Why I am not a critic – 2

Australia Ensemble – Dean, Crumb, Messiaen

On a recent Saturday night I went with my former piano teacher, P, to see the Australia Ensemble.

The program was, at least on paper, daunting:

Brett DEAN (b 1961): Demons for solo flute (2004)

George CRUMB (b 1929): Black Angels: 13 Images from the Dark Land, for electric string quartet (1970)

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992): Quartet for the End of Time for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1941) – 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth

I thought I detected some “churning” in the audience. Some of the regular attendees may have stayed away, but there seemed to be more young people than usual present. Judging from the applause, the Crumb, made famous by the Kronos Quartet, had drawn its own crowd of supporters.

The Brett Dean piece was one of a series commissioned by a flautist in a series of commissions which is intended to work its way right through an alphabet of composers – presumably, it will be relatively easy to get the gig if you are an “X” or “Z” composer. It made much of repetitions and returns to the note “D.”

My elder sister first learnt flute, and I myself learnt it as a child when attending Artarmon Opportunity School, and indeed I can stake a (very tenuous) claim to being one of the last students there of the famed Victor McMahon. VM also taught Geoff Collins, who was 4 years above me at Atarmon, and GC really is just about the last true student of VM.

Probably because of this early imprinting, I find that my by now wavering perfect pitch (confused by exposure to Baroque pitches, but largely weakened by age and less frequent playing) remains quite strong for the timbres of the flute. I had no difficulty spotting the returns to D. The piece started with the obligatory modern/agitato mode of modern flute music (partly, in this case, with the intention of being Demonic). I’m not so keen on this sort of stuff (sounds too much just like sisterly practice from the other end of the house) but as it progressed the emotional range became more various and by the end I had quite warmed to it. There were various relatively novel techniques employed (singing, multiphonics etc) but these did not seem at all gimmicky as they sometimes do, but instead totally integrated to the musical expression.

The Crumb is one of those famous pieces which one often hears. At least, one often hears its opening, which is not really at all typical of the piece as a whole. Scored for an amplified string quartet, the piece also requires players to play tuned wine-glasses (with a bow and finally by striking them) as well as tam-tams and maraccas. JP, a former student of P and now a composer, told us at interval how he has scarified his composition classes by cranking the volume right up for that famous opening and even by listening to it in the dark. The Australia Ensemble’s approach was to use the amplification as a means of making available sounds which would otherwise not be heard at all because they are made in novel ways which deprive the instruments of the assistance of their natural resonance. This seems to me the right approach, and certainly in a program which also has acoustic items (the Dean was also, I think, mildly amplified), it saved us from dulling our aural sensitivity with electronically scaled volume.

Performed with the lights lowered and with the array of extra instruments to which the players moved as necessary, the piece has a definitely theatrical aspect. As I have already said, the opening is not really typical of the piece, which includes glass-harmonica-like effects, and a pseudo-viol sound produced by bowing above the fingers on the finger-board. The way the sound is made is an important part of the theatre: if you were just listening to a recording, you might well think “those viols sound a bit odd.” I didn’t worry too much about the elaborate program, but just went with the flow – a kind of “what will they do next?” approach.

JP left at interval. As a composer, he doesn’t go out to listen to any of that old music, and that apparently includes Messiaen.

The Quartet for the End of Time has acquired iconic status, in part because of the circumstances of its original composition, when Messiaen was serving as a French prisoner of war after the defeat at the hands of Germany in 1940. To tell the truth, I’m not sure how often if at all I have heard it played in full. A friend at school who played the clarinet liked to assay the movement for solo clarinet, but I doubt if he was really in a position to give a fair reading of it.

It’s early Messiaen, a bit like Firebird is early Stravinsky, albeit that Messiaen did not engage in the stylistic rebirths that Stravinsky serially underwent. It felt, comfortably, a masterpiece. The performance was entirely satisfying.

There are lots of things I could say about it, I suppose, but it was at this point when I started writing this post that I ran out of puff. What could I really sensibly say to evaluate either the piece or the performance?

That is another reason why I am not a critic.

The Ensemble’s Stuart & Sons piano is at present out of commission as it is being restored/reconditioned. P preferred the substitute Steinway.

Meanwhile, at other performances

On Friday I went to David Robertson’s illustrated lecture performance with the SSO: Debussy – Prelude a l’apre midi (which, strangely, Robertson thought, evoked the atmosphere of an early morning on the Seine) and Jeux (according to Nijinsky a coded narrative of something which probably originally happened at a beat), finishing off in the second half with Messiaen’s Chronochromie.

The evening was enjoyable if thinly attended despite an apparent three-line whip applied to the SSO’s free list. Mr Robertson had much to say of interest, though some of the analogies he drew to the visual arts (projected on a screen behind the orchestra) seemed either forced or arbitrary, and as ever with these things, the first half, which had most of the talking, seemed to go on too long. Overall, the most efficient use of a conductor and 100 players is for the conductor to conduct and the players to play: it seems so extravagant to have them just sitting around while the big man talks.

On Saturday, I went to Opera Australia’s Orlando. There was a (to me) surprising number of empty seats. As Sarah has pointed out, what people think of this production all turns on the [toy] sheep which are used as a running gag. The problem with running gags is that one can easily tire of them. I didn’t tire so much of the sheep as of the audience’s giggling response to them: right at the start Dorinda, the shepherdess, indicates that her job gives an opportunity to observe the comical behaviour of her charges, and the opera as a whole is a sustained essay in the pastoral which traditionally does involve “silly sheep.” Arguably, a director does need to take account of the likely audience reaction, and so perhaps the adverse reactions by the critics in The Australian and the SMH were justifiable on that count.

Of the singers, Rachelle Durkin as Angelica made the strongest impression, though Richard Alexander as Zoroaster also impressed until some strained upper notes in his big aria towards the end.

The performance started at 7pm, which is usually the sign of a long evening ahead. I can only think that some numbers were cut, as we emerged not long after 9.40 and the scheduled finishing time was in fact 9.35. For starters, I am sure that when I last heard Tobias Cole as Medoro at the WA Opera in 2000, he had a long slow aria (memorable because that sort of thing is his forte) which didn’t seem to be the case on Saturday.

You can see that the critical urge is not yet totally overcome. I shall endeavour to offer more systematic reasons why I am not a critic in a later post.

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