Catching up

Three recent concerts to note. I hope to write about Werther separately.

The Saturday before last, to hear the SSO and Paul Lewis conducted by Douglas Boyd.

I’d heard the slow movement of the Beethoven 1st concerto (actually his second) before at the Utzon memorial. It was better in my normal seat and with the organ turned off. The second half of the program was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. That’s a rather cunning title because the he slips in a piano (could be either percussion or strings, though properly probably the former) and a harp. Maybe I have a bit of a problem with Bartók because I can’t say I really warmed to it. He so often seems a bit of a cold fish. I have never been keen on Mikrokosmos – it just seems interminable – so many books!

Paul Lewis has lovely eyelashes but his beautiful curly hair seems to be taking a tinge of salt-and-pepper. Oh well, youth cannot last forever. Oddly, Douglas Boyd is a rare creature amongst conductors: one who actually looks younger on the podium than his program portrait suggests.

At the end my neighbour asked me why the orchestra (an enormous double string orchestra with the piano celeste harp and percussion) didn’t look happier. I wasn’t really sure why. Sometimes that means they didn’t like the conductor or found him hard to follow, but it might in this case just have meant they were exhausted, as it was quite challenging for them.

The next Friday I returned for an all-Beethoven program. I’m not so sure this isn’t too much of a good thing. We had the Fidelio overture (all those different overtures are a constant source of confusion to me) and then Beethoven 2 (really 1) and, after interval the second symphony. It wasn’t until about a third of the way into the first movement of the concerto (when there is a descending leaping figure under a kind of hanging inverted pedal point) that I really felt and recognized I was in Beethoven land. The second movement satisfied my established enthusiasm for slow movements – I particularly liked the open pedal conclusion – only possible on a nicely in tune grand in a big space – don’t try it at home on the upright! The last movement is the most well known. The symphony was also enthusiastically received but at this distance of time I will have to retreat into not being a critic. A smaller orchestra was deployed.

On Saturday to the Australia Ensemble at UNSW (they now like to call it “@UNSW” – yuk!) with P and her son, T. The program was:

Musical America Discovers Itself [that was the theme]

Vincent d’INDY (1851-1931): Suite for flute, string trio & harp (1927)

Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990): Sonata for clarinet & piano (1942)

Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979): Two Pieces for cello & piano (1914)

Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990): Piano Quartet (1950)

Anton DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): String Quintet (American) in E flat for two violins, two violas & cello Opus 97 (1893)

This gave a better opportunity to hear the new Steinway than the last concert. Before that, the D’Indy only really gelled in the slow movement. The harp, which in principle I love, was more dominant than I expected and those sudden movements to damp vibrating strings, lost in the mass of the orchestra, were strangely distracting. Before the Copland, it was beginning to feel a bit like a school concert, with so many short pieces. The Copland was billed as an eleven-tone-row twelve-tone composition where Copland gradually composed himself out of the method, but even at the start you would hardly have guessed it, though it wasn’t to T’s taste. It seemed fiendishly difficult and received a bravura performance.

P and I reached the same conclusion as last time – that the piano was “very smooth” – but this time with a much heightened appreciation of its positive qualities.

In his program notes, Professor Covell rambled around the question: why did so many American composers go to Paris? Apart from the obvious matter of going to Europe, and not wanting just to go to the land of George III, I wondered if it might in many cases have had something to do with their sexuality – surely a factor for at least Bernstein, Paul Goodman, Cole Porter, Aaron Copland – just to take some of the examples Covell touched on. Oh, I am a monomaniac! The other day a colleague suggested that Nathan Rees batted for the other team (meaning the Liberal Party) because of his government’s meanness about public holidays, and I was thinking of something different altogether. She told me to get a grip.

P commented, and after the Dvořák, I was inclined to agree, that the string quintet is her favourite combination: the fifth instrument (here and I think best, a viola) gives greater compositional freedom than in the customary quartet, allowing more figuration, or, quite often, octave doubling by two players (mostly the violins) whilst the other three can still provide a full accompaniment. Predictably, my favourite movement was the slow one, even if it was variations.

There were a few more empty seats near us than usual, and I wonder if those who have to be seen were taking a stand at the State Theatre where, on Friday and Saturday night, the ACO was playing a program with Katie Noonan accompanied by Bill Henson images.

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