Australia Ensemble 2015-2016

This is a bit of a catch-up post.

On the night I tripped over the tap, I first went to hear the Australia Ensemble with my AE-going-companion and old friend, P.

The program was less forbidding than at first glance it might have seemed – almost excessively agreeable:

Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b 1934): Renaissance Scottish Dances for flute, clarinet, percussion, guitar, violin and cello (1973)

Nigel WESTLAKE (b 1958): Songs from the Forest for guitar and percussion(1994)

Ross EDWARDS (b 1943): Animisms (2014) – new work commissioned for the Australia Ensemble @UNSW, in celebration of Peter Maxwell Davies’ 80th birthday

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Piano Quintet in A major ‘The Trout’ D667 (1819)

Actually, that’s not quite the complete program. In observation of Roger Smalley’s recent death, Ian Munro played a Barcarolle by Smalley and said a few words. Since his move to Sydney from Perth Smalley could quite often be spotted in the audience at the AE concerts though it was clear that his health was deteriorating. The addition of this piece was a fitting gesture. P for one said she would search out the music.

Maxwell Davies was in as a teacher of Ross Edwards. The Renaissance Scottish Dances had about as much in common with Eight Songs for a Mad King as Stravinsky’s Pulcinella has with Rite of Spring. If (as I did) you had the Eight Songs in mind as a representative Maxwell Davies work (they were absolutely the ants pants when Fires of London toured with them in my youth) you would have been surprised at how agreeable the Songs and Dances were, let alone how un-modern. I enjoyed them once I got used to the amplified guitar.

The Westlake was an arrangement for percussion and guitar of a piece originally written for two guitars.

I am not really a guitar enthusiast. I suggested to P that this could be because I am (or was) a pianist and because pianists are to guitarists as contraltos or mezzos are to counter-tenors. P was having none of this: there can be no rivalry between guitarists and pianists because there is no comparison. P is obviously more of a pianist than I.

My prejudice goes even deeper: guitar music seems to me to have a broad appeal to people rather in the way that Vivaldi and Satie also have such an appeal: that is, it is music which is liked by people who don’t like music very much. There are two classical music stations on the Sydney FM band: if one plays guitar I invariably switch to the other. Sometimes I then have to switch the radio off altogether.

I managed to overcome my prejudices sufficiently on this occasion. I didn’t walk out and Karin Schaupp is certainly a good player.

I imagine we got the Westlake arranged for guitar and percussion because of a kind of inside job between Ross Edwards and Claire Edwards, the percussionist. Ross had written the next piece with Edwards in mind. If you ask me, that is just a bit cheeky of him but nobody seemed embarrassed to relate it. It was also a bit cheeky to describe Animisms as a new work because it was a rearrangement of earlier material.

Still, it was pleasant enough without, I think, ever aiming to be profound.

The Trout in the second half was according to the Australia Ensemble’s established interpretation, which is intimate and good humoured rather than dramatic. I liked the second movement the most because that was the closest it got to being even a bit moody. Michelle Wood stood in for cellist Julian Smiles who had been absent on “leave” from recent concerts for not especially explained reasons.

On the Saturday just past, to the Ensemble’s last concert for the year with P and her son, T.

Traditionally, the next year’s program for the AE has been announced by (sometimes protracted) speechifying at the end of the final concert. This year, Paul Stanhope, the new artistic director, who strikes me as not particularly comfortable with speech-making, broke that tradition in two respects. First, he disclosed most of the big-ticket items in the AE newsletter which goes out between concerts, and second, he interpolated a short speech during the stage-resetting before the last item of the night. I regret the first change – why steal your own thunder? – but general sentiment welcomed the second – which meant we went straight from the exhilaration of the end of the third Razumovsky quartet to celebratory drinks and chocolates.

Guest artist, Robert Davidson, on double bass, also featured as a composer in the two “novelty” items. The first of these, “Big Decisions” gave the concert its title. This is a series of instrumentations, accompanied by video footage, of speeches and comments by participants in the turbulent Australian political events of 1975. It was timed as close as possible in the AE’s schedule to the fortieth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. When Stanhope decided to include this, he could not have known that in the intervening year both Fraser and Whitlam would be laid to rest, which maybe pre-empted by over-exposure some of the impact of “Big Decisions.”

Davidson’s approach comes out of minimalism but conversely it actually involves a kind of maximalism in the identification of musical elements in the spoken word. The best of these was probably the first piece of the set, which divines a waltz in Whitlam’s famous “Well may we say, ‘God Save the Queen'” speech. I doubt if I will ever now be able to dissociate that speech from the waltz.

I wonder if today’s politicians, whose discourse is more and more delivered in the studio or the press conference, will yield such musical material to anyone following in Davidson’s path. Davidson’s version of Gillard’s “misogyny” speech confirms this line of speculation. The almost deliberately flat pitch patterns that JG adopted in her prime-ministerial mode have something to do with it but I think the changes are deeper than that.

At one point, a female voice called out from the body of the hall “We want music!” At the time I took this as a riposte to the soundtrack of “We want Gough!” Feelings can run deep even now. It could also have been a response to the perennial problem with combining recorded and acoustic elements. Where I was, close to the players, it was almost impossible to catch many of the words. Further back, I understand the balance problem was the opposite.

Three “Keating tangos” (including one by Davidson) opened the second half. These were diverting enough but I felt that, like the “Threnody on the victims of Hiroshima,” without the extra-musical titles and declared programmatic intent they wouldn’t really have meant so much.

I hope the heckler was satisfied by the rest of the music. For me, the highlight was the Shostakovich sonata for cello and piano, for which Julian Smiles returned from furlough and was ably partnered by Ian Munro who even sped up when things got hardest in the last movement. Right from the first movement (my favourite), I felt drawn into a very particular world.

P’s highlight was the finale of the Razumovsky (3). That has an exhilaration which reminds me of the (roughly contemporaneous) finale to Fidelio, including some of the figures on a dominant pedal point. The tune’s different but afterwards I kept on thinking of “Retterin des Gatten sein.”

I was most struck by the second movement, which is quite odd. This is usually thought to be the locus of the (speaking broadly) “Slavic” element in the quartet (the other two Razumovsky quartets each have explicitly identified Russian themes in honour of the Russian ambassador who commissioned the set): to me it prefigures a kind of Schubertian melancholy.

Afterwards, with hopefully not an obscene rush at the chocolates (I don’t usually go for white chocolate but I have decided the walnut white chocolate number and the passionfruit cream white chocolate log are my favourites) the 2016 brochure was made available in the foyer.

The 2016 season is entitled “Transfigured night” and ostensibly there is a nocturnal theme throughout. The Schoenberg (which, like Gurrelieder, is more a summation of what came before than an indication of his mature style – cf Mahler’s piano quartet or his first symphony) is the main work of the first concert. The full program is not up on the web but the thunder-stealing summary from the newsletter is.

There is a big repertoire to be covered and often the question is as much what must be left out as what can be included. P was pleased to see a Haydn string quartet at last though I note that this is at the expense of including any Mozart at all. Guest artists include Sarah McLiver and, in the final concert, the Sydney Children’s Choir. That can be good for bums on seats though if chocolates are to be served I hope they will be given an FHB warning. Things could get ugly otherwise.

Clarinettist David Griffiths is again listed as an “associate artist.” No mention is made at all of Catherine McCorkill. I don’t know if that means there is any prospect of CM returning if no longer indisposed: my suspicion (more worrying) is that the university is baulking at making any fresh permanent appointments.

For many years, AE’s printed programs have been sold for the increasingly modest price of $2. Next year, they will be “free” – that is, included in the ticket price which has gone up from $48 to $50 for a full-price individual ticket and from $207 to $216 for all 6 concerts. That remains very good value indeed.

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