Music for grownups


Last Saturday, with P to the Australia Ensemble @ UNSW (as they style themselves).

As usual, we exchanged a lot of musical gossip, some of which is too sensitive or confidential to be aired on this blog.

After the ensemble’s long winter break (its last concert was in May) it was a bit of a shock to be reminded just how close we sit. Certainly, it imposes an onerous responsibility to keep noise down for the benefit of the microphones. Not a responsibility that some of the more distant members of the audience discharged so well. It was a terrible night for coughing, dropped walking sticks and a mobile phone alarm in the silence just before the slow movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

Speaking of which, the program was:

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918):Sonata for cello and piano (1915) – 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Terzetto for two violins and viola in C, Opus 74: B148 (1887)
Carl VINE (b 1954): Sonata for flute and piano (2003)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Clarinet Quintet Opus 115 in B minor (1891)

I enjoyed the Debussy. It’s one of three wartime sonatas Debussy wrote towards the end of his career. I’ve played the violin and piano one. The cello one struck me as more difficult for both players. It may be (as Wikipedia says) “a staple of the cello repertoire” but I doubt if I have actually heard it since it was a one of the choices for the chamber work round in the 1992 Sydney International Piano Competition, when Georg Pedersen played it. That says something a bit depressing about the amount of chamber music I get to hear. Julian Smiles and Ian Munro had a great rapport.

The Dvořák must count as a rarety. You could think of it as a piece for a string quartet when the cellist is off sick. The highlight for me was (predictably) the slower second movement.  The ending of the final movement is rather perfunctory.  Amazingly, P had heard it in Melbourne, coupled with the Brahms clarinet quintet, moreover, in a program put on by “Wilma and Friends” at the smaller recital hall of the new performance complex there. She said that the Australia Ensemble’s performance took more risks (not all of them successfully: one tricky little run defeated Dene Olding both times it occurred) and was much more exciting.

The date assigned to the Vine must be for a revision, because from memory I thought it was written in 1992 and revised in 1993. It was commissioned by 2MBSFM and is dedicated to Geoffrey Collins, who gave the first performance, in their studios, with David Miller.  It was an effective piece in Carl Vine’s customary lots-o’-notes style, which always seems to me to owe something to the paste function in either Sibelius or Finale, though to be fair Vine’s musical manner and this piece predate such software tools and previous generations of composers have managed much the same thing with the simile symbol at the head of this post.  The last movement is very fast and tongued. GC seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace he and Ian Munro had set each other.  That is rare for GC.  Maybe it’s a younger man’s piece.

I had a funny encounter at interval.  A mild-mannered young man came up to me when I was on my way back in, and told me (after a little apology for the unsolicited approach) that he reminded me of somebody he had seen in a DVD of “the making of Lucia.”  I wonder who he meant.  Anyway, I asked him “Which Lucia?” to which he replied, in all earnestness, “Lucia di Lammermoor.” I suppose he could have thought I thought he might have been talking about Lucia Mapp.

I explained that I meant which production, to which he replied “Oh, the Sutherland one.” I told him that was a bit before my time.

It was rather cute, really.  I went to my seat and I then saw him in conversation with others whom he also appeared to have approached as complete strangers on his way back to his seat.  Perhaps he was just feeling lonely.

In the second half, the Brahms clarinet quintet.  I’ve commented before about how Catherine McCorkill as a clarinetist that other clarinetists don’t always seem so keen on.  In this piece I began to see why, because she did not take the mellow “autumnal” approach that seems to be de rigueur for late Brahms.  Particularly in the upper register, she is inclined to a more strident sound.  I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t quite the conventional approach.  As ever, it was the slow movement which was the best for me.  There are muted strings involved as well, and I am a sucker for them.

The ending of the Brahms is also muted – though not literally.  That doesn’t lead to an outburst of applause (you need the “big finish” for that), but to me it was all very satisfying.

Afterwards, when I got home, I read over the program notes.  I may also have cast an eye over last year’s subscription brochure before turfing it out in preparation for the impending great disruption.  The description of this particular concert on the website provides a sampling of the style – unmistakably from Roger Covell:

Debussy’s cello sonata, one of the instrumental masterpieces of the last years of his life, provides – with its shadowy, light-flecked glimpses of eloquence – a wholly different-sounding musical impression of the cult of the Pierrot figure from the one Australia Ensemble audiences heard in the group’s exceptionally theatricalised version of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire early in 2011.  It is also a world away from the straightforward homeliness of style in the Terzetto of Antonín Dvořák, written for the composer and a couple of his friends to play and full of the references to Czech song and dance idioms that came readily to a musician who seemed to have the art of writing memorable tunes at his fingertips whenever he put pen to manuscript paper.  Carl Vine’s typically elegant and well-written flute sonata is a shapely upbeat to the Clarinet Quintet of Brahms, one of the summits of music and one of the two chamber works (the other being by Mozart) that seem to many listeners to embody the soul of the clarinet and the ultimate felicity of its union with a quartet of strings.

At the time I was also looking at next year’s SSO subscription brochure, and I couldn’t help noticing quite a difference.  The SSO’s, like Opera Australia’s (of both of which more anon) are big and glossy.  It may not be literally true that every page has an exclamation mark, but there is a kind of superlative-laden breathlessness which is all just a little bit exhausting to take in.

The AE’s pitch is a world away from that.  I know they’re selling something different (and, in particular, cheaper and therefore not so inherently extravagant or expensive), but I’m beginning to think it might be the sort of thing I prefer.

3 Responses to “Music for grownups”

  1. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    I know I shouldn’t be taking you literally, no not at all, but I can’t resist protesting: in 60+ concert descriptions there are just 15 exclamation marks that weren’t part of verbatim quotations. But you’re right, perhaps season brochures should be distributed with restorative tea bags. The writers of them tend to require something stronger by the time it’s all over, but that’s another story.

    • marcellous Says:

      I wasn’t just thinking about the concert descriptions. Indeed, when I looked at them, I realised they were relatively austere compared to the impression I had first gained from some of the big-character slogans. That’s actually why I then put the “not literally” weasel words.

  2. Lucia « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Friday to OA’s Lucia (see here for a funny encounter about that short […]

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