That’s entertainment


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday July 3 and Monday July 4, 2016

Giovanni Sollima - Copy

                                                                                  Giovanni Sollima

In the absence of their resident guru, Richard Tognetti, the ACO players hosted Italian cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima as soloist and, in some cases, director.  As the afternoon rushed past, you weren’t quite sure how much direction was involved; three of the four works in the program’s first half didn’t involve Sollima, although he made up for that in a dominant display after interval.  In all, he played a Leo concerto, an arrangement by his father of one of Rossini’s Old Age Sins, and wound up with his own concerto, Fecit Neap 17..  And there is no doubt that these three comprised Sunday afternoon’s most remarkable playing.

He’s an attention-grabbing cellist, although at the first instance this was due to his remarkable virtuosity in the Leo Concerto No. 3 in D minor, that composer one of the masters of the Neapolitan Baroque.  The four-movement work, patterned roughly on the church-sonata form, can be treated with too much care,  but not this time.  Sollima vaulted into its wide melodic arches with no fear and a powerful right-hand urging on zealously the opening Andante grazioso with its melodic minor peculiarities.   As the concerto moved past, the tenor-clef solo line took on an added fascination thanks to Sollima’s chameleonic handling of texture and dynamic; for all the surprises (limited as they were) in the development of the Con spirito and Allegro movements, what really captured attention was the volatile cellist.

Of course, the ACO loves a showman and they got one in spades with Sollima.  While the Leo concerto walked a fine line between extraversion and control, the second part of the program spilled over into unbridled display, first through Rossini’s Une larme Theme and Variations with the ACO strings playing straight-man to the soloist’s wise-cracking hero, the languid and frenetic variants revealing a fully-realized catalogue of devices and effects,  negotiated with both legerdemain and humour.   Sollima’s own composition refers in its title to an inscription abbreviation that features on 18th century manuscripts from Naples; in its content, the concerto moves between a stringent cantabile mood and hurtling dance rhythms that suggest 20th century dance music, simplified Bartok, and Stravinsky without an editor.   The soloist plays games – walking on after the piece has begun and wandering round the ACO, finding a hole in the floor to put his instrument’s end pin, twirling his cello like a dance partner, racing his accompaniment in stretto passages – and gives himself a breath-stopping series of production hurdles to handle.

It all made for fun times, with the benefit of seeing and hearing a charismatic musician at work.  Sollima makes a fine jewel in this ensemble’s setting; he is all fire and passion, bounding through his work with animal spirits and sensuality, while the ACO keeps its cool, giving strait-laced support for the most part and, while appreciating the skills of their guest, seemingly content to surrender the limelight, even in the hyped-up irregular rhythms of the wilder stretches in the cellist’s own composition.

All the program’s music made up a sort of Italian sequence, beginning with an arrangement for strings (with harpsichord and theorbo providing continuo) of Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa madrigal; pleasant enough as a throat-clearer but quite vapid in effect because the (eventual) movement of the four vocal lines over a four-note cantus firmus loses most of its dramatic punch unless the piece is sung.

Then came some a massive temporal leap and a realization of the program’s title: Berio’s Sequenza VIII for violin and Sequenza XIVb for double bass (originally for cello but produced with the composer’s authorization after his death).   Well, when I say ‘real’, that’s not really true .  What ACO leader Satu Vanska and bass Maxime Bibeau did was play about half of their respective sequenze in alternation, so that the pieces interwove, thereby offering two nodes of concentration at either end of the stage.   Both performers made a fair fist of their semi-pieces, Bibeau more comfortable in negotiating an adventurous gamut of sound-manufacturing techniques although his instrument was over-amplified.  You can see why this fusion was attempted – each work on its own lasts over 13 minutes and that level of concentration on challenging aleatoric music would have been a powerful demand for even the most charitably-minded ACO enthusiast.   But was there really a need to perform both?

Vanska later offered some Paganini: the Introduction and Variations by Paganini on the prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio from Rossini’s opera Moses in Egypt.  One of the great tests on a violinist’s ability to transcend improbable limitations, the work asks the soloist to perform only on the G string.  Vanska gave a good account of this trial, which is much more interesting to watch than to hear, the theme itself enunciated with throbbing strength.   Most of the upper-register filigree came off, apart from a couple of very exposed harmonics; like the Rossini piece, the whole point here is exhibitionism – brilliant technique displayed in throwaway frivolity.

Bibeau also enjoyed another solo spot in Giacinto Scelsi‘s C’est bien la nuit from the 1972 diptych Nuits.  Here was an engrossing reading, music of concentrated vigour and informational intensity that established a cogent voice using limited materials and sustained attention throughout a tantalisingly brief time-span.   This composer’s work is rarely played here; indeed, the few times I’ve heard any Scelsi products occurred many years ago when the ELISION contemporary music ensemble under the benevolent artistic direction of Daryl Buckley was operating in Melbourne.   This brief remembrance of things past came as a standout, an enjoyable surprise in this often-sparkling, sometimes brilliant concert.

An unexpected light


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 19, 2016

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (
                                                                            Pierre-Laurent Aimard

With the bit between their collective teeth, the MSO musicians mounted an impressive assault on the central Mahler leviathan, their chief conductor bringing a surging energy to a score that other conductors handle as though its opening funeral march determines the complete score.   From principal trumpet Geoffrey Payne‘s opening call-to-obsequies, the ground was set for a reading that spoke clearly but at its own pace with an elastic approach to metre that initially led to some slight discrepancies between the brass corps and the rest.  But the energy behind this reading came bursting out in the 13th bar’s explosive full-orchestra chord and was sustained throughout the following grim pages.

But what eventually distinguished this performance was an immediacy of impact, even in pesante passages throughout each of the five movements.  Through the Sturmisch  bewegt that follows the march, the textural balance ensured that secondary voices came across with appropriate clarity and, although Mahler’s symphonic scores have plenty of mud-pools waiting for any orchestra, Davis managed to keep the MSO’s output lucid and so much more involving than when an audience is bombarded with bullying heftiness.  Not that matters are made easy since, after the second movement’s whip-crack first gestures, the development becomes something of a passage of play between orchestral blocks.  But what came across here was a clearly perceptible development, the variety of harmonic and digital shifts and juxtapositions a genuine intellectual engagement with the listener, more than a demonstration of temperament and hyped-up dynamics.

Two problem movements confront every interpreter of this work.  Both the central; Landler and the Rondo-Finale have the potential – realized all too often – of wearing out both players and patrons.   Both are lengthy, even if the middle movement has a more moderate emotional cast, and in both the seams between sections can be over-exposed, as though the paragraphs have to be sharply delineated: finished with that, on with this. Davis gave us a changeable sonic landscape, distinguished by a lightness of touch even in difficult juxtapositions of attack and ever-changing dynamics, as in the melange prior to Letter 4.   And, for the first time in many years, the last movement radiated bonhomie and a spirit-infusing warmth; usually, I’m waiting for the concluding rush with impatience, worn out by what all too often sounds like the composer’s self-indulgence in delaying tactics.   As with the Landler, this finale had a cogency and an insightfully driven suspense that made sense of  its episodes as a cumulative process.

Just as deftly accomplished, the Adagietto found itself subjected to sensible treatment; without interpolated pauses, its melodic drift given full weight but the entire movement kinetic – no oleaginous Venetian pooling but an ardent and controlled emotional exhalation with the MSO strings steady and cohesive; moments like the pianissimo shift back to F Major achieved with minimal fuss or pausing for effect.   Further, for once, the harp element from Yinuo Mu made itself a constituent part of the action, not just a presence in the opening bars and at the first high-point.

Of course, this work is no strange territory for the MSO who recorded it about a decade ago under Markus Stenz as part of that conductor’s review of the full Mahler symphonic range, and revisited it less than  three years ago with Simone Young.   Yet, this time around, its remembered longueurs dissipated in a forceful and fresh interpretation, giving much promise for the next two works in the cycle which present even greater challenges.

As a preface to the main work, Pierre-Laurent Aimard took the solo part for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; not a work you hear often live, partly due to the scarcity of disabled performers and also owing, one suspects, to the desire of most pianists to exercise their craft using all their gifts.  Davis and his players provided a louring background for Aimard, whose handling of the deliberately wide-ranging keyboard part was hard to fault, particularly in the necessary leaps between bass and treble and the multitude of arpeggio-like passages by which Ravel gives the executant full coverage of the instrument’s range.

Still, this concerto comes to life in its two cadenzas which are packed with wrenching difficulties, although Aimard negotiated them with authority and abstained from an over-employment of the sustaining pedal.   Particularly impressive were the pianist’s emphatic delivery at both ends of the compass, including some thunderous bass clusters, and the penetrating duet with clarinet under the orchestra’s clarion calls near the work’s thrilling conclusion.

Aimard is certainly the first guest I know of to treat an MSO audience to an encore by Boulez.   He played three of the Douze Notations with agility and a cogent communication of the composer’s febrile piano style.   As the title indicates, the works are rapidly done and came as a kind of spicy interlude in an afternoon where gravity was a significant element. More interestingly, this encore, although some worlds away from the expected Debussy or Ravel miniature, did not appear to upset the MSO’s Mahler aficionados.  But then, as I say, the Notations are over very quickly.

Today Aimard performs Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm, after having played them in Sydney last week following three performances of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux etoiles . . .   A true devotee, the pianist studied with Messiaen’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, so you can expect an ultra-informed performance.

And the Ravel concerto and Mahler Symphony will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Monday March 21 at 6:30 pm.

New settings for old vices


Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall

November 6, 2015

Meow Meow

In an ambitious exercise, the state company juxtaposed Weill/Brecht’s sung ballet – the last significant partnership between playwright and composer – with a freshly-composed Australian cabaret that visited the seven canonical major sins on the nation’s capital cities.  Julian Langdon wrote a prologue and epilogue for these modern-day Seven Deadly Sins as well as illustrating gluttonous Adelaide; Mark Viggiani took on Hobart’s envy and angry Perth; Brisbane’s association with sloth was allocated to Ian Whitney, who also had the unenviable task of populating the lustful landscape in Sydney; Jessica Wells tried to persuade us of Melbourne’s innate greed through the person of John Wren, but then had the night’s easiest run with a romp through prideful Canberra as personified by Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott.

As with any challenging cabaret, the segments varied substantially in content, with plenty of pastiche from each writer. And writers they were in both senses, providing the texts for their own music, albeit collaborating in workshops to develop the whole enterprise.  While each composer gave good musical service with well-regulated instrumentation and generally comfortable vocal writing, the librettos varied in effectiveness and relevance to the vices they were intending to depict.  Viggiani’s choose-a-wife contest for baritone Matthew Tng‘s amiable Prince Alfredo held suggestions of the Princess Mary/Prince Frederik romance, but his condensation of Perth’s idiosyncratic ire to the Rinehart/Hancock family split failed to make many points about the vice itself, the slapstick depiction of all three characters in the triangle coming across as relatively heavy-handed.

Whitney’s two scenes also made a sharp contrast.  In Brisbane denizens Pete and Joh (what’s in a name?), he gained from the services of baritones Nathan Lay and Tng as two exhausted layabouts, while soprano Cristina Russo as a Milton-spouting Angel relished the score’s only lyrical vocal lines.  When it came to the bed-hopping character of Sydney’s self-obsessed chattering classes, the overlapping lines of all seven characters generated a clever verbal depiction of swinging relationships, Elizabeth Lewis‘ anything-goes Helene a solidly crafted presence in a setting where most other vocal lines were confined to scraps.

Under Tahu Matheson, Orchestra Victoria escorted the singers through their tasks with equanimity, from  various Latin and Viennese take-offs to the circus-like superficiality of Jessica Wells’ mockery of Canberra’s political flotsam where costuming, mimicry and all-too-familiar verbal tropes took attention away from the musical underpinning.  Along the way through the night’s backside-numbing first part, the orchestra also took on Wells’ grim, sonorously weighty depiction of a depressed, working class Melbourne in thrall to John Wren’s betting stables and touts.

All of the singers involved were students from the Master of Music in Opera Performance course from  Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music; two of them – baritone Lay and impressive tenor Michael Petruccelli – also appeared in the night’s second part, the sung ballet that starred Weimar Republic cabaret expert Meow Meow in the lead role of Anna which, in more conventional productions, is split between a singer and a dancer.  As part of the male quartet representing Anna’s family, both young students gave firm service alongside tenor Carlos E. Barcenas and bass Jeremy Kleeman, the quartet aggressive, remorselessly stentorian on occasions in handling the chorale-type writing that punctuates Anna’s travels in search of wealth.

Matheson headed a larger instrumental body for Weill’s score which impressed for its consistent emotional content. The creators left very little time for their audiences to resent being preached to, no matter how dexterously, about the evils associated with success in a capitalistic world but the scenes, though often discrete, moved into each other without theatrical or musical jerks. While the intent of the work is clearly didactic, its moral, rather than coming over coated in a sugary cocoon of comforting platitudes, remains grim and unavoidable, right up to the bitter if quiescent final bars.

Dominating the stage, Meow Meow gave an impressive depiction of Anna, making a splendid impact in the Boston scene where Anna 2 encounters lust in the form of an attractive if poor man, and her other half has to persuade her to do right by the money-expecting family and stay with her rich lover, harnessing lust to the greater good.  The singer handled this brief but telling segment with unaffected warmth, not actually milking the situation for its sentiment of regret but communicating simply the double standards in operation as Anna encounters yet another sin in a different civic setting.

Both Deadly Sins were staged with surtitles, most helpful in the case of Brecht’s text which was sung in German.   Given the staging circumstances – a fairly small ribbon for action front-of-stage with the orchestra as backdrop, the family quartet singing from Hamer Hall’s rear wall – Cameron Menzies‘ direction depended largely on Meow Meow’s histrionic talents.  By and large, the satire’s onward drive worked fairly well, despite too much emphasis for this observer on the cabaret fall-back of semi-sexual spasms and jerks.

Still, the production’s flaw stemmed from these straitened operating circumstances.  Despite the lead artist’s best endeavours, the work makes best sense if there are two Annas: one, the no-nonsense and hard-headed negotiating singer; the other, a more flighty, temperamentally unreliable dancer who actually does the hard work to get the truism-touting, corrupt family its home in Louisiana.   In this space, a dancer would have been forced to work under improbable restraints, but the lack of one – let alone a corps – lessened the construct’s dramatic impact.