September Diary

Friday September 1


Mimir 2

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

The middle recital for the Mimir Festival –  that chamber music exercise sponsored by the Conservatorium of Music/Faculty of Music/College of the Arts, etc – features the main guests from the home organisation in Fort Worth, America: performers whom we have come to know and love over the past few years since the Con’s Head of Strings, Curt Thompson, brought the enterprise that he founded to our town.  Tonight’s offerings will include Thompson taking first violin in Vaughan Williams’ C minor Piano Quintet, alongside regular visitor violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor, who I think has been here before.  Rob Nairn, newly appointed to the Faculty of Music, will take the double bass line and well-known local Benjamin Martin, Thompson’s colleague in the Firebird Trio, will perform the keyboard part.   To begin, Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki take the violin parts in Wolf’s Italian Serenade, and the conclusion consists of Dvorak’s G Major String Quartet Op. 106 with Rose and Iwasaki swapping chairs.


Sunday September 3


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

With an ambitious, New Age-leaning title, this afternoon’s music has been curated by recorder queen Genevieve Lacey and takes in a lot of repertoire.  The MCO starts with a scrap from the fabulous double of Leonin and Perotin, a pairing that for generations of music students meant polyphony had finally arrived; it’s the Viderunt omnes organum and some doubles on the chant’s second part – none of it sung but arranged for the available forces by Lacey.  Then comes Cipriano de Rore’s four-voice madrigal Ancor che col partire; well, divisions (or diminutions, as the French put it so confusingly) on it by Bassano. British one-time wunderkind Thomas Ades is represented by the penultimate movement, O Albion, of his 1994 string quartet Arcadiana.  Vivaldi’s C minor Recorder Concerto brings Lacey to the spotlight, where she will be immediately eclipsed by the following Grosse Fuge by Beethoven.  Ross Edwards’ Tyalgum Mantras was originally written for shakuhachi, didjeridu and percussion; it’s probable that it will be heard here in another instrumental format.  Dunstable’s brief three-part motet Quam pulchra es comes in for the Lacey treatment, just before another recorder concerto, Sammartini in F.  To polish off the experience, William Hennessy leads his forces in  Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis.  Big program?  You’re not kidding and much of it has ‘eternal’ pretensions, except the two concertos which don’t present any metaphysical depths, as far as I can recall.

This program will be repeated at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on Friday September 8 at 7:30 pm.


Sunday September 3


Australian Boys Choir

Fitzroy Town Hall at 3 pm

All the material to be presented in this event is Australian-made, including two premieres. Both the core boys choir and the senior Vocal Consort participate in Sydney-based writer Alice Chance’s Two Best Things, which is concerned with the choices that have to be made by those unfortunate enough to have to flee from bush fires: what do you take with you? The other first hearing will be for Before Time Was, a setting of words by local poet/psychotherapist/publisher/journalist Max Dunn; the music has been written by the choir’s director, Noel Ancell.  Other works come from veteran Eric Austin Phillips. Iain Grandage, Paul Stanhope and Joseph Twist.  It’s quite an adventurous undertaking and one that you can wait a long time to hear: all home-grown sounds from a choir of young people – and serious music, not populist pap.


Sunday September 3


Mimir 3

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne at 3 pm

For the final significant event in this year’s chamber music festival, the performing personnel remain the same for two of the three works programmed.  Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson are the violinists, Joan DerHovsepian violist and Brant Taylor the cello for Mozart’s Hoffmeister D Major Quartet K. 499, as well as the afternoon’s title work by St. Louis-born Kevin Puts.  Written in 2007 and premiered by the Miro Quartet, Credo is one of the composer’s more widely performed pieces although, as far as I can trace, this could well be its first airing in this city.   Ending the festival with burnished power will be the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major with violinist Stephen Rose, Taylor on cello and Melbourne’s own Kristian Chong handling the gloriously satisfying piano part.  These ‘show’ or demonstration recitals are always remarkably fine examples of their type, underlining the solid foundations of musical practice in the United States and the pleasures to be uncovered by experts in all-too-familiar scores.


Saturday September 9


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

There’s certainly Mozart in this exercise – the last horn concerto and a harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio – and you don’t have to look far for Haydn in the celebrated Cello Concerto No. 1.   But the friends are represented by one character: Christian Cannabich, who was definitely an acquaintance/friend of Mozart.  Soloist in the horn concerto is Bart Aerbeydt from Belgium and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; he’ll have his work cut out for him in this most famous concerto of its type.  For the Haydn work, the soloist is the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey who is also up against a very familiar score which has rattled many a top-notch interpreter.  Cannabich’s Sinfonia in E Flat is an unknown quantity; he wrote 75 in this form and, while I’ve heard one in this particular key, there’s no surety that he didn’t write more.  As for the harmoniemusik, you’d have to assume that this is Mozart’s own compilation for wind octet ( or is it quartet?) of material from his own opera, written to capitalise on a popular form of arrangements before some morality-lacking fly-by-night cashed in on it.

This program will be re-presented on Sunday September 10 at 5 pm.


Sunday September 10


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Norwegian violinist/arranger/composer Henning Kraggerud is directing and taking the soloist role in this afternoon of three works by Norway’s most famous musical figure.  The concert begins with the first of the two Nordic Melodies, In Folk Style – a piece of some melancholy D minor-infused charm which shows that there’s not much you can do with a folk-song except play it over and over in different colours.  Into the mix comes Ross Edwards, whose Entwinings will enjoy its world premiere, contributing to the anticipated ‘arcadian feel’ of the ACO’s latest concert experience.  Kraggerud then fronts the Grieg Violin Concerto, which is the soloist’s own arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor; he has apparently given the same treatment to Grieg’s other two sonatas. Kraggerud then presents his own Topelius-Variations (From Topelius’ Time), which presumably refers to the 19th century Finnish author.  Last of all comes Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of the Grieg String Quartet which the ACO has recorded to plenty of press acclaim.

This program will be performed again on Monday September 11 at 7:30 pm.


Thursday September 14


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at  6 pm

A single-work recital; not unheard-of, but increasingly rare,  Three of the MCO’s senior citizens –  violin William Hennessy, viola Stefanie Farrands, cello Michael Dahlenburg – are to collaborate with pianist Louisa Breen in the Brahms No. 2:  the most substantial and almost certainly the longest of the composer’s chamber works.  This event is billed in the MRC three-monthly handbook as lasting two hours; can’t see it myself, unless the ensemble are going to play it twice in the best Schoenberg/New Music tradition.  Or perhaps somebody is going to give a long exegesis on the composer.  Or possibly a time-consuming supper is being provided!


Friday September 15


Victorian Opera

Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse at 7:30 pm

Based on the same legend as Der Freischutz, this work depicts another predictable Faustian pact with the Devil.  To a libretto by William S. Burroughs, everyone’s favourite senior Beat writer, and with music (and song lyrics, it would seem) by American folk-song expert Tom Waits, the story follows a familiar path, except there is no redemption at the end. The cast is headed by Kanen Breen as the hopeless marksman-clerk Wilhelm, Meow Meow as the Devil incarnate Pegleg, and Dimity Shepherd as Wilhelm’s beloved Katchen.   Paul Capsis either sings the role of Ensemble or is part of it.   Phoebe Briggs conducts, Matthew Lutton directs, and the staging comes from Zoe Atkinson.  Other cast members include Jacqui (Jacqueline?) Dark as Helen, Richard Piper as Bertram, Le Gateau/Chocolat as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer as Robert.  A true voyage of discovery for those among us who have never seen the work, which is a co-production with the Malthouse Theatre.  Obviously, both companies believe there is a large audience for the piece because the season goes on for some weeks.

Later performances will take place on Saturday September 16 at 7:30 pm,  Monday September 18 at 6:30 pm, Tuesday September 19 at 6:30 pm, Thursday September 21 at 7:30 pm, Friday September 22 at 7:30 pm, Saturday September 23 at 3 pm and at 7:30 pm, Tuesday 26 September at 6:30 pm, Wednesday September 27 at 7:30 pm, Thursday September 28 at 7:30 pm, Friday September 29 at 7:30 pm, Saturday September 30 at 7:30 pm, Sunday October 1 at 5 pm, Tuesday October 3 at 6:30 pm, Wednesday October 4 at 7:30 pm, Thursday October 5 at 7:30 pm, Friday October 6 at 7:30 pm, Saturday October 7 at 3 pm and at 7:30 pm, Sunday October 8 at 5 pm.


Friday September 15


Australian National Academy of Music

St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 7:30 pm

Getting outside the confines of the South Melbourne Town Hall and ANAM’s offices, some brass and percussion musicians are mounting a one-night stand in the city’s Catholic cathedral.  One of this year’s visiting authorities at the Academy, trombonist Michael Mulcahy from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is directing this night’s music-making, which begins in splendid fashion with Giovanni Gabrieli’s  Sacrae symphoniae of 1597 and 1615; probably not the lot – 45 choral works and 16 purely instrumental ones – but those extracts chosen should resonate to fine effect in this building.  The centre-piece comes in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia espansiva in an arrangement for organ (Calvin Bowman), brass and percussion.  Concluding in similar Nordic mode, the brass/percussion combination is re-applied to a version of Sibelius’ Finlandia call to arms.


Sunday September 17


Zelman Symphony

Hamer Hall at 2 pm

A long time between performances.  I seem to recall this work being performed many years ago in the Melbourne Town Hall by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, possibly under John Hopkins.  But, like Yevtushenko’s poetry which provides the texts, the symphony/cantata has been forgotten.  This year’s observation of the 75th anniversary of the Nazi massacre near Kiev has brought about this performance which will be conducted by Mark Shiell, with Adrian Tamburini entrusted with the bass soloist’s part.  A 200-voice male choir is promised.  Also to be played is Elena Kats-Chernin’s  Night and Now for flute and orchestra with Sally Walker playing the solo part, as she has for every performance since the piece’s 2015 premiere in Darwin.  Crossway for Orchestra by young Australian Harry Sdraulig prefaces the concert’s main works and apparently refers to  the events of World War Two as seen through a younger generation’s eyes, while Kats-Chernin’s work has to do with her upbringing in Tashkent.


Sunday September 17


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Darryl Coote represents the Team at this final recital for the year in the National Trust’s showpiece mansion.   His guests are that Everywhere Mezzo, Sally-Anne Russell, and tenor Robert Macfarlane.   In a real test of stamina, Russell will negotiate Elgar’s Sea Pictures without the soothing gift of the orchestral accompaniment; but then, the composer often performed his own piano version.  Also being well-exercised, Macfarlane has Schumann’s Dichterliebe in his care: 16 priceless Heine settings, well-suited to the expanded salon setting of Rippon Lea’s ballroom.  The singers combine later for some Schumann duets, and Coote gets the limelight to himself for Haydn’s every-popular F minor Variations.


Tuesday September 19

Nicolas Altstaedt & Aleksander Madzar

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

I can’t find any mention of these two musicians working together as regular partners.  Not that the lack of a steady artistic relationship should make much difference to professionals but their pairing for this tour seems something of an odd ad hoc arrangement.  In their Program I, they begin with the Debussy Cello Sonata, a cow of a work to balance correctly. Then come Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for cello and piano from 1914, with Barber’s early Cello Sonata to follow.  Before embarking on Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata Op. 40 (from the composer’s 28th year), the duo plays a new work, as yet untitled, by Jakub Jankowski; the Adelaide composer referred to this piece as a ‘cello sonata’ in an interview during April this year, so I suppose that will be the fourth of its genre in this program that showcases a semi-cross-generational musical collaboration.

On Saturday September 23, Altstaedt and Madzar present their Program II which is identical to the first one except Britten’s Cello Sonata replaces that by Barber. and Brahms in F Major replaces the Shostakovich.


Thursday September 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Yes, they do: the whole second half is Ravel – the Piano Concerto in  G and La valse.  For the concerto, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet will be the light-fingered soloist while the choreographic poem is to be directed by Andre de Ridder. who has been seen in Sydney and Adelaide but not here, I believe.  He is, God help us, the ‘rock world’s conductor of choice’, which could mean that he’s so far above anybody else in that field that he shines, or it could signify that he can adapt himself to the elementary with few signs of slumming.  The night opens with Mozart’s optimistic Symphony No. 34 and that will be followed by a curiosity in Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin – Tableaux vivants.  A four-part work, it is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale The Sandman; Chin has used four sequences from the novel, three of which are familiar as text elements from Offenbach’s most famous opera. The South Korean composer’s score asks for a large orchestra, including a massive percussion battery and the piece is here receiving its Australian premiere – which is nice as it was premiered in England two years ago and the MSO was one of its commissioners.

This program will be played again at Geelong’s Costa Hall on Friday September 22 at 7:30 pm, and it returns to Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday September 23.


Sunday September 24


Abbotsford Convent at 11 am

To the satisfaction of some of us, this one-day festival has been moved from its usual siting on Father’s Day – which means we won’t have to run home for the mandatory hours of family celebrations without a ghost of a chance (despite one’s best intentions) of coming back for some end-of-day recitals.  The action involves several regular contributors, as well as some unknown quantities.  But the name of the game is choice – a real one, not the fake sort that the Prime Minister promotes; as the hours pass by, you have the option of calling in on one of three or four simultaneous recitals.   The Arcadia Winds ensemble offer Barber’s Summer Music and Nielsen’s Wind Quintet on either side of Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Echoes and Lines, a new piece currently being promoted by the Arcadians.  You can hear the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with the same personnel as on Thursday September 14 above.  Stefan Cassomenos plays Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony; Anna Goldsworthy serves up a grab bag of a Bach prelude-and-fugue double, some Schubert Impromptus, Prokofiev’s Five Sarcasms, and the Rigoletto Paraphrase by Liszt.  MITR’s organiser Chris Howlett takes up his cello and, accompanied by Rhodri Clarke, plays Rachmaninov’s Sonata and the lollipop Romance. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sophie Rowell plays a Telemann fantasia, a Biber passacaglia and Julian Yu’s update on it.  Goldner Quartet member Julian Smiles presents Hindemith’s Sonata for solo cello, the second Bach suite, and Bloch’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello,  One of the MITR Young Performers for this year, Caleb Wong from ANAM, is to play the Bach E flat Cello Suite and Kodaly’s Solo Cello Suite.  The other, Jackie Wong, will also play Bach – the Sonata in G minor BWV 1001 –  and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin.


Saturday September 30


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

A notable American percussionist who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, Schick is conducting masterclasses, observing the centenary of the birth of US great Lou Harrison, and generally making ANAM more aware of its inner rhythms.  This night’s menu features four US composers, so I don’t know where the night’s titular set-of-three reference applies.  Ives frames the occasion, which opens with the inspired clangour of From the Steeples and the Mountains and concludes with the almost-not-there The Unanswered Question.  Varese is also heard twice: first, in Offrandes which asks for a small orchestra as well as percussion and a soprano; then, the great Deserts, probably in the non-tape, shorter version.  At the heart of the program sits Harrison’s Concerto for violin with percussion orchestra which took some 18/19 years to complete and is rarely heard because of the eclectic variety of instruments required to accompany the athletic soloist – who is, at the time of writing, unidentified.  For good measure, Schick has thrown in Red Arc/Blue Veil by  John Luther Adams – a work for piano, mallet percussion and processed sounds. Put simply, this is one of ANAM’s most ambitious programs for the year, packed with demanding matter and a solid test of the participating musicians’ talents.


Saturday September 30


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

One of those works that flashes out new facets every time you hear it, Debussy’s three-movement marine panorama is a joy from start to finish.  Dutch conductor Otto Tausk has conducted in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, but not here, I think.  The 47-year-old is enjoying a remarkably active career and is currently in the process of taking over the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from Bramwell Tovey.  By way of a leap into the ocean, Tausk conducts Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantasque, an early work that attracted the attention of Diaghilev (and we know where that led) and was influenced in part by Debussy.  Then, the concert makes one of those extraordinary changes of pace that rarely feature these days on MSO programs.  Israeli-Palestinian pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar takes on the Brahms D minor Concerto to swing us away from ephemeral billows and spume and plunge us into the nitty-gritty of solid, hard-achieved (for the composer) certainty of purpose in a mighty musical monolith.

This program will be repeated on Monday October 2 at 6:30 pm.







It’s all in the title


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday August 8


                                              Dmitry Sinkovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A double one-hander


Cook & Co.

Clifton Arts Precinct, Richmond

Tuesday July 25

                           Josephine Vains

All the connections in this slight playlet (which strangely included an interval) were conducted over the phone.   One of the entertainment’s two main forces, Leah Filley played a young cello-playing musician who talks with various acquaintances and family after her return from study overseas as she attempts to carve out a career in Australia.

Punctuating these generally one-sided phone conversations, Josephine Vains supplied a more physical connection on the set.  Her role was to provide interludes in the form of movements from each of the Bach Cello Suites – the Prelude to No. 1, Allemande to No. 2, all the way through to the Gigue concluding the final D Major opus.  Vains played from the organ loft above the Richmond Uniting Church’s altar wall; in an all-wood building, her projection was excellent, each note telling and vivid.  Pace Filley’s efforts, these musical breaks gave the evening most of its emotional colour and interest.

The trouble with Suite Life – second in a series of three productions in this Connections series – lies in its all-too-predictable dialogue/monologue.  The cello-playing musician wakes to a phone-call from her teacher in Spain, whose voice is amplified through the Clifton Centre’s sound system; she may be audible, but comprehensible?  I think I caught one word in four, possibly because of the thick Iberian-imitating accent adopted by the speaker.  Add to this the unremarkable nature of the text – elderly maternal know-all versus young, tolerant ingenue –  and your tolerance was stretched to the point of something approaching discomfort.

In the next scene, the cellist talks with a clearly irritating friend (unheard by us) about their work, specifically our heroine’s preparation of the Borodin String Quartet No. 2.  She then rings one of her former professors, who has retired but still takes calls from importunate ex-students,  to ask him about a piece she is preparing for recital.  He feeds her a one-liner and that’s that.  So far, so superficial.  Yet you hold your horses, refraining from judgment because the situation depicted is possible: musicians are notoriously un-intellectual and monomaniacal, most of them incapable of sustaining a conversation that stretches beyond their own interests.

The Spanish teacher’s son, Jose, calls to inform our girl that her inspiring teacher has breathed her last – which leads to the remarkable claim by the former student that she’ll be there for the funeral; obviously, freelance instrumental work pays better than you’d thought.

Then comes a scene where the protagonist delivers some random observations  –  direct to the audience  –  on Bach.  Yes, we’ve been hearing his music for some time throughout Suite Life and an observation or three would not be amiss.   But the address is packed with unconnected banalities – what sort of a dancer he would have been  (judging by the cello suites, not so hot),  the size of his family – and its relationship to the musician herself is tenuous.  Finally, the cellist has a conversation of mind-numbing cliches with her mother before setting off to a gig, at which she will apparently play her teacher’s instrument and so release the music that is inside the cello itself.  Shades of Michaelangelo releasing the image from the marble.

I enjoyed Vains’ playing, chiefly the E flat Major suite’s Sarabande that ushered in the interval space.  Each sinuous melodic curve came down from the player’s lofty position with an unanticipated energy, the acoustic so responsive you could appreciate the hiss of bow on string and the player’s considered left-hand positioning.  For the more mobile dances, like the final C minor Gavotte and the portly Gigue,  Vains went as far as any player should in observing a steady pulse, but the main impression I took away from this composite suite was of her instrument’s physicality and the labour involved in urging out Bach’s real and implied polyphony.

Sweet and low


Duo Blockstix

Move Records MCD 581

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



August Diary

Saturday August 5


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Seems like a bit of a cliche to refer to a violin as ‘singing’, but it’s better than ‘screeching’, I suppose.   Which is probably not the kindest thing to be talking about in reference to Sinkovsky who, as well as being a violin virtuoso, is also a countertenor.  His program is not just confined to Vivaldi and Locatelli, as some of the promotional material suggests, but also includes violin concertos by Leclair and Telemann and a chaconne by Aubert (presumably Jacques; not his son, Louis).  You’d have to assume that Sinkovsky will be directing as pretty much everything – apart from a two-horns concerto by Vivaldi – features violin.  What isn’t obvious is where the singing business comes in, although one of the Locatelli scores is a concerto grosso subtitled Il Pianto d’Arianna and so emotionally indebted to Monteverdi’s lyric; whether Sinkovsky intends to sing this piece as informative background is anyone’s guess.

This program will be repeated on Sunday August 6 at 5 pm.


Saturday August 5


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Here is another of the MSO’s film-with-live-soundtrack efforts.  It’s hard to know why this particular cinematic construct was chosen, especially as the organisation is content to have one screening only, possibly aware that the film turns up on free-to-air TV quite regularly.  While boasting an original score by British rock musician Jonny Greenwood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is notable above all for an extraordinary central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  Still, the whole point of these exercises – for me, at least – is hearing what the orchestra makes of the music which, in Greenwood’s case, involves some previously-composed material and a few snatches from the Brahms Violin Concerto and that bottomless mine of dejection, Arvo Part’s Fratres:  a work somehow suitable for this story of land- and soul-grabbers.


Sunday August 6


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Something along the lines of Richard Tognetti’s The Reef compendium, this exercise is basically a film comprising images of various ranges and peaks with appropriate music as a substitute for an Attenborough commentary.  But not entirely so: there is a script by Robert Macfarlane that is read by William Dafoe.  As with the MSO’s film soundtrack exercises, this holds interest for me chiefly for the musical content rather than the inspiring shots of snow-covered peaks and cloud-piercing summits.  In fact, the works played by the ACO are a dog’s breakfast: two slow movements by Beethoven (Violin and Emperor Concertos), three Vivaldis (the B minor Concerto for four violins, the start of Winter and the end of Summer), two pieces by Sculthorpe (Djilile and the First String Quartet’s Chorale bars), Chopin’s D flat Nocturne, another piano piece in Arvo Part’s Fur Alina, the galloping Praeludium to Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and an original composition by Tognetti.  That pretty much covers the gamut from Everest to Kosciuszko.

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


Thursday August 10


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Guest conductor for this program is Jakub Hrusa, a very welcome visitor, not least for introducing us to Suk’s Asrael Symphony last September – a vivid, memorable night.  Here he escorts Ilina Ibragimova through Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2; she should have it well under her belt, having performed it three times in Sydney, once in Auckland and again in Hobart before she hits Hamer Hall.  It’s a demanding score but always a revelation because of the composer’s invention and command of texture.  As for the great symphony, the commentators and their revisions have left many of us marooned on an island of knowing and not-knowing: is it a daring anti-Stalinist manifesto, a nationalistic celebration, a graph of the composer’s emotional turmoil?  Interpretations are multiform, particularly with regard to the last movement; that strange book Testimony threw so many spanners into the works that whatever observations you make can be contradicted all too easily.  So you can end up thinking you have been inspired or depressed – or both.  One thing is certain: Hrusa will give the interpretation everything he’s got.

This program will be repeated on Saturday August 12 at 2 pm.


Saturday August 12

Takacs Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm.

Back they come, welcome as always.  For their first night, the group plays Haydn in F Major, the second of the Op. 77 and the last work in this form that the master completed; having set up the form over his life-time, the composer here shakes it around and isn’t concerned with applying any superficial gloss.  A neat balance comes in Beethoven’s Op. 127 where you can contrast the two writers’ slow movements and their treatment of variations at this late stage in their careers.  In the middle, the Takacs give the premiere of Carl Vine’s String Quartet No. 6, which carries the reassuring sub-title of Child’s Play.

On Tuesday August 22 at 7 pm, the musicians will present their Program II, starting with Haydn in D from the Op. 76.  It’s a bit confusing because, according to the publicity, I’m inferring that they are playing this work’s Largo only – or are they giving this whole work a nickname based on its second movement’s marking?  After this, they revisit the Carl Vine work from Program I, and finish with Dvorak No. 14: his last one and a work that you hear very rarely.


Saturday August 12


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7 pm

If you are constrained to have dealings with the world of rock, you could do much, much worse than treat with Frank Zappa who distinguished himself in a turgid universe of inanity by having a consciousness of history, being a true and trained musician, and remaining unafraid to exercise a working brain.  Australia’s finest pianist, Michael Kieran Harvey, is juxtaposing Zappa’s music with that of a true revolutionary, John Cage, in a night’s work that also includes the National Academy’s unfailingly able resident pianist, Timothy Young, the ne plus ultra of percussionists, Peter Neville, and assorted ANAM musicians.   On this program’s first half, we hear selections from the Sonatas and Interludes by Cage, written for prepared piano and one of the keyboard repertoire’s seminal contemporary masterpieces.   Also,  Neville comes into the mix with Cage’s four-movement Amores.  Then it’s all Zappa, or Zappa-derived.  Some pieces for harpsichord and virginal (but played on those instruments? I think not) by Francesco Zappa (1717-1803, and no relation) are followed by the half-difficult The Black Page Parts 1 and 2, all three minutes of  The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, the slightly-longer G-Spot Tornado, and the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Sofa,   Fleshing out the proceedings will be more selections, this time from Harvey’s own 48 Fugues for Frank – actually 10 pieces inspired by a swag of Zappa works.


Wednesday August 16


Peter Wispelwey

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here begins the first of three recitals, under the Recital Centre’s own Great Performers banner, which have the formidable Dutch cellist working through pillars of his instrument’s repertoire in association with pianist Caroline Almonte.  These are lengthy events, and this first one is made even more so by the addition of pieces that are original but a bit of a come-down from the main works.  Wispelwey works through all five of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, as well as three sets of variations: the 12 on Mozart’s Ein Madchen oder Weibchen, then 7 on the same opera’s Papageno/Pamina duet Bei Mannern, and another 12 on Handel’s See, the conqu’ring hero comes. This certainly gives value for money and, as far as I can tell, comprises all the composer’s cello/piano output.


Thursday August 17


Peter Wispelwey

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Not a trace of extraneous material tonight.  Wispelwey has the stage to himself as he works in order through the six suites for solo cello.   It will take him a while – three hours, including two intervals – but we (and he, probably) will need the breaks to experience these works with the attention and respect that they deserve.  It’s not as though this sort of marathon hasn’t been presented before; I seem to remember Alfred Hornung doing a Bach marathon many years ago, although that might have been stretched out across a few nights.  But, from what I can remember of Wispelwey’s Bach playing, we’re in for some spectacular and idiosyncratic readings.


Friday August 18


Peter Wispelwey

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This is the third and most orthodox of the formidable cellist’s programs.  Almonte accompanies him through both the canonic sonatas in E minor and F Major, and also through Paul Klengel’s arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 1, transposed from G to D.  Well, I suppose it’s a sort of semi-authorised work and, without it, the performers would have under an hour’s worth of material with which to entertain us.  Yet, of all three concerts, this is the one that I find most attractive in that it isn’t a three-hour marathon, however well-intentioned, and the sonatas are works to come back to time and again to re-acquaint yourself with the composer’s expressive depths.  I used to accompany a talented student in them, first for exam purposes, then for sheer pleasure in their catacombs of delight.


Friday August 18


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

We can only hope that ANAM runs to a full orchestra on this night because much of the concert relies on opulent sound washes, as well as a concluding bout of spiky dissonance.  Bradman, a highly gifted soprano, simply gets better and better each time she appears, her range of colours more expansive and the power of her voice heightened on each re-acquaintance.  This program is a well-organized retrospective of German late Romantic music and the currents that were running simultaneously with its last harvest.  At the centre come Strauss’s Four Last Songs of 1948, a sequence of lustrously orchestrated farewells with a vocal part of great beauty.  Some commentators find them sentimental but to others they speak of boundless regret and a welcoming embrace of mortality.  Bradman also sings Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, written in 1920 and an astonishing success for the 23-year-old composer; the song itself is a post-Rosenkavalier gem with a toweringly fine vocal line. As well, we hear the final scene from Strauss’s Daphne of 1938, which involves the heroine’s transformation into a tree with an intensely difficult postlude for the orchestra.  As for the other near-contemporaneous currents, guest conductor Matthias Foremny directs the suite (the one assembled by Karel Salomon, I assume)  from Weill’s 1933 play-with-lots-of-music Der Silbersee, and he rounds out the seminar with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 9 for fifteen instruments which, coming from 1906, is the oldest music of the night in its dating but the most challenging and advanced in purely musical terms.

This program is repeated on Saturday August 19 at 2:30 pm


Friday August 18


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Johannes Fritzsch is returning to conduct the last of Schumann’s symphonies and the most appealing to a modern-day audience; not that you get many opportunities to hear any of them these days.  Fritzsch has had successful relationships with the Queensland and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, as well as Opera Australia; his appearances here in my memory started some 12 years ago with Orchestra Victoria and most recently he fronted the MSO in a fair-to-good Mozart/Strauss night.  Soloist for this occasion is popular cellist Li-Wei Qin who gives his all in the Dvorak Concerto, full to the brim with eloquent melodiousness.  The evening’s novelty comes in Manfred Trojahn’s Cinque sogni per Eusebius, written for Dusseldorf in 2010 and comprising five brief meditations devoted to one of Schumann’s artistic personalities in the best schizophrenic E.T.A. Hoffmann mode.

This program will be repeated at 8 pm on Saturday August 19 and at 6:30 pm on Monday August 21.


Sunday August 20


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

A bit of a stretch; we all know the Three Bs but dragging in Bernstein as No. 4 is a tad cheeky.   In their penultimate recital for the year, the Team will be represented by Robert Chamberlain, while the guests are familiar locals: clarinet Robert Schubert and cello Josephine Vains.  With that personnel, the Beethoven is a giveaway: the Gassenhauer Trio which has been a specialty of Ensemble Liaison.  The Brahms is a predictable entity, too: the A minor Clarinet Trio, one of the luminous works from the composer’s last years.  As for the Bach, this is a straight gamba sonata, the D Major BWV 1028, which the clarinet will presumably sit out.  Bernstein’s work is one most of us will not have encountered: Variations on an Octatonic Scale.  Originally for recorder and cello, here it will appear in its clarinet-cello arrangement and, although I’ve not heard it, I’d assume that the composer will observe his title’s restrictions and employ a scale that moves in alternating tone and semi-tone steps.


Saturday August 26


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Back  in Melbourne for a short visit, after recitals up the east coast and Beethoven concerto nights with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, British pianist Imogen Cooper is appearing only once in Melbourne with some of the Academy Musicians in a chamber music evening – a unique occurrence on this tour, I believe.  She begins with the Beethoven Trio Op. 1 No. 1 in E flat. She winds up with Beethoven as well: the Quintet for piano and winds Op. 16 which, unlike the trio, you won’t hear often.  In the middle, Cooper is performing one of the more interesting elements of her current solo recital offerings: Thomas Ades’ Darknesse Visible, a re-working of Dowland’s song, In darkness let me dwell where the original melody is present but your attention is distracted by pointillist interruptions and a constant tremolo.


Saturday August 26


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Sir Andrew Davis likes Massenet’s opera, it would seem.  For the MSO’s mid-season gala, he will conduct a concert version of this work, from which most of us know only the Meditation: a gift for any pit’s concertmaster.  This opera is yet another one that most of us will not have seen, although I think that at one time its popularity was pretty high.  Oddly enough, Opera Australia will have presented a concert version of the same work a month before this MSO night, but in the Sydney Town Hall which will do nobody any favours, least of all leading lady Nicole Car.  As for Sir Andrew’s singers, the heroine is Erin Wall; one of the conductor’s Lyric Opera of Chicago graduates; she has been heard here in Davis’ reading of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 and singing a highly commendable Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Her lover, Athaneal, will be American baritone and Lyric Opera of Chicago regular, Quinn  Kelsey.  The Senior monk in Athaneal’s monastery, Palemon, is formidable Australian bass, Daniel Sumegi.  As Nicias, Athaneal’s sybaritic friend, is young Mexican-born tenor Diego Silva.  Liane Keegan has the role of Albine, the mother superior nun who takes in the reformed Thais, while Jacqueline Porter and Fiona Campbell sing the parts of Nicias’ slaves, Crobyle and Myrtale.  The MSO Chorus will oscillate between sacred and profane crowds as required.  Now to get a score and see what’s coming.


Sunday August 27

The Melbourne Musicians

St John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra are hosting three guests this afternoon: oboe Jane Gilby, who is a regular with the Musicians;  Anne Harvey-Nagl, a violinist born in Melbourne but who formed a career in Europe with considerable success; and soprano Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez who appeared with the Musicians last year.  Two composers are programmed: Handel – arias from the oratorios, yet to be specified – and Telemann for whom we are celebrating the 250th anniversary of his death.  Harvey-Nagl will take us through the courtly pleasures of two Telemann concertos, Gilby heads an oboe concerto, both guest instrumentalists combine for a double concerto in C minor, and Lobegeiger de Rodriguez will undertake an Ascension Day cantata: Gott will Mensch und sterblich werden.  Telemann’s cantatas are more modest constructs than Bach’s, usually consisting of two arias connected by a recitative and featuring a solo instrument and continuo under the solo voice – very chaste and probably a relief to congregations of the time.


Tuesday August 29

Andrey Gugnin

Camberwell Boys Grammar School at 7:30 pm

Gugnin won the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2016 and is here reaching the end of a tour of Australia – 32 recitals from the last day of June to September 2.  He must be a formidable talent; not only did he get First Prize overall, but also he gained awards for the Best Overall Concerto Award,  Best 19th or 20th Century Concerto, Best Violin and Piano Sonata, and Best Preliminaries Round 1 Recital.  Very laudable, although such a catalogue does smack of Sydney overkill.  He’s Russian-born and has won other competitions in Salt Lake City and Valsesia, as well as second places in Vienna and Zagreb. At Camberwell, he will play a wide-ranging program; his 90-minute one as opposed to a shorter hour-long one.  He starts with Bach, the Adagio BWV 968 which is a transcription of the opening to the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3.   Well, it’s short.   Completely warmed-up by now, he continues with Schubert’s Gasteiner D Major Sonata and that’s it for the Germans.   His second half turns homeward as he opens with Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No. 1 from a time when the composer was a really contemporary voice – this piece bristling with difficulty and aggression.  Leonid Desyatnikov is a less familiar Russian voice; a notable film and opera composer, he is here represented by his seven Reminiscences of the Theatre.  A sudden interruption to the Slavic mode comes with one of Michael Kieran Harvey’s 48 Fugues for Frank (see August 12 above): No. 6 of the ten, G-Spot Tornado.  And, in case you haven’t had enough fireworks, Gugnin closes up shop with the Three Movements from Petrushka that Stravinsky organised for his cobber, Arthur Rubinstein.   90 minutes, eh?


Thursday August 31


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Not a great fan of the tango; perhaps suffering from a Clive James overload.  Still, you live and learn with concerts like these and it will be a pleasure to hear accordionist James Crabb again; last time in town, I believe he was collaborating with Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, although that seems a long time ago.  With the Liaisoners, his sound envelope is smaller but more ‘pure’, as they say in Tangoland.  Of course, there is a swag of Piazzolla as arranged by Crabb himself: Milonga del Angel, La Muerta del Angel, Romance del Diablo, Vayamos al Diablo – all revenants from the ACO/Crabb Piazzolla disc of 2003.  John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango is for the Liaison personnel configuration but will require the additional services of a violin; in this case, Paul Wright.  Another tango emerges in Desde adentro by Antonio Agri and Jose Carli – another Crabb arrangement although the version I’ve heard asks for string quintet and piano as well as accordion. Away from the Latin, we hear some Scottish folk dances mediated by Crabb, and his arrangement of Franck’s organ work, Prelude, Fugue and Variation.  And the night begins with Liaison leader David Griffiths’ arrangement of Five Bagatelles for string trio and harmonium by Dvorak; the organizational mechanics should be entertaining.


Thursday August 31


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Skipping sideways from his Mahler conducting odyssey with the MSO, Sir Andrew has decided to unveil for us the world of Bruckner through the Symphony No. 7 in E Major.  Not only will he direct the performance – a touch over an hour long – but he will give us an illustrated (musically) lecture in the concert’s first half, which could be either great or gruesome.  What remains a puzzle is why the conductor feels the need to educate us; the work itself has been standard in the repertoire for many years and, if local performances are rare, recorded ones of the various versions are thick on the ground, including one by Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of nearly 20 years ago.  Nevertheless, the score holds a wealth of melody and transubstantiations, so I’m expecting a thoroughly detailed 35 minutes of profound exegesis.

This program will be repeated at 8 pm on Friday September 1  and at 2 pm on Saturday September 2.





Janacek on a small scale


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday June 22

       Antoinette Halloran (Fox), Celeste Lazarenko (Vixen)

While it was a fair effort on the company’s part  to get this problematic work onto the stage, a few days after the event it strikes me that not much about the production could be called memorable or striking.  The singers and orchestra went through the score with efficiency but, apart from the principals, you got the feeling that not much else was added. On top of this sense of ordinariness, Stuart Maunder’s direction of the secondary and tertiary figures impressed as perfunctory and, as he had little enough resource material to work with, the unsatisfying effect was all the more prominent.

The last two times I’ve been in this theatre have been for VO work: Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty and Ernest Toch’s The Princess and the Pea – both of which slotted into the Playhouse space well enough.  The Janacek opera is another matter altogether.  You can admire the truncation of orchestral forces by Jonathan Dove as a sad/necessary job done competently but nothing makes up for the absence of power in those terse rhapsodic outbursts that constitute the score’s chief glory.   The main trio of singers – Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran, Barry Ryan (Forester) – gave respectable accounts of their roles, and their peers on the human side showed equal assurance: Brenton Spiteri’s regretful Schoolmaster, Samuel Dundas bumbling but lethal as the poacher Harasta, Jeremy Kleeman’s Parson sustaining with distinction his maudlin solo Pomni, abys byl.

On a bare stage with abstract representations of trees, the chorus of forest creatures assembled for the capture of the vixen – but in lamentably small numbers, unable to communicate the composer’s sonorous fabric suggesting the teeming life in this environment.   Ryan’s stentorian timbre proved exemplary from this scene until his final meditation – that marvellous and moving stretch beginning Nerikal jsem to?!.  But his orchestral support sounded meagre, as though the pit occupants were operating from some distance away.  At most points, the animals’ interpolations were left unwoven into the orchestral fabric, the singers treating their interjections and comments with plenty of regard for the rhythm and nothing at all for the vocal-orchestral ambience in operation.

Lazarenko made impressive work of her feminist pitch to the hens, keeping you involved even though her line is a sequence of short phrases.  Even better came in the courting scene; not so much a duet as a dialogue and carried out with reassuring fluency alongside’Halloran.   Although the Vixen has room to establish a character, the Fox has to work quickly and one of the more impressive segments of this production came in that Bozinku, ten je hezke! section where both characters meet.  Neither they nor Janacek waste time and the movement from here to the end-of-act wedding should sweep you into the action compulsively.

Disappointingly, these great moments felt under-powered, like the repetitive post-wedding chorus at the conclusion to Act 2 and the final D flat peroration, reminiscent of the composer’s Sinfonietta, that communicates so honestly the work’s underlying pantheism.  You need heft and timbral depth at both points, qualities that Jack Symonds’ 20-strong orchestra was unable to provide.

Yes, I understand that this was a budget effort and a charitable spectator is expected to make certain allowances.   But the actual look of the work smacked of carelessly cut corners and making-do.  You can mentally compensate for deficiencies in scale when dealing with operas that really amount to operettas without dialogue; Cunning Little Vixen is no such creature.  For all the apparent disjunction of its scenes as they oscillate from human to animal, from inn and house to forest glade, from cruelty to love, the opera works on a large canvas; even the Schoolmaster’s mooncalf-like regretful longings for Terynka need to be negotiated with purpose and spirit.

A fair effort from the company, for sure, and a daring one but the actual realization, visual and aural, gave us all too often only a shadow of the original’s magnificent paean of delight in creation.

The opera will be presented again on Tuesday July 27 and Thursday June 29 at 7:30 pm, and on Saturday July 1 at 1 pm.

Hefty times in Hawthorn


Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre

Tuesday June 20


(L to R) Helen Ireland, Shane Chen, Zoe Knighton, Nicholas Waters

Moving out momentarily from the city, this long-lived ensemble lighted on the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall as a possible future performing space, adding another option to the Recital Centre’s Salon, Collins St. Baptist Church and Montsalvat where the group currently presents programs across the year.  Not that the Boroondara Council’s refurbished centre is unknown to the city’s music-lovers as it was the site for Brett Kelly’s fine Academy of Melbourne concerts when that estimable organization was in play.  And the hall has been the venue for 3MBS’s marathon days dedicated to specific composers, so it has seen its fair share of recent chamber music action.

For reasons best known to sound engineers, this hall presents a notably clean acoustic framework, possibly because the players are positioned on or slightly in front of the proscenium; there’s no reflecting panel bank or screen, such as you find at ANAM recitals or Selby & Friends presentations at the Deakin Edge in Federation Square.  And the space is free of fabric, apart from some tightly-drawn and -anchored stage curtains.

At all events, we heard the Flinders voices at most points of their three-part program on Tuesday, even the glancing bird-imitation effects in the opening work: Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 18  –  his last and most emotionally pointed in the form.  This work is balm to an environmentalist’s ears as the composer follows a sort of thesis that begins with a celebration of a pristine Australia, followed by sound images of a wrecked landscape, ending with a sort of veiled optimism – there must be better days to come.   Sculthorpe always seemed to see the best in people but, in the seven years since this quartet’s creation, we’ve had little cause to share his hopes.

The score was commissioned jointly for the Tokyo String Quartet and the Flinders players, so these musicians have history with it – well, two of them do: violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton.  In recent times, the Flinders format has changed somewhat and the two violins today are Shane Chen and Nicholas Waters; I was hearing the latter for the first time in a string quartet format.  But when I first heard this piece in the Montsalvat Gallery in mid-2010, the violinists were Matthew Tomkins and Erica Kennedy.

Tuesday’s reading  gave us a welcome re-acquaintance with this appealing piece that works best in its optimistic early stretches while the vividness later in the score of Earth’s degradation sounds less jagged and aggressive than you might have expected.  But the composer is not attempting to show the process of nature’s disintegration, more’s the pity; rather, he gives a sonic tableau of  barren land; the sedge is withered from every lake, and the singing bird noises from the start are tellingly silent.  As struck me at the first performance, the use of O God, our help in ages past jars in its context, which is heavily reliant on Aboriginal chants and songs; you can appreciate the sentiment, in that the Isaac Watts tune regularly appears at Aboriginal community days of mourning, yet its appearance here  seems like an after-thought – following the indigenous melodies’ freedom of direction and rhythm, a four-square hymn doesn’t make the best of end-points.

All the same, this performance proved to be a moving experience; the players sustained the requisite atmospheres across all five movements and made Sculthorpe’s novel production techniques merge into the work’s fabric and impulsive progress.

Two quintets followed, fleshed out by cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  The D Major String Quintet by Boccherini, nicknamed Fandango, could have been a piece that the Flinders have played before; I can recall a work of similar nature being played by them, also at Montsalvat, but I thought that afternoon involved guitarist Karin Schaupp.   In fact, the quartet recorded a guitar quintet by Boccherini with Schaupp in 2010, also with the same suggestive sobriquet; the movements are identical with those we heard on Tuesday, with the first two reversed on the CD.   But, having no real memory of the piece played in Eltham and no longer owning the CD, I can’t make any further connections or identifications.  Nevertheless, it’s clear from Tuesday night’s showing that Boccherini, being a notable cellist himself, loved his instrument and this piece, like quite a few in his oeuvre, asks for two.

The opening Pastorale fared well enough, a congenial amble before a more assertive Allegro maestoso which lived up to its name, nowhere more so than in Valve’s contribution which surged into consideration pretty quickly.  Knighton matched him in forwardness and the players shared the prominent labours that fell to them.  As at Montsalvat, Knighton downed her cello in the final Fandango for a pair of castanets, expertly wielded and underlining the Hispanic flourishes in the score.   It’s an attractive movement, the most striking in the quartet even if, like so many writers determined to maintain a specific colour, Boccherini does go on about a minute too long.

Valve’s prominence in this work went even further in the night’s finale, Schubert’s C Major String Quintet.  He took the second cello line and was positioned mid-group facing front-on to the audience, so we got the full force of his projection.  These ad hoc ensembles are near-inescapable when performing this work, professional string quintets being pretty thin on the ground.  But it seemed as though Valve was unaware of his own dynamic level for a good deal of this Schubert’s length.

It didn’t help that Chen is a performer with an elegant line, not really inclined to push hard to make himself heard; or, for all I know, not accustomed to having to exert himself in the normal Flinders environment.   Judging by the final Allegretto and, to a lesser extent, the Scherzo, perhaps he should because notes kept disappearing at certain spots where the top line alone has the melody.  When Chen played at unison or at an octave with Walters or Ireland, the problem essentially disappeared but, without reinforcement in this performing context, Chen’s output travelled uncertainly.

All performers made a laudable effort with the luminous Adagio, Valve tamping down his attack mode and the three inner voices forming an exemplary blend for the first 27 1/2 bars.   Later, the finale came off well enough, the collegial approach to tempo changes satisfying to observe.  But you were left puzzled as to why somebody hadn’t picked up on the disparity of weighting at play – one of the executants, an observer, a coach – because it distracted markedly from the interpretation.  That didn’t stop the Flinders’ enthusiastic supporters from showing their pleasure at what they’d been hearing but, for me, it was a case of better luck next time.

A wealth of soft stillness


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday June 18

                                      Rebecca Chan

An afternoon of nocturnally inspired music curated by guest director Rebecca Chan: that’s what was proposed at the latest MCO subscription series concerts.  With a willing band of young players, Chan took us through some excellent performances in a program that moved across the set theme, the primary intention of which must have been to keep us entertained.  This worked well enough for most of the time, including an excellent second half to the event; the multiple compositional voices proved too strained, however, in the concert’s middle passages.

Chan began by leading a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for strings alone; an imaginative way to open a concert with this underpinning theme; after all, Act 2 is conducted under cover of darkness.   Of course, you missed the antiphonal interplay between strings and woodwind, as well as the powerful moments of release that come in the original’s full-orchestra chords, but the 13-strong MCO worked up the passion effectively.   This arrangement by Sebastian Gurtler, one-time concertmaster with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, didn’t fade as expected into silence for the curtain-rise to Act 1 but worked its way into a postlude: the latter stages of the Liebestod that ends the opera.  A bit of a cheat, even if it leaves the audience’s inner tensions resolved.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin opened his contribution to the field of nightscapes with Strauss’s Die Nacht, from the 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blatter’, the composer’s Op. 10 and first published lieder.  The arrangement for strings was unattributed but suitably supple, Goodwin exercising his telling clarity of articulation, at its most moving in the final stanza’s Rucke naher, Seel an Seele.  Speaking of early songs, Schoenberg’s Waldesnacht, arranged for strings by Chan, followed; this, along with the concert’s final work, Verklarte Nacht, gave the unwary a one-sided picture of the composer as a thorough-going Romantic – which, at this stage of his career, he was.  This song comes from Schoenberg’s early 20s and, despite its chromatic side-slips, gave Goodwin no problems, although every so often the string action distracted attention from the vocal line.

Finishing this group was Schubert’s Der Erlkonig in a version by Gregor Huber which exercised the violins, just as the original gives a workout to the pianist’s right hand.  In this format, much of the song’s gruffness is dissipated but Goodwin managed the three voices inside the lied with aplomb, especially the persuasive, then threatening lines from the Erlking himself  – treated without bombast so that the hurtling drama of the narrative came across as a sustained crescendo, rather than a series of jolts.  You missed the piano’s compelling clatter but the ever-startling vehemence of the 18-year-old composer’s vision came across unimpeded.

Chan arranged the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, spreading the work-load around to make up for the absent woodwind piquancies. It made for a mildly entertaining experience, pretty well negotiated by the MCO band, but eventually unsatisfying; very much a second-best, if you know the original.  For a complete change from Mendelssohn’s suggestions of Puck and Co. cavorting in the Athenian wood, Chan moved us to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, specifically the middle ‘night music’ Non troppo lento movement which worked more credibly, principally because the forces involved were relevant and credible.  Even so, it might have been wiser to play the piece as written without a Tognetti-style amplification, although it spiced matters up quite a bit to see both cellists sharing the honours in outlining their part’s elastic solos.  But the central Agitato segment with all the insect noises loses a good amount of its spark when being negotiated by a corps rather than an individual.

Written for the MCO, Lachlan Skipworth’s Rilke setting, The Expanse, found a persuasive exponent in Goodwin.  The lyric, Am Rande der Nacht, enjoys a calmly restrained handling, the composer constructing a darkly-coloured string backdrop for a mendicant vocal line well suited to the poet’s effete self-description.  Coupled with this was Schubert’s Nacht und Traume, another Chan arrangement, this time giving Goodwin the opportunity to demonstrate his talent for manufacturing a splendidly sustained slow-moving vocal arc in a song that consists of little more than an emotional stasis, albeit a deeply moving one..

Before the Schoenberg string orchestra version of his own sextet, Goodwin ended his night journeys with two more Chan-arranged Schubert lieder: Nachtstuck, which depicts an old man’s progress through a consoling landscape to his death, and the first song from the song-cycle Die Winterreise where the disappointed lover sets out on his journey towards inconsolable grief.   In the first, attention oscillated between the deftness of the transcription and Goodwin’s warmth of tone in the valedictory last two stanzas; but in the reading of Gute Nacht, all the honours went to the tenor for an interpretation of high quality, the four-square phrases announced with assertiveness and  a subtle shifting of emphasis that was probably as much part of the performer’s musicality as it was built-in by Schubert.

Even after almost 120 years, Verklarte Nacht is still a taxing challenge for its executants.  Nothing about it comes easily, not even the slow threnody of the first pages.  When the polyphonic meshing kicks off and the modulations pour in on top of each other, the players can’t afford to relax or take their eyes off their own work or off that of their fellow labourers.  Chan and her charges gave a pretty solid account of this score which avoided quite a few of the expected deficiencies.  In fact, only one occasion raised eyebrows  – at about bar 246 in the lead-up to the first ‘transfiguration’ section where the lower strings sounded disorganized and uncertain in their triplets’ timing.  An unexpected moment came about when second violin Peter Clark appeared to change his focus by helping out Tom Higham with his viola line for a stretch before returning to his regular duties.  By this stage of the concert, I was sitting at the back of the Murdoch Hall but, even from that distance, I don’t think I was suffering from delusions.

Chan kept the score on the move, well aware that the point of the work is a journey, not a series of stops and starts.  The players gave full measure to the thick welters of sound that make up the central, confessional part of the work, but the forward movement stayed on track, even if some of the sudden harmonic shifts had little time to breathe.  Still, the work made a neat balance to the opening Wagner, a score that set the bench-mark for chromatic Schoenbergian constructs.   In all, a worthwhile dark odyssey, despite a few mis-steps along the way.


July Diary

Wednesday July 5


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

For some reason best known to themselves, the members of this piano trio are mounting two of their three annual subscription series recitals in one week.  Tonight, their review of the music written for their specific format focuses on two pillars of the repertoire: Brahms No. 1 in B and Dvorak’s Dumky No. 4.  Most of us who know the Seraphims’ work will have heard them perform these two scores at least once over the years (getting on for 24 of them) since they began collaborating;  what keeps your interest level afloat is hearing how their experiences as professionals have influenced what they find in this well-known music.  They play in the Salon and without an interval – a real study in concentration. And, while the Nationalist label sits comfortably with Dvorak, especially in this score, it’s not so easy to find much local colour in the moving broad strophes of the Brahms work.


Friday July 7


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Two days on from their last recital, this ensemble moves into new territory with some modern compositions for the piano trio.  Well, the descriptor is a generous one: the Shostakovich E minor Trio dates from 1944, Ravel’s A minor masterpiece was written over a century ago, and Sculthorpe’s Irkanda III is now 56 years old.  Once again, the players are heading for the heights with the Russian and French works, indispensable elements in any trio’s knapsack and – again – Seraphim patrons will have heard both from the group several times before.  The Sculthorpe inclusion is intriguing; it’s not a long piece, lasting about 6 minutes, but it rarely enjoys an airing.  Let’s hope it stands up for itself in this distinguished company.


Saturday July 8

Sitkovetsky Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Last time this group visited under the Musica Viva aegis in 2014, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and his pianist wife Wu Qian were in company with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, who seems to have been with the group since the trio’s inauguration. From July last year, the family duo also enjoyed the services of Danjulo Ishizaka for recitals in London, Cheltenham, the Rheingau Music Festival, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Wimbledon and Leeds.  Somewhere along the line, Ishizaka has been replaced and this time round, Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian’s collaborator is Bartholomew Lafollette; the relationship seems to be very fresh.  The musicians play Rachmaninov’s first Trio Elegiaque (the one with only a single movement), Mendelssohn  in D minor, Shostakovich in E minor a day after the Seraphims have performed it, and young Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Piano Trio, commissioned by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva and, as far as I can find out, not heard since its premiere in 2015 at Verbrugghen Hall.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday July 18.


Friday July 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

This program kicks off a Mozart festival with an emphasis on the composer’s more well-known scores.   Yes, tonight features yet another run-through of the famous serenade, conducted by British keyboard performer/conductor Richard Eggar, last seen here two years ago with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  I’d assume that Eggar will personally begin with the promised harpsichord piece from K. 1, then moving with the MSO into the three-movement  Symphony No. 1 in E flat.  Soprano Jacqueline Porter takes the solo line in that joyously elegant motet Exsultate, jubilate, before concertmaster Eoin Andersen stands up for the Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra K. 261.  Eggar finishes with the Paris Symphony No. 31.  So this first instalment gives us works written between the composer’s 5th year and his 31st; we’re told to expect the unexpected – I can’t wait.


Saturday July 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Night Two of the Mozart Festival and Richard Eggar is still conducting.  The guest soloist is fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout who has appeared almost three weeks before this in a Mozart/Schumann program for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (small-scale) at the Recital Centre.  Tonight, he is playing your old-fashioned piano in the Concerto No. 23 in A Major.  The program begins with the Chaconne from Idomeneo and  the great G minor Symphony is preceded by the Masonic Funeral Music of 1785.  In fact, all of this music stretches across the 1780s decade, all of it with sombre echoes, even in the mellifluous concerto’s F sharp minor Adagio/Andante.


Sunday July 16


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

This program features musicians unknown to me: flautist Chie Haur Foo, principal with the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra; bassoonist Teng Aik Lim, principal with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra and Selangor Symphony Orchestra; and Penang-based pianist Zhang Chi, a one-time student of the Team’s Darryl Coote.  As whenever two or more woodwind players are gathered together, the music for this night tends towards the eclectic.  I’ve never heard Saint-Saens Bassoon Sonata, one of the composer’s last works, and will probably never hear it again.  On the other hand, Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata Op. 94 is very familiar.   Zhang Chi holds the Team’s banner high for a taxing solo with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and all three artists come together for Three miniatures Song, Dialogue in the dark, Journey –  by German-American composer Tim Jansa; not a music with any great pretensions but well-constructed for the required forces.


Friday July 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Getting towards the end of this festival,  Richard Eggar conducts the myth-status unfinished Mass with a clutch of top-rank local soloists: soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Christopher Richardson  –  almost the same group that sang in the MSO’s October 2015 performance of this work under Benjamin Northey, when the tenor was Henry Choo.   The orchestra’s principal, David Thomas, will front the unparalleled Clarinet Concerto and the evening begins with the Overture to La clemenza di Tito.  All of these were written in the last months of the composer’s life, from September to December 1791; as a programmatic job-lot, they offer a riveting musical portrait of this flawed man and faultless musician.


Saturday July 22


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm.

To end its Mozart Festival, the MSO will play the soundtrack to Milos Forman’s celebrated film.   Benjamin Northey will conduct.   It’s hard to know how this will go.   Certainly, there are passages that will work well enough where the music is used as instrumental backdrop.   But what of scenes like Kostanze’s aria at the premiere of Il seraglio? And later, how will the musicians negotiate the excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni?  The Two-Pianos Concerto extract?  Or will everybody just sit back and let the film soundtrack play?  The MSO Chorus will be on-site for the final scenes where the Requiem is laboured over by the dying composer and his predatory colleague.  I’ve got no brief for the film itself (or Shaffer’s play, for that matter) but the American actors impress for the obvious relish they take in the action’s posturing and sentiment.  While there’s no denying the truth of Mozart’s crude side, the film gives you no explanation of the genius who wrote the masterpieces we have enjoyed in the preceding concerts of this festival.

This program will be repeated on Sunday July 23 at 1 pm.


Thursday July 20


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

MCO director William Hennessy and his players host pianist Lucinda Collins, Senior Lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide.   She is soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G, notable for an uncharacteristically cramped middle movement and a rollicking finale in variation form.  Hennessy ends with the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, mirroring the good humour found in the concerto.  As a built-in encore, Collins will also play the Adagio in E Major from Mendelssohn’s A minor Piano Concerto, dating from the composer’s 13th year.  And the night opens with some unspecified Debussy Book 1 Preludes arranged by Goran W. Nilson, the Swedish conductor/pianist.  I can trace four of them in Nilson’s catalogue: Les sons et parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels – so I assume these are the ones we’ll be enjoying.  An odd selection but intriguing to hear how they work in transcription.

This program will also be performed on Sunday July 23 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.


Thursday July 27


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Getting used to the MSO’s quiet pursuit of the cult of personality: Benjamin Northey Conducts . . . . , Nicholas Carter Conducts . . . , Sir Andrew Davis Conducts . . . . as if they’d do anything else.   Tonight,  Northey conducts Elgar’s evergreen Variations as a solid wind-up.   Just before, though, he takes the players (some of them) through the composer’s brief Sospiri, a pre-World War One adagio for strings, harp and organ.  The all-French first half starts with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1, organised by Guiraud which takes us from the Act 1 Prelude up to the Toreadors’ Entry in Act IV.   Kristian Chong will be soloist in Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor which opens up with a Lisztian cadenza and rarely lets the pianist off the hook; an exhilarating ride for us all, if a demanding marathon for Chong.

This program will be repeated on Friday July 28.


Saturday July 29


Australian World Orchestra and the Australian National Academy of Music

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

A gala occasion as the World comes to town: an ad hoc orchestra of professional Australians from the nation’s capital city orchestras and other musicians who are now working overseas – all coming to Melbourne for a big night out.  In this case, the conductor is Simone Young; one of the better-known names from Australia at work in foreign climes.  There is only one work: Messiaen’s massive symphony, for which the younger set from ANAM will help swell the forces to reach the numbers required.  A phenomenally difficult piano part will be taken on by ANAM veteran Timothy Young and the Ondes Martenot – the composer’s aural depiction of orgasm – will be in and under the hands of another one-time ANAM musician: keyboardist/composer Jacob Abela.  You rarely hear this work live; in my time, I’ve heard it only twice.  Mind you, the first time I saw/heard it, an elderly gentleman sitting diagonally opposite on the aisle was following his score with avid interest throughout the performance, shuffling back and forth through its pages as though he’d forgotten to remember something important.  At the end, he went up onto the Hamer Hall stage.  It was, of course, Messiaen on his solitary Australian visit.


Not quite ready



MOVE Records MCD 558

What you see here is exactly what you get: contemporary choral music from across the world – New Zealand, Estonia, the United States, Latvia, Norway (sort-of), Sweden, and Australia.  The choir Canticum itself is new to me although it has been in existence for 21 years; in fact, this CD is a 21st birthday celebration.  With founding conductor Emily Cox, the ensemble is currently in residence at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and, on this showing, is a more-than-able body, even if some of the tracks on offer in Luminescence could have profited by a re-take.

Cox and her cohorts adopted the over-arching theme of light; in this instance, light generated by sources that need no heat to do their work.  This refers, I suppose, to the static nature of scores which, in themselves, have no physical energy.  Canticum’s task is to generate the luminous – sometimes, the numinous – by their efforts and, for a good deal of the time, this works.  Of the 16 tracks, three contain settings of the Maundy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas, seven comprise the Magnificat-Antiphons of Arvo Part, another is New Zealander David Hamilton’s version of the Ecce beatam lucem text best known for its 40-part setting by Alessandro Striggio, and Swedish composer Fredrik Sixten uses the chant Veni, veni Emmanuel in his refugee-remembering The Fleeing Child is Jesus to a text by Norwegian poet Emil Skartveit.  The remaining six works fall under the general heading of celebrations of nature, or even God-in-nature.

You can find much interest in the Ubi caritas settings which are treated handsomely by the Canticum singers, beginning with a version of that by Ola Gjeilo which owes most to the original Gregorian as well as the luminous Durufle arrangement; not many surprises in the work itself but the choir gives it a refined and fluent reading.  Paul Mealor’s treatment was used at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; in my case, its inclusion in that ceremony went through to the keeper.  Which was a pity because its quiet abrasiveness, well-husbanded dissonant moments in the work’s progress, display an unexpected individuality of voice.  Cox gives prominence to the motet’s inner parts at tense moments, which makes for some remarkable harmonic exposure, but Mealor succumbs to the temptation of citing the original chant en clair towards the end. Australian-born Joseph Twist’s treatment is slow-paced and meditative in a post-Tavener style, with moments of stasis on certain syllables – Ubi caritas et amor or congregavit.  The verses starting with Exultemus move into a more rhythmically dynamic region; even so, the singers could have attacked these pages with more ferocity.  Like the other settings, Twist’s is ternary in form and not over-adventurous harmonically, although the stretch of bitonality near the end made a pleasant surprise; a pity, then, that the work concluded so predictably.

Part’s versions of the O  Antiphons – those appearing in the Vespers services of the days leading up to Christmas Eve – are generally terse, even when he seems to be mulling over the texts.  The first, O Weisheit, is vintage Part with an orthodox texture changing at glacial pace; O Adonai seems to be for male voices only and the Canticum basses sound laudably confident; O Spross aus Isais Wurzel tests the choir’s ability at sustaining grating 2nd intervals.  In O Schlussel Davids, the body’s sopranos sound marginally ‘off’ their top notes and their line doesn’t regain its certainty until the concluding die Fessel des Todes bars.  O Morgenstern finds them in better form, although the final statement of the title could have been re-recorded with profit.  O Konig aller Volker satisfies for its firm treatment of Part’s underpinning tramping pace, while the concluding O Immanuel also suffers from top-line pitching, the series of top As not quite centred accurately; Part’s second-time through this text fares more successfully, but then, it’s less challenging.

Hamilton’s Ecce beatam lucem is written for SSAATTBB forces and its opening is a powerful and brave acclamation that more than adequately sets up a luminous choral ambience. Parts of the Canticum’s aggressive approach work very well but there are some lapses; the composer’s clever build-up of tension at the final line, Nos hinc attrahunt recta in paradisum, needs more deliberate definition and disciplined order of attack.  Like Part, Hamilton exposes his sopranos on top of low-lying textures, with the result that they sound strident on occasion, hard-pressed to do anything but get the note(s?) required.  The piece is testing of all executants but this group might be better advised to take the whole thing at a more rapid tempo – like the Kiwis do.

Sixten’s score enjoys an excellent performance here, the singers maintaining a clarity of shape and texture even when the composer puts the Gregorian line in operation simultaneous with his own setting of Startveit’s words.  The point is made without being laboured – Christ was a refugee and his status is reflected in the modern-day influx to Europe (and Australia) from the East and Africa.  Sixten is humane enough to celebrate the optimistic Gaude elements of the chant alongside the poet’s ringing appeal for the worth of charity: Open the door for suffering.  If not the high-point of the CD, this comes close to it with an appealing clarity and enthusiasm from its performers.

Cox and her choir juxtapose samples from the work of two formidable American composers.  First is Sure on this shining night, Morten Lauridsen’s interpretation for four-part choir with piano accompaniment of James Agee’s well-known poem,  You’d have to work pretty hard to miss with this splendid composition and the Canticum give a carefully honed version with a fine timbral glow; this might not be as dramatic at its climax as many American choirs make it, but I much prefer this body’s sustained communication of hushed wonder and Delius-like shimmer in the movement of lines.

Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star sets an early poem by Robert Frost and, like Lauridsen’s piece, asks for SATB choir with piano.  I’ve never understood its popularity, least of all for its leaden-footed pace at the start and the regularity of its syllabic heft.  Still, the group treats it with care, showing no trouble in handling its few tests and giving some body to pretty predictable sequences.  Thompson’s vocabulary sets no challenges for the listener but the poet’s approval of the composer’s treatment of his lines seems to veer towards the charitable.  I had the feeling that Christopher Wrench’s accompaniment was leading the voices  – or rather, anticipating them – at various stages, although that could just have been enthusiasm or an understandable urge to keep the pace moving.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds asks the singers to handle tuned glasses and Tibetan bowls;  the few performances I’ve seen have been lacking in the bowls area and only some of the choir members have been trusted to manufacture that eerie, science-fiction-suggestive sound from the glasses part-filled with water.  Some of the pitching here left me unconvinced, notably at Sara Teasdale’s line Up the dome of heaven, and the soprano solo before the climactic stanza beginning And I know that I is inexact.

Brisbane composer Phillip Gearing employs sustained chords under a gently lyrical line to set the mood for his Only the Light which uses a text fragment from Surrealist-feminist Leonora Carrington’s short story The Royal Summons.  This is in effect a slow-moving nocturne, highly atmospheric and pretty successfully achieved, although there seems to be some out-of-sync harmonic movement from the tenors during the work’s final clause. Giselle Wyers has set Roethke’s famous poem The Waking; but has she?  The text that we hear is the American poet’s I strolled across An open field that comes from Roethke’s The Lost Son and Other Poems of 1948, some years before he wrote that striking villanelle, I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  This composer also has a piano accompaniment but the work itself, lilting and benign, tends to aimless modulation – an ordinary-sounding idyll.

The CD ends with a piece written for Canticum by Keren Terpstra, who supplied both music and words.  Light refers to the Transfiguration, albeit elliptically in its two cryptic lines.  While the working-out becomes a tad ordinary at the start to the work’s second line, the composer struck gold later with her use of sonorous chord clusters in which the inner lines move downward in writing of no little complexity, testing polyphony in which the Canticum singers hold their nerve; a pity that this challenging piece ends rather tamely in a G Major resolution.

In sum, Cox and Canticum have given us an interesting miscellany including some pieces that are pretty familiar to those who have an interest in the field of contemporary choral composition and some rarities, even for the well-informed.  A more demanding editorial hand would have ironed out some problem points but the disc has considerable merit, not least for shedding light on some highly deserving writers.