Competent but uneasy


Musica Viva Australia

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday March 7, 2023

Karin Schaupp

Please excuse the disproportionately large snap above of Musica Viva’s guest guitarist; I’ve lost control over the size of inserted photographs on this WordPress system. Still, there’s little argument that the Brisbane artist was the pivotal figure in Tuesday night’s recital, the penultimate in a series of 8 outings in the usual MV national tour, albeit one that had suffered from the alarums and excursions that COVID and its variants have imposed on us all. At this point, we were hearing a program that – barring its final outing in Adelaide – was as finely honed as possible.

Several points in the evening showed plenty of ensemble finesse; at other stages, the level of accomplishment drooped. Flinders Quartet followers would be well aware of the accomplished ensemble output of viola Helen Ireland and ccllist Zoe Knighton, both foundation members of this 23-year-old group. From the violin lines, however, I detected occasional uncertainty – not just in pitch but in uniformity of production and what I can only call ‘mirroring’: that agreement in all particulars that typifies an ideal duo. Many of us would have been hearing this configuration of performers for the first time. Second violin Wilma Smith has been a stalwart of Melbourne’s musical life for many years and has accumulated an impressive curriculum vitae; Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba is a less familiar quantity, although I seem to recall his first appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in about 2014/15. But I can’t recall hearing him at close quarters.

What I thought was going to be an introductory romp, Carulli’s A Major Guitar Concerto Op. 8, seemed to offer unaccountable problems. Maybe it was the reduced personnel in use – no oboes, horns or double-bass – or the absence of the second movement polonaise, but the fabric proved imperfect, violin octaves occasionally not exactly in tune and even Schaupp having trouble generating a consistently perceptible line in semiquaver scales and then handling with requisite fluidity that odd triplet passage of four bars that breaks up Carulli’s rhythmic strait-jacket.

Richard Charlton’s Southern Cross Dreaming, a solo for Schaupp, is an amiable miniature and comfortable for the instrument. So it should be: it was written for Schaupp, at Schaupp’s suggestion; she premiered it in 2012 and her performance is also available on CD. Comfort music, then. At its heart, the piece is a tremolo study and its connection to the constellation is a matter of your own emotional reaction. Charlton’s use of ‘dreaming’ suggests a mesmerised state, rather than any Aboriginal connotations, and I was happy to collaborate.

My paternal aunt had an old LP of Segovia playing in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet of 1950. But since that time. it hasn’t shown up on any guitar+string quartet recitals I’ve attended (admittedly, they’ve been few in number). Reacquaintance didn’t reinforce an inherited dislike for the score’s astringency; indeed, the initial Allegro showed this ensemble at its best with a fine clarity from everyone and a delicious piquancy at each return of the first subject of this formal but infectiously happy set of pages. The succeeding Andante featured Ireland’s line prominently, perhaps over-emphatic and ripe with vibrato but managed without the self-indulgence that the direction mesto often brings. But I feel that none of the other movements – including the sprightly Scherzo and final Allegro – maintains your interest as fully as the first.

Certainly, a good deal happens and the composer is lavish with his material, especially in the Spanish inflections of the third movement. Added to which, the melding of guitar and strings is remarkably balanced and fair, Schaupp a consistent strand in the concerted passages and making the most of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s deftly abrasive solo stretches. It’s an attractive work in competent hands and, if this performance wasn’t as vividly definite as you hear it on some recordings (Pepe Romero, I’m thinking of you), these players worked their way through it with assurance and something approaching enjoyment.

The Italian writer’s composition might have been the program’s most substantial element, but its central point arrived after interval with Carl Vine’s new composition Endless, a latter-day deploration on the death of architect/environmentalist Jennifer Bates, killed in a Newcastle hit-and-run disaster in December 2016. The score for this recital’s instrumental resources was commissioned by Kathryn Bennett, the victim’s mother. Possibly deploration suggests something morbid, definitely morose; there is little in Vine’s pages that suggests gloom. Melancholy, perhaps, but even in the meditative pages that surround the score’s central dance celebrating Bates’ passion for salsa, the work avoids requiem mode.

As you’d anticipate, the instrumental fabric is expertly managed, the guitar treated as a fulcrum voice from the outset while the full ensemble is put to active work in the dance section. The effect is not simply bipartite – the professional and the dancer – but a carefully welded musical portrait where one aspect folds into the other. In the final sections where Vine attempts to represent the ‘endless knot’ of Buddhist belief, a concept sympathetic to Bates’ credo, the instrumental layering and foregrounding of individual lines makes a telling emotional impact for reasons that are inexplicable; the moment isn’t exactly religious or suggestive of transcendence, but as a final salute, a hopeful farewell, it makes a powerful impression of that state where the fire and the rose are one.

The Flinders gave an airing to Imogen Holst’s one-movement Phantasy Quartet of 1928. This served the purpose of showing the players at ease in a generous score that took its various bases from the folk-infused examples of Vaughan Williams and other British bucolic composers. Fortunately, the composer had inherited her father’s ear for relieving astringency so that listeners aren’t swamped in sweetness. Did it add much to your depth of chamber music experience? Probably not, but this writer is overdue for exposure; even ABC Classic FM got onto the bandwagon the other day through an airing of the Fanfare for the Grenadier Guards – no, not a substantial contribution to Holst’s renaissance but an attempt, if measly, in this week of International Women’s Day.

To finish, the group performed the last two movements – Grave assai and Fandango – from Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet in D Major G. 448, which the Flinders and Schaupp recorded in 2010 with different violinists. The slow movement is really a 9-bar introduction to the dance which has the occasional infectious bite even if its repetitions start to oppress. Cellist Knighton is still taking up the castanets for part of the fandango, just as when I last saw this group perform the full quartet at Montsalvat in Eltham. Even in these non-too-difficult pages (for the strings), the upper lines didn’t come across to the back of the hall as dynamically balanced, although their pitching proved efficient enough.

As you can see, this was a multifaceted program, beginning and ending with guitar classics, two Australian compositions set alongside a 20th century repertoire staple for this combination and a curiosity from British music’s back blocks. For all the variety, it struck me that the participants were still not comfortable in all their offerings, despite the long association between three of them and the substantial preparation time enforced on the whole group by our country’s chain of medical disasters.

Diary April 2023


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday April 2 at 11:30 am

So far, we know of five works that are being presented as part of this paean to the earth. You will have to wait to find out more; possibly the programmers haven’t fleshed out their own concept fully – if they have one. You won’t find much that is elemental here – not even a wayward excerpt from Mahler’s big Lied and very little that summons up awful mental images of Gaea or Goethe’s Ewigweibliche. As for coverage of the world’s environment or its cosmic positioning, you’d be underwhelmed. Someone believes that Smetana’s Moldau tone poem would be a fine illustration of primordial essence rather than what it is – an amiable jaunt, courtesy of a Scenic Tours precursor, down a totally civilised European river. Peter Sculthorpe’s From Uluru begins with a Copland-reminiscent fanfare, then moves to a repetitive ostinato punctuated by slapsticks to give us that Outback/Dreamtime/Never-Never atmosphere; not a particularly successful piece, least of all in sustaining a depiction of Uluru which, in this sound-world, could be situated in any continent. Still, the suggestion of a refined barbarism does take the goddess out of the drawing room. To which we return with excerpts from Respighi’s The Birds suite, arrangements of 16th and 17th century pieces to do with various avian species; sparkling orchestration, of course, but this Mother is corseted and powdered. Lili Boulanger’s Of a Spring Morning miniature presents as a frisson-rich jeune fille en fleur covered in a lightly applied orchestral veil. And the final element we are assured of is the concluding movement to Mozart’s last piano concerto, No. 27 in B flat. At this point, we leave all thoughts of earth mothers behind; this allegro is more aristocratic and eloquently self-contained than even music’s more sophisticated maternal figures like the Marschallin. Soloist in this bleeding chunk of Mozart will be Hannah Shin, winner of three prizes at last year’s Lev Vlassenko concours. And superintending the variegated riot of offerings will be Johannes Fritzsch, the QSO’s principal guest conductor. The exercise runs for 80 minutes straight, so there’s a fair amount of unscheduled music to flesh out this program and tickets range from $75 to $105 with discounts available and, of course, a transaction fee applies with about as much fiscal justification as the Stage 3 tax cuts.


Rebecca Lloyd-Jones

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

Wednesday April 12 at 7:30 pm

This musician is lecturer and coordinator of percussion at the Conservatorium, so this a significant occasions – where the teacher shows how it’s all meant to be done. I don’t know Lloyd-Jones or her work but she’s obviously a product of the current crop of percussive artists that flourish all over the country; in Melbourne, I got to know them under the Speak Percussion label. I have no idea what she’s playing; such mundane details are unavailable, possibly until you’re about to enter the Hanger Hall, but it would be a pretty safe bet that most of the evening’s content will be current. At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case at most percussionists’ forays into the public arena. Still, I’ve always admired academics who offer public displays of their craft. My first experience must have been hearing Max Cooke performing Pictures at an Exhibition in Melba Hall in 1963 or thereabouts. But every so often you come across others, like cellist Howard Penny who never seems to leave the principal’s desk no matter what is going on at the Australian National Academy of Music. Or the Dean brothers at the same institution (in Brett’s case, occasionally helping out in the back desks of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s violas). Speaking of percussionists, I got to see an awful lot of Peter Neville who, for many years, was omnipresent at Melbourne’s contemporary music gatherings, often supplemented by Eugene Ughetti, later Matthias Schack-Arnott. What always fascinates about contemporary players in this field is the minute pains they go to in arranging their resources – the endless tweakings in suspended cymbal placement, the rearrangement of the rolling stock marimba, the twitchy checking of sticks and mallets, the endless shufflings in music-stand sequence as the player prepares to alternate between three operational platforms. All this – and more – could be yours at Lloyd-Jones’ demonstration. Tickets are to be bought at the door: two prices only – $22 and $17


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday April 14 at 11: 30 am

All of us know – and perhaps love – Holst’s suite that delineates the other seven planets in our solar system. Do you remember those days when some bright spark – Colin Matthews, to be accurate – composed a Pluto, the Renewer to flesh out Holst’s unavoidable ignorance of the ‘new’ planet’s existence? And how pointless that exercise proved to be when, 17 years ago, Pluto was downgraded in status? And who could forget the rhapsody of compliments with which the British critics greeted the arrival of Matthews’ short-lived interloper? Happy days. At all events, we are set to hear the original in this strange program, conducted by Shiyeon Sung, currently guest principal conductor of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The extended orchestra (especially in the percussion section) will be assisted by The Australian Voices for the Neptune finale; when I say ‘The Australian Voices’, I’m referring, of course, to the female members only; Holst was a famous equal opportunist, thanks to his daytime job. The other major piece being essayed in this mid-day straddling enterprise is Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, all written for different occasions and brought together by the composer for a 22-minute cycle: Night of the Flying Horses (Lullaby, Doina and Gallop), Lua Descolorida, and How Slow the Wind. The work has a checkered history: the publishers list the year of composition as 2002-2 (2009) – a mystery that I tried to solve but yielded any pursuit of knowledge in the face of scholarly verbiage. Whatever you care to make of it, the second song was composed to highlight the idiosyncracies of Dawn Upshaw’s voice, the first comes from a film soundtrack, and the final Emily Dickinson setting was possibly written for laughs. In any case, the soloist will be Sara Macliver, whose participation ensures an emotionally powerful, technically precise interpretation. As a starter, the QSO performs Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture in the (original) Dresden version that comes to an emphatic conclusion. The concert lasts 80 minutes without interval, and ticket prices go from $89 to $130, with concessions available and transaction fee compulsory.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 15 at 7:30 pm. This performance is distinguished by having an interval of 30 minutes.


Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, South Brisbane

Friday April 21 at 7:30 pm

This concert has a highly honourable purpose in that it has come about through a partnership between ten composers and the inspiration each has found in the most cherished sighted memories of visually impaired Australians, including paratriathlete Katie Kelly, guitarist/speaker Lorin Nicholson, and jazz pianist/composer Jeff Usher (a lecturer at this Conservatorium). As well as the Con orchestra, Associate Professor Peter Morris conducts the Queensland Youth Orchestra (which one?) and Biralee Voices (presumably the Brisbane chapter) in compositions by Usher, Nicholson, John Rotar, Lisa Cheney, Tim Davies, Hudson Beck, Steve Newcomb, Paul Jarman, Catherine Likhuta, and Ralph Hultgren. Well, you may know all of these musicians; I know/have heard the work of half their number. You’d have to assume that Usher and Nicholson will be writing about their own impressions of sightedness; as far as I can tell, the other eight composers aren’t visually impaired. In any case, it makes for an intriguing, if not unnerving, experience – bringing (or having brought for you) into the aural field a happy memory of something that you recall from a time when your visual field was not totally blighted. Fine if it’s a scene or a landmark; much more difficult if you’re remembering a person . . . but then, you have the outstanding example of Elgar. Not that I think there’ll be much Enigmatic tonight, given the vocabularies of several among these writers. No indication how long this decathlon will last but tickets are a flat $58 without any apparent add-ons for the privilege of negotiating your entry pass via email.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, South Brisbane

Saturday April 22 at 1:30 pm

This is where the whole saga starts to unravel for me. We’re back to Square One with the goodies driven from pillar to outpost, improbable escapes, resurrections and deaths, gimmickry that belongs in online games, as well as a charmless heroine and a spoiled brat villain. Where is the credibility? Where is the menace? Where is the creativity? Anyway, none of us would be going for the film, right? No: it’s the immortal (ho ho) soundtrack of John Williams that draws us in for this inter-galactic entertainment. I’ve never been to the BCEC but I suppose it’s similar to the Plenary Hall at Melbourne’s Convention and Exhibition Centre. Perhaps not: the Brisbane Great Hall seats 2000, Melbourne over 5000, but then the southern city has more deluded punters who go along with this latter-day Star Wars belief that size matters more than anything else. The composer of Hamilton, currently wowing more undiscriminating witnesses at QPAC, composed the cantina scene score; yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited to put his oar in for a part of the work that Williams wasn’t interested in providing. If only the rest of us could handle our responsibilities with such cavalier panache. Oh: we do, as can be seen from nearly every supermarket, medical clinic, clothing store, chemist, cafe and entertainment centre across this wide brown Gold Coast. Lucky conductor of this feat of synchronisation will be Nicholas Buc. Tickets range from $59 to $120, which is a lot to pay for a film, especially if common practice is followed and the dialogue has to be subtitled. Your popcorn and choc-top treat will be subsumed by the unavoidable $7:40 transaction fee. Enjoy.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.


Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday, April 28 at 7:30 pm

Don’t know why I’m including this here as both performances are sold out. Still, you might be one of those desperates who loiters around box offices, waiting for discards and returns. Tickets range from $79 to $279, plus the transaction fee that will be sorely needed to expand the travelling-expense coffers of this British band of players. The current tour is the organization’s fourth visit to Australia (I heard them in 1983 and, after 40 years, little [well, nothing] remains in the memory) and I believe that this time around the players are kicking off their endeavours in Brisbane. Simon Rattle is retiring from his six-year-long stint as London Symphony Orchestra music director; hence, I suppose, the interest (manifest in sold-out houses) at seeing him in that role for the last time. This opening program begins with Adams’ Harmonielehre, a draining 40 minute, three movement work infused with a mixture of didacticism and whimsy. Its main attraction for me is its large orchestra, including two harps, 15 woodwind (almost double the number you’d usually bring on tour), 2 tubas, four percussionists plus celesta plus piano. What Adams accomplishes with his inflated ensemble doesn’t much appeal to me; that afore-mentioned combination seems to misfire half the time. Still, as long as patrons aren’t short-changed by having local musicians brought in to fill out the ranks, you’ve got nothing to complain about when you’re getting your money’s worth for a truly all-London body. A video of the third movement, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie, performed by Rattle and the LSO, is available on YouTube. You’d have to assume that interval follows this inflated American score. Then we go all-French with Debussy’s La mer, using 12 woodwind and those two harps, although the percussion demands are nowhere near as great as those for the Adams construct. And Rattle brings the whole LSO experience home with the Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 by Ravel – Lever du jour, Pantomime, Danse generale – which also requires two harps, 15 woodwind, and a wind machine. Again, you can watch this conductor and orchestra on YouTube getting through the score in a lickety-split 17 minutes. Forget the pace and revel in the generous timbral mesh of one of Britain’s leading (and most successful) orchestras.

A second program will be performed on Saturday April 29 at 7:30 pm. This comprises Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Bank

Saturday April 29 at 5:30 pm

Any choral volunteers can have a field day with the QSO under Brett Weymark for this performance. You begin at 9:30 am with a rehearsal of Haydn’s Mass in D minor Hob XXII:11 and you wind up eight hours later with a public performance for a paying audience. This work is the popularly-known Nelson Mass, really the Missa in angustiis. written when Napoleon was succeeding everywhere except in Egypt. It’s an individual orchestral palette using five woodwind, three trumpets, strings and organ. But, like its many companions, it calls for soloists – the usual SATB set in this instance. Will the lucky four be chosen from the 9:30 assemblage, or have they already (and unfairly) been selected? Hard to tell; still, the parts are not easy, although competent choristers could master them in the given time, I’m sure. Less importantly, you have to wonder about performance arrangements. The QSO Studio is not that large a space and the 5:30 pm audience will be up close and very personal with the performers. I suppose it all depends on how many prospective choristers turn up. Of course, the ideal would be for about 500 of them to gather for a real Albert Hall bun-fight, but presumably the ABC organisers have a control mechanism in place and established cut-off points for both singers and audience. Tickets are a flat $49 with a swingeing $7.95 transaction fee. I would have thought that the smaller ticket price would attract a smaller fee; how stupid – when you’re on an unfair thing, stick to it with all stops out.


Ensemble Q

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday April 30 at 3 pm

Top of the line at this recital will be George Crumb’s Vox Balanae; a rather restrictive work, even for conscientious musicians. In his 20-minute mimicry of the balenic voice, the American composer (who died only a year ago; it seemed as if, like Elliott Carter, he would go on forever) asks his interpreters (electric flute, electric cello, amplified piano) to wear half black masks (top half of the face, one would hope, if only for the flautist) and to operate under blue lighting, if possible. Its eight movements conclude with a Sea-Nocturne (for the end of time) in a nice Messiaenic suggestion. After this, we may return to normal transmission by way of Ensemble Q founder Paul Dean‘s 2019 composition for bass clarinet and percussion, The Sea Meets Infinity. In keeping with the program’s emphasis on muted sounds, the pre-interval classic is Margaret Sutherland’s brief violin-and-piano Nocturne of 1944. Balancing Crumb’s whale sounds, mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean sings Chausson’s half-hour cycle Chanson de l’amour et de la mer, which gives us a healthy prefiguration of aquatic excursions by Debussy and Ravel, among others. I’d assume that the version offered here is the original for voice and piano. And the entertainment concludes with Frank Martin’s smooth Pavane Couleur du Temps which was originally written in 1920 for string quintet with two cellos, then arranged for string orchestra and also for two pianos. There are no indications of exactly who will be performing; Ensemble Q is nothing if not a malleable, expandable group, so the versions offered could be any of those listed above. Dean will probably play his own work, but I’m worried about that Chausson, mainly because of the Lent et triste interlude between the two songs; an instrumental pause which will sound rather vapid on piano alone. Tickets are $75, concession $55, plus the $7.20 transaction fee for reasons that continue to escape me.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Bank

Sunday April 30 at 3 pm

That’s a bit of unadulterated puff, isn’t it? Calling your own musicians ‘sensational’? Or are the publicists referring to the music being performed? This afternoon begins with the velvet warmth of late Richard Strauss in the Prelude to Capriccio, his last opera. After this lushness, we’ll enjoy a cutback to Frank Bridge’s plangent Lament for two violas from 1912 – well before the composer fulfilled his true destiny by teaching Britten. A pick-me-up follows in Telemann’s Gulliver’s Travels Suite for two violins which offers an intrada, then four movements to illustrate the travels of Swift’s hero. This work is notorious for the extraordinary time-signatures employed for the Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian movements. And it’s an indication of the composer’s widespread interests. Finally, a string septet will take on Adams’ Shaker Loops, although enough QSO members will be present to allow for a string orchestra performance of this sometimes exhilarating series of four movements – the summit, so they say, of minimalism. Speaking for participants, it’s quite a roll-call: violins Rebecca Seymour, Katie Betts, Gail Aitken, Natalie Low, Sonia Wilson; violas Charlotte Burbrook de Vere, Nicole Greentree, Nicholas Tomkin; cellos Hyung Suk Bae and Matthew Kinmont; double bass Justin Bullock. The event is scheduled to run for 75 minutes, although that strikes me as optimistically generous – unless there’s going to be a lot of desk and seating rearrangements. Tickets range from $30 to $55 with a transaction fee of $7.95: the rort that keeps on growing.

As if it were one voyce


Yelian He & Yasmin Rowe

Australian Digital Concert Hall

February 22, 2023 at 6 pm

Yelian He, Yasmin Rowe

This cello/piano duo has been going strong since 2008 under the appellation Y-Squared. In a surprise announcement at the Primrose Potter Salon between Beethoven and Schumann works, He announced that, after 15 years, he and Rowe are taking their collaboration to another level and are getting married. This was a rather understated occasion; nobody flew into manufactured ecstasy; nobody whooped or hollered in the traditional Love Island acknowledgement of such information; the partners smiled at the applause but kept their composures – and almost immediately got on with the program. I can’t tell you how much I admired this restraint which delighted after years and years of manufactured emotional exhibitions in the poorest Hollywood tradition, now exaggerated to ludicrousness on reality television.

Still, such control seemed to be a continuation or reinforcement of the couple’s artistic output. They opened their evening with Beethoven’s Twelve Variations on the theme ‘Ein Madchen oder Weibchen’, Papageno’s Act 2 aria in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As with much in the rest of the program, this performance proved to be refined and elegant although, to be fair, He had little of gravity to do with most of the virtuosic running left to the piano; well, this is only to be expected, given Beethoven’s prowess which was in full swing at the probable time of composition – 1796. From the outset, this interpretation impressed for its sprightliness, evident in the theme’s announcement, and in the bounce with which Rowe infused her solo Variation 1’s demi-semiquavers.

He relished the opportunity to urge out an accurate, carefully wound Variation 2, while Rowe’s left hand gave us a faultless, highly active account of Variation 3. A clever division of labour on Beethoven’s part followed, then another piano-dominated 16 bars’ worth. Variation 7 again gave He little to do, the sole point of interest Rowe’s hiatus-point trills, carried off of a fine evenness. Ditto Variation 8, although the cello was rarely silent but confined to bass support while the keyboard generally worked on two treble staves. I enjoyed the slurred syncopation of Variation 9 from both musicians, chiefly because they made sense of the section’s rhythm while giving full weight to the bar-lines’ presence. As for the two minore blocks, Rowe handled the first one’s opening 8 bars with fine sensitivity and a lightly applied rubato, while He produced a mellifluous bass lyric in Variation 11, the pianist maintaining a present but non-insistent treble tinkling. With the change of time signature to 3/4 for Variation 12, a more even spread of responsibility proved welcome, with a deft and clean account of the work’s last 10 bars that concluded the work with placid softness.

After their engagement news, the duo launched into Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke and again you were confronted with a seamless interpretation of welcome maturity. He produced a finely burnished timbre for the opening Zart, his line balanced and carefully woven, avoiding any suggestions of fitful temperament or tantrums; in firm balance, Rowe was an excellent partner for the controlled restlessness of her triplet patterns, almost continuous up to the last nine bars – both executants working in fine synchronicity of attack and emotional congruence. Similarly, in the following Lebhaft, the performance showed admirable fluency in treating the same metrical contrast across the first part, up to the central repeated segment although a rare articulation error from He disrupted the first note of this central section’s second part (in the repeat, I think).

Once again, Rowe demonstrated a sterling consciousness of appropriate dynamic levels in the final Rasch, the piano a reinforcement of the rapid cello upward arpeggios and a background to the movement’s second-phrase lyric. This trait is notable in a Schumann chamber music pianist where many players seem to think they have right of way because of the writing’s solidity; Rowe looks for elegance rather than loquacity; for example in the middle segment where the tonality changes to A minor (if anything) and the cello sings a relieving, quiet melody over more semi-urgent triplets.

My only query came with an introduced pause 11 bars into the Coda when an abridgement of the upward-leaping arpeggio pattern shifts into a flattened-out version of the beginning’s answering strophe. It just seemed an odd refinement to admit when the direction Schneller has just been introduced for a gripping rush towards the ebullient, can’t-come-quick-enough conclusion.

We then enjoyed some highly appropriate Salon music in Elgar’s Salut d’amour which I don’t think I’ve heard live since my mother gave up the violin. A fine melody seems to be its main attraction; certainly there’s not much for the pianist to do, except for maintaining the andantino pace. And He produced a caressing line, achieved without over-stretching his vibrato and keeping our attention fixed on his quietly insistent phrasing. It made for an amiable interlude, a blast from our Victorian/Edwardian past, probably best reserved for an encore – like the Frank Bridge Serenade that eventually fulfilled that function.

But the last offering in the duo’s printed program was Poulenc’s Cello Sonata which was constructed well before the composer’s four woodwind scores in the same genre. Again, I can’t recall a previous live performance that I’ve attended. Maybe I’ve been lucky because this four-movement construct falls into tedium in its outer Allegro and Presto movements. Yet again, the distinctive feature of this interpretation was its fluent facility; all the cello’s technical ducks and drakes, all the piano’s dissonances seemed ironed out with few harmonic frissons available to spice up a busy environment. Something odd happened at the A flat trills around Number 10 in the Heugel 1953 edition; I can’t be specific but I think it came from the cello line – going back to find the place proved fruitless but I believe some unexpected if slight irregularity sprang up.

Both parties gave us a fetchingly voluptuous passage beginning at Number 18 where the composer insists that his interpreters must not slow down to take relish in a sudden purple passage after all that Tempo di marcia insistence. At some point, I began thinking that Rowe was using her sustaining pedal a good deal; but the score pretty well instructed her to produce plenty of washes. Still, the movement is garrulous right up to this point; dedicatee Fournier might have called for a dash of brevity, apart from advising the composer on technical problems and potentialities. Happily, the following F sharp Major Cavatine displayed many passages of smooth sailing, beginning with the sans presser melody emerging in the cello at Number 1, even if a momentary blip came with He’s assault on the top G at Number 4, the production coming across as uncertain on what is probably the highest note in the cello part across these pages. Against that, place the impressively controlled sweep of colour with the reapplication of the mute at the Excessivement calme marking 13 bars from the movement’s chaste conclusion.

Rowe showed herself in light touch across the Ballabile, even with those full chords and octaves subsumed in the general aura of balletic bounding. Once again, you had to be impressed by the unshakeable congruence of these players in the outer sections where the instruments double each other with no room for hesitation. On top of that, He and Rowe convinced you of the good humour that runs through these pages where the percussive and intimate leggiero walk hand in hand. A full-bodied account of the finale’s 10-bar Largo introduction preceded an abrupt shift to rhythmic busyness at the arrival of the main body’s Presto subito; the players burbled along efficiently, although a C sharp minor chord at Number 11 struggled to make its desired effect. But there’s little defence against the movement’s central content between Numbers 13 and 18 where the action relaxes and the underpinning impetus disappears. It’s hard to describe how welcome were the returned triplets and how depressing the reversion to Gymnopedies country at Number 20 before the rounding-off stately five-bar Largo,

Poulenc’s product is a hard one to like, even when faced with a performance as expert as this one was. At the end, you know you’ve been through a substantial experience, one that gives its performers much room to demonstrate their skills. But, at the same time, you retain very little in terms of instrumental interplay, well-shaped melodies, rhythmic acuity, piquant harmonic layering. You can see and hear that the universally applied ternary format has been employed well enough, but the centre cannot hold your interest in a least two of the movements.

We all wish the newly-affianced our best wishes in their relationship which is clearly an artistic success already. They have shown themselves willing in their work, particularly in facing this evening’s French challenge; I’m anticipating calm seas and a prosperous voyage as they move on to more agreable Francophone peaks: Debussy, Ravel, Honegger, Saint-Saens, Faure – even the Franck Violin Sonata was approved for cello transcription by the (Belgian-born) composer. They’re definitely a duo worth following; in this instance, presenting an hour-long recital with remarkably few technical flaws and a wealth of interpretative insight.

Lead, kindly Gringolts


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 13, 2023 at 7 pm

Ilya Gringolts

A tad bitty, this opening Brisbane gambit from the Australian Chamber Orchestra for 2023. Missing from the line-up were artistic director Richard Tognetti and associate Satu Vanska, but the band enjoyed some amplification – an extra viola (Carl Lee), a pair of new cellists (Charlotte Miles and Eliza Sdraulig), a mate (Axel Ruge) for bass Maxime Bibeau, and some violinists I’ve not come across before (I think!): Anna Da Silva Chen and Tim Yu. Also, by an arranger’s quirk, timpanist Brian Nixon came to prominence during the night’s big feature: Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto.

Control of these forces fell to Ilya Gringolts, last heard with the ACO five years ago when he performed Paganini as we should have been hearing it. On this night, he took the soloist’s spot for the Bruch warhorse as well as for a splendidly cogent reading of Frank Martin’s Polyptyque, In more workmanlike mode, he took over Tognetti’s usual place as concertmaster-director for the last of Mendelssohn’s early string symphonies, the one-movement No. 13 in C minor; a fresh commission in Australian writer Harry Sdraulig‘s Slanted; then finished off proceedings through Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra of 1948.

Naturally enough, popular acclaim went to the great-hearted German concerto, arranged for smaller forces by the ACO’s artistic administration manager Bernard Rofe. All the wind parts vanished – 2 each of the woodwind, four horns and two trumpets – their lines relocated to any stray strings; as you might have expected, this meant a loss of timbral variety and an absence of ambient gravity which can actually weigh down considerably this score’s progress. Further, the absence of a sizeable group changed the concerto’s flavour; if you knew the work (and that would have described quite a few patrons), you would have missed some tutti passages memorable for their abrupt bite and stridency, let alone the Vorspiel‘s haunting initial wind chords.

Nevertheless, Gringolts gave us a memorable account of the solo line, accommodating to his reduced background so that full ensemble passages came across with less heft than usual; for instance, the first explosion at bar 11 after Gringolt’s second cadenza was a watery intimation of the real thing. But you learned to compensate as the Vorspiel surged forward with its amalgam of rhapsody and respectability. The absence of timbral punch mattered less in the central Adagio but by this stage Gringolts had absorbed most of our attention with an impeccable demonstration of how to perform the score’s technical hurdles with absolute confidence, while simultaneously expounding the concerto’s rich romantic paragraphs.

Unlike other brilliant interpreters, Gringolts refrained from generating a seamlessly pure line with its contours neatly enfolded; when the action heated up, you could hear some preparatory scrapes as double- and quadruple-stops were hit hard – but not so much in the energetic Allegro last movement where the temptation to add extra gutsiness to the main theme’s thirds and sixths is too great for many an executant to resist. Both soloist and orchestra made as much as necessary with dynamic contrasts, while the whole reading kept you involved by its rhythmic intensity in the outer movements and through the waves of tensile string fabric in the second movement.

Messiaen stole several marches on his contemporaries with regard to putting his Christian/Catholic faith into musical practice, but Martin’s late creation for violin and two string orchestras scales some religio-emotional peaks with just as much sincerity and brilliance of utterance as the French master. His Polyptyque was inspired by a series of miniatures in Siena that depicted various stages of the Passion. In his six movements , Martin lets the solo line represent Christ and a Narrator, in the best Bach fashion; hence also, the two orchestral forces. It only seems like yesterday that adventurous choirs would present the Swiss writer’s Mass for Double Chorus (now almost a century old!) as the last word in modernity and improbably hard choral writing. You would hardly say the same about Polyptyque which is couched in that stringent, athletic language with which some of us have become familiar through the chamber works. Any appearance of a work by Martin is still remarkable, if not as noteworthy as it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.

As at the best of concerts, this performance was a revelation because of a happy combination of expertise and inspiration. After seven live audience performances, this penultimate one in Brisbane came to us well-honed and holding no surprises for all concerned. But the fulcrum of this success emerged through Gringolts’ sympathetic outline of the central role: in turn jubilant, mournful, aggressive, transfigured. Of course, the composer’s realization of specific images veered closer to the physically illustrative than anything in Messiaen’s work. For instance, the opening movement depicting Palm Sunday set out the turba in action – not wholly elated, but busy with suggestive undercurrents – while the violin wove a clearly defined path into the city.

Martin did justice to Judas with an active cadenza for the soloist, packed with self-circling energy like a man newly-arrived in a prison cell and finding no relief, even when the orchestras enter sombrely to underline the traitor-victim’s isolation. To end, the composer contrived a matched pair: the judgement before Pilate and Via crucis, prefacing a continually aspiring image of Christ’s glorification which is achieved by simple means, certainly more mobile than the Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus and less constipated than Majeste du Christ demandant sa gloire a son Pere. In these pages, Gringolts led us on an all-too-brief journey, remarkable in its concentration of output as it moved beyond a kind of remote tension to a radiant, soft triumph. Obviously, an experience to treasure.

The evening started with the Mendelssohn Sinfoniesatz, the last of the teenage composer’s essays in the form. While being happy to observe the near-adult grappling successfully with formal exercises, I’ve never gone overboard about any of these early efforts, least of all this effort with its thickly applied imitative passages of fugato. But then, I feel the same discomfort when Schumann starts fugueing in the Piano Quintet’s final Allegro, or even when the piano kicks off a mini-fugue in the last movement of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (bar 228). But, if nothing else, this piece set the physical scene: Gringolts leading an all-male first violin group, Helena Rathbone opposite him at the head of an all-female second violin bevy; pairs of violas either side of centre-stage (this is one of the string symphonies with two viola lines); pairs of cellos in the rear centre, Timo-Veikko Valve and Julian Thompson at the front, of course, with the two females seated in the second row; and the two basses bringing up the real rea, one behind each group.. In any case, the Mendelssohn served its purposes of clearing the sinuses, loosening bowing arms and establishing a communal sound.

Better followed with Sdraulig’s new work. I can’t quite grasp the rationale behind Slanted, even if the composer explains it in two ways: the first, in terms of the actual music’s shape, its architecture as the 18 variations elide into one another; then, as a social commentary on the biases with which we’re all infected these days. Not ignoring these descriptor/explanations, you tended to become less concerned with the underpinning dialectic and more enthralled by the composer’s felicitous writing: expertly shaded, clearly defined in its allocation of responsibilities, gripping in its athletic first part and subtly atmospheric when the tension eased rhythmically for the later stages. It reminded me of several all-strings scores (well, of course, given the timbral potentialities) but carved out an individual stature by means of its remarkable definition, like a solidly sculptured torso. In some ways, it recalled the Frank Bridge Variations but with less glitter: Britten with balls.

Bacewicz’s famous Concerto rounded out this night effectively; to my mind, more so as a demonstration of the ACO’s finesse and ardour in attack than for the ground-breaking qualities of the score itself. As a standard-bearer for Polish modern music in the grim late 1940s, Bacewicz struck out on a progressive track although, in a wider European context, this work is not ground-breaking. Nevertheless, the composer’s vocabulary presents as strong and flinty with its neo-classical sprightliness and linear lucidity at a time when the great ruck of writers were still stuck in a post-Romantic morass. Gringolts headed an interpretation that found grace, even elegance amid the spiky polyphony; I heard only one suspect early entry , probably from the second violins, in this composition’s expertly-contrived delineation. More memorable was the rank and file’s vivid reaction to their guest leader’s never-failing enthusiasm.

Diary March 2023


Musica Viva Australia

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday March 7 at 7 pm

Born in Germany but raised and educated in Queensland, Karin Schaupp leads the first Musica Viva recital series event in Brisbane for this year. To make us feel more warm and fuzzy, she is accompanied by the home-grown Flinders Quartet which, at current time of printing, comprises violins Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba, and Wilma Smith, viola Helen Ireland, and cello Zoe Knighton. These last two are original members while the upper lines have seen a few excellent musicians leave for fresh pastures; Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins spring to mind as long-term previous members, she currently occupied with Orchestra Victoria and he still leading the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s second violins as he has since the Punic Wars. At all events, here they are in partnership, recalling their 2011 successful CD Fandango for ABC Classics, but only slightly: the one surviving program element is part of Boccherini’s D Major Guitar Quintet – the last two movements, comprising a Grave assai and a fandango. As for the rest, the night starts with a Carulli guitar concerto, Op 8 in A Major which, as far as I can tell, has two movements only. Of more temporal substance is Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1950 Guitar Quintet Op. 143, written for Segovia and comprising four movements. Another work of substance is Imogen Holst’s one-movement Phantasy Quartet of 1928; an early work, full of common sense and opening with the promise of relaxed British pastoralism. Interspersed with these come two Australian scores. First, Richard Charlton‘s Southern Cross Dreaming from 2007 – a short tremolo study for solo guitar, written for and first performed by Schaupp. Then Carl Vine‘s Endless, commissioned for Musica Viva and enjoying its world premieres across this national tour; it’s a substantial commemoration of the architect Jennifer Bates, killed by a motor accident in December 2016. Tickets range from $15 (Student Rush) to $109 (Standard). As far as I can see, the customary pernicious booking fee is waived, but I could be wrong.


Opera Queensland

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday March 9 at 7 pm

Not my favourite Verdi opera, although fanatics will hear nothing against it, just as they will tolerate no negative comments about Ernani or I masnadieri. A few performances in Melbourne over a span of about 30 years reinforced this prejudice, the first one starring Rita Hunter as Lady Macbeth; the highpoint of that night lay in coming across the strangely inappropriate brindisi, Si colmi il calice, by means of which the murderess greets her guests for the ghost-dominated banquet. But also, I’ve been jaundiced by having to teach the play to hundreds of uninterested Year 11 students over much of my secondary school purgatory. How Verdi’s first Shakespeare dabble will fare without the trappings of scenery and lighting is anyone’s guess; still, you’ll enjoy an extraordinary focus on the singing. Who gets the title role? Well-known Opera Australia bass stalwart Jose Carbo takes the honours here. As for his toast-mistress wife, this is soprano Anna-Louise Cole, whom I remember from her student days before she went off-country to study in Germany, recently returning home to take on heavy roles like this and a 2022 Turandot for the national company. Big winner/loser (‘All my pretty ones?’) Macduff will be Rosario La Spina, local celebrity tenor from whom we’ve heard little in the past few years (an absence from activity that he shares with many other singers, of course). The Banquo will be New Zealand bass Wade Kernot, tenor Carlos E. Barcenas the luckless Malcolm, while the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s newish chief conductor, Umberto Clerici, controls the pit – and, with a bit of luck, the stage. OQ’s publicity mentions a director and a pair of costume creatives, so things may not be as visually bleak as I’d expected. Tickets range from $75 to $ 125 with some slight concessions available and – of course – the booking fee that is a compulsory penalty for using a credit card in this rubbishy new world where nobody pollutes themselves with cash.

The performance will be repeated on Saturday March 11 at 2 pm.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Sunday March 12 at 3 pm

Welcome to the first of this year’s Sunday afternoon chamber exercises from the QSO, where members of the organization get to play together in small groups; all very pleasant, even if the resulting performances can creak at the seams. In fact, this program will feature some fairly noticeable creaking in its first part, while the second segment is made up of a string quartet stalwart in Beethoven’s Razumovsky No. 3 in C – last in the three-part set and the one that doesn’t have a Russian tune/theme incorporated. As preludial matter, a quartet of bassoons – Nicole Tait, David Mitchell, Evan Lewis, Claire Ramuscak (contra) – will air Gerard Brophy‘s brief Four Branches of 2015. Then a group of strings might present the first movement of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite. This was originally written for two guitars, but I’ve also come across an arrangement for four bassoons (no contra) by Fraser Jackson. So the QSO’s low woodwind may be extending their Brophy experience to take in the pugnacious Argentinian’s Deciso opener which lasts a little longer than the Australian composer’s five minutes of piquant burbling. Another Argentinian voice comes through with Golijov’s 1996 Last Round, a two movement construct for string orchestra/nonet in two movements which attempts to imitate the sound of a bandoneon in an elegy-homage to Piazzolla, the title coming from his life-long participation in street fights rather than being a reference to the call that used to echo through the world’s pubs at the end of every night’s excursions into soddenness. As for the nonet, it could include any of the following musicians, bar the essential participation of double bass Phoebe Russell who sits/stands mid-stage between two string quartets: violins Mia Stanton, Sonia Wilson, Nicholas Thin, Natalie Low, Delia Kinmont, and Katie Betts; violas Nicole Greentree and Graham Simpson; cellists Hyung Suk Bae, Kathryn Close and Matthew Kinmont. Naturally, the Beethoven interpreters will come from the above list and the transitional jolt from Buenos Aires to Vienna should be suitably chastening. This program is scheduled to last for 75 minutes and tickets range from $30 (various concessions) to $55, as well as the customary booking fee/theft.


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday March 13 at 7 pm

Artistic director Richard Tognetti is once again hosting the Tawadros brothers, Joseph (oud) and James (riq), in this amalgamation where Vivaldi’s four violin concertos will be interspersed with original compositions by Joseph/James and other Baroque works from Italy and the Ottoman Empire. You’d be right (and probably happy) to suspect that the seasonal sequence will be given straight, not re-interpreted Max Richter style. The questions rise with the interpolations as the Tawadros brothers and Tognetti aim to offer Venice and the Near East as musical companions. Well, they’re certainly geographically closer than Australia and Finland and were assuredly more intertwined commercially than Nepal and Chile. Aesthetically? A bit of a stretch. Musically? I’m having a lot of trouble finding the Ottoman in Vivaldi (or in the Gabrielis or in Monteverdi); conversely, I can’t see the Baroque contribution to the Tawadros’ Permission to Evaporate or The Hour of Separation albums. In the preparatory playlist provided on the ACO website for this event, you can hear the essential Seasons, as well as some Vivaldi additions – the final Presto from the Op. 3 No. 6 in A minor plus the Recitative/Grave and final Allegro from the Grosso Mogul concerto. The only other Venetian track is a motet by Legrenzi: Lumi, potete piangere; perhaps Tognetti & Co. will be surprising us with a vocalist – or one of the multi-talented Tawadros brothers will turn his hand to this plangent Baroquerie. Speaking of the Ottoman contribution, we will hear five original Tawadros compositions (the inference from the playlist being that they will come in part from the above-mentioned albums), as well as a Turkish concerto called izia semaisi (by Toderini?) and an Ottoman march with the bellicose title Der Makham-i-Rehavi Cember-i Koca (I’m a tad worried about that Der). Not looking a pair of gift horses in their mouths, but I’m not sure where the guest brothers’ work really fits in with the Eastern components of this program, mainly because their own compositions are an individualistic blend of Arabian sounds with Western emotional tropes. It makes for a beguiling melange but one that stretches even further the relationship between East and West, musical Venice and anything heard in the 16th and 17th centuries from Turkey to Egypt. Still, the composite makes an intriguing envelope for Vivaldi’s series of brief tone-poems. This event is scheduled to last for two hours and tickets range from $25 to $159, as well as the compulsory booking fee that spices up the whole experience of concert-going.


Ensemble Trivium

Old Museum Building

Thursday March 16 at 7 pm

This expandable group is presenting a set of works involving flute, viola, cello and piano in various combinations. As for its participants, flautist Monika Koerner takes part in four of the evening’s five works; cellist Katherine Philp will be heard in three, as will violist Yoko Okayasu; pianist Allie Wang performs in two. You can probably glean from the title that we’ll get to enjoy some Haydn: a flute/cello/piano trio, Hob XV:16 in D Major, in three movements with the central one in D minor. The concluding work is a Prelude, recitatif et variations by Durufle, that highly self-critical French composer’s only chamber work; this involves Koerner, Okayasu and Wang. Between these masterful products come three varied scores. Caroline Shaw’s Limestone and Felt was written in 2012, a viola/cello duet that follows a pizzicato sound production for most of its six minutes with a few bowed arpeggios (representing the fabric?). Brisbane composer Connor D’Netto‘s parallel involves flute and viola following a 12-minute process of changing and becoming – into what, is anyone’s guess. And leading into the Durufle will be Guillaume Connesson’s 2002 Toccata nocturne for flute and cello: slightly over three minutes of mainly subterranean whistles and quick whispers. The recital is projected to last an hour – which it might with some pre-performance chats. Tickets range from $22 to $52 but the inevitable additional charge is a few cents over $1 – which might even be justifiable.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday March 17 at 11:30 am

The titular instrument refers to that employed in Grieg’s Piano Concerto: for my money, the greatest show pony in the repertoire – and the easiest, as far as interpretative depth is concerned. My first ever CD was Dinu Lipatti’s recording of this work, unloaded on me by a French teacher with a penchant for making money on the side. Having paid through the nose for it, I listened to the recording until it wore out. But the concerto was also an accessible orchestral concert favourite for decades, until it fell by the wayside as being too popular. Tonight, Grieg’s four-bar-phrase extravaganza is paired with the Brahms Symphony No. 1 – a long time a-coming but a rewarding source of discovery and delight in the right hands; and, in several senses, the most effective of the four. For the concerto, the soloist will be Sergio Tiempo, a Venezuelan-born musician with an impressive discography. He has appeared in Brisbane before, apparently, with his sister, duo-pianisting for the QSO under Alondra de la Parra. The steadiest of hands, Johannes Fritzsch, principal guest conductor for this orchestra, will take us through the concerto and symphony, prefacing the lot with an Impromptu, after Schubert by Richard Mills, produced in 2014 and premiered in Tasmania. This is not an orchestral refurbishment of one of the 8 Impromptus but a meditation on fragments from two lieder – one I know (Auf dem Wasser zu singen) and one I don’t (Ariette) – with a few additional references emerging from the Unfinished Symphony and the Winterreise cycle. A lot of material to ferret out, in other words. Tickets range from $89 to $105, with concessions available as well as the usual credit card charge, here coming in at over $7.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday March 18 at 7:30 pm. This event has more seats available, from $90 to $ 130 – also with concessions and the credit card compulsory tip.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Tuesday March 21 at 7:30 pm

Putting their guest artist to use – just as the ABC used to do, pairing concerto appearances with a recital – the QSO powers-that-be here re-present Sergio Tiempo in solo mode. His program is half-Chopin (this pianist made a splash with his CDs of this composer’s music – some of it) and half-South American, with Piazzolla featuring twice while worthwhile masters like Villa-Lobos and Ginastera get one look-in each. Oh, and one of the Pizzollas is Muerte del Angel which has been thrashed into oblivion (sorry) by too many musicians of minimal ability. Anyway, the Chopin will involve three preludes (Nos. 3, 15 and 16 from Op. 28 [where else?]), two etudes (No. 6 from Op. 10 and the No. 1 Aeolian Harp heading Op. 25), and the last sonata, that in B minor. Moving well south of the border after interval, Tiempo starts with Venezuelan Moises Moleiro’s Joropo, a brief 6/8 romp in D minor. The two Piazzolla pieces follow, the other being Fuga y Misterio which has been extracted from the composer’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires. A rarely-encountered name in serious music is that of Brazilian writer Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose moody song Retrato em Branco e Preto has been arranged for himself by Tiempo. A more familiar Brazilian voice arrives with Villa-Lobos whose offering comprises excerpts from his 1918 The Dolls, Book 1 in the three-part cycle A Prole de Bebe. You (well, Tiempo, actually) choose between dolls made from porcelain, papier-mache, clay, rubber, wood, rag, cloth – and Punch for a possible gender-imbalance leavening. Last element of all comes Ginastera’s feisty Malambo of 1940, an Argentinian response to Moleiro’s piece but more aggressive and blessed with a powerfully discordant conclusion. Tickets range from $30 (child) to $75 (adult); the surcharge is now up to $7.95, regardless of your concessionary status.


Ensemble Q

The Raven Cellar, 400 Montague Rd., West End

Tuesday March 28 at 7 pm

Second in an off-shoot series distinct from the main Ensemble events, this recital presents two artists: harpist Emily Granger and cellist Trish Dean. Details about their program are sketchy but Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole appears; it might as well as it’s been arranged for a large number of instrumental combinations. The composer himself and Paul Kochanski put the collection together from Falla’s original Siete canciones populares espagnolas, leaving out the Seguidilla murciana. As well, Dean gets to swoop through Saint-Saens’ The Swan, that near-immobile chunk carved out from the Carnival of the Animals. And we are also promised Granville Bantock’s Hebrew melody, Hamabdil, in the composer’s own cello/harp arrangement. When you go looking, there’s not much music that was specifically written for this duo combination, but the three works promised are unobjectionable. So much so that you’d expect Granger and Dean to show high competence at fleshing out a program scheduled to last for two hours. Perhaps a few solos will be inserted along the way? Tickets range from $22.49 (student, and prepare to stand) to $70.14 (adult), into which prices a graduated booking fee has already been added. Nice to see that somebody is trying to preserve a modicum of social responsibility.

Last sonatas but not the last word


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1471

Carrying us onward towards the conclusion of his complete Beethoven piano sonatas cycle, James Brawn has grouped the final three works in the series under one roof. It’s a bold move, presenting the major intellectual challenges before taking on an imposing technical mammoth: the Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Hammerklavier. While this last-mentioned is the preserve of master-pianists (although I’ve heard a few readings that disappointed greatly, including one where the performer simply left the stage mid-slow movement), each of the final three sonatas features commonly in recital programs these days – much more than half a century ago when they were avoided in favour of more agreeable works with appealing nicknames.

The favourites linger, of course, Pathetiqueing, Moonlighting and Waldsteining their ways across recital programs until their appearance induces frissons of ennui: you know that nothing informative will be achieved across the duration of yet another Tempest or Appassionata but, like Christians the world over, you wait in hope (usually disappointed). With the last three sonatas, you can expect more fine gradations of interpretation. It’s not that they are more difficult to get around than their predecessors, although certain movements are risky – the Prestissimo from No. 30 in E Major, the I’ve-been-everywhere fugue that concludes the A flat Op.110, and the multi-layered Allegro of Sonata No. 32’s first movement.

Brawn’s reading of Op. 109, the E Major Sonata, is blessed with a well-matched pair of opening movements before the disproportionately long theme-and-variations conclusion. For the opening Vivace/Adagio, he finds an appealing give-and-take set of speeds which don’t over-egg the changes from the initial two-note motif-chains to mini-cadenzas (bars 9 and 58), passages that often enjoy a piacevole treatment rather than the disciplined observation of underlying pulses that obtains here; why the hell would Beethoven have bothered with those explicit groupings of demi-semiquavers and hemi-demi-semiquavers unless he wanted pianists to exercise a relative tempo ratio? Brawn’s care for detail shows out in minutiae like his handling of the last crotchet’s worth of bar 12’s right hand, and the elision of those wafer-thin joins between segments (bars 9, 15, 57 and 65).

The following very fast movement also shines for its sensible treatment, the pauses slight and used to mark a differentiation of attack rather than employed for the usual excuse of repositioning a hand. Brawn makes full use of the expression markings (well, those in Wallner’s edition for Henle), with a few clever dynamic pulling-back instants that serve to keep the onward rush buoyant. And here was one of the more fluent transfers of attention from right hand to left at bar 112; it only lasts a few seconds but it’s become one of my discriminant points for determining a player’s dynamic balance and care in avoiding bluster.

For the sonata’s largest span, the third movement theme and six variations, Brawn shows the requisite alternation between ultra-sensitivity, as in the hiatus breaths he employs during the melody’s first articulation’s phrases, and helter-skelter jollity (Variation 3) alongside an Handelian determined simplicity during Variation 5’s fugal mesh. The executant shows commendable care with the second variation’s juxtaposition of detached semiquaver two-note motives and the broad chordal thematic treatments (bars 41 and 57). A more relaxed approach typified Brawn’s handling of the Etwas langsamer variation which enjoyed a quietly splayed outlining; not enough to undercut the prevailing metre but sufficient to suggest a surging barcarolle.

For all that, you have to relish this pianist’s bringing the sonata home in the final variation where the sustained trills on B (with a brief excursion to home-key E) generate an underpinning that threatens to overpower the material being outlined both above (mainly) and below. With a further example of that insight shown across this odyssey, Brawn observes a dynamic level that doesn’t distract from the composer’s strands of operation; you find no heavy pounding of those arpeggio/broken chord chains that reveal a simple, devastating musical deconstruction before the theme returns en clair, bringing us round to full term.

I’m not so taken with the first movement of Op. 110 in A flat Major. Admittedly, Beethoven’s writing is fitful, putting a sonata-form shape through several odd wriggles and engineering sudden changes in tonality. Brawn underlines these oddities and abrupt shifts by pointing them up (or out) with brief pauses, so that the movement advances as a set of episodes rather than as wholly-woven fabric. I suppose it’s a fundamental problem of interpretation – how do you treat a chameleonic canvas? – but my view comes down on the side of playing the pages without any tangential commentary on the not-so-subtle shifts in register alongside the traditional modulatory brusqueries.

Not much to find fault with in the ensuing Allegro molto. Brawn keeps a cool head, especially when faced with the invitation to belt out the forte and sforzando chords. Further he gives the central D flat Major trio some lucidity by not accelerating or moving into a slushy over-use of the sustaining pedal. Still, this page-and-a-bit is hard to integrate in any sense; you can’t call it aimless because it has direction (mainly down, from a fair height) but any congruence with the surroundings escapes me. Of course, I could go to that bank of scholars and hanger-on pedants who make theses and careers out of explaining these ‘problem’ sonatas but life’s too short; well, it’s getting that way in this quarter, what with the endless struggle against infections both physical and mental, particularly now that we have returned to normal after the Australian Open has limped to its flaccid conclusion.

You can find more justification for Brawn’s pointing-up character in the tragic-heroic last movement of this work where arioso, recitative and fugue are assembled in a carefully staged scenario of lament and ebullience. The pianist is very painstaking with his left-hand chords and their shadings into one another right across the Adagio ma non troppo when it really starts (half-way through bar 7). Further, his outline of the Klagender Gesang itself proves to be irreproachably clear and poised, With the fuga‘s first part, this reading preserves a contrapuntal clarity and control that obtains up to and throughout the reinforced bass explosions at bars 45, 72 and especially 101. Brawn also manages to suggest the rests between those enigmatic semiquaver chords from bar 131 to 134 while still following the sustained pedal direction.

For the fuga‘s inversion and complexities, this interpretation takes the high road by treating the score with respect, ensuring clarity even as the argument becomes more determined at the change of key in bar 153. Further, in the final pages where the material is reduced to an alternating bipolarity and Beethoven stretches further and further outward to the topmost and most bass-ic limits of his instrument, Brawn observes the decencies, articulating with weight but without bombast or hysterics. Which gives us a reading informed by warmth and integrity, one where I can’t find any note or gesture out of place.

Last of all comes the C minor Op. 111: a minefield, they say. It’s not technically over-remarkable but its first movement offers too many opportunities for pontification before and after bar 19 where the Allegro kicks off properly. Brawn is awake to the inbuilt drama of the scene-setting seventh chords at the opening and the unsettling hiatus chords between bars 6 and 10 where expectations of regularity are roused and left unsatisfied. He is quite happy to indulge in a considerable hold-back whenever he comes across a poco ritenente in the main dramatic chapter, while some hard-pressing passages come within cooee of dragging, e.g. bars 37 to 42. Then there emerge some fine sweeps of impassioned confidence; for example, the crescendo at bar 96 leading to a marvellously contrived piece of contrapuntal display, rich in octaves from both hands until the escorting semiquavers take over at the end of bar 108.

Another effective interpretative illustration comes in the final bars. After a chain of eight sforzandi and a vehement tonic affirmation, the subsequent chords become epuise, until the menacing semiquaver runs emerge in the bass while the right hand consoles with three resolutions into a tierce de Picardie – a passage that brings to most minds the penultimate relaxation (8 bars from the end) in Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

Yet again, I’m impressed by Brawn’s intellectual control, specifically in the second movement Arietta with variations. His initial pace is spacious, and you can hear every element of the chord work, no matter how raw the texture. Each variation is welded into a framework that relies on its foundation rivets, no matter how discursive or florid the embellishments. I’ve listened to these pages several times, making sure that Brawn gives exact measure in the syncopations and displacements of the later variations when tied chords or notes ask for intense concentration from an executant; or further on when both hands operate in the bass clef (bars 65 to 71, 81 to 88) and those left-hand groups of nine demi-semiquavers hare murmur clearly; or closer to the end when Beethoven brings in his trills, which are delivered in this context with unstudied regularity.

The CD is an excellent sample of Brawn’s powers in Beethoven performance. The three works are treated with a respect and firmness that reveal an intimate awareness of the composer’s demands and a fidelity to the works’ aesthetic compass – true to the drama, the gravity, the incredibly powerful impetus underpinning what can look on paper like ambling. This isn’t Brawn’s final odyssey leg – there are two more discs to come – but it’s a considerable and bracing contribution to the journey.

February 2023 Diary


Eclective Strings

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann Street

Friday February 3 at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm

Beginning the year with absolutely no style at all comes this run-through of Vivaldi’s greatest hit. Not the whole thing, mind you, but ‘selections’. I suppose the excuse will be that such an abridgement, a digest helps bring in punters who don’t usually listen to serious music, or who want to graduate from enterprises like the Tamworth mud bath. So, as a benefit to the intentionally stupid, let’s give voice to those movements from these four violin concertos that have become most recognizable through TV advertisements. Tonight is one of the more presentable efforts in a program of candlelight concerts, most of which are homages to various pop singers and groups; this program sticks out in its context like a diamond in a sewer. Still, I’m rather wary of the main performing structure; we’re not offered a soloist but a string quartet – which is not enough of a resource to carry even this lightweight music. As far as I can see, the Eclective haven’t operated much outside Victoria but they specialize in tribute concerts – ABBA, Adele, Beatles, Coldplay, AC/DC – when they’re not indulging in cut-down Baroque. On its website, the ensemble claims to be respectable by day, up-to-the-mark rockers by night; I would have been impressed if the roles/times were reversed. Anyway, they’re giving their selections twice on this evening, depending on your eating arrangements, I suppose; tickets start at $29. To be honest, I’d need a lot of persuading to sit through even a filleted version of these works, particularly when there’s so much more Vivaldi to hear.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday February 10 at 7:30 pm

Chief conductor Umberto Clerici takes a small set of forces through this three-component program schedule to last 75 minutes without interval. He begins with Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, written in the dying days of World War II and probably intended as a threnody for German culture which was at that time being pounded into dust. Not the most interesting of the composer’s works but it has relevance to the current world situation, given the war being inflicted on us by the latest in a series of Russian megalomaniacs. It’s hard to tell how this will come across in the Studio’s close quarters; you’ll certainly know if anyone wavers. Then comes a new work by the QSO’s long-time principal percussionist, David Montgomery – a suite for brass and percussion that, at time of writing, has no name. I know of Montgomery as a performer and educator – not as a composer, which could make part of this night revelatory. Finally, we hear Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, eight movements from the original ballet: Sinfonia (Ouverture), Serenata, Scherzino, Tarantella, Toccata, Gavotta, Vivo, and Minuetto+Finale. The instrumentation asks for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, with a trumpet and trombone for ballast and a string quintet alongside a string orchestra. The composer’s transformation of Pergolesi pieces, the full ballet is rarely heard (or seen) but this suite is packed with piquancies: a rare sight of Stravinsky the Funster. Tickets are $75, unless you have a concession or are very young; children get in for $30, but will they put up with the Strauss willingly?


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday, February 12 at 11:30 am

Another special with QSO chief conductor Umberto Clerici holding the leading strings. I’m not sure how far around the world this dancing extends; what we know of what is to be played leaves me feeling more than a little Eurocentric. The problem is that, after listing a number of highlights, the promoters promise ‘. . . and more’, which always makes me wonder if that more has been decided or will it be decided between lunchtime tomorrow and Australia Day. We know that we’re getting the Can-can from Offenbach’s comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld, an energetic terpsichorean remnant of the belle epoque and forever associated with impossibly frilled petticoats and startlingly unrevealing knickers. Further along the morning promenade, Clerici & Co. will perform Strauss’s Voices of Spring, presumably without the optional soprano; like the Offenbach, a musical portrait of a world of outward brilliance but rotten to the core. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F sharp minor/G minor puts in an appearance, doing its best to live up to proud Zigeuner pretensions in orchestral garb supplied by Schmeling, Parlow, or Ivan Fischer. The tone moves upwards with the Act 1 Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which is a splendidly balanced product in every sense. As a Me Too genuflection, the program includes the third of American black composer Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes: the cakewalk Silk Hat and Walking Cane, probably in the orchestration by William Grant Still. But there’s more, and good luck with that. Tickets range from $75 to $105 for a scheduled 80 minutes playing time without interval; good value, if there’s no irritatingly amiable chats involved.


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 13 at 7 pm

Five years ago, ACO habitues heard this Russian violinist play Paganini brilliantly. The popular appeal item this time (and it’s the only one on the program) is the first of the three Bruch concertos in an arrangement for the string ensemble by the organization’s librarian, Bernard Rofe. What we will miss out on hearing are the pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, the horn quartet, but the original score’s timpani part is spared any editorial cut. Will you feel the lack? Probably, if you know the work well, and I’d say most of us do. Still, it saves on employing an extra 14 musicians and transporting them round the country for a series of one-night stands. Gringolts also contributes his solo skills to Frank Martin’s Polyptyque of 1973, written to a Menuhin commission and calling for two small string orchestras underpinning the solo violin. These six images de la Passion de Christ make a substantial work, slightly longer than the Bruch concerto, and most of us will be hearing them for the first time. As well, the ACO performs Mendelssohn’s one-movement String Symphony No. 13, a new score – Slanted – from Melbourne-born Harry Sdraulig, and Bacewicz’s 1948 Concerto for String Orchestra, a major composition from the Polish composer and one which carries its neo-classicism with an impressive pnache. Prices range from $49 to $115 with concessions available for qualified patrons.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday February 17 at 7:30 pm

Always a crowd-pleaser – except for those pesky three movements before the choral finale – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can be a shattering experience. The trouble is that you have to take it as a job lot, instrumental predecessors and all before you get to the furious heaven-storming of the choir’s massive explosions. Umberto Clerici conducts his orchestra and the Brisbane Chamber Choir with a clutch of four soloists, three of whom I know well from their concert/recital/opera work: soprano Eleanor Lyons (I’ve not come across this artist), mezzo Deborah Humble, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Michael Honeyman. We’ve all got a perfect Ninth in our heads, and some of us have had poor experiences (one of mine was an appalling realization of the males’ Seid umschlungen entry from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic under Tzipine, and a recent one was a painfully lacklustre reading from Bendigo this past December), but the omens are propitious for this reading. With monstrous over-reach, the publicists have claimed that Peter Sculthorpe is Australia’s Beethoven because he is the founding father of this country’s music. Well, he was a lovely fellow but he wasn’t the founder of anything except his own sound world. We get a well-worn sample of that in his Earth Cry of 1986 which has an optional part for didgeridoo; no options about if because tonight we enjoy the services of William Barton. Following this theme of finding a place for Aboriginal-inspired music, the concert begins with a collaboration between Barton and violinist Veronique Serret: Kalkani, which was a 2020 commission by the ABC. Here, it has been transmuted from a duet into orchestral dress and enjoys its Queensland premiere. Does the whole set of proceedings sound like a mess? That’s because it is one, no matter which way you try to dress it up. Admission ranges from $90 to $130 and the program includes an interval; the two didgeridoo-inclusive pieces last about 20 minutes while the symphony has an average length of about an hour plus five minutes.

This program will be repeated on Saturday February 18 at 1:30 pm and again on Sunday February 19 at 1:30 pm


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, South Brisbane

Saturday February 25 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm

Ah, this brings back happy memories of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra opening its year’s practice at the Plenary space near the Convention and Exhibition Centre with Dr. Who or Wallace and Gromit extravaganzas, as well as some films for the masses. Then, throughout the year, we would enjoy more film screenings in Hamer Hall with the MSO providing a live soundtrack – which usually meant the films had to be supplied with subtitles. Starting the academic year with a dollop of infantile necromancy, the QSO under Nicholas Buc will support David Yates’ adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s sixth novel in the Harry Potter series, which is one of the darkest of the lot – well, it’s the darkest (novel and film) so far because it (the film) begins with the suborning of Snape and climaxes in the death of Dumbledore – after which fun times at Hogwarts definitely come to an end. Nicholas Hooper’s score uses elements of the John Williams music that we have imbibed into our very souls but his instrumentation is an interesting, carefully placed element in the narrative. Has the Potter fever been sustained? Will audience members come dressed in their house colours or swathed in cloaks and besoming their ways into the auditorium? You’d have to be there to find out, I suppose. Tickets range from $59 to $120 and I couldn’t find any concessions. Bookings attract that meaningless Service Fee, which is an accounting swindle both universal and unavoidable (believe me, I’ve tried).


Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 26 at 3 pm

Here we go once more, perpetuating the legend about Paris being the artistic centre of the world. Yes, it was: not anymore, The last time I visited (pre-COVID), the population was in a sour mood with strikes galore and consequently a fair few sites shut. Very little music-making and no opera. Still, the Soloists are determined to celebrate its palmy days, beginning with some selections from Gluck’s Orfeo ed EuridiceBlessed Spirits, anyone? Actually, yes: Portuguese flautist David Silva will be exposed in this bracket. The composer was German, the libretto was Italian, but Gluck did revamp his work in 1764 for Parisian audiences; something of a link, then. Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, was apparently written about the time of his mother’s death – in Paris; this will be performed by the Soloists’ artist-in-residence, Konstantin Shamray. A firmer connection comes with selections from Debussy’s books of Preludes (Flaxen? Sunken? Fireworks?), which will also involve Shamray. And another Debussy appears in the art song Beau soir, which features one of the night’s guests, cellist Guillaume Wang, the programmers possibly deciding on using Julian Lloyd Webber’s arrangement. Wang also leads the way through Georgette by Rumanian violinist Georges Boulanger. This is a piece of salon music named after the composer’s daughter; despite his (adopted) name, Boulanger had no connection to Paris – perhaps his daughter did. As far as I can tell, Prokofiev wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4, the one for left-hand alone, in Paris during 1931. Commissioned by that unpleasant personality Paul Wittgenstein, the work was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. I don’t know if the Soloists will play the score as written or (more probably) an arrangement; regardless, you’ll be hearing Shamray at work again. Finally, Ravel’s Tzigane will exhibit the talents of guest violinist Courtenay Cleary. By the time he wrote this, the composer was living outside Paris but let’s not be too pedantic at this late stage of the program. The program lasts for 90 minutes (interval? maybe) and the cost is a flat $85.

Fiat lux


Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MCD 636

I don’t know how to catalogue this four-part exercise. According to the notes available on the Move Records site, the score formed the basis of Wilcox’s Ph.D. submission and was written between 2008 and 2012. The composer provides a good deal of technical detail on how she contrived the background/supporting musical stream that runs throughout the work. As you probably know if you’ve dabbled in academia, very little impresses a supervisor/examiner more than graphs, tables and photos of mechanisms; the trouble lies in interpreting the numbers which few people (except those paid to do so, viz. supervisors and examiners) can be bothered attempting. I had a few tries and got some way in – but then you listen to the CD and have to wonder at the need to explain technical details when the whole product presents more puzzles than the technical tooling around with frequencies extracted from or supplied by Sydney percussionist Michael Askill’s singing bowls.

Wilcox’s four soundscapes go by elemental titles: Light, Water, Blood, Fire. The overall emotional tenor of the work is meditative and ritualistic, with a heavy accent on Near and Far Eastern practices. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of this from the composer’s instrumental fabric, but it helps that she uses singers who beaver away at various texts that might give some reinforcement or illustration of the work’s four generic titles. Soprano Alison Morgan, contralto Jenny Duck-Chong and baritone Mark Donnelly are the nominated vocalists, the last-named moving very close to a tenor range in the score’s latter pages – a tribute to Donnelly’s versatility.

It’s a mixed ensemble that provides the bulk of Wilcox’s output, all led by Sada Muramutsu. Top of the town sits a string trio: violin Anna McMichael, viola Luke Spicer, cello Anthea Cottee, with a prominent part allocated to Alison Pratt and her multiform percussion. As a central body, we hear a string quintet: violins Ben Adler and Victor Wu, viola Tara Hashambhoy, cello Anthony Albrecht, bass Muhamed Mehmedbasic, while Ben Burton supervises the composer’s electronic instrument. Once again, according to the online booklet, the recording’s mixing and mastering (Daniel Brown at Trackdown) was carried out in March 2012 – which means this disc has been a long time coming.

One of the more intriguing compositional bases that Wilcox employs is a contrast between just intonation and equal temperament, the first sourced from the bowls and manipulation of their output while the second is the regular tuning of the string-rich ensemble. Any disjunction between the two tuning systems is not apparent at the start of Light, Track 1, but the aim is to refine the difference into obviousness by the time we reach Track 4, Fire, so that eventually a palpable disjunction obtains. God knows the difference ought to be clear as the work moves at a ceremonial pace for the most part and the progress is rarely interrupted by technical conundrums of a significant order – apart from the electronics which seem happy for much of the time to bathe us in a soothing infinity pool of familiar warmth layers..

So we begin with Light and plenty of bowl sounds, some of them sounding real-time, others pre-recorded. The atmosphere is hushed, reverent and inescapably oriental. A female voice (Duck-Chong?) begins singing a three-note Vedic mantra about sacred light illuminating us. A continuation of the subtly pulsing backdrop brings forward a male voice (Donnelly) celebrating the light of Allah (as outlined in a Quran verse) in a melodic arc that seems to be farther-ranging than the first solo but is limited to the same three notes (plus some octaves). At all events, simple percussive tinklings emerge in the struck-bowl main timbre-world and take on some prominence here as punctuation points. I believe it’s Morgan who gives us the final textual content with a Buddhist lama’s prayer of thanksgiving (for light, of course); again, her material follows the same trail as blazed by her peers. What follows is an instrumental slab where the three base notes are elaborated and twisted into all sorts of predictable shapes by McMichael with two essays in melisma, eventually followed by Spicer and Cottee rising out of a sonorous band supplied by the string ensemble with some occasional high bells and an underpinning current of bowl sounds operating as a support.

The language is deliberately limited but the dynamic level moves from meditative calm to fierce percussiveness. At its opening, Water sets a suitably limpid atmosphere with sustained bowl sound-bands, the strings entering gently in high/harmonics strata, with an occasional dollop of a Wilcox gesture where a soft string passage or crescendo ends in a chordal thump. The composer’s textures now have become less transparent, her string ensemble producing a sustained mid-range sound-band that could have escaped from Penderecki’s Threnody. Suddenly, we have moved into a new and completely unexpected segment where the bass is a five-note cantus firmus above which Cottee pours out a sad if mobile lament. It’s the sort of music that struck me as being useful for indicating a transcontinental trudge of the Burke & Wills genre, but no: such an interpretation is overturned by all three singers breaking out in an (eventually) unison setting of the opening lines to Psalm 23 (22) with a strikingly non-impressionist vision of the still waters. It’s hard to penetrate the vocalists’ Hebrew, given the strident accompaniment, but with a few hearings under the belt I’m not sure whether they reach the final phrases set out in the online booklet about being guided along straight paths for his name’s sake.

We are again grounded by two more settings which appear in reverse order to their printing in the booklet. First come a few lines about the Lord pouring out blessings, written by the composer’s brother, Rev. Dr. Gavin Wilcox who died in 2008 from cancer aged 46, and to whom Threading the Light is dedicated; this setting is a wide-ranging one with a welcome addition of vocal and instrumental glissandi that relax the three- or four-note limitations exercised so far. Duck-Chong and Donnelly outline an anonymous Buddhist prayer (well, most of it) about rains filling streams and oceans being reflected in the exercise of human goodness in healing all things. Here. we’re back in limited ground, Duck-Chong’s line at least mobile while the baritone sings a single note. Then the movement ends in similar condition to its predecessor: in a lengthy interstellar hum punctuated by a single note.

Comparatively brief in this context, Blood lasts for 6 1/2 minutes and uses one text; well, actually two, but the second comprises just two Latin words for blood. The main one is a Vedic mantra in which the aim is complete identity between the chanter and whomever/whatever he is addressing; not so much blood will out as much as blood is blood, as we say in Calabria. The movement opens with a Bloch-reminiscent cello solo couched in a more adventurous vocabulary than that used by the Jewish master. Donnelly sings through the Sanskrit quatrain with similar adventurousness before being joined by the female voices who generally finish off his lines for him. I think the mantra is repeated three times, the latter two a pulsing monotone in Donnelly’s case; underneath come sinuous strings arcing and glissading above an insistent timpani. Here, the ceremonial achieves its hypnosis through forceful insistence, rather than quiet repetition.

The movement’s second half comprises mainly an interweaving of the three voices, sticking to a limited number of notes for each and treating the two words sanguis and cruor with increasing intensity that involves aggressive string linear interplay and a vehement undercurrent iof percussion, including a prominent side-drum. Without a score, I can’t make much insightful headway into the work’s interstices but, once again, it appears that Wilcox is deliberately confining herself in her material while expending more adventurousness on drama; this piece ends with an explosion, not the suggestion of an all-embracing, eternal continuum. The final strokes have the singers returning to the Veda’s final words, ‘Light of all lights’.

Last comes Fire, about double the length of Blood. We’re back with the singing bowls straight away and on the lookout (listenout) for a change in temperament and pretty quickly there’s a scale that announces the new – the changed, rather – followed by the cello playing an imitation, possibly to illustrate the technical differentiation. The string group focuses on a single chord, alternately soft and loud, sustained and agitated before the bowl music returns and integrates itself with a single string line. So far (about a quarter of the way through), there’s little to grab on to, even if you’re prepared to find fiery flickers in the alternating timbres. Then comes another of those bowl scales which is definitely filling in your usual well-tempered cracks; the ensuing cello solo (Cottee, I assume) now seems to be doing the same thing with another odd scale/arpeggio upward motion/gesture before a substantial solo that features some welcome technical flourishes. This merges into a chord and some isolated ejaculations for all three vocalists which dissipate into a sort of tutti for strings and bowls.

The voices enter; first Donnelly, with another verse-prayer from Gavin Wilcox, speaking of the individual’s helplessness and a complete frailty that depends on the Lord’s support to survive. Meshing in with this comes yet another excerpt from Psalm 23 (22) – the bit about walking through the valley of the shadow of death but enjoying divine support from both rod and staff. As before, the Old Testament extract is sung in Hebrew and I think has been entrusted to Duck-Chong because it sounds as if it’s Morgan who immediately breaks in with yet another text: an anonymous saeta to Our Lady of Sorrows which bears a close resemblance to the Stabat Mater‘s first stanza. In all three vocal lines, we have returned to the tonal chastity of the work’s opening, Wilcox using few notes and maintaining a regular pulse of one note repeated twice underneath the singers; nothing like a constant unvaried pulse to suggest the hieratic.

This slow, lurching pace continues through the final sung fragment which is for all three voices and is an evening prayer ascribed to Muhammad, a salutation that again records the worshipper’s total dependence on God. The vocalists rise to a vehement climax that involves the interjections of slapping-sticks, the episode culminating in an instrumentally reinforced open-chord Amen – very Muslim in its decisiveness. And immediately we are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, back into the outer reaches of the universe with a final sample of sustained humming and soft high strings. I’m not sure what part fire plays in all this; I suspect that where I expect the vivid and the passionate (the ardent), Wilcox is more concerned with the (divine) spiration that ignites us all. Sad to report that, at about the halfway mark of this finale, I’d forgotten completely about listening for the disjunction between Wilcox’s two tuning systems; it’s certainly there – he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Congratulations to Wilcox and her collaborators for getting this CD into the light of day. It strikes me that its content deserves attention, principally because of its rarity in celebrating the numinous with individuality and doing so by using in part a novel language of sound sources. A kind of catholicity pervades the work, the textual sources highly varied in their origins, and the musical content falling into a strange land. Somehow, the orthodox sits alongside the novel – and not just alongside but the two intertwine. Indeed, it is these moments of fusion that interest me, more than the singing bowls as an isolated creation. Most listeners, I believe, will find something admirable in the course of hearing Wilcox’s substantial musical essay, not least her vaulting ambition.

January 2023 Diary

There is nothing.

I’ve looked assiduously in every potential corner, wherever information could be assimilated, assessed, obscured.

But in January, no musical activity worth the name is being presented in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast.

It makes me long for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields that has shrunk from its previous impressive substance to a few days’ shadow of its former self. And the Mornington Peninsula Summer Festival is spreading itself even more thinly these days. But at least both these events promise something.

Not north of the Tweed.

For your cultural input, perhaps Sydney may offer something with its Festival. From what I can see, a couple of contemporary operas and a chamber concert would seem to be the main (only?) offerings.

The nation is on holiday, but nowhere more seriously inactive than in the land of the Where-The-Bloody-Hell-Are-You?

Better luck for us all next month.

No surprises here


Christ Church St. Laurence

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday December 21, 2021

Sam Allchurch

This performance of Messiah comes from December last year. Which is a tad disappointing – that the Australian Digital Concert Hall is projecting a year-old concert when you might have expected something fresh, like an interpretation from this year; there must have been some around the traps, especially of a score so inexplicably linked to Christmas time. Added to which, the Christ Church St. Laurence occasion itself was distinguished from others by only a few factors like the participation of the church’s ensemble in residence, the Muffat Collective, and the presence of guest tenor soloist Andrew Goodwin. Several other elements did not work to similar fine effect in this reading of a very familiar masterpiece.

I was tempted to attend a local Messiah last Sunday, given in the Brisbane Town Hall; after all, nothing is quite as effective as a live performance. What put me off was the invitation to interested members of the public to participate in the afternoon as members of the Queensland Choir. Of course, such postulants had to attend rehearsals but I don’t know if I want to pay good money to enjoy this sort of pro-am experience, embittered in my old age by memories of execrable Handel informed principally by good intentions rather than skill. But what do I know? Plenty of people were prepared to put their cash towards this public-involving exercise, if the online box-office seating map was any guide.

Under Sam Allchurch, the Sydney onslaught began well enough, an expanded Collective taking to the Sinfony with bracing vigour and exemplary purity of enunciation (making a good argument for repeating this number’s allegro – but then, nobody ever does). The group’s core – violinist Matthew Greco (this occasion’s concertmaster), violinist/violist Rafael Font-Viera, cellist Anton Baba, keyboard Anthony Abouhamad (handling the harpsichord continuo here) – was supplemented by a clutch of string accomplices, with a trumpet duo and timpani lolling around for most of the night before their big moments at the end of Part the Second and Part the Third. We missed the pair of oboes and bassoon that are required for the chorus Their sound is gone out. Not that this made too much difference because I couldn’t find any details about any supernumeraries; whatever program was originally available (was there one?) was not supplied for this broadcast.

Obviously, I know Goodwin and value his work highly. Bass David Greco has crossed my path (thanks to the ADCH) on a few occasions. Neither soprano Anna Fraser nor alto Hannah Fraser has fronted any ensemble I’ve come across. As the night wore on, both female singers showed themselvcs to be capable if uninspiring Handel interpreters, with a shared penchant for shortness of breath and a resultant unhappy habit of interrupting their lines at unsettling or downright inappropriate places. Greco took up his challenges with relish and some dash, even if his bravura passages didn’t quite come off despite clear efforts to work hard at getting his notes out on pitch and in time.

Goodwin started us off with a best-of-British Comfort ye/Ev’ry valley bracket, showing a slight lagging in the recitative, then a smooth pair of heels at the awkward leaps on exalted (bars 56 to 58), and eschewing the temptation of a cadenza in his second-last bar – thereby displaying a taste and a musicianship that would (should!) shame many another inferior executant.

Next came the first chance to hear the choir through And the glory of the Lord. On first impressions, the six tenors and six basses were dynamically light in comparison with the well-populated soprano and alto forces, the latter quite a presence in this chorus. Yet you waited for something individual about the composite body and, by the end of this amiable set of pages, the overwhelming sense was of a competent Anglican ensemble carrying out their work honestly but without any fire in the belly. So we settled down for a staid night.

Greco worked with force through Thus saith the Lord, notable for a poorly disciplined string entry in bar 7 – completely unexpected and one of the night’s few instrumental anomalies – and a finely regulated 2 1/2 bars of semiquavers (19-21) from the bass himself. Allchurch did not present his alto soloist for But who may abide, taking the alternative – and very rarely heard – bass recitative, thereby reducing the expected 158 bars to 6.

And he shall purify began easily enough with the sopranos clear and consistent; the following bass entry was not as definite in its outline of the 32 semiquavers that occupy the centre of their initial sentence. As is all too common, the chorus settled into a bit of a jog-trot without much concern for phrasing. You could find some powerful, driving phrases in the later stages but these singers were happy enough to get the notes out and in place.

Hannah Fraser stepped out for the Behold, a virgin/O thou that tellest sequence and soon revealed that odd interpolation of breathing stops, notably across bars 29 to 35 on the third repetition of get thee up into the high mountains, and later across bars 90 to 98 at the treatment of is risen upon thee. This voice is mild in delivery, not convincing as far as conveying dramatic import goes, and I wasn’t impressed by the decision to move the concluding D up an octave just before the chorus entered; there’s no need, because the accompaniment is a simple bass line at this point.

Greco returned for the bass accompagnato and song For behold, darkness/The people that walked which flowed past easily enough, apart from some sparked-up rhythmic irregularities when he reached but the Lord shall arise. This singer also avoided the low G and F in bar 8 of the aria and took the final notes of his line an octave above the normal position – apparently not sure of his carrying power in a low register.

Everybody’s second-favourite chorus For unto us a child is born passed by without much fuss – or much drive; the combined forces didn’t make any effort to point up the pages’ magnificent coup de theatre at the first Wonderful exclamation in bar 33. Despite a lack of competition, the altos’ semiquaver run proved indecipherable from bar bar 57 onward, but throughout the expanded Muffats provided a vital and punchy underpinning that attracted more than its usual share of attention.

We heard the short 12-bar version of the Pifa interlude before Anna Fraser gave us the recitative/accompagnato Nativity quartet that prefaces the Glory to God chorus. The soprano soloist showed some spirit in this brief exposure, giving the choir a finely purposeful and saying lead-in. Sadly, you listened in vain for much jubilation in the angels’ acclamation, even if the choral output was accurate in timing and pitch. I convinced myself that trumpets were added to the mix, but they were remarkably faint in volume.

It was hard to tell whether Anna Fraser was taking Rejoice greatly too fast or too slow for comfort. Things were proceeding smoothly enough but a whole group of four semiquavers disappeared at bar 22, and an unsettling twitch was the singer’s occasional portamento elision between closely adjacent notes. Probably the only other notable factor in this bouncy reading came in a rare violin error at bar 104 where someone played a B for the requisite B flat.

Hannah Fraser returned for the Then shall the eyes recitative and led the way into He shall feed his flock, with Anna Fraser doing the usual and taking over the second half at bar 25/26; I was pleased by the sudden piano at the repeat of take his yoke upon you, although it isn’t an original stroke. Again, the chorus ambled through His yoke is easy, the sopranos showing best reactions to Allchurch’s pace and producing a satisfying final top B flat seven bars from the chorus’s (and Part the First’s) end.

Behold the Lamb enjoyed a typically lugubrious outing, and I thought for a moment that matters were coming close to a dead halt at bar 18 where taking away the sins of the world grew into a seriously weighty undertaking. But the chorus wasn’t quite on point, their dotted quaver-semiquaver rhythmic cells coming close to triplet pulses. Handel lays on the tragedy with He was despised, which is a superb alto vehicle. Hannah Fraser gave a muted account of this song, during which her odd vocal line interruptions for breaths had me puzzled, particularly in a piece where Handel gives his interpreter plenty of congenial rests; a rushed intake before grief in bar 31 seemed highly intrusive. The central He gave His back to the smiters would have gained considerably from a general elevation – in dynamic, in attack, in consonantial ferocity – but the Muffats compensated with plenty of bowing bite here.

Then the focus shifted to the chorus and something might have been made of the start to Surely He hath borne if only the ensemble hadn’t smoothed out the composer’s crisp setting of the piece’s first word; but the whole segment was sanded back into blandness. And with his stripes is admittedly uninspiring, a fugato with little to capture the imagination, and the St. Laurence group realised its dour character appropriately. But the atmosphere improved at All we like sheep which showed some humour in all that straying, climaxing in a moment of magic with an a cappella reading of the last phrase: the iniquity of us all. I believe I’ve experienced this same choral isolation in previous performances but none as breath-catching as here.

Goodwin returned for a striking All they that see Him, prefacing yet another chorus, He trusted in God, which is yet a further set of pages where the rhetoric becomes prosaic and the temptation to work through it at full throttle is hard to resist – as proved to be the case here where solidity outweighed complexity of phrasing. Goodwin returned for the Thy rebuke hath broken/Behold and see double, both carried off with impeccable serenity and security. Anna Fraser provided the compliment with He was cut off/ But thou didst not leave; her enunciation not as lucid as the tenor’s, she seemed rough and ready in some passages, the whole spoiled by her mangling of the song’s final word into kerruption.

With Lift up your heads, the chorus’s sopranos are split into two parts for 30 bars; the effect is a loss of impetus in most choirs and the Laurentians fell into the general mould. Still, when the usual SATB was re-established, the top line made a brave crescendo showing from their exposed the Lord of Hosts in bar 55 up to the resumption of homophony in bar 62. Then we lost a chunk of the score: Unto which of the angels tenor recitative, Let all the angels chorus, the alto’s Thou art gone up, another chorus in The Lord gave the word, and the How beautiful are the feet song were all omitted. After a brief alto recitative, we heard a solid and respectable Their sound is gone out chorus, although the male lines seemed occasionally under-represented.

There followed an attacca on bass Greco’s Why do the nations song where his vocal rhythmic ducks and drakes gave a peculiar uncertainty to this stern rage aria. Nonetheless, this mildly truncated version (without the recitative insert) held attention for its energy. I couldn’t work out why the singer avoided the four note rise across bars 91 and 92; possibly confusion, perhaps fatigue. Whatever the case, another attacca led us into Let us break their bonds which action the chorus threatened to do with initial inertia. Goodwin returned for He that dwelleth in heaven/Thou shalt break them, the latter resonant and splendidly controlled from a singer who knows when and where to take breaths that make sense of the vocal line.

Ending Part the Second is the chorus Hallelujah, in which the soloists joined for some reason; it was (you may say) satisfactory if a tad overblown. Anna Fraser tended to slow down the pace of I know that my Redeemer liveth but Allchurch restored power quickly enough. More of those odd stops for breath came up during her at the latter day upon the earth passage. We also had an unexpected (and rare for this performance) cadenza on the last setting of fruits in bar 151; what that added to this stately piece is beyond me.

The most effective segments of Since by man came when the chorus worked without accompaniment, in the Grave phrases; by this stage, however, the top line was fading while the men found renewed oomph. Then Greco gave us the final solo in Behold, I tell you a mystery/The trumpet shall sound in the latter of which the aforementioned instrument enjoyed two palpable errors during the initial ritornello. A breadth of mobile vocal line quavers was interrupted for the sake of a breath between bars 60 and 65 and the singer moved the low B up an octave at bar 138 for no apparent reasons of either audibility or taste. The middle For this corruptible segment of the aria was omitted.

So were the alto recitative Then shall be brought to pass, the alto/tenor duet O death, where is thy sting?, the But thanks be to God chorus, and the soprano solo If God be for us. We moved straight to the final choruses (soloists also taking part) with Worthy is the Lamb which gratified in its imposing largo sections and the clarity of Blessing and honour even if the singers didn’t complement the timpani’s pounding; and the final Amen which was surprisingly clear in texture. But you waited in vain for that spine-tingling moment in bar 80 (151) when the sopranos cut through the turmoil with their top A; it was there, of course, but not hurled out with sufficient conviction.

So a reasonable Messiah, but not a memorable one. It confused me for most of the night because of the dichotomy between a period chamber orchestra of considerable skill and a choir of conservative bent; I’m not sure that the results of that fusion were calculated to satisfy anyone except either the charitable or the undiscerning. Anybody would like to give approbation for the effort involved; yet that’s impossible to confer honestly. If you’re going to put yourself in the public eye, you have to have a reason for doing so; you could have something original to offer by way of interpretation, or you might have a high level of expertise in the Baroque. Too often, I felt that this reading was marking time, constrained by an unresolved interpretative vision.