Archive for the ‘music’ Category

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.

Disguised as a second trombone

June 2, 2017

On Tuesday night to Angel Place to hear the SSO playing Nick’s Playlist.

The SSO “playlist” concerts are a series which plucks members of the orchestra from their (relative) obscurity as members of the ensemble and gives them a short, interval-less program with an Angel-Place-sized orchestra to present a program made up of items which have particular meaning for them.  I’ve listened to broadcasts of some before and mostly they are a bit predictable so far as violinists tend to choose good violin bits, etc etc.  They are also a bit too chatty and made up of bits and pieces for my taste, so I haven’t previously chosen to go to them.

Then I received an email offer of a $25 ticket.  The Nick of the title was Nick Byrne. I checked the program and resolved to go.  The reason?  It featured the ophicleide, an instrumental curiosity which has long held a peculiar fascination for me.

Nick Byrne’s association with the ophicleide is well-known.  In the course of the concert he told the story of how it came to be, and it is a good one.  You can find a version of it in the Daily Telegraph with a fetching photograph of Byrne and, possibly more importantly, his ophicleide.

In about 2001 Nick came off his motor-bike on the race track at Eastern Creek (yes, he is a brass player) and injured his right shoulder and arm.  That is a pretty critical injury for a trombonist (as Nick is) – even left-handed trombonists mostly operate the slide with their right arm. Faced with a good six weeks where he would be hors de combat, Nick rummaged around in the SSO instrument cupboard (it can’t have been quite as simple as that) and found an antique (c. 1830) and delapidated ophicleide.

I suppose an ophicleide could best be described as a cross between a euphonium and a baritone saxophone: most importantly for this story, it has keys (rather than a slide)  so could be played despite the state of his arm. The sound is produced with a brass embouchure.  It’s sometimes described as a precursor of the tuba, but the bore is much narrower.  It is otherwise sometimes described as a member of the keyed bugle family – though I see from Wikipedia that a valved variant was also made.

Nick told how he managed, over time, to produce a tolerable sound from it, and realised that here he might have found another niche, rather than just always being a second trombone.  I thought that a rather comical description of his plight.

Since then Byrne has established quite a profile for himself, recording a CD.  The American composer William P Perry heard that CD and then wrote a suite/concerto for Byrne who features on the recording of that by Naxos.   Nick encouraged us to seek that out and to buy the CD or download it (sign of the times).

But back to the program.  This was:

HANDEL arr. Archibald (for brass ensemble)   Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

BRUCKNER orch. (for string orchestra) Stadlmair  String Quintet in F: Adagio

FALCONIERI  Passecalle (played by 2 sackbuts, organ and percussion)

BERLIOZ    Rêverie et Caprice for violin (Andrew Haveron) and orchestra

MOZART   Masonic Funeral Music

PERRY     Ophicleide Concerto: Pastoral

KHACHATURIAN   Masquerade: Waltz

MENDELSSOHN    A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture

Nick explained that the Handel, played by the brass ensemble from the balcony back of the stage, was a piece he had first played as a teenager (in an ensemble of mostly tertiary students) at the Canberra School of Music.  It was a great concert-opener.  There were flugelhorns and Paul Goodchild on a smaller, higher trumpet.

It’s not quite so clear how the Falconieri got into the program.  It was not specifically written for any particular instruments, and could just as well (as Byrne remarked) be played by 2 viols.  I suppose more specifically sackbuttian music would either require more of them (such as Purcell’s funeral music) or other forces not convenient for the program.

The Perry was the a movement from the suite or almost concerto for ophicleide referred to already.  You can find Byrne’s recording on Youtube.  I’m still scratching my head to work out what the opening solo “lick” in that reminds me of – something niggles at me that it is a tune with words which end “loving you” but I cannot track it down.

In real life the ophicleide came across a bit less prominently than in that recording.  it revealed itself as an amiable instrument – a sort of Perry Como of brass, or given the mood of the piece, some pre-war crooner.  It was good to hear it so exposed, even if, overall, the strongest impression it gave was of being conspicuously inoffensive.

It was hardly surprising that, as a trombonist, Nick should have chosen Bruckner, Berlioz and Mozart.  Each of them has famous music for the trombones – Bruckner – the symphonies, and some church music; Berlioz, any of the brave trombone lines in many of his big orchestral works; and Mozart, church music again and of course, echoing that and echoing down the years since, the famous trombone moment in Don Giovanni.  The oddity of the program was that, probably owing to constraints of venue and available ensemble, none of the works chosen to represent these composers included a trombone.

I’ve never been a great fan of string orchestra stuff, so for me the Bruckner struggled to make an impression after the Handel.  The Berlioz, a violin concertante work based on some operatic offcuts, was new to me.  Its stop-start changes of mood proved a bit elusive and I wondered just a bit about what the rehearsal “budget” for this concert had been, though it remained a great treat to hear it and I shall now search it out.  The Mozart was just right, especially as the plainchant tune sounded forth from the clarinet and oboes – reminiscent, in a way, of the duet of the two armed men in Magic Flute.  And there were 3 basset horns and a bassoon making up the winds.  This was a concert of instrumental peculiars.

After the Perry, things revved up for the big finish.  First the Katchaturian, described by Byrne as a tribute to his Russian… – well, he struggled for a noun at that point as he did at a few other points.  This was rousing.

Finally, we came Mendelssohn’s overture to MSND.  As Byrne said, and truly it is so, this is the piece for which the ophicleide is most famous – certainly, I first learnt of the ophicleide when studying the score an AMEB theory or musicianship exam more than 40 years ago.  The ophicleide part is mostly played by a tuba these days, which Nick declared was “like a bull in a china shop.”

Of course that meant that I had to pay particular attention to the ophicleide part, which is probably a bit of an aesthetic distortion. On strength of Tuesday’s performance, Byrne has a point. How could I ever go back to the tuba? Of course there is more to the MSND overture than the ophicleide, including what I understand to be one of the most difficult woodwind chords in the repertoire to get in tune.  It was a great end to the night.

So an enjoyable concert and very good value.

Afterwards we were invited to join members of the orchestra for a drink in the foyer.  I hope they were given a bar tab for their pains.  I bought a drink (detracting from the bargain rather) but was too shy to approach anyone.  What could I have said?  I might have said to Emma Scholl how much I admired her last G# in the Mendelssohn, but I couldn’t spot her.

In the course of the concert, conductor Benjamin Northey made a little joke, on the topic of unlikely musical sentences.  Northey cited as a classic instance something like:

 “The clarinettist’s Lamborghini is parked at the front of the building.”

(Actually, not so unlikely except as a matter of degree: Mr Celata has pretty flash taste in cars as I recall.)

Northey offered:

“The ophicleidist will be selling his CDs in the foyer.”

Not that, as it happened, he did.

All of a sudden I realised why Nick’s remark about finding a niche had seemed so comical to me.  My own musical sentence in honour of the evening, albeit not entirely without precedent is:

“The ophicleidist was disguised as a second trombone.”

 

The HIP village

May 23, 2017

On Saturday night, on a Saturday afternoon impulse (I heard it mentioned on ABC “Classic” FM at about 4.30pm), to Angel Place to hear the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra.  The title was “Unfinished Romance.”

ARCO is a rechristening of the trendily lower-case and alpha-numeric “orchestra seventeen88,” “established in 2013, by Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl.”

Richard Gill was billed to conduct.  I hesitated because of Mr Gill’s propensity to educate.  I wondered if I should keep my phone on to run a stop-watch on his chats to the audience.  He’s not known for his shyness when it comes to this sort of thing.

As the lights came down on an empty stage, Nicole van Bruggen came to a microphone to announce that Gill was indisposed and that the concert was to be conducted by guest concertmaster, Jakob Lehmann.  Rachel Beesley would step up to her usual spot as concertmaster.

That wasn’t all Nicole wanted to talk to us about. She wanted to welcome the orchestra’s sponsors; and also the audience.  She mentioned the 10,000 flyers that had been distributed (a sobering thought: whilst level 1 of the City Recital Hall was reasonably full, levels 2 and 3 had not been opened: perhaps there were 500 of us there).  She reminded us of the next concert, in September.

That is to be one of those “smaller ensemble” concerts.  ARCO is far from the only “orchestra” which keeps itself before the public by presenting concerts of this sort.  I think these are a bit of a swizz but I can understand why they do it.

Back to last Saturday’s concert.

In the first half Fiona Campbell was vocal soloist for a Rossini set:

The Barber of Seville: Overture and Rosina’s opening recitative and aria, Una voce poco fa and Io sono docile;

The Italian in Algiers (this is the conventional translation of the title but more accurate is The Italian Woman in Algiers – “Italian” is crucially gendered): Overture and Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno! and

From Cinderella, Angelina’s (=Cinderella’s) final triumphant recitative and aria, Nacqui all’affanno and Non piu mesta.

Originally the HIP movement made claims for itself a bit like those of Protestants in the Reformation.  If we can strip away the accretions of performed tradition and the distortions of evolved musical instruments [analogy: Catholicism, purgatory, sale of indulgences, etc], we will get back closer to the music as originally conceived [analogy: apostolic church].  What we hear will be more true and more “authentic.” [GOD]

Now the claim seems more limited: the instruments themselves and their sounds will offer insights to the music that a modern instrument performance cannot.

It’s a wise reformulation.  Certainly for the Rossini it would be a moot point which is more authentic: a concert performance of overtures and arias, or an actual staged performance, with a (modern instrument) orchestra which knows its way round Rossini, even if through a glass darkly of the Chinese whispers of accumulated tradition. (Why stop at one metaphor?)

So I didn’t find the Rossini really gave me a HIP epiphany.  Of Fiona Campbell’s arias, the best for me was the one from Cinderella.  It can’t be a coincidence that this is the role she has taken on the stage.

Which is not to say that it wasn’t all very enjoyable, despite some oboe mishaps.  The early instrument sound I most enjoyed was the bassoons – I love that buzz.

I’m not sure though where I would place Rossini in the Romantic pantheon.  Judging from Kater Murr, ETA Hoffmann would not have found a spot for him there.

The second half featured Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony preceded by his very early (even by Schubert’s standards) Overture in C minor for strings.  Let’s pass over the Overture;  the Symphony yielded all sorts of revelations.  I was most impressed by the minatory trombones but the whole was distinctively poetic. The gleaming beauty of the final chords moved me to tears.

On its website ARCO republishes an interview with Ms van Bruggen from Fine Music. The opening gambit is: “It takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to raise an orchestra?” It’s a nice question.  My own feeling is that an orchestra is a village – which rather short-circuits things.  Venue, musicians, audience and repertoire all need to come together.  Otherwise, in Thatcherian terms, “there is no such thing as society” – and there won’t be.

Orchestras and ensembles come and go.  Orchestra Romantique a few years ago turned out in retrospect to have been a vehicle for Nick Carter which did not survive once he moved on.  The great success story in Australia of this sort has been the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, but it took a few years from 1989 when the orchestra was established.  The big breakthrough for them was probably in 2000 when Angel Place opened: now they give their program there a phenomenal six times with two more performances in Melbourne and another in Brisbane.  This obviously makes assembling and rehearsing the ensemble much more sustainable.

That’s an aspirational goal for ARCO.  First they will want to populate the second and third levels at Angel Place.  As the orchestra was mostly standing, the sound could well have been better on Saturday there than in the stalls.  On Saturday the audience still felt very much one of friends and supporters rather than the general concert-going public.

I hope ARCO can continue and consolidate.  The two things I wish for them at present are that they could (1) muster a larger string complement (especially more violins) and (2) put on more frequent orchestral-scale concerts.  Judging from the Schubert and reviews of their last concert’s Mendelssohn, the early German Romantic (say, Weber to Schumann via Schubert) could be a good niche for them to concentrate on.

Americana

May 17, 2017

On Saturday night with P and her husband, Xn, to the Australia Ensemble’s concert, titled “Americana.”

The program was:

Jennifer Higdon (b 1962): Smash (2006) for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Duo (1970-71) for flute and piano

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): String Quartet no.12 in F major, Op.96 ‘American’ (1893)

[Interval]

John Adams (b 1947): Gnarly Buttons (1996)

Obvious odd man out at first glance is Dvořák – but is he really?  I thought of, in another country and another art-form, D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo.

First up, Smash was short, fast (it felt faster than the performance on Youtube) and furious.  I can’t say I was really crazy about it: it seemed pretty made-to-measure for the kind of piece it was – that probably represents my taste/mood on the day rather than any objective assessment of the skill of the writing.

After that, the Copland, all pensive and wide-open-space-ish, superficially reminiscent of similar stuff in Appalachian Spring, (and in a line which can be traced back to Dvořák)  unfortunately failed the cough test on the night.

I enjoyed the Dvořák.

Xn and I independently formed the view that the Copland might have worked better if the first half order had been reversed.

Gnarly Buttons in the second half was the big ticket item for the night, if only (but not only) for the size of the ensemble.  Roland Peelman conducted.  He also chose to make a little speech beforehand about America and the “fake tunes” in the work and “fake news” today.  I suppose a kind of aperçu was intended. To me it demonstrated nothing very much though it got one of those smuggish mild chuckles which jokes in music so often elicit.

GB is practically a clarinet concerto or concertino – a big play and it’s fair to say a triumph for David Griffiths .  There was a lot to absorb and I don’t know if I really managed to take it all in.  I think I was sitting too close to get it all in proportion.

I’m disappointed that this concert is not to be broadcast – Gnarly Buttons especially  was quite an occasion and were it not for recent ABC cutbacks one could reasonably expect that it would have been.

As it happens, Francesco Celata is playing GB at Carriageworks with the SSO later this year.  With luck I shall have another chance to hear it with some memories of last Saturday relatively fresh.

A trinity of concerts

April 9, 2017

Last Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO.  I met up with my friend and former student (though I don’t think I ever directly taught him in class), Db.

It feels as though Db and I go even further back than we actually do.  His PhD supervisor, M (who died relatively young in about 2001) was a close family friend and neighbour when I grew up in West Pymble.  M told Db a few anecdotes about my family which gave a perspective on that time which I would otherwise not have had.  And retrospectively going even further back, Db is now responsible for and from time to time travels to a scientific facility which is just up the road from the sheep station where my father grew up before WWII.

The program, conducted by Asher Fisch, was:

Dorman, After Brahms, 3 orchestral intermezzi
Brahms – Schicksalslied and Gesang der Parzen (with the Sydney Philharmonia)
Strauss, Alpine Symphony.

The first two of the Dorman pieces are based on/derived from aspects of late Brahms piano pieces, respectively Op 118 No 1 and Op 119 No 1.   I can’t say the Brahmsian spirit really struck me in the first one.  It seemed, in its orchestral version, simply too helter-skelter.  The second was closer to its original. Funnily enough, it was the third piece, claiming no specific Brahms model, which felt the most Brahmsian.

This was the SSO’s first performance of Schicksalslied and also of Gesang der Parzen.  For that matter, I’m not sure if we’ve had Nänie and the Alto Rhapsody is only infrequently done.

I had been particularly looking forward to Sl and GdP.  Both texts have rather similar themes, and even a metaphor in common of mortals’ destiny (as opposed to the Gods’) being like water falling downwards over Klippen (cliffs).  GdP (Goethe from Euripides; a song sung by the fates to poor old Tantalus) was grimmer.  They are both a reminder of a Hellenism which is definitely a bigger thing in German literary culture than English. I enjoyed them both, notwithstanding rather whiter-than-ideal tone at an exposed high and quiet tenor part of the Gesang

At interval Db reminded me that it was at the SOH that we had been to what he counted as his most memorable Strauss performance. That was on (if Ausstage be my guide) 13 September 1991. After taking part in a school concert in the Concert Hall, we slipped into about row C of the stalls for the last act of Der Rosenkavalier.  This was Stuart Challender’s last ever performance, three months to the day before he died.  You can only imagine what he must have been feeling when he conducted the bit where the Marschallin muses on the passing of time.

I’m afraid I didn’t really get into the Alpine Symphony.  I must have been in the wrong mood for it. There are definitely some bits which are a bit like the fight between Telramund and Lohengrin and which are only just music.  Until the final section, it just seemed so loud and fast.  I wanted to pause for a few more breathers on the way up the mountain.  The playing, however, was fine, and I’ve since listened to the broadcast on air and online and enjoyed it more.

On Friday, I went impromptu to Angel Place to hear/see the St John Passion – stirred by the rehearsal I had stumbled across the day before at St James King Street.  Inevitably in Angel Place the choir could not match the exhilarating power of its opening chorus when sung in an almost empty church the night before.  Whilst the church would have been less resonant when full and obviously its capacity is less than Angel Place, I wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off staying in the church – sticking the kids up in the back gallery with maybe a few in the choir stalls if they wouldn’t fit upstairs. Fewer people would have got to hear it  and yes those pews are not comfortable, but Angel Place is so expensive to hire that I imagine the financial outcome could have been about the same and there are other reasons – let’s call them authenticity for short – for keeping it in the church.

I was surprised at how few solo arias there in fact are.  Sally-Anne Russell was better suited to her second than her first.  I’m not sure that I have ever heard an unequivocally successful rendition of the second soprano aria, which may be more about the aria and its place near the end of work than the performers.

I find myself less in sympathy with the religious content than I would once have been. The St John is the more blood-libelly of the Passions (“If thou lettest this mango, thou art not Elias’ friend.”) At one time I affected to prefer it to the St Matthew, on account of its more punchy narrative, but now I suspect it would take the more elaborate stage machinery of the latter to sweep me past the Religion to my own higher sphere.

It was an estimable performance.  “You look exhilarated!” said the cloak-room attendant when I went to get my bag at the end, and I suppose I was.

On Saturday just past to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The concert was entitled “Fantasy and Variations.”  The fantasy was a work for piano quintet by Carl Vine.  This was very effective without necessarily sticking its neck out very far.  I enjoyed it.

The remaining works all featured variations: the Carl Nielsen wind quintet; a Prélude, récitatif et variations for flute, viola and piano by Duruflé, and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.  The Duruflé was a discovery to me: it’s only his Op 3 and it seems his only published chamber work, so I wouldn’t say it is really typical of him; it was quite lush.  The Nielsen is deservedly a classic.

I had been blasé about the Mozart in prospect.  It is a work which suffers a bit from over-exposure. But blasé was good because things could only get better once the quintet started. Although the clarinet is prominent – the opening movement is almost a duet between the first violin and the clarinet – what was really striking was the way that David Griffiths integrated himself within the ensemble as a whole.  It’s not the kind of piece where you stamp and shout at the end, but you know you have heard, at least in a performance like this, a masterpiece.

Of the three concerts, I enjoyed the Australia Ensemble’s the most.

Older Russians

March 15, 2017

Last Saturday night with my old friend and some-time piano teacher P to the Australia Ensemble’s first concert of the year, entitled Russian Legends.

The program was:

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971):L’histoire du soldat (Soldier’s Tale Suite)(1918)

Sofia Gubaidulina (b 1931):Allegro Rustico (1963) and Sounds of the Forest (1978)

Anton Arensky (1861-1906): Piano Trio no.1 Op.32 (1894)

[Interval]

Elena Kats-Chernin (b 1957): Three Rags (1996)

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Quartet no. 2(1881)

The Stravinsky was an arrangement by the composer for violin, clarinet and piano written for a patron who had financed the original work.  The clarinettist was the ensemble’s seemingly now-permanent guest artist, David Griffiths.  That probably means that the UNSW is never again going to make a permanent appointment to the Ensemble of the sort the other members enjoy.

Dene Olding was in particularly fine form for the devilish violin part.

I really enjoyed the Gubaidulina, which were for flute and piano, despite  a few really shocking audience noises.  I find I am a sucker for flutter tonguing on the flute in much the way I am for mutes on strings.

I expect it is because I have heard Geoffrey Collins so often with the Ensemble that I find his style highly recognisable when he pops up on the radio, either in some Australian chamber work or by his distinctive (to me) contribution to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as their principal flute. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could fill in a few principal gigs with the SSO while they don’t have their own?

The Arensky didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but that was more the work than the performance and my expectations were probably pitched too high.  It features a massive piano part – in previous years set as a choice but rarely if ever chosen in the Sydney International Piano Competition.  In the first movement, the effect was almost comic with Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles seemingly unperturbed by fairly straightforward material for the violin and cello whilst in almost a parallel world Ian Munro cooked up a storm behind them.  The balance of energy became more even in the last two movements.

I wasn’t so crazy about the Kats-Chernin.  I feel a resistance to pieces where all the audience feel they have to have a little sighing chuckle at the end, especially if I’m not feeling it myself.  Of the three rags (all, I think, originally for piano), the first was an arrangement by Kats-Chernin and the second and third were arrangements by Griffiths.  Without knowing that, P thought the Griffiths arrangements more successful.

The first time P came to hear the Ensemble the Borodin quartet was on the program and with it they won her allegiance.  The third movement is the most famous and the audience anticipation was palpable as the players took a moment to tune, though Dene O never seemed to me to quite settle in the famous tune.

I most enjoyed the first movement, which from the start feels like a conversation that you have just walked into, and the amazing second movement which opens with a kind of whirling without bass – as if of birds or other objects in the air.  Wikipedia tells me that the last movement is a masterpiece of counterpoint but it is hard for it to live up to what has come before.

In the pre-concert publicity Irina Morozova was quoted as saying how much she loves the Borodin quartet on account of its being Russian and “in her blood.” It is certainly a quartet with a generous serve of gratifying moments for the viola.

This year the Ensemble has gone the Eventbrite way with bar-coded tickets printed on A4 sheets of paper.  You also get an email and perhaps it is possible to put the barcode on your phone.  I guess this saves them money but I would still rather have a traditional ticket – the A4 printout is so daggy.

At least our tickets were not being scanned with a device as we entered as they now very officiously (and delay-makingly) are at the Opera House.

Earlier in the week, I went to Daniil Trifonov’s recital.  It was very much the hot ticket in town and everyone was there (2).   Trifonov is a phenomenal player.  I’m afraid all the excitement about his virtuosity got a bit in the way of my really losing myself in the music.  I don’t mean by that to accuse him of any meretricious display; it was mostly me.

 

 

 

Porgy and Bess

November 27, 2016

On Saturday, which is still tonight, to the SSO’s performance of “The Gershwins'” “Porgy and Bess.”

It should have been a triumph but instead much of it was an ordeal because of the extraordinarily heavy-handed approach to amplification of the (many, gifted, visiting) principal singers.

If it weren’t for the price I had paid, the unlikelihood that I would have another opportunity to hear/see this work, and the large number of people I would have had to climb over, I would have walked out long before interval or gone home at half time.

Had I done so, I believe I would have been fully entitled to ask for my money back. Even having stayed, I resent having been held hostage by my regard for the work and still feel very much short-changed and, yes, insulted.

I would have preferred no amplification at all of the singing. I can see a case for it for some of the dialogue. But if there is to be amplification, there needs to be some discrimination and proportion. In the first half, at least, there seemed to be none. All vocalists were brought up to a kind of super-forte, and a generally unremitting loudness prevailed. That is the insult – to us, the audience, to the work and to Art.

There were long faces in the foyers at interval and quite a few people did not return.

It is possible that some words were spoken at interval. Actually I know words were spoken at interval and likely at an earlier stage. It is possible they were now heeded.

Things were marginally better in the second half and there were even a few precious moments of remission or near remission from the electric wall of sound or noise.

For the sake of those going to the remaining performances, I hope there is some further moderation and discrimination in this direction.

Which will be too late for me.

As to how things came to be as bad as they were (in the first half especially tonight though the second half was far from out of the woods), for the time being words fail me but I believe there needs to be some pretty serious soul-searching by all responsible at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, starting from the top and definitely including the people at the sound desk. What were they trying to achieve? Do they know? Do they have any idea?

I guess I may rewrite this in more moderate terms later but right now I am very very disappointed.

Australia Ensemble 2016.6

October 21, 2016

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Last Saturday night to hear the last concert for the year by the Australia Ensemble.  I’m somewhere there in the above picture.

The program was:

Guillaume CONNESSON Techno-Parade (2002) [flute, clarinet, piano]
Roger SMALLEY Piano Quintet (2003)
[the following 4 with the Sydney Children’s Choir]
Lyn WILLIAMS A Flock of Stars (2009)
Claude DEBUSSY Christmas carol for homeless children (1915)
Joseph TWIST Jubilate Deo (2009)
Paul STANHOPE Songs of Innocence and Joy (2004)
[Interval]
Johannes BRAHMS String Sextet in G op. 36 (1864-5)

The Connesson was short and swift, and totally exciting.

I enjoyed the Smalley more than I expected to.  It is possibly the last of a series of works by him which “reference” Chopin – in this case, a fragment from a Mazurka and also, in the final Chaconne and variations, a whole lot of the genres in which Chopin wrote.  I think I liked most the second movement, a brief Intermezzo, but that is probably because I am such a lover of muted strings.

This concert was the closest up I have ever got to the Sydney Children’s Choir.  As you might expect, there are quite a lot more girls than boys in the group.  More surprising to me (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised) was how few non-whiteys were in the group.  Maybe the Chinese kids are all off at Chinese school or learning the violin?

The choir processed on with bar chimes (I’m sure there is a better technical term for what they were playing: a bit like single xylophone bars encased in a box with a beater on a spring which was activated by shaking the contraption).  “A Flock of stars” by their conductor Lyn Williams also featured these instruments as well as an improvised part by David Griffiths on clarinet.  It was very atmospheric and just a bit reminiscent of Ceremony of Carols with a bit of Jan Garbarek thrown in.

The Debussy was a fascinating bit of history – a song of children made homeless by WWI wishing vengeance on behalf of France and other victims of the Germans – so a bit or propaganda really, however heartfelt.

Apparently Joseph Twist, once a member of the choir at S James King Street, has now gone to the USA to work in the film business.  I couldn’t help feeling his Jubilate had a touch of the Morricones.

The Stanhope songs matched Leunig’s rather cute lyrics quite well – they were written when he was a composer in residence at MLC School (back in the now ended “Mrs Carey” era).

It was nice to have the Children’s Choir there and they sang well.  Nevertheless, with the Brahms Sextet in the second half I was happy to be back in Australia Ensemble core territory.  This was a very satisfying performance of a beautiful work.  I hope the choir, who stayed for the second half, also enjoyed it.

And to cap it all off, contrary to my earlier fears, we still had the traditional drinks and delicious chocolates to celebrate the end of the season.

When I first wrote this post, the concert was due to be broadcast on ABC FM at 8pm on Tuesday 18 October.  Unfortunately this was on the eve of a trial and I’m sorry to say I missed it.  I’d like to say it was there for a while to listen again to but that does not seem to be the case.