January Diary

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

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


Wednesday January 2


Peninsula Chamber Musicians and Guests

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

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


Wednesday January 2


Janet Todd and Nicholas Pollock

Hurley Vineyard, Balnarring at 6 pm

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


Thursday January 3


Sophie Rowell & Kristian Chong

Moorooduc Estate at 4 pm

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

This program will be repeated at 6:30 pm.


Friday January 4


Duo Foster-Browne

Main Ridge Estate, Red Hill at 4 pm

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

The program will be repeated at 7 pm.


Saturday January 5

Australian Haydn Ensemble

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 12 pm

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


Saturday January 5


Songmakers Australia

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 3 pm

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


Saturday January 5


St. John’s Church, Flinders at 7 pm

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


Sunday January 6


Miles Johnston

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

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


Sunday January 6


Australian Haydn Ensemble and David Greco

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 2 pm

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


Thursday January 10


Blair Harris

Elgee Park, Dromana at 6 pm

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


Friday January 11


Inventi Ensemble

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

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


Friday January 11


Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

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


Saturday January 12


Anthony Halliday and Alvin Wong

Carngham Uniting Church, Snake Valley at 10 am

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

The program will be repeated at mid-day.


Saturday January 12


Linda Barcan

Beleura Estate at 12:35 pm

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


Saturday January 12


Nello Catarcia

Ballarat Central Uniting Church at 3 pm

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


Saturday January 12


Davide Monti, Josephine Vains, Jacqueline Ogeil

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

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


Sunday January 13


John O’Donnell

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

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


Sunday January 13


Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

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


Monday January 14


Dorthe Zielke and Soren Johannsen

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

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

The program will be repeated at 12 noon.


Monday January 14


Louisa Hunter-Bradley and David Macfarlane

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 4 pm

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


Monday January 14


David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 8 pm

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

Tuesday January 15


David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Beaufort Uniting Church at 11 am.

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

The program will be repeated at 3 pm.


Tuesday January 15


Daniel Thomson and Rosemary Hodgson

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

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

The recital will be repeated at 3 pm.


Wednesday January 16


Massimo Scattolin, Erica Kennedy, Josephine Vains

Neil St. Uniting Church, Ballarat at 11 am

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


Wednesday January 16


Camerata Antica

St. Joseph’s Church, Blampied at 5 pm

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


Thursday January 17


Gianfranco Bortolato and Festival Chamber Orchestra

Former Wesley Church, Clunes at 11 am

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


Thursday January 17


Gianfranco Bortolato, Claudia Lopes, Anthony Halliday

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

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


Thursday January 17


Daniel Thomson and Michele Benuzzi

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 8 pm

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


Friday January 18


Laura Vaughan, Laura Moore, Donald Nicholson, Nicholas Pollock

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 11 am

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


Friday January 18


Trio Sine Nomine

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

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


Saturday January 19


Gianfranco Bortolato and Anthony Halliday

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 11 am

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


Saturday January 19


Stefania Bellamio and Massimo Scattolin

Hilltop Christian Fellowship Church, Ballarat at 3 pm

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


Saturday January 19

Orava Quartet

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 8 pm

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


Sunday January 20


Monica Curro, Sarah Curro, Daniel Curro

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

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


Sunday January 20



St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

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


















Can you please everyone?


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 8


                                                                 Bonnie de la Hunty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Glitzy surface; anything down below?


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday December 1


                                                                     Maxim Vengerov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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



Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17

Hans Sachs

                                                                  Hans Sachs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






News from the front

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

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

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

December Diary

Saturday December 1


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

So how will we bring this year’s operations to a smashing close?   Let’s invite Markus Stenz back.   That’s all right; he left us with goodwill on both sides, has visited at least once since his term as MSO Chief Conductor ended in 2004, and his reappearance will put a spring into the pistons and slides of the MSO brass – those precious few that have not departed the orchestra’s ranks over the last 14 years.  Tonight opens with Wagner: the Prelude and Transformation Scene (one of them) from Parsifal – a deft reminder that the Victorian Opera is presenting this turgid opera next February in the unholy ambience of St. Kilda’s Palais Theatre.   Stenz ends with that ever-challenging ballet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; always entertaining to see what the players make of the composer’s demands on them.  Guest violinist Maxim Vengerov will present a concerto written for him by  Qigang Chen and which he premiered a little over a year ago.   I know nothing of this composer, although he did direct music for the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in 2008 and has enjoyed much acclaim both in his homeland and in France where he has been resident for 34 of his 67 years.   This work is subtitled La joie de la souffrance which is promisingly masochistic, and it takes its impetus from a Chinese melody.   In other words, you’ll get the best (possibly) of both (well, at least two) worlds.

This program is also being presented on Friday November 30 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm.


Saturday December 1


Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell at 8 pm

Yet again, John O’Donnell and his excellent choir take patrons on a much-anticipated exceptional tour of Renaissance sacred music that covers the Christmas story from the stable at Bethlehem to Simeon’s prophecies in the Temple.  Proceedings open with two Lassus motets: Quem viditis, pastores? for the shepherds’ take on the whole business, and In principio erat Verbum, the first 14 verses of St John’s Gospel which used to conclude the Tridentine Mass ritual and which still give a stunningly visionary theological context for Christ’s birth.   Jacob Handl’s Mirabile mysterium also offers an appraisal of the birth’s significance, while his Omnes de Saba makes a jubilant welcome for the Three Kings’ arrival on the scene.   Lassus then contributes his Videntes stellam which gives more physical detail concerning the royal visitors and their gifts.   O’Donnell & Co. move to the Tudors with a Byrd brace: Hodie beata virgo Maria which comes from the Candlemas Vespers and depicts Mary giving Jesus to Simeon for his blessing; the antiphon Senex puerum portabat deals with a series of paradoxes in lucid polyphony that lasts about two minutes.   Videte miraculum by Tallis concentrates heavily on Mary’s virginity with ethereal detachment.  The program’s main work is the 7-voice Puer natus est nobis Mass by Tallis which has no Kyrie or Credo and is based on a plainchant, with which the Gomberts will kindly preface their performance.   This chant’s text derives from Isaiah and most of it will be familiar to Handel’s Messiah lovers who, at this event, will be transported far beyond the German/British composer’s visions of worldly pomp and circumstance.


Tuesday December 4

Ksenija Sidorova

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Bringing the MRC’s Great Performers series to a reedy conclusion, the Latvian accordion player presents a solo recital that comprises mainly music that I’ve never heard by people who are strangers, although there’s a bit of Bach on offer in three parts of the solo keyboard Overture in the French Style.   Sidorova opens with Danish writer Bent Lorentzen’s Tears, an original accordion solo from 1992.   Then follow three Russian offerings: Anatoly Kusyakov’s six Autumnal Sceneries, Alexei Arkhipovsky’s melancholy Cinderella (originally for balalaika), and Sergei Voytenko’s moody Revelation.  All of these are exactly what you think of when considering accordion music: harmonically orthodox and, despite their provenance, full of 1950s Parisian atmosphere.   Sidorova moves into the world of Piazzolla with a group including SVP (S’il vous plait), Sentido Unico and Tanti Anni Prima, all arranged by the performer; while the first two are tangos, the last, originally called Ave Maria, is a quiet, plangent lyric that shows a less abrasive side to the pugilistic Argentinian composer and bandoneon virtuoso.   Finally, we delve into the catalogue of Schnittke for Revis Fairy Tale, a quartet of pieces originally composed for a staging of Gogol’s satire Dead Souls and then transcribed for accordion by Sidikova and two other experts.   James Crabb taught us not to undervalue the instrument as a by-product of Young Talent Time and, in the right hands, it can exercise considerable appeal; but a lot of this program looks (and may sound) pretty one-dimensional.


Wednesday December 5


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Finishing its Melbourne operations for 2018 in the Recital Centre, the ACO will be heard to excellent advantage, its zesty enthusiasm more immediate here than in the gloomy cavern of Hamer Hall.   Richard Tognetti has assembled a rag-bag program that takes in some welcome novelties as well as several familiars.   The ACO opens with Sculthorpe’s Sonata for Strings No. 1, a work that this ensemble commissioned back in 1983 and which is an orchestration of the composer’s own String Quartet No. 10 – well, according to the catalogue, it ‘succeeds/complements’ that particular quartet.   Mind you, it all gets a tad confusing: is this No. 1 identical with the same year’s Sonata for Strings?  Will we ever know?   Will we ever care?   After this whiff of Australiana, the group moves to some Debussy arrangements: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and The Interrupted Serenade, two companion pieces from Book I of the Preludes.   Another Tognetti arrangement follows with Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies, originally for voice and piano/orchestra but I’m guessing the vocal line will here be taken by a violin, especially in the Kaddisch which the ACO has recorded.    Elgar’s E minor Serenade for Strings tests the ACO’s richness of warm timbre rather than its scintillating virtuosity.   Finally, we hear Walton’s Sonata for Strings, the composer’s arrangement (with Malcolm Arnold’s help in the finale) of his own String Quartet in A minor, written 25 years previously.


Friday December 7


Opera Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

In recent times, some of these one-off recitals/concerts by famous imports have been either sad or ludicrous.   This one features an American mezzo, presented by Pinchgut Opera, not the national company, so there are grounds for optimism.   Pinchgut artistic director Erin Helyard is directing an all-Baroque program that also features ’21 of Australia’s best early music instrumentalists’  –  no details available so far.   As for the music, the night offers a sinfonia (Op. 6 No. 1 .  .  . but isn’t this Op. 6 a set of flute concertos?) and two overtures (Cleofide, Demofoonte) by Hasse as well as an aria from Cleofide (the heroine’s Son qual misera colomba); two arias (one from Semiramide, the other from Polifemo) by Haydn’s teacher Porpora; one aria only by Broschi from his IdaspeOmbra fedele anchio which featured in that prodigious waste of money, the film Farinelli; a Vivaldi sinfonia and three opera (L’OlimpiadeGriselda, Catone in Utica) arias; and there’s a Handel pair for good measure – Ho perso il caro ben from Il Parnasso in festa, and Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana that I vaguely remember from Opera Australia’s Alcina production.   Apart from this last, the rest represent unknown territory, except for those happy souls who revel in this arcane field.   And jolly good luck to you; here’s hoping the night proves both satisfying and rewarding.   What you can be sure of is music-making of authority from all concerned.


Saturday December 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 1 pm and 5 pm

This program is a few levels above Carols by Candelight, one of this city’s aesthetic abominations, but it isn’t much to boast about.   What you get is entertainment but it all comes in short squirts.    Benjamin Northey, the MSO’s go-to conductor with personality, leads the festive round.    Guest soprano Greta Bradman has the unalloyed joy of belting out Adam’s O Holy Night, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the carol Silent Night (possibly the others on the program as well  –  Oh come, all ye faithful, Hark! the herald angels sing, We Three Kings).    As well as the Berlin hit, you will find a solid swathe of Americana on offer: indeed, the program opens and ends with Leroy Anderson – A Christmas Festival to begin, Sleigh Ride to close.   You’ve also got James Pierpont’s Jingle Bells, Johnny Marks’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a suite from Alan Silvestri’s score for Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express film.   By way of cutting cross-cultural commentary, Northey and his forces will play bleeding chunks from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet Suite No. 1 (which holds most of the work’s attractive character pieces) and the Troika on loan from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije film music suite, uncomfortably situated close to Anderson’s trite musical sleigh excursion.   The odd one out in all this is Howard Blake’s Walking in the Air from the 1982 The Snowman soundtrack.   In short, the MSO is playing a set of bon-bons, nearly all of which have connections to the season.


Friday December 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary at 7:30 pm

This second instalment in the first Star Wars trilogy – for us true believers, the only films in George Lucas’ series worth serious attention –  is being given several airings in this vast auditorium; here’s hoping the organization is able to pack out all four sessions.   John Williams reinforces motifs and tropes from the first film, A New Hope, but a large amount of extra material had to be produced for new sites like the ice planet Hoth as well as suitable aural underpinning for Luke Skywalker’s clumsy efforts both there and on the swamp planet Dagobah, not to mention the atmospherics needed for the first sighting of Cloud City and the eventual duel between Luke and Darth Vader.   Much of this is rousing stuff but the MSO will be hard put to bring freshness to a score that is all too well-known.  What takes me aback in these declining years is that the film is now 38 years old and still manages to surprise you with musical details that slipped by the first twenty times you saw it.

This screening will be repeated on Saturday December 15 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm, and on Sunday December 16 at 1 pm.


Friday December 14


Bianca Gannon, Luqmanul Chakim, Peni Candra Rini, Jumaadi, Jean Poole. Robert Jarvis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Here is a one-off production, presented by Bianca Gannon and Mapping Melbourne, which is ‘a platform for strengthening arts networks between contemporary independent artists across the Asian region, building connections and establishing collaborative ongoing relationships, and presenting challenging work’  –  an offshoot of Multicultural Arts Victoria.    This particular recital features Indonesian instruments whose use revolves around food.    Central performer Chakim plays a bundengan (zither), a rantok (a blade, but I’m guessing), and a set of gule gending (steel pans)  –  all instruments of the people, to be contrasted with Javanese court music sung by Candra Rini.    Gannon, artistic director for this enterprise, contributes gamelan and post-minimalist piano (at last, I’ll get to find out just what that terminology means), and Jumaadi offers his own digitally enhanced take on Indonesian shadow puppetry to flesh out the occasion.    My only regret is that the food relevant to Chakim’s instruments – duck, rice, fairy floss – is not being served; you can never have too much sensory overload.


Saturday December 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Something of a clash here as a good number of the MSO players will be involved with a session of The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack across at the Plenary.    An expert in early music practice, Jan Willem de Vriend, is directing and may well do so from the concertmaster’s desk.    If you’ve not heard of de Vriend, join the club, although most of his activity appears to be centred on mainland Europe.    His soloists are soprano Jeanine De Bique  from Trinidad, Australian countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, that sterling locally-grown tenor Andrew Goodwin, and Dresden-born bass-baritone Stephan Loges.   Of course, the MSO Chorus has the enviable task of handling those great choral tapestries that pepper this oratorio, although the body’s numbers may be cut down in proportion to what I assume will be a spartan chamber orchestra.    Prior to these Melbourne performances, the work will be heard in Ballarat on Saturday December 8 (Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 5 pm), and in Bendigo (Ulumbarra Theatre at 5 pm) on Sunday December 9.

This program will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Sunday December 16 at 5 pm


Sunday December 16


Australian Boys Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

This is the last entry on the Recital Centre’s calendar for the year; thankfully, the Murdoch Hall will hear some decent music-making to terminate 2018, rather than tacky aural crud from easily forgotten pseudo-musicians exhibiting a woeful lack of mastery and talent.    What the Choir’s administrators mean by ‘glorious’ isn’t just hyperbole, a non-specific wish that everybody will have the best of times over the coming fortnight.  The emphasis falls on the liturgical specificity of the word and its importance for Christmas as the jubilant song of the angels, expertly reported to St. Luke by those terrifically literate shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem.    At the heart of this occasion is Vivaldi’s Gloria  –  RV 589. you’d assume  –  which asks for soprano or contralto soloists in four of its twelve movements.   As usual, audience participation will be expected and encouraged in some of those carols  essential to this event, even if most of them don’t qualify for the glorious label.   But the Choir, its senior Vocal Consort and the large bank of tyros are all managed carefully enough so that they rarely wear out their welcome.    Of great interest for some of us will be to observe how new artistic director Nicholas Dinopoulos copes with filling the shoes of recently departed ABC veteran, Noel Ancell.

Lest we forget? Not a chance


Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Sunday November 11 at 7 pm


                                      Menin Gate at Midnight   (Will Longstaff, 1927) 

This event marked an ominous date.  It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.

At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.

Only one of the writers was familiar to me.   Helen Gifford’s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch.  Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison –  are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.

Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of  Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips.   This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought.   Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.

Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix.   From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen.   Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.

For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action.   While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes  and overlapping timbre textures.   For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.

Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench.  Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.

The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic.  This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing  manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis.   To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.

Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury  was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos.   It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived.  As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.

As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday.  The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction.  Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.

Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres.   Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate.  In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.

Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord.  As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.

Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.

Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together.   Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field.   The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.

Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches.  Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.

The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’   Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief.  To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it.  In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.

Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary.  None of the music drew attention to itself  for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence.   The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.

It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.




The North is minor


Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584




Another no-frills product from Move, this disc comes in at almost exactly 45 minutes.  You hear 13 tracks  in total, four of them movements from sonatas by James Oswald, that lucky Scot who was Chamber Composer for George III and whose magnum opus, Airs for the Seasons, has each of its movements named after a different flower – in this case, Winter flowers: the snapdragon and the snowdrop, both scoring two movements.  The other mainstream work is a sonata for viola da gamba by Lorenzo Bocchi who doesn’t get a mention in my Grove but who is historically notable for bringing the cello to Scotland.   This particular sonata, No. 11 in D minor from Bocchi’s Op. 1, has been recorded on Hyperion by members of the Parley of Instruments.  For other Bocchi works, you won’t find much; there’s an arrangement of his Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough or ‘ye Irish Wedding‘ which comes from a collection of Hibernian tunes and has been recorded by Les Basses Reunies.

The rest of the tracks make up a pleasant collection with Scottish folk tunes dominating the mix: the Unst Boat Song, Tullochgorum, Ca’ the Yowes, Twist Ye, Twine Ye (Sir Walter Scott’s poem, music by James Scott Skinner, I think) and the CD’s title song which is a poem by Shane Lestideau, the Evergreen Ensemble’s director and baroque violinist, and the setting itself based on that venerable ground bass, La Folia.

Some deviations from the Caledonian come first.   Claire Patti, the Evergreen singer and Celtic harpist, works through Jag Vet en Dejhlig Rosa – a 16th century Swedish poem set much later by Alice Tegner, either to her own tune or a pre-existing folk tune. Then, alongside the Unst Boat Song comes Guldklimpen, another Swedish tune.  Later, at Track 5, we hear Old Ditty, a piece commissioned from Sydney composer Alice Chance and part of a larger collection – The Australian Baroque Sonatas Project which has the laudable aim of creating new works for period instrumentalists in Australia.

Apart from Lestideau and Patti, the other Evergreens are veteran Samantha Cohen alternating between theorbo and baroque guitar. with Jenny Eriksson providing the viola da gamba line.

Matters don’t get off to a reassuring start with the Swedish rose song.   Nothing wrong with Patti’s voice.   The first verse is pleasant enough, supported by Cohen on guitar and a plucked gamba bass, Lestideau eventually entering after the second verse which is given a swing beat from the instrumentals.  In fact Lestideau gets a solo flight based on the inoffensive melody and the effect is of a mournful Stephane Grappelli ensemble, the which is sustained throughout a third verse.  Why the need for this move to the world of the 1920s is beyond me.  The effect is unsettling’ so much so that you ask the question (internally): is there to be more of this?   Fortunately, there is not.

Track 2 is that Boat song from the northernmost Shetland Isle and it makes a nice pairing with its predecessor.   Patti sings the three verses and repeats the first over a pretty static accompaniment that is little more than a drone.   Lestideau leads from a variant of the melody into a Golden Nugget instrumental where the other players quickly join in the fun.   Well, ‘fun’ is an overstatement as the mood has been minor mode up to this point, the singing pure but uninflected, the violin emphatically free of vibrato and the harmonization free of complications and ambiguity.

The minor lifts for the tune Tullochgorum although the language is modal.  As for the base material, the only melody of this name I could find was pretty orthodox; Patti’s performance of  (presumably) John Skinner’s text – a mix of Highland and Lowland Scots with some English thrown in – is clear enough, even if the words retain their mysteries.  Lestideau elaborates on the tune with some Skinner variations before making a lateral turn into the well-known reel, De’il Amang The Tailors.

As far as I could see, the most affecting music on this disc came with Patti’s crystalline reading of Ca’ the Yowes where the moving melody gets well-worked over, if not as much as it could have.  The singer wanders gently through the title refrain three times, the latter two with Lestideau in gentle vocal support.  The verses come from Burns’ second version and Patti is eccentric in her sequencing: Verse 2, Verse 1 and then Verse 4 with a space in the middle for a violin variant.  Patti’s harp generates a fine contribution to the melancholy/bucolic atmosphere.

The final folk element on offer is an instrumental solo that has as its title the Scott poem Twist Ye, Twine Ye with music (probably) by the universal Skinner.  Again it’s minor in tonality, and Lestideau has her company move straight from this into her own Blooms Like Stars text sung over the Folia bass – and they don’t come more minor in flavour than that.  The pairing is quite successful, of a piece with the ruminative nature of many of the preceding tracks.

Oswald’s The Snap Dragon two-movement sonata is simplicity personified with all the running given to the solo violin line while guitar and gamba provide an underpinning to a surprisingly Scottish-sounding melody.   This is not development music; you get the tunes and they are repeated, scarcely modified.   A gentle andante is followed by a jig in which I think I can hear some harp notes seconding the violin in a few bars.

We are back in minor language for Oswald’s The Snowdrop which starts in F sharp but spends a good deal of time in the relative A Major.  As with The Snap Dragon,  development is minimal as the composer simply takes his instruments for a walk.  There is little local about the first movement; the second movement does involve the harp imitating the violin line and is a kind of cross between a 4/4 gigue and a gavotte.

Published in 1725, Bocchi’s gamba sonata is a four-square composition with some slight asymmetries in its stately first movement; the more rapid middle one is an ordinary enough binary piece with some relieving double stops.  Another slower movement concludes this rather unremarkable throw-back to a time when elegance and knowing one’s musical place were cardinal qualities.  Despite some strenuous efforts, I couldn’t find much here that brought to mind Scotland, Ireland or folk-music.

The cuckoo in this speckled nest is Chance’s Odd Ditty.  Again, we are in minor mode with a vocal line from Patti’s gentle spindrift soprano in play across accompaniment from the Evergreen violin and guitar.  The main interest throughout is the composer’s quirk of flattening certain notes to give a piquancy to textures and processes that are otherwise pretty standard.   It takes some effort to decipher the words which, I suspect, are by Chance herself, and which return several times to the catch-phrase ‘my oddity’.

At the end, you’re left wanting more extended tracks from this CD, as well as more information about the music itself.  Mind you, there are plenty of researchable avenues for the interested listener; you can spend hours tracing translations from the Swedish and the Norn tongue, let alone trying to learn more about shadowy figures like Bocchi and even Oswald.   However, these musicians know what they’re after in terms of style and interpretation and, while you don’t come away from this CD enthralled by your experience, you do enjoy exposure to the Evergreens’ gently unassuming enterprise.










Further encounters with Beethoven’s piano


James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1469

Brawn 5

In this latest album, English-born Australian pianist Brawn has filled in a gap as he progresses through his cycle of the complete Beethoven sonatas.   In this instance, he presents four of the first period group, leaving only one of the first 10 sonatas unrecorded = the big No. 4 in E flat.   For many a piano student, this new CD will bring back both memories and nightmares, especially in this country where these particular sonatas featured for many years (and probably still do) on AMEB and Year 12 examination lists.   Still, such listeners will find much of interest in these interpretations in which Brawn exercises his perennial enthusiasm and talent in finding sensible solutions to practical problems.

His outline of the first movement to the C minor Sonata No. 5 offers a deft fusion of sharp-edged drama and sensible restraint when the tonality shifts to E flat. The argument – admittedly, not a particularly dense one – is allowed just the right amount of insistence with some nice moments of emphasis, as in the hair’s breadth hesitation before the arpeggio introducing bar 180 and the emphasis on the pseudo-Alberti bass quavers that run almost uninterrupted between bars 215 and 263.

The pianist’s approach to the central Adagio is – in a word – fluid.  Which is hardly surprising, considering the alarums and excursions that the movement contains, although like many a pianist before him, Brawn makes a moving metrical feast of the middle strophes, reverting to adagio molto at bar 71 after an action-packed central venture into excitement before coming back to a home key placidity.  Possibly the coda could have been handled with less urgency to get to the end, although it’s true that there isn’t much matter here that makes you want to linger.

With the Prestissimo finale, Brawn shows the same exemplary brio as in the bounding first movement, the pages urged past with creditable clarity at spots like bars 34-35 where the tendency is to hammer out the right-hand oscillating octave semiquavers to the disadvantage of the left hand’s descending scale.  A rare inexplicable point comes in the centre of bar 68 where a minute change-of-gear interrupts the precipitate urgency.  And Brawn cannot resist the temptation to indulge in the slightest of ritardandi in the second-last bar.

An impressive agitation enriches the opening to the following F Major Sonata, the exposition treated as a very vital allegro indeed   A solitary question mark hangs over bar 72 where the switch from triplets back to straight semiquavers, compounded by a mordent, seems laboured.   But the movement simmers with plenty of panache and a forward thrust, notably at the reversion to the home key after a D Major interlude/lead-in.   Brawn then produces an exemplary rendition of the following Allegretto, a minuet and trio that seems to me more like a spectral landler in its outer segments, here firmly controlled and  well-shaped in its delineation of the composer’s right-hand counterpoint at the minuet’s return.

As for the Presto conclusion to this work, it rattles through persuasively, realizing the composer’s attempted gaiety well enough even if the humour is inclined to be heavy-handed in the movement’s second ‘half’ from about bar 41; it’s a relief to get out of the canons and back to the D Major lightness of bar 69.   However, the passage in question is handled with a good deal more aplomb in the repeat.   Further, the inner-part detail in the final segment from bar 125 onwards is exceptionally polished.

Third in the Op. 10 triptych dedicated to the Countess von Browne, the Sonata No. 7 in D Major has four movements of markedly varied temper, including a D minor Largo e mesto of splendid theatricality which is also the longest track on this CD.   Brawn enters without reserve into the energetic world of the initial Presto; this is a highly persuasive reading, observant of the usual dynamic markings and packed with buoyant spirit.  Throughout the development, tension seems to rise without letting up – on both Beethoven’s and Brawn’s parts – until the emphatic and jubilantly rattling last bars.

One of my acquaintances in student days chose piano as his second study and this sonata’s Lento as one of his end-of-year  ‘list’.   It was the first time I had paid any attention to these pages in any detail, coerced on this occasion as he wanted help.   After its sweeping tapestry had been enjoyed a few times, the detail in each section came into focus, the pages merging into a compelling and moving entity.  In this interpretation, you miss the concert hall’s majestic echo but the recording’s clarity ensures that you miss nothing in the pianist’s efforts to enunciate each chord’s full complement and the samples of pre-Chopin delicacy or Bachian meanderings (Italian Concerto, second movement) shown in bars 36 to 42; then later, after the climactic welter is finished, at bar 72.

The Minuet‘s attractive ambling pace makes a fine consequent to the Lento‘s tragedy and is notable for its precision, even down to features that tend to be subsumed into the recording ether in other recordings, like the left hand sforzando in bar 31.  But the best, like at Cana, is saved till last with a Rondo finale where pretty much everything comes together successfully, from the near-curt definition of the initial three-note theme, through the action-packed modulation-rich episodes, to the inexorable fluency of the final 8 bars where Brawn caps the whole sonata with a conclusion both convincing and elegant.

The CD ends with the G Major Sonata No. 10, a fine summation of achievement on Beethoven’s part and an excellent instance of Brawn’s talent for outlining whole paragraphs so as to conserve their integrity, a gift particularly evident in the opening Allegro‘s consistency of narrative between the exposition and recapitulation even though the latter is handled with more rhythmic freedom, if not actual quirkiness.  Further, the flurries of demi-semiquavers run past without a hint of martellato flashiness but come over as natural flourishes to close off a particular paragraph.

With the central Andante theme and three variations, you find it hard to quibble with anything.   Block chords are impressively clear and despatched without even a suggestion of arpeggiation.   Everywhere you look are signs of precise preparation, even in details like the triplet left-hand run that concludes bar 52 leading into a delicious, unexpected piano; or the differentiation between piano and pianissimo in the trademark staccato chords from bar 85 to bar 88.  The following Scherzo is almost as impressive, not least for the performer’s abstinence in use of the sustaining pedal and a consequent transparency of texture; not so much in the C Major interlude/trio that starts at bar 73, but more remarkably in the near-final pages featuring the left-hand-over frivolity that sounds effortless even though the chances of error in such cross-hand passages are ever-present.

Brawn’s odyssey-saga will continue with a sixth album due to be recorded by the end of the year but this current release leaves us with much rewarding listening.  The acoustic conditions that apply at Brawn’s recording studio in Potton Hall, Suffolk continue to underline his style of delivery, most suitable in these earlier and more intimate works which reveal Beethoven’s energy and delight in his own creativity throughout most of the four sonatas.  Brawn’s interpretations reveal a true personality at work, one that finds a coherent path and stays on it without getting bogged down in glutinous gravity.






Vehement night’s work


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday October 17


                                               Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline


For her final Melbourne recital this year, Kathryn Selby chose two volatile friends as her partners in a program of high energy, giving as good as she got in fierce address and consistent drive.   Violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline began operations with an ardent reading of Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Paul Kochanski’s arrangement of the Siete canciones populares espagnoles – well, most of them: the arranger, with Falla’s approval, left out the original’s Seguidilla.

After a brooding account of the opening El Pano moruno, Da Costa-Graveline stopped the music to give us an account of each movement’s context.  Normally, this sort of intervention leaves me cold but the explanations were brief, gave the remaining pieces some individuality and – as I thought (wrongly) at the time – served as a sort of delaying tactic so that the string player could gird his loins for the fray.

To me, this music is pretty much all show; you look in vain for any emotional or developmental depths in folk music or its imitation.  There’s no doubt that the melodies can be well-shaped and appealing, but, without the transformative power of a Bartok, they are best heard without adornment, or even insulting simplification.  As somebody said about the birch tree song that Tchaikovsky used in the finale of his Symphony No. 4, after you outline the tune, what is left for you to do but play it again, only louder?

Which is actually unfair to Falla whose suite certainly repeats melodies but not mindlessly.   Da Costa-Graveline found a willing partner in Selby who matched him point for point in the quieter excerpts like Asturiana and Nana, elegantly shaped by the dominant violin line but with a commanding bowing arm.  This performance proved memorable for the impressive power of both the Polo and Jota dances which set aside all conceptions of the suite itself as a benign collection of bagatelles with lashings of local colour loaded on.   These were emphatic almost to the point of violence, giving a different slant to the composer’s usual characterization through the dreamy Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a post-impressionist or a master of Hispanic applique, as in The Three-Cornered Hat or even El amor brujo.

The night’s cellist, Umberto Clerici, is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal and  plays a powerful Goffriller instrument, a fine dynamic match for his violin partner’s steely Stradivarius.   For his duet spot, Clerici, Head of Strings at Edith Cowan University, opted for the Debussy Sonata of 1915, a work that delights at every turn.  It was impossible not to respond to the affirmative polemic that this cellist gave to the opening Prologue that brings to my mind echoes of the great French gamba composers, thanks to its affirmative statements alternating with ornate mini-cadenzas.

In his preliminary talk, Clerici covered a confusingly broad stretch of historical references but much more usefully demonstrated the pizzicato effects that Debussy wanted in this work’s second movement Serenade: the first time in my experience that this variety of requirements has been made clear.   Here was a virtuoso reading, loaded with changes of speed, abrupt decelerations and mirroring forward rushes, handled with assurance by both players.   But then, Clerici, like Da Costa-Graveline, had the score by heart and Selby is the most aware and obliging of partners.

Still, the substantial Finale to this sonata is the work’s high-point, loaded with incident and sudden moments of stunning beauty, as in the ascending cello motive from bar 7 to bar 14, hinted at just before Rehearsal Number 8, and recapitulated with moving effect 6 bars after Number 10.  Following the movement’s flurries and almost continuous concerted action for both players, the penultimate cello solo flourish that calls to mind the sonata’s braggadocio opening takes your breath away, particularly in this very direct, strikingly forward interpretation that did for Debussy what Da Costa-Graveline and Selby had done for Falla; taking away all that Clair de lune drowsiness and showing how precise, finely tuned and assertive was this great composer’s sensibility in the last painful years of his life, pointing up yet again his primacy among important 20th century musical figures.

The three musicians came together for the evening’s signature work, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires which several local piano trios and other chamber combinations have performed in recent years.   I seem to be in a minority, especially when faced with the advocacy of significant musicians in this country like Richard Tognetti who is a fan, but the Argentine writer’s tangos, despite being ‘new’ and far removed from the early 20th century’s emasculation of the dance, leave me browned out.   But then, you could simply sit back and appreciate the emphatic address of these players, particularly Selby’s unfailing definition of metre and security in chords and the two string players dynamism even in unison/octave passages during the Autumn and Spring  movements.

But, as with so much other Piazzolla, you felt that you were being pummelled.  In which respect, the trio lived up to the composer’s expectations, intentions and transferred life experience – well, part of it.   Put simply, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the movements – certainly not in format or harmonic language – and the Pizzolla tango’s natural state is somehow one of musical violence.  Selby and her colleagues realised this work’s broad underpinning of machismo with determined gusto.

From the rear of the Tatoulis space, the post-interval reading of Mendelssohn  in D minor came across as sharply defined, crisp, and not as thunderous as I had anticipated following the Latin-heavy first half to the night.  Very few errors crept into Selby’s piano part which is where the score’s chief interest falls, the pianist/composer unable to hold back from his own command of digital legerdemain.   Da Costa-Graveline and Clerici made a moving creature of the repeated first melody to the meltingly fine central Andante where the composer manifests his emotional maturity by avoiding any trace of sentimentality simply though the calm serenity of his lyrical gift which in these pages never fails to weave its involving spell.

It seemed to me that the final Allegro was over-anxious, an emphasis on urgent mobility even in those moments where the strings have prominence as in the broad B flat Major burst of eloquence at bar 141 where the piano tones down its semiquaver prominence.  At the end, the trio brought the exercise to a satisfying conclusion, Selby courteously tamping down her volume for the string-rich duet from bar 297 up to bar 311, at which point the piano explodes into D Major virtuosity.   An uplifting way to end a solid year’s work.