Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26


               Natalie Clein

To open its 2019 season, Musica Viva presented this cello-piano duet, two young artists (yes, they’re in their forties but they all look young to me) of high achievement.  Their careers are studded with prizes, academic positions, recital and concert appearances with significant organizations and well-known conductors and colleagues, now coming into the climacteric of their lives with this Australian tour.   A respectably sized audience came along to the MRC for this program which boasted two masterpieces from the cello/piano repertoire and a fresh composition by an Australian writer.

The evening began with Kodaly’s Sonatina, a brief one-movement work that I’d not heard before.   In fact, the only piece for this string instrument that I did know was one which occupies such a large position in the cello’s limited storehouse that it can hardly be ignored: the Solo Sonata of 1915: a monumental masterwork that first introduced me to the brilliant craft of Liwei Qin.   This brief duo has reminiscences of the greater work – and of the composer’s partner in transcribing Hungarian folk music from the source: Bartok.   Both instruments share a welter of rhapsodic gestures and modal inflexions that go back to Liszt in serious mode.

The reading set something of a pattern for the program’s progress.  Apekisheva powered through the keyboard’s ardent 12-bar introduction before setting up the quintuplet waves that support the string’s long-arched D minor melody.   Not that Kodaly divides the labour in doctrinaire fashion; the cello gets its powerful declamations, if nothing as striking as the piano’s fortissimo outburst at bar 158.   In this well-integrated score, idiomatic, even flattering, for both instruments, Clein  and Apekisheva showed an agreeable balance, despite the piano being open on the long stick and this cellist not one to belt out her sound.

Natalie Williams’ freshly composed The Dreaming Land, created for these artists and this tour, is in three movements and seems to be concerned with Australia and its pre-European civilization.   After one experience of its content, however, I’m not sure.  ‘Dreaming’ tends to set off shivers of local recognition in most of us but the composer’s actual vocabulary and technical armoury is employed in such a way as to suggest any landscape.   Not that you expect intentional Jindyworobakisms to leap out, but these three movements/scenes have more universal associations than expected.

Williams speaks a tonal tongue in which the natural bent is towards resolution; at several points, leading notes yearn towards the tonic and usually fold into it.   Yes, there are passages of dissonance but you aren’t left with much ambiguity about where the composer has led you.   Movement One, Voices of the Ancients, is dominated by rising patterns from the piano, which underpins the string’s role as narrator dominating its supporting companion.   The voices are essentially lyrical in the time-honoured Western tradition and they also tend to follow an upward-leading and continuously prevalent optimism.

The Chanting Walker . . . follows without much change in procedure even if the timbre-world is more dour.   For all the eloquent melodic arches from the string player, well-written to exhibit Clein’s disciplined vibrato, the pilgrimage scenario failed to move me, chiefly because the work’s progress is too self-assured.   You’d expect the title’s trailing off to suggest doubts, even indeterminacy, but this walker has all the answers and leaves nothing to the imagination, reaching a full close – which I, for one, find atypical of this country’s native metaphysics.

Finally, Ethereal Furies is an emotionally moderate moto perpetuo with some intriguing rhythmic hockets but eventually settles into regular patterns.  These Eumenides are well-dressed and, while active, would not discombobulate any Orestes, now or then.  The atmosphere is of Mendelssohn through a well-ordered restlessness, but dressed in light 21st Century garb.  We can thank Williams for her musical journey and the prospects that it offered but the score lacked bite, even though Clein and Apekisheva outlined it with enthusiasm and apparent precision.

Beethoven’s final Cello Sonata in D, second of the Op. 192 brace, enjoyed a very welcome airing.   The performers’ account of the initial Allegro gave us a complete, consistent canvas; no small feat when you remember the composer’s penchant for abrupt changes in most compositional parameters, including the unsettling leaps that typify the sonata’s opening matter.   You looked in vain for overt declamation or jolts of power in the Rostropovich/Richter style of delivery; here the emphasis fell on finding a continuous seam and following it through.

The central Adagio also impressed for its composure and deftly conserved harmonic ambiguity in the outer sections, which embraced a splendid D Major centre with eminently fluent passage work and tic-free treatment of the demi-semiquaver Alberti bass figures in the keyboard and the fragmented commentary offered by the cello, marred only by some strained high Ds.  The gentlest of transitions moved us into the finale fugal Allegro where both artists quite sensibly put their trust in the composer.  The texture gets piano-heavy at two definite points but Apekisheva persisted with her dynamic, leaving Clein to emerge from the ferment that comes about from near bar 84 to bar 89 and reconvenes near bar 126.

To end, the duo played the Rachmaninov G minor Sonata which gave the lion’s share of labour to Apekisheva.   Clein’s generous bowing action made some form of compensation for the composer’s over-hefty keyboard writing but she is not a bullish performer, urging out her line at the expense of accuracy.   Not that the inbuilt imbalance proved too distracting except in the concluding Allegro mosso where the composer was manifestly unfair to the cellist, studding the piano part with brilliant bursts of virtuosity and scintillating textures.

It’s true that the string player doesn’t fare much better in the vital Allegro scherzando.  Clein can’t put on a gruff voice for any money and she was hard-pressed to mirror her partner’s volatile scampering downward two-note skips.  Of course, there are compensations in the central A flat Major trio but even here Rachmaninov supplies the pianist with a lush accompanying textural web towards the transition back to taws.  To her credit, Apekisheva maintained the correct role, her mastery evident in that we were aware of her content – just not overpowered by it.

An admirable interpretation, then, but not one that dripped with tension.  True to her lights, Clein gave not a hint of a scrape, her bowing address impeccable across the program.   You were able to rest secure in the hands of a highly competent musician with a fine command of phrasing.   Yet, for the two major works, those hefty sonatas, her elegance of utterance necessarily was overshadowed by her colleague who also – as far as I could hear – made precious few errors across a taxing night’s work.

No worries



Virginia Taylor and Simon Tedeschi

Move Records  MCD 582


Chromatic Flight


Here is a short disc of thoroughly amiable duets for flute and piano, unassuming music treated with consideration if not much flamboyance by a couple of distinguished Australian artists.   The contents comprise six individual pieces and two suites – one Latin, the other jazz.  The briefest track, Ripples, lasts 2:03 minutes; the longest, Contemplation, comes in at a second short of 5 minutes.

All works are products by Graham Jesse, a well-known Australian performer, composer and arranger whose life has revolved principally around jazz:  a biographical descriptor borne out by this album.   Taylor’s flute is the dominant thread throughout; Tedeschi has his moments of exposure but it remains clear in every track that the wind line is all-important.  Which doesn’t come as a surprise; most of the publicity shots I could find of Jesse have him holding a flute, concert or bass.

We’ve all been victims – willing or otherwise – of elevator music, that irritating or anaesthetising noise that fills out a vacuum in our shopping experience.  It could be a rendition of a well-known popular song or a hotted-up Christmas carol.  Its function – if it really has one – is as aural decor, acoustic tinsel, and often dismissable.  Sadly, I’ve never been in a lift where the sound system is burbling out Good King Wenceslas at which all of we transportees join in a verse or six.   Fortunately, Jesse’s music is original and rather individual, which removes it from the realm of material that just sits on the periphery of consciousness.

But I couldn’t help thinking of certain types of composition that have an assertively functional philosophy behind them.   Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik or music for utility is not the right fit for Jesse’s work in Chromatic Flight, even if you have to listen hard to find any moments where Taylor and Tedeschi have much to cope with as far as technical challenges go.   Yet there is a faint patina of the utilitarian about this CD’s content which is light and slight, for the most part.

As well, you might be struck by an echo of Satie’s Musique d’ameublement where the music is meant to be background, like wall-paper.  Stravinsky tells the story of the composer rushing round the room where this music was being performed, trying to get people to talk over, rather than listen attentively to, his work.

Mind you, that can work in reverse.  I remember being at a launch of something to do with chamber music at the Naval and Military Club where music was supplied by an ad hoc string quartet from the National Academy.   We were standing around on a terrace at the rear of the building, chatting amiably enough when Dame Elisabeth Murdoch  – whose money was probably funding the event – querulously demanded that we all be quiet and listen to the music, which could have been Haydn, or Paisiello, or Salieri but  was definitely in divertimento vein and not being accomplished with much concern beyond getting the notes right.  S till, the piper calls the tune, so the hard-liners among us who can distinguish between pap and prowess adjourned to the inner bar.

But, to the matter in hand, Jesse’s work tends to operate on an impressionistic level, evident in the first three titles recorded here.  Waves is really ripples with Tedeschi setting up an arpeggio ostinato – no, a splayed common chord base with some soothing meandering from both instruments.   These waves are gentle enough; even when the atmosphere gets a bit hectic in the work’s centre, there is nothing here to transport you from Elwood or Balmoral to Portsea back beach or Mona Vale on a stormy afternoon.

Flutter begins with a flute solo, punctuated by some – yes, flutter-tonguing.   Then, you settle down for a lot of repeated notes and patterns with the inevitable flutter as the main focus of action.   It’s a nicely calculated ‘effect’ piece with a neat suggestion of jazz in its elliptical central section.   Ripples is a faster Waves – at least for the flute which begins and stays in Debussyland with an arpeggiated 7th chord/almost whole-tone pattern meandering up and down with little required from the piano but dutiful chords and mirroring.

The CD’s title number is a non-confrontational  bagatelle with lots of chromatic  passage work but it’s not alarmingly atonal;  more along the lines of a modern-day Flight of the Bumble-Bee, speaking in easily digestible phrase-lengths with nothing spartan or confrontational along its journey towards a C Major final chord.  The pace in the outer thirds is fast yet the whole impresses this jaded mind as a fine AMEB study piece.  Convolution is similarly brisk, follows the same ternary pattern, also ends in C and takes a pattern of descending 4ths as its central building block.   Belying its title, the piece is clarity exemplified.

You’d want to be  more agile than most navel-gazers to find Contemplation useful.   It has no great incidents – quite properly  –  but an intriguing irregular rhythmic patter-line set up by the piano before the flute enters with a lucid melody that gives Taylor an opening to show her well-managed vibrato and security of articulation on sustained notes.  Much of Tedeschi’s part could be played by one hand, so that some consecutive chords at about the 3-minute mark come as a surprise.   Still, there’s nothing wrong with a bi-linear pattern gently wandering round a D tonality pivot to suggest something close to mental stasis – if that’s what you understand by contemplation, of course

A mild bossa nova rhythm is the only memorable factor in the first movement of the Latin Flute Suite with the prescriptive title of Bossa Flauto and there are some of those mild syncopations in the piano part to help you sway along the Brazilian dance path.  Silly Galoot, a slang term for flute, is a companion piece to the bossa nova gem and is one of the tracks that suggests to me most strikingly the landscape of Satie’s furniture music. Its more arresting moments come when both instruments play the same melody line in unison; much of the rest seems to me sprightly note-spinning with a clear lack of purpose starting about half-way through before the by-now-inevitable reprise of the piece’s opening material.   Savusavu celebrates a Fijian resort that Jesse visited and there found much the same inspiration as from bossa nova and the preceding galoot.  You can take little objection to this except where the players move into some uncomfortably situated triplets.   Nevertheless, in this piece the actual progress of the composition is very predictable.  To each his own, I suppose, but I’m puzzled as to why Jesse found a calypso rhythm gave the best reflection of his South Pacific island experience.

Jesse’s Jazz Flute Suite has three movements: Don This, Waltz and Flutist Blues.  The first is a tribute to 91-year-old jazz great Don Burrows and is a mildly swinging ramble with four places where both instruments play in unison. moments that certainly bring back memories of the Burrows Quartet and the MJQ’s influence on the art form in the middle of the last century, although this later product is low-key and short-breathed in its little paraphrases of Bach Inventions-type textures.  The Waltz is anything but: full of hemiolas at its opening before settling down for a moment, as if it prove that 3/4 is capable of more than you’d think.  It’s a placid rondo with a quiet interest, and probably not suited for dancing, but you could say the same about plenty of Chopin.   The concluding blues is an optimistic one with an attractive main melody and a clever sharing of the labour between these players; its only problem comes in an episode before the final reprise which sounds over-studied compared to the easy swagger of its surrounds.

You won’t find anything ground-breaking or unusual on this CD.  The performances are smooth, apart from a few moments of not-quite-synchronicity in the last three tracks. Bob Scott has achieved a fair balance between the players, Tedeschi’s work not being under-played and Taylor’s flute allowed a vivid amplitude without over-miking; you’re not conscious of chuffs or breathiness.  Indeed, the calm surface of the CD may go some way to explaining why I think it – or parts of it – may fit the afore-mentioned Satie performance conditions.






March Diary


Tuesday March 5


ACO Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The Collective is the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Younger Set, a group of young players who roam the country seeking whom they might entertain.  Not really, but the ensemble goes to places that the parent company doesn’t visit.  Of course, the Collective also gets to play in the ACO’s usual venues, one of which (occasionally) is the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.   For this program, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is running the show and it’s as eclectic as any of Richard Tognetti’s more recherche collations.  The night starts and ends with American writer Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation which works much better with voices than with instruments; perhaps that’s what the Collective will do – sing, rather than play.   This whole in-my-end-is-my-beginning exercise centres on Haydn’s Symphony No. 47, the Palindrome where minuet and trio each mirror their first halves.   The Mozart element comprises 6 Contredanses K462 (448b), evidence of the imagination that the composer lavished on trifles.   A new work by Heather Shannon is programmed, although the MRC’s advertising mentions two new works by this Australian pianist with an indie rock band.   Most startling of all is the night’s second half which is set to consist, at the end, of a reprise of the Tuning Meditation after Hindemith’s hour-long Ludus Tonalis compendium of prelude, interludes and fugues for solo piano, the performer as yet unnamed  .  .  .  or will we be treated to a transcription?   Could be so, as wind players for the Australian National Academy of Music are catalogued as participants.


Friday March 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Back at the Melbourne Town Hall for another year of booming acoustics.   Benjamin Northey conducts a night of popular works which will clearly climax in Stravinsky’s Firebird  –  tonight, the 1919 suite, the ‘classic’ one of the composer’s three.   Solo pianist Kristian Chong has the delectable task of fronting Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; later, the composer gets further exposure, thanks to soprano Jacqueline Porter who sings his soulful 1915 Vocalise.   Beginning the night and shifting a tad to the geographical left, Northey conducts some excerpts from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt; with Porter in the house, we’ll probably get a true Solveig’s Song.   Our own transplanted Russian (Uzbek), Elena Kats-Chernin, is represented by her Dance of the Paper Umbrellas, a 5-minute bagatelle that Northey and the MSO last played in 2015, two years after its composition.


Saturday March 9


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Paul Dyer is conducting his ensemble in all of the concertos bar No. 2, the only one that asks for a trumpet soloist – admittedly, one of exceptional talent.   Still, it’s the second-shortest of the lot and you’d think the organization would want to give full value on this occasion.  Anyway, there’s plenty in the remaining five to keep you happy, especially in my favourites: No. 1 with its peripatetic horn lines, and the earthy textures of No. 6 for strings without any violins.   Can’t find any details about the soloists, although flautist Melissa Farrow has written on the company website about the Brandenburg experience, as has principal second violin Ben Dollman.   But these are works of elevating joy where nobody can hide so we’ll doubtless get to hear most of the ABO members as soloists, no matter how briefly.   Given Melbourne’s Bach worship, it’s probably safe to say that this event will be packed to the doors.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 10 at 5 pm.


Saturday March 9


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre at 8 pm

This will be a feather in the MSO’s conservationistical cap.  The original film, which took you across, through and under the world’s water expanses, escorted by Sir David Attenborough’s commentary, is enjoying the full treatment at one of Melbourne’s largest auditoriums.   Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea and David Fleming were responsible for the original soundtrack and the MSO will air it, conducted by Vanessa Scammell.   In Sir David’s absence, the commentary will be read by English actor Joanna Lumley; patrons are in for a breathy, gushing vocal stratum to add to the MSO’s pointed illustrations.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 10 at 3 pm.


Tuesday March 12


The Sixteen

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The famous British vocal ensemble is visiting under the sponsorship of the MRC itself, although clearly in partnership with other centres because the singers will present this program in Singapore, Sydney, then here before Queensland.   Founding director Harry Christophers has set up  –  without any sweat at all  –  an all-English program to celebrate The Sixteen’s 40th anniversary.   It intersperses Tudor gems with contemporary pieces; well, James MacMillan (two works: Sedebit Dominus Rex and Mitte manum tuam from the first set of his Strathclyde Motets)  is still above ground, even if Tippett (yes, the Five Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time) and Britten (of course: the Choral Dances from Gloriana) are long gone.   Tallis enjoys five exposures: Salvator mundi, O nata lux, O sacrum convivium, Loquebantur variis linguis, and some of the Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, among which we’re bound to hear Why fum’th in sight.   The group’s output tonight contains a few well-known madrigals – Morley’s April is in my mistress’ face, Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, Byrd’s This Sweet and Merry Month of May.  This last is also represented in ecclesiastical mode with Laudibus in sanctis.   Finally, the program includes John Shepherd’s third setting of In manus tuas: the only work on tonight’s menu that does not appear on the group’s CD An Immortal Legacy of 2013.  Bit late for a promotional tour?


Friday March 15


\The Melbourne Musicians

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew at 7 pm

This enterprise featuring director Frank Pam’s beloved Mozart will see pianist Elyane Laussade performing one of the piano concertos at each of the three concerts being presented at MLC in the hall to which Kathryn Selby has moved her recitals after decamping from Federation Square.   The Musicians will present an event on Bastille Day in their long-time stamping ground of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Southgate, and another special MLC program in November.  This opening gambit will see Laussade present the G Major K. 453, one of the six buoyant works in this form the Mozart wrote in 1784.   The program is framed by Haydn – the Menuetti Ballabili, all 14 of them; and the Symphony No. 83, La Poule.  Also, we will hear a 1791 Dittersdorf symphony in D minor which I can’t trace at all; but then, he wrote over 100 symphonies of definite attribution.


Saturday March 16


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Once again, the season has well and truly opened – what with the Chinese New Year, the Myer Bowl excursions, the first of the Town Hall programs – but here comes the 2019 Opening Gala; actually, it’s the first time this year that we see chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis in control.   A somewhat unoriginal program, but that’s clearly the organizers’ perception of their regular patrons’ taste.   Violinist Lu Siqing, the MSO’s Soloist in Residence (when did that sobriquet come into being?) is repeating his success with the Bruch G minor Concerto which he performed several times with the orchestra during last year’s tour of China.   Then Sir Andrew runs us through an MSO regular: Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony No. 6.   The opener is a bit unexpected these days, although at one time the piece was an annual inevitability.   Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor offer a fine showcase for any interpreters – colour without depth – and will involve the MSO Chorus, in the interests of exactitude and courtesy to the composer.


Sunday March 17


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Returning after an interval of three years, Italian violinist Lorenza Borrani will serve as soloist and director for this unusual program.   First up comes Prokofiev: the F minor Violin Sonata No. 1 in an arrangement that takes in the ACO strings.  This is not the delightfully robust D Major Sonata originally for flute but a more stormy and brusque creation.   Borrani eventually leads the ensemble through an arrangement of Beethoven’s final and even-tempered string quartet, the Op. 135 in F Major – presumably to balance the Russian work.   At the afternoon’s centre stands Such Different Paths by Dobrinka Tabakova, a Bulgarian-British writer.  This was written in 2008 and is a string septet.   It may retain that shape but who knows in this program of transcriptions and new clothes?   For me – and, I suspect, for several others – this will be a new voice but one that has already gained ongoing success through several significant prizes and commissions.

The program will be repeated on Monday March 18 at 7:30 pm.


Tuesday March 19


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Collective regular Eidit Golder accompanies guest tenor Brenton Spiteri in an hour’s worth of Grieg, Sibelius and Stenhammar.   Not many surprises with the first two names: the Grieg is his Op. 48 Six Songs, settings of German poetry and climaxing in the demanding Ein Traum; Sibelius also gives us Six Songs Op. 50, and these too are settings of German texts, most strikingly in No. 5, Die stille Stadt.  Wilhelm Stenhammar is unexplored territory for me.   Spiteri and Golder are working through one vocal work by the Swedish composer: Four Stockholm Poems of 1918, which are in Swedish.  Then Golder gets to unveil the Sensommarnatter or Late Summer Nights: five virtuoso pieces from a gifted pianist-composer.  I’ve not heard Spiteri for a while but he has impressed me previously as an admirably clear singer with an individual performing personality.


Thursday March 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Yes, all very lovely but Sir Andrew Davis is really straining in toils of his own self-manufactured web now.   When is he going to present the Symphony No. 8?   I know it sounds like carping, but how can you set up a Mahler cycle and not get round to The Big One?   As a makeweight, the MSO will perform this final version of the composer’s sketches by Deryck Cooke, a rendition which has come to dominate the scene in the face of competition from other completions and arrangements.   Still, a fair number of Mahler expert conductors won’t touch this re-working, so we’re lucky to hear it – I suppose.  As he’s done previously, Sir Andrew will give us a helping of supplementary material before the playing gets underway, having actor/director Tama Matheson step up to read some words by the composer to contextualise the work for us.   Sounds like vamping: the symphony lasts over 80 minutes and stands on its own merits, despite the purists’ rejection.

This program will be repeated on Friday March 22 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm and on Saturday March 23 in Hamer Hall at 2 pm.


Sunday March 24


Trio Anima Mundi

St. Michael’s Uniting Church, Collins St. at 2 pm

Allons, enfants.  The tricolor flies proudly through the first work in this recital: Ravel’s Piano Trio.  This exhilarating masterpiece is fast becoming a chamber music cliche, even if it is irresistible for every ensemble with this make-up.   It’s curmudgeonly to cavil at interpretations of the slow movement  –  hard to get wrong, I would have thought – but getting the balance right in the finale can prove a disaster for many pianists and the Pantoum second movement can all too often have its spikes blunted.  After this, the TAM will play Harry  Waldo Warner’s 1921 Piano Trio which won that year’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize, 20 years before Britten also received a Coolidge Award.   Warner, an Edwardian/Georgian composer and violist, is one of the chamber music writers being resurrected in this ensemble’s Piano Trio Archaeology project.  Let’s hope the field excursion is a rewarding one for us all.

This program can also be heard at Montsalvat, Eltham on Saturday March 23 at 2 pm.


Tuesday March 26


Acacia Winds

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The personnel of this excellent ensemble is as expected for tonight’s recital: flute Kiran Phatak, oboe David Reichelt, clarinet Lloyd Van’t Hoff, horn Rachel Shaw, bassoon Matthew Kneale.  They are juxtaposing works by American and Australian composers, the native-born works so new that, at the time of writing, they don’t have titles.  The Acacians have performed Lachlan Skipworth’s Echoes and lines quintet over the past two years.   I heard Sam Smith’s work for orchestra interior cities at an MSO Cybec concert in 2016, but no chamber music so far.  As for the US scores, we’ll hear Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon’s Autumn Music, a homage to Samuel Barber’s seasonal masterpiece for the same combination; and David Maslanka’s Wind Quintet No. 4 in three movements of 1985: a fine illustration of this writer’s facility at creating idiomatic, informed music for wind instruments.


Friday March 29


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew conducts a straight overture-concerto-symphony program with absolutely no surprises.   Except, possibly, the soloist –  pianist Alessio Bax who, as far as I can detect, isn’t related to Sir Arnold.   However, he has won two significant prizes: Leeds in 2000 and the Hamamatsu in 1997.   Here, he plays Mozart’s last concerto, No. 27 in B flat.  Preceding this, Davis and the MSO give us Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, packed with nobility and pregnant pauses.   To end, we hear Sibelius No. 1, long overshadowed by its successor but just as fine a composition and it doesn’t lay on the dominant-founded heroic suspense as much as the D Major work.  Expect extensive perorations in the outer movements.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 30 at 7:30 pm and on Monday April 1 at 6:30 pm.


Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

For this year’s Chinese New Year concert, conductor/composer Tan Dun and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave up dickering around with single imported soloists and brought in a complete band: Hanggai, the Mongolian-based (well, partly) rock group that has made a cultural living by adapting folk-songs from the mother-country, singing them in Mongolian or Mandarin, and for this occasion taking a back row at the (elevated) rear of the MSO under Tan, supported in their work with lushly scored accompaniments.

Despite the attributions of some Hanggai numbers to specific composers and lyrics-writers, everything we heard sounded like folk music, although you’d hope that the original tunes had been ironed out into orthodox bar-lengths and contours. It all sounded pretty Westernized and aimed at slotting into Occidental norms, which was a pity but par for the course. One of my saddest memories is of the result yielded after I’d asked a group of Russian/Polish friends to sing that song In the field stood a birch tree used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Symphony No. 4; they weren’t particularly excited to give it an airing but, when they did, the ending of all lines had been added to, making the melodic shapes four-square and, compared to Tchaikovsky’s slight abridgements (two beats silence at the end of each line), prosaic.  Who was right? I’m hoping it was Tchaikovsky.

On this night, I heard about nine extracts from Hanggai’s collected works, all of them coming from CDs recorded between 2007 and last year.   All but two – the group’s hit Drinking Song and (I think) the Lullaby for Borulai – involved MSO backing that in some cases proved substantial, almost drowning out the visitors – except for their indefatigable drum-kit player Zhengha Yang cocooned in his own plastic-surrounded cell.  I’m assuming that Tan Dun supplied the arrangements; not that I’m an expert but the orchestration proved continuously clever and loaded with colours that spruced up the original melodies.

I believe the same thing can be seen in British folk music where less scrupulous interpreters and arrangers have bowdlerized the originals to make the products more easy for the general public to imbibe.  But against that, you have the shining beacon of Bartok who could do the popular thing (Romanian Folk Dances, anyone?) but who paid many European countries’ music a mighty service by transcribing it with searing accuracy and infusing it into his own musical processes with no intention of sugaring the pill.

The Bartok treatment didn’t apply to these Mongolian folk tunes. As you’d expect, they have been put into an acceptable rock-band garb, complete with inexorable regular syncopations and a harmonic scheme that would have astonished Cimarosa with its obtuseness.  The singers – Yiliqi, Daorina, Batubagen – spent most of the night yelling, using a head voice and disdaining to employ their diaphragms; what need, when you’re amplified, to learn how to sing properly?  Further to this, we were assured in much promotional material that the group had its genesis when one of the foundation members got tired of your garden variety rock and decided to learn throat-singing in an effort to go back to part of his country’s national music roots.  Well, we heard precious little of that on this evening; something like it occurred during the ensemble’s last bracket, beginning with Samsara, but, if you’ve heard Tibetan monks at their devotions, this was a pallid reflection of the real thing.

Hanggai struck me as part of the international brotherhood of rough rock and roll; not personally aggressive enough to take on the punk mantle, from which school some of the members sprang, but assuming certain touches in their presentation intended to add to the ensemble’s carefully prepared ‘untamed’ character.

Throughout the night, films were screened behind the players, most to do with Mongolia and showing images of the country as they might be displayed in a travelogue: sweeping steppes, undulating vales of green grass, endless shots of horses running wild or being driven or simply being ridden.  Nothing amiss with this; Tan is a top name among film composers and a fair few of his past New Year concerts have been played with a film component.

Even for his new Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves as soloist, Tan screened three extended sequences showing scenes of lupine life: roving on the open range with the pack(s); attempts by the wolves to raid a team of horses at night; finally, men hunting (and killing) wolves.   All this while Reeves outlined the composer’s taxing solo line with a goodly amount of high work on the G string, including notes well above the end of the fingerboard.   Unfortunately, Reeves met with several pitch problems that sounded out all too clearly as Tan allowed him plenty of exposure, including a flashy cadenza.

In this work also the melodic elements turned towards folk-inflected lyricism, bedizened with atmospheric textures for both soloist and orchestra.  The composer wears his emotions openly and both this concerto’s formal characteristics and its scintillating surface combine to make an immediately attractive construct, the score packed with action and – for the most part – an excellent aural illustration of the film.

The night’s only other serious music, also by Tan, was Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which involved a bit of audience participation that I mentally pooh-poohed before the performance but which turned out to be close to magical.  For this, the composer had asked audience members to download an app to be played from their cellphones during the work’s progress.  As it turned out, the pre-recorded mass sound came at the start when the composer pointed to various points of the hall to activate their 52 seconds of sound – a mass of bird chirps, which slowly moved across the hall from left to right – then starting the MSO on its way through the new score which brought fresh textures and sonic surprises at every turn, including brass outbursts of biting intensity, string layering, the orchestra turning on their own bird-sound apps, all the while bringing us back to the ground bass being jockeyed round the orchestra.

I wasn’t sure about the film accompanying this work.  Abandoning the wild-life scheme, here the backdrop consisted of Chinese ideograms/letters juxtaposed with and superimposed by and on what looked like ancient Chinese symbols and letters.  Still, by this stage I was glad to be spared the endless clips of horse hordes, even some welcome still lives of sheep and cattle that illustrated Grassland My Beautiful Home; it meant that your visual incomprehension generated a fall-back in your attention to what was going on with the musicians.

Both concerto and passacaglia were received with clear approbation by a well-populated hall, which also reacted with enthusiasm to each of the Hanggai offerings including Horse of Colours with its appropriate galloping pace, The Transistor Made in Shanghai for that essential touch of contemporary humour, the afore-mentioned Grassland My Beautiful Home which bore unmistakable reference to country-and-western influences, an unscheduled airing of Uruumdush, and a Swan Geese finale with a mesmerising film of wild bird flights in convoy.

After a good many years’ exposure to attempted fusions of popular music performers with orchestras, I have to confess that the experiences haven’t generated great enthusiasm on my part.  The trouble is worsened when it comes to rock-and-roll because it is essentially a retrogressive form of music.  Given the freedom to break boundaries and forge new paths, rock settled into a behavioural groove compared to which New Orleans jazz is a maelstrom of creativity.   Electronic instruments with incredible potential have never been exploited, possibly because of the dearth of trained musicians in rock-and-roll ranks, possibly because popular determinations stamped out all attempts at real creativity (Frank Zappa, Hendrix, even Carlos Santana) so that today’s scene is packed with self-indulgent mediocrities whose points of difference are sub-atomic.

Hanggai, from a distance (as they were on this night), are unremarkable.  Their frequent appearances on the film stock being unwound before us showed a tendency to see themselves (or allow themselves to be presented) as rebels, isolated heroes, a posse that might have escaped from the set of a spaghetti western, dogged forward-striding figures that recall ageing images of Deep Purple or the Rolling Stones – anything, in fact, except musicians.   Their material is basically sweet and wistful, but they drag it screaming along a predictable furrow.   Nevertheless, I’m very thankful to Tan Dun for making the process of experiencing their work a great deal less harrowing than it could have been.




What price the Holy Spirit?


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10


                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.




A few bruises but solid core


Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre

February 3


      Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





New take on an old tale


Forest Collective

Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent

Thursday January 31



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





February Diary

Sunday February 3


Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre at 5 pm

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


Tuesday February 5


Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

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


Friday February 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

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


Wednesday February 13


The Song Company

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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


Wednesday February 13


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

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


Wednesday February 13

Grigoryan Brothers and Wolfgang Muthspiel

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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


Saturday February 16


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

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


Saturday February 16


Gabrieli Consort & Players

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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

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


Wednesday February 20


Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 4:30 pm

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

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


Wednesday February 20


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

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


Wednesday February 20

Satu Vanska and Kristian Chong

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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


Sunday February 24


Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra et al

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

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

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


Monday January 25


Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

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


Tuesday February 26


Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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

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


Wednesday February 27


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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


Thursday February 28


Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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

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


Thursday February 28


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

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

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


Thursday February 28


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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

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



Not too much effort: it’s summer


Miles Johnston

Australian Haydn Ensemble & David Greco

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders

Sunday January 6 at 11:30 am and 2 pm


miles johnston

                                                                    Miles Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2018 in review


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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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