A few bruises but solid core

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre

February 3

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      Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)

 

Continuing the wealth of Wagner performances that have festooned the citys theatres in recent years, Melbourne Opera follows its Tannhauser/Lohengrin/Tristan successes with this mostly praiseworthy production (director Suzanne Chaundy, sets Andrew Bailey, costumes Verity Hunt-Ballard, lighting Rob Sowinski) of the composer’s trail-blazing initial contribution to German Romanticism.   The principal line-up is an impressive one, particularly soprano Lee Abrahmsen adding another excellent interpretation to her repertoire with the company.

Also functioning efficiently was the MO Orchestra under Anthony Negus, here working under favourable conditions in a real pit.  You could cavil with some horn work – an occasional spliced note, some ragged group entries – but the bulk of the instrumental output came across with suitable gusto after the woodwind had settled into a communally agreed pitch following the matchless overture.   Since the opera was played as intended –  without a break – fatigue became pretty obvious in the final pages.  Yet the general fabric made a favourable impression during the greater part of the score, even if timpanist Arwen Johnston, situated at stalls level, sounded over-willing at  climactic points.

For this production, the MO went all out to assemble a large chorus, necessary if you’re going to have a successful confrontation between the two ships’ crews in the final act.  The numbers were certainly there and made a brave showing on stage, although you could have wished for better balance throughout.   For instance, the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! chorus that opens the last act came over with appreciable swagger and an aggressive heft to the strong beats but the top tenors lacked heft when set against the other three lines and their top B flats and glancing As sounded thin.

Act 2’s Summ’ und brumm’ spinning chorus opening also seemed under-powered at the top even though Wagner is very kind to the singers involved.  Only at the er denkt nach Haus chords did you feel that the parts were properly balanced in dynamic terms.  Later, when the women participated at the conclusion to Senta’s Ya ho-hoe! ballad with their moving Ach! Wo weilt sie commentary/coda, the singers’ delivery showed a fine level of preparation and ensemble.

Negus experienced a few unsettling moments as far as the chorus was concerned, most notably in the first act where the sailors were in danger of over-running the beat – a regular problem even with companies more experienced than this one.   But the searching test, when the maximum numbers are involved during the final act, revealed little of this lack of discipline, the choral complex solid for the most part.  On the other hand, it was hard to fault any member of the principal sextet in this respect and you heard very little of the bar-line ignoring that has bedevilled previous productions of later works like The Ring and Tristan in particular where rhythmic flummery all too often becomes the prevailing texture.

Right from his Die Frist ist um soliloquy,  Darren Jeffrey had the measure of the title character’s role,  revealing a forceful timbre at the Bergehne Hoffnung! outburst and a rich, carrying power in the final peroration.  Further along in the action, the singer almost contrived to make credible the Wie aus die Ferne duet where the doomed sailor thinks he might have found redemption; the effect reached not through a sudden brightness or giving in to the score’s major-key benignity but more by way of a sort of relieved resignation, to such a point that the consoling melodic fluency here and in the end-of-act trio with Daland was articulated with appropriate urgency rather than elation.

Even in the melodramatic final scene, Jeffrey brought into play a vocal determination that gave an unexpected briskness to the character’s final address, Erfahre das Geschick. Even to the untutored eye (or ear), the Dutchman is doomed from the start but the betrayal he feels in these last strophes needs to be unrelieved, so that Senta’s sacrifice stands unalloyed.   In this respect Jeffrey dominated the drama’s resolution, his last self-identification a marvellously exposed bravura passage here handled with excellent forcefulness.

Abrahmsen’s Act 2 also contributed significantly to the production’s commitment to steadily advancing tragedy.  After the unsettling fixation that Senta shows in her opening scene, undistracted by ex-nurse Mary and the spinning girls, the soprano handled her interchange with Erik comfortably enough, sustaining the  girl’s preoccupation and giving her wooer little hope despite the appealing charm of his Mein Herz voll Treue address.  Mind you, there’s not much chance to amplify Senta’s dramatic range in the duet/trio that concludes this part of the opera because the situation offers only a completion of the aspirations with which it began.

As with Jeffrey, Abrahmsen infused her work with a firmness in articulation and dynamic that was constant across the work’s span.   Wagner, despite the reputation he had of drowning out his vocalists, treated them considerately and Senta enjoys as much of this pre-Brunnhilde civility as Elisabeth or Elsa; a brace of high Bs in the Terzett strike you as flashy sparks that shine out strongly in this context but Abrahmsen has a wealth of musicianship, more than enough to weld this opportunity for bravura into a coherent ensemble.

As Daland, the wealth-loving father of Senta, Steven Gallop did his best to differentiate the character’s vocal personality from that of the Dutchman, tending to strain his line in the opening exchanges with the Steersman and sailors but making fair weather of the substantial Wie? Hort ich recht? duet that occupies the second half of Act 1; in this case, an agreable stretch with two basses that sat comfortably side-by-side.  Roxane Hislop was hardly pressed by the small role of Mary: 24 lines only and many of them conversational couplets of no great moment.

Michael Lapina’s Steuermann made one of the opera’s happier characters, most obviously so in the Mit Gewitter und Sturm solo of the first scene which combines an unaccompanied upward scale with a chordal after-strophe: one of the composer’s happier and simpler delineations of personality.  Lapina’s lavishness of delivery, informed by an infectious bonhomie in his stage presence, opened this tale of small happy love and great tragic infatuation with a telling charm.

But the vocal  surprise of the premiere came with the night’s Erik, Rosario La Spina.  I’ve not heard this tenor for some years and was taken aback by his bright sound-colour, both in a ringing Act 2 solo just before he comes to grips with Senta’s preoccupation and delaying tactics, and later the Willst jenes Tag’s last attempt to bring her back to the normal level of inter-personal intercourse that she is inflexibly determined to discard.

Neither of these exposed arias comes close to the inspiration that the score reaches at its more fraught stretches, chiefly because Erik’s vocal line is almost Italianate in its sentiment and shape.   But the music suits this uncomplicated man so aptly that you tend to ignore how out-of-step it is with the surging, harrowing scenes that are the work’s natural setting.   I’ve read somewhere that this is La Spina’s first essay at Wagner: a pity it’s taken so long.  I’ve sat through many a Siegfried and Siegmund who have worked for hours to less effect than this artist’s few minutes of exposure.

On a final carping note, the production offered surtitles above the Regent proscenium.  From my seat, half-way up the stalls, the screened English translation was illegible.  This could have been attributable to advancing years and its concomitant failing eyesight except that recent experiences in other theatres from roughly the same position have been more happy.

There are two further performances of The Flying Dutchman: Tuesday February 5 and Thursday February 7.

 

 

 

 

New take on an old tale

ORPHEUS

Forest Collective

Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent

Thursday January 31

 

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                                 (L to R) Piaera Lauritz, Ashley Dougan, Luke Fryer        (Photo: Kate J. Baker)

 

This is the first time that the Midsumma Festival has offered me a review ticket in its 20 year history.   Admittedly, previous programs have given little room to serious music, the organizers being usually content to present bands and solo artists of limited ability or musicianship.   All the more remarkable, then, that this ambitious project got off the ground under the Festival’s umbrella, and that its character impressed both for its compressed clarity of content and for a happy avoidance of obtuseness.

Evan Lawson has composed a dance opera which pays an elliptically expressed duty to the myths surrounding Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice and his relationship with fellow Argonaut, Calais who was one of the Boread twins.  To supplement a libretto of gnomic brevity, the work involves three dancers to propose a potent extra dimension to the story-line as sung by Raymond Khong (Orpheus), Kate Bright (Eurydice) and Joseph Ewart (Calais).   These roles’ respective dancers – Ashley Dougan, Piaera Lauritz, Luke Fryer  –  operated in a central area of the Oratory room, the audience positioned on three of its fringes while Lawson’s orchestral decet made a bulwark at the fourth.

The composer has found the constituents of his text in Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Striggio’s verses used by Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, and, for a coda,  the second sestet from Shakespeare’s song Orpheus with his lute made trees from that furiously neglected drama, Henry VIII.   Lawson also claims that as a prologue, he  made use of a Greek sea hymn by Phemocles, about whom I know nothing and could find out even less.  At an informational impasse, I thought that there might have been a confusion with Phanocles, who wrote about Orpheus’ paederastic relationship with Calais; or, more improbably, the playwright Philocles might have been involved.  Was it possible that Phemocles had some relation to the Orphic or Homeric Hymns?   We are left gasping for direction right from the start where the marine salutation is meant to occur but nothing rang any bells, even in the printed libretto.

Lawson’s singers seemed to be static but in fact moved around, singing in oratorio style from the front of the instrumental ensemble, or behind the band, eventually in the central arena.   His dancers made exits and entrances with similar flexibility.  As with so many of these multi-platform operations, I found it hard to focus, especially at the work’s opening where the sound-world proved attractive, even if it consisted in the main of sustained notes and chords, both teetering between post-Monteverdian chord progressions and not-too-astringent dissonance.   To be honest, the sounds won out over the dance action much of the time because the abstract nature of Dougan’s choreography seemed to move simply from attitude to attitude.   But then, I don’t know much that would weather informed scrutiny about the language of contemporary dance.

Still, the sonorities that emerged often proved extraordinary, in particular a passage highlighting Erica Tucceri’s bass flute later in the drama which impressed for its full-bodied power in this hall’s resonant acoustic.  Harpist Samantha Ramirez spent a fair amount of time bowing her strings, which is a device that didn’t seem that different in its results from the product of an orthodoxly addressed cello.  More successful were the various briefs allocated to Alexander Clayton’s percussion, his battery employed with determination and sometimes exemplary drama.

Of the singers, Kate Bright gave a splendid reading of the hero’s unfortunate wife, vitally powerful in the Part II duet and then mounting a bravura performance at Eurydice’s death which focused for a remarkably long period on the interval of a 2nd before the character was allowed to enter a more wide-ranging arioso, much of the scene unaccompanied.  Lawson set his bare-bones text with a wide-ranging compass for all three singers, but Bright alone managed her line’s top and bottom reaches with precision and thrilling vigour.

Khong’s tenor came across with similar force and a security that was questionable only at a few points where Lawson had used a note above the artist’s comfort zone, possibly negotiable with a switch to falsetto although that’s a dangerous ask in a vocal part that comes over as otherwise well-crafted and centrally positioned for the interpreter.  A similar moment hit for baritone Ewart, who enjoyed more courteous treatment and who produced a firm level of enunciation and clarity: a promising exhibition from the youngest member of this trio.

While the instrumental component of Orpheus tends to an alternation between portentous and sibilant, the vocal work is quite unpredictable: for whole stretches, as static as Glass; then suggestive of the placid leaps of Berio.  While you wouldn’t find it difficult to follow the emotional decline in Eurydice’s gasping, brittle death shudders or trace the fearful regret of Orpheus in Hell, it seemed to me that the score came into full flowering at ensemble moments, most obviously in the Shakespeare-utilizing epilogue where Lawson found a striking compositional vein that promised a sort of catharsis; in this tragedy, you find a consolation that broadens out into a generous efflorescence before the inevitable descent to darkness.

As I say, the dance impressed me most for its physicality more than for its expressive power.   Dougan was gifted with a remarkable solo at the work’s centre which I assume was intended to underline the struggles of Orpheus with his life after the final loss of his wife and his rejection of all women, climaxing in his confrontation with the Bacchae and their destruction of his body in a Maenad frenzy.  Lauritz’s pre-death solo gave the dancer a fine opportunity to demonstrate her unflappable solidity of gesture and positioning, and I found plenty to admire in the opening terzett where all three dancers interwove with considerable athleticism and not a trace of overt sexuality, a restraint also found in the final appearance where the dancers worked in unison as three discrete entities, all passion spent.

Orpheus is to be welcomed on several fronts.   Yes, it’s a new opera  –  and welcome for that  –  with a solid musicality behind it.   The production uses the talents of a fine group of professionals from within the Forest Collective organization and outside it; pretty much half and half in the instrumental desks.  It has a relevance to Midsumma through its re-examination of the Orpheus-Calais connection, taking matters some steps further by juxtaposing and interweaving it with the poet’s tragic marriage.   As well, Lawson and his forces handle the twin myths with dignity, taking key points and working with them rather than hammering the relationship triangle into flattened obviousness.  Best of all, the enterprise gives you a freshness of vision, even new insights into an old tale which both Monteverdi and Gluck felt obliged to end with a deus ex machina plot manipulation.  In this new telling, the central tragedie a trois remains intact.  You leave feeling that you have been involved in a ritual, human in its essence and recounted with a scouring freshness.

 

 

 

 

February Diary

Sunday February 3

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre at 5 pm

Continuing its underlying program of Wagner promulgation, the city’s opera company is heading for the first so-called masterpiece, the doorway in the received canon.  We have seen this opera recently – three years ago, almost to the day, down at St. Kilda’s Palais  presented by Victorian Opera with 3D scenery.   A good way further back, I seem to recall the Victorian State Opera mounting the work at the State Theatre in 1987, following an earlier season at the Princess Theatre in 1978.   The only controversy that hit any of these preceding interpretations was at the 1987 season when an attempt to present the opera in its original form – in one continuous three-act swoop – came up against union demands for consideration of the musicians on OH&S grounds, so that an enforced interval came just at the point where Senta and the Dutchman confront each other for the first time. Anyway, this production finds the company in the Regent Theatre and the enterprise will be conducted by Anthony Negus who directed last year’s Tristan from Melbourne Opera.  British bass-baritone Darren Jeffrey has the most significant role of his career so far as the doomed hero.   Lee Abrahmsen sings Senta,  Rosario La Spina will probably take on Erik;  Roxane Hislop brings years of experience to Mary, Senta’s nurse; and Steven Gallop takes up the challenge of Daland.   For all its youthful status in the canon, this work is unforgettable for its brisk simplicity of action, mighty marine suggestiveness and intensely sympathetic vocal writing.

 

Tuesday February 5

THE ITALIAN GROUND: MUSIC FOR DANCING

Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

As far as I can tell, the content of this recital comprises much of the CD that this ensemble produced for the ABC in 2007:  suites by Sanz, Kapsberger and Gianoncelli; a set of three compositions by Ruiz de Ribayaz; Mudarra’s Fantasia in the Ludovico manner; Castladi’s Quagliotta Canzone; Alessandro Piccinini’s Chiaconna; Murcia’s Gaitas y Cumbees; and the anonymous work that gives this night its title.   Still, it’s been 12 years or thereabouts since the recording was issued and ,although some of these pieces have emerged in Band outings across the intervening years, it’s always worth hearing the ensemble work through pieces that they have relished enough to endow with a sort of permanence.

 

Friday February 8

GERSHWIN & FRIENDS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Back we come for the annual trilogy of free concerts under the stars, complete with picnics and light-hearted revelry on the lawn, while the senior citizenry takes its entertainment more seriously in the seating under the Bowl canopy.   Tonight, Gershwin is the presiding genius with the effervescent raucousness of the Cuban Overture, that jazz-civilizing tone-poem An American in Paris, and Australian-based-in-New-York pianist Daniel Le taking the spotlight in Rhapsody in Blue, one of music’s great ad hoc amalgams that still jolts you with the arrival of each episode on the underlying train journey it depicts.  The friends, apart from conductor Benjamin Northey and Le, also number Olivia Chindamo who will take part in her father Joe’s Fantaskatto, written for the singer and showcasing her talents at scat singing.   Chindamo premiered this work two years ago at the Brisbane Powerhouse; it has been described as ‘a concertante work with jazz, contemporary and operatic flavours.’   A sort of thematic mix-up, then – which is a fair description of these go-with-the-flow nights that are usually packed out.

 

Wednesday February 13

TREBLE HELIX UNLOCKED

The Song Company

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Sydney vocal ensemble which seemed to hold its members intact for many years, is tonight singing parts of the Eton Choirbook, a collection of Catholic liturgical music that survived the excessive destructive penchant of the longer-lived Tudor monarchs.  The Song Company will position itself around a focal point and sing at each other; we are invited to watch and marvel.   Of the 64 compositions available (well, 62: a couple are incomplete), we are promised a Magnificat (one of the 9 available),  Richard Davy’s Passio Domini, a swag of motets and the Jesus autem transiens/Credo in Deum 13-part canon by Robert Wylkynson who was Master of the Choristers at Eton from 1500 onward.   The personnel of the Company appears to have altered radically since I last heard them, but that was back in the Roland Peelman days; this ensemble has acquired a new director in Antony Pitts since Peelman hung up his non-existent baton in 2015.  The night’s title is bound to be meaningful but all it suggests to me is the three-strands of English composition that the Choirbook contains.

 

Wednesday February 13

CHINESE NEW YEAR

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The MSO has ventured its arm in many ventures over the years but this night promises an exceptional welcome to the Year of the Pig.   The Mongolian group Hanggai is advertised as a ‘traditional-meets-rock band’, one which adapts folk tunes for a modern format.   Now, even with no knowledge of the music of the steppes, I’m prepared to guess that numbers like Swan Geese and Horse of Colours could be traditional songs; about The Transistor Made in Shanghai, doubt rears its none-too-credulous head.   But, as usual, what do I know?   It’s probably been sung for decades across Ulaanbaatar and in trend-setting yurts for miles around.   Tan Dun conducts, of course, and introduces us to his Double Bass Concerto, The Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves the soloist, and the composer’s Cellphone Symphony Passacaglia (Secret of Winds and Birds) which involves the audience playing an app of birdsong which we have all downloaded prior to the concert and which turn on at a specific point in the work.  Audience participation indeed, and a neat turning of the tables on those morons who cannot conceive of existing socially, even in mid-concert, without the assistance of their own audio-visual life-support systems.

 

Wednesday February 13

Grigoryan Brothers and Wolfgang Muthspiel

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This recital was to have involved Muthspiel, Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner, but the last-named master-guitarist has had to cancel – hence, the substitution of the other Grigoryan guitarist, Leonard.   Not much detail has been published about what the trio will play; nothing as dreary as a set program.   But we are assured of a variety of guitars and lots of improvisation, which is all to the good.  Still, Cassandra-like, I predict that the extempore stuff will be very predictable and you can forget any experimentation of a challenging nature.   Don’t believe me, then.   But Muthspiel is a fine jazz musician and he works within that genre’s limitations, which have become more and more obvious since the 1960s.

 

Saturday February 16

SATURDAY NIGHT SYMPHONY

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

The second of the free Myer Bowl concerts from the MSO features the organization’s assistant conductor, Tianyi Lu, and violinist Leon Fei who is, I think, 14 years old.   This program has no symphony on its bill of fare, but a bewildering sequence of the popular and the unknown.  The menu, that originally was to open with Berlioz’s Le corsaire overture, now starts with Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah (no, it can’t be the whole thing – I suspect we will hear the Act 3 Bacchanale only).  Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande Suite is the solitary French work of the night, which originally included Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’in faune and his orchestration of one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The rarely heard Pohjola’s Daughter tone poem by Sibelius enjoys an airing; complementing this Lapland vision is Iain Grandage’s Deep: A Silent Poem for Sir Douglas Mawson that memorializes the explorer’s 1912 solo Antarctic trek.   Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture enjoys yet another Myer Bowl performance and the night centres on The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, with Fei as the soloist.

 

Saturday February 16

PURCELL’S KING ARTHUR

Gabrieli Consort & Players

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

For this tour, the ensemble comprises nine singers and seventeen instrumentalists under director Paul McCreesh who co-edited the edition used of Purcell’s opera-of-sorts.   I can only recall one performance of King Arthur from the distant past; I believe it was at the National Theatre in St. Kilda and vague memories also stir of Richard Divall directing the pit operations.   Regardless of the reliability or otherwise to these memories, here we are with a concert performance which may approach the superlative quality of Les Arts Florissants working through Dido and Aeneas; or it may be very authentic and as interesting as an exegesis on Pascal from Barnaby Joyce.   This will be the Gabrielis’ first Australian tour and, for all one’s reservations about getting tangled up in the scholarship, you can hardly imagine a body better placed to illuminate this score which holds the effective Act 3 Frost Scene as well as the aria Fairest Isle towards the end.   The original has a considerable amount of dialogue from Dryden which you’d expect to be excised here.

This program will be repeated on Sunday February 17 at 2 pm.

 

Wednesday February 20

PARSIFAL

Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 4:30 pm

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?  The month begins with the earliest of Wagner’s works that is part of every opera house’s repertoire and, a few weeks later, we can experience the last product from the composer’s pen.   This slow-moving interpretation at several removes of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem has rarely been played in Melbourne and should be an unmissable undertaking for those dedicated to the Wagner myth.  If it weren’t for the venue, I’d be happy to pay my way but parking is impossible, the locals inspire no confidence, and you can’t be enthusiastic about walking along Marine Parade to get your car after 10:30 pm.  The title role is taken by German tenor Burkhard Fritz, who sang the first Parsifal in China and goes from here to sing the same role in Munich.   Incidentally, he looks nothing like any of the figures shown in the VO publicity.   Katarina Dalayman (Kundry) has recorded her role and has a veteran’s experience in it.   British bass Peter Rose also brings a wealth of experience to one of opera’s masters of tedium, Gurnemanz. Amfortas, the endlessly complaining, will be sung by Australian-born baritone Peter Roser.   Derek Welton, who has sung the part at Bayreuth, is Klingsor and Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes a welcome appearance as old Titurel, presiding over the whole welter. Company artistic eminence Richard Mills conducts to Roger Hodgman’s direction and the Australian Youth Orchestra will welter around the slow-moving, sonorous edifices that delineate the work’s geography.

This opera will be repeated on Friday February 22 at 4:30 pm and on Sunday February 24 at 3 pm.

 

Wednesday February 20

A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

The MSO administration is once again wielding the symphony label, and tonight’s program gives justification for this.   It all concludes with the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 which requires an organ.   I don’t think that they’re going to ship in a true instrument with actual pipes for Calvin Bowman to use for those big blazoning chords that open this work’s finale, used to devastatingly mundane effect in Chris Noonan’s 1995 film Babe.  What’s the betting on an electronic sound-source?   Before this grand finale,  Benjamin Northey takes the p[layers through Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and A Hero’s Journey by the MSO’s Cybec Young Composer in Residence, Mark Holdsworth; oddly enough, this last work is listed on the composer’s own website as Fanfare, although the two titles aren’t mutually exclusive even if the latter points to a short career.   The night’s soloist is violinist Veriko Chumburidze, a 22-year-old Turkey-born musician from Georgia who won the Wieniawski Competition in 2016.  She is taking the brilliant and fun-filled leading line in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.

 

Wednesday February 20

Satu Vanska and Kristian Chong

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This is the opening gambit in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the specific Great being applied to Vanska, one of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s leading violinists.   She’s enjoyed a couple of solos with the ACO and they’ve been worthy enough but you’d be hard pressed to put her up there with Ehnes and Vengerov.   The collaborating artist, Chong, is apparently not great; nevertheless, he’s more than capable of dealing with this program.   Lutoslawski’s 5-minute Subito was written for an American violin competition and lives up to its title by swerving from one episode to another.   Vanska then performs the first half of the Bach G minor solo Violin Sonata and fleshes out her night with the complete Beethoven A Major Sonata Op. 30 No. 1 and Ravel’s sprightly G Major.   Before the rousing, sophisticated crudity of the Tzigane finale,  Vanska performs another solo: Kaija Saariaho’s . . . de la Terre which involves atmospheric electronics.

 

Sunday February 24

3MBS DVORAK MARATHON

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra et al

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, 8 pm

This appears to be following the same pattern as last year’s Bach orgy sponsored by the radio station.   Along with these six major concerts, some others are occupying younger patrons in the Primrose Potter Salon space.   For an opening comes the Stabat Mater from the RMP forces under Andrew Wailes.   Mid-day has the Streeton Trio in the Dumky, Calvin Bowman performing the 8 Preludes and Fugues for organ (on what instrument?), three of the Slavonic Dances in two-piano format, and the delectably nationalistic Op. 100 Violin Sonatina.   At 2 pm, the Sutherland Trio with violist Christopher Moore play the Piano Quartet No. 1, Dindin Wang and Rhodri Clarke outline the Op. 11 violin/piano Romance Op. 11, Benjamin Martin gives us the Eclogues, and the Orava Quartet play the American in F Major.   Next, an all-star cast takes on the Piano Quintet No. 1 – pianist Stephen McIntyre, violinists Wilma Smith and Elizabeth Sellars, violist Caroline Henbest and cellist Christopher Howlett; the Australian Children’s Choir sing five brief melodies; then ANAM musicians and Arcadia Winds will bound through the Serenade Op. 44.   At dusk, Stefan Cassomenos plays the hour-long Poetic Tone Pictures for piano, members of the Australian Octet following up with the A Major String Sextet.   Finally, Elyana Laussade airs the twelve short Op. 8 Silhouettes, soprano Zara Barrett sings Rusalka’s Song to the Moon with the Corpus Medicorum under Keith Crellin, orchestra and conductor bringing the marathon to a close with the E minor Symphony.

In the Potter Salon, a youth program is also on offer; introductions to Dvorak at 11 am and 12:30 pm, followed up by masterclasses at 2 pm, 3 pm, and 4 pm.

 

Monday January 25

ORAWA

Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The boys from Brisbane form part of the 2019 Southbank Series and aim for an exemplary purity in Haydn’s Op. 33 No. 1, the first and less well-known of the composer’s two quartets in B minor.   Later, in this hour-long Salon event, we hear Mendelssohn In F minor. an elegy for his recently deceased sister Fanny and his last major composition.  In the centre the group plays Orawa, Woljchiech Kilar’s string orchestra work of 2001 reduced for quartet and from which the group took inspiration for its name.   Kilar was best known as a film composer and you can discern the travelogue elements in this tri-partite vision of the Tatra Mountains and River.

 

Tuesday February 26

NATALIE CLEIN & KATYA APEKISHEVA

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

To start Musica Viva’s subscription series this year, the combination of cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Katya Apekisheva offers two programs that teeter on the brink of over-familiarity.   I don’t know Clein and wonder if she has played here previously; a superficial bit of research revealed that she has played in Perth as a member of the Belcea Quartet but is not listed on their bio as a former member.   She has certainly performed in New Zealand but, for the most part, her activities are pretty home-grown and English.   Moscow-born Apekisheva is a close contemporary but also a novice to Melbourne; neither artist seems to have had close connections with the other in the past.  Whatever, they start tonight with Kodaly’s Sonatina, then a new work by Natalie Williams for these artists commissioned by Musica Viva, which is followed by the last Beethoven sonata in D Major and Rachmaninov’s G minor Sonata

Clein and Apekisheva will play a second program on Saturday March 16 at 7 pm. Natalie Williams’ new score will be repeated; the Beethoven is the D Major Sonata’s Op. 102 companion in C Major; another novelty comes in the vignette-length Six Studies in English Folk-Song by Vaughan Williams. Bloch looms large with the 1956 Suite No. 1 for solo cello and the inevitable From Jewish Life, written over 30 years prior.  And patrons will also hear British composer Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola or Cello and Piano of 1919.

 

Wednesday February 27

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Cellist Sharon Grigoryan is still away on parental leave and her place is being taken tonight by the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal Timo-Veikko Valve.   As with the Orava Quartet’s program from two days ago, the ASQ is beginning with Haydn Op. 33; in this case, No. 3 yclept The Bird.   To end, the players take on Sibelius in the Voces intimae score, the solitary product in this form from the composer’s mature years.  As is becoming the practice with chamber music recitals, the ensemble deviates from the norm in the program’s centre.  Here, they will play Papa Haydn’s Parrot by Helena Winkelman, a Swiss-Dutch violinist who has composed a paraphrase in 8 movements on the Haydn work that precedes it in this night’s offerings.   For a violinist, Winkelman has an impressive catalogue of compositions; my loss, probably, but I’ve heard none of them.  You’d anticipate a paraphrase in the style of Liszt on Rigoletto.  But can you carry it on for so many movements?   Here’s hoping for something more substantial than simple-minded frivolities.

 

Thursday February 28

QUARTET FRIENDS

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here’s yet another example of what I just referred to in the previous entry.   The Flinders group starts with Haydn, Op. 64 No. 3 in B flat – one of the Tost group in the process of being composed as the composer finally left Esterhaza.   The night’ conclusion comes in Schumann’s last in A, by which the composer ended his brief (month-long!) labours in the string quartet form – all three of them.   Between these solid poles comes a new work by Matthew Laing, commissioned by the Flinders players.   Speaking of which, the personnel appear to have changed yet again.   Helen Ireland and Zoe Knighton continue in viola and cello spots respectively; first violin is Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba who was for a time to be seen among the Australian Chamber Orchestra desks; second violin, Nicholas Waters, is a recent ANAM habitue but has been integrating into the Flinders sound for a few years now.

Part of this program will be played in the Collins St. Baptist Church at 1 pm on Tuesday February 26.   Laing and Schumann remain; Haydn disappears.

 

Thursday February 28

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTRE ORCHESTRA WITH WYNTON MARSALIS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another of the talented Marsalis brood comes to town, not hiding out in a subterranean bar in authentic 1950s fashion but taking to the concert hall and using the services of the MSO.   Trumpeter Wynton has not been here for 20 years, so his return is big news; on top of which, he is bringing his JLCO musicians with him.   As usual, I’m unsure who is playing what.   We are scheduled to hear some Duke Ellington selections – from both bodies or only one is unclear.   More definitely, we will enjoy Bernstein’s 1949 Prelude, Fugue and Riffs which will feature the JLCO and some guests from the MSO.   But the focal point of the night is Marsalis’ own Symphony No. 4, The Jungle, which is a portrait of New York, has six movements, and is of Mahlerian length.   Yet another fusion of jazz and classical, the symphony has generated generally amiable reactions from American audiences and writers.   Given its predecessors on this night, it faces a huge amount of competition.

This program will be repeated on Friday March 1 at 7:30 pm and on Saturday March 2 at 7:30 pm.

 

Thursday February 28

JOVIAN WORLDS

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

As for Jove, the MCO is going for the pantheonic jugular with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the Classical period’s main justification for the key of C Major.   Conductor Michael Dahlenburg, a young man set on an ultra-demanding task, has charge of this interpretation.   As well, the concert begins with a Tchaikovsky scrap: the Moderato e semplice first movement from the String Quartet No. 1 with its  rocking first subject syncopations.   We’ll hear it in a string orchestra arrangement (don’t know whose).   In this conservatively shaped program, the centre-piece concerto is Tchaikovsky in D with soloist Andrew Haveron, concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; seen here at least once a year in Kathryn Selby’s chamber music recital series at MLC in Hawthorn.  It’s a large work for the MCO to take on, asking for a woodwind octet, a brass sextet and timpani as well as a solid soloist-competitive string corps.   There’s a touch of the Jovian about the concerto, particularly in those brave polonaise-suggestive tutti outbursts during the first Allegro; also more than a suspicion of the Mercurial in the finale, with a few shadings of Saturnine grumpiness, not to mention an ongoing Venerian languor in the melting, muted outer stretches of the central Canzonetta.  Sorry: can’t find the Martial, Tellurian, Uranic or Neptunian . . . obviously not looking hard enough.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 5 at 2:30 pm in the Melbourne Recital Centre.

 

 

Not too much effort: it’s summer

PENINSULA SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL

Miles Johnston

Australian Haydn Ensemble & David Greco

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders

Sunday January 6 at 11:30 am and 2 pm

 

miles johnston

                                                                    Miles Johnston

After a decade or so under the artistic directorship of violinist Julia Fredersdorff, this festival has been taken over by a new pair of hands: those of Ben Opie, known only to me as the oboist from the two-persons-plus-guests Inventi Ensemble.  The event brief has been widened to take in some places on the Mornington Peninsula that are unknown to – and unheard of by – me.   So, letting discretion continue as the better part of valour, I beat the usual track to Flinders for two recitals that followed quickly on each other.

There are times when you can enjoy three events in one day at St. John’s Anglican Church on the outskirts of this seaside Sleepy Hollow, although the evening one is often held out-of-doors under canvas – which caters for the crowd that turns up but does nothing for the performers’ sound.   Both the morning guitar recital by Miles Johnston and the Schubert lieder collaboration after lunch were held indoors.  Now the church is not large but it does boast fine acoustic qualities; soft sounds carry successfully, fortissimo means exactly that, and shadings are instantly perceptible.

Johnston won the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantic’s Competition last year but moved outside that historical period in a four-part program of works from all over the place.   Following a practice as old as Segovia, he began with Bach: a transcription of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor.   Was this Manuel Barrueco’s arrangement?  Johnston did mention a name but it skipped past without making much of an impact – rather like two other composers on this program where syllabic proximation played a large part in their identification.

The sonata’s opening Adagio proved to be an excellent introduction to this young musician’s painstaking, lapidary interpretation by which every note is precisely delivered and the score’s progress is distinguished by the player’s fine ear for phrasing ebb and flow.   In this controlled, restrained set of pages, you got to appreciate very quickly how subtle is Johnston’s style, especially his negotiation of soft passages, which sometimes bordered on inaudibility.   The following fugue was delivered as a deliberate contrast: strict in metre, almost inexorably so until the final bars where the counterpoint dissipates into abrupt floridity.

Johnston’s view of the Siciliana – all 20 bars of it – was appealingly well-rounded with a high quality of fluency in the rush of demi-semiquavers in bars 5 and 8.   It was back to emphatic rhythmic solidity in the concluding Presto, which was just that.   Johnston observed the first repeat but not the second; still, he sustained a high degree of accuracy in this bravura exhibition which enjoyed remarkably few punctuation points.

Giulio Regondi’s Introduction and Caprice Op. 3 in E Major/minor also served as a valuable display piece for Johnston, who programmed this work for the Recital Centre competition.  He observed all the portamenti directions in the first part’s pages and managed to keep the shape sensible without overdoing the potential for rubato, exerting a firm control on the two cadenzas that occur near the end of each of the Introduction‘s two pages.   You don’t get much material to chew on in the Caprice but the executant had plenty of room for display in a brisk set of pages that ask for plenty of dexterity, a firm hand for full six-note chords, and an amiability of interpretation that keeps the tenor of the performance in the world of the salon.

Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Threnody for Chernobyl: variations on a twelve-tone theme offers a sort of meditation – not too demanding – on the Russian nuclear power-station disaster in 1986.   Johnston invested this work with a sure-footed solemnity, notably at either end: first, with the processional of single notes where Charlton sets out his material without doctrinaire rigidity; and at the conclusion where the underlying four-note inverted mordent pattern dominates the bleak emotional landscape as the work fades to silence.

Charlton makes no attempt – thankfully – to mirror the events of the colossal meltdown or the horrific aftermath that (we assume) followed.   He is concerned with mourning, so the work rarely whips itself into a passion.  And, despite the latter part of the title, he is not concerned with subscribing to any dodecaphonic rules; in fact, he does a Berg and gives his tone row an orthodox harmonic slant.   To his credit, the guitarist realised the piece’s quiet, pointed lament with a careful unveiling of its muted message; not so much rage against the dying of the light but a quiet, determined going gentle.

Last in this brief hour’s work was Russian guitarist/composer Nikita Koshkin’s Introduction and Vivace which used minor 9ths and 2nds as a sort of calling card throughout its first half before changing pace, if not material, for the faster pages.  I looked for the projected rock influences in the work that Johnston adverted to in his pre-performance address but could find little of the kind; it seemed quite a well-framed if intellectually brittle construct which, if anything, erred on the side of brevity.

Finally, a brief encore of what I think was Sergio Assad’s Valseana from the Aquarelle of 1986 and we were done.   Johnston shows an impressive technical armoury and a confidence that rarely falters; I heard only one fret error in the octave oscillations towards the end of the Regondi work and a few notes failed to register in the Koshkin Vivace, but slight slips were just that and not enough to distract from the eloquence of this musician’s product.

FOR the songs with light baritone David Greco, the Haydn Ensemble comprised five musicians: violins Skye McIntosh and Simone Slattery, viola James Eccles, cello James Bush and a double bass that I think was Jacqueline Dooser – only because she’s listed in the publicity for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival where this program is being repeated.   For this afternoon, Greco fronted seven songs while the quintet filled in  with excerpts from Les quatres saisons, a large suite of 24 pieces by Berlioz’s colleague, Felicien David.

The singer began with Die Gotter Griechenlandes which he introduced – as he did all his material – with a short explanatory talk.   Sadly, in this instance, he mishandled the title’s interpretation but, when it got around to singing, he gave a stolid account of this setting of a piece of Schiller’s pagan-celebrating poem.  I’d like to be able to report success from the Haydn players but their delivery impressed as slackly disciplined and all too often not uniform, either in striking the note simultaneously or in weighting the slow-moving chords appropriately.   It was hard to warm to Greco’s reading, principally because of an over-expressive tendency to gild the text with pointed emphasis, rather than allowing the line to make its own grave statements.

More dark shades followed with Der Jungling und der Tod and Der Tod und das Madchen, Greco relishing the several changes in persona that both songs offer and generally keeping the pathos under control.   Every so often, the Haydns would have a spongy passage where communal entries sounded anything but.   Much better came in the three excerpts from Winterreise: Gute nacht with an unexpected high vehemence pervading stanza 3, Fruhlingstraum pixilated by some added ornaments to brighten up this disturbing schizoid lyric, and Der Leiermann where you could admire the baritone’s legato if not the reading which was deficient in detachment, missing on the disembodied fade-to-black that concludes this epic essay in dreary weltschmerz.

Greco concluded the set program with a rapid version of Der Erlkonig, thoughtfully giving us a near-word-for-word translation before he began – which rather robs the experience of its point, but never mind.   Here, more than anywhere else, you missed the piano accompaniment, one of the most gripping in the art form.   Almost in compensation for the lack of percussive drive, Greco turned the song into something close to opera, in particular the lines of the dying child.   All very theatrical and enough to have the lady next to me leap to her feet in either admiration or arousal.

With the interstitial David pieces, you could find little interest and not much to challenge the quintet’s virtuosity.   McIntosh clipped some short ornamental points in the more playful interludes to the first piece, an Andantino in F sharp minor that heads the Summer bracket.   The Andante con moto 3/8 waltz that concludes the Spring experience worked to better effect although its positioning in the course of events puzzled.  During the Autumn Allegretto movement, pitching went astray somewhere in the upper strings which made you wonder whether the puristic insistence on gut strings was actually worth the trouble.   And in the final David extract – back to Spring for an Andante – the group hit a hefty dynamic level and stayed there for a remarkably long stretch.

Mind you, the packed church showed far more enthusiasm than I did for this recital and, given the working conditions, it’s to the musicians’ credit that the flaws in delivery were not more numerous or noticeable.   Even so, I was expecting more polish from the string players who came close to sounding lumpy in several of the David interludes.  Greco’s light-textured production is well-suited to Schubert with an attractive evenness across his range and a laudable clarity of diction and precision of articulation.   What is absent is a heightened insight of interpretation where the listener becomes less conscious of the vocal technique and more aware of the work’s emotional content.

 

 

2018 in review

January

As usual, this month was dominated by two festivals that marginally overlap: the Peninsula Summer Music and Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields.  Unlike previous years, where you are tempted to speed across the Mornington wastelands a few times during the week-plus stretch of recitals and concerts that artistic director Julie Fredersdorff assembles for the delectation of the district’s well-heeled conservatives, this year I found little tempting, apart from a single day at St. John the Evangelist Church in Flinders.  This small church has been a regular venue of the festival for many years, larger events transferred to the grass outside where, often enough, a large marquee is erected for audience-attracting programs.  This year’s three-recitals-in-one day exercise saw Fredersdorff and harpsichordist Aline Zylberajch powering through half of Bach’s violin sonatas, pianist Stefan Cassomenos mixing Scarlatti  with Australian writers Katy Abbott and Andrew Aronowicz, then violinist Lucinda Moon bringing up the rear with two of the Bach unaccompanied works for her instrument.

Ballarat’s hectic round kicked off with the Missa Criolla, that over-praised sample of contemporary religious composition, given an unexpectedly dour colouring from the Gloriana ensemble with additional percussion, the Mass partnered with Joby Talbot’s The Path of Miracles  –   well, some of it as the Glorianas sang only the final two movements,. but without the persuasive elation that the work’s commissioners, English choir Tenebrae, brought to it a few months before during the Melbourne International Arts Festival of 2017.   The Ballarat festivities ended with a mass from the other end of the historical spectrum in Biber’s massive Missa Salisburgensis, performed by the Newman College and Queen’s College choirs and a multitude of instruments that fleshed out the 53 lines required.   A fair attempt but the physical hurdles presented in getting all participants organized and inter-related sometimes proved too big an ask.

By some organizational holiday accident at The Age, I was asked to review Terence McNally’s Master Class, the play about Maria Callas teaching at the Juilliard School in 1971-2, its engrossing central role reprised yet again by Amanda Muggleton.   Like several similar dramatic essays that make it their business to position musical performance as their raison d’etre (including another Master Class by David Pownall about an imagined  Shostakovich-Prokofiev-Stalin confrontation), the personalities take over and the works heard assume a subsidiary importance.   I got mail after this review, assuring me that the dramatised content of Callas’ classes was based on actual recordings; which merely helped to reinforce my opinion that the diva over-charged the hosting organization for her services..   Of course, it’s hard to get the right balance but every dramatization I’ve seen of serious musicians grappling with their craft has veered towards the ludicrously over-drawn.  Examples are too numerous to detail, but you only have to remember Song of Norway, Song Without End, Magic Fire, Shine Immortal Beloved, and Rhapsody in Blue to see that sentiment wins out over fact time after time.   A great compensation is that most films about musicians these days are to do with rock performers or country-and-western people; here, the musical content is close to non-existent from the outset.

 

February

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is making a big success of its live soundtrack concerts, with a fair number of them held in the huge Plenary space.   In 2018, the organization struck out in a new direction: the Star Wars enterprise, presenting the first-made film in the series,  A New Hope.   A simple tale, before the story-line became too fraught with incestuous and Oedipal detours, the musicians gave a suitably straightforward account of John Williams’ atmospherically brilliant score.   In quick order, the MSO moved to the Myer Music Bowl for its annual series of three free concerts.   Of the two I heard, the first brought co-concertmaster Sophie Rowell to even more central centre-stage than usual for the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, which was followed by a vital Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4  directed by Dutch guest Antony Hermus; for the second, the novel programming of Berio’s Folk Songs, sung by Luciana Mancini, proved a welcome breath of fresh air on a night that began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and concluded with the same composer’s stupefyingly predictable Bolero.

A burst of Brahms generated my enthusiasm in the opening Australian Chamber Orchestra program for the year, a beefing-up of the String Sextet No. 2 that brought into the string orchestra mix some players from the Australian National Academy of Music.  Following a more prescribed path numerically, the Australian String Quartet gave a welcome re-airing to Brett Dean’s First Quartet, Eclipse, which memorializes a national shame in the Tampa crisis yet does so with remarkable restraint.   jordi Savall, his Hesperion XXI players and the Tembembe Ensemble Continuo musicians from Mexico attempted an amalgam of Spanish Baroque compositions and Latin American songs and dances, which experiment didn’t really come off with unquestionable success.

As for reviews in this blog, radio Station 3MBS mounted its annual marathon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, this year featuring J. S. Bach – including music by his sons and works by other composers inspired by, or borrowing from, the master.   C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion made an interesting novelty, well-achieved by the Bach Choir under Rick Prakhoff and graced by a fine assembly of soloists.    A trio of pianists gave good value: Tristan Lee accounted brilliantly for Liszt’s Praeludium on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, Elyane Laussade outlined the French Suite in G with some panache; Kathryn Selby showed no fear in a muscular Italian Concerto.

Beginning with a mind-boggling miscellany, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Thomas Tallis’ England proved to be a good deal more than its title proposed, taking in works by the Elizabethan master but adding music by Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, Purcell, Handel and ending with an overblown account of Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.   Still, it gave us a chance to re-evaluate the merits of countertenor Maximilian Riebl.

 

March

Sir Andrew Davis, drawing near to the end of his reign as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, put in time with his players this month.   The season opening gala featured Nelson Freire in an orthodox reading of the Beethoven E flat Piano Concerto,  tenor Stuart Skelton later surging through arias from Fidelio, Die Walkure and Otello.    Sir Andrew determined that we needed to hear The Dream of Gerontius under his tutelage, using Skelton again for the exercise, although  I thought mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers the Elgar oratorio’s outstanding contributor.   Closing out – almost – his Mahler cycle, Davis produced a sonorous if woozy version of the Symphony No. 9 and we all wait with optimism for the staging of No. 8, although I can’t see it on the schedule for 2019.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra gave way to tragedy in minimal form with the Barber Adagio, went simply serious for Mozart’s C minor Adagio and Fugue, pursued a vein of  sombre lament with Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, and wound up its joyless afternoon in Death and the Maiden, as usual arranged for string orchestra, and very effectively, too, by Tognetti.

For those essential Good Friday goosebumps, the Bach Choir and Orchestra sounded at their best in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater; not the forces’ usual stamping ground but clear-edged with only a nagging pitch problem from the upper line.   In Brahms’ A German Requiem, the choral forces under Rick Prakhoff worked diligently but Lorina Gore’s Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit shone out for its calm fluency.

Other smaller-scale events covered in this blog include the Wilma & Friends recital at Scotch College featuring James Bakirtzis’ excellent wind line in the Mozart Horn Quintet and Brahms’ Horn Trio, with another Scotch graduate, Tian Tian Lan, making a highly competent keyboard in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.   A packed house heard Kathryn Selby and friends violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman presenting Beethoven: the Spring Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata, and the Archduke Trio – all programmed by popular vote.   Victorian Opera remounted Calvin Bowman’s setting of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding which often made unexpected sense and enjoyed handling by a fired-up young cast.

 

April

Below, you can find coverage of Avi Avital and the Giocoso String Quartet appearing for Musica Viva and collaborating in a Kats-Chernin piece and British writer David Bruce’s remarkable Cymbeline; the Arcadia Winds giving a new dress to Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and expanding to a sextet for Janacek’s ardent Mladi;  Opera Australia’s recycling of La Traviata with a leading soprano and conductor unable to decide who’s in charge; and the Australian Octet playing Schubert, bouncing through the score with William Hennessy not concerned to apply the brakes on his youthful collaborators.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl juxtaposed Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Brahms Symphony No. 4, the MSO Chorale ladies carrying out their work with distinction in the French work’s Sirenes finale, and the players giving a compelling majesty to the symphony’s Chaconne conclusion.   For the first of the organization’s Metropolis series, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin enjoyed a prominent position, her sheng concerto Su refraining from giving the soloist total dynamic control, and the Australian String Quartet performed ParaMetaString, written for the Kronos Quartet and mining a rich seam of aural novelties that the local musicians clearly enjoyed articulating.

Celebrating Bernstein’s centenary, the Australian National Academy of Music engaged the services of Jose Luis Gomez to direct their forays into the 1980 Divertimento and the Candide Overture, before attention turned to the American musician’s friends and colleagues – Ginastera, Copland, Barber.

My five-star event for the year came in James Ehnes’ solo Bach recital in which the Canadian violinist swept through the E Major and D minor Partitas and the C Major Sonata No. 3.   This came about as part of the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and Ehnes fitted into that grouping with an extraordinary demonstration of technical craft and interpretative empathy of the first order.   Here was the kind of night that compensates for a hundred others spent on a lower level of engagement.

 

May

On its third Musica Viva tour, the Canadian early music ensemble Tafelmusik focused on Bach, both the grandiose statements of the Orchestral Suite No 1’s Overture and the refined tortuousness of the Goldberg Variations.   Nevertheless, the organization’s trademark illustrative backdrops proved uncomfortably variable in nature.   Over in South Melbourne, the National Academy musicians did without any visual support but invoked a more recherche Baroque: not in the Handel excerpts but in the rest of a leap-around night that took in some of the Terpsichore dances by Praetorius, a remarkable C. P. E. Bach symphony, and true rarities by Zelenka and Vejvanovsky.

At the venerable Town Hall where the acoustic that we all grew up with continues to exert its sonorous boom, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra worked through an evening of Johann Strauss et al Viennese classics, although the standard moved up and down, both players and soloist soprano Emma Matthews feeling their way through the Emperor Waltz, Lehar’s Vilja and occasionally striking a gold seam as in Meine Lippen, sie kussen and the showy Voices of Spring Waltz.   Further down the track, Sir Andrew Davis took his charges through some content being ventilated on their tour of China: Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra which proved happily to be just that and scintillating to boot; the Liszt E flat Concerto with pianist Moye Chen displaying a confident assurance; and more E flat in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony No. 3, an unflustered account but with every revolutionary point underlined in red.

In the relevant month on this site, you will find coverage of the Selby & Friends (cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Vesa-Matti Lepannen holidaying from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster chair)  recital on May 2 that featured the Brahms Sextet No.1 in a texture-opening arrangement for piano trio format, and the Arensky Trio No. 2, which is a true rarity in live performance.   Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble were up to a subcontinental exercise on May 6 infiltrated by the Afrolankan Drumming Ensemble, both groups combining for a musical travelogue around Sri Lanka.   Mother and son duo Oksana and Markiyan Melnychenko enjoyed mainly successes in their May 7 night of Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin (Porgy and Bess, Three Preludes), Ravel’s Violin Sonata and some of Korngold’s delicious incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.   And the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra hosted harpist Xavier de Maistre on May 12, the program culminating in the soloist’s arrangement for himself alone of Smetana’s The Moldau, which rather fell between the two stools of sticking to the original or making a new creature from the Bohemian composer’s raw materials.

 

June

Being even-handed with his oratorios, Sir Andrew Davis balanced his The Dream of Gerontius in March with L’enfance du Christ three months later.   Not that the score from a master-orchestrator presented the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with taxing problems and Davis was fortunate in that his soloists settled quickly into their parts, Andrew Staples’ tenor a fine linking presence as the work’s Narrator.

Australian expatriate pianist Leslie Howard, a formidable authority on Liszt, played a selection of the composer’s opera arrangements/transcriptions/reminiscences/fantasies. The Recital Centre witnessed a fine exhibition of memory and technique, even if the results impressed as uneven.   Mind you, that would have had a good deal to do with the various works presented ranging from a so-so transcription of two dances from Handel’s Almira to the melting treatment of some love music from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

In a Mozart fest, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra offered light, tripping versions of the Symphony No. 30, the Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat with Anna Goldsworthy taking on the solo part,  and the String Quartet No. 7 in string orchestra garb.   Alongside this arcana, director William Hennessy set the popular Haydn Piano Concerto in D Major, a pleasant doddle for Goldsworthy.

 

July

Compensating for a June holiday in Cairns with grandchildren, I heard a fair number of concerts in this month.   What scene we have in this city was dominated by the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, now being controlled by Musica Viva.   As usual, the heats took place at the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne – awkward to get to during the day and taxing to find long-term parking that doesn’t cost an uncomfortable amount.   Several of the Round 1 ensembles roused enthusiasm, but they must have dashed their chances in the next hurdle because they disappeared from the finals lists.   Still, it was pleasing to find that the jury at the grand final agreed with me by saluting the Marvin Trio’s reading of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s  Op. 24 Trio.   Just as fortunately, the panel got it right again with the string quartets, rewarding the Goldmund group from Germany for their committed Brahms A minor performance which spoke the right language throughout.

Simone Young conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, in which the brass impressed for their fortitude and avoidance of error.   It’s a large canvas and Young gave us the full perspective, even if the strings sounded less assured than their exposed wind colleagues.   Kolja Blacher gave excellent service as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto which is rejoicing in some favour after years of dismissal and neglect; improbable though this seems, given the convincing stature and maturity of its concluding Passacaglia.

Later, Joshua Weilerstein led two Brahms transcriptions: the late Op. 117 Intermezzo in E flat in Paul Klengel’s orchestration, and Schoenberg’s superlative re-shaping of the F minor Piano Quartet which enjoyed driving treatment from the large forces involved.  Australian pianist Jayson Gillham accounted for the Beethoven C minor Concerto with  enunciative coherence and a dynamic restraint that proved as refreshing as the rest of this remarkably well-coordinated program.

Finally, another Bernstein homage for the composer’s birth centenary year emerged with the live soundtrack performance of the 1961 West Side Story film.  Here is some of the best Bernstein and the MSO came to the party with ferocity and a crisp delivery, best heard in the more frenetic dance sequences; the whole exercise a credit to conductor Benjamin Northey, each of the MSO’s sections, and a painstaking reproduction of the original score and parts after the originals were lost.

As for this blog, I went to four differing recitals.   Joerg Widmann’s Third String Quartet took central position in the Australian String Quartet’s Recital Centre appearance, bracketed by Beethoven:  Op. 135 and  No. 3 of the Op. 18 set.   The modern piece wore out its welcome but gave a refresher course in sound-manufacture techniques of several decades ago.   The Melbourne Festival of Lieder and Art Song at Melba Hall climaxed in an exhibition on July 13 which turned into a lecture with musical illustrations, so tedious that I left at interval.   Pianist Joyce Yang, sponsored by Musica Viva, played a hurtling version of Schumann’s Carnaval, preceded by a subtle, informed Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante.   And Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble moved their attentions for the last chapter of their peregrinations to China in The Kites of Tianjin with Wang Zheng-Ting once again displaying his command of the sheng.

 

August

You can read in these pages an appreciation of one of the least successful programs from the Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra in recent times.   Blame can hardly be sheeted home to the ABO itself but more to its guests, La Camera delle Lacrime, who attempted an East/West fusion that managed to be both trying and tiring.   Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Odyssey failed to satisfy on most fronts.   Melbourne Opera put aside its Wagner fixation for a while, presenting Der Rosenkavalier in the tight Athenaeum space.   At the final performance, everyone went home happy if tired – both performers and audience.

Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra gave us Bach’s Goldberg Variations in orchestral guise, thanks to an arrangement by Bernard Labadie.   Although pretty much all of the performers enjoyed some solo exposure, the main brunt of the labour fell on director Richard Tognetti himself.    In a program rich in transcriptions – the recently-discovered 14 Goldberg Canons, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, part of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters – the main work enjoyed a bold, informed interpretation.

One of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chamber-size nights in the Recital Centre enjoyed the direction and participation of concertmaster Dale Barltrop.   Despite the central numbers of the night being near-contemporary – Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy and the Vox amoris of Peteris Vasks – the really convincing music-making came at the start and end: first, in a clean-speaking Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; later, a sure-footed Brandenburg No. 1 with excellent contributions from horns and oboes that allowed you to forget the dangers and just relish the majesty and  warmth of this all too rarely heard Baroque glory.

Intending to give us yet another British gem to savour, Sir Andrew took the MSO on an unsatisfying journey through Holst’s The Planets suite.   It might have been much intrusive heftiness and gratuitous ritardandi; it could have been a lack of interest in the slower movements’ woodwind solos; or it might possibly have arisen from some pitch problems that emerged without reason.  Whatever, an underlying malaise detracted from the score’s friendly splendour.   At all events, I much preferred the night’s only other constituent: Carl Vine’s new Symphony No. 8, The Enchanted Loom.   This is a reversion to top form from the orchestra’s 2018 Composer in Residence – a sterling exercise in novel sonorities with its five movements following a narrative that could be assimilated without much trouble but which seemed of secondary importance to the composer’s manipulation of solo instruments and unusual group matchings.

For Musica Viva, violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julien Quentin showed at their best in Grieg’s Sonata No. 2 which I believe I was hearing for the first time in live performance.  Even if it employed nationalistic tropes, this score gave both executants plenty of room for rich collaboration, at ease with each other’s musicianship.  An especially-commissioned violin sonata by Matthew Hindson left little impact but it didn’t try that hard to mark out new territory.   An obliging audience relished Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, even more so the violin virtuosity of Monti’s Csardas.

I was able to hear only two of the three major Mimir Chamber Music Festival events at Melba Hall; the second, which engaged the services of local pianist Caroline Almonte, is reviewed in these pages.   Over the last few years, these recitals have been immensely enjoyable, the teaching staff from the American source-festival in Fort Worth putting together programs of well-known repertoire and unusual novelties.   Curt Thompson, the University of Melbourne’s head of strings, co-founded the enterprise and brought it here after his appointment to the Conservatorium of Music.   This year, the festival’s opening recital began with the moving Two Songs Op. 91 by Brahms, Australian mezzo Victoria Lambourn a fine interpreter of these modest, moving lyrics.   Ringing some home-country chimes, violinists Stephen Rose, Jun Iwasaki, viola Joan DerHovsepian and cello  Brant Taylor presented Amy Beach’s F sharp minor Quintet with pianist John Novacek supporting the string players’ enthusiastic proclamatory approach.   Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet came over with more firmness than usual, these performers happy to give full voice to the composer’s purple patches of post-Beethovenian aspiration.

 

September

Om the latter half of the year, I failed in an aim to visit one concert a week for this blog, thanks to another  retreat to Queensland.  In fact, I heard only two concerts, and they were in many ways a disjunct reflection of each other.   At Deakin Edge, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra presented an Espana! night, with a guitar soloist who was indisposed but went on anyway, the exercise culminating in a wretched reading of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.   In any case, the plethora of arrangements that preceded this effort sounded remarkably tame, hardly justifying the exclamation mark of the program’s title.

But the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra returned to form with a remarkable series of Baroque scores, replacement guest violinist Daniel Pinteno heading a Mediterraneo! program with impressive panache, heard at its finest in Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto from L’estro armonico – a blinder among a happy chain of finely accomplished pieces, only one or two of them familiar.

Rich Prakhoff’s Melbourne Bach Choir Sang Mozart’s Requiem with unsurprising stolidity, the four soloists serving as welcome intruders for their athletic pliancy in phrasing and dynamic changes.   Tenor Andrew Goodwin added yet another sterling accomplishment to our experience of his work with a reflective, unfussed account of Stravinsky’s In memoriam Dylan Thomas; allied with mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and baritone Andrew Jones, he brought animation and light to a chorally bland version of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata.

Back for the umpteenth time, the Borodin Quartet played Haydn Op. 33 No. 1, Shostakovich No. 9, and Beethoven Op. 130.    I didn’t know it at the time but first violin Ruben Aharonian was performing in spite of his being in poor health.   Still, the Haydn came across with an unexpected equable balance of weight and the Russian construct worked best in its two adagio movements where the viola and cello bear the most significant emotional load.   But the group excelled, I thought, in its Beethoven: a reading such as only experience, hard work and collegial insight can yield and one of my top performances of the year.

British pianist Paul Lewis worked for the cognoscenti on this visit, playing an eclectic program of Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms, most of it late period and not the sort of music you hear these days when performers generally ride safely on the confined merry-go-round where the familiar breeds assent.   Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles Op. 119 proved confronting thanks to the pianist’s unveiling of contrapuntal complexity which most other interpreters ignore.   You couldn’t brush these pages aside as a collection of oddities written over 20 years, the later ones marking  incongruous deviations from the path to illumination of the final sonatas.   Lewis presented them as a broad sweep, sometimes complex, sometimes simple but each emotionally consistent with its surroundings.  Haydn’s late E flat Sonata and his solitary B minor Sonata stripped away any polite salon patina and revealed a rarely heard gruffness and candour.   Then the Four Pieces Op. 119 by Brahms gave us more thickly-blended harmonic progressions in the three intermezzi and an insistent triumphalism in the final Rhapsody that brought to mind the composer’s great sponsor Schumann in its driving, near-manic insistence.

Another impressive visitor was violinist Ilya Gringolts, the youngest winner 20 years ago of the Premio Paganini Prize, who took on the dual roles of director and soloist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   Most interest fell on the visitor’s reading of the Paganini Concerto No. 1, given here in its original E flat key.   Gringolts carried all before him with a scintillating, brilliant outline of the work in which the ornamentation was welded into the concerto’s construction.    He’s one of those performers who appears to have absolute control; yes, the work has dangerous moments but this musician works through them without demonstrative effort.   He has insights as a conductor, too,  leading his forces in a C. P. E. Bach symphony packed with dramatic incident and a dissonance-highlighting version of an ACO favourite: Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939.

 

October

Only one recital features on this blog for October.  It’s the final Selby & Friends program for the year at which the well-known Sydney pianist collaborated with WAAPA violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline and Sydney Symphony Orchestra cellist Umberto Clerici.  As is her wont, Selby partnered each of her guests in a duo – the Falla Suite populaire espagnole and Debussy’s Cello Sonata – before a general team-up for Piazzolla’s useless Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and the stalwart Mendelssohn in D minor.

Otherwise, the month’s serious music-making was dominated by the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.   Before this began, the Australian String Quartet finished its 2018 Melbourne appearances with cellist Blair Harris stepping in for maternity-leave member, Sharon Grigoryan.    The Schubert Rosamunde enjoyed a reading just the right side of sentimental and the Shostakovich No. 10 reflected this pureness of heart at night’s end, here making a welcome appearance following other ensembles’ concentration on earlier works in the genre by this composer.   In the middle, James Ledger’s new String Quartet No. 2, The Distortion Mirror, fed real-time sounds into a computer for manipulation.   Not too complicated, the score enjoyed a pleasing reception, although you’d be hard pressed to find much that was confrontational in its passages of play.

Also off the Festival grid, Jukka-Pekka Saraste directed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the complete Firebird ballet, which tended to show how little we miss when subjected to the several versions Stravinsky extracted for his money-spinning suites.  Saraste also aired the newly-discovered Funeral Song, Stravinsky’s in memoriam for his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.   Several pundits claim this brief score opens a new window on the composer’s early thinking; they may be right but you’d be hard pressed to predict what was coming from the composer’s pen in the coming four years.   In between, Dejan Lasic played a well-considered solo part for Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the reactionary virtuosity of its finale coming across with telling artistry.

As for the Festival content that I heard, Van Diemen’s Band offered live performances of excerpts from their 2017 CD, including three cello concertos by Nicola Fiorenza treated with convincing dedication by soloist Catherine Jones.  Not restricted by their recital’s title, Cello Napoletano, the ensemble wandered around with affable ease from both Scarlattis to Boccherini with a Geminiani and a Corelli as make-weights.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale attempted a theatrical splicing-up of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro cycle, investing their performance (sung from memory) with stylized choreographic moves and staged groupings to give a visual realization of the verbal content.   When the physical movement died down and the group stood in a semi-circle and just sang, the results proved very moving indeed, especially as the over-blown dynamic contrasts were given a rest and the work’s emotional context shifted from angry self-recrimination to a wrenching despair.

Chinese conductor/composer Tan Dun has built up a firm relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, largely through an annual Chinese New Year event in which he places his own music and/or that of his countrymen alongside well-known gems of Western music.   His Buddha Passion offers an individual take on the Bach Passions with the Indian spiritual leader as its operating fulcrum.   Where Western composers concentrate on the last night and day of Christ’s life, Tan Dun follows a loose path of parables and events from the Bodhi tree enlightenment to the translation to Nirvana.   It made for a remarkable confection of simplicity and explosive bursts of powerful commentary, the MSO Chorus working with indefatigable deliberation through Chinese and Sanskrit texts.

Sir Andras Schiff, playing here for the first time in many years, gave us the Festival highlight, even if his performance was part of Musica Viva’s season.   The pianist foraged through Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp before a brilliant, curt-and-warm reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 and an equally revelatory interpretation of Bach’s last English Suite.   Yet the core of this lavish recital came in two Brahms brackets: the Op. 78  Eight Pieces and the Op. 116 Seven Fantasias that I can’t remember hearing complete before.   This was an extraordinarily clean-scoured double sequence, the mutually dependent artistry of technique and consistent intellectual content a clear justification for this pianist’s significant stature among that small band of modern musicians with an open-handed generosity to his audience (some massive Bach encores) and interpretative insights of a high order .

 

November

Finishing its year in solid form, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented some well-worn French masterworks – Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 – and Brett Dean’s orchestrations of the Debussy Ariettes oubliees, sung by mezzo Fiona Campbell.    Soloist Beatrice Rana fronted the only nationalistic odd man out  with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece you used to hear all over the place but which has suffered a decline in interest across recent decades.    This was a blazing, confident exhibition from a gifted young artist, well-assisted by the MSO under conductor Fabien Gabel who dropped in for the occasion from Quebec but brought not much individuality along with him.

William Hennessy finished his Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s annual operations in a Bach-dominated program.   Refraining from burying the material under a thick string blanket, he directed his charges through the Orchestral Suites 3 and 4 without any period-style enervation.   The D minor Double Violin Concerto made a welcome if predictable appearance, matching the premiere of Richard Mills’ Double Violin Concerto which impressed for two-thirds of its length in the sympathetic hands of soloists Markiyan Melnychenko and Aidan Filshie.

One of the more commanding Mahler readings we’ve heard this year came from the Australian National Academy of Music whose staff and some distinguished guests from interstate and overseas played Klaus Simon’s arrangement for 16 players of the Symphony No. 9.    Their disclosure of inner workings and an absence of over-the-top theatricality made the experience elevating and packed with suspense – a far cry from the bombast that many conductors attempt to impose on this wrenching farewell to arms, in this instance discreetly conducted by expatriate Matthew Corey who had the pleasure of dealing with a band of fearless competence.

The only concert covered on this blog was an Armistice Day salute from the Arcko Symphony Ensemble at the Carlton Church of All Nations.  In a series of works written and performed by people, most of whom seemed to have family connections to World War I, we heard music by Rohan Phillips and Andrew Harrison, whose cantata gave this enterprise its title and made a moving impression, despite the meagre written source material on which it was constructed.   And it was an unalloyed delight to hear Helen Gifford’s piano solo Menin Gate given an airing by Joy Lee.

I also heard, thanks to a friend, Opera Australia’s production of Die Meistersinger which was worth sitting through for Daniel Sumegi’s firmly-articulated Pogner and some pleasurable passages from Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Sachs and the Beckmesser of Warwick Fyfe.  As for the situational ambience being translated to a gentlemen’s club, you could understand why it appealed as an idea – the guild is nothing if not as hidebound as any 19th century London establishment like White’s or the Athenaeum – but you also had to wonder at a dereliction of duty during the later acts where the venue became increasingly inchoate and irrelevant.

 

December

The only concert I heard in this month, thanks to renewed bouts of poor health, was the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! collation which, this year, was pretty free of inanities.   In fact, Paul Dyer and his players did excellent service in the earlier parts of the program with a Hildegard meditation, two Gregorian chants, a Cruger chorale and a quaint seasonal motet-of-sorts by Johannes Eccard, a Tye carol and a Monteverdi hymn.  The ABO Choir was hard pressed but responded with only a handful of stressful moments and soprano Bonnie de la Hunty should have been given an award for her manifold contributions to the entertainment.   Coverage of this event concludes this blog’s live music activity for the year.

 

 

 

 

January Diary

The first weeks of January are dominated, as usual, by the Peninsula Summer Music Festival – Mornington Peninsula, that is.   A change in artistic director finds oboist Ben Opie in charge of proceedings and he has widened the programmatic net to include events that have little attraction for me – Bach from an ad hoc string quartet while bathing at the Peninsula Hot Springs, Fingal; solo violin music from Jessica Oddie as you follow her around the Hot Springs estate; another peripatetic experience led by Opie on the Festival’s last night starting at the Pelican Statues in Hastings; a scattering of jazz and children’s entertainments, alongside some indigenous recitals, as well as a rock guitarist playing solo and an electronic musician providing sounds to go along with yet another Fingal bathing experience.

Slightly running into the Peninsula festival’s time space comes the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival with a plethora of recitals and a few social events for the solid core of regulars.

 

Wednesday January 2

SUITE PERSANE

Peninsula Chamber Musicians and Guests

St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

The numbers are pretty equal here: five regular Peninsularians and five guests.   Some of the latter are familiar names:  festival director Ben Opie, flautist Melissa Doecke, bassoonist Adam Mikulicz, while the original group is an unknown quantity to me.  Their offerings are decets by Andre Caplet, the formidable orchestrator of Debussy pieces, and Enescu.  Presumably, the French work is the three-movement Suite persane of 1900, and the Enescu will be its near-contemporary D Major Decet, written in 1906.  Here is real festival fare: unknown scores for an unusual combination.  And it’s in a venue that I haven’t experienced, although it might have featured in previous years and I’ve been too lazy to drive to a resort in high season.

 

Wednesday January 2

SWEETER THAN ROSES

Janet Todd and Nicholas Pollock

Hurley Vineyard, Balnarring at 6 pm

Like the preceding recital – and a good many others – this is a 60-minutes/no-interval program.   It presents the talents of Victorian-born soprano Todd, nowadays making her home in Los Angeles,  and lutenist Pollock.  Their recital’s title refers (I hope) to the song that Purcell wrote for his semi-opera Pausanias.  In any case, we are promised music that moves from Dowland, through Purcell, and then to the French Baroque.  Pollock is listed as a ‘Peninsula favourite’, although his name is not one that I recall.

 

Thursday January 3

RAVEL’S BLUES

Sophie Rowell & Kristian Chong

Moorooduc Estate at 4 pm

Sort of self-explanatory.   The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster Rowell collaborates with expert pianist Chong in three sonatas, ending with Ravel’s No.2 with its central Blues in A flat movement: a sprightly construct and highly effective as long as the players don’t oversell the jazz, thinking that they have a wider scope for interpretative flamboyance than the composer intended.   Preceding this come Mozart in B flat K. 454 with its stately introduction and Beethoven No. 4 in A minor which doesn’t have a slow movement.   This duo is one of the program’s more certain pairings, involving two musicians of exceptional and established quality.

This program will be repeated at 6:30 pm.

 

Friday January 4

GODFATHER, FATHER & SON

Duo Foster-Browne

Main Ridge Estate, Red Hill at 4 pm

A neat set of relationships are enshrined in this recital’s title.  The godfather is Telemann, who sponsored C. P. E. Bach at his christening.   So the players are presenting music by the godfather, his godson and the proud birth father, Johann Sebastian.  The duo itself comprises baroque flautist Georgia Browne and harpsichordist Tom Foster who are no strangers to each other, having presented an all-French program at the University of Edinburgh two months ago.   For the senior Bach, the pickings for duets number about 8, even if some of these are disputed territory with Carl Philip Emmanuel.  As for the godson, the catalogue lists 12 works for flute and continuo, as well as 5 for harpsichord and flute.   Looking at Telemann’s output, the mind boggles, grappling with its variety and manifold applications and arrangements.

The program will be repeated at 7 pm.

 

Saturday January 5

Australian Haydn Ensemble

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 12 pm

On its website, most of the selective encomia for this group, established in 2011, come from the Sydney Morning Herald.   Which might be a partial explanation for my lack of experience with them.   The ensemble – or part of it – played at a Melbourne International Arts Festival, possibly during the years of Josephine Ridge’s Haydn-fixated directorship.  Anyway, here they are now  .  .  .  well, a few of them: director/violinist Skye McIntosh, second violin Simone Slattery, viola James Eccles, cello James Bush, with flautist Melissa Farrow a welcome woodwind voice.   The program has only two works, both by Mozart: the first Flute Quartet in D K. 285 – all 14 minutes of it – and the String Quartet in G K. 387, which is the first of the set of six that the composer dedicated to Haydn.   Seems to be a short-change program if you’re after time value for money.

 

Saturday January 5

OF LOVE

Songmakers Australia

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 3 pm

Another duo recital, again involving well-known artists.   Soprano Merlyn Quaife collaborates with Songmakers Australia director-pianist Andrea Katz.  The range offered moves from Schubert to Selleck but then also promises ‘music by acclaimed Australian composers’ – to which group one hopes that the talented Johanna has by this stage been admitted.   For all the vagueness, this should be an engrossing business, especially given Quaife’s career-long dedication to performing home-grown material.

 

Saturday January 5

AN EVENING WITH SARA MACLIVER AND THE AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 7 pm

This program revolves around Boccherini’s Stabat mater, the original version of 1781 which requires a soprano soloist and a supporting string quintet.   As well as this substantial score, Macliver will work through arias by Handel from Apollo e Dafne, Theodora and Agrippina, while the Haydn people present Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and an arrangement for chamber ensemble by that formidable impresario Johann Peter Salomon of Haydn’s last symphony, the London (I assume this version is the one for string quartet and flute).   Macliver also offers a Mozart bracket in Zerlina’s two arias  –  Batti, batti and Vedrai, carino  –  as well as Pamina’s Ach, ich fuhl’s, and Laetari, locari from the early Apollo et Hyacinthus opera by the then-11-year-old composer; his first essay in the form, actually, although this seems to be the only scrap that has moved into public awareness and, even then, I’ve never heard it live.   The ensemble will probably consist of a string quintet as all the Mozart has been arranged by one ‘Lim’ – gifted local veteran composer Liza?  Probably not.

 

Sunday January 6

MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE GREAT ROMANTICS WINNER

Miles Johnston

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 11:30 am

Johnston is a guitarist who won this year’s MRC competition – obviously.   He’s proposing some Bach, which is par for the course and has been ever since Segovia mined the extensive archive for material, some of which worked superbly.   Alongside this, we are to hear works by Australian Richard Charlton  –  a large catalogue to pick from  –  and Nikita Koshkin, a big guitar name in and from Russia.   It’s an excellent festival initiative, to give a venue to this competition’s winner – especially fortunate when the lucky player is entering a field that is already packed, some of it quite talented.

 

Sunday January 6

SCHUBERT SONGS

Australian Haydn Ensemble and David Greco

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 2 pm

The program is all arrangements, but not all-Schubert.   Greco, an assertive young baritone, is accompanied by the Haydn quintet in Die Gotter Griechenlands, Der Jungling und der Tod (the second version, I think), Gute Nacht, Frulingstraum, Der Leiermann, Der Tod und das Madchen and Der Erlkonig.  And we have an identity for that unnamed arranger ‘Lim’ from yesterday’s Sara Macliver/Haydn Ensemble event.  It’s Vi King Lim, who works as librarian for Symphony Services Australia and has done a good deal of work for the Haydn people.   Interspersed with the lieder are some extracts from Felicien David’s Les quatre saisons, a lengthy collection of pieces for string quintet concerned with memorialising the evenings of the four seasons.   For this occasion, the Haydns are playing two of the Summer and two of the Spring soirees.   From what I’ve heard of them, any relationship with Schubert will be hard to sustain.

 

Thursday January 10

REALMS OF LIGHT

Blair Harris

Elgee Park, Dromana at 6 pm

This well-known cellist will spend much of his hour or so playing Australian music.   All the works are solos and Harris starts and ends with Peter Sculthorpe: the short Sonata of 1959 and the twice-as-long Requiem written 20 years later.   Stuart Greenbaum’s Lunar Orbit offers a meditation on the Apollo 11 mission; Kate Moore’s brief Whoever you are come forth takes its genesis from a Whitman line.   Some deviations from the local come with Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor, written in memory of Argentinian tango singer Carlos Gardel who died in a 1935 plane crash; and Japanese Karen Tanaka’s  The Song of Songs which calls for electronics to support the live instrument as it attempts to summon up the erotic invitation that opens King Solomon’s love-poem.

 

Friday January 11

MOZART’S CHURCH SONATAS

Inventi Ensemble

St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

He wrote 17 works with this title, to be played between the Epistle and Gospel readings during the first part of the Mass, where the mumbled Alleluia versicle now stands.  This ensemble intends to precede their selection from the sonata set with improvisations in the style of whatever follows.   Flautist Melissa Doecke and oboist Ben Opie lead a sextet which includes violinists Peter Clark and Jessica Oddie, cellist William Hewer and Peter de Jager playing this church’s Laurie organ, originally built for Whitley College and moved to Balnarring last year.   On this instrument, de Jager will also play ‘Wagenseil’s brilliant Concerto for Organ’, according to the promotional material; what is not hinted at is which of the 12 possibles is intended.   As for the Mozart sonatas, the Inventi could play any of them, except Nos. 12, 14 and the last which all require extra woodwind/brass, including two trumpets.  An intriguing program, even if those improvisations leave you wondering.

 

Friday January 11

ARVO PART: THE PASSION OF ST. JOHN

Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Gary Ekkel and his choir are taking on this Passio, an hour-long setting of the Johannine Gospel’s Chapters 18 and 19 by the Estonian composer.  The requisite forces are a baritone soloist for Jesus, a tenor for Pilate, an SATB quartet to handle the Evengelist’s lines, a larger force for the turba, and modest instrumental resources – violin, cello, oboe, bassoon, and organ.  Using Part’s tintinnabuli style – chanting till the cows come home, harmonic and rhythmic stasis, monochrome textures – the work’s intent is to invite meditation rather than express the narrative’s drama.   I’ve always found it hard to find sympathy with the Baltic modern musical mystics, which is a personal fault of major proportions, yet, even if you concentrate on this work’s constructional procedures, there’s no getting around Part’s insistent abnegation of flourish.  A dour start to this packed festival.

 

Saturday January 12

RECITAL FOR ORGAN AND SOLO CELLO

Anthony Halliday and Alvin Wong

Carngham Uniting Church, Snake Valley at 10 am

Not much news available about this recital, except that Wong will perform the Bach Suite No. 6 in D, the one that seems to require a five-stringed instrument unless you’re prepared to negotiate a fair amount of stretching and positional awkwardness.  What music is there for this cello/organ combination?   You’d be surprised, even if the mind automatically turns to thoughts of arrangements.   Still, there’s plenty of room for Halliday to play carefully on this church’s Fincham & Hobday instrument.   He is a true Festival favourite, taking his place in several variegated events year after year.  Wong, a Melbourne University eminence, has operated under my radar since his appointment four years ago.

The program will be repeated at mid-day.

 

Saturday January 12

A PENINSULA SALON

Linda Barcan

Beleura Estate at 12:35 pm

For this event, patrons are asked to meet in the foyer of the Mornington Golf Club, from which point transport will be arranged to wherever on the estate this scheduled entertainment is to take place.   Mezzo Barcan is the initiator but details are thin – well, non-existent – as to what will be performed and by whom.  The aim is to mimic the 1870s-to-1880s Boulevard Saint-Germain salon of Pauline Viardot, the famous mezzo who knew and worked with most of the great musical names in Europe before and after her retirement from the stage in 1863.   You’d have to assume that this afternoon’s program will comprise works that would have been heard in Viardot’s salon; from the only illustration I’ve seen, the room contained an organ which, for all I know, has a counterpart somewhere on the Beleura estate.   Or things might take an unexpected turn and it could be all contemporary material, as it was in Viardot’s day.   You pays your money and you takes your chances.

 

Saturday January 12

ORGAN RECITAL

Nello Catarcia

Ballarat Central Uniting Church at 3 pm

This musician comes from Orvieto where he is cathedral organist.  The program for today mentions works by Bach, Franck and Liszt; curiously, those same three featured in the recital that Catarcia gave on May 31 in his hometown’s Duomo.  However, the options available to Catarcia should ensure an enjoyable recital of the old school, and here’s hoping for something we never hear, like Liszt’s Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine or Franck’s Grande Piece Symphonique.

 

Saturday January 12

IL DIAVOLO

Davide Monti, Josephine Vains, Jacqueline Ogeil

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College Ballarat at 8 pm

Another giveaway title as violinist Monti sets us up for Tartini’s Devil’s Trill with support from well-known Accademia Arcadia personnel in cellist Vains and harpsichordist Ogeil.  But after that, we’re in no man’s land, although the projected path is towards contemporaries of Tartini, with the additional foreshadowing that this was a period when composition often amounted to little more than sketches, thereby offering a basis for improvisation from performers.   In any other hands, you’d have to be cautious but this is a well-experienced trio with a concert-giving history, so we should be happy with where they take us.

 

Sunday January 13

J.S.BACH – THE MUSICAL OFFERING

John O’Donnell

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

After introducing this superb work, John O’Donnell, from a Christofori piano, heads a quintet to perform the two ricercars, ten canons and four-movement trio sonata that constitute Bach’s answer to Frederick II’s challenge.  Violinists Davide Monti and Simone Slattery, cellist Josephine Vains and flautist Greg Dikmans share in the labours of this gripping 45-minute-long collection of contrapuntal craft amounting to genius, much of which can be entrusted to a solo keyboard; let’s hope O’Donnell is generous in sharing  the various lines, unavoidable in the sonata which requires flute and violin as well as continuo.

 

Sunday January 13

JAMES MACMILLAN – ‘SINCE IT WAS THE DAY OF PREPARATION

Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Back to the city’s Catholic cathedral for another impressive choral work, this one written by a Part disciple and well-known Scottish composer.   Gary Ekkel and his Schola re-emerge to present this extension of MacMillan’s own St. John Passion, musically animating the Burial and Resurrection, the appearance to the disciples, and the final scene on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias – all of it sourced mainly from Chapters 20 and 21 of the Gospel text.   As well, the composer uses some extra matter – a bit of St. Matthew, Tisserand’s setting of O filii et filiae,  Salva festa dies in the composer’s own setting, probably.   MacMillan requires, like Part, a small, sober orchestral group – clarinet, cello, horn, harp and theorbo, with occasional bells – and a vocal quintet which can be either a small choir or five soloists.  The bass member sings the words of Christ.  I’ve heard only scraps, which sound appropriately sombre but the composer has always had a fine ear for what travels clearly.

 

Monday January 14

BACH, MAHLER, WAGNER AND STRAVINSKY

Dorthe Zielke and Soren Johannsen

St. John’s Anglican Church, Creswick at 10 am

Zielke is the trumpeter, Johannsen the organist in this Danish duo.  The pair have been in an established musical (and personal, I believe) relationship for 20 years and have released four CDs: one of music from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, another dealing with Handel’s Messiah, an intriguing one of Carl Nielsen’s music for the two instruments (there isn’t any, to be specific, but the disc features a multitude of arrangements, its longest track the Danish master’s famous organ solo, Commotio), and a general one packed with arrangements of Wagner, Mussorgsky, Bellini, Mascagni, Mozart, Dvorak and several others.  The last of these probably indicates what’s heading to Creswick: the Liebstod and Air on the G String, for starters.  No idea about the Mahler – one of the Wayfarer songs? – and the Stravinsky could be the finale to the Firebird or just a scrap from The Soldier’s Tale.  Whatever the music, it will be accompanied by ‘electronically projected motifs’ provided by Arne Sorensen.

The program will be repeated at 12 noon.

 

Monday January 14

LES ANGELUS

Louisa Hunter-Bradley and David Macfarlane

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 4 pm

Yet another one of this festival’s referential titles that doesn’t carry you very far.   Louis Vierne wrote a piece by this name: a triptych – morning, noon, evening – to apply to those times of day when the Marian prayer is said.  The title is used on a CD featuring soprano Margaret Roest and organist Ben van Oosten.  Whether Hunter-Bradley and Macfarlane follow their Dutch colleagues down a path that includes Widor’s Ave Maria, Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Chausson’s Pater noster and Poulenc’s Priez pour paix remains to be seen.   All we can be sure of is that the afternoon is dedicated to Romantic era music for this combination and it is bound to be a popular event, hearing these Festival stalwarts back in their respective saddles again.

 

Monday January 14

SCHUBERT SONGS PART 1

David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 8 pm

This is pretty much a re-run of the event that appears on the Peninsula Festival program on January 6 where the young baritone sings lieder interlarded with some salonesque string quintet pieces by Berlioz’s mate, Felicien David.   The Haydn Ensemble participants seem to be the same, although double bass Jacqueline Dooser was not specified in the Mornington events.   It’s hard to know what we will hear because in Ballarat the musicians are presenting two different programs on consecutive days, each of them coming in at close to an hour’s duration.   Wait and see, I guess

Tuesday January 15

SCHUBERT SONGS PART 2

David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Beaufort Uniting Church at 11 am.

The only difference expressly noted for this program is that Dylan Quinlan-Basquet, choirmaster and organist at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Canterbury is coming up the highway to play an organ voluntary.   Nothing specific yet but, just as I was puzzled to see how David would fit in with Schubert, I’m even more intrigued as to how a voluntary lends itself to the same lieder-heavy atmosphere – unless Greco leads off with Die junge Nonne and Quinlan-Basquet finds an appropriately menacing piece to complement it.  Hard to think of one when you consider all those optimistic English composers – Gibbons, Arne, Stanley, Purcell.   But then, the young man may play something of his own on the 1959 Fincham instrument.   Or he may treat ‘voluntary’ in its broadest sense, which then embraces anything and everything.

The program will be repeated at 3 pm.

 

Tuesday January 15

SO SWEET A TOUCH

Daniel Thomson and Rosemary Hodgson

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Beaufort at 11 am

This tenor/lute program takes its title from the last words of  Samuel Daniel’s Sonnet 47, Like as the lute delights, most famously set by John Danyel, a contemporary of Dowland. You’d be pretty safe in assuming that both composers will score heavily in this recital which brings tenor Thomson back to the festival after a break of some years spent honing his craft in Canada, Switzerland and England.   Hodgson is Melbourne’s go-to lutenist, a familiar presence at early music happenings, particularly in the Melbourne Recital Centre.   There’s not an organ work in sight but the combination would be worth the 50-kilometre trip west of Ballarat.

The recital will be repeated at 3 pm.

 

Wednesday January 16

MORRICONE  –   SCATTOLIN  –  PAGANINI

Massimo Scattolin, Erica Kennedy, Josephine Vains

Neil St. Uniting Church, Ballarat at 11 am

Along with Orchestra Victoria violinist Kennedy and cellist Vains, the popular guitarist will work through an all-Italian program.   Scattolin has worked before with both string players in Ballarat and Melbourne recitals and he spreads his solo talents around, appearing all over this state in post-Festival events.   The Morricone elements will probably be arrangements since I can’t find any original works that involve the instrument, apart from chamber scores that involve multiple guitars or guitar with instruments other than violin and/or cello.  Scattolin has played his own music here in previous years; I know I’ve heard it but no memories remain.   As for Paganini, there is an astounding wealth of material for guitar and violin, three duets for violin and cello, but nothing that fits this trio combination.

 

Wednesday January 16

FAIR IS THE ROSE

Camerata Antica

St. Joseph’s Church, Blampied at 5 pm

The Camerata has as its fulcrum the cornetto of Matthew Manchester and the soprano of Anna Sandstrom.   Naturally, these two flesh out their company for specific occasions; on this evening, viola da gamba Laura Moore and Sydney organist David Drury lend their hands to some English music from the 16th and 17th centuries.   Mention is made of Byrd, Tallis, William Child (a plethora of religious works, next to nothing secular) ‘and others’.  Among these last, you’d expect to find Orlando Gibbons as one of his madrigals gives the recital its title.   Manchester and Sandstrom have appeared in the festival before; Drury has been a regular participant; Moore has appeared with several early and not-so-early ensembles.  Their combination, in the abstract, sounds delectable.

 

Thursday January 17

VENETIAN OBOE CONCERTI

Gianfranco Bortolato and Festival Chamber Orchestra

Former Wesley Church, Clunes at 11 am

Oboist at the Rome Opera, Bortolato is partnered by violinist Claudia Lopes and Anthony Halliday on the organ.   The composers cited are Marcello, Vivaldi, Albinoni and a new name to me: Giovanni Benedetti Platti, a Paduan oboist/composer who produced a sizeable amount of music for his instrument, in particular a G minor concerto that will probably be heard this morning.   Vivaldi wrote about 20 concertos for oboe; plenty of choice, then.  Albinoni produced none, so Lopes might get exposure playing one of his five (possible) violin concertos.  Halliday will work with the building’s small instrument: one manual with seven stops and pedal pulldowns.  Here’s hoping the chamber orchestra can handle these breezy, unsheltering Baroque scores.

 

Thursday January 17

MOZART, HANDEL, VIVALDI AND BACH

Gianfranco Bortolato, Claudia Lopes, Anthony Halliday

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Clunes at 2:15 pm

Following the morning concert at the Clunes  Former Wesleyan Church, the three soloists present a recital in the town’s Anglican church which holds a rare Hamlin organ, recently restored although I can’t find out how or by whom.  The door is wide open as to what is on the program.  You could hope for the Bach Oboe and Violin Concerto or a Vivaldi sonata.  As for Handel, everything is up for grabs and any Mozart would have to be an arrangement.

 

Thursday January 17

A CHOICE COLLECTION

Daniel Thomson and Michele Benuzzi

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 8 pm

Once again, we can enjoy Thomson’s eloquent tenor, this time allied with Benuzzi’s harpsichord.   The program moves from Purcell and Handel to Johann Wilhelm Hassler, who once faced off against Mozart in an organ competition.  But the meagre promotional material refers to the participating musicians’ recordings as sources for the evening’s progress.  Well, Thomson has only one CD and the Purcells on that are I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly, If Music be the Food of Love, Fairest Isle, Not All My Torments and What a Sad Fate is Mine; there’s no Handel or Hassler.   Benuzzi, on the other hand, has produced five recordings of Hassler’s keyboard music.

 

Friday January 18

THE MUSIC OF MARAIS

Laura Vaughan, Laura Moore, Donald Nicholson, Nicholas Pollock

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 11 am

It’s never been the same since Alain Corneau’s film Tous les matins du monde came out in 1991/2.   Subsequently, Marin Marais and the viola da gamba enjoyed a resurgence of interest, the envy of most other Baroque instrument specialists.   Both Vaughan and Moore are gamba experts, while Nicholson is a well-known harpsichord presence and Pollock a theorbo exponent who I believe was here recently with Van Diemen’s Band for the Melbourne International Arts Festival.   Part of the offerings are the Improvisation sue les Folies d’Espagne and the Chaconne in A Major from Le Labyrinthe.  Further, I’d be surprised – nay, shocked – if the Sonnerie de Sainte Genevieve did not enjoy an airing.

 

Friday January 18

BACH – TELEMANN: TWO GIANTS OF BAROQUE

Trio Sine Nomine

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College Ballarat at 3 pm

This group — violin Claudia Lopez, oboe Gianfranco Bortolato, harpsichord Michele Benuzzi  –  toured Australia three years ago and this afternoon gather together from their various festival exercises so far to play some music by two Baroque contemporaries and friends.   You’d be scrabbling to find pieces by Bach for all three of these instruments, so I’m anticipating duos rather than trios.  Telemann produced a wealth of trio sonatas for these forces.  But it’s hard to pin down exactly what the In Nomine specialty area is. Complicating matters is the existence of another group of the same name, formed in Perugia in 2015: all-female and comprising two violins and piano.

 

Saturday January 19

AVEC CHARME

Gianfranco Bortolato and Anthony Halliday

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 11 am

Two of the more hard-working musicians in this year’s festival will appear in this morning matinee with a program that is, as yet, completely unknown.  What do you make of the title?   It’s the sort of meaningless phrase you come across in French real estate advertising.   Translated to music, it suggests the salon.   Still, the oboe/piano combination can boast original works by C. P. E. Bach, Nielsen, Donizetti, Schumann, Franck and Saint-Saens, so there’s room for substantial music-making – as well as the inevitable encore-level dross.

 

Saturday January 19

CANTO LATINO

Stefania Bellamio and Massimo Scattolin

Hilltop Christian Fellowship Church, Ballarat at 3 pm

Scattolin is a known quantity, soprano Bellamio not so much although she has sung here with the guitarist in 2016.  Tonight’s program comes from ‘the Spanish-speaking world.’ Which takes in a helluva lot – Central and South America, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and odd enclaves all over the place.   All right: the recital will probably centre on the home country’s products but there’s no harm in wishing for something more novel than all-too-familiar Falla and Granados.   I wouldn’t mind hearing some refreshing Renaissance canciones, or even reworkings like the Rodrigo Cuatro madrigales amatorios.

 

Saturday January 19

Orava Quartet

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 8 pm

Great to have you in Ballarat, Oravas.   It’s been a while since I last saw you; in  fact, it might have been at that Asia-Pacific Chamber Music Competition in 2013 where you won two of the prizes on offer.  Or your 2015 Melbourne International Arts Festival recital at the Collins St. Baptist Church.   Sadly, I missed your two Melbourne Recital Centre appearances this year.  Whatever the case, it’s hard to face the fact that you’ve been around for 11 years.  Anyway, here you are in Wendouree and there’s no indication what you’re going to play.  It could be some recycling from your Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich/Rachmaninov CD or some local material like Ross Edwards.   Or a Haydn Op. 33.   Or Debussy.   We’ll have to see what comes out in the wash.

 

Sunday January 20

A TRIBUTE TO JOHN CURRO

Monica Curro, Sarah Curro, Daniel Curro

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

It’s all in the family.   The renowned founder of the Queensland Youth Orchestra turned 86 this month and three of his four children – violinists Monica and Sarah from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, cellist Daniel from the Australian Brandenbyrg Orchestra – have put together a program of music by Mozart, Schubert, Paganini, Massenet and Delibes.  You can find plenty of Mozart trios for this combination but nothing specific by the other four names listed.   You can be sure that the occasion will work on the merits of its contributors and serve its chief purpose as a tribute to this formidable, effective educator.

 

Sunday January 20

A SPIRITUAL FOREST – THE SACRED MUSIC OF MONTEVERDI

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St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Stephen Grant brings his vocal ensemble to St. Patrick’s to finish off the festival with soloists soprano Helen Thomson and tenors Daniel Thomson and Tom Buckmaster.  The concert’s title appears to come from the composer’s 1640 collection, Selve morale e spirituale.   As self-prepared anthologies go, it doesn’t have as much concert hall cachet as the 1610 Vespers.   But, as forests go, the foliage and tree-trunks are impressive and Grant has a vast space to log: moral madrigals, a complete Mass and some separate fragments like a Gloria and concluding sentences from the Creed, a mass of motets and psalm settings, a brace of Magnificats and a trio of Salve Reginae – all for varying numbers of vocal lines – from one to eight – the forces ranging from purely vocal to vocal with instruments.  There’s a nice symmetry in play between the opening and closing concerts in this year’s festival: from a modern-day writer who reduces his expressivity to spartan levels, to a Renaissance master who, even in the smallest pieces, startles you with his sense of theatre and bounding vitality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you please everyone?

NOEL! NOEL!

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 8

Bonnie-De-La-Hunty_20

                                                                 Bonnie de la Hunty

I get worried, irrationally so, about the use of exclamation marks in concert titles.   It almost works in something like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s choice of Espana! for a program earlier this year that turned out to be disappointing; but then, you can justify the punctuation there as simple advertising colour, whereas you wouldn’t swallow it if the advertising gurus had simply proposed Spain!   It’s become the Brandenburgers’ custom to give their Christmas event this doubled-up title, so much so that most of us swallow it without thinking.   But the practice suggests seasonal hyperventilation more than anything else.   For most of us, the word is associated with The First Nowell carol which, despite (or because of) its venerability, doesn’t suggest excitement in any of its verses.

You can find something of the same kind of hyperbole in events called Christmas!  even if that mild explosion suggests something like Eureka! (or more relevantly, Thank God!).    Or is that comparison really valid?   It’s as though the French word for the feast-day is up there with Hallelujah!, although the latter is a true exclamation.   Where’s the difference between Noel! and Paques!?    I’m minded to celebrate Epiphany! next month, and my late Anglican mother would have got a charge out of observing Michaelmas!  not to forget my Greek kin’s potential for revelling in  a self-stimulating Dormition!

Still, we’re all glad to have arrived, over-punctuated or not, at a time of spiritual cosiness and behavioural benevolence  for once in 2018.   The ABO and its occasional Choir gave us a  prelude to the celebrations with yet another program full of material calculated to have something for everyone.   Forgetting the inevitable American element (confined to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas this time round), the seasonal content prevailed even if a fair number of the offerings had no relevance at all.

Setting the bar both high and low, ABO artistic director Paul Dyer opened the night with a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, O Euchari in laeta via: a song to St. Eucharius who was the first bishop of Trier.    The abbess swallowed the story that Eucharius was one of the original disciples and saw Christ, although those who insist on facts believe that he didn’t take up his crozier until the late 3rd century AD.   I thought it was an odd choice to begin, even if it gave a fine introduction to de la Hunty’s pure, untroubled soprano, but December 8 is the saint’s feast-day – which is fine for those of us in the Murdoch Hall on this particular Saturday but which may puzzle later audiences in Paddington, the Angel Place Recital Hall, Wollongong, Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown.    In Alex Palmer’s arrangement, the transparent chant loses its innocence by being strait-jacketed into a 4/4 beat, supported by inoffensive sustained string chords which give way to syncopated chugging, the ABO singers entering near the end.

The choir got down to more impressive business with the Advent plainsong Rorate coeli, given a decent going-over by the male voices, the process not too flabby in precision since Dyer left the singers to their own devices, even if some individual voices broke through; such participants not subscribing to the usual practice that asks for the sublimation of personality for the sake of the general texture.   The body’s women followed up with another Advent specialty –  Veni, veni Emmanuel –  that morphed into a march for drum and strings.

Speaking of percussion, Brian Nixon made himself the night’s linkman, chaining events together through glissades on mini-tubular bells or soft cymbal strokes.   At this point, he led the corps into Cruger’s Nu komm der Heyden heyland – well, a version of it, I suppose, based on the work’s inclusion in the composer’s Praxis pietatis melica hymnbook.  This was followed by Johannes Eccard’s setting of Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier, a chorale-like work for five lines, transformed into a rather militant march which seemed at odds with the Nativity-meditation situation proposed in the text.   Still, this was deftly arranged for the forces available, vocal and orchestral, and finished off an opening bracket of distinction, despite those carping points raised above.

Section Two opened with the traditional speech from Dyer – an address in which ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ featured heavily with a bonus feature or two – introducing the orchestra by their first names, and picking out three children in the audience for some personal attention (pretty much confined to ‘How old are you?’).  While shepherds watched, starring de la Hunty, followed the familiar Christopher Tye melody, complete with double-length notes at the start and end of each line.   Monteverdi’s Laudate dominum began carefully enough with a chaste band – harpsichord, guitar, organ and drum; then took a Jordi Savall turn into a jam for the two violins of Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman which had all the signposts of pre-scripted improvisation, and ended with a welter of vocal floridity from de la Hunty that took us into the 1610 Vespers universe.   Very nice in parts, but I can’t see what Psalm 117 has to do with Christmas.

Nor for that matter was the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby suggestive of much beyond Irish melancholy.   De la Hunty took part in this simple lyric; nothing too challenging and the main brunt of the work fell to the choir in yet another of Alex Palmer’s arrangements which found room in its later stages for the trio of sackbuts that had enriched the German pieces heard earlier.    Showing their mettle, the choir sang Guerrero’s Maria Magdalena motet, putting something of a strain on the tenors – forced to split into two groups like the sopranos, but working hard between the five of them to contribute meaningfully to the complex.   This work deals with the famous penitent and the other Marys visiting the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, which on this night seemed to be putting the Easter cart before the Christmas horse.    However, this interpolation served little real purpose except to remind you of how splendidly the Ensemble Gombert deals with music of this nature: in this instance, the piece lacked fluency, moving past with an unexpected insistence on a putative bar-line’s dominion.

It wasn’t all downhill from here on as we entered Part Three but the hiatus points grew more numerous.   Palmer’s arrangement of We three kings gave lots of exposure to the brass, nifty effects brightening up a carol that has some excellent lines married to an execrable, mournful tune.   You could always entertain yourself by imaging what Webern would have done with this material; probably something a tad more subtle than this frivolity  which suggested a sort of Klanmgfarbenmelodie for the Common Man.   Another left-field construct followed with a piece of Rameau revisionism, billed as O nuit from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie.   The actual material referred to is a sprightly trio for soloist and two chorus lines addressed to the goddess Diana, not the slow salute to Night that we heard, fabricated by Joseph Noyon over two centuries after Rameau’s short prayer was written.  This was an a cappella number for the choir supporting de la Hunty but, as it was in essence a plea to Night to calm the unhappy, its connection to Christmas could only be described as distant.   However, the effect made for an amiably soothing oasis, alongside yet another Palmer arrangement, this time a sober version of O little town of Bethlehem for brass quartet (the sackbuts, plus Leanne Sullivan’s baroque trumpet) and percussion.

Palmer’s voice appeared en clair for his own A sparkling Christmas, written for string quintet, amalgamating Ding! dong! merrily on high, Hark! the herald angels sing, God rest ye merry, gentlemen and Joy to the world!   This melange showed a cleverness in juxtapositioning, if not much actual wit in the process, and a preference for the chugging rhythmic drive that disturbed the earlier Hildegard revamp.

The program’s last section, comprising six numbers, proved the least satisfying, possibly because its elements were so disparate.   Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in sleep sets US poet Sarah Teasdale’s reminiscence of childhood for soprano and choir.  It’s a sensitive treatment, bordering on poignancy and aimed at yanking the heart-strings with a shapely melodic line and rich harmonization that brings to mind the modern American choral school of composition for university choirs, although this composer is essentially a product of his own country (without too much of that pseudo-spirituality that has pervaded the Baltic over the last half-century) and British influences.   Only in sleep was a fine choice to display the guest soprano’s clarity of timbre, even if Teasdale’s text retained its mysteries.

Opting to have de la Hunty essay Handel’s Let the bright seraphim was not a clever move.  The singer who takes on this show-piece needs to have more energy and drive from the diaphragm; yes, all the notes were there and pretty cleanly negotiated but the production lacked power.   Sullivan’s trumpet handled the many imitations with general success but, despite all that attractive Baroque bling,  the aria comes from an oratorio about the judge of Israel, Samson, and has no inbuilt suggestions of Messianic prophecy to give it a connection to the night’s supposed theme.

Berlin’s popular hit seems to be a favourite in these ABO Christmas concerts.  I think we’ve heard this Jonathan Rathbone arrangement before; it’s for male voices, fused  in barbershop quartet-style harmonization, and here enjoyed high approval.   De la Hunty returned for another ABO regular: Adam’s O holy night, as re-imagined by Palmer and accomplished with fine use of the limited forces at hand.   Again, you would have preferred more projection and emotional conviction from the soloist but her line only suffered severe drowning-out at unavoidable climactic points,   The well-used soloist also took part in Gruber’s Stille nacht – first verse German, second verse French, third verse English – with Tommie Andersson’s guitar a welcome reminder of the carol’s first performance, the whole effect only momentarily marred by Dyer’s interpolation of an aimless harpsichord dribble between the first two verses.

O come, all ye faithful brought up the rear  –  in the David Willcocks version, I believe.  A classic of its type, it might have been more sensibly placed closer to the start of proceedings; after all, it is an invitation more than a recessional.   But it rounded off the night’s final four pieces with a sterling reinforcement of the reason why we were all gathered together.

I was at the second of the two performances on this Saturday and audience numbers were respectable but seemed to be down on previous years.   It’s probably time that the Noel! Noel! exercise enjoyed a revamp.   For example, when 7 out of 18 pieces programmed have nothing to do with Christmas, you have to wonder how close this event is veering towards the anything-goes approach of Carols by Candlelight.  A wealth of music to do with the season flies under most organizations’ collective radar year after year, while we still hear all those threadbare tunes, hackneyed matter that may give the comfort of familiarity but offers little spiritual or musical elation.

 

 

 

 

Glitzy surface; anything down below?

SEASON FINALE GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday December 1

          Vengerov

                                                                     Maxim Vengerov

We seem to be in gala mode at least three times a year these days, the MSO celebrating the year’s beginning (if a bit late after the real thing), its middle and its conclusion (if a tad early, what with a Christmas program, a handful of Messiahs, and four live soundtrack supports for The Empire Strikes Back screenings still to be played across the coming half- month).   This concert probably gained its exceptional status due to the appearance of violinist Maxim Vengerov as guest artist, the visiting conductor a familiar pair of shoulders in Markus Stenz who was greeted with something like acclaim by an audience that seemed far more representative of the general population than is usual.

Stenz opened the celebration soberly enough with the Prelude and Transformation Music to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.   In fact, the last time this scene-change music appeared on an MSO program was in 2004 under Stenz during his final months as the body’s artistic director/chief conductor.    Both works, linked seamlessly here, depend for success pretty much on balance and unanimity of chording, mainly because not much is taking place except a sequence of motifs – The Last Supper, The Grail, Faith, Cry of Anguish, Sacred Spear, Saviour’s Lament, Bell Theme – which are treated almost side by side as Wagner tiresomely confronts his uneasiness with Catholic impedimenta and a saga of pre-Dan Brown theological silliness

Most of the brass block entries came across without much distress, but then a good many are low-lying and in this music Wagner doesn’t call for any split-second, abrupt chords.  Ditto the strings who take their time about things.   Both the woodwind and woodwind-plus-brass utterances en masse were successful only half of the time and the final long sustained chords of the Prelude proper impressed as strained and not just from the top flute line.

Not much disturbed the slow processional which accompanies the scene change as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal into the hall of the Grail Temple.   It’s never that convincing, even off the stage, as the composer attempts to convey the knights’ majesty and faithful stolidity which inevitably winds up sounding pompous, self-regarding and several spiritual light-years away from the mystery that is about to be celebrated.   Stenz generated a compelling, full-bodied sound from his players, making much of the climaxes to the processional slow march.   At its best, the transformation holds a glowing richness which sounded splendid in this ambience, more gripping than you can experience in your garden-variety opera house or theatre.

Vengerov gave the premiere of Qigang Chen’s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, in October 2017.    It’s a co-commission by the Beijing Music Festival (where it was first played), the Orchestre national du Capitol de Toulouse, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (where it was a compulsory work for the six finalists), and the MSO.    The score answers to a fair number of godparents and, as you’d anticipate with such a multipartite fostering, has several disparate bases to cover.

In sum, Chen’s concerto is old-fashioned.   Very often during its progress, I was reminded of 19th century repertoire warhorses by Bruch and Saint-Saens; not the vocabulary so much, although at times that also seemed close, but the shape of the piece and its requirements of the soloist.   Colourful shades and timbres it has in spades, from vivid percussion flashes to simple, sinuous melodies.   The composer takes as his jumping-off mark a Chinese melody, Yangguan Sandie, which appears to be concerned with the parting of two friends, one of them leaving from the westernmost post of civilization for the unknown lands outside the Chinese empire.

In part, this fulcrum song uses part of a poem by Wang Wei, whose verses (the same as these?) were used by Mahler in the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde – the interesting and controlled lines before the composer inserts his own, emotionally inflated conclusion to this movement that too many commentators hail as a transcendent masterpiece while some of us find it sentimentally bloated, out of kilter with the majority of the song’s lines, and not very consonant with the preceding five movements.

Chen opens his concerto with laid-back virtuosic flourishes before announcing his theme, and then offers variations on it.   You hear other melodic matter, but not much.   The move from rapid-moving fleetness to (in this case) pentatonic suggestiveness in elongated lyrical pages is what brought to mind exemplars like the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.   Vengerov persevered through some deliberately winsome curvetting, followed by soulful melodies pronounced in the manner of a pop singer: start out your note blandly uninflected, then develop a vibrato with a crescendo and presto! you have expressiveness  .  .  .  except you don’t: you have a gimmick which wearies by repetition.

Not that Chen tired you out.   His score was mobile, very intriguing for its scoring in faster segments, gifted with a rolling, solid tune (or two?) that he metamorphosed with skill, if not much rigour.    Do you retain much of the composition some hours after one audition?   Not really but, unlike so many products of these times, you couldn’t object to hearing the concerto again.    It’s not a waste of time; expounded by this soloist and a willing-enough orchestra, it roused unexpected approbation from a receptive audience.

Thoughtfully, Vengerov and Stenz had organised an encore: Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. Those of us who belong to an older generation know this frivolity pretty well and it’s a piquant enough scrap of pseudo-Orientalism with some brilliant display passages for the soloist.   I can’t explain the mind-set that decided to put it alongside Chen’s work; something like following Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with an Enescu Rumanian Rhapsody  –  the gestures are vaguely comparable, but the aesthetic imbalance is ludicrous.

Stravinsky and his secretary/amanuensis Robert Craft railed against interpretations of the composer’s The Rite of Spring ballet when they served chiefly as a vehicle for the showman conductor.   As the decades have passed since the work’s 1913 premiere, orchestras have become inured to the score’s sound-production innovations and its rhythmic irregularities.   Sonorous messes like the Introduction which once required decisive, if not finicky, indications from a conductor, especially in the four bars before the reversion to Tempo 1, can now be trusted to the individuals involved.   Unless you’re a Boulez type who leaves nothing to chance by adopting a directorial style that resembles autocratic semaphore.

Stenz worked the score for maximum dramatic effect, interpolating himself as the central axis of the performance; for example, during the Les Augures pritaniers pages, he followed the predictable path of over-stressing the prevailing dynamic, but then put himself front-and-centre with whole-body spasms on each of the horn sforzando accents, followed by an attention-attracting over-lengthy general pause at rehearsal number 22 in my old Hawkes pocket score.   Less choreography was involved in supervising the Jeu du rapt, but there’s more to do here than simply let things chug along their 2/4 path.   You could have required more definition in the block chords that punctuate the final 16 bars of this section, interruptions that should come over like whip-cracks.

Years ago, I can remember being worried by Stenz’s slow pace for the opening 6 bars of the Rondes printanieres which led into a very heavy handling of the ensuing pages and a poco rit. in its final bar which was anything but poco.   The same problem recurred on this night.   On the other hand, the Jeux des cites rivales and Cortege du sage proved exciting to experience.  The Part 1 conclusion, Danse de la terre, followed suit, even if you might have been happier with a sharper etching out of fabric details like the trumpet grupetti that begin two bars before rehearsal number 77 and which bite through the whirling melange until the final six bars when they double the upper woodwind in syncopations that reflect the Augures.

In the second half of the ballet, the approach began with a near-solicitude for the slow-moving quavers that surround the thematic fragment on which Stravinsky builds these mystical pages that irreverently bring to mind some of Holst’s outer planets.   Indeed, one of the few defects in this part of the performance came in the conductor’s emphasis on sustained general pauses, as in the two that precede the Glorification de l’elue.

Here, Stenz showed great trust in  his players, content with fairly skimpy gestures, more happy to dance the work along.   The more jerky sections of the concluding Danse sacrale revealed a laudable synchronicity from the whole body despite the occasional splay coming through rather than a professional, emphatic unanimity of utterance.   The final fermata at rehearsal number 180 again impressed/disconcerted by its length.

You couldn’t call it a rough reading of this ground-breaking masterpiece; it sat streets ahead of some distressingly uneven performances heard from this orchestra in the second half of the last century.    What was missing appeared to be delicacy – which might seem strange when talking about this ultra-percussive work.   But it seemed to be tellingly unsubtle in its placid moments, not helped by some articulation difficulties that came from Jack Schiller’s bassoon right from the first bars, the problem appearing to be due to an instrument key rather than his reeds.   But you were left hanging many times, waiting for pointed solos to emerge from the susurrus; pinpricks from the piccolo trumpet, the D and E flat clarinet, Dale Barltrop’s solo violin – all were faint echoes of their proper selves.

But what do I know?   The audience erupted into an applause avalanche at the end and Stenz seemed delighted, smiling happily while panting as though he’d just completed a taxing 400 metres sprint.    If you like your Rite loud and punchy, this was a fine reading; for me, any live encounter with the work is worthwhile, but there are so many details, orchestration diamonds scattered throughout its fabric, that I was sorry not to encounter.

 

 

 

 

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A few clever touches, some worthy singing: yet a general inconsistency

 

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17

Hans Sachs

                                                                  Hans Sachs

Wagner’s long comedy opera made a welcome step up in stature from a year’s work in Melbourne by the national company that raised few anticipatory frissons.   Yes, this co-production between Opera Australia, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts came with a controversial reputation but there’s no absolute disadvantage in that; Bayreuth itself opened the directorial floodgates in the post-World War Two years, not least with a startling reworking of The Mastersingers by Wieland Wagner which worked against the historical pageantry that coloured the composer’s original vision.

Kasper Holten’s direction, Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes were intended to fuse coherently, offering new situational and temporal situations through which to filter a libretto that is one of the composer’s more satisfying literary products and a score that rarely falters in its warm fluency and burnished brilliance.   But the new look didn’t work as well as it might have and all attempts at following Wagner’s overpowering resolution disappeared with a dumb-show that was probably meant to offer a sharp comment on the opera’s innate sexism but impressed me as dramatically under-cooked and theatrically inept.

In the central role of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg civic father-figure, Michael Kupfer-Radecky coped laudably, given that he came into the production at a week’s notice.   OA’s own Shane Lowrencev had to withdraw, he himself a replacement for the scheduled American bass-baritone James Johnson.   Third time more-or-less lucky although the German singer got off to a pedestrian start, taking an easy ride through the conclave in Act 1 where he alone takes up the cause of the stroppy young knight.

He showed to better effect in the second act, although Sachs has the great advantage of interacting one-on-one with several of the main players, if in short bursts with some.  Nevertheless, the Wie duftet doch der Flieder musing on his own situation made for a moving and convincing hiatus in the action and Sachs’ dialogue with Beckmesser came across without the usual heavy-handed jocularity, the two cobbling verses – Als Eva aus dem Paradies and O Eva! Hor mein Klageruf – impressing for their irony more than irritating because of the customary superficial bluster.

Luckily, Kupfer-Radecky kept his best for Act 3; not just the Wahn! soliloquy, although I have to say he moved through that with more ease and impulse than many a more famous interpreter.   But the arc from Sachs’ opening distraction to the wise resolution in the character’s words during the moving quintet made a gift of the first scene.   Further, Sachs’ none-too-subtle machinations leading towards the Preislied‘s final statement came across with a happy naturalness, Kupfer-Radecky leading the whole corps to the blazing C Major triumph of the final bars with resonant insistence, even through that unpleasant nationalist stanza beginning Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.

As Walther, Stefan Vinke played a down-at-heel aristocrat with little grace.   The disaster of his initial gambit, So rief der Lenz in den Wald, worked well enough as the singer tore the passion to tatters with a delivery that stormed along its way with a fine lack of concern for subtlety.   That’s quite comprehensible; the young man is all emotion and unalloyed vapouring at this point.   Still, the lack of dynamic interest was worrying and you felt somehow on the side of the dismissive collegium.

Vinke had little to deal with in the central act and coped with its lack of demands manfully, sustaining in his few lines the personality of a young noble sprig who shouldn’t get his own way because of an inbuilt selfishness.    With the help of Sachs, of course, he manages to cobble together a song for the climactic competition and the many verses that Walther gives us betrayed a voice getting more and more tired.   In the first scene of Act 3, Vinke attempted a soft high note with unhappy results; he was much happier belting out the later, more hectic strophes of each third to his popularly-acclaimed Preislied.

Of course, the point where the assembly hears Morgenlich leuchtend in its final form is a superb passage, the crowd’s enthusiasm growing until it erupts in an irrepressible furore.  Vinke’s high As rang out with a firm clangour and he contrived to stay on the right side of rhapsody.    Yet the song lacked an underpinning sympathy; it seemed to be subject to strain, occasionally hurled out with a lack of even delivery across the phrases.   A good effort, I suppose, but with the emphasis on the noun.

As Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe worked with considerable insight by making this unpleasant character quite human, particularly in Act 1.   Usually, the Marker’s pedantry contrasts poorly with Walther’s gallantry and high-mindedness but you could find excuses for Beckmesser’s spite, in particular when Fyfe made it clear that the man was offended and nonplussed by the neophyte’s complete disregard for the Mastersingers’ Tabulature.  Beckmesser’s attempt to serenade Eva was carried through without resorting to the whining silliness that European houses have tolerated for far too long.

Of course, both here and in the disastrous attempt to sing the text he inveigled from Sachs, Beckmesser is handicapped by Wagner’s pointless melismata and his own uncomprehending mangle of Walther’s poem.   But Fyfe did a commendable job of singing pretty straight, not indulging in much distortion or conscious vocal slapstick, holding his own when confronting Sachs on his ‘dishonesty’ and then trying to ensure that there would be no repercussions or public revelations that would counter his run at the prize.    Almost alone among his colleagues, this Beckmesser brought an animation to every line; you were faced with a personality, if an unattractive one, that expressed the baser emotions without resorting to cheap effects.

Nicholas Jones’ David appealed as attractively buoyant, at his best in that instructional dialogue in Act 1 where the apprentice aims to teach Walther ‘the rules’ of writing a song. This young tenor’s German came across very clearly, a model for some of his colleagues. He stayed just the right side of bearably put upon in the solo and consequent dialogue with Sachs that opens Act 3, later holding his own in the Selig, wie die Sonne quintet.  Mind you, he had to put up with much of his character’s comedy cut or barely credible because of the updating wished upon him by director Holten, but his sharp-as-a-pin characterization lit up some pedestrian pages in the outer acts.

She gets to appear in all the acts and has some contributions to make in each one, but the heroine Eva gets very little solo exposure.    Natalie Aroyan made each line count with an admirable clarity, sticking to the conductor’s beat with more consistency than some of her colleagues.    But Eva’s output is often restricted to quick dialogue as she admits to her love for Walther in Act 1, tries to glean information from Sachs in Act 2, although she enjoys a shining moment when eulogising the old man and trusting that all will turn out for the best.   Not a performance that attracted attention but persuasive for its bursts –  often just a quatrain – of ardour.

Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, has less to do; even so, Dominica Matthews was hard to fault, particularly as her most extended passage of play came during a weighty ensemble.   Like several others in the cast, she laboured under directorial and costuming constraints, not to mention a clumsy entrance and exit in the apprentices’ Johannistag! scene.

Among the other ten Mastersingers, many familiar names showed up – Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky – but to my ears the performance’s outstanding male voice belonged to Daniel Sumegi, who gave sterling service as Pogner.

Sumegi served notice of his pre-eminence in a powerful and warm reading of Nun hort, und versicht mich recht where the character gives notice of why he is putting his daughter up as prize for the final of Nuremberg’s Got Talent.   From here on, you could take pleasure in every line from Pogner: his introduction of Walther, the later post-attempt vacillation, and the self-doubts and justifications  at the start of Act 2.   Even the singer’s few solo apostrophes in the last scene added to the opera’s humane breadth.

Inkinen brought out the best in an expanded Orchestra Victoria, especially the high strings which generally sound thin but, even faced with Wagner’s hefty brass, soared through the overture with an unexpected clarity and precise articulation that was rarely found wanting in the long hours ahead.    Being seated on the State Theatre’s left side, I enjoyed plenty of exposure to the horns, but flaws from that section proved remarkably few.    Above all, the conductor exercised firm control over his pit, even if some principals found themselves behind the beat on occasions, while the chorus showed a tendency to rush forward at animated moments.

So, a fairly satisfying vocal and instrumental outlining of the work with no signs of fatigue except from Vinke, over-energised in the last act.   But, as soon as the curtain rose, the production’s viewpoint(s) raised many questions.

You weren’t faced with St. Katherine’s Church but the interior of a gentlemen’s club – well, maybe.   No congregation sang the opening chorale but a group dressed in business suits – even the females – who belted the hymn out with little subtlety.   An onstage conductor led them and an unidentified man sitting at a desk took the choir’s plaudits after the piece had finished.  This latter could have been the chorale’s putative composer, but you were not sure.   The choir went off.  Were they club members?  An ensemble that used the place for rehearsals?   No reason presented itself and this was only a few minutes into the opera proper.

Unlike the original staging, Eva is not hanging around the church waiting for Walther to approach; she’s being fitted for her wedding dress in this catch-all venue, while Magdalena supervises – not so much a nurse as a secretary, and not confined to Eva’s concerns, it seems, but the club’s as well.   David is not top dog among the apprentices but a head of staff for the club.   Walther enters, looking like a 1960s Woodstock scruff.   The declarations of love are made while the staff busy themselves primping and prinking the club’s surrounds.  Tables are set up for the Mastersingers’ meal.    The men themselves enter, dressed as masons, complete with gauntlet cuffs, aprons and medallions of office.

So far, you’ve been asked to face nothing too ridiculous.   You can easily take on board the concept of the guild as a secret society, an idea reinforced by the insistence on rules and regulations., and later on, the rejection – with the exception of Sachs the Tolerant – of Walther’s new art.

When Act 2 gets under way properly, it has none of the staging that the original requires: no corner houses of Pogner and Sachs, only symbolic trees/shrubs, no divided door for the cobbler’s workshop, no elder tree, no windows.   We’re a long way from a street scene; indeed, it’s hard to conceive exactly where we’ve been transported.    Jesper Kongshaug’s lighting design starts to move from Act 1’s light-filled space to darkness; so it should, as the opera’s temporal progress requires.   But the background shifts almost imperceptibly as the action heats up.

The act culminates in a riot, during which Beckmesser is attacked by David who thinks that he’s serenading Magdalena; Sachs disrupts the eloping party and sends Eva back to her own house while taking Walther into his own; the chorus whips up a state of ferment as fighting breaks out.   Not for this production.   The whole thing becomes a nightmarish orgy, complete with horse-headed men simulating sex with willing women across front of stage.    When the Nightwatchman comes on, there is a general freeze, which rather undercuts the point – and humour –  of the scene.    But then, Adrian Tamburini in this role has entered into the spirit of things by now being dressed as a barrel-chested satyr.

In the final scene, we’re back to a central staircase and tiered semi-circular rows of steps.  A pair of choruses enters, dressed in modern-day evening wear and takes up position on the risers.   But. when the procession begins, we’re back with orthodoxy.  The apprentices/staff have reverted to 16th century apparel, complete with tabards; even the girls from Furth have taken on the fashion of 1550 Germany.   When the Mastersingers enter, they have collaborated in turning back time, wearing large quadrangular hats and embroidered robes, and carrying the gleaming symbols of their crafts on poles.

So the gentlemen’s club business has disappeared; now we have what amounts to a dress-up party.

Beckmesser sings disastrously, Walther shows how it’s done and eventually accepts his status as one of the Mastersingers’ company.   But in this version, Eva is not happy; she applauds his initial rejection of Pogner’s welcome to the guild, delighted by her man’s contrariness; when Sachs changes the knight’s mind for him and the accoutrements of office land on his head, shoulders and neck, she turns away from him, mounts the stairs and disappears from the scene while Walther basks in having made the grade, becoming one of the fellows.

Whether this is a statement about the objectification of women and/or Eva’s rejection of her father and all he stands for, your guess is as good as mine.   But it fails to ring true, whatever interpretation you try, when faced with the final pages of Act 3’s first scene, from Eva’s O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du Theurer Mann! onwards, in particular Eva’s final couplet in the great quintet.   I might have missed the signs, but I saw nothing on stage which prepared me for this deviation from the expected outcome.

Does it all make you think twice?  Will this version cause a refashioning of your interpretation of a great opera?   Not this time.   You’re faced with a lack of consistency that saps at the director’s premise because the updating and the complete change of ambience are inconsistent or perhaps applied with too much subtlety to travel.   For sure, you will find whole passages in this version where you forget the setting; the less detail visually exposed, the more moving is the drama.   But then, abruptly, you experience a shock of incomprehension as to why the production looks like it does and the cross-bred staging that tries to meld our time with that of Sachs does little more than distract.

 

 

 

 

 

News from the front

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

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

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