Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Where’s Lyall?

July 25, 2018

My former English teacher and fellow-Dulwich-Hill gangster Lx first tipped me off a few weeks ago. The ABC Young Performers Awards (revived this year after a two-year hiatus)[non apostrophe sic] were being held in Sydney. The semi-finals would be at Angel Place and tickets were just $50 for 6 sessions over 2 days. One of the semi-finalists was Tony Lee, whom we both liked (and who was awarded the prize for best Australian competitor) at the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition.

Lx, who is retired, planned to go. Work commitments precluded my getting to all 6 sessions, but I thought I might get to some of it. Individual sessions were $15 so I wouldn’t be risking much.

In the end, I made it to two sessions. I could have saved $15 and flashed my ticket for the first session at the second – it was general admission and far from a full house.

I caught bits of other sessions whilst beavering away at my day (or, as often happens, night) job.

There were 109 entrants (so I heard), who submitted “digital” (video) auditions. The semifinalists, as announced back in April, were:

• Anna Da Silva Chen, Violin, 21
• Stefanie Farrands, Viola, 29
• Waynne (Woo Seok) Kwon, Cello, 22
• Andrew Lebedev, Guitar, 26
• Shaun Hern Lee, Piano, 16
• Tony Lee, Piano, 26
• Robbin Reza, Piano, 23
• Oliver Shermacher, Clarinet, 22
• Riley Skevington, Violin, 25
• Emily Sun, Violin, 29
• Benett Tsai, Cello, 14
• Victoria Wong, Violin, 19

Anna Da Silva Chen injured her hand and had to withdraw. She was replaced by Perth-born (more recently studying in Melbourne) pianist Kevin Chow, 21.

That’s a pretty strong North- or East- Asian background tendency which seems to be the future for classical music, and not only in Australia. It’s a bit like the makeup of academically selective highs schools and though the reasons are complicated some of them must be similar so far as youthful diligence, discipline and parental support/direction are involved. The tendency is less marked for blowing instruments which tend to be started later than bowed strings and the piano.

The two recitals I went to (at this stage still online) were:

Reza and Tony Lee; and
Shaun Hern Lee and Skevington.

Lx and I both made special contributions. Lx got involved in a concert-rage incident with a relative of a performer videoing it with her phone right in front of him which then led to a more specific warning about turning off devices being made at subsequent sessions. I managed to drop an apple from my lap which rolled all the way down to the front of the hall (at least it wasn’t Jaffas.) More mysteriously, a tennis ball landed just near me at about the time of the concert rage incident.

None of those I heard got through to the finals. Lx, who had heard everyone, favoured Reza. I was sorry that Tony Lee didn’t get through. There was a terrible buzz in the piano when he was playing (on E an octave and a bit above middle C) and I am surprised he didn’t rush off stage and ask for it to be fixed after the first piece. I particularly enjoyed his first two Schubert-Liszt transcriptions, though the third Waltz one went on a bit.

The finalists were Sun, Chow and Schermacher. There was little doubt that Sun should go through – she was the string category winner in 2011 after all (but apparently still eligible to enter again, which I doubt would have been the case in the days of the old “Concerto Competition”). Lx had included Schermacher in his top 4 and I was pleased to see him go through as he seems a nice young man and I met him on the train one night on the way home from a performance of The Nose.

The Young Performers Awards as they are now known have had various incarnations. In my youth they were known as the “Concerto Competition” even though they included vocal entrants. Each ABC state orchestra held its own finals before by some inscrutable process a Commonwealth final was convened.

The onstage and on-air commentary made much reference to numerous past winners.

In the audience I spotted a familiar figure – doyenne or at least veteran of the Sydney piano scene, Lyall Duke. No Sydney pianistic occasion is complete without her presence. Lx told me that she had been to all the semi-finals.

Home from the last semi-final I went through the list of past winners online and saw that Lyall Duke (from Tasmania) had been a Commonwealth finalist in 1949. I shot off an sms to ABC Classic FM’s number:

You do realise that Lyall Duke 1949 piano finalist was at the ypa, at least at the 2 sessions I attended?

On Tuesday to the finals at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Milton. These were better attended than the semi-finals. The respective concerti were:

Schermacher – Weber 1.
Chow – Prokofiev 2
Sun – Beethoven

Predictably, Emily Sun won. Nicholas Milton, a violinist, knew the Beethoven concerto the best of the three and the orchestra played it the best. Neither of the others disgraced themselves. I thought Ollie could have taken half a step forward – literally and figuratively.

But where was Lyall Duke? In vain I scanned the Concert Hall for her distinctive senior-pianist hairdo.

Lx and I did not stay for the announcement of the results. And then, in the car on the way home, I found out where Lyall had been: in the broadcast box with Margaret Throsby giving commentary.

Not that she got to give much – she was a bit long-winded and too nice to make good copy. Throbbers obviously felt a need to move things along. (I especially like the ten seconds from about 1:16:50 in the broadcast).

I know this could have been planned all along [PS: turns out it was – see comment below], but I like to think my SMS might have set a ball rolling, figuratively speaking.

Odd

May 22, 2018

On Saturday to hear the SSO conducted by John Wilson with piano soloist Lukáš Vondráček at the SOH.

The program was:

Bach arr Elgar: Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
Prokofiev 3 (piano concerto, that is)
Elgar 2 (symphony).

The foyer seemed strangely underpopulated as I foregathered there with the Dulwich Hill gang.

That was the first thing that was odd about the evening, and it carried forward into the concert hall which disclosed a similarly thin attendance.  Where was everyone?  It was the patchiest Saturday night attendance at a Masters series I have seen for years.

The next odd thing was the Bach arr Elgar.  Others of the gang liked it whilst describing it as “a hoot.”  Of course it is a great work.  The Bach original is an organ piece and I suppose if you imagined a big rendition on a big fat organ (eg, the Sydney Town Hall or any similar English municipal instrument of the period) then an orchestration of that might just sound like this.  It felt like band  music for orchestra. If it seemed a bit of a muddle when things got busy that could have been the ungainly instrumentation and the acoustic conspiring together.

The Prokofiev was exciting and taken at a brisk pace from the outset.  V. is a big young fellow with bear-like hands (ie, not one of those long-spindly-fingered pianists).  You’d think he would power through anything but my one reservation about the performance was that the orchestra, when loud, was a bit too loud.  I enjoyed it. Some gave Vondráček a standing ovation (well, some people stood).  He played Brahms Op 118 No 2 as an encore.

Lx, one of the Dulwich Hill gang, to whose opinion I should always defer as he was my Year 9 English teacher and when I was in Year 12 gave me his castoff complete World Record Club set of the Solti Ring, is a fan of the Elgar symphonies.  In its honour he had already heard the program once and thought highly of it, even from the cheap seats.  R, another DH gangster, owed his allegiance to Elgar to an introduction by Lx. By contrast, another friend confided (a confidence now broken, I suppose, to an extent – let’s call him “X”) that it was a bit of a curate’s egg for him.

I was expecting to enjoy it but when it started I realised I had been thinking more of Symphony No 1.

It is possible this cast a shadow over my appreciation, but I found myself siding rather with X on this occasion.  I liked bits of it, and especially the slow movement and very especially the ending of that movement.  Even so, I was bemused by the oboist noodling along practising a bit of the Bach arrangement at one point.  – That’s not what the oboist is really doing, as resort to recordings when I got home established, but it seemed like it at the time.  For my taste on the night there was just too much going on a lot of the time – either too many people playing or too much figural decoration – at one stage half the first violins were doing something rather complicated but though I could see them fiddling away I couldn’t really hear it.

When I told Lx this afterwards he brushed my view aside by reference to Joseph II’s alleged remark to Mozart about “too many notes.”

The symphony sounded a lot better when I listened to bits of it on the internet when I got home, which is food for thought.

Outside, there were signs of preparations for the impending Vivid festival.  “Have we already had peak Vivid?” asked one of the gang, jaded sophisticate that he is.

Speculation returned amongst our group to the reason for the thin attendance.  We couldn’t think of a Jewish holiday.  The program seemed excellent, unless those who liked Prokofiev hated Elgar and vice versa.  Depressingly, the best explanation we could find is that everyone was at home (or out – could Sir Frank have been invited back to Windsor?) watching the Sussex wedding.

Chez Schumann

May 19, 2018

On Saturday with P to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble in its last concert before the traditional mid-year break.

The program was originally advertised as:

Natalie WILLIAMS | New work (Letters to Clara) – first performance (2018)
Clara SCHUMANN | Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (1846)
György KURTÁG | Hommage à (Robert) Schumann Op. 15b (1990)
Robert SCHUMANN | Piano Quintet Op. 44 in E flat major (1842)

On the night the Kurtag was replaced by Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, Op.132 (1853), written, like the Kurtag, for the Mozart “Kegelstadt” combination of piano, viola and clarinet. That came first.

P was a bit pessimistic. By an opus number as late as this, she declared, Schumann’s inspiration was flagging.  That is the conventional view but I found the Märchenerzählungen better than that.  I liked the odd-numbered ones – quirky and dreamy romanticism respectively, more than the Rumpelstiltstkinish mood of Nos 2 and 4 which showed Schumann off in what I think of more as his boots-and-potatoes mode of rustic folkishness.

Natalie Williams’ piece  was a tribute to Clara and was threaded with all sorts of musical allusions.  This is a crowded field because Robert and Clara and their circle did rather a lot of this person-referring musical intertextuality themselves.  Inevitably Robert’s theme which is the subject of Brahms’s variations Op 20 got a Guernsey as well as Clara’s theme quoted there as a tribute to a reference by Robert.

Brahms-Schumann snippet

The mode of homage was relatively direct, so that most of the time we were in the same harmonic world as the source material.  At times it sounded  a bit like theme music for a Jane Austen television adaptation. The instrumentation and how it was treated had something to do with that.

The piece was better than that and I hope there will be a chance to hear it again if the concert is broadcast.  (Microphones were present but it is now impossible to tell from the ABC website when anything is going to crop up in the future.)

Had the Kurtag remained on the program we would have been able to compare Williams’ piece with one where the mode of homage was considerably more indirect – not to say probably totally cryptic to the mere listener.

I’ve heard the Clara a few times before – it gets broadcast airings quite frequently.  It’s always being talked up and yes, it is not a negligible work, but it is more Mendelssohnian than (Robert) Schumannesque.

That really became obvious in the second half with the Schumann Quintet.  Would a lady have even permitted herself so muscular an opening?

The quintet felt so familiar that I was surprised to see that the Australia Ensemble last performed it in 2010. I have since  realised I’d heard the Goldner Quartet part of the AE play it more than once in the Sydney Piano Competition in 2016.

Some of the audience stood to applaud at the end and P then wished she had.

Last Saturday was the second or third day of a cold snap in Sydney (and south eastern Australia generally). I don’t know if that was why the John Clancy Auditorium was unusually cold.  Most of the audience kept on their overcoats, scarves and even, in a few cases, gloves.

 

Here’s Runnicles (x2)

April 8, 2018

Emperor flute

Last two weekends (not including this weekend just passed) to two SSO concerts conducted by Donald Runnicles.

The first featured bleeding chunks of the Ring Cycle in the second half with Nelson Freire playing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto in the first half.  The hall was packed.

Nelson Freire makes a stately entrance onto the stage which makes him look older than he in fact is, but once he settles down he just gets on with it.  You can feel his experience although of course his talent is more than that.  I enjoyed his playing.

I was sitting a bit closer to the front than usual which meant I didn’t have a good view of the woodwind – obscured over the lip of the stage.  Then towards the end of the second movement of the concerto my attention was caught by the flute.  That’s the bit above, and especially the bit from letter Q.

Hang on! I thought.  That’s not one of our normal flautists! It’s someone different.  Maybe it’s even a man!

I don’t know why I thought the second thought, because I’m not sure that it is possible (and it seems most unlikely that it should be possible) to make a gender-distinction between flautists.  Probably what I was really noticing was a flautist who was not part of the local school which, as it happens, in Sydney orchestras is pretty uniformly female.  (There are a couple of men who sometimes get a gig with the AOBO though normally even then more likely on piccolo than on flute.)  It was Joshua Batty, previously (as my researches established)  principal flute at the Irish RTE orchestra and currently a tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  Could he be trying out for the currently vacant principal flute spot?  Will the gender bar be broken?

Freire played an arrangement of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits for his encore.

Apart from the possible inevitable  Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkuere, the Ring Cycle extracts favoured the Siegfried story.  This is fair enough given that Siegfrieds Tod (eventually Götterdämmerung) was Wagner’s starting point for the whole shebang.  There was some exciting playing but I fear that I have heard just enough Wagner operas to be spoilt for extracts – mainly because they can never be enough Wagner.  Still, a good time was had by all.

The first half of the second concert was to have been Anne Sofie von Otter singing Schubert songs in orchestral arrangements. I guess we’ll never hear what this sounds like, which is a pity but insignificantly so in the tragic circumstances.  Stuart Skelton made a welcome return to the Sydney stage for a bracket of rather gloomy songs. The houselights were atmospherically dimmed which conveyed the right mood though in the circumstances Runnicles, who accompanied, could have tipped us off while he gave us quite a lengthy chat about the Mahler so we could have conned the texts a bit more while there was still light.  All the same it was moving and the audience was spell bound.

I was a bit tired and not quite sure how I would manage for the Mahler “10.”  I don’t know it at all well and  I can’t even recall anything of the SSO’s 2010 performance other than that I think I went to  it (Ashkenazy chose a different version of the completion).  Coming to it “cold” I found it  compelling if a bit drier than more familiar Mahler.  Was this the new path Mahler was taking or just the consequence of the completion by another hand?

Joshua Batty had another (more extended)  moment in the sun in the last movement.

Australia Ensemble 2018.1

March 23, 2018

Last Saturday to the Australia Ensemble’s first concert of the year with P, my regular companion for these concerts.

The program was:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | Trio Op. 11 (1797)
Brett DEAN | Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) (2010)
[interval]
Erwin SCHULHOFF | Concertino (1925)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH | String quartet no. 8 in C minor Op.110 (1960)

Not originally advertised as a guest artist, Timothy Young from Melbourne took Ian Munro’s place on piano for the Beethoven (a trio for clarinet, piano and cello) and the Dean.  Young favoured an awful lot of una corda with occasional eruptions into a rather brittle capital L “Loud.”  With such strong players I think he could have loosened the throttle a bit more in the Beethoven.  I’m not in a position to judge about the Dean.

The Dean was last played by the Ensemble in August 2011.  I can remember a piece using paper-clip mutes but am not sure if this is it because that concert coincided with a school reunion in the afternoon and possibly I didn’t make it to the concert.  Resolution: blog, even if trivially, more systematically.  Hence this post, you might think.

The program note for the Dean was strangely uninformative about the music itself but, unusually, said you could ask for a fuller analysis by Roger Covell.  I asked for that and received it – an almost note-by-note/bar-by-bar running commentary b ut still strangely uninformative as to what, if anything, the music might be about.

The middle movement is very much the heart of this.

The Schulhoff was a pleasant surprise – hard to pin down where it lies but you could say Bartok with a bit of Weimar-era jazziness.  I doubt if there are many trios for flute, viola and double bass.  Prominence for the flautist is a given but there were also vigorous moments in the sun for both Morozova on viola and Andrew Meisel on bass.

When the players came out for the final string quartet I’d forgotten who the composer was to be.  There was no mistaking who from the opening D-Es-C-H.  I was sure I knew another theme in piano-and-strings instrumentation – which turns out to be the “Jewish” melody from the Piano Trio No 2 – and it turns out there are a few other self-borrowings.  That’s one way to write a work in a hurry (it was composed in a matter of days). I’m prepared to concede that Shostakovich earned the right to that though on reflection the conservatism of the quartet’s idiom is striking.

 

Magnificent Mozart

February 16, 2018

That’s the title the SSO gave to the third of three concerts conducted by David Robertson and with piano soloist Emmanuel Ax featuring music by Mozart to which I went last Saturday.

The program was:

  • Marriage of Figaro overture;
  • Concerto No 19 in F, K 459;
  • Concerto No No 27 in B [flat] K 595;
  • Symphony No 41 “Jupiter.”

First up, we had an appearance by Emma Dunch, the new CEO of the orchestra.  She’s been in the US for almost 20 years and has picked up a bit of an accent – more in the rhythm than the vowels per se.  The substance of her address was roughly as foreshadowed in an interview with the SMH last month: Sydney should be proud of its orchestra just as it is of its athletes.  They are all world-class. Distinguished guests are here (doubtless enlisted as part of this campaign) who were all then listed together to avoid any heckling or invidious comparisons of applause harvests.  It was good to know that we were graced with the presence of Don Harwen, Minister for Resources, Minister for Energy and Utilities, and Minister for the Arts.

I give ED a hall-pass for this appearance as a one-off because it is the beginning of the season and she is new, but I hope there won’t be too much of it.

ED, of course, crucially stepped in on the SSO’s declared attitude to marriage equality last year.  I’m not so sure that she was so wise to step up to the crease so swiftly to announce that the SSO would never again have anything to do with the now sin-binned Charles Dutoit.  As far as I am aware, Dutoit was not at that stage billed to appear with the SSO and he didn’t have any “title” (guest conductor or whatever) with the orchestra.  If he’s not going to be asked back, then just don’t ask him; if unpublicised arrangements are to be called off, call them off in private.  No need to shout it from the rooftop. Just say that there are no plans to re-engage him.

I guess things are different in New York.

But back to the concert.

The highlight for me was K595.  It’s Mozart’s last concerto and a bit of an outlier.  The first movement was a revelation – it has a questiong  philosophical kind of mood which Ax really had an insight into.  The audience was spellbound.

Ax played Chopin’s Nocturne in f sharp major – an odd choice tonally after a concerto in B flat.

At the beginning of the second half  we had more talking up the band as Andrew Haveron came to the microphone to announce a one-by-one (actually two-by-two – one from each side of the stage) entry of the orchestra members to give us a chance to applaud them individually.  The novelty of this wore off  and any sense of individual recognition also dimished after about the first five pairs.

My Dulwich Hill friend, LW, complained that the string complement was too big, and at times in K459 I felt the piano was swamped.  This  also affected the overture (though here for me the main oddity was the oddity of hearing just the overture – I mused to myself – why not have a baritone do the opening number after the overture?) and most of all the “Jupiter” – the last movement lost its spell for me and I think this was  because larger numbers of violins made ensemble more difficult – it all seemed rather rough as if they were just ploughing through it.

The second violins were sitting at the front on the right for this concert, so for once Catherine Hewgill did not get the presented flowers at the end (which happens a bit too often in my opinion).

I enjoyed the concert (with some qualifications about the “Jupiter”). I would have got more out of it if I had gone to all three concerts in what was, in effect, a mini-festival, but I am a bit countersuggestible to such obvious programming.  The house was filled pretty much to capacity.

 

 

Ach wer heilet die Schmerzen des, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?

December 4, 2017

Who will heal the pain of him for whom balm has turned to poison?

On Friday and Saturday to the SOH for this,  together with the Alto Rhapsody and BWV 82.  My ticket on Friday was an offer made by SSO at the end of the Marthe-Argerich-no-show saga.  So that all worked out OK for me in the end.

It was a bold programming move by Robertson – bringing together three rarities for live performance in Sydney.  Bluebeard was last done by the SSO in 1981, and only once before that.  The SSO first performed the Brahms in 1967 with Janet Baker and last in 1968 with Lauris Elms.  The orchestra’s only previous performances of the Bach were for visits of John Shirley-Quirk in 1967 and Gerard Souzay in 1968.

It was also a notable act of curation.  The Brahms picked up the thread from the two choral odes heard earlier this year; the Bartok from Pelleas and Mellisande, to which it owes much. P&M was of course given a terrific performance earlier this year by the SSO. Listening to the rebroadcast on ABCFM a couple of weeks ago reminded me just how fine that performance was. The Brahms and Bartok each dealt with love, loneliness and hurt.  The title to this post comes from the text to the Brahms, a poem by Goethe apparently inspired by a sad young man (he had read Werther) whom Goethe met whilst on a trip inspecting mines in the Harz Mountains.

There is a very silly review of the concert in the Australian Financial Review which reads like a jump back to the great Australian tradition of sending any journalist with nothing else on off to review a performance.  Michael Bailey writes:

The night had opened with Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, back in Sydney after a 40-year break, although in this case one might suspect that is because it is not the German’s most memorable work. The men of the Opera Australia Chorus bought some religious fervour to the piece’s final section – the switch to C major from the opening’s difficult C-minor helped – but in retrospect it seemed Ms DeYoung was holding something back as the soloist.

With the tour de force to come in the second half of the program, one could not blame her.

I don’t find the Alto Rhapsody unmemorable at all. Whilst a dip in Brahms’ popularity probably accounts in some part for its long absence from SSO programs (it is hard these days to imagine Brahms’ onetime position, still taught to me as a child, as one of the “three Bs”), I’d say a more proximate cause is that being short (about 12 minutes) and requiring a soloist and a chorus, it is too much trouble to program.  And Brahms’ symphonies and concerti probably push his shorter works off the notional roster.

What a treat it was to have the men of the Opera Australia Chorus.  Whilst a true contralto might be more ideally suited to the work, I didn’t sense that Michelle de Young was holding back.

At about the same moment on both nights, about a quarter of the way into the last strophe (the choral, C major one) I found myself moved to tears.

Apart from its key, the Bach was the odd piece out in the program, probably included to take advantage of Andrew Foster-Jones’ appearance for Belshazzar’s Feast.  David Greco stepped in when AF-J didn’t show.

It’s really too intimate a work for the Concert Hall.  Robertson’s response to this was to field a surely bigger-than-Leipzig band – 6-6-6-4-2 in the strings plus a bassoon [maybe there were only 4 violas].  I was closer on Friday than on Saturday.  On Friday it seemed lumbering; on Saturday not so lumbering and I can see why such a beefed-up bass line might have been necessary for those further back.

My mental picture of David Greco was fixed when I first saw him, in early Pinchgut productions. Then he cut a somewhat roly-poly figure.  He no longer does so – an achievement I, especially, must respect.  Greco has spent time in Europe following the Early Music path and this showed, especially in some rather stylish ornaments.  I very much enjoyed his performance.

Diana Doherty played the oboe obbligato.  Michael Bailey writes in his review:

Diana Doherty’s swinging yet melancholy oboe made a case for Mr Bach as a proto-jazz composer.

I can’t say that occurred to me at all.

This post is already gone long enough and I’ve run out of steam to write about Bluebeard’s Castle.  I enjoyed it, even more the second time round.

Others didn’t even get to the first time: the work may have been written in 1911 but Bartok can still drive them away – there was a marked interval exodus.  If only the parent of the crying baby carried out from the circle during the opening suspenseful section on the Friday night had taken the same decision.

My one disappointment was that after the house and stage lights were darkened for the spotlit prologue, the stage lights came back up (and, to a lesser extent, the house lights).  The approach taken in Perth in 2000, with darkness and desk-lights for the orchestra, was more atmospheric.

 

Too much talking

September 20, 2017

On Saturday to hear/see the Australia Ensemble at UNSW for a program entitled “The Sound of Pictures.”  It featured Andrew Ford as presenter and a focus on film, film music and concert music by composers who also wrote film music.

When this year’s season was announced last year I mentioned my misgivings about this program.  P, my usual companion to these concerts, had her own and stayed away.  D came instead.

The program was:

Shostakovich- Prelude from Piano Quintet

Andrew Ford, Scherzo perpetuo (String quartet; played with short film, Le Sculpteur express, 1907)

Arthur Benjamin, Jamaican Rhumba (transcribed for clarinet and piano)

Film extract, Hitchcock, The Man who Knew Too Much (1956) scene featuring mock cantata by Arthur Benjamin performed in Albert Hall and conducted by Bernard Hermann

Benjamin, arr Ian Munro [for the “standard” AE ensemble – piano quintet + cl, fl] – Suite from Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Return of SP (1937)

Shower scene, Psycho (music Bernard Hermann)

Hermann, arr Birchall (2010) Psycho suite (String quartet)

[INTERVAL]

Felicity Wilcox, Vivre sa vie – Composer’s Cut (with extracts from Godard’s film) [cl, fl, piano and Claire Edwards on percussion]

Excerpt, Zefirelli, Romeo and Juliet (score Nina Rota)

Nina Rota, Trio for flute violin and piano

Excerpt, Hamlet (Russian version, 1964; score Shostakovich)

Shostakovich – Scherzo from Piano Quintet

It’s a packed program, but the list is incomplete, because at the start and then between every item we got some thoughts about the music, about film and about film music from Andrew Ford.  He’s a more than competent presenter, but that’s simply too much talking.  If I want that sort of thing, I will read his book or listen to his radio program.

The moment which summed this up for me came at the end of the excerpt from Hamlet – the arrival of the players followed by ‘To be or not to be.’  An atmosphere was set, including (if a little indistinctly in terms of sound quality) by Shostakovich’s score; the piano quintet was waiting expectantly below the screen ready to play the Scherzo.  Couldn’t they have just played it?  No, something more need to be said as Andrew signed off for the night.  That might be right for radio but it wasn’t right for a concert.  Not for me, anyway.

The two most interesting pieces in the program were Ford’s and Felicity Wilcox’s.  Even then I it’s a conflicting experience.  What should I watch?  The musicians or the screen?  What does the live performance add?  I’m prepared to think about that a bit more and Wilcox in particular took this issue by the horns with her “Composer’s Cut.”  Dispiriting to think that rights for the film were obtained on the basis that there would probably be only one performance.

Apart from the bits of Shostakovich (which suffered on account of their isolation), otherwise the Hermann fared best.  Benjamin’s Pimpernel suite never really rose above 1930s historical pastiche – and why should it have? Nino Rota is a fluent composer.  Are we surprised?

 

 

When too much music…

August 30, 2017

R-6372683-1417627092-3411.jpeg

…is barely enough (with apologies to Roy and HG).

My attendance at live events, generally musical ones, has declined in the last couple of years, but there was a bit of a breakout this month.  I record it briefly below

1.      SSO – Mozart – Wispelwey 10/8

On the day the SSO released its 2018 season, to Angel Place to hear the SSO with Wispelwey – the last of the Haydn “times of the day” symphonies (obviously, Le Soir) and one of the cello concerti. A Mozart wind serenade and an arrangement of a movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto (as a mystery encore – departing from the tradition that these are usually by Mozart) made up the program.   As I write the concert is still available online .

I found I knew the Haydn better than I expected to and realise that it was on one of the relatively few LPs we had in my early teen years – probably the one pictured above.  That could be why I enjoyed it the most, though I also enjoyed the symphony – with some especially striking flute moments as well as Haydn’s frequently rather high horn lines.  The Mozart didn’t quite live up to expectations, perhaps because, in advance, I had been thinking of the Gran Partita.

2.     Gnarly Buttons – SSO Carriageworks 13/8

This was the first of the SSO’s concerts this year at Carriageworks.  An irresistible bargain at $35. The novelty of Carriageworks and its groovy toilets has yet to wear off.  I feel such a hipster just going there!

I had heard the title work earlier in the year played by David Griffiths with the Australia Ensemble.  It wasn’t quite so striking the second time around, mainly I think because of the venue.  Bay 17 at Carriageworks is large and cavernous and features industrial strength ventilation which figuratively speaking has the musicians wading around in a brownish kind of white noise up to about their midriffs.  In addition (though in fact the noise could well have been the culprit in a large degree) I didn’t feel that Francesco Celata managed to bring to the clarinet part the kind of wild freedom that daring that David Griffiths managed for the AE.

The background noise was not a problem for Kate Neal’s The Valley of Lost Things, which was for a larger ensemble – more of a small orchestra.  This had a very diverting kind of rush-all-over-the-place feel.  Towards the end I was getting a little worn out by it and external thoughts intruded and then it ended.  I sort of thought it had gone on a bit long; someone else felt it was only just getting started.  The composer’s notes suggest it was written as an interlude (which seems a bit extravagant), so perhaps development was not really in mind.

The highlight of the concert for me was the Boulez explosante-fixe…. This featured a differently constituted orchestra and three amplified flutes one of which was treated to various electronic manipulations.  The principal flute from the St Louis Orchestra was flown in to take this part.  There were some strange sounds that a friend afterwards told me were amplified/delayed key-slapping.

For once I did not begrudge David Robertson his irresistible urge to speak as he gave us a bit of background: Robertson conducted the first performance of this version of the work (it came in a number of iterations over the years) in 1993.

I couldn’t of course hum a tune from this, and I’m even not sure how I could describe it as “music” – though it is definitely more “music” than the sort of novelty promoted by Jon Rose.  Actually it was music and there was an emotional arc, but my memory of that aspect of it has faded.  What I remember now was the engrossing and delicious sounds – in the way that, for example, harps and bells are delicious – music and sound that I just wanted to lean forward into like swimming into water of just the right cool temperature on a hot day.  Give me more of it until I have excess!

3.    Parsifal 14/8

Whilst the Opera Theatre has been closed, Opera Australia have had a number of special events.  This was probably the most proclaimed – bringing super-tenor Jonas Kaufmann to Sydney in the title role.

I resisted at first the hype and the prices: it would cost me $395 (less a subscriber discount) to secure a seat of the quality I usually enjoy in the SOH Concert hall for SSO concerts.   At the last minute I secured a rather distant but at least affordable ticket.  Once you factor in the length of the performance, seats at this price were not such bad value and if I had chosen earlier or even more wisely I could have got one closer up, albeit at the side in box D.   I now regret not responding to the shocking prices by confining myself to cheaper tickets but allowing myself more than one go.

Parsifal was my first exposure to Wagner.  Not the opera itself, but the Prelude/Vorspiel which featured in the opening of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged, which I saw at the Old Tote in 1976.  Later that year I bought a highlights LP of the Solti recording from Rowe Street Records.  I thought as a result that I knew it, but little did I know. The first act and all of that business with the swan being killed seemed positively interminable when I went to the concert performance conducted by Charles Mackerras in 1977.  This year’s were the first live (and still concert) performances in Sydney since then.  How could I have contemplated staying away?

It took me most of the first act to get used to sitting so far away and to adjust my expectations of the detail of sound you can hear in a singer’s voice.  The first act still seems to drag on a bit – by the time Gurmenanz is asked to reminisce about how Titurel and Klingsor knew each other, I was ready to say “Enough already! We can look that up for ourselves.”  I suppose I hadn’t yet settled into that Buddhist time-space groove.  As a former piano teacher said to me at interval – you just have to enjoy the music.  – Why should I want it to pass any sooner?

Nothing much really happens in Parsifal so on one level it is a good candidate for a concert performance.  Of all the acts it was probably the first which suffered the most from the lack of staged religious ceremony.  There’s a bit paradoxical so far as religious stuff is something I am pretty resistant to, even if we are to accept that we are being shown it in an anthropological way rather than being required to participate in it ourselves.  Wagner’s motives and sincerity when it comes to the religiosity of Parsifal are vexed point as are so many issues when you start contemplating Wagner as a person.

Such is the imprinting effect of recordings that the bits from that highlights record are still the bits I know and consequently like the best.

I enjoyed the second and third acts more.  It probably helped that a few fidgeters near me had gone home.  The other thing that helps is that the music begins to weave its magic more once the expositional groundwork has laid by the first act in terms of motivs etc.  The point at which Amfortas desired to follow his father to death was just achingly sad.

Obviously expectations of Kaufmann in the title role were high.  These were met; the word on everybody’s lips at interval was Kwangchul Youn as Gurmenanz.  It was great to hear the AOB Orchestra out of the box and up on the stage.

I’m glad I went after all.

4.     SSO, Bruckner, Beethoven, Young, Cooper. 18/8

The next Friday again to the SSO, this time at the SOH to hear Imogen Cooper play Beethoven 2 and Simone Young play Bruckner 5.

I wasn’t so crazy about the Beethoven and tend to agree with Zoltan Szabo’s comments here.  There was much more to the Bruckner.  This had  not been performed by the SSO since 1984 and that was only their second performance (the first was in 1977).  On reflection, this is probably not so surprising.  The fifth symphony is sometimes accounted Bruckner’s first mature work and indeed he didn’t get to hear it himself in his lifetime.  I feel as though the fourth comes round relatively often, but I expect the 5th is jostled aside by the more popular >5 ones.

5.   Australia Ensemble – 19/8

With my friend and former piano teacher, P, to this.  On the way a shocking experience as we drove through what I could only think of as the Desolation of Smaug at the southern end of Sydney Park where the Westconnex works have started.  Things aren’t much better on ANZAC Parade and High Street with the preparations for the light rail, which has also been attended by wanton destructions (elsewhere) of trees.  P and I grumbled to each other about the decision to buy big trams for this line, which has made the track more unwieldy and will mean services are less frequent.  When will the powers that be get it that frequency is the critical thing for public transport for which people will be persuaded to abandon their ownership of cars?  Mutter mutter.  We needed cheering up.

The program was:

Albert Roussel (1869-1937): Divertissement (1906) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano

Madeleine Dring (1923-1977): Trio (1968) for flute, oboe and piano

Mark Grandison (b 1965): Riffraction (2007) for clarinet, strings and piano, 2016 Winner of the Blakeman National Composition Prize UNSW

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Octet in F major D803 (1824)

Mark Grandison described his first-half closer as based on a “triple pun” but as far as I can see it was really a single or just stretching it double pun on riff, action and refraction.  It was lively but I felt the violin only got a bit of a late look-in.

The Dring was written for her oboist husband, Peter Lord, who premiered it with William Lloyd and Andre Previn (this must have been an LSO connection).   I reckon the oboist got the best tunes, especially at the start of the second movement, where there was a tune (at about 3:25) which definitely gives me a reminiscence of something else.  The piano writing struck me as rather unimaginative by comparison.

The Roussel was delightful and the “find” of the evening for me.

I am having a bit of a Schubert craze at present (struggling through D568) and so was feeling particularly receptive to this and enjoyed it greatly.

6.  Imogen Cooper – 21/8

This was part of the SSO’s International Pianists series at Angel Place.  IC has a strong following and it was very well attended.  The program was

BEETHOVEN 7 Bagatelles, Op.33
HAYDN Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20
BEETHOVEN Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’
[Interval]
ADÈS Darknesse Visible
BEETHOVEN Sonata in A flat, Op.110

I sat first behind Ms Cooper (looking over her left shoulder from the gallery – what I like to think of as the piano teacher’s spot).  For the second half I moved to the body of the hall – simply because I could and because the temptation to move to a more expensive seat was irresistible.  In hindsight, this was a mistake as I would have been better off where I started for the effects in the Adès (held notes; harmonics; fast repeated notes).  Quite effectively, even if this was partly because people couldn’t be sure when the Adès finished, this turned retrospectively into an old fashioned kind of prelude as it segued to Op 110.

7.  Sydney Chamber Opera – 22/8

– already noted.  I almost went again in the hope that I could overcome the obstacle of the lip synching once habituated, but didn’t quite manage it.

8.   SSO, Robertson, “New World Memories” 26/8

A very popular concert – the modern work, Mnesomyne’s Pool, by Steve Mackey, cunningly slipped in between Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.  As the title indicates, at least for the cognoscenti, Mackey’s inspiration was the role of memory in music – which is my excuse for some of the associative reminiscences included in this post.  I’m afraid I should have had a longer nap in the afternoon to give MP a better hearing.  I hope to catch it on the radio or on line later to do it justice.

You can see my stamina and maybe also my narcissism are flagging as these accounts get ever more perfunctory.

I also went to two other concerts this month to turn pages for a friend.  That was interesting but cannot really be considered as the same thing as an attendance as an auditor – I am too busy making sure I do not wander away from where it is up to on the page.

 

Seen and heard

August 8, 2017

More for my benefit than anyone else’s, an update on live performances I have been to recently – well, by now not so recently:

1   SSO, Mozart series, Angel Place, Orli Shaham

I went to hear Orli Shaham with the SSO at Angel Place.  The program was Haydn Midi symphony, Mozart, Piano Concerto No 21 and, as a quasi encore (it is a tradition in this series to end with a mystery piece) the last movement of Mozart’s piano quartet in E flat.

In the Haydn I found myself wondering if the SSO couldn’t afford to be a little less robust in its approach. This seemed more to scale for the next day’s outing at the Concert Hall of the SOH than Angel Place.  As for the Mozart, my memory is now dimmed but I remember thinking Shaham and indeed her colleagues most relaxed in the piano quartet at the end.  Perhaps my reception of the concerto was too much overshadowed by fixed notions from other interpretations.

2    Aphra Behn, The Rover.

With D to this, at the Belvoir/Company B.

D and I hardly ever go to plays.  I was drawn to this by the rarity of Restoration plays in Sydney’s theatrical bill of fare and Aphra Behn’s reputation as a kind of Germaine Greer special topic.  Victor has rightly remarked on the trio of exceedingly skinny-legged (male) actors.  One of these is Toby Schmitz, who featured prominently in the publicity.  Is it him or just the characters he plays that I find just a bit irritating?  He has a line in boyish charm which somehow misses me.  It might be (to coin a phrase I first heard applied to Teddy Tahu-Rhodes) a “chook magnet” thing.

We were promised a “rollicking” show.  Some of this felt a bit forced as the actors ran around madly to convey the sense of Naples at carnival time.  Moments when the actors broke through the fourth wall and played against the work were evidently loved by others more than by me.

I could have done with a bit less physical comedy, especially when this delayed the plot, and more verbal thrust and parry (there was also a bit of sword stuff).  I had a look at the script later on the internet.  There is probably a reason why we don’t see much restoration comedy these days.  It would take an effort to bring that script alive for a modern audience – but in this case I felt a bit of a lowest common denominator approach was taken.  Since I first wrote this I have found that Kevin Jackson expresses a similar view much more cogently than I can.

I was a bit disappointed in it but I did still enjoy it.  Maybe my expectations were too high.   D, did not share my disappointment.  We did still both enjoy it and I’m glad I went.

3.  SSO, Robertson, Graham, Mahler 3.

I heard this once live and then in the car on the way to a funeral at noon on the following Saturday.  In the live performance I thought Robertson’s approach to the first movement was a bit “cool” and “objective;” listening to the broadcast I appreciated how clear it all was.  I wonder if it is actually something about his rather brisk manner on the podium which created that impression.  Whatever, any such impression was not sustained into the impassioned last movement.

Susan Graham was great.  For the bimm bamms and associated Wunderhorn song the choirs sang without scores – not such a feat for the Sydney Children’s Choir (ratio of boys to girls about 1:3) maybe but assisting an pleasingly bright sound from the Ladies (or are they Women now? – that’s what the ABC announcer called them afterwards) of the Sydney Philharmonia.

The posthorn solo was less offstage than usual.  The mystery was only solved when Paul Goodchild emerged for his bow at the end in the organ loft – he must have been hiding round the corner and taking direction from the organist’s video screen.

4.   Omega Ensemble – Schubert “Trout” Quintet and Octet

This too was an event for which I nursed high expectations [/hopes?] which weren’t quite met [/fulfilled].  Both are, as one says if put on the spot, “great works.”  The shadow of well-known recordings and impactful live performances (and the first exposure is always impactful even if in retrospect not so great) hangs over any live encounter. That must be for true even though I am very much not a “record-head” who judges everything against particular recordings with which I am familiar.

In the “Trout” I think the cellist could profitably have swapped places with the bassist and sat in the bow of the piano facing the audience directly.

I always suspect that the issue for the OE is that, as an ad hoc ensemble, they have less chance (than a more permanent ensemble) of things gelling as a result of frequent experiences of playing together.  It is hard in those conditions to obtain an optimal freedom and warmth of expression.  The concert was well attended and warmly received.  I enjoyed both, the octet more than the “Trout.”

I’ll have a chance to hear another Octet in a week or so when the Australia Ensemble plays it on the 19th.  Meanwhile, despite my lukewarm words above, I seem to have been stirred to a bit of a Schubert craze and am stumbling through D568.  There is something about Schubert that for me really hits the spot.