June Diary

Monday June 3

Kirill Gerstein

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A pianist who sits on the uncomfortable fence between jazz and classical, Gerstein is yet another new name to me, although his career so far as been peppered with significant accomplishments.  He’s centred in America and Europe for the most part, with a few side-trips to Japan and China (Republic of).  He might have hit these shores but I can’t recall it.   His program is all things to all men: Liszt’s Eroica Transcendental Study (Gerstein recorded the lot three years ago) and the Funerailles from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses; a Debussy brace in the late Elegie and Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon, the composer’s last piano work written in gratitude to his coal supplier; something a tad more mainstream in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin; Janacek’s political protest Sonata From the Street; Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E flat, another gloss on the Eroica finale theme; the Berceuse from Thomas Ades’ 2016 opera, The Exterminating Angel; and a blast from the Armenian past in Komitas Vardapet’s Shushiki Vagarshapat and Unabi of Shushi, both from the composer’s Six Dances.  All that should keep the mental cobwebs at bay

 

Tuesday June 4

RESPIGHI, BRITTEN & VASKS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Tognetti and troops persist in their fascination for the over-lauded abilities of Peters Vasks; on this program, they are giving the Australian premiere of the composer’s Viatore for 11 solo strings.  The work depicting a traveller in the infinite has two themes, one for the person him/herself and the other for infinity, a theme which, according to the composer, ‘does not change’ – metaphysicians, rejoice.  More earth-bound are the Overture and a few dances from Handel’s Alcina, once the national company’s solitary Baroque offering in the good old days when it had sopranos willing to, and capable of, singing the main role.  The third in the set of three Ancients Airs and Dances by Respighi ups the poressure quite a bit, including that wonderful Roncalli Passacaglia that exposes each of the string lines – well, first violins, violas and cells – with some slashing quadruple stops; let’s hope the players take it at a respectable pace, not dead slow as seems to be the norm whenever the direction Maestoso comes up.  The local content comes in Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, an arrangement of the fifth movement from the composer’s tedious String Quartet No. 2.  And the night’s best music comes last in Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; what a genius the young man had at 23 and how few were the flashes that surpassed it in his later career.

 

Friday June 7

BOLERO! SLAVA GRIGORYAN AND THE RHYTHMS OF SPAIN

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

You know just by the title that the night’s focal entertainment will be Ravel’s long crescendo and study in orchestration, especially if you have only one theme to deal with.  And, if Slava Grigoryan is involved, the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez won’t be far away, either.  Filling out the corners of this popular Town Hall menu come Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2 – Neighbours’ Dance (simple but inspired), Miller’s Dance, Jota – and Boccherini’s Ritirata notturno di Madrid in the Berio arrangement where you get four pieces superimposed for the price of one, but at least the tune is immediately recognizable thanks to Russell Crowe’s impersonation of a musical master and commander.   Also inserted in there somewhere is the Rapsodie espagnole by Ravel which gives you a better Hispanic soundscape than you get from the hysteria-promoting Bolero.   Benjamin Northey will conduct what looks like being a sold-out event.

 

Tuesday June 11

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The group, founded in 1998, is represented as ‘the leading British string quartet of its generation.’  No, I don’t know who wrote/said this; some fatuous fan, I suspect  .  .  .  or probably some under-inspired promotional people.   Anyway, taking everything with a grain of salt, I find no fault in these just musicians – at least, until they get here.   At the core of their two programs sits a new work by Brett Dean; so far untitled, but you’d have to suspect that the form will be quadrilinear.   On this night, the musicians begin with Haydn’s The Joke in E flat and end with the big-boned Schubert in G, the composer’s last.

The Dorics will present their second program on Saturday June 15 at 7 pm. As well as Dean’s new work, the ensemble offers another Haydn –  B flat from the same set as The Joke, Op. 33 – and another weltering masterwork in Beethoven’s C sharp minor that focuses on one of music’s great slow movement/variation constructs.  After this, we’ll be able to see if the publicists/fans had it right.

 

Saturday June 15

EUMERALLA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

This is a War Requiem for Peace, according to composer/soprano Deborah Cheetham.   In it, she is attempting to memorialise and put to rest the spirits of victims in a resistance war that ran from 1840 to 1863 around the Eumerella River running from Port Fairy to Portland.   I know nothing about this history, but I’m a product of my class, race and time; which also means that I can understand the composer’s need to speak of the war’s devastation on Aboriginal history and people, especially the Gunditjmara, and their descendants.   As well as Cheetham, the singers involved will be mezzo Linda Barcan, tenor Don Bemrose, the Dhungala Children’s Choir (celebrating its 10th birthday), and the MSO Chorus.   Instrumentalists come from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and Melbourne Youth Orchestras – as well as, I presume, the MSO.   In charge of this assemblage is Benjamin Northey who can turn his hand to anything and everything.

 

Saturday June 15

HOMAGE TO GIDEON KLEIN

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

By all means, let us celebrate one of the musical heroes of Theresienstadt who died under peculiar circumstances at the age of 24 in the last year of World War Two.   ANAM director Nick Deutsch and MSO principal clarinet David Thomas head a group of Academy musicians in this observation of the composer’s birth year centenary.   They will perform some of the Czech writer’s last compositions – the Piano Sonata of 1943 and the same year’s Wiegenlied.   From pre-camp times come the Woodwind Octet of 1940 and a Duo for violin and cello of 1941 that I believed he left unfinished because of his arrest.  Pointing clearly to his more traditional influences, a wind sextet will perform Janacek’s chameleonic Mladi.  And the night reaches even further back to Dvorak’s  Serenade for Winds, which boasts a mutable cast: two each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, plus three horns.  There’s also an ad lib contrabassoon part, if you have a player to hand.   And/or there are parts for cello and double bass to reinforce the score’s lower textures.  Of course, every Czech writer has to take these great names into account but I hope their formidable chamber music pieces don’t cause us to forget the program’s shorter pieces by the talented and tragic young man who admired them.

 

Thursday June 20

MOZART’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Was it last year that we heard this overwhelming masterpiece?   Or am I confusing it with the Verdi?   Perhaps it was another body entirely than the MSO that presented its sober, brilliant strophes.   Whatever the truth of the matter, here is Mozart’s last unfinished important work, turned into grippingly dramatic material by Forman’s Amadeus film of 1984 even if a few improbable myths were not only heightened in the process but turned into meta-history.   Here, it is paired with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite for reasons that might become clear on the night, but I doubt it.   All the soloists are familiar and welcome: soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass James Clayton.   The novelty comes with conductor Jaime Martin, a Spanish musician currently working with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, among other positions.   You’d assume that, despite all the experimentation and clever alternatives currently available, this performance will use the Sussmayr completion.  But what is the night’s shape?  Everybody in for Ravel’s fantastic fairyland, then out for interval drinks?   Back you come for Mozart’s sombre setting and forget what’s happened up till now?

The performance will be repeated on Saturday June 22 at 2 pm.

 

Friday June 21

RUSSIAN & FRENCH MASTERS

Duo Chamber Melange

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

This association of violinist Ivana Tomaskova and pianist Tamara Smolyar is presenting another series (albeit a short one) in 2019 of unexpected works from repertoire fringes.  On this night emerges a work that many of us will not know: Ravel’s A Major Violin Sonata.   In one movement and dating from 1897, the score is a subtle complex showing the harmonic and formal influence of Faure and Franck but the vocabulary has a powerful individuality.   The other historic oddity comes in Medtner’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in B minor which you will be pressed to find on any chamber music program in Melbourne over the past half century, despite the unremitting advocacy of Geoffrey Tozer.   In line with the Melange’s predilection for the outre, we will hear Jane Hammond’s mint-new Noisy Friarbirds in the Silky Oaks which explains itself, you’d think.   And, to ground the audience at evening’s end, we’ll hear Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre; Smolyar will have to work hard at the transcription (whose?) of the composer’s brilliant orchestral effects.

 

Friday June 21

BACH B MINOR MASS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

In one of the year’s four major concerts from ANAM at the Recital Centre, the context leaves the orchestral for once and goes vocal with a vengeance.   Thanks to a visit by the British ensemble VOCES8, the Academy appears to have what you could call basic vocal resources to tackle this long foundation work.   Currently, the group has two sopranos, an alto and a counter-tenor, two tenors, a baritone and a bass;  two more sopranos (locals) have been added to these forces – Susannah Lawergren and Amy Moore, both Song Company survivors.   It all brings back memories of the ridiculous performance mounted by Jonathan Mills in St. Patrick’s Cathedral to open a Melbourne Festival many years ago where the vocal numbers were about the same as in this performance and the strain of discerning what was happening wasn’t worth the pain.   Anyway, the ANAM organization will have much enjoyment on determining which authentic and/or modern-day instruments will be used.   Conducting is Benjamin Bayl, a Sydney-born musician who has worked for Opera Australia (but here?  I think not) and who will bring lashings of scholarship to the exercise; let’s hope he also has an equal amount of discernment with regard to the work’s volume levels – nothing worse than watching those open mouths during the Sanctus and hearing nothing.

 

Sunday June 23

THE KAPELLMEISTERS

Trio Anima Mundi

St. Michael’s Uniting Church at 2 pm

Back where they started off?   The Anima Mundi players open with Haydn in C Hob XV/27 which lasts about 20 minutes if you stretch but is one of those flawless scores that leaves you trailing after the composer, rushing to keep up with the fluency of every page, and I don’t just mean that rapid-fire Presto finale.   Carl Reissiger’s output includes 27 piano trios; the Anima Mundi will play his first one in D minor, which demonstrates the musician’s high reputation, not least in succeeding Weber as Kappellmeister of the Dresden Court.  If piano-heavy in its concentration, the score leaves the  two strings a wealth of melodic interest between the bravura moments.  This also is not impressive in length, even if you observe the first movement repeat.   But it’s quality, isn’t it?   And this organization is back on track again after an administrative hiccup.    You’ve got to admit: the recital’s title isn’t calculated to startle an observer into a fever of high anticipation.

 

Sunday June 23 

SZYMANOWSKI TO SUFJAN STEVENS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

OK: prepare for a mind-expansion flight, courtesy of Richard Tognetti’s link-suggesting program that sits on a Polish tripod of Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Szymanowski, at the same time moving into a parallel triad of works by Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead, Bryce Dessner from The Nationals, and Sufjan Stevens from America.   Dessner and Greenwood have collaborated, as have Stevens and Dessner.   Have all three thrown in their lot at any one time?   Don’t know.   This is the intended procedure: the ACO plays Lutoslawski’s Overture for Strings from 1949, Bartok tropes all over the place; then we hear Dessner’s Reponse Lutoslawski (here enjoying its Australian premiere performances) which I thought was an answer to the Polish master’s Musique funebre for Bartok.   Does it make much difference?   We’ll see.   Stevens’ suite from Run Rabbit Run was based on an earlier work which was handed over to a group of composers to arrange for string quartet; at least, that’s what I understand happened about a decade ago at the instigation of Dessner.  You’d think that, with Michael Atkinson designated as the arranger, we”ll only get through five of the album’s 13 tracks; the others fell to different hands.   For reasons beyond me, the ACO then plays the Aria, No. 1 of Penderecki’s Three Pieces in Baroque Style which might just as well be a Respighi arrangement because of its lush reminiscence of an ancient air and dance.   Greenwood’s suite from the film There Will Be Blood – all six movements, presumably, with the requisite ondes martenot – precedes the Szymanowski String Quartet No. 2 in Tognetti’s transcription: an ACO favourite since the ensemble recorded it nearly 17 years ago.   What connection it has to either of the three contemporary composers is not clear – yet.

This program will be repeated on Monday June 24 at 7:30 pm.

 

Tuesday June 25

Vadim Gluzman

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Another in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Gluzman is a completely unknown quantity to me; not surprising as most of his activity has been European and American.   A brilliant light, I’m sure, but flickering on the horizon.   He has a reputation for promoting contemporary composers, although you have to wonder about his offerings on this one-and-only recital here.   Of course, there’s Bach’s D minor Partita and its pendant Chaconne.   And he’s offering Beethoven’s Kreutzer as another slab of more old-fashioned roughage.   In the modern field, we hear Part’s Spiegel am Spiegel – 10 minutes of F Major piano arpeggios and a slow-moving diatonic violin melody.   Some find it moving and enlightening; I want to scream.   And Lera Auerbach, another Gluzman favourite, is represented by her par.ti.ta for solo violin, here enjoying its Australian premiere.  Auerbach offers 10 short movements, probably tendering splintered Bachian perspectives if the syllabically punctuated title is any guide.   Not that this is really new: Auerbach wrote it for Gluzman back in 2007 and he has recorded it alongside tonight’s D minor Partita.  Daniel de Borah accompanies.

 

Thursday June 27

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

Possibly, I’m one of the few people of my generation who has never seen this Sondheim musical.    But then, I saw the Bergman film it was based on at the start of the 1960s and a few times since, always content with its trans-generational interplay.   Still, this production promises a good deal.   Nancye Hayes returns to play Madame Armfeldt; Ali Macgregor sings her daughter, Desiree; Sophia Walsey rounds out the family as Fredrika.   The warring unfaithful Malcolms are Verity Hunt-Ballard and Samuel Dundas.   As the mis-matched Fredrik and Anne Egerman, we see Simon Gleeson – whom I do know – and Elisa Colla – whom I don’t.   Henrik, not long for the seminary, is Mat Verevis who starred in that competition without substance, The Voice.   Alinta Chidzey has the part of Petra, Anne’s servant.   The promotional material also mentions Paul Biencourt, Kirilie Blythman, Michelle McCarthy and Juel Riggall as ensemble members – possibly contributors to the Chorus-type Quintet.    Stuart Maunder directs, as he has so often for this and other companies.   Phoebe Briggs conducts.

The musical will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday June 28, Saturday June 29, Tuesday July 2, Wednesday July 3, Thursday July 4, Friday July 5 and at 1 pm on Saturday July 6.

 

Friday July 28

TCHAIKOVSKY’S VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Welcome back to conductor Jakub Hrusa, an MSO favourite with performers and audiences.    He’s starting tonight with a little-known orchestral poem by his distinguished countryman, Dvorak: The Wood Dove.   It’s a substantial piece with a gloomy underpinning story but has a splendid tapestry for listeners to experience.   The night’s soloist will be Vadim Gluzman, fresh from his Great Performers recital at the MRC, ready to take on the night’s titular work.   Here’s hoping that this violinist gives us a reason or six to be subject to yet another experience of this warhorse.    Hrusa finishes with Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition.   This is the earliest composed of the night’s works which all fall within a little over a 20-year range.   Of course, this temporal ambit is expanded by the Frenchman’s orchestral transcription which dates from 1922 and is one of the great transformations of its kind.   Still, it makes for a lop-sided night: the poem and concerto come in about 54 minutes, while the suite rarely cracks half an hour.

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 29 at 7:30 pm and on Monday July 1 at 6:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

No one like him

THE MOZART PROJECT PART 2

The Melbourne Musicians

James Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew

Friday May 17

Elyane+copy

                                                                   Elyane Laussade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A gallery for our times

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 11

ZOFO

                                     Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi

The concept behind this exercise was an arresting one.  Taking Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a base, duo-pianists Zimmerman and Nakagoshi assembled 15 discrete compositions inspired by art works chosen by their commissioned musicians, then framed the complex with Nakagoshi’s own take on the Mussorgsky work’s Promenade prelude. But where the Russian master had only five Promenade-plus-variants in his 10-picture construct, these visitors had an initial one to ground their activity, then an interlude between every aural/visual art-work.

In fact, the pianists provided what Mussorgsky couldn’t: reproductions of those works that inspired the pieces.  Apparently, we can be certain of five Viktor Hartmann paintings and sketches that moved the Russian composer, although some of these surviving art-works make you wonder about the composer’s transformational/interpretative powers.  The artist’s Great Gate is surprisingly neat when compared to the overwhelming musical image of it; and how Mussorgsky got his fierce Baba Yaga out of Hartmann’s delicate clock painting is anyone’s guess.

No worries with the new construction, even if the musical complement to certain art works remains non-obvious.  If you don’t get the connection, that’s your problem: Zimmerman and Nakagoshi have supplied all the information required and, as far as I could tell on Saturday night, gave an expert account of the 15 compositions.  Both performers used most of the Promenades as an opportunity to stand up and wander round the piano, miming a stroller moving through a gallery, while the other pianist played the interlude.  The device also served as a means of sharing the labour so that a player could return from his or her stroll and take up the primo or secondo role – a change of performance scenery, then.

Plunging the auditorium into darkness was probably necessary for the projections to work but it made note-taking difficult.  Zimmerman and Nakagoshi eased us into the exercise agreably with a Monet painting, Le Bassin’ d’Argenteuil, underpinned by Gilles Silvestrini’s musical commentary: impressionist shimmers, suddenly interrupted by a chain of strident chords which I wondered about then  –  and later  –   when considering the painting’s bucolic placidity.   Matters did not improve with Carl Vine’s reaction to James Gleeson’s The Arrival of Implacable Gifts, but then the painting’s details failed to travel, so that it wasn’t until much later that you could appreciate how the composer’s fiery active rushes of sound reflected Gleeson’s fluent waves of action, specifically its interweaving three bands of surrealist imagery.

At or around this point, the penny dropped.  You weren’t in the Murdoch Hall to cast a jaundiced eye over the efforts of contemporary composers to give you aural images of some pieces extracted at will from a world-wide Museum of Modern Art (the Monet is from the d’Orsay; Gleeson’s work is in the NSW Art Gallery).  Rather, the duo-pianists were only concerned with entertainment, pure and simple.  You could look at something like Reuven Rubin’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron and not be distracted by the new-style tango by Avner Dorman that accompanied part of it; or you could face Wojciech Fangor’s black-hole celebrating SM 34 without worrying about Pawel Mykietyn’s accelerating bass growls punctuated by upper register pointillist 3rds,

It’s a 21st Century construct so, naturally, you expected some action inside the lid, as in Lei Liang’s Will You Come to My Dream? and a mute of some kind applied to the bass strings in Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Spring Morning in Baku.   As well, there’s always room for the theatrical gesture, as in Jonathan Russell’s Untitled Skeleton during which Zimmerman leaned over a crouching Nakagoshi; so that you suppressed wonder about how the score’s upward-moving acceleration and soft bass-notes postlude gave insight on Stormie Mills cartoon-suggestive painting.

The surprises kept on coming.  The Promenade that preceded I Wayan Gde Yudane’s  Street Solace was calculated to bring to mind one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The sound world created by Samuel Adams to support Night Sea (for Agnes) by Emily Davis Adams brought to mind the tendency towards rhythmic alliteration typical of another, older Adams musician.   But, with a keen eye for the final impression, the duo hit a vernacular button in the last two pieces.   Pablo Ortiz’s Paisaje gave us the night’s most old-fashioned ambience with an Argentinian dance sound to supplement Eduardo Stupia’s writhing landscape; Keyla Orozco’s Viajeros. a reminiscence of Russia’s massive influence over most aspects of Cuban life, carried a lot of matter with its use of a Russian song that rang some half-remembered bells from World War Two, a Gershwin-style meditation in the centre, and some Hungarian Rhapsody virtuosity to be going on with, all supporting an optimistic playful work by Douglas Perez Castro.

In the end, this Mussorgsky revision proved to be very engaging, not least for the duo itself which is a collaboration that works without any indications of exhibitionism or trite legerdemain.   Yes, there are some pieces – probably the majority – that I’m glad to have heard but won’t be in a hurry to revisit.   Zimmerman and Nakagoshi handled each of the bespoke compositions with equal deference and dedication, their labour-sharing a pleasure to witness for its certainty and purpose.

However, the duo piano format and this particular program are not your usual Musica Viva cup of tea; it’s back to the familiar script in future months with a couple of pretty orthodox string quartets and a non-boat-rocking piano quartet, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge visiting for cultural reassurance, and a clutch of early music specialists from the Paris Conservatoire who are heavy on Bach, Telemann and the French Baroque.   It’s fair to say that all of these future events will attract a much larger audience than the small number that bothered to show up for ZOFO’s 75-minute recital

A cross-reference that’s  probably worth noting is that the ZOFOMOMA Pictures at An Exhibition can be seen on the internet in a video performance at an unknown venue dating from about a year ago.  This is well worth seeing, just to get a taste of the work quality from these fine musicians – and also as a reminder of details that slipped past in the dark of Saturday’s real-time performance, particularly the eloquence of Nakagoshi’s last two Promenades for both players.

 

 

Three open hearts

LOVE & DEVOTION

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Kew

Wednesday May 8

Kathy Selby                                                                   Kathryn Selby

The cold has arrived and, as a consequence, some of us find that we need a good reason to go out at night, particularly as the enthusiasm that once spurred us ever onward now wanes because the sere, the yellow leaf is just as much a thing of the body as of the season.  Fortunate those of us who ventured out to the latest southern foray by Kathryn Selby and her collaborators in this latest recital series: violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve.   Both string players are veterans of Selby’s annual series and made a finely-matched p[air for this cleverly focused program.

Three composers who shared much intimacy, devotion and love featured on this occasion.  Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22 is the best-known of the formidable pianist’s compositions.  Written in 1853, it postdates her husband’s Piano Trio in D minor by seven years and anticipates by a year the B Major Piano Trio of Brahms, although this last was revised significantly 35 years later.  Together, the three works comprise something of a creative time capsule, although the Brahms towered above its companions on this night, certainly because of its intellectual depth and variety of instrumental textures, but also because of the major changes that followed the composer’s second appraisal.

With the Three Romances, Clifford and Selby produced a particularly clear-speaking, lucid account of a score that is often over-gelled.  Throughout the first in D flat, Selby arpeggiated with suppleness, leaving the speaking role to Clifford’s unerringly true and controlled line, the small complex nowhere more finely graduated than in the mordent and its reflection in bars 63 and 64.   A similar simplicity informed the second G minor piece, a strange four-page sequence that presents as folk-like in temperament but which the composer is content to leave free from identifiable tropes.   Even in its central G major segment, the initial melodic identifiers of an octave leap upwards and an immediate falling step of four consecutive notes permeate the rustic discussion, the narrative outlined without dynamic complications in this interpretation.

The last Romance in B flat is more rhapsodic in presentation than its predecessors, Selby at first reverting to complete accompaniment status with patterns that could have been lifted from Widmung.  In fact, the piano has to wait until the violin moves to pizzicato before there is a chance of sharing in the melodic riches.  Schumann reverts to type in the return-to-home-key segment before repenting of the keyboard’s subsidiary status and allowing a 7-bar prominence before the final flourishes.  Here again, you could relish the performers’ avoidance of magniloquence, taking the ardent melodic flow and rippling support at face value and delivering its apparently symmetrical sentences with a muted eloquence and telling flexibility of phrasing.

Valve came on for the D minor Trio and immediately settled into a rich duet with Clifford, despite his line being seconded for most of the time by Selby’s left hand.  All three performers entered without reserve into the movement’s dark, mobile world and outlined its elements and progress with unflinching clarity, surging through a lengthy development which is relieved momentarily by that ethereal interlude in F where the strings play am Steg.  It’s quite a task sustaining interest through these modulation-heavy pages where the basic material is examined from many aspects, but the result was  engrossing, Selby leading into and out of Schumann’s polyphonic melange with understated authority.

Luckily, these performers observed the composer’s rider – nicht zu rasch – for the second movement Scherzo, piano and strings set against each other in the outer sections’ galloping rising-scale motive that amounts to a melody.  The exercise was packed with energy but you’d be looking hard to find any of the pounding that these pages bring out in many interpreters, especially in the undue emphasis regularly given to the many sforzando markings.   During the following Langsam, Valve again enjoyed the intermittent reinforcement of Selby’s bass notes but the pianist kept her delivery muted; not that the movement has claims to being one of Schumann’s finer constructs but its pleasure (for me) lies in the contrast between its surrounding gloom and the interpolated Bewegter where the texture and emotional content lighten in one of those marvellous Eusebius/Florestan juxtapositions.

It’s difficult for any piano trio to bring off this work’s Mit Feuer finale, I think; but then, I’m not happy with the Piano Quintet’s concluding movement, either.  Melodic amplitude is there in spades, even though Schumann beavers away at its four-square phrases with frenetic energy. eventually reaching that climactic point where piano and strings pound out an eight-bar series of minim chords in close canon; by which stage, you scent the conclusion’s proximity with something close to relief.   It’s hard work, and not just for the players but Selby and her colleagues made the most of its potential with a constant regard for the piece’s linear interplay and responsibilities so that the experience wasn’t an unremitting hard slog – something that it can be when essayed by many other ensembles.

With the Brahms Trio No. 1, you move into a world that is similar to that of the Schumanns but more substantial in form, the composer’s voice more assured and broader in its accent.  You have to look hard to find any other work of this period that envelops listeners and performers in all four of its movements, even if the direction that Brahms takes us is in opposition to the Beethovenian norm; in this case, from noble declamation to minor key storms.  It’s easy to typecast the work as a young man’s creation, powerful in its sweep and ardour, and this perception goes some way towards explaining its popularity with young musicians at competition time.  But it is a far more mature and concise product in this second version.

Several of us have heard Selby & Co. play this score many times, since Macquarie Trio days back in the early 1990s; it might not come around every year on the organization’s schedule, but we hear it regularly enough.  Sometimes it sweeps you up when the stars are aligned  –  Selby in warmth-splaying mode, the string combination consonant in delivery characteristics, sensible decisions reached on tempo and dynamics.  At others, the results can be patchy: an exemplary opening sonata movement followed by an over-brusque scherzo. or a vibrato rich adagio sitting alongside a finale where the rhythmic kicks and scuffles are treated with something approaching fury by the pianist.

Luckily, Wednesday night’s interpretation turned into a fine coping-stone for the program, each movement consistent in itself and with the composer’s over-arching framework.   Its success had a lot to do with the sheer musicianship of all concerned, Selby responding to these particular colleagues with a splendidly controlled delivery in which the exclamation points proved hefty rather than brazen.  At the same time, Clifford and Valve showed themselves intensely committed to the exercise, the cello’s liquid elasticity evident from the entire work’s initial bars.

But the memorable joy of this reading came in Clifford’s flawless top line.  Of course, her actual product shone with added eloquence in those matchless duets that emerge at high points along the score’s progress: at the violin’s first entry in the opening Allegro, the unison sturm und drang that lasts from bar 95 to bar 109, the subdued and shadowy resuscitation process that leads into the movement’s magnificent recapitulation; the responses to the piano chorales that begin and end the all-too-brief Adagio; those impulsive major key passages where both strings get to handle the finale’s second theme, and the hurtling syncopations at, for instance, bars 171-2.   Through concerted moments like these, let alone obvious stretches of solo exposure, this violinist generated a firmly etched and elegant line, fitting in to the sonic tapestry with admirable skill and perceptiveness.

Having missed out on several of last year’s final recitals and the first in the 2019 sequence, I found out later than most that Selby has installed a reflective shell to frame the trio, just as she had done at the BMW/Deakin Edge in Federation Square, and as the ANAM administration has had in operation at the South Melbourne Town Hall for many years.   To my ears, the difference is significant in that the group’s detail work is more clear, particularly from the cello.  As well, Selby is a more comfortable dynamic entity, not having to labour over her production level, like making audible her Mendelssohnian decoration work in the Scherzo – for example, that high right-hand work just prior to the Trio, or those delicate octuple (8 quavers in the time of 6) downward arpeggios that close off some sentences.  In sum, an excellent move to enhance audience comfort in a pleasant, accessible space; another reason for bracing chilly Melbourne weather to experience this invigorating and intelligent music-making.

 

 

 

 

 

A lesson in guitar-playing

FOREST OF DREAMS

Callum Henshaw

Soundset Recordings  SR 1103

Callum Henshaw

Henshaw is a new name to me, although his main claim to local fame is winning the 2017 Melbourne International Concert Artist Guitar Competition.  As far as I can make out, this is his third recording and it covers an expansive territory, some of it concentrated on the near-contemporary.   He begins with a classic: Augustin Barrios’ Un Sueno en la Floresta; moves to Australian Phillip Houghton’s Stele Suite; follows with another Latin foray in Four Catalan Songs by Miguel Llobet.   Graeme Koehne’s A Closed World of fine feelings is listed in the Australian Music Centre’s catalogue as being written for voice, although its recorded performance from that same site seems to have been on carillon; Henshaw’s CD booklet claims the work was commissioned by Tim Kain who, last time I looked, was a guitarist.   Further, there seem to be two linked works in so far as one entry refers to the above title. while another adds on the phrase and grand design.  Yet another entry suggests the work is choral.  That’s the trouble if you start looking for definite information: confusion waits just around the corner.  Leo Brouwer’s Sonata del Decameron Negro follows; and the CD ends somewhat strangely in Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife.

Is there a theme running through thus collection?   Well, does there need to be?   We have a Paraguayan composer represented by a piece written before 1918; Houghton, a revered figure on the local guitar scene, wrote his four-movement work in 1989; Llobet’s collection of folk songs was collated somewhere between 1889 and 1935; Koehne’s composition in its guitar format dates from 1997;  Brouwer is Cuban and his sonata was written in 2012.  The Dow Lament – a sort of inbuilt encore –  comes post- 1805, when the lady in question, Margaret Urquhart, died, and pre-1807 in which year Scottish fiddler Gow himself yielded up the spirit.

Henshaw has a sensitive ear for the demi-semiquaver work that dominates the Barrios work, once the composer stops loitering around the outskirts of the forest and gets stuck into the canopy of filigree that carries most of his piece’s interest.   I lost the performer after the second repeat at bar 120, catching up a little further on; probably the fault of my edition.  Still, this isn’t enough to disconcert any listener who is hard pressed to carp at the performer’s negotiation of this bagatelle which paints a delicate representation of South American greenery –  a very civilized environment, from  this showing.

Houghton’s work has some Greek connections, as in the opening Stele which refers to ancient memorial stones for the dead, the precursors of our modern-day gravestones.  It’s a clear-cut composition with an inbuilt fluency of material, yet it summons up no particular image of Greek mini-monuments; nothing but a certain spartan texture. Dervish is a 6/8 prestissimo with a few percussive surprises along the whirling route.  I assume its title refers to the well-known Turkish mystics although Houghton’s character is more of a will-o’-the-wisp than one of those stately clerics whose motion is hypnotic rather than frantic.   Bronze Apollo falls into two sections: Premonition, which is slow-moving, suggesting the silent eloquence of the god, and Arpeggio, which is just that – a basic pattern that increases its dynamic range if not much else.  A crescendo gives it propulsion but at the same time everything is measured, which is very Classical Greek, isn’t it?   Nothing in excess.   The final movement, Web, is another rapid moto perpetuo which builds its questing commentary over a repeated sextuplet pedal A.   I don’t know what Houghton was getting at here, although my mind automatically goes to the myth of Arachne; but, for all I know, he might have been referring to the state of pre-Pelopennesian War politics, or the proliferation of tourists throughout the Cyclades.  Whatever the case, the suite as an entity satisfies for its fluency and variety of colours, excellently brought into being by Henshaw’s deft talent.

Llobet’s folk-song settings are Canco del Lladre (The Thief’s Song),  El Mestre (The Teacher), L’Hereu Riera (The Riera Heir), and El Noi de la Mare (The Child of the Mother), the last of which was a Segovia special.   The first impresses for Henshaw’s subtle harmonics at bar 11, but even more so from bar 24 to 27 where, thanks to the composer’s skill and Henshaw’s delivery, they make melodic sense for once.   Even better follows in El Mestre, which is a model of elegance and clarity with no signs of that slovenly left hand work that disfigures movement along the fingerboard.   Henshaw doubles the length of L’Hereu Riera by playing it twice, which gives you the chance to relish his supple ornamentation that livens up a pretty straightforward setting.   Finally, El Noi is a simple lyric in a gently rocking 6/8 with the instrument’s lowest string tuned to provide a pedal D.

Koehne’s work is also in D Major with the lowest string again tuned down a tone.  A gentle ternary-shaped piece with a repetitive rising pattern of three chords in its outer sections with a more ‘filled-in’ central part that fleshes out the arpeggio shapes, this piece is calm and suggests nostalgia for a past world of simplicity and emotional candour.  It is, apparently, an elegy in which not much is being said, but the work offers an uncomplicated landscape without surprises.

The CD’s most substantial element is Brouwer’s sonata in four movements: Guijes y Gnomos (Elf-Goblins and Gnomes), Treno por Oya (Lament for the Goddess Oya), Burlesca del Aire (Burlesque of the Air Spirit), and La Risa de los Griots (Laughter of the African Story-Tellers).   Springing from an earlier work – El Decameron Negro of 1981 – this sonata’s first movement is based on a nervous alternation of major and minor 2nds that construct a mobile motif above chord work falling easily under the hand.  But it wouldn’t be Brouwer unless it had at least one eclectic touch; in this case, a quiet reversion to Renaissance lute sounds that begins a little after the 3 minute mark: an oasis of old-time certainty in the middle of modern-day nervous twitches.   For all I know, Brouwer could be citing a particular piece from that era; my knowledge of the repertoire has, alas, diminished with the years.

Oya is in charge of winds, lightning, storms, death and rebirth; quite enough for any deity to be getting on with.   Brouwer begins his mourning peacefully enough, moves into a habanera rhythm, which abruptly turns into a music of rapid-fire flurries with theatrical pauses and questioning hiatus points; the habanera returns, the activity momentarily rises and sinks away, while the delicate-stepping conclusion brings this schizoid lament – meditative and frenetic in turn – to a questioning conclusion.   As a scherzo, the Burlesca is ebullient in a muffled manner, packed with wry flourishes at either end and holding another surprise at about the 2-minute mark when the content moves into late 19th century Romantic guitar territory  –  just for a brief stretch but it serves to throw the brisk humour of its surrounds into high relief.    Brouwer’s finale is a rondo after a slow introduction.   It follows a simple enough format with two lengthy slower episodes and a slower-paced coda that rounds out the sonata with a sort of defiant flamboyance.   What it has to do with griots and their traditions is beyond me; with its sophisticated rhythmic chopping and changing, it suggests Latin America more than anywhere else.

But the sonata has an impressive vivacity throughout, Henshaw milking it of its timbral interplay with exemplary skill and that gift of insight which cuts to a composer’s particular chase without faltering,   It helps that the work is a gift for anyone brave enough to take it on; that’s not to lessen this interpreter’s insight and clear sympathy with its language and intent.

Finally, the Gow Lament rounds off proceedings.  This is a fine melody in two strophes, both of which Henshaw repeats and in the process shows himself a dab hand at slight inflections and quicksilver grace notes, informing the lyric with a generous vibrato in its warmer, lower-register moments.  I suppose it can be viewed as fitting in with the disc’s content through an expressive honesty and a chameleonic folk tint that emerges all over the place.   After the Brouwer with its acerbic harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, its naive orthodox simplicity serves as a sort of emotional solace.

 

May Diary

Wednesday May 1

MEDITERRANEAN FEAST

Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Of the seven elements in this sometimes-Mediterranean recital, three are by Rossini, that superlatively cosmopolitan European composer who was never content to be a homebody.   We are also to hear a Massenet piece, a scrap from Turina, and two true oddities:  Habanera by the great 19th century soprano Pauline Viardot, and Perche due cuori insieme by the 19th century Italian/British conductor Michael Costa.   Soprano Merlyn Quaife, mezzo Christina Wilson, guest tenor Brenton Spiteri and bass Nicholas Dinopoulos will enjoy the accompaniment of Songmakers stalwart Andrea Katz.  Two of the Rossini pieces are for all four voices (I assume Wilson will take one of the tenor lines in Cantiamo, ridiamo, che tutto s’en va) while the other is a duet; Viardot’s piece is either a solo or a female duet; the Massenet Chansons des bois d’Amaranthe comprise five accompanied vocal settings – a duo, two trios and two quartets; Costa’s product is a complete unknown and untraceable; Poema en forma de canciones by Turina consists of four solo songs (probably for soprano) preceded by a Dedication for solo piano.   Sounds like fair shares all round.

 

Thursday May 2

METROPOLIS NIGHT ONE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This year’s MSO Metropolis concerts feature works by Dutch contemporary master Louis Andriessen who is celebrating his 80th birthday.  We haven’t experienced much of this composer’s music in live performance here, although his influence has been spread by means of some of his students  –  Damien Ricketson and Graeme Koehne  –  who are familiar names in Australia.   The focal point of this opening concert in a surprisingly long-lived festival of new music is Andriessen’s . . . miserere . . . : a string quartet, later arranged for string orchestra and having some formal connection to Allegri’s only well-known choral work.   Supplementing this come three Australian pieces: a new score by Barry Conyngham; Koehne’s three-movement Capriccio from 1987  for piano and strings where the soloist will probably be the composer’s countryman, Ralph van Raat; and another one-time Andriessen pupil, Kate Moore’s freshly-minted Magenta Magnetic which showcases the talents of percussionist Claire Edwardes.   This two-concert bundle from the MSO is conducted by American musician Clark Rundell, Professor of Conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

 

Saturday May 4

METROPOLIS NIGHT TWO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The second Andriessen-honouring program concludes with a collaboration between the venerable Dutch master and this night’s conductor, Clark Rundell; well, more of an arrangement.   The new work, enjoying its first Australian performance, is based on Andriessen’s 1999 opera, Writing to Vermeer.  The work, Vermeer Pictures, is a suite based on the opera but without any sung component.   As for the preludes to this, the evening will go all Cybec.  Last year’s MSO Young Composer in Residence, Ade Vincent, has collaborated with vocalist Lior to create Forever Singing Winter into Spring, an art/pop song cycle in four seasonal sections which involves electronics as well as your regular symphony orchestra; and this year’s Composer in Residence, Mark Holdsworth, presents his new Cri de coeur which boasts no other resources than a plain orchestra; just how plain remains to be seen.

 

Monday May 6

THE ART OF FUGUE

Brodsky Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

With a new first violin on deck in Gina McCormack, this estimable British ensemble is playing a wide-ranging miscellany that includes two parts of Bach’s magnificent edifice: the single fugue Contrapunctus I and the counter-fugue Contrapunctus VI.   Having dispensed with this calling card, the group then moves into later explorations, first with Mozart’s Bach tribute: the stern Adagio and Fugue.  Mendelssohn follows: the 4 Pieces for String QuartetAndante, Scherzo, Capriccio, and Fugue.   For those not already fugally sated, the Brodskys will outline Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.  Back to Bach for the  solo Violin Sonata No. 3 in C with its massive second movement fugue; you’d have to assume that McCormack would be performing this ultra-demanding score, although the group’s original second violin Ian Belton might put up his hand for the task.   And the feast concludes with Shostakovich: his String Quartet No. 8 which begins fugally and reverts to the form’s techniques as its two finale largo movements sink into total despair.

 

Tuesday May 7

NEW PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It may be that with this presentation Musica Viva is moving into areas where its less limpet-like followers will not follow.   Still, full marks for novelty.   ZOFO comprises pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi, both playing on the one instrument in the best 19th century domestic music-making format.   Their program comprises an update of Mussorgsky’s solo piano masterpiece; they commissioned pieces from a wealth of composers from 15 different countries to accompany a visual art works, one that each individual composer selected for treatment.   You probably know some of these composers but to me all but one is a stranger: Australia’s own Carl Vine.  There’s Frenchman Gilles Silvestrini, Israeli Avner Dorman, Poland’s Pawel Mykietyn, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh from Azerbaijan, Chinese-American Lei Liang, Jonathan Russell from America, Indonesian-New Zealander  Wayan Gde Yudane, Kenji Oh from Japan, Cecile Marti from Switzerland, Iranian-American Sahba Aminikia, Russian-Briton Gabriel Prokofiev, American Samuel Adams,  Pablo Ortiz from Argentina, and Keyla Orozco from Cuba.  Each composition is discrete, separated from its companions by a Promenade, the whole prefaced by a Mussorgsky-mimicking Introduction.   Played at MOMA last year, the piece lasted about 75 minutes and I assume that, as then, the work will be given tonight without interval.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 11 at 7 pm.

 

Wednesday May 8

LOVE & DEVOTION

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC at 7:30 pm

And so it is, with one of the great marriages, pseudo-adoptions and worshipping-from-afar in music history, actually verified by a chain of historical data.   The love and devotion are best exemplified by the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann, a dedication on his part that lasted from their first meeting to the sad ending in the Endenich asylum; and, from her, an unwavering loyalty to his work and memory that endured across the 40 years of her widowhood.   Then came Brahms, who adored both husband and wife from his first encounter with them in 1853 but maintained a platonic relationship with Clara up to her death, a year before his own.   Selby and her friends for tonight – violinist Grace Clifford, cellist Timo-Veikko Valve – present one work by each of these three composers: Clara’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Robert’s Piano Trio No. 1, and the Piano Trio No. 1 by Brahms – all written within a seven-year span.  While respecting the Schumann family products, it’s the Brahms work that moves the spirit – one of chamber music’s highest glories.

 

Thursday May 9

PIANO PICTURES

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Back in Melbourne for yet another expose on what’s taking up attention on the contemporary piano scene, Lisa Moore is partnering ANAM’s resident piano-meister Timothy Young.   Together they will play Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ two-piano composition from 1996 – no, not that contemporary but representative of a happy mind-set, and welcome for that alone.   Some of the ANAM pianists will join in the fun for Steve Reich’s Six Pianos of 1973, which makes it a pretty venerable objet d’art although it shares an obsessive predilection for phasing with the Adams work that kicks off the night.   Reich wants six upright instruments so the players have closer access to each other.   Another 6-piano work follows in Benjamin A. Wallace’s Fryderyk Chopin’s Psychaedelic Technicolor ‘Lectro-Funk-Core Superstarlit Ultra-Throwdown on Op. 28 No. 4, which bases itself on the Largo E minor Prelude and is only two years old.    Finally, using the sextet of pianos once more, we hear an arrangement by New York-based American musician Paul Kerekes of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which I’m assuming has not been rejigged and so comes in as the night’s senior guest at this pianistic wedding, dating as it does from 1874.  Perhaps referring to ‘contemporary’ was not the best program descriptor.

 

Friday May 10

ROMEO AND JULIET

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s a Slavic night, if not totally Russian.   Conductor  Stanislav Kochanovsky hails from St. Petersburg; born in 1981, he’s making a solid reputation for expertise in  orchestral and operatic works, particularly those of his home country.   His 2017 performances with the MSO of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 pleased everybody except me.   He leads off tonight with the original version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, a product that the composer’s mentor Balakirev criticised severely; sadly, Mussorgsky never heard this work, least of all in the revision by Rimsky-Korsakov which has become standard on concert programs.   The night concludes with excerpts from Prokofiev’s great ballet; not one of the three suites, then, but possibly a captain’s pick by Kochanovsky.   In between, Russian pianist Julianna Avdeeva, the Chopin Competition Prize Winner of 2010, is soloist in that composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor.   Squaring the ledger for any age-information egalitarians, Avdeeva is 33.

The program will be repeated on Saturday May 11 at 7:30 pm, and on Monday May 13 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday May 11

RIGOLETTO

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

It’s back.   Elijah Moshinsky’s scenic updating of Verdi’s psychologically ugly opera is here to thrill us again.   Not that the mise-en-scene matters overmuch; what you come for, to a very familiar work like this, is the singing, isn’t it?   Well, you’d never know from the reviews by most of my colleagues who spend a large part of their time talking about the sets or costumes or lighting or dancing; it’s easier than having to make an informed judgement on the voices and whatever was happening in the pit.   The title role is to be taken by Amartuvshin Enkhbat, a Mongolian baritone who has a vast experience in this role – Kiel, Naples, Verona, Genoa, Parma, Palermo, Monorca, Salerno, and Turin; he goes on after Melbourne to sing the role in Macerata and Florence.  That’s a helluva lot of Italian houses, so he’d have to be more than passable.   Our own Stacey Alleaume sings Gilda, and the plum role of the Duke of Mantua goes to Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan. Filling out the last act’s quartet is OA regular Sian Sharp as Maddalena.  Most of the minor roles have also fallen to familiar quantities: Gennadi Dubinsky as Monterone, Luke Gabbedy as Marullo, Virgilio Marino as Borsa, Christopher Hillier as Ceprano, Dominica Matthews as Giovanna; the only unfamiliar name is Roberto Scandiuzzi who sings Sparafucile.   Andrea Licata conducts.  Watch out for the dancing: it’s woeful.  Raise a cheer for the final act’s car, the set designer’s sad salute to De Sica.

Further performances will follow on Wednesday May 15, Wednesday May 22, Saturday May 25, Monday May 27 and Wednesday May 29 – all starting at 7:30 pm – and a matinee on Saturday May 18 at 12:30 pm.

 

Sunday May 12

BRANFORD MARSALIS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Two of the Marsalis family visiting Melbourne  in one year!  A few months ago, Wynton brought his Jazz at Lincoln Centre ensemble to town for a collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; now big brother Branford is appearing with the ACO under Satu Vanska in a catholic program that will feature some heavy saxophone contributions.   Alongside two concertos – well, a fantasia by Villa-Lobos, and British composer Sally Beamish’s own arrangement of her 2006 viola concerto, Under the Wing of the Rock – there is a fair amount of dross.   Piazzolla enjoys a fair innings with the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (each indistinguishable from the other) and the over-exercised Libertango.   Two movements of Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings will be played, the middle scherzo and adagio omitted in favour of the flashy outer pages; not one of the composer’s finer efforts, being cobbled together from his own String Quartet No. 2.   Villa-Lobos gets a second run with the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5; no mention of a soprano soloist or of where the ACO will source the requisite 8 cellos.   Osvaldo Golijov continues the Latin flavour with the first movement of his two-part Last Round, dedicated to the memory of Piazzolla as a street-fighter.   Starting the whole thing are Stravinsky’s 1919 Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (preferably the performer will have both A and B flat instruments on hand) – presumably, this features Marsalis down-sizing.   Catholic, indeed: all over the place.

This program will be repeated on Monday May 20 at 7:30 pm.

 

Tuesday May 14

PIERS LANE PLAYS BACH AND CHOPIN

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

The notable expatriate Australian pianist is certainly playing those two composers – the Well-Tempered Clavier‘s staid Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F sharp minor from Book 2, then an uneven Chopin bracket in an impromptu, a waltz and the B flat minor Piano Sonata.  That out of the way, Lane offers a Russian group to finish: the Op. 21 Six Pieces on a single theme of Tchaikovsky, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein and neglected by him in the composer’s lifetime almost as much as they are by pianists these days; and Stravinsky’s Three movements from Petrushka, written for another Rubinstein  –  Arthur  –  who, oddly enough, failed to record them.   This last is an odd choice for this polished musician to include in an otherwise urbane evening’s music; I’m sure he has it firmly under control, but it has brought many another pianist to grief, especially those who enter its Shrovetide Fair finale with a determination to pound.   I’d pin my expectations for the best Lane on the all-embracing Chopin Impromptu No. 2 and the Tchaikovsky suite.

 

Thursday May 16

LUDOVIC MORLOT: A NIGHT AT SEA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

 

Morlot, leaving his moderately substantial tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony this year,  is the sole focus of this watery exercise.   He opens with a bon-bon and ends with a marvel.   Liadov’s Enchanted Lake was a regular stocking-filler for orchestral programs half a century ago, holding a place that the MSO preferred to occupy with Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture.   Before the inevitable Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, the conductor presents a rarity from Sibelius: The Oceanides tone poem where nothing seems definite but the score surges with assured magniloquence to its muted conclusion.   Before reaching the evening’s apogee with Debussy’s La mer, after which other musical waters sound tepid, we hear La source d’un regard from 2007 by Marc-Andre Dalbavie, a former pupil of Boulez and habitue of IRCAM.   It starts out sounding a touch like Britten’s Sunday Morning interlude but settles into a dazzling chain of timbral patterns and super-impositions.  What it has to do with water escapes me, even given the opening noun in the work’s title.

This program will be repeated on Friday May 17 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7: 30 pm.

 

Friday May 17

MOZART PROJECT 2

The Melbourne Musicians

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC at 7:30 pm

Continuing its three-program focus on some of Mozart’s piano concertos, the Musicians will escort Elyane Laussade through the delectable F Major K. 459: without question, my favourite in the whole series for its uncomplicated sophistication and a slow movement – actually an Allegretto, so not too slow – that  boasts an appealing unsentimental eloquence.  Frank Pam concludes this night’s operations with the Haydn Symphony No. 49, La Passione, written 16 years before the Mozart concerto.   Some lesser Mozart prefaces the major works: 12 German Dances, being given their premiere.  They could be the K. 586 set but these call for an odd orchestral format  –  two each of the four woodwind, pairs of horns and trumpets, timpani, and violin with double-bass.  It’s quite possible that these brief pieces might not have gained the attention of any Australian orchestra so far.    And the Haydn is preceded by Dittersdorf’s Symphony in F Major, a four movement construct of no great pretensions with a rondo second movement and the same format for its finale, only needing pairs of oboes and horns to complement the usual Musician strings.

 

Saturday May 18

ENGLISH BAROQUE WITH CIRCA

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Why does this work?   I don’t know.   The questionable combination of circus and Baroque music (not always strictly adhered to) has produced two memorable events in recent times.   It isn’t really a balanced business: the gymnastic feats of the Brisbane-based troupe attract your attention much more easily than the instrumentalists and/or singers, but it’s not too lop-sided; indeed, the last Spanish-inflected concert on 2017 worked to great success,  Paul Dyer’s assembled pieces complementing the physical action effectively.  This year, the music comprises works by Dowland, Purcell, Handel, Corelli (well, his works permeated Europe, so why not England?) and the Neapolitan-born (probably) Nicola Matteis who enjoyed a splendid career in late 17th century London.  Fleshing out the Renaissance and High Baroque bookends will be some folk-songs including the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby from Donegal and Hole in the Wall which has somehow become associated with Purcell’s Abdelazar.   Singing the Lullaby and assorted other treats – Dowland’s Behold a wonder here, Thanks to these lonesome vales from Dido and Aeneas, Handel’s Gentle Morpheus – is Sydney-born soprano Jane Sheldon.

 

Saturday May 18

COSI FAN TUTTE

Opera Australia,

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7 pm

When the Eastern Metropolitan Company was still operating, it produced a version of this opera that has stayed with me for years.   At the end, the lovers reconcile in Mozart’s scenario; the EMO producer had his cast play this as an unpalatable outcome, neither pair happy and the men as bad-tempered and disgruntled as pretty much all the male participants in the recent season of Married at First Sight.   Here is a new production which transposes the action to pre-World War One, hopefully still set in Naples.   The cast is mainly local: Jane Ede (Fiordiligi), Anna Dowsley (Dorabella), Taryn Fiebig (Despina), Samuel Dundas (Guglielmo), and Richard Anderson (Don Alfonso).  The one import, Pavel Petrov, is a young Belarusian tenor (Ferrando) whose exposure to this role starts here; I thought he might be in Australia for his experience in the Rossini opera that follows this one in the national company’s Melbourne season, but no: his Cavalier Belfiore from last year’s Graz Opera is not wanted.   Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson is making her Australian debut tonight; the director is David McVicar; the all-important set and costuming are the responsibility of Moritz Junge.

Further performances will take place at 7 pm on Saturday May 18, Tuesday May 21, and Thursday May 23.  A matinee will; be given on Saturday May 25 at 12:30 pm.

 

Thursday May 23

LES ILLUMINATIONS WITH EMMA MATTHEWS

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Britten’s song cycle was written for soprano/tenor and strings.   Tonight’s version will be an Iain Grandage arrangement; the Ensemble has the necessary soprano in Matthews but what can you make of the Ensemble’s clarinet/cello/piano personnel to take the place of the composer’s highly idiosyncratic instrumental textures and attacks?   Not quite as challenging is the last movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 where Matthews summons up an odd vision of Heaven, sadistic and gluttonous with a self-congratulatory conclusion.   Still, the text comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which collection the composer found hard to leave alone.   The recital begins with Britten also: Three Folk Songs (take a guess which of the 61 we’ll hear).   Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole is also promised, presumably in the arrangement by Maurice Marechal for cello (Svetlana Bogosavljevich) and piano (Timothy Young).   New Zealand composer John Psathas adds to the mix with his 1996 Three Island Songs which don’t ask for a singer but the Liaison configuration of cello, piano and clarinet (David Griffiths).   I’m very fond of these musicians but is there enough here?   The Psathas lasts about 13 minutes; the Falla Suite possibly the same; Britten’s cycle about 17 minutes; the Mahler lied, 10 minutes at a stretch; and most of the folk-song settings are pretty brief – on average, between 2 and 3 minutes each.   Say about an hour in all; mind you, to me, that’s an ideal length as long as the missing minutes aren’t made up for by rambling explanations and verbose statements of the obvious.

 

Friday May 24

IL VIAGGIO A REIMS

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7 pm

It’s a fair drive these days from Plombieres-les-Bains, where this opera takes place, to Reims toward which town most of the main characters are aiming in order to attend the coronation of Charles X in 1825; about 300 km, which would have been a fair hike at the time.   It’s no news to relate that nobody in the opera got to the big smoke, which means they were all saved from an extraordinary celebration for an unpleasant man.   Still, that wasn’t Rossini’s problem, since he couldn’t predict how unpopular the last of the Bourbon top rank would make himself.   It’s the composer’s last opera in Italian, which is something, I suppose.   Or it would be if Rossini hadn’t thought so little of it that he didn’t see it lasting more than a few performances and later rifled it as source material for another work.   This production’s main claim to fame is its use of art – as backdrop and as clothing/masks for various characters.   Well, you need something to distract from the inane plot and a plethora of showy, pointless arias.   The cast is a large one but, like the company’s current Cosi, contains mostly local artists: Lorina Gore (Corinna), Emma Pearson (Contessa di Folleville), Julia Lea Goodwin (Madama Cortese), Sian Sharp (Marchesa Melebea), Shanul Sharma (Conte di Libenskof), Warwick Fyfe (Barone di Trombonok), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Lord Sidney), Luke Gabbedy (Don Alvaro), Conal Coad (Don Prudenzio), John Longmuir (Don Luigino) and Christopher Hillier (Antonio).  The imports are: American soprano Jennifer Black (Maddalena), making her first essay at this opera, as far as I can tell; Juan de Dios Mateos (Cavalier Belfiore) which role the Spanish tenor has sung in Barcelona as well as negotiating three minor roles in a more recent Viaggio production at Deutsche Oper Berlin; Italian baritone Giorgio Cauduro (Don Profondo) also seems to be a Viaggio virgin.  Australian conductor Daniel Smith makes his debut with the company after a prestigious career so far in Europe during which he conducted Il Viaggio in Pesaro and St. Petersburg.   The original director was Damiano Michieletto, whose function is here fulfilled by Meisje Barbara Hummel.  The opera is in three acts, but the company has scheduled only one interval.   In this ludicrously brief ‘season’, do we really have to put up with this inconsequential frivolity?

 

Friday May 24

BEETHOVEN & BRUCKNER

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Principal conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Carter returns to his former finishing school to conduct the latest crop of ANAM musicians in  two symphonies, both the fourth in the composers’ catalogues.  The Beethoven B flat Major Symphony is not well-known, sitting with Nos. 1 and 2 as pretty neglected.   But it radiates good humour and benevolence once the opening Adagio has been dismissed – which it is in splendidly brusque style.   The work asks for pin-point precision in the outer movements and a wide range of inflections during the substantial Adagio.   Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony in E flat Major, one of the composer’s most congenial sprawls, asks for a rich depth that is a doubtful quantity in the Murdoch Hall.   As usual in Bruckner, the symphony also requires a fearless choir of four horns who are front and centre from the third bar onward, not least during the bounding Scherzo with its rapid-fire triplet chords.  Here’s hoping the orchestra has staying power; that last movement all too often becomes an effort-laden test of stamina rather than the composer’s intended magnificently warming sonorous tapestry.

 

Monday May 27

MOORE BEETHOVEN BRAHMS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

You can’t beat these ASQ program titles for maximum information in the shortest possible space.  For this leg of the group’s annual series, we are to hear two solid repertoire stalwarts.  The Beethoven is No. 4 of the master’s first set of six string quartets, Opus 18; despite its numbering, this score was the last in the set to be written and is the only one in a minor key with a generous emotional underpinning in its outer movements of restlessness and standing as a harbinger of the fierce intensity that the key of C minor would come to have for Beethoven.   Brahms took a long time to publish his first quartet, the Op. 51 No. 1, but he had the crazy idea that a work in this format needed to be polished up to its best advantage.   Also in C minor, the work is informed by its own brand of restlessness, a turbulence of spirit but still constrained.   Kate Moore’s new work, enjoying its world premiere at the ASQ hands, is apparently her third string quartet.   I can’t find mention of her first two, although there is Sketches of stars from 2000, as well as Violins and skeletons from 2010   –  which could well be her Nos. 1 and 2.   What little I’ve heard of Moore’s music has not lingered in the memory but there’s always hope.

 

Wednesday May 29

SLAVIC PASSION

Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This fine ensemble  –  violin Helen Ayres, cello Timothy Nankervis, piano Anna Goldsworthy  –  has been working for 25 years now.   For the first program in its all-too-short recital series for 2019, the trio performs an ever-welcome standard: Smetana in G minor.   Written, as the composer admitted, as a result of personal tragedy, the work is a searing elegy, encapsulating the Czech composer’s honesty of expression.   As a preface, the Seraphims will play Suk’s Elegie, 5 minutes’ worth of slender late Romanticism and a less scorching memorial than that by Smetana.  Tucked in the middle of these passionate Slavs comes Richard Mills, whose Piano Trio is a new commission and is, I assume, the Portraits and memories work that the Seraphims will play at the Art Gallery of Ballarat the day after this Potter Salon event.   Whose portraits, what memories have yet to be revealed.

 

Wednesday May 29

MOZART SYMPHONY NO. 29

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The MSO’s principal viola has charge of this night and will probably follow an established track carved out on previous similar enterprises by both directing and playing.   The night opens with Part’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, one of the Estonian composer’s most popular works and always effective if the audience can refrain from its customary expectorational outbursts.   Moore then moves us to the memorialised himself with Britten’s Rondo concertante for piano and strings; a product by the 17-year-old student composer; I’ve never heard it and have gleaned only that it is in two parts.   Stefan Cassomenos is the lucky pianist to reveal this work to us.   As well, Cassomenos is the central figure in Britten’s Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra which comes from 1939, the composer’s first year in America.    Mind you, it’s not very long – about 5/6 minutes – but it is almost insistently flashy.   Two Mozart works bring the program to a happy conclusion: the endearing A Major Symphony, of course, preceded by the splendid Serenata notturna  –  Eine kleine Nachtmusik for the Thinking Man –  which asks for timpani as well as strings, as the Part opener requires one tubular bell to give atmosphere to its remorseless violin scales.   By the way, this is another ‘short’ program; as far as I can tell, the combined offerings add up to about 70 minutes.

This program will be presented again in the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday May 31

 

 

 

The Mass as opera, but who cares?

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

Okka

                                                             Okka von der Damerau  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Keen work from stand-ins

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

Michael Collins

                                                                   Michael Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A sombre seasonal prelude

ARVO PART: PASSIO

Australian Boys Choir and The Vocal Consort

Sacred Heart Church, Carlton

Sunday March 24

Dinopoulos

                                                                 Nicholas Dinopoulos

Under new conductor/artistic director Dinopoulos, the ABC singers are striking out into unexpected territory, viz. this choral chef-d’oeuvre by Estonia’s most important living composer.  Part has featured on many programs in the last decade, mainly choral or orchestral, and his compositional language –  in particular the much-extolled tintinnabuli technique – has contributed to making his voice as identifiable and distinctive as that of Peter Sculthorpe.

In a program note for this concert, Dinopoulos proposes that Part is the most performed serious composer of our time.  This could be borne out by some prominent concerts held already this year.  To open 2019, the Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted a Part-Bach celebration in collaboration with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, winding up with the 1990/1997 Berliner Messe.   And the first event in the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on January 11 was a performance of this work, Part’s St. John Passion, from Gary Ekkel and his Schola Cantorum.

Not attracting their usual house-full numbers, the ABC and Vocal Consort gave a steady, no-nonsense account of this remarkable score.  Part gives most of his operation over to a four-voice group representing the Evangelist, continually changing the combination from solos through to quartet.   In this version, Dinopoulos placed his chief principals – Steven Hodgson (Christ) and Spencer Chapman (Pilate)  –   in the Sacred Heart choir-loft with Rhys Boak at the William Anderson organ.   The small requisite instrumental ensemble – violin (Elizabeth Anderson), cello (Anna Pokorny), oboe (Jasper Ly), bassoon (Chris Martin) – contributed a sustained commentary with only a few patches of questionable pitching.

But the afternoon’s outstanding effort came from the Evangelists: soprano Katharine Norman, mezzo Kristy Biber, tenor Robin Parkin, baritone Lucien Fischer.  Most of these are members of The Consort of Melbourne and predictably competent at handling Part’s repetitive, circular vocal writing.

Much of the difficulty in handling this Passion’s vocal work seems to be in maintaining a sustained regularity of output.   Each line has a limited compass, little room for dynamic innovation, a circumscribed rhythmic impetus; so much so that a greater part of the complex’s interest emerges from the changing combinations of voices and the spartan character of their counterpoint.   Not even the central character is given emotional latitude, although his exchanges with Pilate came across in this performance with unexpected power, no doubt due to Part’s unwillingness to get in the way of his text.

As a forward step in the ABC’s development, this event made for a memorable occasion, a hurdle that the young (and youngish) members of both junior and senior ensembles negotiated with unexpected aplomb.   You may say that the terrors of articulation are mitigated by a close instrumental support, but vocalists still have to find their own way without lagging or waiting for reinforcement.   It helped that Dinopoulos’ mode of direction came from an emphatic and clear school; just the sort of conducting that you’d expect from a singer-musician who has learned his craft from observing both the worthwhile and the useless gestures of senior figures during his career to date.

I’m thankful to the ABC performers and their guests for working through this hour-long score with respectful probity, showing a clear-headedness of interpretation that persisted in following the composer’s bare-bones expression.   If you’re accustomed to associate musical settings of the Passion with the two canonical masterpieces by Bach, Part’s score hits you between the eyes as unsettling, intensely repetitious and a grim progress through the story without digressions or melismata.   Those moments from St. John’s Gospel that have previously summoned up dramatic climaxes, like the turba‘s exchanges with Pilate, here take on a remote ambience; the remorseless journey towards Christ’s death impresses for its uninterrupted steadiness, reinforced by the composer’s vocal and lyrical economy.

Yet, while applauding the performance’s conviction and reverence, the catharsis that some of us experience during Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions is alien to Part’s intention.  This contemporary construct, after you settle into accepting its stilted ambience, is eminently accessible, without any of Bach’s rhetoric or expansiveness.  Only in the final sentence, where the composer moves away from the Johannine text, does the work’s atmosphere abruptly explode into a rich flourish of jubilant colour.  The main body of the score comprises sinuous interweaving lines from both principals and choir, the whole body operating in a state of subsumed tension that fluctuates like gentle waves – no breakers in sight.

It’s not repulsive, this music; indeed, it can be attractive, but not so much to those who know and find it hard to ignore their history.   Final accurate assessment of products from the latter-day school of musical mystics like Part, Tavener, Gorecki, Kancheli and Vasks must be left to a later generation but I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for them, chiefly because I distrust an inbuilt naivete.   If anything strikes me, it is that these proponents of minimalism in religious music are content to work at a too-simple level – perhaps to communicate directly, possibly to express their verities untrammeled by scholarship, hopefully composing with an innocence of intention.   But they appear to be reducing music to a deliberately unsophisticated base, one that discards the achievements of yesteryear.  To hear Part’s Passio after an Isaac mass is comparable to moving from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye; somewhere along the line, intellectual and spiritual advances have gone into reverse.

Naturally, musicians have to deal with Part and his peers; for want of known competition, these writers can claim eminence on the current musical scene.  The Australian Boys Choir and Vocal Consort have negotiated their first Part encounter with distinction.  Now, Dinopoulos & Co. can push their charges’ talents even further, into more difficult music.  Nobody expects the Webern Cantatas, Schoenberg’s Psalms, or the more rugged Bartok Folksongs.  But a little investigation will uncover a wealth of choral music that moves the level of difficulty needle somewhat higher than modern-day British pap or American filler.

 

 

 

April Diary

Monday April 1

Teddy Tahu Rhodes & Kristian Chong

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

The well-loved baritone has given few Melbourne recitals, as far as I can recall.  Tonight he makes up for this famine with a solid program that offers three song-cycles.  Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte is a real cycle in its end being wound into its beginning and the whole six numbers being through-composed and musically linked.  Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, five Shakespeare settings of great integrity, have not travelled well outside England.   Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, drawn from verses of that name by Robert Louis Stevenson, is also little attempted outside the English-speaking world, if having an easier path to appreciation than the Finzi suite.   A trio of Celtic tunes brings in an unexpected level of popular appeal – Raglan Road (presumably On Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, set to The Dawning of the Day tune), Molly Malone and Loch Lomond.   Between the British song cycles, Rhodes and Chong will perform three lyrics by Calvin Bowman: West Sussex Drinking Song, The Night, and Noel – all three recorded for Decca last year by baritone Christopher Richardson.  This duo on paper makes a promising combination, both artists notable for their generosity of timbre and spirit.

 

Thursday April 4

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

You can be lucky – as a composer, as a performer, as an audience member.  Tonight, British clarinettist Michael Collins gets to play solo in his instrument’s greatest concerto.  Paul Dean, the MSO’s Composer in Residence for this year and former director of the Australian National Academy of Music, is presenting his own new Clarinet Concerto.    As a tick of public approval, the first night is sold out already; which may be due to the small (1001 seats) capacity of the MRC’s Murdoch Hall but in some small way also would have been brought about on the strength of the Mozart concerto’s attractiveness.  Most of us know Michael Collins and his musical progress –  Philharmonia, London Sinfonietta, Nash Ensemble, Royal College of Music, then a glittering freelance career; tonight, he plays and leads this well-loved work, which headed a Top of the Pops list fomented by ABC radio some years ago.   Immediately after the Mozart comes Dean’s new score, played by the composer with Collins directing; could be an unavoidable case of by their ambience ye shall judge them.   After interval, we are treated once more to the Beethoven Symphony No. 7: a welter of bludgeoning delight in three of its four movements while a dour tragedy informs most of the grave Allegretto.

This program will be repeated on Friday April 5 in the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday April 6

BACH AND TELEMANN IN CONCERT

Pinchgut Opera

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

We don’t get to see Pinchgut productions in Melbourne, which is a great pity as the company’s repertoire engages with a bevy of neglected works by big-name composers.  When I say ‘neglected’, I mean ignored in this country where you can wait from one millennium to the next for the national company to program anything by Rameau, Vivaldi, Purcell, Charpentier (ancient or modern), Cavalli, Salieri, Haydn or Hasse.  Even Handel has fallen out of favour, now that the counter-tenor craze has passed.   These Baroque/early Classical works comprise Pinchgut’s stock-in-trade.   Anyway, let’s take what we can get; in this case, a night of  Bach’s Easter Oratorio and Telemann’s Thunder Ode.  The first is fairly well-known as an extended cantata that lasts about 45 minutes, here to be given as originally set out with SATB soloists (Alexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley,  Richard Butler, and a choice between David Greco and Andrew O’Connor) with no choir.   Telemann’s work is of similar length, with five soloists (including the two basses) and, I assumed, a four-part choir but here also the soloists will be doing double service.    Erin Helyard conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes: a body that I, for one, will be hearing live for the first time with keen anticipation.

 

Sunday April 7

LATE MASTERPIECES

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank at 11 am

Ringing in the MSO’s chamber music recital series will be the job for a string quartet and Philip Arkinstall whose clarinet enriched the recent visit by Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.  This morning opens with a divertimento for string trio by Mozart, the K. 563 in E flat Major and a considerable six-movement work with a rich Andante plus 7 variations at its core.  As for performers, you can be sure of principals Christopher Moore on viola and David Berlin on cello;  the violin line will be taken by either concertmaster Sophie Rowell or principal second violin Matthew Tomkins.   The afternoon second half will be taken up by the Brahms Clarinet Quintet; hard to think of a better way to spend your Sunday than luxuriating in this superbly finished construct.  And, for once, the program’s title sums up these proceedings accurately.

 

Thursday April 11

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Directing this dramatic setting of the Mass for the Dead is Lawrence Renes, a Dutch-Maltese conductor who is completely unknown to me.   He’s had plenty of opera experience – chief conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera, as well as working with the Netherlands and English National Operas; all of which will stand him in good stead here.  American soprano Leah Crocetto has enjoyed wide Verdi experience: Otello, Luisa Miller, Il trovatore, Falstaff, AidaDon Carlo and this Requiem last year in Spain.   Alto Okka von der Dammerau has less substantial Verdi credentials, although she has sung Emilia in Otello and Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.   Issachah Savage, another American, sings the solo tenor, hopefully with the same power that he has brought to Radames, Manrico and Otello.   Tonight’s bass is Nicholas Brownlee, another American whose most recent Verdi experience was last year’s Simon Boccanegra in Karlsruhe where he sang the part of Paolo Albiani; he has also sung Banquo’s aria at the 2016 Belvedere Competition in Villach (he won).   If all this sounds like an unusually mixed bag of individual experiences, you can always trust in the MSO and its Chorus to give the performance a solid base of professionalism.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 13 at 2 pm.

 

Friday April 19

ST. MATTHEW PASSION

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Reverting to its foundation repertoire, the Bach Choir and Orchestra under Rick Prakhoff takes on this big Good Friday special which concentrates the attention remorselessly on the events of this day without a trace of Easter morning celebrations.   Sure, you can find consolation descending after the Es ist vollbracht but you leave the Murdoch Hall – one hopes – in imaginary penitential garb.   This reading of the Passion brings back some familiar voices: Andrew Goodwin ever-welcome as the Evangelist; Jud Arthur, familiar from national opera company productions, as the Christus; two Jacquelines – Porter and Dark – soprano and alto soloists respectively; Michael Smallwood the tenor (whom I last heard perform a fine Mullerin a bit over 3 years ago); and Jeremy Kleeman given the bass solos, coming into his own in the last part of the work.  Much of the score’s processes rely on the choirs, for whom this Passion is home-ground; the only information lacking is where Prakhoff is sourcing his boys’ choir for the opening and closing numbers of Part 1.

NEWS JUST IN: The boys’ choir needed for Part 1 will be supplied by VOYCE, the youth ensemble from the Victorian Opera company.   Which means, you’d guess, the appellation ‘boys’ will not apply – and a good thing, too.

 

Friday April 26

GHOSTBUSTERS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Not the all-female (except for Chris Hemsworth) remake but the original from 1984 starring Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, directed by Ivan Reitman (once described by Arnold Schwarzenegger as ‘a genius’, so it must be true).   The film did well at the box office – extremely well – and the MSO is counting on a lot of nostalgia out there, scheduling three performances in Hamer Hall; at the time of writing, there are plenty of seats available at all three performances, except for the first performance balcony where none appear to be on offer.   Benjamin Northey will add to his live soundtrack laurels by taking the MSO through Elmer Bernstein’s acclaimed score although the composer seems to have had as much trouble with studio shenanigans as did his contemporary non-relative Leonard with the West Side Story film transmutation.   Apart from the title number, the rest of the score is not vivid in my memory, despite my having seen the film several times.   That’s the attraction of these events: you have to focus on the music because it attracts unusually high attention, often becoming the dominant constituent in the aural mix.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 27 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm.