ve heard them in the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Collins St. Baptist Church, and the South Melbourne Town Hall during their participation in the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition; now the occasion presents itself to watch them in their home town, although Sandgate is a tad off the beaten track.  More unnerving is that I can’t find out what will be played.  The group follows this appearance with two more in the Utzon Room and the Potter Salon later in November where they play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet No. 14, than which they do not come more demanding, framed by two Renaissance motets: Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.   Both are in four parts but don’t get your hopes up: the Oravas will probably play the lines, not sing them.   And I could be off the track altogether and the actual program will have a marine element to justify the night’s title.

 

Friday November 8

FRENCH REVELATIONS

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House, Brisbane at 7 pm

On this occasion, the ensemble is a quintet: soprano Rachael Griffin, founder/flute Monika Koerner, viola Raquel Bastos, cello Eleanor Streatfeild, and pianist Brierley Cutting.  Koerner is a known quantity and a highly gifted artist; the other participants are new to me.  But their program features a fair cross-section of French masters: Devienne, Debussy, Roussel, Ravel, Poulenc, Durufle, and Messiaen.  The Devienne piece is a duo concertante for flute and viola; Debussy is represented by his exhilarating Cello Sonata;  Roussel’s Trio for flute, viola and cello ends the program.  But the rest of the evening moves into some unexplored byways.  The Chansons madecasses by Ravel are not left-field material but not suited to every voice; they will be a test of Griffin’s lower register.  Written for soprano and piano, Poulenc’s 1943 Metamorphoses is a very brief cycle of three poems that I’ve never heard.   Similarly, Durufle’s early Op. 3 Prelude, Recitatif et Variations for flute, viola and piano has never crossed my path.  To compensate, Messiaen’s Le merle noir is a highly popular fundamental of modern French writing for the flute-and-piano combination.

 

Saturday November 16

TIMELESS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

This night’s operations roughly parallel the QSO’s program on November 1.  De la Parra works her players pretty hard with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole as a warm-up.  Admittedly the first three movements are not over-taxing but the Feria finale asks for brilliance from each part of the orchestra.   I heard the estimable Paul Lewis perform Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in mid-September with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – an honest, original take on a very familiar masterpiece.  Tonight, he takes to Grieg’s Piano Concerto and will probably bring an equal level of insight to its four-square lyricism.  To close proceedings, de la Parra takes on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 where melancholy and lacerating vitality combine in a remarkable construct that falters only in the final pompous pages.

 

Sunday November 17

HANDEL ISRAEL IN EGYPT

Brisbane Chorale, Canticum Chamber Choir, Camerata

City Hall, Brisbane at 3 pm

Perhaps it depends on where you live but I’ve heard this oratorio exactly once; like Belshazzar and Mendelssohn’s St Paul.   Yet, at one time, Israel in Egypt was well-known, if nowhere near as popular to the point of universality, as Messiah, probably because of its multiplicity of choruses.   Anyway, here it comes as a welcome novelty, on a par with Saul, Alexander’s Feast and Solomon and the approximately 20 other compositions in this genre that are familiar only in excerpt form.   Graham Abbott conducts and the work features six soloists: sopranos Sarah Crane and Emily Turner, mezzo Jessica Low, tenor Nick Kirkup, and baritones Shaun Brown and Daniel Smerdon.  I don’t know anything about the City Hall’s acoustics but, going on this country’s tendency to duplicate itself in this regard – e.g., Sydney Town Hall, Melbourne Town Hall and Adelaide Town Hall, which I have experienced – you’d be expecting something booming and with a generous echo.

 

Monday November 18

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Two splendid works from the great composers but the ACO would be the last to toe the party line by playing only the very familiar.  The Brahms is his Double Concerto for violin and cello, while the Dvorak is that composer’s penultimate symphony in G Major which, after a long interval, I last heard at the start of September from the MSO under James Gaffigan.   An optimistic piece, this Dvorak muffles its rustic roots to some extent and the melodic output has less immediate appeal than its successor in the composer’s oeuvre.   But it contrives an impressive union of craft and lyricism.   In similar vein, the Brahms score has suffered by comparison with the composer’s mighty solo violin concerto and the equally strong two piano concertos.   But you’d be crazy to miss the chance of hearing Richard Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve launch themselves across its broad canvas.  For preludial material, some ACO ring-ins play Andrew Ford‘s 3 minute-long Jouissance for two trumpets and vibraphone which the organization premiered in 1993.   Then we hear American writer Andrew Norman‘s Gran Turismo for 8 virtuoso violinists that finds a link between the Baroque concerto grosso, Italian Futurist art (specifically Giacomo Balla),and a race car video game; good luck with that.

 

Sunday November 24

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

This program brings to mind the Sunday morning recitals from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra personnel in the Iwaki Auditorium which are always packed out.  What strikes you as different is the variety of participants – or perhaps that’s just due to the demands of this particular program.   The afternoon begins with a Michael Haydn Divertimento for oboe (Sarah Meagher), viola (Charlotte Burbrook de Vere), and double bass (Justin Bullock) substituting for the original violone; not a particularly original piece but an amiable sequence of four movements.   Beethoven’s String Quintet in C uses a quartet – violinists Shane Chen and Helen Travers, viola Graham Simpson, cellist Andre Duthoit – and an extra viola in Nicole Greentree.   It’s the composer’s only original quintet, not a reworking or arrangement of other material.   Finally comes the chance to experience Martinu’s String Sextet, composed in one 1932 week.   Here, the executants are violins Chen and Katie Betts, violas Greentree and Bernard Hoey, cellos Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae.

 

Thursday November 28

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

The fifth collaboration between Camerata and director/actor/writer Tama Matheson, this exercise investigates the relationship between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson through a melding of music, narrative and acting.   Well, the excerpts from the two poets’ writings will be very welcome in this age when their reputations grow dim.  As for the music, Camerata have outlined what they intend, beginning with May Brahe’s Bless This House song from 1927 which certainly suggests the between-wars period and a facet of its emotional atmosphere.  Two Lawson settings follow, both by John Horn and coming from his 2015 song cycle Looking for Lawson: The Shame of Going Back and Faces in the Street – one a plaint on failure in life, the second a warning of social revolution.   Peter Sculthorpe‘s Port Essington recalls the attempts to found a Northern Territory settlement.   It compares and contrasts the out-of-place world of the garrison and settlers with the Aboriginal culture that eventually reclaimed the landscape.   John Tavener’s Eternal Memory for cello and strings follows: like Port Essington, an Australian Chamber Orchestra commission.  Back with the people concerned most in this evening, Camerata resurrects Miriam Hyde‘s Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda in, I assume, the 1943 version. The finale comprises Brisbane film composer Cameron Patrick‘s Impressions of Erin, which is drawing a long bow if it refers to the background of either poet.  But it matches the program’s opening in its musical summation of an era.

 

Friday November 29

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Library Community and Cultural Centre at 7:30 pm

One third of Il Trittico – the only decent one of the set – is to be presented by a group that is new to me.   The opera’s humour is broad, the action completely improbable, the characters straight out of a commedia dell’arte copy-book.   But there are two passages of melting Puccini magnificence in Rinuccio’s Firenze e come un albero fiorito and O mio babbino caro sung by the titular character’s daughter, Lauretta.  Most of the productions I’ve seen (3? 4?) have been directed poorly so that Buoso’s grieving relatives have no personality while Schicchi usually has too much because the temptation to over-act is not resisted.   But it’s a quick piece – less than an hour – and this presentation boasts a ‘live orchestra’, although conductor and singers remain anonymous.  The temptation to see what’s happening just up the road is near irresistible; God knows, I’ve wasted my time at many higher profile operatic essays.

This opera will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday November 30

CINEMATIC

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at  2 pm

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or its administration, fell in love with film scores some years ago and is presenting heftier swags of them as the years roll by.   Some of these have been enchanting experiences, especially if the film dialogue is subtitled since the orchestral fabric can drown out the words.   This concert is less ambitious in that it comprises music from great and not-so-great films, but without pictures.   Nicholas Buc conducts, a veteran in this music despite his youth (for a conductor: he can’t be 40 yet).  As you’d expect, John Williams scores well: the main theme from Star Wars, selections from the Harry Potter films, Rey’s theme from  Star Wars: The Force AwakensNigel Westlake‘s output is whittled down to some scraps from Babe; Jerry Goldsmith is also shrunk to the end credits for Star Trek: First Contact.   Alan Silvestri‘s Back to the Future music appears – hopefully, not all of it – and his Avengers Theme.  Michael Giacchino is represented by his score to The Incredibles and a Star Trek: Into Darkness suite.  Another suite has been assembled from Howard Shore‘s The Lord of the Rings scores.  A swag of singles I don’t know or don’t recall fleshes out the material: James Horner‘s main title for Apollo 13,  an excerpt from the How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell, two segments from Austin Wintory’s sound-track for the game JourneyNascence and Apotheosis, and the brief Time from Hans Zimmer‘s score for Inception.   Younger ears will doubtless enjoy much of this: the more senior among us will silently lament Korngold and Steiner.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

News from the front

Due to some confusion in communications, I think it’s necessary to state somewhere that I’ve resigned from writing music criticism for The Age.  A message went out to all on my email address book, but clearly that move didn’t spread the information far enough.

My first review appeared on March 20, 1978, the last on October 22 this year; quite long enough, I think.   All those luminaries on the paper who brightened my reviewing life – Kenneth Hince, Neil Jillett, Leonard Radic, Michael Shmith, Ray Gill, Gina McColl, Robin Usher – have passed on in one way or another and I can tell you emphatically that there’s no joy or triumph in being the last man of my generation still standing.

I intend to keep this blog running, not least because it allows more spatial freedom than the inexorable 250-word limit imposed by the paper, but also because – as intended from the start three years ago – it’s a means of celebrating and encouraging musicians and composers who get precious little attention elsewhere.

October Diary

Sunday October 1

EMMANUEL PAHUD

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Getting themselves into shape, the ACO begins with the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s A Musical Offering; I doubt that it will be the enthralling Webern orchestration – just a bland, everyday transcription for strings.  Pahud, here billed as ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, will then play the C.P.E. Bach A minor Sonata, hopefully unaccompanied.  The orchestra’s outing wouldn’t be complete without a string quartet transmogrified for their forces, and here comes defenceless Ravel in F.  Another unaccompanied stand-by in Debussy’s Syrinx and Pahud finally joins up with the ACO in Franck’s Sonata for Flute and Strings, which is a misnomer: the composer wrote nothing for flute solo.  This work is for violin and piano, one of the great duos and not that suited to the flute, even Pahud’s; but then, I didn’t think much of the Galway/Agerich recording, either. Tognetti has organised the piano part for strings which should provide a barrel of laughs for anyone who’s played the work in its original form.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday October 3 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday October 1

MENDELSSOHN’S OCTET

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

The MCO has its own octet; not hard to achieve, considering the wealth of willing talent available.  This afternoon, the title work is surrounded by the buoyant B flat Major Sextet by Brahms and a new octet by Douglas Weiland, the British composer, founding member of the Australian String Quartet, and a favourite voice of the ACO’s artistic director, William Hennessy who shared those early ASQ days with Weiland.  The new work is called Winterreise, which sets up all sorts of expectations.  The work comprises six movements, lasts about 14 minutes and was commissioned by Hennessy in 2015, was completed in August that year and is finally getting an airing here.  It’s very welcome, of course, but the pairing of the Mendelssohn and Brahms scores was an inspired move: both youthful, glowing works but what a world of difference!

 

Tuesday October 3

WILLIAM WINNANT

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Continuing the Academy’s percussion festival, the California-based senior citizen of contemporary music-making leads three works by Lou Harrison, the centenary of whose birth is the fulcrum on which this series of concerts and recitals turns.  First is Tributes to Charon from 1982 for three percussionists and alarm clocks, which Winnant requested from the composer for a 65th birthday concert; then, the 1987 five-movement Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion; finally, the earlier (1973) Concerto for organ with percussion orchestra – about a dozen players –  in five movements which will present some logistical problems, mainly in siting the solo instrument.  As light relief come Henry Cowell’s Ostinato Pianissimo for Percussion octet, a pioneering piece from 1934 that lasts about 3 minutes – don’t blink; and John Cage’s Four6 from 1992, one of the great master’s late works and originally written for an unspecified (naturally) quartet.  Like pretty well everything in these American Triptych events, the content is significant and still challenging.

 

 

Friday October 6

GLORIES OF THE FRENCH BAROQUE

Brenda Rae and the Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30

While the Academy’s percussionists are being happily engaged in their US-inspired orgy, the organisation’s other instrumentalists will be working under conductor Benjamin Bayl to support the American soprano in this night of music by Rameau.  I know nothing about Rae who is appearing here for the first time in Australia and tonight has the honour of launching the serious  music side of this year’s Melbourne Festival.  She will sing seven arias, which will be surrounded by overtures, dances and scene-setting interludes from the French composer’s operas, none of which we see today unless you’re lucky enough to live in Sydney: Les Paladins, Castor et Pollux (produced by Pinchgut Opera five years ago), Platee, Zoroastre, and two works from which you might have heard extracts: Les Boreades, and Les Indes galantes.   Other Pinchgut Rameaux include Dardanus in 2005, then Anacreon and Pigmalion on a triple bill earlier this year.  It’s a specialized field but just the sort of material that should be mounted at a festival because you’re unlikely to hear anything this concentrated very often.  The musicologists among us will be happy; let’s hope the singer is able.

 

Saturday October 7

JAN WILLIAMS

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Finishing up the American Triptych celebrating the wealth of the Republic’s composers for percussion comes another senior figure in the field and long-time presence at the University of Buffalo.  Williams leads four works by Lou Harrison, with a solitary stranger in the middle: Morton Feldman’s Instruments 3 for flute, oboe and percussion – 20 minutes of atypical activity.  But the night opens with Song of Quetzalcoatl, a 1941 composition for four percussionists with an understandable emphasis on Mexican instruments.   The brief 1939 Concerto No. 1 for Flute follows: also a trio, the woodwind solo is supported by two percussionists, although I’ve seen it played with only one handling the accompaniment. Like Debussy’s Rhapsodie, the ‘No. 1’ seems superfluous: I can’t find another.  Post-Feldman, Williams takes charge of the Canticle No. 1, also from 1939 and a percussion quintet lasting about 4 or 5 minutes; don’t blink.  The last Harrison work is the 1941 Labyrinth No. 3 for 11 percussion players and a relatively large-scale work, not just in the number of its executants but also in its four-movement length.

 

Saturday October 7

TURNING POINT

Australian String Quartet

Collingwood Arts Precinct at 8 pm

A further bullet in the Melbourne Festival’s gun-belt, this recital begins with a non-string quartet: Scarlatti’s Piece in 4 voices.  Well, I say it’s not a string quartet but I could be wrong; the work might not be by Alessandro or Domenico but by some other member of the family.  Or it could just be a keyboard sonata arranged for the ASQ instruments.   Anyway, there’s no doubting the provenance of Bartok’s First String Quartet or the first Beethoven Razumovsky which sustain the bulk of this event.  Also enjoying an outing is Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, Mishima: a six-movement work and part of the composer’s score for Paul Schrader’s film based on the Japanese author’s last day.  The recital’s venue is a new one to me; from the directions given on the Festival website, it seems to be part of the old NMIT complex on the corner of Wellington and Johnston Streets.

This program will be repeated on Sunday October 8 at 6 pm, and on Monday October 8 at 7 pm.

 

Sunday October 8

MORE TELEMANN

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Finishing up for the year, Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra give Bach’s voluble contemporary a fair hearing, starting with his Canary Cantata, a compendium of four arias and recitatives on the death of a well-loved pet to be sung by soprano Tania de Jong. Pam himself takes the solo line in Telemann’s solitary and popular Viola Concerto in G Major, followed by Mark Fitzpatrick coping with the composer’s even-more popular, brief D Major Trumpet Concerto.  As makeweights, de Jong will sing Handel’s Ombra mai fu – the only aria anyone knows from the opera Serse – and the afternoon concludes with the first two symphonies by Johann Stamitz, so-called Mannheim Symphonies the first of which is a questionable attribution to this fertile composer who had an impact on Haydn and Mozart.

 

Thursday October 12

MSO PLAYS BEETHOVEN 8

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

They will eventually get around to playing the unassuming F Major symphony, but only after an odd collection of pieces, beginning with Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds.  Written for pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with three horns, an ad lib line for contrabassoon and cello and double bass parts supplied to supplement the bass line if you can’t find a contra, this work belongs more to the MSO’s Sunday morning Iwaki Auditorium recital programs.  Still, guest conductor Michael Collins will doubtless control proceedings from the first clarinet desk.  The night’s other soloist will be Lloyd Van’t Hoff sharing the honours in Mendelssohn’s Konzertstuck on his basset horn while Collins takes the clarinet line; I just don’t know which one of the two that the composer wrote is to be played   –  the F minor or the D minor.   And you’d assume they will use the orchestrated accompaniment instead of the composer’s clearer piano support.  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ornamental Air from 2007, a solid three-movement concerto for basset clarinet and chamber orchestra, could find either of the two Mendelssohn soloists under the spotlight.

This program will be repeated in the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday October 13 at 8 pm.

 

Friday October 13

BANGSOKOL – A REQUIEM FOR CAMBODIA

Rithy Panh, Him Sophy

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another Melbourne Festival offering, this is the result of a collaboration between film-maker Rithy Panh and composer Him Sophy.  They have assembled a group of singers and instrumentalists to perform a hybrid lament for the agony of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  The hour-long piece combines the Buddhist Bangsokol ritual and the Christian requiem in a fusion of dance, film, song and speech.  As the world now knows, there is a lot to grieve for; it strikes you even four decades on, principally the loss of two million lives as well as the near-annihilation of a culture = all made possible by a continuing wilful ignorance in the West.  This collaboration is receiving its world premiere here before it is taken to New York and Paris.

The program will be repeated on Saturday October 14 at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday October 14

Joep Beving

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Beving is an amateur pianist from the Netherlands who has made a splash with two CDs and is appearing under the aegis of the Melbourne Festival. I’ve listened to about ten tracks from these and the best that can be said is that it constitutes fairly harmless musical doodling.   The titles of his works might be different but Beving’s music is tediously similar, an aimless meander around the keyboard that betrays a harmonic gaucheness and melodic stasis.   It makes you long for the going-nowhere-quickly ambience of the American minimalists.  This recital is scheduled to last 75 minutes; for some of us, that’s over an hour too long.

 

Tuesday October 17

DOUBLE MANUAL

Peter de Jager

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Another pianist on the Melbourne Festival roster is this remarkable musician who is mounting a one-night stand featuring only music by Iannis Xenakis, the Romanian/Greek/French composer whose immersion of composition in mathematics set challenges – some of them impossible to surmount – for even the most willing and adventurous musicians.  De Jager plays three of the major piano pieces – Herma (1961), Evryali (1973) and Mists (1980), which was written for Roger Woodward.  For variety, he will also play the composer’s only two solo harpsichord works: Khoai (1976) and Naama (1984). The performance of one Xenakis keyboard work is a rarity because preparation requires a very long time . . . but five?  Unless you attend with scores in your hand, there’s no way you can testify to de Jager’s precision, especially in the earlier piano works which show what wimps Stockhausen and Boulez turned out to be.  But for some of us, this 70-minute stretch could turn out to be one of this year’s high-water marks.

 

Thursday October 19

‘ROUND MIDNIGHT

Emanuele Arciuli

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

Third of our Festival’s three solo pianists is the Italian-born expert in contemporary American composition for his instrument.  Making his Australian debut, Arciuli goes all the way, beginning with China Gates by John Adams, a brief bagatelle from 1977.  Then he plays Judd Greenstein’s First Ballade, a jump of thirty years in chronological time but a retrograde step in modernity; the piece stays in the same harmonic loop for most of its duration and you can see why he gave it this title.  Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik: Ruminations on ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk by George Crumb requires an amplified piano and is a nine-section construct commissioned by Arciuli himself 16 years ago.  Sound Gone was written in 1967 by Stephen Alexander Chambers before he converted to Sufism and changed his name to Talib Rasul Hakim.  Arciuli winds up his hour with Rzewski’s pounding Constructivist revival, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.

Arciuli presents a second program at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on Friday October 20.  Works include Cage’s In a Landscape, Louis Ballard’s Four American Indian Piano Preludes, the ‘Round Midnight Suite variations on a Thelonious Monk theme by Rzewski, Babbitt, Torke, Harbison and Daugherty, and  Phrygian Gates by John Adams.

 

Friday October 20

HOWARD PENNY: FROM THE CELLO

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Head of Strings at ANAM, Penny takes control of the organization’s strings in a breezy night’s work that begins with Two Pieces for String Octet by Shostakovich, a prelude and scherzo dating from the composer’s student years and written concurrently with the startling Symphony No. 1.   The forces reduce a tad for the warm, aspiring Brahms Sextet No. 2 in G Major; you can go years without hearing either of the composer’s works in this form, then they both turn up within weeks of each other (see above, Sunday October 1). Quite a few more players will be needed for Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939; in fact, 22 is the prescribed minimum, the composer having a keen eye for the weight needed when he divides the players which happens regularly, although he’s more happy to play off principals from each section against the main body in the best concerto grosso manner; always an exhilarating journey, if a brief one.

 

Friday October 20

PATH OF MIRACLES

Tenebrae

St. John’s Anglican Church, Malvern East at 7:30 pm

A 15-year-old British choir making its debut in the Melbourne Festival, Tenebrae is presenting a single program at two different venues.  The works to be given are Owain Park’s Footsteps and Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles, both of them recently recorded together by these singers.  Which makes you wonder why they’d bother bringing them so far and making them the only offerings available.  Talbot’s four-movement work, for 17-part a cappella choir with a few crotales thrown in for atmosphere, follows a pilgrim’s route from Roncesvalles, through Burgos and Leon to Santiago and the shrine of St. James; it lasts a little over an hour and is a Tenebrae specialty because the director Nigel Short commissioned it.   But then, so he did for Park’s work that presents images of a tiring traveller in a little over fifteen minutes.  All well and good and the few performance extracts provided sound effective, but again: why come all this way to sing a record?

The program will be repeated  in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm on Saturday October 21.

 

Saturday October 21

SOUND TEXT

Charles Gaines

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This recital concludes an exhibition, The Score,  which runs from August 1 to November 5, and a series of seminars held throughout the Melbourne Festival at the Ian Potter Museum.  The recital is a combination of art and music put together by American conceptual artist Charles Gaines with music supplied by Opera Povera’s Sean Griffin.  The musical content ranges from Reconstruction-era spirituals (were there any?) to French Revolutionary ballads.  The art itself seems to revolve around musical scores that lurch out into visual and linguistic areas; something like the stuff we were all writing back in the 1960s, except that this has intimations of holding more of an emphasis on politics.  It all sounds promising and there’s some hope, as it’s Festival time, that the occasion could be confrontational.

 

Tuesday October 24

THE END OF TIME

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

As soon as you see this night’s title, you immediately think of Messiaen, don’t you?  And you’re spot-on: the climax of this recital is the famous quartet with guest Dene Olding coming in for the work’s violin line.  Before that long sequence of visions spiritual and a leetle bit temporal comes Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 which could feature either Olding or Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s cello, but certainly Timothy Young’s piano, and certainly not the original score’s horn.  As well, the group presents the premiere of Australian writer Samantha Wolf’s Splinter for an as-yet unspecified instrumental combination; and, to begin, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in the composer’s own version for violin, clarinet (David Griffiths, on this night) and piano.  We are promised a lighting design from Paul Jackson, so the night’s colours won’t be only instrumental.

 

Wednesday October 25

SOUVENIR DE FLORENCE

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Once again, a real chamber recital from the ACO and exclusively for Melbourne, it would seem.   As well as Tchaikovsky’s athletic string sextet to bring down the curtain, the visiting ACO personnel will also indulge us in Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge – hopefully for just the original four strings – and Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, performed just five days previously by Howard Penny and his ANAM forces (see above, Friday October 20). Carrying the torch for frequent collaborator Olli Mustonen, Tognetti and his colleagues will play the Finnish pianist’s eight-movement Nonet No. 2 from 2000 for two string quartets and double bass: a work that the ACO hastened to present in the following year and of which I can’t recall any trace.

 

Friday October 27

MSO PLAYS SCHUBERT 9

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Back in the old routine, this event shows the MSO back in the well-worn saddle.  Finishing off the program, the strings will suffer from an extended bout of RSI with the Schubert Symphony No. 9 which is Great, as its nickname claims, but draining for the performers who endure page after page of scrubbing.  British conductor/musicologist Andrew Manze starts off with Beethoven as well – the dour Coriolan Overture – and Isabelle van Keulen is soloist in Prokofiev’s rapidly accomplished (20 minutes or so) Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major.   Van Keulen was the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1984 but has been much more than a flash-in-the-pan popular success; the pity is that it has taken her so long to get to these shores.

This program will be repeated at 8 pm on Saturday October 28 and Monday October 30 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday October 28

JACOBEAN COMPOSERS IN THE LOW COUNTRIES

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel at 8 pm

John O’Donnell begins this journey into another historical byway with an organ work by John Bull, Prelude on Laet ons met herten reijne; probably written while the composer saw out his exile in Antwerp after having to escape from the law in England for the unmusical talents of fornication and adultery.  The Gombert singers come on to the scene with selections from Peter Philips’ Cantiones sacrae, apparently picking material from both sets for five and eight voices;  this composer had a more high-flown reason for living in the Netherlands and Belgium as he was a Catholic.  The main part of the program will probably be consumed by Richard Dering’s first book of Cantiones sacrae quinque vocum; here was another Catholic who nevertheless managed to get back to England when  appointed organist to that crazy, resentful royal, Queen Henrietta Maria.  A last chance to hear this excellent choir before its final-for-the-year Christmas celebration in the same venue on Saturday December 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diffident but persistent

GRIEG AND BEYOND

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday September 10 and Monday September 11

                                                                   Henning Kraggerud

I’m not a fan of that musician who feels the need for talk and so gives his real work an oral preamble. All too often, such a speech wastes time and that particular commodity is becoming more precious to some of us as the years bound on.  Further, all too often what you hear is instantly forgettable or essentially trite or – worse –  a repeat of information found in the program notes.  For a few, this preliminary oral exordium is an ego-bolstering exhibition conducted with the silent encouragement of defenceless listeners, a meandering monologue that can even turn into an attempt to do a Seinfeld and show a try-hard humorous facet to the artistic persona.  While having its points as soul-destroying meta-theatre, the introductory talk can amount to little more than ambient buzzing, the kind of useless fodder you get from announcers presenting a concert or recital from their incubating sound-booths.

Even worse is the interview, where the conductor interrogates a soloist or composer about what’s coming up.  The stilted instance of Paul Dyer talking to horn player Bart Aerbeydt about his natural instrument during last Sunday’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra event was a case in point where dialogue disappears and oral give-and-take goes missing; mind you, in that particular interview matters were somewhat redeemed by the instrumentalist pulling out a few party tricks and flip lines to spice up yet another demonstration of the horn’s natural harmonic series and note production methods.

For most of the time, I’m left inwardly groaning at these pseudo-Parkinson preliminary obstacles that wind up with all the non-sequitur awkwardness of a ‘One on One’ clip.  At rare intervals, a light will shine, the most notable when a conductor like Brett Kelly asks a young composer about his latest score –  as at the Cybec New Music concerts each January from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, where the chance for a moment of worthwhile information is strongest.   And you can strike the aware musician who knows just how long is enough; Markus Stenz was an excellent exponent of the rapid communication of just sufficient information to keep you . . . well, if not engrossed, then mollified.

Guest director and soloist in the latest ACO subscription series, Norwegian violinist/composer/arranger Kraggerud prefaced every one of the five works on his Grieg-Plus program with an explication, not getting off to the best of starts with the In Folk Style, one of Grieg’s Two Nordic Melodies.  This was a pseudo-folksong sent to the composer by a diplomat which Grieg subjected to some variations and restatements; nothing very original and, in places like Letters C and E, failing to impress as little more than composition by the numbers.  The conductor-leader’s introduction – soft-spoken, courteous and prepared – proved mildly interesting for the speaker’s fluency and naive charm, even if he made more of this specific triviality than it deserved.

Ross Edwards’ Entwinings is enjoying its world premiere on this tour.  In two movements, the work proposes both a juxtaposition and a link between the natural world and our civilization although the most attractive section of the score, the opening Animato, holds more interest for its Maninyas-type suggestions and the bird-like sounds that eventually dominate the texture and round out the aural imagery, the whole fore-fathered in atmosphere by Sculthorpe’s Irkanda exercises.   In the following Lento magico, Edwards employs a chorale-type statement to open and conclude a chain of sequences, the emotional language more worked-out than in the initial movement: less suggestive of the bush and wild-life, the accent less on pantheistic rhapsody and more on the civic world, the narrative sustaining your interest for its inner variety of approach as well as being a gift in multiple textures and techniques for the well-rehearsed ACO.

Kraggerud has turned all three of Grieg’s violin sonatas into concertos, to flesh out the number of Scandinavian exercises in the form – although, if you look hard enough, there are several available apart from the towering Sibelius in D minor.  This concert’s offering, No. 3 in C minor, isn’t a full orchestration – no brass, no percussion, only single woodwind to punctuate the string texture – but the results are forceful enough.  There’s not much any musician can do to spice up Grieg’s orthodox melodic divisions; still the same two-bar phrases that obtain through most of the composer’s works, very evident in the opening Allegro, but on Sunday this predictable four-squaredness was mitigated to a large extent by the orchestra’s enthusiastic address.

The guest violinist was heard here in fully exposed voice for the first time.  His sound-colour is admirably pointed and clear with an individual lyric timbre in higher-string passages of play, most obvious in the middle movement at the sideways move from E to E flat Major at bar 209.  The long restatement of Grieg’s opening theme high on the soloist’s E string made for a moving display of emotional wealth of feeling and impeccably shaped performance skill.  In the final Hall-of-the-Mountain-King allegro, where Grieg oscillates between dance-like thumping and smooth simple melody, Kraggerud splashed around his technical agility with carefully moderated abandon, the most memorable passage coming at the shift to A flat for the central trio where a low-lying melody line for the soloist was supported by cellos and bass: an outstanding realization of another heart-on-sleeve moment from this most approachable and complication-free of writers.

The Topelius Variations (from Topelius’ Time) commemorated the 19th century Finnish writer in a sequence of connected episodes that also paid a kind of homage to Grieg’s Holberg Suite.  As its composer, Kraggerud had a fair bit to communicate to us before he started on this score, which is receiving its Australian premiere on this tour, but, by the time he’d finished, I was expecting something a good deal more taxing than the reality turned out to be.  While he varies his basic material, not sticking to one theme to treat, Kraggerud veers towards the folk-tune-style of lyric with which to play around.  His variants may occasionally veer into complex territory but as a rule they make for easy absorption; even the rhythmic difficulties – a time-signature of 19/16, we were promised  –  didn’t seem to make extreme demands on the ACO – or on us.

To end, the ACO took us back to Grieg: the arrangement by Richard Tognetti of the String Quartet Op. 27.   It’s been a while since I heard the ensemble play this piece but it has been bred into the players’ bones – quite a few of them, at any rate – because they recorded it in 2012.  Kraggerud exerted minimal control for this piece.  At first, I suspected because the musicians had an intimate familiarity with its performance problems.  But really, the guest engaged in very little overt direction; nothing like Tognetti’s habit of conducting with his bow for significant cues.  Mind you, little on this program required any semaphoring, with the possible exception of the new Edwards work, but I can’t recall Kraggerud taking time out to make many directional gestures for that piece, either.  As well, the musicians had already given six accounts of this program in Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra before hitting Hamer Hall, so they were more than adequately played in.

The quartet ran its course with maximal flourish, in particular the symphonic first movement with a wealth of declamation and spirited rhetoric.  In fact, much of the work is well-suited to string orchestral guise, including the smart, syncopated Intermezzo and the saltarello finale, even if the actual material wears out its welcome many minutes before the G Major coda.

As promised, we had plenty of Grieg at this afternoon’s event, the Topelius piece probably suiting the ‘Beyond’ promise although how much further Kraggerud takes his heritage is questionable; an amiable work, yes, but not as far advanced as you might expect, considering the musical earthquakes that have taken place since the Norwegian master’s death in 1907.  A lot has happened over the last 110 years, but this new piece looks back in more ways than one.  However, Entwinings took us some steps into the 20th century and it was heartening to hear another Edwards work, just two days after the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra had aired his Tyalgum Mantras with striking elan at the Deakin Edge.

 

 

 

It’s all in the title

THE SINGING VIOLIN

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday August 8

 

                                              Dmitry Sinkovsky

I managed to catch the Russian violinist/countertenor at his final tour date with the ABO in Brisbane.  An agreeable experience early in the night as South Brisbane train station is almost inside the foyer of QPAC; getting back to Burleigh Heads with parts of the line closed for repairs proved not so easy – a half-hour longer than the concert itself – but Sinkovsky was worth the effort.   Also, hearing something worthwhile in the city’s premier music venue after a large number of years made me even more appreciative of the acoustic clarity found in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

The last time I was in QPAC, during one of the first Brisbane Festivals, the musical diet included Lorin Maazel conducting Mahler and a concert performance of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt,   I believe the hall has been remodelled since then; it certainly seems to be narrower and – an increasingly common characteristic of fashionable ambience in these times – darker.  Furthermore, performers have plenty of air space to fill and, while this venue might not be as broad in the beam as Hamer Hall, it is just as unfortunate for chamber ensembles.  While the ABO presents a champagne-crisp sound in Melbourne’s Recital Centre, the Brisbane sound is stodgy by comparison.

For its program, the orchestra played seven works, four of them involving Sinkovsky as directing soloist: concertos by Telemann, Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi – Baroque material well-suited to show the Brandenburgers at their best.  As punctuation marks, artistic director Paul Dyer headed a ciaconna from a four-violin concerto by Jacques Aubert, a concerto for two horns by Vivaldi, and the second-last of the six Introduttioni teatrali by Locatelli – all consistent with and complementary to the evening’s central components.

Without any prefatory spiel from Dyer, the Brandenburg strings launched into the Aubert chaconne which gave some of the ensemble’s main players a battery of solos, none more so than concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen who handled some rapid-fire passages with confidence.  As you’d expect, the piece is top-heavy in texture and activity but made for a well-judged warm-up, the players generating animation in an atmosphere that made them sound uncharacteristically soupy.  Nevertheless, Dyer invested the plain notes with personality, particularly in his attention-grabbing final bars.

Appearing first in Telemann’s per Signor Pisendel Violin Concerto in B flat, Sinkovsky demonstrated his finely spun line during an excellent initial largo, soaring over three levels of accompaniment.  In fact, as the night moved forward, you realised that this player worked best in long lyrical solos rather than in crackling fast allegro or vivace movements. The key lay in the concert’s title: his instrumental voice impresses most when it gets the opportunity to sing, much more so than when fluttering through barrages of semiquaver patterns.  In this Telemann, details of the solo line got lost in the fierce drive of the second movement where the orchestra attracted attention for the alternating dynamic juxtapositions of their tutti outbursts.  In the end, the work itself impressed more for its interesting content, especially Telemann’s modulation shifts, than for the demands required of its soloist,

Dyer and Sinkovsky followed an initiative shown in the preceding Aubert by introducing surprises in attack and dynamic contrasts, deliberately slowing down the relentless chugging drive and attenuating the predictable composite texture before launching back into a hefty ritornello.  The reading proved very entertaining and well-prepared but I’m afraid the promised technical obstacle course seemed fairly run-of-the-mill stuff and a long way short of the electrifying experience projected by the fulsome program notes.

Daryl Poulsen and Doree Dixon played the requisite solos for that double horn Vivaldi concerto. Both players used crooked instruments, I believe – which has the fine effect of giving you the correct, authentic period sound but tests the executants pretty sorely.  The opening allegro made for hard labour, even in the movement’s unremarkable chains of F Major trills and arpeggios.  Vivaldi’s intermediate largo comprised a duet for Tommie Andersson’s theorbo and Jamie Hey’s cello in which the latter enjoyed all the attention. The finale again tested both soloists who were, I think, inconvenienced anyway by the over-rapid tempo in both faster movements.  As with a fair few essays at projecting an original-instruments sound, you wonder about the point of it all if the results are not clear and exact, even more so when the actual music is uninteresting, as this was; filler, even by Telemann’s standards.

Leclair’s D Major Violin Concerto from the composer’s Op. 7 set of six  gave Sinkovsky a more flattering landscape to work in, thanks to its fine combination of challenging content and pointed showmanship.  Yet again, the soloist appeared most impressive in the central adagio where his shapely outlining of Leclair’s melodic chain made for one of this concert’s finer moments.  I wasn’t over-enamoured with the orchestra’s approach, in particular the ducks-and-drakes games carried out on the tempos and dynamics.  This rather arch and contrived interpretation smacked of over-drawing an interpretative floridity that Sinkovsky himself entertained in the finale’s concluding solo flurries alongside an accelerando that I couldn’t see adding much to the work’s effectiveness..  It would have been better to leave the score to make its own points without infusing it with an overdose of Sydney-tinctured cosmetics.

The evening’s second half began with an address from Dyer, postponed from the night’s opening and none the more welcome for its banality and irrelevance.  With relief, we turned to Locatelli’s E flat Major Concerto Grosso with the suggestive nickname of Il pianto d’Arianna: six movements, including a multi-partite first one, all tracing the various emotional moods of the Cretan princess left behind on Naxos by her innately careless/ thoughtless lover Theseus.  The composer covers a lot of territory, the most moving section a non-vibrato grave at the work’s heart which eschews the soloist’s services.  You could find fault with several over-pregnant pauses that peppered the concluding largo but Sinkovsky brought into play some moving, soft melismatic lyricism during the earlier movements, enough to raise admiration for his powers of judgement and articulation.

The slight Locatelli Introduction proved to be a lot of fuss over very little, Dyer indulging in a welter of attention-grabbing jumping up and down from his harpsichord for furious direction of the bleedingly obvious across three movements of frippery living up to its titular description, the best part of the construct a central trio for violin, viola and cello.

To conclude, Sinkovsky led Vivaldi’s Il favorito Violin Concerto in E minor where the opening movement enjoyed a bit of retooling when the emphatic arpeggio main figure and its consequent development gave way to a sudden change in approach that slowed to unexpurgated languor so that Sinkovsky could give free exercise to the ornate solo decoration; understandable but rather jarring given the movement’s structural context. Using the upper strings only, Vivaldi constructed an elegant central andante without theatrics but a captivating sequence of effects to display the soloust’s flexibility and pitching precision – right up Sinkovsky’s artistic alley.

The Russian-born violinist is a highly talented musician, expert in this music and technically assured in his execution of it.  For all that, his performance personality is some shades less flamboyant than you’d expect.  Of course, he can handle the rapid-fire ornamentation and seamless bars of vaulting passage work that much of this night’s music contained.   Yet he’s not a performer who shows at his best in flamboyant gestures or casting aside caution.  I’d like to hear him again (which is more than I can say of most performers)  but in a different context; possibly in a smaller ensemble and playing trio sonatas rather than concertos.

Nevertheless, the Brisbane audience should have been gratified by most of this evening’s performances and the ABO’s unfailingly enthusiastic commitment to their work.

 

Sweet and low

WORKS FOR PERCUSSION AND RECORDER

Duo Blockstix

Move Records MCD 581

Despite the best intentions of its practitioners, the recorder doesn’t lend itself to contemporary sounds; that is, if you treat it fairly and don”t over-amplify it to a ludicrous degree.  Not only does it have a limited projection power, but also its mechanics make it hors de combat when considering harmonically complex instrumental fabric.  So it’s only to be expected that this CD doesn’t contain anything confrontational or challenging; indeed, a fair number of its twelve tracks make for very easy listening.  Even though the results sound pleasant enough, you come across a few patches where a sterner editorial hand might have been of service – moments where the fluency falters; not by much, but just enough to disturb a listener’s expectations.

Duo Blockstix comprises recorder player Alicia Crossley and percussionist Joshua Hill.  Both are Sydney musicians and, as far as I can tell, have not had much contact with Melbourne, except that Hill is a member of the Synergy Percussion group, so I must have seen him somewhere down the track.  Both are promoters of modern music but what they present on this CD is very comfortable listening and, it seems, just as comfortable playing. The disc contains works by seven composers, most of whom are unfamiliar names to me. Daniel Rojas rings some tango-connected bells but nothing memorable.  I’ve looked at the catalogue of Peter McNamara’s works and nothing springs out.  Julian Day is a well-known personality from ABC radio but his Five Easy Pieces are the first of his compositions that I’ve heard; very strange for a Bendigo-born writer with an impressive back-log of national and international appearances.

Damien Barbeler has made some glancing appearances here but is, like all composers mentioned so far, a Sydney resident.  Mark Oliveiro, educated in Sydney, now appears to be resident in America.  Tim Hansen has also enjoyed similar associations with the United States but his main area of activity seems to be New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.  Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan doesn’t fit the rest of the CD contributors’ mould in his origins but, like all of them, his career path has been – to put it mildly – adventurous.

The players open with  .  .  . of magic and realism by Rojas.  The composer’s notes refer to Llosa and Marquez, as the title would suggest, and the piece itself is intended to reflect an occasional junction of the everyday and the supernatural.  To my regret, I found nothing of the kind in experiencing this track.  It sets up a Latin beat which rouses in this listener’s mind the unexpected but ever-welcome shade of Arthur Benjamin and his Jamaican Rumba; it stays with the same pulse and the recorder and marimba ring changes on an amiable sequence of motives.   In the piece’s second half, a bit after the 4 minute mark, the players show slight signs of uncertainty – not with each other, but the progress of their individual parts.  Still, the 7 minutes’ duration passes by agreeably enough with plenty of colourful tinctures.

McNamara’s Duo Generere requires a bass recorder, marimba (both struck and bowed) and suspended cymbal.  The composer begins with a sequence of soft low-lying textures, then moves into a quiet development of his initial material; the instrumental interplay impresses as pretty simple and any rhythmic novelties that arise hold no difficulties.  In spite of its modestly inventive opening, the work is heavy on ostinati and the overlapping ascending scales leading to the muted final notes, even with some plosive recorder punctuation, wear out their welcome.

With Day’s pieces, we are taken into a world that is reassuringly contemporary and involved with sound manipulation.  The first gives slow-moving single notes and repeated-note patterns to both recorder and marimba; this pattern obtains for most of the other sections as well, with an occasional overblow or semi-tonal wavering to spice up the sparse Webernian atmosphere.  Like some of the master’s products, the dynamic level rarely rises above piano and the five elements take five minutes to negotiate.  Day’s creation presents as ultra-controlled, emotionally calm and –  as the title has it  – easy.

Hill’s marimba is rested for Barbeler’s Resonant Voice, but plenty of other percussion instruments are employed – gongs and cymbals  – and this complex follows a similar path to that of Crossley’s bass recorder. The composer has given a poem (intentionally unidentified) to the performers to ‘read’; their interpretation constitutes the score, as far as I can tell.  The recorder line suggests folk-tunes; the percussion spends some time mirroring the wind instrument but enjoys an exposed cadenza near the performance’s ending.

Some of the writers comment on the odd combination they are working with but the general solution is to give the recorder prime position.  Barbeler restrains his percussion part – or Hill does – so that this sudden solo strikes you as remarkably aggressive, coming after Day’s pastel shades and – up to this point – courteous support for the recorder.

Oliveiro also employs the bass recorder/marimba combination for his Auto Dafe Suite. The composer has produced four movements that call on various traditions or influences: medieval European modes, Malaysian kompang rhythms, Japanese sho clusters.  The title’s reference to Inquisition torments and the impact of Catholic missionaries and military forces on older civilizations is deliberate.  Sesquialtera Ritual summons up images of an organ rank although the actual sound is more primitive than European.   Rentak Silat Ritual refers to rhythm and martial arts, possibly Malay, and the effects are occasionally suggestive of a gamelan.  Iteration Ritual follows a repeated pattern, of course: a rising third, followed by two staccato explosions; Oliveiro offers variants but the basic path follows these two elements with a keen sense of suspense.  Finally, Reflection Ritual sets up a repeated note ostinato, then recorder and marimba follow the same melodic path under that relentless treble pecking.  The pattern is broken just at the end.

It’s an intriguing experiment and the combination of cultures works well enough.   One thing I missed was the composer’s reference to the ‘violent effect’ of Europe on Asian culture.  If anything, this piece sounded as though those cultures were doing quite well. But it is heartening to find that the fascination of Eastern music still finds a response in at least one young Australian composer, all these years after Dreyfus, Meale and Sculthorpe were writing seminal scores – Clouds now and then, From within, looking out, Sun Music III – that revealed a welcome preoccupation with our place in Asia.

Three Pencils is Hansen’s suite for recorder and marimba where the spirit of Les Six is alive and well, as well as the Nino Rota of Fellini film scores.   The Cartoon Philosopher refers to Michael Leunig and is a very appropriate jaunt, quietly syncopated but as innocent as a landscape populated by Mr Curly, Vasco Pyjama and a multiplicity of ducks.  Five Year Arrival celebrates Shaun Tan’s famous book that occupied the artist for five years; a long-note melody curves over a continuous odd-notes arpeggio marimba figure, the result a fusion of action and musing.  Finally, Self Portrait in HB is a slow bluesy amble that suggests a personality along the lines of C J. Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke.

The Duo leave the longest work to the final track.  Cutlan’s Affirmations, originally written for amplified bass recorder, cello with electronic effects and didjeridu, starts placidly with a phrase-sentence for bass recorder and forward motion gathers speed as the marimba enters.  Then everything stops for a flute cadenza which circles around the same notes.  The marimba returns and you become conscious of Curlan’s plan of opening his main theme by degrees, as the marimba performs a cadenza also.

When the two musicians are working in tandem, the rhythmic patterns are regular, but the work’s interest comes in these interstitial solos.  With the concerted passages – even in the final melody revelation – the writing is unexceptional, despite some supple syncopations and the surprise of the recorder’s last gesture.  For a good deal of time, you have the impression of note-spinning: the duo could go on for quite a long time manipulating a limited suitcase of notes without necessarily getting anywhere new..

For sure, this duo combination is an exceptional one in its composition and the confidence of its members.   Crossley and Hill are to be applauded for their enterprise in working closely with pretty well all of the seven composers and getting music out of them. Four of these works come from this current year – Rojas, Day, Oliveiro, Barbeler – while the other three date from 2014.   All works were premiered (Cutlan’s piece in this format) during a recital by Duo Blockstix on June 15 this year at the Wesley Music Centre, Canberra.   If you are after about 52 minutes of generally soothing, breathy music that makes no demands but just nibbles at your consciousness, this CD fits the bill.

 

 

Pratt takes the honours

LA SONNAMBULA

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre

Friday May 5

                              Jessica Pratt

Somehow I’ve missed the Victorian Opera’s previous concert versions of Bellini operas – Norma and I puritani.  A real pleasure, then, to come upon the latest enterprise, particularly as the performance worked very well, notable for a top-notch cast, a willing if distant chorus and a revitalised Orchestra Victoria, coping easily with this score and revealing a good deal more polish than had obtained during the previous night’s Carmen for Opera Australia.

Not that the opera has a large principal line-up.  The sleep-walking heroine Amina is a virtuoso role – well, it’s made so by the insertion of ornamentation to taste; Jessica Pratt proved more than equal to the task with admirable technical control and a fine characterization of open-hearted simplicity.  As her betrothed, Elvino, tenor Carlos Enrique Barcenas maintained a firm delivery throughout the night; if the high notes sounded strained, they were present and correct, although they would be more telling if the singer would treat them with greater relaxation of his physical equipment.   Paolo Pecchioli, a bass new to me, proved an exceptional Count Rudolfo, capable of responsible phrasing and varied delivery as evident from his first appearance where you immediately gained insight into a personality capable of command and sensitivity.

Another substantial contributor was Greta Bradman who, as Lisa, enjoyed two arias, including that which follows the opening chorus, Tutto e gioia, and the later one with chorus, De’ lieti auguri, where she thinks Elvino will marry her instead of the ‘unfaithful’ Amina.  The pyrotechnics came less thick and fast than in Pratt’s line but Bradman balanced her fellow principal soprano with a more solid timbre in production, and brought some welcome relief to the work’s sweetness and light with her barbed responses to her courting by Alessio.  This latter role brought bass Timothy Newton down from the chorus for the character’s contributions, although his role in ensembles often simply mirrored his upstage colleagues.

Mezzo Roxane Hislop sang Amina’s foster-mother, Teresa, with seasoned security, blotting her copybook only once with an early entry, almost cutting off the distant horns at  Ma . . . il sol tramonta, but quickly pounced on by conductor Richard Mills.  Tenor Tomas Dalton followed Newton’s lead, coming down from the choir for the Notary’s brief contribution when all things are going swimmingly at the betrothal scene.

Pecchioli had only two significant passages in which to shine.  The deceptively long Vi ravviso and its pendant Tu non sai is the more important in revealing something of the Count’s character as an informed, benevolent if somewhat secretive aristocrat with a splendid line in rolling reminiscence.   In Act 2, he attempts to explain (briefly and lucidly) to the village what a somnambulist is, V’han certuni che dormendo, before Elvino leads a chorus of denial.  As you’d hoped, the singer’s tone quality retained a carrying amplitude, not over-stressed in the part’s upper register and satisfyingly dark at the other end.

Barcenas made a favourable impression from his opening recitative, although the strain to get through the mordent to the upper B flat at rendesti il padre interrupted a well-controlled delivery.  But the following duet  Prendi: l’anel ti dono turned out to be one of the performance’s gems, the tenor gifted with the high road and keeping it.  Still, the four high Cs that turn up later in the scene would have gained from a less determined approach.  As shown better in Act 2, this tenor has an attractive authority across most of his compass, if not yet the floating elasticity of an ideal Elvino like Tagliavini.  A short burst of regret in Ah! Perche no posso odiarti gave us a telling insight into Barcenas’ talent at instant communication – address without complications, the lyric falling in the nutty kernel of his talent.

Pratt gave us an excellent Amina, from her first appearance to the happy (and quick) resolution of the opera’s action.   In the initial Come per me sereno cavatina, she demonstrated how to handle the composer’s thick fioriture, particularly in a throw-away piece of brilliance at non, non brillo (the sort of startling facility that typified Sutherland at her best). and again at a quicksilver non ha forza a sostener.   In fact, Pratt sustained her role beyond expectations at the crucial point where she is spurned by Elvino, maintaining our sympathy throughout the D’un pensiero quintet and the following Act 1 finale where again the character yields dynamic and range primacy to her ex-fiance –  whom any spirited girl outside opera would have now given up as a waste of space.

But it’s Ah non credea mirarti that crowns the opera – a surprisingly non-flamboyant peak, but you can expect only a few flashes of brilliance from a sleepwalking heroine (unless you happen to be watching Lady Macbeth or Lucia).  Pratt mirrored her opening aria’s happiness with a moving depiction of a credulous soul finding consolation in her dreams. But the pretty-well packed hall was waiting for the fireworks of Ah! non giunge, and Pratt didn’t disappoint, although the top E flat in her final solo bar was a close thing.

Without claiming to have made a concerted study of the scores, it’s hard to recall an opera of this type that requires so much chorus work.  Looking through the music afterwards, I was taken aback by the number of principal solos, duets and other ensembles that featured support, in this case from the near-omnipresent villagers.  On this night, the VO Chorus carried out their work with diligence, even if you might have wanted more power from the 32 singers involved.  Mind you, the body operated from behind Mills and his orchestra, who were nothing if not lively.  But their contribution assisted considerably in raising the work’s involvement level.

Another oddity that struck me after this performance was Bellini’s delight in his own triplet-rich, meandering melodies; his operating principle appeared to be that, if something was worth saying twice, it was probably worth repeating once more.  This can take its toll in Act 1 where the lovers’ idyllic satisfaction goes on for a patience-wearing stretch of time.  However, the absence of staging, costumes, and scenery meant that the performance centred solely on the music – a real concert, in other words, and so an experience to be treasured for giving all executants, both vocal and instrumental, a blank field to work in, and handing to an audience the inestimable gift of witnessing music-making without theatrical distractions, in an arena where the performers stand purely on their own abilities.  After this, I’m more than a little regretful that I missed the company’s previous Bellini expeditions.

 

 

 

You can take the girl out of Seville . . .

CARMEN

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday May 4

                                     Stacey Alleaume

You’re pressed to put your finger on significant faults in the national company’s opening salvo for the Melbourne Autumn season, yet the net result doesn’t satisfy as much as you’d want it to do.  The Carmen, Rinat Shaham, is gifted with a full-bodied mezzo range and she plays her role well enough, if not distinctively.  Her Jose, Dmytro Popov, gets all the notes and is an assertive enough figure, even in that drawn-out final duet.  Shane Lowrencev is a competent Escamillo, his big number ringingly confident.  Our heroine’s gypsy/smuggler cohorts – Jane Ede (Frasquita), Sian Pendry (Mercedes), Dancairo (Luke Gabbedy), Remendado (Benjamin Rasheed) –  handle the middle act ensembles with gusto and reliability.   Even the principal soldiers – Christopher Hillier as Morales, Adrian Tamburini playing Zuniga – work through their parts with unswerving directness.

But the only time you felt that something exceptional was taking place occurred during that difficult Act 3 aria, Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante when the night’s Micaela, Stacey Alleaume, gave a flawless interpretation that clearly woke up a house that till that point was polite but not off its collective face with enthusiasm.   Yes, you could quibble with some of Alleaume’s breathing decisions but the careful construction of the lyric and her treatment of its melodic arches were not only memorable, but as good as I’ve heard live.

The opera’s last real solo made as good a high-point as any for the night, although its usual reception is often to be under-rated; after all, Micaela is the only decent character in the whole work and she can cast a pallid shadow in the middle of so much passion and nationalistic colour.   But Alleaume’s success was obvious, especially at curtain-call time when her appearance was greeted by the closest thing a first-night Melbourne audience comes to a roar of approbation.

Shaham’s Carmen follows the usual path.  She’s physically attractive, dominates the Habanera scene very well, handles her duets with Popov successfully enough, although there seemed to be a hesitant moment when a cue was dropped at the point in Act IV when Don Jose gives up the wimping appeals and turns violent.   Her fault. his fault? I wasn’t quick enough to pick it up.   But the best part of Shaham’s reading came early; her L’amour est un oiseau rebelle made deft work of an all-too-familiar aria, but her Seguidilla proved to be vocally distinctive and well-pitched – I don’t mean just the notes’ placement but the nice mix of sultriness and pseudo-innocence that constitutes Carmen’s quick-moving seduction of Don Jose.

Later, the brilliantly atmospheric opening to Act 2, Les tringles des sistres tintaient, worked to fine effect vocally, while the staging and choreography walked a distracting uninspired path.   Even Carmen’s sudden change of character into a freedom-fighter came over without generating too much scepticism.  But the Act 3 card scene, where Carmen takes over for the solo En vain pour eviter, the pace slowed to an improbable adagio, sucking out the music’s fluency and this section’s tragic resignation to the inevitable.   Shaham gave excellent work in the vituperation of the last act’s closing stages where the semi-erotic posturing of the previous three acts has no place, but the same can be said of many another Carmen that the company has given us.

Popov impressed in Act 1 for his straightforward delivery, even if he faced the same problem as every Don Jose in making his rapid fall from grace an occasion of general disbelief suspension.  His tenor is solid, stentorian rather than elegant, as evident in his Act 1 duet with Micaela, Ma mere, je la vois, where Alleaume turned into an emphatic second fiddle.   His La fleur que tu m’avais jetee had everything but suppleness; even the climactic top note wasn’t the usual bellow you get from many another singer.   But the duel scene with Escamillo held little suggestion of danger from either singer and Popov, while convincing in his communication of despair at the end, missed out on communicating the fierce brutality of murdering Carmen; equipped vocally to invest this duet with force and energy, the tenor failed to impress as deranged and heartbroken at what he has done.

One of the night’s successes emerged in the delicious Nous avons en tete une affaire quintet where the vocal combination came across as precise and well-judged, Jane Ede’s soprano occasionally riding without unnecessary force above the others.   Lowrencev’s big Votre toast number worked well enough; its refrain is difficult to freshen up but this bass-baritone refrained from bellowing.  The trouble with his characterization was its lack of spark; the invitation in Act 3 to his upcoming corrida sounded perfunctory, even when he got specific with Carmen.

Brian Castles-Onion conducted Orchestra Victoria and, the louder the forces involved, the better the score sounded..  To general gratification, the ensemble’s horns acquitted themselves very creditably in exposed passages, but every so often a fault marred the good work: a missed flute note in one of the entr’actes, an off-kilter upper string phrase, some heavy vibrato from the cellos, an over-egged percussion during choruses.

Teresa Negroponte’s costumes concentrated on unsubtle bubble-gum colours: pink, orange, greens of various shades, purple.  Both adult and children’s choruses were dressed in a contemporary fashion, the latter looking as though they could have stepped off any street corner in Melbourne.  These bodies’ singing was solid in delivery, the males tending to hog the limelight, but then they are the force that sets the opera’s tone right from the opening scene.

Michael Scott Mitchell has constructed a touring set, a three-wall frame that could fit anywhere and doesn’t change throughout the opera.  A truck features in three acts – Lillas Pastia’s easily transportable tavern, then the contraband conveyance, finally the triumphal dais at the entrance of Escamillo and Carmen for their four lines of love declaration. Mitchell’s stage is on two planes with some connecting stairs along the stage’s length; this only proved a problem at one point in the last act where things were in danger of coming adrift between singers on the upper level and the pit.

Director John Bell has re-situated the opera’s locale to ‘somewhere resembling today’s Havana’.  As it’s only a semblance, he can gloss over references to Seville in the libretto.  Why Havana?  Because he knows it and he enjoys ‘the audience’s shock of recognition’ (of Havana, that much visited city?) and ‘the dramatic tension between a contemporary vision and an older text’  –  which is fine if difficult to achieve when dealing with a work so much wedded to its original place in both words and music.

Bell also wanted to avoid the ‘traditional . . .  flamenco dancers, gypsies and toreadors’. Sadly, a lot of these remain, although I have to admit the dancers have been replaced  –  by four couples who specialize in a New York-style 50s latter- day jitterbug, co-existing with stretches of languorous leg movements, stylized sexual gestures reminiscent of a camped-up tango club, and some aimless gesturing from the non-dancing chorus.   More Havanian relevance comes to Bell with the findings that ‘it’s hot, it’s Spanish, it’s sexy, and right now seems to be flavour of the month’.   Much the same –  hot, sexy, Spanish – could be said about Mexico and the Philippines, but flavour of the month?   It was heading that way with the recent relaxation of  restrictions but any recover from its Castro-era greyness (or jungle greenness} will be a long while coming.  As, I suspect, will a meaningful influx of tourists.

But these are all accidents of performance, attempts to set a scene and sustain it.  You’d have to work hard to find Cuba in this production; you might just as well look to Buenos Aires or Bogota for a locale positioning.  Sadly, to my mind the city that came to mind most was Miami – clashing colours piled on and juxtaposed, old-time honky-tonk eroticism, rank depression in this nether-world behind a Mar-a-Largo facade.

But what you don’t get is any sense of urgent menace and, without that, the opera suffers considerably.

As for what the principals and chorus actually do, you won’t find much difference here to any other Carmen.  There’s an absence of crowds to populate the opening scene’s plaza; the official parade of the last act is not on-stage but in the audience, the chorus looking out at us as a poor substitute for the spectacle they’re observing.   But it’s in the principals’ activity that you look for some freshness of approach and I, for one, found not much.  Bell has not caused any chance of a frisson of outrage or excitement to interfere with his production; by its underlying staidness, it is probably for some a reassurance, for others a disappointment.

The work will be performed at 7:30 pm on May 6, 11, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 and at 1 pm on May 13.   As far as I can see, the cast remains unchanged.