Not the best of Spanish nights


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  Michael Dahlenburg

MCO director William Hennessy pointed out in a mini-address during this concert that there isn’t much chamber orchestra music by Spanish composers.  And that’s true, if you’re talking about the big names on this program – Turina, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo.  But you just have to move a little outside the predictable round and there’s plenty of choice.

Much of this night’s work came in arrangement format, some of it authorised like Turina’s own string orchestra arrangement of his La oracion del torero, while other renditions sounded pretty fresh off the press, like Nicholas Buc’s setting of five pieces from the Espana suite for piano by Albeniz, and his treatment of three Danzas espanolas by Granados, also originally for piano,  The evening’s guest, Christoph Denoth, contributed to the festivities with his own arrangement for guitar and strings of Joaquin Malats’ Serenata which was originally composed as a piano solo before being hijacked by Tarrega for the delectation of guitarist the world over. What was achieved by Denoth’s revisiting?  Not much, although the string orchestra interludes proved welcome.

Even the two unaccompanied solos from Denoth were transcriptions, albeit famous ones, of two more piano originals: Leyenda (known to most of us as Asturias) and Torre bermeja, both by Albeniz.  Boil it all down and the only ‘clear’ content in this bitty entertainment arrived with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which concluded the program.

You could find little wrong with the Turina, lightly laced with some solos and a few brief excursions for string quartet with only a few traces of intonation problems near the last pages.  All fine, if you can mask your lack of sympathy for a blood sport aficionado; despite Turina’s mixture of religiosity and bravado, I’d always back the bull, just on the off-chance that justice prevails.

As inferred above, the Malats piece neither suffered nor gained from its transposition.  It’s a salon composition, a picture of Spain for export without any sign of individuality or colour.   More to the point, it was hard to see what Denoth gained by having a pretty bland string backdrop, particularly when you take into account his undemonstrative style of delivery which put the solo instrument pretty often in the background.  A stage hand positioned a microphone on Denoth’s playing podium but, if it was meant to help with amplification rather than recording, it failed of its promise.

Parts of the Espana were suited to re-planning, like the well-worn Tango and the Capricho catalan.  While much of Buc’s re-staging made for easy work, director Hennessy seemed to be dragging his cohorts into line during a hard-fought Preludio and coping with the awkward, non-catchy 5/8 tempo of the concluding Zortzico.    Still, at least you got a slight taste of the music’s Hispanic roots; later, in the Spanish Dances of Granados, matters weren’t so hearty.  In fact, during the first – an alleged fandango –  it struck me that the music could have come from anywhere, possibly even England at the time of the folk-song collectors like Holst and Vaughan-Williams.  It wasn’t the St. Paul’s Suite, but it impressed this listener as a close cousin.

Whether this impression of blandness in colour came from the original work or Buc’s clean-lines scoring, it’s hard to determine.  Once again, Hennessy seemed to be dragging his violins onward during the second selection (the famous Andaluza) while the final piece chosen – the No. 6 jota – was distinguished by some quartet work at its centre but little else.

Denoth’s two Albeniz solos proved questionable.  The repeated notes of Asturias gained some comrades as the player struck a few open strings that were better left alone.  Further, you missed the slashing power of the full-blooded chords that interrupt the piece’s driving moto perpetuo.  The Torre bermeja hardly fared better, as the chief impression that it left was of difficulty and awkwardness, as though the player was struggling to handle its intricacies.

The Rodrigo concerto enjoyed a few successful stretches, mainly in the central Adagio.  Michael Dahlenburg left the cello ranks to conduct, Molly Kadarauch coming on to flesh out the numbers.  From the start, Denoth presented a studied, laboured reading in which some notes simply disappeared, most noticeably in the decrescendo before the first movement’s cello solo.  The uncertainties continued with some awkward scale passages and misjudged rasgueado chords.  In the second movement, it was hard to fault the first cadenza, but just as hard to warm to the second one; in the build-up to this latter, I suspect that Denoth lost his place.

The weakest of the concerto’s movements, its concluding Allegro gentile, did little to help the guest’s strike rate.    Instead of striking a neat balance between courtly sprightliness and earthy vigour, the reading proved pedestrian, although you quickly learned to look forward to Dahlenburg’s tuttis.  The soloist was in all sorts of strife, to the point where some of the anticipated orchestral cueing-in became a matter of (informed) luck as expected flurries failed to start on time or continue; at one point, Denoth made no attempt at a particularly active scale run.   Full marks, then,  to the young conductor for shepherding his forces through what is a spectacularly transparent score.

Now we find out (Saturday morning) that the guest soloist was ill, his place being taken this afternoon at the Recital Centre by Slava Grigoryan.  I’m sorry to hear it, of course, but why wasn’t the Australian guitarist brought in before this particular night?  And if not him, then his brother or one of a plethora of local guitarists who would have nearly all these items – the Malats Serenata, perhaps not – under his/her belt?

At all events, Denoth hopes to be able to fulfil the other calls on this program’s tour – Warragul, Daylesford, Bairnsdale, Frankston – over the coming week.  Good luck to him and I hope he is heard to fine effect in those cities/towns.  But what we heard on Thursday last was sadly disappointing and – as it now seems – unnecessary.






A night at the coal-face


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31

                                                                  Caroline Almonte

For the second of the Mimir demonstration recitals – where young Melbourne music-students can see and hear how to penetrate the mysteries of chamber music by watching solid professionals at work – the organizers set a high concentration bar.   Not that it seemed that way on paper – a Sibelius scrap, a two-piano romp by Rachmaninov, the first of Beethoven’s last five string quartets – but, as the evening turned out, each work made for hard going.  Not that this was entirely due to the players, who worked both manfully and womanfully to reach their interpretative goals.

For example, the combination of violinist Curt Thompson, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor performed the Sibelius G minor String Trio – what there is of it because only one of the projected three movements, a Lento,  was completed.  The bardic element is strong with a plethora of unison/octave writing and slow-moving harmonic progressions, a fine set of excursions for the cello and a mood-setting sequence of single-note crescendi for the upper strings.

I’m not sure that this set of Mimir personnel fitted the bill ideally.  Thompson projects a finely shaped line which sang out intermittently over a hefty bass from Taylor while DerHovsepian’s usually strong, forthright contribution impressed as unusually recessive – until you looked at the piece itself which is not much of a gift to the viola.  The effect was of an inner imbalance of dynamic address with the bass line taking on an unexpected prominence.

Still, hearing a string trio these days is something of a rarity and it takes some time to adapt to the absence of a second violin.  This is compounded when the passage of play is about 7 minutes long; you adjust to the three layers easily enough.  But then, with a late Romantic efflorescence like this bagatelle, the temptation arises to mentally flesh out chords and melodies-with-accompaniment; a pointless occupation and a distraction, at best.  At the end, this movement served as little more than a brief curtain-raiser, competently delivered if unexceptional in impact.  I know you can’t expect masterpieces like the Webern Op. 20 or the Schoenberg Op. 45 to pop up every time a string trio is mooted but this gambit failed to impress for several reasons, not the least being its actual content

Speaking of distractions, the following run-through of Rachmaninov;’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos set my teeth on edge for all the wrong reasons.  Melbourne musician Caroline Almonte teamed with visitor John Novacek for this flamboyant exercise but her page-turner was ill-prepared for the experience, doing her job too early for Almonte or failing to move quickly enough.  And this is not a work where mechanical slip-ups can be ignored, particularly in the outer movements, Alla marcia and Tarantella, let alone the rapid second-movement Waltz.

Coping with this problem meant much more to Almonte than to any of us observers, yet it made for an enervating 20 minutes or so.   I assume that the turner was faced with a score that had both parts set out and she underwent considerable confusions separating Almonte’s part from the other; matters weren’t helped for her by the performers using different editions.   Whatever the case, the work’s progress often took on the character of a slug-fest, which is partly the composer’s fault because much of the writing involves massive doubling which gives rise to an ongoing heftiness.  Sure, there are more relaxed passages where the texture cuts back as at Figure 4 in the Muzgiz 1948 edition of the first movement, and later after the fff explosion at Figure 14 where the dynamic scales back radically to an unexpectedly placid ending.

Even the headlong finale has bouts of relative quiescence; after the initial quick contrast between pp and ff,  Rachmaninov lets up at Figure 16 for some restrained skipping before bursting back to the normal operating condition of hectoring.  This interpolation of potentially air-filled relief recurs twice more before the rhythm piles hemiolas on its 6/8 pulse and the performers head for an emphatic home stretch.  It could be exhilarating but the overwhelming sensation at the suite’s end was of relief.

Nevertheless, Almonte and Novacek showed excellent synchronicity and responsiveness in the extended Romance, especially in the long stretch from Figure 2 to the key-change at Figure 5 which saw the interpretation reach a peak of consistent mutual sympathy that recurred later on with an interchanging of elaborate right hand decorative material, the whole urging towards a powerful D flat/A flat outburst at the movement’s climax.  This was a purple patch, lushly eloquent and delivered with a convincing amplitude of balanced timbres.

After interval, the program moved back into familiar Mimir mode with the Beethoven Op. 127 expounded by violinists Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor.  Does anybody else find that this is the most mentally exhausting of these late works?  Yes, it follows the usual four-movement format, unlike most of the following constructs, but it raises mental sweat at every turn through its relentless tension, especially the demands on the first violinist, the onward drive that seems to stop and start – the Baroque flourish of the opening bars and their recurrence in medias res, for instance – and the juggernaut approach to texture that comes to a head in the finale.

This was a hard-fought engagement, each player stretched if none more so than Iwasaki, notably in the wrenching – and I don’t mean emotionally – Adagio where the first violin sets the running and, with precious few interludes, has no break; rather, the part is an exhaustion in the Andante central 20 bars before the key change to E Major.   And the succeeding movements’ working-out becomes an intellectual onslaught as Beethoven launches into no-compromise mode, most noticeable in the finale where even the great performer-quartets are exercised to just negotiate the notes, caught up as we all are in an inventive maelstrom that stupefies by its single-mindedness.

No one can claim that this airing was flawless, although it held together rhythmically through all stages.  The finicky among us could point to intonational flaws and an occasional tension-easing interpolated hiatus.  But the players threw themselves into the score without reserve, giving of their best in a work that looks so sensible on paper while bringing it into sound presents a world of problems.  In the best possible way, this experience showed those young players in attendance (and there were many more on this night than had been present for the first in this series two days before) that the task of interpreting a masterwork involves a dedication to hard work – and that process never stops.







A fair shot at a moving target


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

Saturday August 11

                                              Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Continuing a newly-established practice of taking on difficult tasks, Melbourne Opera balanced its Wagner aspirations with this flamboyant masterpiece that celebrates an ancien regime unconsciously teetering on  the brink of destruction.  The complete turn-about from Strauss’s days as a significant contemporary voice, Der Rosenkavalier is a repertoire staple, popular well beyond its merits and, amid its inbuilt gems, a hard farce to stage without resorting to crudity or awkwardness.

And it comes with several historical incubi, chief among them the filmed performance of 1961 with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Edelmann and Erich Kunz in Paul Czinner’s faultlessly fitted production.  We’ve seen several live Melbourne performances – only a few – and nothing on the Viennese scale.  But, naturally, you adjust your expectations.

MO’s director for this enterprise, Tama Matheson, has taken it as his mission to bring Ochs back to the centre of the action.  Yes, you can see how that may need doing in times when the Marschallin and Octavian have attracted all the attention as far as advertising is concerned, as well as a concentration by enthusiasts on the Presentation and the final trio chunks.   Matheson is quite right to pull the pretentious oaf back under the limelight: Ochs sets up the whole mess and his presence in each of the three acts is a constant infusion of vitality, if not the humour that creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to obtain  .  .  .  well, it sort of does but only if you’re prepared to go along a few miles with the dramatic situation.

Daniel Sumegi has little trouble in making Ochs the production’s central focus.  His production is hard to fault for clarity, elasticity and breadth of volume, making him more than a match for David Kram’s over-encouraged pit.  As the character is meant to, Sumegi dominated every ensemble point in which he was involved and he has enough experience to know not to bray, although it was a near thing in the Act 1 duet with the Marschallin’s lawyer over the levee’s ferment.

For the most part, this Ochs stayed the right side of unbridled crudity; any deviations struck me as due to the bass’s direction rather than the singer’s own choice.  But, while you could take pleasure in the self-obsession of Ochs’ Act 1, and the vulgarity of his wooing and wounding in Act 2,  the best came in the later stages of the final act where the hurly-burly was done and the character has to be coerced into a graceless withdrawal.  This showed fine fidelity to the libretto’s intentions, without allowing for any diminution in misplaced self-assurance.

For all that, the use of Ochs as a substitute for the Marschallin’s blackamoor in the last skittering bars impressed as a step too far in promoting the character’s primacy, simply because the music runs counter to director Matheson’s staged action at this point.

Lee Abrahmsen sang a fully assured Marschallin, her opening act a fine balance of indulgence and self-awareness at the Da geht er hin soliloquy, which was all the more welcome for its avoidance of over-intensity.  This soprano, like Sumegi, cut through an ensemble with assurance and – wonder of wonders – kept herself on an even keel in the Hab mir’s gelobt trio rather than dynamically towering over the other singers.

Yet in this last act, where the Marschallin’s entry stills all that chaos, the sense of presence and domination didn’t come across, possibly because Abrahmsen appeared to view the whole scene as an affront to middle-class sensibilities, as though she was looking at people behaving badly and finding it all beneath her.   But I think that Marie Therese is much more warm-hearted and accepting than this, tolerant of others’ foibles because she knows she’s imperfect herself and, if she smiles, it’s in self-recognition as well as amusement.

As Octavian, Danielle Calder worked to achieve a creditable success rate, her anticipated youthful enthusiasm exercised to fine effect in the opening scene, although even a convincing actor finds it hard to avoid suggestions of silliness in the Marschallin’s bedroom activity.  It might have been Kram’s baton in over-active play but it struck me that the Mir ist die Ehre address could have been given with more deliberation; it’s a great moment and should be relished by all concerned.

But Calder did the Mariandel persona quite straight, without cheap laughs as she avoided the Baron’s gropes, and managing the chase-round-the-brothel games with restraint.  Mind you, enough was going on here – onstage and in the Athenaeum’s Juliet balconies – to cover any vocal awkwardness and the exchanges after the Baron’s discomfiture and exit with both of the character’s love interests enjoyed rapid treatment compared to some previous experiences I’ve endured with this uncomfortably self-regarding dialogue.

Anna Voshege sang Sophie, the ingenue who grows up quickly across the opera’s small time-span.  Admittedly, her diction persisted in being unclear  but complaining that you can’t understand the words during an opera sung in English suggests to me a lack of preparation.

You can’t come to occasions like this and expect to be able to decipher everything; you have to do your homework.  People sit through Rigoletto or Götterdämmerung and don’t have an inkling about the meaning of what they’re hearing.  No: if you’re going to the opera, you can’t expect the experience to be as facile as watching Jersey Boys or Kinky Boots.

Voshege milked Act 2 for all it was worth; and so she should because she’s on stage and an active participant for most of its length.  She managed to get through the initial In dieser feierlichen Stunde right up to Denn das ist ja so schon with plenty of vivacity, even in the more sober strophes of her self-revelation.  Later, the duet  beginning Ich kenn Ihn schon recht wohl proved to be one of the more deftly contrived stretches of the entire production, thanks to the conviction and display of personality from each singer.

Among the rest of the cast, Simon Meadows made a determined Faninal, even if he looked improbably young for the role.  Andrea Creighton took to the limelight with gusto during her excited commentary on the approach of the Rose-bearer; just the other side of over-the-top, but why not?   John Pickering and Caroline Vercoe wove themselves into each act with distinction; this Valzacchi and Annina weathered every change of direction and profited from each one with just enough intrusiveness.  Matthew Thomas gave excellent pedantry as the Marschallin’s attorney on loan to the Baron.  Henry Choo made a fair essay at the Italian Singer’s two stanzas but might have been better advised not to attempt a Pavarotti impersonation, simply because that brought to mind the pure glory of the Italian tenor’s delineation of this all-too-brief role.

Lucy Wilkins ensured that the cast were suitably dressed, even if the costuming confused with its alternation between the original time-setting of the 1740s and something resembling the early decades of the last century.   Christina Logan-Bell made sure that the sets allowed space for plenty of mobile population in the outer acts, although the nightmares that beset Ochs near the end were clumsily executed, to the point where you weren’t sure where to look or which group was representing what.

The chief talking point of the production itself was the physical presentation of Ochs as a Trump caricature.  This proved enjoyable up to a point but I think most of us at this matinee performance were more entertained by the finale when Sumegi took off the wig to reveal total baldness – not because of any implied political commentary but because the character abruptly moved to a more satisfying and attractive level, devoid of clumsy satire and more in line with what Hofmannsthal wanted –  a Bavarian bully and bore getting his comeuppance.

Much of the chorus work worked well enough in Act 3 although this was the stretch of music-making that raised questions.  The ferment is pretty fierce as Strauss piles up his action but, even before this, the brass showed signs of fatigue and the pit’s responsiveness before the opera’s sinking-back to placidity in its last pages seemed under-rehearsed, if not downright scrappy.  Still, this is a difficult work to handle, particularly in a theatre of small proportions and a good deal of the first two-thirds of the score came off quite creditably.

A final note on this point.   Perhaps the production might have been better suited to the company’s other venues, like the Palais in St. Kilda or the Regent across the road.

For sure, Melbourne Opera can be reasonably content with its work on Strauss’s sugary confection but the experience was something of an uphill battle where it seemed to me that nobody except Sumegi was completely comfortable in coping with the work’s musical demands.

There are two final performances on Wednesday August 15 and Friday November 17, both nights starting at 7:30 pm.


September Diary

Sunday September 2


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

This is what I call putting your guests to work.   Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra play hosts to violinists Miki Tsunoda and Anne Harvey-Nagl in a wealth of concertos, and not just the famous double ones from Vivaldi and Bach, welcome though these are.   The Bach coupling is the famous D minor BWV 1043 – to my generation, coloured by the Olympian security of the 1962 recording by Oistrakh father and son.   The Vivaldi double in A minor Op 3 No. 8 will be familiar to organists as that transcribed by Bach for their instrument as BWV 593.   Also being aired is Bach’s Overture in A minor, possibly taken from an earlier version of the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, only with solo violin rather than solo flute.   The Vivaldi fest continues with the Concerto for two violins and cello in D minor.  And there’s more: a Concerto ripieno in C (possible RV 115), a sinfonia in G (RV 146? 147? 149?) and individual concertos (presumably for violin and strings) in E minor (take your pick of 10 possibles) and A Major (18 potentials here).


Sunday September 2


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne at 3 pm

The last in this fine if brief series of masterclasses and concerts begins with the Schubert Quartet in E flat; yes, I don’t know it, either.  A student work, this quartet has been referred to as ‘No. 10’, which infers a preceding job-lot that remain pretty well unplayed these days.  As for Brahms, Mimir presents the Piano Quintet in F minor, a masterpiece of the form and one of the composer’s towering chamber music achievements.   As well, Mimir fleshes out our knowledge of American music with the String Quartet No. 1 by George Walker, a composer/pianist/academic of high distinction with a sackful of ‘firsts’ to his name, including being the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize and various professorships at several US universities.  This quartet’s second movement has enjoyed the same fate as Barber’s Adagio in being arranged for strings and thereby gaining considerable popularity and performances.


Thursday September 6


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Five big names in Spanish music feature in this program, which is conducted by Michael Dahlenburg.   The group begins with Turina’s La oracion del torero; originally written for four lutes, it enjoyed a transcription for string quartet before expansion to string orchestra costume.   Then the afternoon’s soloist, guitarist Christoph Denoth, will emerge to perform two standards of his repertoire: Albeniz’s Leyenda (Asturias to you and me) and Torre Bermeja.  He follows up with Joaquin Malats’ perky Serenata which Denoth has arranged for himself and string orchestra.  The MCO’s go-to man for custom-made material, Nicholas Buc, is enriching the occasion with some arrangements for the group: another Albeniz in Espana, originally for piano and here its six movements have all been treated except for the fourth, another Serenata; and then come three of Granados’ twelve Danzas espanolas – No 3 (Fandango), No 5 (Andaluza/Playera) and No. 6 (Rondalla aragonesa).  Finally, Denoth takes the central role in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which will give us a through-composed entity in an evening of Iberian scraps.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 9 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.


Saturday September 8


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

For this review of the British composer’s output, the Australian String Quartet is joined by some ANAM musicians.   On the preceding evening, the ASQ plays the first of the quartets, as well as the Phantasy Quartet for oboe (ANAM director Nick Deutsch) and string trio, as well as the rarely-aired Three Divertimenti for string quartet (10 minutes’ worth of March, Waltz, Burleske), with a filler of a Movement (Moderato con molto moto) for wind sextet – your basic four woodwind plus horn and bass clarinet.  This second night holds the two later quartets and the composer’s first international calling card: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which shows what an extraordinary command of both utterance and technique had been developed by the 23-year-old composer.  Frankly, I’ve never been that keen on the final quartet’s Death in Venice debts, probably because the opera is obsessed with its own sounds, but its C major predecessor, in particular the Chacony finale, stands at the core of English compositional character.


Saturday September 8


Melbourne Bach Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

While the Mozart torso stands as the fulcrum of this concert, the in memoriam theme comes through more clearly in two works by that name: Stravinsky’s short twelve-tone In memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet and four trombones, and Part’s equally brief Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and bell.  The choir will also sing Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata for three soloists (alto, tenor, bass), choir and small orchestra including three wind.  To compensate the soprano soloist for missing out on a role in the cantata, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff has programmed Mozart’s early aria in B flat, Kommet her, ihr frechen Sunder, the composer’s last piece connected with the Passion but, sadly, not particularly memorable.   Oh, the actual singers taking on principal roles throughout this melange are soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and baritone Andrew Jones.


Monday September 10


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Well, you can predict the transformed Strauss:  Metamorphosen for 23 strings that laments World War II, arranged from the composer’s short score for string septet by Rudolf Leopold.   The new-and-strange Mozart is the warm-hearted violin/viola Sinfonia Concertate reshaped by the composer into a string sextet: the Grande Sestetto Concertante.  Around these come some odd bedfellows: Dowland’s Lachrimae antiquae (first of the Lachrimae pavans collection) for five lines, the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s A Musical Offering (the one that Webern arranged so astonishingly) and the Tristan Prelude arranged by Sebastian Gurtler – presumably the one for string sextet, not the ones he did for string orchestra or 23 solo strings.  As for participants, the scheduled violins are Helena Rathbone and Aiko Goto, viola Nicole Divall, cellos Timo-Veikko Valve and Melissa Barnard, with Maxime Bibeau on double bass.  This body can handle all the above scores except the Strauss, which needs another viola.  You can’t say the recital won’t live up to its title’s first word.


Wednesday September 12


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

In the middle of a very active month for ANAM, the administration has assembled a quintet of notable wind players for this taxing night’s operations.   Director Nick Deutsch, contributes his oboe to the mix; the flautist is Wally Hase, from next month Professor of Flute at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna; Icelandic citizen Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of Vladimir, is on clarinet; Australian-born Lyndon Watts, principal bassoonist with the Munich Philharmonic, takes the bass line; Marie-Luise Neunecker, notable academic and soloist, is the group’s horn and an expert in contemporary music.  The night opens with Harald Genzmer’s Wind Quintet of 1957, moves to Hindemith’s three-movement Sonata for 4 horns of five years earlier, then takes an up-to-the-mark challenge with a new work by Israeli-Australian composer Yitzhak Yedid.   A more senior element emerges with Frank Bridge’s late Divertimenti for woodwind quartet – Prelude, Nocturne, Scherzetto, Bagatelle – and, finally, Strauss’s B flat Major Suite for 13 winds – pairs of woodwind, four horns, and a tuba or contrabassoon working away at the bottom of it all.   We’ve had the ANAM strings labouring away at Britten over the weekend; here come the wind.


Friday September 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard to know what to make of this grab-bag.   The MSO under luckless Benjamin Northey starts with Stravinsky: the Pulcinella Suite which makes a virtue out of just avoiding grating dissonances and which probably works better in the theatre where it came from.   As well, Stravinsky also features later in his arrangement of the Bluebird pas de deux from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty; 1941 wartime restrictions-determined that this re-scoring is for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, pairs of trumpets and trombones, a horn, timpani, piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.  That’s a lot of chair-moving for 5 minutes’ worth of music.   Guest artist, pianist Andrea Lam, fronts the Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1 in G minor which is full of notes.  And the night ends with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, teetering on the last legs of Classicism but ebullient and intellectually invigorating from first note to last.   How it fits in with what’s gone before is anyone’s guess.


Friday September 14


Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The company is very proud of its forays into the Bellini oeuvre: Norma in 2014, I Puritani in 2015 and last year’s La Sonnambula.  All have been concert versions and tonight is no exception.   The company’s artistic director, Richard Mills, will conduct and the main roles feature familiar faces.   The trousers part of Romeo is entrusted to mezzo Caitlin Hulcup; the company is fortunate to attract a singer with her high reputation.  Giulietta will be taken by Jessica Pratt, who had considerable success with last year’s Bellini effort, I’m told.  Teddy Tahu Rhodes has the senior’s role of Lorenzo, the Capulet family doctor (stepping in for Friar Laurence) who concocts the idiotic sleeping potion plan.   Capellio, Juliet’s father, will be sung by David Parkin, most well-known for his 2006 triumph in Operatunity Oz, while Carlos E. Barcenas has the task of playing Tebaldo (substituting for Shakespeare’s Paris).


Saturday September 15


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Baroque violinist Daniel Pinteno is the central artist on this program which has  geographical and temporal limits, most welcome after the ABO’s disappointing trans-Asian ramble of Karakorum.   Much of the music being performed is completely new to me but it comes from the Brandenburgers’ home territory, so high hopes are flapping in the breeze.   Pinteno will direct two Australian premieres and one world premiere, this last a sinfonia by Felix Maximo Lopez, born before Mozart but living well into the 19th century and best known as a court organist.   As for the other premieres, Vicente Basset’s eminently forgettable 5-minute Overture a piu stromenti gives the players a useful tune-up; Italian-born Caetano Brunetti’s Sinfonia in C minor is subtitled Il Maniatico, and the designated maniac is a solo cello that suffers from a musical monomania, an idee fixe from which the other orchestra members try to distract him/her.   There are two concertos from that well-known Spaniard, Vivaldi: La Notte for flute – in this instance, Sydney musician Melissa Farrow – and the Op. 3 No. 9 in D Major (one of the several that Bach transcribed), with Pinteno as soloist.   Another Italian-born musician who, like Brunetti, wound up in Spain, Giacomo Facco wrote his own L’estro armonico called Pensieri Adriarmonici from which Pinteno will perform the Concerto No. 3, notable for its 25-bar central Adagio.   And, for a further cosmopolitan touch, the ensemble plays two movements from Englishman Charles Avison’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 6.   How much of this was played at the Spanish court?   I don’t know, but the aristocracy were very keen on their music, home-grown or not, and it was probably impossible in the 18th century to avoid Vivaldi the Prolific.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 16 at 5 pm.


Sunday September 16


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Team senior Darryl Coote is in for a long night as he accompanies soprano Rebecca Rashleigh and mezzo Victoria Lambourn in a series of 16 operatic excerpts.   Some of them are more than familiar: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, Liu’s Tu che di gel sei cinta, the Offenbach Barcarolle, the Madama Butterfly Flower Duet, Humperdinck’s Evening Prayer, Tchaikovsky’s None but the lonely heart (not opera, but let it ride), and the Seguidilla from Carmen.   A few are on the cusp of arcane: Zeffiretti lusinghieri, Ilia’s aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo; Susannah’s Act 1 aria Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s popular work; Olga’s Akh, Tanya, Tanya from  Act 1 of Eugene Onegin, and the Uzh Veder duet for Lisa and Polina from the same composer’s The Queen of Spades.  But you will also hear some true rarities: Come ti piace, imponi – the duet at the opening of La clemenza di Tito; and four Rossini pieces including a duet from Bianca e Falliero, Cruda sorte marking the title character’s entry into L’Italiana in Algeri, and two non-operatic songs in Canzonetta spagnuola and its contemporary, Belta crudele.  It all adds up to four soprano solos, six for the mezzo and the same number of duets; lots of fun for everyone   –  except the hard-worked artists.


Friday September 21


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Debussy celebrations continue at ANAM, if nowhere else.   An expert in the composer’s piano music, Roy Howat, is sharing the labours on this night with Timothy Young and some other ANAM musicians, although I don’t know how many others will need to be involved unless the Academy pianists have been invited to take part alongside their two seniors.   But more of that below.   The program begins with the Violin Sonata, and two other duets have been scheduled: Marche ecossaise sur un theme populaire in the original piano 4-hands version, and the two-piano three-movement suite, En blanc et noir.  The rest of the content is a collection of well-known solos: the eponymous suite, the catchy Danse, as well as the Valse romantique, Ballade, Mazurka, and the musical picture-postcard triptych of Estampes.   Now, speaking of extra ANAM instrumentalists, what sticks out from this sequence is the Sonata No. 3 (after Debussy) by Lyle Chan, who is engaged in writing those three sonatas that Debussy didn’t live long enough to compose, although he projected their instrumentation.   According to the authorities, ‘Sonata No. 3’ is, in fact, Debussy’s own Violin Sonata; the Australian Music Centre cites this recital as premiering Chan’s Sonata No. 4, which follows the French composer’s projected plan by being written for oboe, horn and harpsichord.


Friday September 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

No surprises here: a good old-fashioned overture-concerto-symphony format of works in the central Romantic tradition, all written within 50 years of each other.  The MSO’s Cybec Assistant Conductor Tianyu Lu gets to handle the overture, that to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride; when are we going to hear that mellifluously melodious opera again?  Then Xian Zhang takes over the podium: a triumphant night for female conductors.   As well as taking the orchestra through Dvorak’s sterling final symphony, she also will assist Benjamin Grosvenor work his way through the Schumann Piano Concerto.   Here’s hoping he has as much success with this work as he did here three years ago with that even more hard-worn warhorse, the Grieg which, like the Schumann, is a gift to young performers.

This program will be repeated on Saturday September 22 at 7:30 pm and on Monday September 24 at 6:30 pm.


Saturday September 22

Borodin Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Path-setters for many works and a representing a formidable chamber music tradition, this body’s personnel have changed but the style remains.   Appearing once again for Musica Viva, this superbly honed ensemble is presenting a Shostakovich work in each of its two programs: No. 9 tonight and No. 15 – the last in the series – a week later.  Program 1 also holds Haydn in B minor Op. 33 No. 1 and Beethoven No. 13 in B flat for that essential infusion of gravitas.   The second night audience is treated to Tchaikovsky No. 1 with its melting Andante cantabile slow movement, while Wolf’s Italian Serenade serves as brilliant comic relief.   These are red-letter nights for enthusiasts of quartet playing and I’d expect a venue as small as the Murdoch Hall to be packed to the gills.

The Quartet will present its Program No. 2 on Saturday September 25 at 7 pm.


Saturday September 22


Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell at 8 pm

Concert No.2 out of three being given this year at the imposing Catholic church in Camberwell,  this endeavour by the Gomberts explores a rich mine of polyphony composed in the years before things got over-complicated.  The four composers programmed are Josquin, Pierre de la Rue, Verdelot and Compere – all contemporaries, imposing presences in the French and Franco-Flemish compositional worlds.   Josquin is represented by one work, the motet Absalon fili mi, which has been attributed to de la Rue – but never mind: it’s all in together for  this night’s family.   Verdelot also features with only one work: another six-voice motet, Ave sanctissima Maria which has also been attributed to that gadabout, de la Rue.   The real de la Rue compositions are the six-voice Pater de caelis Deus and the canon-crazy Missa Ave sanctissima Maria.   Compere’s Galeazescha, written for Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, is another form of mass, but one comprising Marian motets rather than following the usual Ordinary format.   Here is the sort of music-making in which this exemplary ensemble shines: scholarly and transporting.


Thursday September 27


Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Taking his place in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, British pianist Lewis is giving us yet another of his highly individual recitals which, although featuring great composers, head towards the more arcane stretches of their output.  The Bagatelles are not problematic in the same fashion as Beethoven’s late sonatas are; for one thing, they’re comparatively pithy.   But that’s part of the reason why most pianists ignore them – no long melodic spread in which to bathe your listeners and not enough amplitude of brusqueness to keep them satisfied.   As for the Brahms Four Piano Pieces Op. 119, most of us would find it hard to remember when last we heard the first three of them, all intermezzi, while the concluding Rhapsody is a tremendous challenge in distributing the weight between the fingers, let alone the hands; most interpreters are happy enough to belt the pages, making a single-minded virtue out of their risoluto direction.   In between these, Lewis plays two Haydn sonatas: Hob XVI. 49 and Hob XVI. 32, both of which he has recently recorded for Harmonia Mundi as part of a project to set down the composer’s total sonata output.  Still, this all adds up to a bit over an hour’s worth of performance time.

There’s another similar recital on October 1, of which more details later.


Friday September 28

MOZART 39, 40 & 41

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

They don’t come more focused than this.   Guest conductor Douglas Boyd led the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the complete Beethoven symphonic cycle at the Town Hall six years ago in a memorable series, and he has been a pretty regular visitor since that time.   Here, he takes the ANAM forces through the final three symphonies of Mozart, all from 1788 and foundation stones of the Western musical tradition.  Yes, of course the musicians can play the scores but it will be a burning question as to how far Boyd can take his (mainly) young charges in produndity of interpretation, especially considering the brief period that he has to work with them, although he won’t have to be concerned with imparting broad technical details.   A feast for the intellect, being confronted by works that set off sparks from first bar to last.   As well, the dedicated can compare this reading of No. 41 with the MSO’s version on Friday September 14.


Sunday September 30


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

In 1998, the 16-year-old Ilya Gringolts won first prize at the Genoa Paganini Competition.  Naturally, we’ll all be more than a little interested to hear what he makes of the Italian master-violinists’s Concerto No. 1, even if it comes in an arrangement by Bernard Rofe which will probably reduce the score to fit the ACO string personnel, leaving out the original’s six woodwind and five brass.   As well, Gringolts will participate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and 2 cellos in C with ACO principal Timo-Veikko Valve and his long-time second, Julian Thompson, as co-sharers of the work’s limelight.   Gringolts begins his afternoon/evening with a C.P.E. Bach String Symphony in C, presumably the third of the Wq. 182 series of six    The program ends with Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939, which was part of the first ACO concert in 1975; will be interesting to see what the guest director/soloist makes of it.

This program is repeated on Monday October 1 at 7:30 pm.








A trying journey


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

This night began with a bang: a haunting, rhapsodic troubadour song in Occitan, the vocal line soaring over a single bass-note support.  As a setting-up of this night’s structure, you could hardly ask for better.   But, from then on, the creative inspiration flagged and what we wound up experiencing failed to sustain this opening promise.

Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia founded by Genghis Khan, was the end-point of a two-year mission undertaken in 1253 by Franciscan monk William of Rubruck who was chosen to travel to that distant metropolis with the aim of converting the ruler, Mongke Khan (Genghis’s grandson) and as many other non-believers as he could.  Through the long journey, William recorded his impressions but made remarkably few converts.

This entertainment, devised by Cambodian-born Khai-Dong Luong, is a show-piece for the French ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime which specialises in music of the 12th and 13th centuries.  But La Camera does not just perform excerpts from this neglected trove: the ensemble puts its music into historical perspective; in this instance, following William’s travel routes to and from Mongolia.

La Camera brought six musicians to the Brandenburg party: singer Bruno Bonhoure, violinist/vocalist Mokrane Adlani, kamanche expert Martin Bauer, percussionist Michele Claude, vocalist and erhu player Yan Li, flute/hurdy-gurdy/cornamuse player Christophe Tellart.  Paul Dyer kept a low profile behind his chamber organ while his fellow-Brandenburgers were all strings:  violinists Shaun Lee-Chen, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, with bass violin Jamie Hey.  Helping the visiting singers along their paths were five male members of the ABO Choir.

Playing William, dressed in a Franciscan habit, Australian actor David Wenham recited a narrative which took us from Constantinople and back again (well, a tentative launch onto the return road) with a few dramatic frissons along the way.   He wasn’t amplified, which didn’t matter to those of us near the front, but might have proved irritating to patrons in the balcony because of the occasional volume drop at the end of sentences.

But, despite Wenham’s function as a focus for the Karakorum story, the night’s attention focused on Bonhoure, the Camera’s music director and, for all intents and purposes, the fulcrum of this concert’s action.  His voice featured in most of the works heard and his positioning on stage, allied with his physical movement, meant that he attracted your eyes and ears almost continuously.  Some relief came with a Mongolian chant sung by Yan Li and a Sufi one from Adlani, which provided a fine complement to Bonhoure’s opening troubadour song.

Most of this night’s music has been recorded by the Camera with only two extra items inserted for this tour: a Gregorian Credo which only lasted up to Et homo factus est; and a concluding Kyrgyzstan melody, With hearts high, to bring the monk’s odyssey to a rousing conclusion.

The projected duration of this concert was 80 minutes; in fact, it lasted for 100 and I was pretty tired by the end.   Yes, the narrative interludes had their moments, although Wenham gave little suggestion of character to William who presented as yet another naif like Diver Dan or Faramir.   But then, the actor was handicapped in his personification because the whole original exercise, devised by Louis IX, was doomed from the start: William himself was unprepared  –  he made so few converts because he didn’t speak any of the languages of the lands through which he travelled.   He preached, but who understood?

As for sustaining most of the vocal brunt of Karakorum, Bonhoure does not have a particularly interesting voice and, while agreeable enough, it remains one-dimensional, displaying little ability to change timbres.  After the initial beguiling Austorg d’Aurillac song, he opened the Sufi chant Loving the beauty of Layla with a counter-tenor falsetto, articulating lots of same-note phrases in this lover’s plaint while the ABO vocal quintet gave him a monosyllabic drone support.  This sounded mildly exotic yet  bland.  Another troubadour song passed by without much effect.  By contrast, in his vocal work, Adlani projected a less well-honed product but his vocalising sounded more convincing, possibly because he was not caught up in attracting attention which Bonhoure did to the point of irritation.

For a time, the Orient won out with some dance music that I believe might have been from the Urals but which could have come from any corner of the Mediterranean from Makre to Tunis and would not be notable or out-of-context today.  As William got more involved in his task, Bonhoure sang three Gregorian chants – Miserere mei, Deus, Vexilla regis (which was juxtaposed with a fine adhan from Adlani in a musically uncomfortable counterpoint), and Salve Regina.  This last was punctuated with violin interludes that pushed some catchy Oriental melismata into the ideological fray.

By which stage you had well and truly received the message that this night’s music was essaying a kind of East and West meld; first you get a bit of Gregorian, then you have a stretch of throbbing sinuousness.   So, really, not a melding but a comparison with the director and musical director wanting to interweave the two strands of material.  The Creed extract was followed by a substantial erhu solo before Yan Li’s Heart beating in the steppes Mongolian lyric (was it sung in Chinese?); what inevitably followed was another Gregorian block where the Ave Regina caelorum antiphon and the A solis ortus cardine hymn signified that William had reached Karakorum.

In Wenham’s narration, Mongke Khan’s court reception was alarming until William realised that the whole crowd was drunk.   Cue an erhu solo called Tang Tang (a Mongolian lyric) and a drinking song, at which point Bonhoure unleashed his inner Alexis Zorba; the over-acting here verged on Playschool obviousness.  After this bout of pagan happiness, it was back to business with the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence for Pentecost, Bonhoure working indefatigably over an instrumental Alberti bass with some vehement erhu commentary.

La Camera’s Claude enjoyed a solo spot here, her instrument sounding very like a tabla that had come tapping its way up from the south.  This led into Adlani’s Vision of the Beloved Sufi chant, a very welcome break from the prevailing regime although – not for the first time – the music itself began with an unexpectedly banal 4/4 pulse before altering to a more reassuring irregular pattern.  For all that, the actual vocal line recalled the free-ranging solid ululations of Umm Kulthum – which could be a testament to the unchanging nature of Arabic music over eight centuries.

The narrative’s climax came at a debate before Mongke Khan where each religion – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – asked and answered questions of each other.  Various members of both La Camera and the ABO took on the lines of the disputants while, in the background, the Sanskrit chant of Om mani padme hum served as a sustained underpinning, presenting a strange theological situation for William, his Nestorian co-religionists and the Muslims.  But, as the guru from Liverpool sang, let it be.

Bonhoure signified William’s going home by leading the Veni, veni Emmanuel hymn – two verses of it – before the Kyrgyzstan tune took over and Bonhoure did his best whirling dervish imitation.   Yes: sometimes you’ve got to forget all that theological malarkey and just have a good spin.

In this semi-staged diversion, Luong and Bonhoure seemed to be constrained by a limited view of the music relevant to the enterprise.   Without the two troubadour songs, the West was all Gregorian chant.   On the other hand, the tourist sound-track to Mongolia took in music from the Black Sea, the Urals, Mongolia itself, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Sufi and Buddhist chants and hymns.  Fine; although, in several instances, this Eastern music itself sounded alarmingly ‘modern’.

Despite all these reservations, I was in a clear minority because the Murdoch Hall audience exploded into an enthusiastic reception at the performance’s conclusion.  Mind you, I have a cynical theory that explains why every Mahler symphony is greeted with a standing ovation: audiences just want to get out of their seats.  But to my mind, in the Karakorum hegira, you had to wait for isolated moments that arrested your attention;  riveting music-making was pretty rare.

For the most part, the combined band worked through their tasks with aplomb and gravity.  Dyer’s organ was close to inaudible for most of the night, as was Bauer’s kamanche.   On the other hand, the erhu enjoyed dynamic prominence and Tellart’s piquant wind contributions enriched a good many string-drone passages.

Despite Dyer’s enthusiasm for La Camera’s work which led him to invite the ensemble to participate in this mixed-bag construct, I left the Recital Centre feeling flat and believing that the whole concept might have succeeded more if originality of structure and musical content had not been so hard to find.






Collaboration more than fusion


Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday July 26

Finally, Adam Simmons and his Creatives have come to the end off their projected five events celebrating The Usefulness of Art; well, I say ‘the end’ but Simmons proposes that there are more avenues to explore in future years.  Just as well if this utilitarian innovation has any sustaining force to run counter to any Wildean denial of aesthetic responsibility or purpose.  Still, we could hope that any new manifestations of this creative drive might take an original path.

In the latest exploration, Simmons stuck to his by-now habitual practice of alternating improvisatory passages with through-composed blocks.  On one side, he sat at the head of a quintet of saxophonist-flautists – Cara Taber, Gideon Brazil, Paul Simmons, Sam  Boon – with a counterweight of  trumpets (Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish), trombone (Bryn Hills) and guitar (David Brown).   In a circular framework at the rear sat/stood Carmen Chan on marimba, double bass Howard Cairns, Niko Schauble and Nat Grant on drums with Pete Lawler manipulating a space drum.

At the centre of the ensemble sat guest Wang Zheng-Ting, this country’s leading expert on the sheng, the Chinese mouth-organ that looks like a cluster of pipes, looking for all the world like a rank neatly extracted from a pipe organ.  This artist’s presence gave plenty of significance to the night’s title; both he and Simmons visited kite-maker Wei Guoqiu in Tianjin earlier this year and conceived of this collaboration as an illustration of the Simmons creed with a Chinese flavour.

The opening movement, Can you see the wind?, brought all flutes into play – concert, alto, piccolo, bass – concentrating on one note and the inevitable shifts in balance as players’ breath spans overlapped.  With the entry of the sheng, prevailing dynamics required a move to saxophones because of the Chinese instrument’s penetrating timbre but a later duet for Chan’s marimba and Ting came about as close as this near-hour-long recital could to a persuasive fusion.

Each of the later stages of this seven-part suite had its own individual initial sound-colours: marimba and bass, marimba and Schauble’s drum-kit, sheng and Simmons’s sax in exposed duet.  These set the musical work into motion before the rest of the players entered, either individually or en masse. As in previous concerts, several of the work’s segments built up to frenetic sustained sonic blasts for all players, Ting entering into the welter with aplomb.

In later movements, the musical pace slowed down.  Free as the birds had two players put down their instruments to manipulate small kites around the performing space, while a screen on an oblique angle outside the space’s windows played a film of clouds with birds.  This gave way to the finale, The art of breath, which had the musicians show exactly what that entailed; not exactly novel but undeniably useful.

For the most part, this night’s action appeared to me to be operating on two levels: one, where the focus fell on individual, often pointillist sounds or simple folk-style tunes; the other, that circumscribed free-wheeling where the musicians pick their own way through the mesh but not venturing very far outside the predictable.  This alternation can make for moderately interesting moments but I had the feeling that the ensemble was very familiar with this format and not inclined to break out of the tried and tested.

You couldn’t see this as a fusion of East and West since the sheng stuck out too prominently from the general texture at certain critical stages.  When Ting played softly and the accompaniment remained sparse, the sound was not particularly Oriental; in tutti moments, I found it difficult to pick much out beneath the combined sax/trumpet onslaught.

Simmons is a significant presence in that musical sphere that balances on the cusp between jazz and serious music, to the point that, at some stages of his performances, the distinctions fall away – and that is a very useful achievement.   But, on this particular night, it seemed to me that both he and his colleagues were repeating themselves; that this particular vein has been sufficiently worked out; and that this particular stretch of music-making didn’t succeed in welding a distinguished guest into the ensemble’s practice patterns and musical behaviour.

A bounding lightness

Joyce Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 24

                                                                        Joyce Yang

In the first of two programs that she is presenting for Musica Viva, pianist Joyce Yang brought back a lot of memories for those of us brought up through a deliberately inculcated familiarity with 19th and early 20th century repertoire.  She opened Tuesday night’s recital with five of the Lyric Pieces by Grieg, followed by Debussy’s Estampes, then the Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante as a substantial chaser.

In her post-interval endeavours, Yang gave the Melbourne premiere of a piano sonata by Sydney composer Elizabeth Younans, a work commissioned for this tour by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva; fortunately, the new piece has considerable merit for two-thirds of its length.  And the formal program concluded with Schumann’s Carnaval, handled with splendid authority and sustained insight   –   so much so that, for the first time in many years, you could become fully engaged in the composer’s compressed kaleidoscope of musical imagery, rather than doomed to endure a humourless demonstration of stultifying virtuosity.

You’d think that Yang was opting for an easy opening with the Grieg, especially as only one of the five she chose was unfamiliar.  But there are problems to be found in even the simplest pages, like the Arietta that stands at the entrance to the whole 66 Lyric Pieces. It’s not Wedding-day at Troldhaugen or the March of the Dwarves which are thrilling to play and to hear; but it requires a delicacy in shaping  Grieg’s somewhat whining lyric to ensure that it is sent on its way with winsome appeal.  Here, and in the following Notturno, Yang was barely stretched, although her negotiation of the triplet-heavy accompaniment in the latter sounded rigid, at points turning the piece into a slow waltz.  Yet her right-hand trills spoke with excellent evenness

The unknown (to me) piece Once upon a Time  made a pleasant exercise in contrasts, its outer E minor slow march pages interrupted by a bucolic major key 3/4 dance; nothing complex to it and rich with the composer’s fingerprints but carefully managed here.  The Scherzo suffered from an imbalance in hand weight, as did Puck where the treble clef material did not travel as clearly as it should have over both the arpeggiated and chordal bass accompaniments.

Debussy’s Pagodes brought out Yang’s individuality,mainly through her approach to the many ritenuti/A tempo oscillations which made the first page unpredictable;  for my taste, the longueurs were entertained a tad too much.  But the work progressed clearly enough with very fine definition of layers before the first fortissimo outburst.  In fact, the central problem with this version came at the double climax points which would have gained from more shoulder strength.

It was a slow night in Grenada, the habanera one of the least rhythmically compulsive you would ever come across, but Yang’s singular lightness of approach brightened up the piece’s middle section where the key signature changes to F sharp Major.  It wasn’t just a case of performing avec plus d’abandon but more  finding and delivering a brighter sonority informed by a wry angularity that reflected Debussy’s wayward venture away from the work’s outer haziness.   The pianist had all the notes of Jardins sous la pluie under her command yet the effect was formulaic – not exactly a study but often not that far removed.   You were expecting – well, I was – a good deal more brilliance of timbre in the final pages from en animant jusqua la fin but Yang kept her powder very dry.  Understandable, given that much of these final pages is tamped-down vitality.  Yet even the final splayed chords impressed as over-deliberate.

On the other hand, it was hard to find fault with Yang’s Chopin offering.  The spianato section came over with elegance and discretion, its bel canto lyricism emerging in an effortless, unstudied chain, leading to a mellifluous passage from bar 97 to 110 where the matched pairs of sextuplets faded to a breathtaking, all too rapid chordal coda.   The ensuing polonaise proved an unalloyed delight, full of character and infused with carefully handled rubato   At certain action-packed moments, Yang’s right-hand work gave us some of this night’s most memorable brilliance; for example, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a more bravura account of bars 221-261, the forward surge unstoppable, lucid and without a sign of flashy vulgarity..  But moments like that underlined Yang’s comprehensive accomplishment here, thanks to an admirable fearlessness and what I can only describe as consistent emotional sprightliness.

Younan’s fresh sonata, in three movements, lived up to the composer’s meagre descriptor, amplified by Yang, by opening with blocks of motivic material in quick succession.  Its first movement presented to my ears as a sequence of variations, in that Younan’s initial blocks move into a sequence of events in which the initial shapes can be detected, these events discrete so that you’re aware that another treatment is beginning.  The score exploits the piano’s range and dynamic potential and persists in a vehement volubility.

In the second movement, the composer proposes a deep bass line set against top-of-the-keyboard pointillism.  To Yang, it suggests an astral journey – which is fair enough if you subscribe to a Holstian view of cosmology..  But it’s not all sub-Uranian rumblings and Mercurial scintillations: Younan has a central layer , more complex in its patterns but distinctive for a rising scalar pattern and giving these pages a welcome amplitude of colour to give flesh to their outer reaches.

I found the last quick movement the least interesting part of the sonata.  Jazzy, jerky, with the spectre of Bartok juddering forward every so often, the work seems to devolve into a show-piece for the executant.   Its character presented as less self-assured than its predecessors, being more fitful and self-conscious in its juxtapositions of active bursts.  For all that, Yang gave a devoted interpretation, sustaining your interest in the finer segments and working with diligence through less satisfying stretches.

As for this performer’s Schumann account, here was one of those rare occasions where you could put your pen down and bask in the playing, totally secure in Yang’s vision and her unflappable delivery.  From the opening call-to-arms of the Preamble to the spent exhilaration of the concluding Davidsbundler March, the pianist maintained the pressure, urging us on through each of the character sketches but giving each its requisite space.

You might have quibbled with the over-schizoid nature of Yang’s Florestan reading where the composer’s self-portrait (well, half of one) approached the manic; but there’s no doubt that you can find this duality all too easily in the music itself.   Yang took a no-nonsense approach to the 14-bars’ worth of Chopin, following up with as forceful an Estrella as I’ve encountered, its central syncopated bars more ferocious than expected.

But it was Yang’s gallery-vista approach that moved this performance onto a higher level.  She outlined her take on the composer’s chameleonic personality, complete with detours and abrupt darts off-target, and brought us into her vision with confidence.  Along with this clarity of purpose, Yang also articulated the chain of movements with a spirit-lifting agility, even in the hefty finale with its Grossvater Tanz or ’17th century theme’ lumbering in to represent the Philistines that Schumann fought so zealously.  Unlike a good many other renditions, which make you relieved that the last A flat Major chord has resonated, this one proved elating, a solid piece of work but never stolid.

Yang plays her second program this Saturday, July 28.   In place of Grieg, she will perform three Rachmaninov preludes, including the notorious C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2.  Replacing Debussy is Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 while Chopin’s double act is sacrificed for Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, which has all but disappeared from view these days.  The Younan Piano Sonata again leads off the evening’s second half and the major work is another Liszt: the B minor Sonata.



Talent with tedium


Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne,

Friday July 13

                                                                  Franz Schubert

This didn’t turn out to be what I expected.

MIFLAS has recently been transplanted from Perth where Patricia Price founded and sustained it for the last four years; now it has found a new home at Melbourne University where, it is hoped, that the festival will continue as an annual event.  Not that the organizers are full of optimism; from the speeches I heard, the future is uncertain unless sponsorships continue (and preferably increase) and the academic ambience remains welcoming.  Oh, and it would probably be just as well if the committed who came to this night’s work would keep the faith.

The enterprise involved a week of masterclasses run twice daily from Sunday July 8 until Wednesday July 11, with an extra one thrown in on the morning of Thursday July 12.  The eventual outcome of all this endeavour was to be revealed in this final gala and, to some extent, it was.  But the result in reality turned out to be an illustrated lecture, and not a particularly good one at that.

Pride of place went, as you’d expect, to Schubert whose music occupied Friday evening’s first half.   We were offered seven solo lieder, one part-song and a melodrama excerpt.  After interval, the territory moved to a couple of Mendelssohn duets, including the mellifluous Ich wolt’ meine Lieb’ ergosse sich,  solitary Schumann and Brahms songs, then a Mahler quartet – half the Songs of a Wayfarer, the last of the Kindertotenlieder and the middle one of the Ruckert-Lieder.  But I saw little point in staying for the night’s second half as the opening gambits had proved so irritating.

Presenting this concert was Dr. Graham Johnson who, with Dr. Stephen Varcoe, was responsible for the nine masterclasses and an introductory conversation to launch the week.  Now, while director Price had every justification for addressing us and sounding alarms about the parlous state of lieder and art song in the modern age, it was hard to understand why Johnson felt obliged to follow up with his own oration, roughly twice as long and with a scatter-gun approach to content.

Each of the Schubert extracts was preceded by a spoken introduction from Johnson, some of them ponderously informative, others smacking of the self-indulgent, if not re-hashing historical material that would be familiar to anyone with half an interest in this field, like  the academic staff I saw scattered around the Melba Hall stalls.  As things turned out, the young singers and three accompanists who had been instructed in their specific contributions during the week’s classes – except in two instances, according to the festival booklet’s table of events –  had to wait at their posts until their particular offerings had been introduced.

This preamble process took up time, of course, so that the night’s Schubert segment dragged.  What went some way to redeeming the exercise was the promise shown by some of the singers although, as the songs slipped past, I kicked myself mentally that I hadn’t attended any of the classes because, in some instances, faults that should have been assuaged over the week survived untouched and you had to wonder just how much technical instruction had been given along with interpretative injunctions and music appreciation background.

German-born baritone Markus Matheis opened the music with Die Sommernacht which was treated with a double dose of solemnity, rather than the wondering warmth that this recitative deserves.   A difficult set of pages but Matheis has a solid production if inclined to hollowness in this work where he should have been bold enough to take the initiative – which he enjoys in this piece whenever he opens his mouth.

Soprano Teresa Ingrilli from Perth came next with Der Jungling und der Tod which tested her light timbre.  The reading proved unsettling as the singer sounded nervous at the opening, to the extent that you wondered if the problem lay with her vibrato, although later sections like the O komme Tod address came across with more determination.  Ingrilli was accompanied by Timothy Mallis who produced an excellent postlude and refrained from drawing attention to himself at the bar 25 self-quotation.

Given two pieces to handle, Launceston tenor Benjamin Martin gave an ultra-sensitive account of Geheimes although it was hard to understand whether his constant volume manipulation was the result of instruction or his own determination.   On investigation, it appeared that this song had not been scheduled for examination during any pf the master classes.   Whatever the cause, this dynamic swerving gave this superb song’s  surface a mottled complexion, as though Goethe’s lover is transferring the behavioural screen of the song’s environment to the performance; an interesting device but effete in practice.  Nacht und Traume fared slightly better but several vocal phrases dwindled away to nothing and while you can get away with softness on falling intervals, you have to calculate how strongly you have to sound out against your accompaniment  –  in this case, an assertive Johnson who carried out this service for most of these Schubert singers.

Alessia Pintabona is in her third year at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and struggled with Die Manner sind mechant, a war-of-the-sexes fribble that needs a more fulsome, knowing vocal quality to give it some charm.  This was the least impressive Schubert product (bar one) of the night and even accompanist Isaac Mouskovias found it hard to deliver any fluency at punctuation points.  For a song that is intended to be amusing, the laughs were brittle, certainly not full-bellied, but you could lay much of the blame for that with the composer.

More serious matter came with Im Abendrot,  Melbourne soprano Jordina Howell gave it a fairly uninflected interpretation, the pace not as slow as it could have been even if her projection was well calculated.  But she hadn’t been allowed to introduce much helpful rubato and breaks for breath came often enough to disrupt the pages’ continuity.

Matheis returned with Fischerweise, handling its fluent regularity with much more impressive results than expected; this was another lied that was not scheduled in any master class  He conveyed much of the text’s stalwart focus on the task in hand and managed to keep the last quatrain from sounding slightly disdainful.   Further, the young tenor sustained a calm and even output over an accompaniment that drew too much attention to itself.

A quartet comprising soprano Jenna Roubos, mezzo Alexandra Mathew, tenor Thomas Harvey and bass-baritone James Emerson were supported by accompanist Julia Hastings in a fair version of Die Geseligkeit.  I can’t remember how many of the poem’s four verses were sung; enough to give time to admire the equable soprano/mezzo combination and to fret over the tenor’s pitching.  Nevertheless, the group achieved a respectable realization of the piece’s bonhomie although we could have reasonably expected more jauntiness in the first three lines of each verse.

The Abschied von der Erde melodrama recitation from Varcoe and Johnson wound up this Schubert bracket.   While mildly interesting in itself, it struck me as irrelevant to the thrust of the evening’s work.  Varcoe recited the words with clarity if an occasional superfluous drawl and Johnson powered through the piano part; Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, it definitely was not and I would happily have exchanged it for Am Bach im Fruhling, Auf der Donau or any other of the handful of Schubert lieder that these two artists have recorded.

So, this was not my idea of a gala concert but an eventually tedious exercise that smacked of the lecture hall.   It reminded me slightly of my limited exposure to Keith Humble’s mode of leading discussions – the guru speaking from an imaginary rostrum without much chance of inter-action from the groundlings, leaving you to fossick assiduously for the small gems that glittered among the dross.   What is needed at future summary recitals like this is more music, less talk.




August Diary

Friday August 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s never been the same since Nigel Westlake appropriated it as a sonorous backdrop to the 1995 Babe film.  Whenever this symphony’s fourth movement’s rippling main theme flows out, people automatically recall James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski putting their bucolic best feet forward for farce.   Anyway, as this concert is sold out, there’s not much point in singing the praises of anything or anyone connected with it.   But, for the sake of completeness, here goes.  To begin, Benjamin Northey conducts Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, a collection that enjoyed much airing in the 1950/60s.  Piers Lane holds centre-stage as soloist in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, which will be interesting as this populist sort of thing is not Lane’s bag at all.   The evening winds up with the big symphony, Calvin Bowman doing the honours yet again on our Town Hall’s colossal instrument; here’s hoping he blasts a satiated full house out onto Swanston St at night’s end.


Saturday August 4


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

You can never be sure with these cross-fertilizations.  Jordi Savall can carry them off, although half the time I think it’s reputation that does a lot of the work for our acceptance of these hybrids from him.  This program is based on the travels and findings of William of Rubruck, who was ordered to travel to the court of Mongke Khan, which he did in 1253-4 and subsequently wrote a celebrated account of his experiences in Mongolia and his attempt at converting the kingdom to Christianity.  The medieval world-music group La Camera delle Lacrime – a sextet, as far as I can tell –  combines with the Brandenburg Choir and Orchestra, actor David Wenham serving as narrator for this musical journey, one that takes in ‘Mongolian melodies, Buddhist hymns, Sufi chants and more.’   It’s a 90-minute feast that runs without an interval.

This program will be repeated on Sunday August 5 at 5 pm.


Saturday August 4


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Carmel is oboist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and is here to take some of the ANAM musicians through an unusual program that starts and finishes with Mozart.  He kicks off with the Quintet in C minor K 406a, a score that began life as a wind serenade which Mozart rearranged for strings.  Somewhere along the line, oboists have taken to playing the top violin line; God knows why.   Jolivet’s Serenade for wind quintet was originally an oboe/piano composition that the French composer reconstituted for an ensemble while still maintaining the oboe’s primacy.  Carmel then leads a reading of Berio’s Chemins IV, a re-examination of the composer’s Sequenza VII for solo oboe with the supporting power of 11 strings.   Finally, we hear the Nannerl Divertimento in D, K. 251 for oboe, two horns and string quartet/orchestra (no cello/s).


Sunday August 5


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Bach’s monument in the keyboard repertoire is being re-created with increasing free-handedness in this piping time of pusillanimity.  Latest in a long line of revisionists, the ACO’s Richard Tognetti commences his re-conception with Canons on a Goldberg Ground, ascribed to Bach so you can only assume that the canons referred to are the nine that occur regularly throughout the original work.  Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet follow, presumably in an un-orchestrated form; their presence is a welcome deviation from the afternoon’s Baroque framework.  British composer Thomas Ades is represented by Nightfalls, the first and major movement of The Four Quarters, a work that was heard in its original form twice during the recent Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition; here, it has been arranged for string orchestra but by whom is not apparent. Finally, we reach the Variations, in a string orchestra version by Canadian-born Baroque expert Bernard Labadie.   But you have to ask yourself: the whole thing?  With repeats?

This program will be repeated on Monday August 6 at 7:30 pm


Thursday August 9


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Continuing its MRC series, the Gomberts are again coping with the non-existent echo of the Salon through music that is better suited to a high-ceilinged un-carpeted church.  The Bach comprises three motets.  Two of these are authenticated: Komm, Jesu, komm and Singet dem Herrn; the middle one, Ich lasse dich nicht, is now thought to be an early work.  All three are for double choir which, in terms of the Gomberts’ personnel distribution, means about 2 singers per line.  The Brahms works are the three Fest- und Gedenkspruche and the brief Three Motets.  These also require a double choir, the latter set being the composer’s final essays in the form and somewhat difficult for singers to pitch; not that you’d expect this singular body of musicians to have too much trouble.


Thursday August 9


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Concertmaster Barltrop (where is his one-time co-principal Eoin Anderson these days?  Haven’t sighted him all year and Sophie Rowell is now credited in the MSO programs as the alternate concertmaster) is directing and leading a mainly-strings program.  The night begins with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, always welcome as long as the approach avoids the hefty.  Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy follows: the Australian composer’s String Quartet No. 3, written for London’s Smith Quartet and re-configured for Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra.   Latvian writer Peteris Vask’s Vox amoris, the composer’s second violin concerto, continues the all-strings format with Barltrop the soloist.  The concluding Brandenburg No. 1 breaks new ground as it asks for a concertino group comprising two hunting/natural horns, three oboes, a bassoon and a piccolo violin; you’d assume that Barltrop would take the string solo but the other six supernumeraries will have had a lot of waiting around before they get to show their wares.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall on Friday August 10, and in the Mary Mount Centre, Loreto College, Ballarat on Saturday August 11.


Saturday August 11


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Visiting virtuoso Richard Osborne, the pride of Scotland, is visiting our ANAM corridors for a brief tutelary stint and finishes this recital with the afore-mentioned volume, its three constituents not as well-known as the Book 1 gems.  Indeed, it’s hard to recall a live performance of Cloches a travers les feuilles, let alone one of Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut;  but Poissons d’or has tempted quite a few executants.  Filling out the night with more Debussy, Osborne has an as-yet-unknown associate for the piano 4-hands 6 Epigraphes antiques, entrusts the G minor String Quartet to some ANAM musicians, then returns for the two-piano Lindaraja, a five-minute bagatelle whose title comes from a room in the Alhambra rather than having any Far Oriental reference.  Back to the cosy piano 4-hands format for Printemps, a product of Debussy’s Prix de Rome experience, and then the four-movement Petite suite which reaches its peak in the opening En bateau – one of those lyrics that never ceases to give delight.


Sunday August 12


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Something you automatically associate with the Venetian master is a violin; all those lucky girls in the Ospedale della Pieta would have played the composer’s extraordinary chain of concertos for strings, one hopes, with delight at the changes that their Mr. Music would have rung for them.   Sophie Rowell, the MSO’s co-concertmaster, is heading four Vivaldi works: the four-violin solos special in E minor, the B flat Major RV 368 (one of the 26 or so in this key), the double violin concerto RV 514 in D minor (the only one in that key), and an old friend in the Grosso Mogul RV 208.  That’s a lot of Vivaldi, but wait: there’s more.  William Hennessy and his players open with a Geminiani scrap: the final 3-minute Allegro from the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 3,  pops in Respighi’s simple-looking but taxing Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3, and prefaces the Grosso Mogul with Verdi’s Andantissimo, co-opted for string orchestra from the composer’s solitary string quartet and somehow re-christened up to a superlative from Andantino along the way.

This program will be repeated on Thursday August 16 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm.


Tuesday August 14

Ray Chen with Julien Quentin

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

29-year-old Chen is an Australian favourite and we have the nerve to lay a kind of claim to him, in the same way that some of us profess that Russell Crowe and John Clarke are our own.   He was schooled in Brisbane before taking off at about the age of 17 for an achievement-packed career in America and Europe.  He is appearing for Musica Viva, along with regular collaborator, pianist Julien Quentin who is about 15 years his senior.  In the first of two programs, the pair work through the rarely-heard Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, followed by Grieg’s Sonata No. 2, the middle one in G Major.  Before resorting to the flamboyant with Monti’s Czardas and Falla’s Popular Spanish Suite in Paul Kochanski’s famous (and approved) arrangement from the original Seven Popular Spanish Songs, Chen and Quentin will perform a new Matthew Hindson work commissioned for Musica Viva: Violin Sonata No. 1, Dark Matter.

On Saturday August 15, Chen and Quentin will perform a second program:  Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor, the exhilarating Franck A Major Sonata, Ysaye’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin (Georges Enescu), Ravel’s Tzigane showpiece, and the new Matthew Hindson new score from Program 1.


Wednesday August 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Bramwell Tovey has form as a Bernstein authority.   In 1986, he filled in at short notice to direct a London Symphony Orchestra Bernstein Festival opening night, with Bernstein present.   Back in Melbourne to help celebrate the American master musician’s birth centenary, Tovey is at the MSO helm for a night better called Bernstein and His Influences.  We start with Copland’s 1957 Orchestral Variations, a re-working of the composer’s Piano Variations which Bernstein admired immensely.  Another favourite composer was Mahler, so we’re hearing the five Ruckert Lieder with contralto soloist Liane Keegan.  As for original works, one is the three-movement Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, which the composer recorded three times but was untouched by anybody else until he died; Keegan is also the soloist for this 1942 score.  To finish, Tovey conducts the Chichester Psalms with Tasmanian Nicholas Tolputt the countertenor soloist – and that’s a voice you don’t want to miss.  Bernstein calls for four other vocal soloists for this work but I can’t find any details about them.  The MSO Chorus will be hard-pressed in this psalm sequence but the work’s timbre-scale is extraordinary: 6 brass, 6 percussion, 2 harps and strings.   And the vocal forces are required to sing in Hebrew.


Saturday August 18


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another one-night stand in honour of Lenny, this will be also be directed by Bramwell Tovey, a pianist/conductor with an affinity for music more commonly known as ‘light’.  He will probably be conducting the MSO as well as offering some piano accompaniments.  Just like a performance of Messiah, there will be four soloists: British soprano Sarah Fox making what I think is her first appearance here, mezzo Liane Keegan, tenor Brenton Spiteri and Canadian-born baritone Brett Polegato.  As far as I can learn, none of these has made any name for himself/herself in Bernstein’s output, but we are promised excerpts from Wonderful Town, On the Town, Candide, Peter Pan, Fancy Free and West Side Story.  In other words, a collection of material we don’t know at all, and other lyrics that we know all too well.


Sunday August 19


The Melbourne Musicians

St John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Director Frank Pam’s beloved Mozart features at this concert through soprano Elena Xanthoudakis who will sing three of the composer’s most well-known operatic arias: the Countess’s Dove sono from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro, Susanna’s Deh vieni from the opera’s last garden act of the same work, and Pamina’s Ach, ich fuhl’s from Act 2 of The Magic Flute.  The singer also takes on some Donizetti with one of Adina’s arias from L’elisir d’amoreDella crudele Isotta or Prendi, per me sei libero although the first requires a chorus and the second doesn’t really end convincingly.   As a built-in encore, Xanthoudakis will also contribute a reading of Schubert’s Ave Maria to the afternoon’s progress.  The other Donizetti comprises the Concertino for cor anglais, an Allegro in C and the Introduction for strings.  Celebrating a senior Australian composer who died in February this year, the Musicians are also performing Colin Brumby’s 1988 Scena for cor anglais and strings; as with the Donizetti Concertino, Anne Gilby is the soloist.  Despite all this string-heavy content, suitable for the Musicians’ personnel make-up, the Mozart and Donizetti arias call for extra instruments – flute, oboe(s), bassoon, horns; added expense but in a good cause.


Sunday August 19


Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

Following her success with the MSO in realizing Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 last month, Young makes what has become an annual visit to the National Academy to take that body’s young players into the bowels of the European repertoire.  Tonight, it’s the turn of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, the most free-ranging and dynamically turbulent of the four, although it has a marvellously consolatory final page or two.  This is paired with Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 strings which, for this usually ebullient composer, constitutes barely relieved depression at the state of the composer’s country in 1944/6.  To open, Young presents Wolfgang Rihm’s flute-less, trumpet-less, violin-less Ernster Gesang of 1996 with some obvious throwback to Brahms except that Rihm employs no singer.


Sunday August 19


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea Ballroom at 6:30 pm

In its penultimate recital at the National Trust home, the Team is represented by Robert Chamberlain, who partners local cellist Robert Ekselman.  The French strain comes from two historical spectrum ends: Couperin’s Five (Cinq?) Pieces en ConcertPrelude, Sicilienne, La Tromba, Plainte, Air de Diable – and Debussy’s Cello Sonata which tests every duo’s dynamic balance.  The Russian flavour comes through Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata which is just as much a piano sonata and was the composer’s last chamber work.  And from Spain will come Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, presumably in Maurice Marechal’s arrangement; nice to hear this again, so soon after Ray Chen and Julien Quentin’s reading five days previous.   There’s a nice symmetry to this program with little scraps set alongside major works, although the Debussy flies past all too rapidly.


Wednesday August 22


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC at 7:30 pm

Kathy Selby enlists the company of violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles for the piano trio parts of this night’s work, both musicians she has brought into this series several times in previous years.  They begin with Beethoven’s  G Major Trio, the one subtitled Kakadu Variations because that’s all there is to it, all twelve of them on a theme that obviously tickled the composer’s adaptation bone.  You’ll find more of the promised torment in Schumann’s last Piano Trio, that in G minor, although the passion is negligible in a happy finale.  Lloyd Van’t Hoff brings his clarinet to the mix for Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time which assaults the listener with an overwhelming mix of stasis and plunging energy.  This is music that is totally individual, brilliantly organized and emotionally draining;  in the right hands, it can be a transformative experience, in particular the aspiring last violin/piano duet.


Saturday August 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

I recall that Markus Stenz programmed this Ring lump in 2012, but did he partner it with something else?  Yes: it was Beethoven’s Pastoral and I still don’t understand why.  In any case, here we go again, thanks to the insatiable desire of Sir Andrew Davis to give us opera without theatrical constraints.  He builds up to one of opera’s great storms and most ardent love-through-nature duets with that tender trifle, the Siegfried Idyll .  .  .  after which 20 minutes, we go out for interval, returning for the opera excerpt’s 65 minutes.  Eva-Maria Westbroek takes on Sieglinde, a role she has sung in Bayreuth, London’s Royal Opera House, and the Metropolitan Opera.   Her husband, Frank van Aken, partners her as Siegmund which he has presented in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and Teatro del Liceu.   The killjoy husband, Hunding, will be Australian bass Daniel Sumegi, who sang the part in 2012 and was seen here last year in Davis’s concert performance of Massenet’s Thais.   Doubtless, the MSO will enjoy the opportunity to play a good stretch of Wagner; my major reservation is that we have to eschew the delights of Acts 2 and 3.


Wednesday August 29


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

Returning once again to show us how it’s done  –  and they really do  –  eminences from the Fort Worth original festival conduct classes in and hold recitals of chamber music while collaborating with Conservatorium of Music Faculty in three central exercises.  Participants include some familiar US friends in violinists Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor.  Locals include mezzo Victoria Lambourn, the Conservatorium’s Head of Strings, Curt Thompson, and pianist Caroline Almonte.   Along the way, patrons will hear two imported pianists: Italian Alessio Bax and American John Novacek.   This first recital offers the Brahms Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano – one of the composer’s shorter glories – then Amy Beach’s F sharp minor Piano Quintet of 1908, followed by Mendelssohn’s early and Beethoven-struck  A Minor String Quartet.  This is a repeat, with two personnel changes, of  Concert No. 2 at this year’s Texas Mimir Festival, given on July 5.


Thursday August 30


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew brings us yet another great British masterpiece in Holst’s seven-movement suite, presumably in its original form without the addition of Colin Matthews’ Pluto the Renewer or the Rattle-commissioned Asteroids quartet.  No: Neptune will take us into the void – well, actually, the ladies of the MSO Chorus will have that pleasure.  Preceding this orchestral show-piece,  Davis conducts the premiere of Carl Vine’s new Symphony No. 8; this is the major product so far of the composer’s residency with the orchestra.  Its title The Enchanted Loom, refers to a metaphor coined by British neuroscientist Sir Charles Sherrington to describe the brain awakening from sleep.  Vine’s five movements are: the loom awakens, the social fabric, sheer invention, euphoria, and imagining infinity; the score has a duration of about 25 minutes.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday August 31, and again in Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday September 1.


Friday August 31


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

For the second of these masterly exercises, the night begins with the slight G minor String Trio by Sibelius, followed by Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos – one of those products of the composer’s recovery and return to composition after three years’ silence and hypnotherapeutic and psychotherapeutic treatments – while the evening takes on an appreciable if lightly-administered gravitas after interval with Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat Major Op. 127 – the first of the great chain of five that engrossed the composer in his final, intensely unhappy years.  The Sibelius and Beethoven are repeats of the content for Fort Worth’s Mimir July 7 Concert No. 3 where, instead of the Rachmaninov, patrons heard a four-hand piano version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka – presumably the unpublished arrangement that the composer used during rehearsals prior to the ballet’s first staging in 1911.






Retrospective thorn amid two roses


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 3

                                                                        Jorg Widmann

Coping with a temporary personnel change, the ASQ played host to cellist Michael Dahlenburg, principal with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra who has also been occupied in recent years with a parallel career as a budding conductor.   The ensemble’s regular bass line, Sharon Grigoryan, is on maternity leave.   Still, this somewhat under-sized program fared pretty well in her absence and the house was respectable, if probably not as well-patronised in a week when the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition has engaged the undivided attention of a sizeable if not fanatical core of enthusiasts.

In a chronological twist, the players inverted the historical clock by starting with Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major Op. 135, then finished with the first-written of the Op. 18 set, No. 3 in D.   For comic relief to these benign book-ends, Widmann’s Quartet No. 3, Hunting, took up approximately ten minutes of our time – to my mind, half as long as it needed to be – but the score and its dramatic execution left no scars.  But, in this context, despite its minor debt to a Beethoven rhythmic pattern (the main subject of the A Major Symphony’s first movement, after the Poco sostenuto), the 15-year-old score didn’t make many intellectual waves, dependent as it is on gesture to sustain interest.

While the competition lasts and music-lovers are saturated in performances that are often prepared to the nth degree, your receptivity levels are heightened to an uncharitable pitch.   For example, the Mosa Trio opened MICMC with a blinder: three works from a broad repertory spectrum that took the still-not-operating interpretative standard to a remarkably demanding level.   These young musicians gave a burnish to Haydn in E Major Hob XV 28 No. 44 that even Musica Viva guest artists would envy, then invested contemporary Dutch writer Sam Wamper’s Portrait of Light with an emotional variety that was barely excelled by the following riveting interpretation of Shostakovich’s E minor Trio No. 2.

What was most exciting about this Mosa Round 1 appearance was the group’s discipline in not leaving anything to chance.  You were aware that their music had been pored over, every phrase shaped into the instrumental mesh, the dynamics agreed on but with such finesse that each participant produced just the right output to complement his/her peers.

More than anything else I heard in the Competition’s first days, this impressed mightily – and probably soured any perceptions of the ASQ’s Beethoven.  For sure, the Op. 135 enjoyed a stalwart rendition, its first movement presented with an admirable fluency.  Yet the overall interpretation failed to capture attention because the work’s progress lacked subtlety.   You could admire the homogeneity of attack and texture in a unison hiatus between bars 109-113, but a more aggressive example at bars 176-7 came across as less disciplined.   The recessiveness of Dahlenburg’s staccato bass at the Scherzo‘s opening meant that you had to wait for a fair while to make any rhythmic sense out of the upper lines’ suspensions and syncopations – right up to bar 33, to be exact.

The work’s last movement – now that the Muss es sein? Es muss sein! sub-text has proved more banal than life-affirming – gave these musicians no problems because, for most of its length, the counterpoint is clearly structured and the opportunities for dynamic ducks-and-drakes deviations are not that many.   But the preceding Lento appeared to miss out on innate opportunities, like toning down the crescendo/pp juxtapositions in the C sharp minor interlude, or sharing the labours more democratically from bar 43 onward rather than leaving Dale Barltrop’s first violin to carry all before it.

Much more pleasure could be found in the Op. 18 G Major score where the ASQ captured the first movement’s eloquent optimism, with details like the circumscribed C Major subject at bar 68 came across with reassuring balance.  As in the Op. 135, the fortissimo outbursts sounded unharnessed, so that bars 154-5, just before the recapitulation, seemed unharnessed, too emphatic for their context.   But, as compensation, the statement-response segment between Barltrop and viola Stephen King at bars 80 and 85 came across with satisfying clarity.

I’m always surprised at the stately pace that string quartets usually adopt for this work’s scherzo – whether they’re guided by their editions, or chastened by the number of fermata points, specific or implied.  This version proved unexceptionable if consequently unremarkable, even in the minor key Trio.  All the finale’s focus falls on the first violin and Barltrop skittered across its length with skill.  But the lack of a consistent game-plan meant that this Allegro wore out its welcome so that, by the time both violins collaborated in the final main theme part-restatement at bar 348, the movement had moved dangerously close to tedium.

Widmann’s piece brought about a small bit of theatre to the Recital Centre.   Adelaide director Andy Packer gave the players a white-sheet backdrop and used  the Hall’s lighting grid to cast the musicians'[ shadows onto it.  Did this add to the work’s impact?  Not much, but it didn’t distract overmuch.  Using the Beethoven rhythm as on ostinato and the hunting-horn opening to the last of Schumann’s Papillons as melodic material, Widmann opens with gestures – the players swishing their bows and giving the first of several shouts – before starting the music proper.  His developmental process is rapid and the source material soon becomes indecipherable in pages of thick working-out; further, the composer’s intention of using the four participants as a constantly changing series of alliances is sometimes clear, at other times apparently forgotten.

At all events, the sound-production techniques are a credit to the composer’s schooling in contemporary instrumental practice of the 1950s/60s, the cellist-guest Dahlenberg  eventually having the other players use their bows to symbolically stab him, whereupon he screamed/groaned and played a glissando, falling on his instrument.  Tableau.

Thanks to the ASQ for airing this piece.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll sound like an old Tory in letting this work pass with faint praise for its content.   But it’s not that the Hunting was really intellectually repellent or emotionally disturbing.   If only.   To the regret of many of us with an awareness of musical history and development,  Widmann has not ventured into new, let alone disturbing,  territory.   We have experienced this kind of happening plenty of times across my life-span and, almost universally, the effect has been to amuse rather than impress or astonish.   As a contemporary bagatelle paying homage to the inventors of 60-plus years ago, this Hunting Quartet is perfectly satisfactory.  But, once it’s played, that’s it; there is no more, with nothing of substance to intrigue, let alone engross.