Some hits, a few misses

PAAVALI, POULENC, DEBUSSY & BEETHOVEN

Paavali Jumppanen, ANAM Musicians

Australian National Academy of Music

Thursday May 19, 2016

Paavali Jumppanen
                                                     Paavali Jumppanen

Back at the National Academy as a guest faculty member, the Finnish pianist mentored and participated in this night of doubles where each composer was represented by two works; not in an attempt to show any progress from youth to maturity, but more to give each of them another voice, no matter how similar in accent.   While the contrast between Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano of 1926 and his horn/piano Elegie from 1957 was pretty stark – the one loaded with frivolity and cheek, the Dennis Brain lament heavy with reminiscences of the Dialogues des Carmelites opera – Beethoven’s B flat Trio Op. 11 and his E flat Quintet for piano and winds, separated from each other by two years, displayed not-unexpected affinities.   The links between Debussy’s Cello Sonata and some of the Book II Preludes are more difficult to articulate yet the sonata’s Serenade and General Lavine, eccentric share a brusquerie and volatility that reveal their author’s handwriting very clearly.

Similar or dissimilar, the six works programmed made for an intermittently involving night, beginning with the Poulenc trio from oboe Stephanie Dixon, bassoon Christopher Haycroft, and piano Alexander Waite.   In the South Melbourne Town Hall’s large air-space, the keyboard sounded over-lush, a frequently applied sustaining pedal ensuring a mushy complement for the winds; a much better mix emerged in the Rondo-finale with the high-register piano writing slotting in deftly with the active woodwind lines.

Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio from clarinet Kenny Keppel, cello Jovan Pantelich and piano Adam McMillan made a more consistent fist of getting to grips with a consistent interpretation, giving just the right measure to the composer’s aggression; by the end of the exposition repeat in the first movement, the ensemble’s concerted attack made you feel that this was an exceptional performance-in-the-making, reinforced by an excellently well-managed variety in dynamic gradations from all three participants in the following Adagio.

For the Debussy sonata, Pantelich was accompanied by Jumppanen, who had the score by heart and was able to keep both eyes on the string player.   With the piano lid on the long-stick, the keyboard dominated the performance, pretty obviously in the Final which saw Pantelich drowned at several important points (for the cello), both artists taking a very cautious approach to the composer’s Anime direction.   Jumppanen was faced with more of a challenge in the Poulenc Elegie from Timothy Skelly‘s beefy horn  12-tone solo opening foray, efficiently anticipating that trademark striding energy when the piano enters this scene.   Listening to a French horn by itself always fills me with foreboding; the instrument is difficult and miscalculations occur with regularity.   But Skelly’s performance – apart from one slight and soft blip in the core of this score’s main argument – proved exemplary, if inclined to the more forceful end of the dynamic spectrum.

Apart from the Lavine piece, Jumppanen played Ondine and Bruyeres; the first delineated with care for detail which made the irregular arpeggio-like gruppetti of 12 notes all the more striking and crisp; the English countryside/Scottish moors/Daniel Waters film tone-picture enjoyed a plain-speaking interpretation, without the push-me pull-you rubato interpolations that other pianists use to make the negotiation of three staves easier.

The program’s concluding Beethoven Quintet Op. 16 involved all four wind players heard so far and a new pianist in Nicholas Young.   As with other pieces preceding it, this was excellent in patches, nowhere more so than the opening to its central Andante cantabile where, after the pianist had enunciated the main theme, the winds entered en bloc to repeat it with a rich warmth of sound that transmuted the ordinary into a powerfully affecting statement.

Here was a performance with relatively few flaws, apart from a difficult moment for Skelly in the first movement’s Allegro where, 40 bars from the end, Beethoven gives the horn a falling arpeggio solo that he puts into lip-splitting triplets two bars later.   Young had great success with his acutely active part, while Keppel took bravely to his task as dominant wind; in fact, I would have appreciated hearing Dixon’s line surging out of the mix more often but, in this case, the reason for the oboe’s reticence is as much due to Beethoven as to the assertiveness of the other ensemble members.

Under new management

OPENING CONCERT

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

South Melbourne Town Hall

March 5, 2016

Once again, rumours have begun to circulate about the parlous situation of the National Academy, whose administrators seem fated to plead on a regular basis with Canberra for funds to continue their activities.   Late last year, the news came that the Australian National University is willing to house the Academy when its lease arrangements with the South Melbourne Town Hall come up for renewal in 2017 –  a move that has its proponents but many more detractors, fortunately.   Peter Garrett, as Minister for the Arts, proposed closing ANAM in 2008 because he saw the institution as elitist; what he wanted in its place remained unclear.   But the thinking behind the minister’s proposal showed both a meanness (or absence) of spirit and a totally inadequate comprehension of what it takes to make a real musician.  And that lack of insight has lasted well beyond the first Rudd ministry.

under new mang
              Nick Deutsch

If you want to see why ANAM is  both important and successful, all you have to do is attend a single concert or recital to understand what is being achieved.  Not everything you hear will be easy listening, but anything performed by this body’s young instrumentalists stands several aesthetic strata above the products that emanated from Garrett during his musical career-of-sorts.  Saturday night was a sterling example of where the Academy’s players are situated with a half-challenging (for the audience) night’s work of a near-contemporary concerto for percussion, a remarkable freshly-minted work from outgoing ANAM director Paul Dean to expose the virtuosity of his successor Nick Deutsch, and a rousing trip into established repertoire with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D.

Soloist in Per Norgard‘s Percussion Concerto For a Change, Kaylie Melville operated from (as far as I could see) three stations positioned right in front of the audience.  Norgard’s work is ostensibly in four movements, representing four states of being extracted from that fountain of fascination for post-Cage composers: the I Ching or Book of Changes. What actually comes out is a sequence of massively charged solos for the percussionist with the orchestra very much a supporting act, occasionally offering relief and, it has to be said, context behind the free-wheeling, attention-grabbing soloist.  Norgard’s enthusiasm for Eastern sounds come over with remarkable clarity in the flavours of his writing, even if the cultural suggestions in movements like the opening Thunder Repeated, the Image of Shock sound more like Tibet than China, suggesting the long semi-braying trumpets that used to sound from the Potala in Lhasa.

Melville gave a bravura performance, moving from drums and woodblocks to a large array of gongs, then over to  a panoply of more drums – the whole exercise carried out with assurance and an obvious familiarity with the Danish composer’s demands.  While you came across moments of tranquillity, even near-stasis, the score (here receiving its Australian premiere, although I thought that distinction had already gone to Perth’s Tim White) made its most compelling impact in a set of long cadenza-style solo passages for Melville: shifting rhythms suggesting a compressed minimalism, just-this-side-of-painful heightened dynamics, a constant barrage of contrasting timbres.  As a vehicle for this ANAM graduate, Norgard’s sustained exercise enjoyed a positive reception in a hall that, at its conclusion, was tropically sweltering.

Paul Dean’s farewell gesture to ANAM is an oboe concerto, with Deutsch its first executant;  this work did enjoy a premiere performance on Saturday night.  For reasons that escape me, the composer has kept his soloist’s output fixed in the instrument’s high register, which means that the oboe is a pretty strident line for most of the time.  In the traditional three movements, the fast-slow-fast sequence is interrupted by a cadenza, one that is no free-for-all rubato rhapsody because an escorting snare drum emerges to set up a grounding rhythmic baseline.  Dean lays on rich washes of sound in the outer segments, wind and brass providing solid sound-walls that the soloist emerges from with penetrating sustained notes.  An easing lyricism obtains in the central adagio where the support is reduced to strings alone but, in keeping with the concerto’s unapologetic focus on the soloist, Deutsch set up the lyrical running pretty quickly and maintained it throughout what was a welcome hiatus in a typically ebullient creation.

Fortunately, the ANAM strings came into their own for the Sibelius symphony.  Indeed, one of the more gripping spectacles in what had now become uncomfortable atmospheric conditions was the sight of the corps bending into their work, both in the flows and ebbs of Sibelius’ opening Allegretto and late in the arches of the finale’s central theme.  In sum, the reading generated by conductor Antonio Mendez proved to be urgent and magniloquent, its ongoing problem one of balance.  Even from the first, you were left to question the conductor’s weighting; when the woodwind entered with the first theme in bar 9, the clarinets could be heard clearly while the lead oboe line was present but not dominant.  The third movement Vivacissimo was certainly that, its 6/8 tarantella exciting to watch but clarity of delivery was questionable, particularly after Letter C when the brass made their presence felt.

Something similar dogged the finale; not so much in the broad-beamed melodic streams but, in pesante full orchestra pages, the brass and wind were allowed too much dynamic latitude.  You felt that the suggestions of Scandinavian grandeur-in-nature were suffering from over-kill, that Sibelius’ spacious sonorous edifices had been turned into cliff-faces without detail.  Having noted that, however, the final peroration came over as a proper capstone to the performance, the players undiminished in drive and responsiveness.  Obviously, the Academy is raring to go for another year; here’s hoping the bureaucrats and penny-pinchers  somehow, sometime, get to see these gifted talents showcasing their abilities.  It’s always an invigorating sight and the full ensemble’s impact can be striking; this Sibelius reading had more individuality, even with its over-heftiness, than a performance broadcast on ABC Radio from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra the preceding night.

Birdsong from the North

ALAN HOLLEY

Australian Voices

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 5, 2015

This series – a collaboration between the Recital Centre and the Australian National Academy of Music –  has tended to air music by composers whose names are familiar or well-established.  While Sydney-based Alan Holley is verging on the age requirement for a senior Australian creative figure, his music has rarely travelled to Melbourne; at least, in my experience.  All the more welcome, then, that Thursday evening gave an audience of enthusiasts the chance to hear a variety of works covering Holley’s activity over the past eleven years.

                                                                   Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Thanks to the expertise of a chain of talented young ANAM musicians and the committed direction of curator/trumpeter David Elton, we experienced two of Holley’s larger-framed constructs, interspersed with some solos from Elton alongside a few short pieces that served to illustrate the writer’s skill in finding congenial frames of operation for wind and brass instruments in particular.  Canzona for Ligeti begins with an off-stage horn solo – and, no matter what you do, the shade of Britten’s Serenade casts a long shadow – before a short and dynamic tribute written on the Hungarian composer’s death.  Clear in its linear interplay and texturally warm and spiky in turn, this set a fairly high standard of expectation for the rest of the night’s content.

Comprising a mixed nonet – five strings, three wind, horn – loaded with dream juxtaposes musical images of Australia’s first white settlers with the country’s indigenous peoples, the intellectual/emotional landscapes of both races spelled out in a score notable for some eloquent bass clarinet contributions from Luke Carbon.  Here again, Holley employed a varied sound palette, best exemplified by some striking low wind textures supporting a reticent string group.

Elton himself performed Ornithologia, splitting its two parts (in reverse order) at either end of a piano trio, the estuaries of time, which, like the nonet, marked a new e. e. cummings period in the composer’s style of nomenclature.   The trumpet solo gave the first overt reference to Holley’s preoccupation with birdsong, an influence that colours his work – well, the instances we heard here – and Elton’s eloquent performance gave an object lesson in rapidity of articulation as well as demonstrating an unshakable grip on the piece’s sequence of abrupt sonic explosions.

As for the birds, Holley uses a limited and local number of them.  There are no Messiaen-like ornate chromatically complex flurries; rather more suggestions than direct imitation although, to be even-handed, a world of difference in intention lies between the Calling section of Ornithologia and the French composer’s obsessively detailed Oiseaux exotiques.  Holley, unlike Messiaen, presents as more inclined to use what is available rather than to search out the more arcane sounds of rarer species.  Certainly, birdsong adds to the colour, the context even of Holley’s works’ progress, but its use  is not all-engrossing for the listener.

The piano trio opens with long solos for two of the participants; when the instruments coalesce, your attention tends to wander as the contrapuntal interplay is less engaging than Holley’s exploration of individual lines; as a result, I tended to focus on Iona Allan‘s violin or Alexandra Partridge‘s cello as distinct threads rather than looking for the score’s ensemble tension.  In this program’s context, the estuaries of time opened bravely enough but wore out their welcome, the pools they led to rather brackish despite the interpreters’ clear dedication to the task.

The last work of the night, The Winged Viola, was the earliest written, in 2004.  Soloist Gregory Daniel met its challenges with fine equanimity, his line piercingly clean in the Salon’ close situation.  Like the trio, this is a substantial work and deserved earlier placement; as it was, the lyrical curves and sprightly moments of technical brilliance impressed for their clarity, although the later-written scores already heard held more polished, more tautly enunciated content.  Less importantly, this chamber concerto came onto the scene well after the scheduled finishing time of the recital; enervating for those of us with a commitment later yesterday evening.