Archive for the ‘Australia Ensemble’ Category

Roger Covell

June 4, 2019

The Australia Ensemble and UNSW announced today that Roger Covell has died.

It doesn’t seem more than a year ago that I ran into him and Patricia Brown, his wife,  on a city underground train and we had a short but pleasant conversation about the opera du jour and the future of the Australia Ensemble.

Covell  made a great contribution to music in Australia and in Sydney, as music critic for the SMH and at UNSW – the Australia Ensemble is probably his monument so far as I am concerned, though that is not to belittle his other contributions, some of which, such as the UNSW Opera, have receded into the mists of time.

A relatively little-known fact is that as a young man Covell was one of four applicants for the role of founding editor of Quadrant.  James McAuley got the job.  Covell subsequently contributed to that journal from time to time. I forgive him for that [!], but I think he dodged a bullet and we can be grateful that his career took a more strictly musical turn.

Australia Ensemble 2019.2

May 4, 2019

Saturday before last with P to the second Australia Ensemble subscription for this year.

This was an all-winds (plus piano and percussion) affair.  Contrary to my post on their first concert, Geoffrey Collins appeared.  The string members, aka The Goldner Quartet, were otherwise engaged at the Musica Viva festival at the Con. The concert was therefore wittily titled No strings attached.  It could equally have been dubbed  “Four strings  detached.” – or 16 if you want to be pedantic.

The program was:

Wolfgang Mozart | Quintet in E flat K452

Martin Wesley-Smith | Janet for flute, percussion and piano

Francis Poulenc | Sextet

György Ligeti | Bagatelles

Ludwig Thuille | Sextet Op.6

The Mozart is for four/fifths of a wind quintet (ie sans flute) and piano.  Shefali Pryor replaced the previously advertised Huw Jones on oboe and the other ‘extras’ were Lyndon Watts (bassoon) and Rob Johnson (horn).  Funnily enough, the opening largo has a figure which sounds a bit like something in a Beethoven symphony – a commonplace, I suppose.  After that, it was unmistakeably WAM.  I enjoyed it though I felt it somehow a little under-characterised.

Who or what was the eponymous Janet?  Martin Wesley Smith has given conflicting accounts – variously a woman he had known, no person he had known,  and a male alpaca later known as Kerry.

Geoff Collins claimed to be in possession of the facts.  He went with the alpaca – in this case a youngster misplaced (because mis-sexed) into a field of female alpacas and  found dead two days later.  An unlikely tale but a plausible scenario for the music.

We had one of those music-joke chuckles at the end.  I’m actually not crazy on music jokes and I’m still scarred by the ombly-gombly (obscure reference to MW-S’s youthful songs for schoolchildren).  Alison Pratt was the percussionist.  It was fun even if it suffered a bit from being Fun.

I loved the Poulenc.  The sextet was a wind quintet plus piano.  Sometimes you feel that Poulenc can write this sort of thing by the yard (or metre) but, as P said to me after when I made this observation, that’s his style.

The Ligeti was an eye-opener to me.  It’s pre-emigration Ligeti, so you could call it Ligeti-lite (afterwards I was told that Ligeti later disowned it) – based on some piano pieces by him.  I especially liked Bagatelle 3, which features a song-like air above but coming through what I think of as a pattering-raindrop accompaniment. It made me think of looking at some highland landscape through a rain-streaked window.  Afterwards I found a great internet program note here which gathers scored recordings of the original piano pieces as well as a brilliant choreographed video by a Danish group, Carion.

And then the Thuille – sextet as per the Poulenc.  Janet aside, this was the rarity for the night (last heard by my by the AE in May 2009).  If you look up Thuille on Wikipedia you are told at the outset that he:

was an Austrian composer and teacher, numbered for a while among the leading operatic composers of the so-called Munich School of composers, whose most famous representative was Richard Strauss.

That’s a kind of faint praise – defined in Richard Strauss’s slipstream.

The sextet is Thuille’s only work which remains in the repertoire.  As with all “minor” composers, there is a kind of game – unfair, I know – in slotting the movements into the styles of more prominent composers.  It’s all the more unfair given that this was an early work of Thuille’s, but here goes: the first movement could (if a little more Gallic) be Saint-Saens; the second moved to slightly sub-Brahms (without the rigour); by the third, ostensibly a Gavotte, Thuille seemed to have wandered into Dvorak territory; the last is a helter skelter tarantellish scherzo.  A cracking pace was set.

I enjoyed it all, especially the first movement.  In the car with P on the way home I mentioned that that afternoon D and I were in a “Home Centre” where, after buying a new espresso machine (they always fail in the end – I now have more metal milk-steaming jugs than I will ever need) I spent a while trying out a monstrous massage chair.  It was warm, it was cosy, it was all enveloping – you could sink into it.  The first movement felt a bit like that.

P didn’t actually snort in derision, but that was just the problem as far as she was concerned.  And she was even less keen on the last movement, which I thought quite fun even if it went on a bit. “Composers often have problems with last movements” she pronounced.  P is a tough critic.

The attendance seemed down a bit on usual numbers, maybe because of the rival event at the Con.  The thing I’m now turning over in my head is:  is wind ensemble music generally “lighter” than the equivalent string ensemble repertoire, and if so, why?

Getting there

October 30, 2018

red_queen

More brief notes in my attempt (1, 2) to bring to account live performances I have attended.

10.  22 9 SSO Ashkenazy Romeo and Juliet

This was a very neat program mounted by the SSO: Arabella Steinbacher playing the Bruch violin concerto, bookended by Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and Ashkenazy’s own selection from the two Prokofiev suites. It was also very enjoyable.

We have had a number of guest concertmasters this year. Sometimes, although they themselves play well, you get the sense that their approach doesn’t “fit” the approach of the rest of a section, so that they end up sticking out a bit at the front as the section as a whole stolidly ploughs on as usual. That wasn’t the case with Adam Chalabi, guest concertmaster for this concert: I thought the violins sounded very well with them.

11.  26 9 Belvoir Calamity Jane 6.30

D and I sat on the stage for this pocket-musical version of what was originally a Doris Day movie.

The first act was set in a bar and we were able to order drinks onstage before it started. Members of the cast were milling around and improvising business including the kind of chat-up that a barmaid at such a saloon might use to soften up a customer. I noticed that a non-cast member, tending the bar, was the only one actually able to dispense the liquor. “Is that because you don’t have an RSA certificate?” I asked the (in character) proprietor’s “niece.” “I have an RSA,” she smartly replied. “A Really Sassy Attitude.” OK, maybe you had to be there, but it was fun, as was the show as a whole. Exhilarating.

The instrumental accompaniment was provided by the MD on a little Collard & Collard upright which sounded surprisingly good considering the treatment it must have received over the years.

Virgina Gay in the title role was terrific. We are lucky that she did not suffer the same fate of her fellow assailees on Illawara Road a few years ago, one of whom was much less lucky.

12.   13 10 AE

With P (and on this occasion her husband) to the final concert of the year for the Australia Ensemble at the John Clancy Auditorium, entitled “Forces of Nature.” This gathered together:

Maria GRENFELL | Ten Suns Ablaze (2012)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | ‘Szene am Bach’ from Symphony no. 6 arr. Fischer (1810)

Nigel WESTLAKE | Rare Sugar (2007)

Pēteris VASKS | Landscape with birds (1980)

Aaron COPLAND | Appalachian Spring ballet suite (1944)

The Grenfell and the Westlake were return performances of works first commissioned by the Australia Ensemble. I remembered them both favourably from their first outings and enjoyed them again, but by interval the Westlake, which is a kind of clarinet concertino, given a high-voltage performance by David Griffiths, had made such a powerful impression that the Grenfell was quite overshadowed in retrospect.

Opinions amongst my companions were divided about the bird pictures which were projected on the lecture-theatre drop screen while Geoffrey Collins played the Vasks. I enjoyed them and was prepared to go with the flow.

The Szene am Bach was an arrangement for string quintet. It started a little faster than I expected it to go based on orchestral reminiscences.

The Ensemble have used Appalachian Spring as a series closer before – it’s an opportunity to coax the subscribers back for next year with about as large an ensemble (13 players) as the AE ever puts on stage. And despite (for me) some longeurs on the way through, it is a piece that really delivers by the end.

Straight after interval we got a little spiel from Paul Stanhope about next year’s season. This meant there was no delay after the Copland as we adjourned for the traditional drinks and fancy chocolates.

13.   16 10 Cosi at the Con?

This had a question mark in my concert diary because I wasn’t sure when or whether I would go.  My interest was piqued by a reference to an upcoming role on the website of Gavin Brown, who had a star turn in Poulenc’s The Breast of Tiresias which I saw earlier this year.

In the end I went to the Thursday Matinee on the 18th and it was Don Giovanni.

There’s a stronger argument for seeing a student production of a rarity such as the Poulenc than for seeing a more mainstream work, but I’m still definitely glad I went.

I was more impressed by the orchestra in the Poulenc than in the Mozart.  That’s probably because the Mozart is harder.  You pick up any rhythmic sloppiness (which is endemic in student ensembles compared to professional ones) and mishaps stick out more.  The horns were a couple of bars out for what seemed like ages but probably wasn’t really (I admired conductor Stephen Mould’s composure) and there were a few other hair-raising moments. The principal cello could have afforded to play out a bit more in Batti, batti.

But these are quibbles. It really is great that the students get to perform the opera with a credible orchestra.

There is a detailed review of the first night (I heard the same cast) here with which I mostly concur, save that I would be more commendatory of Esther Song, who grew on me in the course of the performance as Donna Anna. Haotian Qi’s performance of the Don’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid (here ironically oblivious to it as she was listening to something else through headphones whilst getting on with her life) was particularly fine.

The production was set in a “celebrity” world somewhere between Hollywood and the Conservatorium itself (when Masetto and his chums beat up Leporello they did so with one of those sticks that cellists use to moor their spikes. DonG was a #metoo celebrity narcissist and abuser. Hell, at the end (solving the problem that the stage lacks a trap-door) was exposure and denunciation. It all worked quite well though perhaps there was just a bit too much business with cameras and phones at times. There were a few cuts which together with the updating made things just a bit confusing at times.

14.   20 10 SSO Thibaudet Egyptian

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted. As well as the Saint-Saens piano concerto no 5 (surprisingly last and first played with the SSO by Thibaudet himself in 2010) the concert featured the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Sibelius 7.

The SSO seems to have given up selling choir and organ stall tickets.  Only a few people were sitting there. Too cheap, or too mean?  Could be both but it is shameful for subsidized tickets to go unsold if it is because of a desire to maintain a floor price.

Francisco Lopez was the latest in a series this year of guest principal flutes, and he shone in both the Debussy and the Sibelius.

I thought Saraste could have kept the orchestra a little more in check in the Saint-Saens, for which Thibaudet set a cracking pace in the outer movements. On the other hand, conducting without music (as I am sure any Finn worth his salt can do) he hypnotised the orchestra into the most dramatic Sibelius 7 I have ever heard.

Saraste last conducted the SSO in 1986. I think I probably was at that concert because I remember hearing the Schumann Konzertstucke for 4 horns played by the Canberra Horn Consort (led by Hector McDonald) and probably went out of my way to hear it. At interval I overheard Emma Dunch, the Orchestra’s CEO, loudly declaring “We must have him back sooner than another 32 years.”

In the early evening leading up to the concert a stupendous thunderstorm rolled across the city.  In the forecourt of the Opera House the Invictus Games were being launched.  Before playing his encore, Thibaudet thanked us for braving the weather and the security.

Thibaudet’s regular visits to our shores seem to have started at about the turn of the millenium.  This is what he looked like then and the picture or something very similar still featured in the publicity for this concert:

thibaudet-jean-yves-980x520

Inside the program booklet was a more up-to-date shot:

jean_yves_05_211_v2-copy

Philip Scott in Limelight referred to an earlier visit when Thibaudet played the complete piano music of Ravel; Thibaudet also performed with the ACO in 1992.

J-YT’s first visit is probably less well-known:

P1010200

That’s from the program for the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition.  Soulful eh?  If I’d found this before the concert I would have taken it up for an autograph and, surely, a laugh.

Almost catching up

October 23, 2018

Continuing from my recent post and trying to catch up on a backlog of un-noticed performances. The motive for such blowhard completism is the reduced value of the blog to me as a record if I only maintain it patchily.

7. 1 9 SSO Brahms

This all-Brahms program, conducted by David Robertson, comprised:

Academic Festival Overture
Double Concerto for violin and cello and
Piano Concerto No 1.

The overture was a set work for AMEB musicianship when I was a teenager and I think for some years after (there was a time when the syllabus became set in stone) so I think I both studied and taught it. Oh those student songs! I totally did not understand the jollity of the choice of themes or, I also think, a certain measure of pathos in Brahms, hardly a ‘varsity man in his youth, having the chance to weave them together.

Orchestral principals Andrew Haveron and Umberto Clerici were the soloists for the double concerto. They are both good players but it is I think a shame that when putting such double concertante works on orchestras yield to the temptation to enlist soloists from the ranks. However good they are, they face an invidious comparison with the visiting soloists the orchestra engages and this took a bit of the gloss off it for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of the first piano concerto. It’s a temptation to undervalue players of an (even only passing) local provenance and I think I had succumbed to that in advance. I’ve heard performances of this concerto which have aspired to maybe more grandeur and breadth, but often that has been at the price of forcing the tone to get the volume. Gavrylyuk managed to avoid that entirely and I really appreciated the lyricism that he emphasised – in a way, the Schumann end of Brahms.

8. 15 9 AE

AE stands for Australia Ensemble. This concert was dubbed “Schubert and the Guitar.” The guest artist was guitarist Karin Schaupp. I’m usually suspicious of the acoustic guitar amplified but Schaupp uses amplification  discreetly with her own kind of beat-box rather than being channeled through the venue’s PA system.. I did not find it disproportionate in a venue the size of the John Clancy Auditorium.

Of course we had to have a performance of Ständchen from Schwanengesang. The song is a serenade at the beloved’s window accompanied by a guitar, impersonated by the piano. It was a bit naff but fitted well to have instead Geoffrey Collins play it on flute to Shaupp’s accompaniment.

The full program was:

Robert SCHUMANN | Fantasiestücke Op. 73 (1849)

Robert DAVIDSON | Landscape (2000)

Franz SCHUBERT | Serenade from ‘Schwanengesang’ D957 no.4

Phillip HOUGHTON | From the Dreaming (1991, rev. 1997)

Paul STANHOPE | Shards, Chorales and Dances (2002) – first performance

Franz SCHUBERT | Piano Trio no.2 in E flat

I enjoyed all the contemporary works, but I still enjoyed the Schumann (for clarinet and piano) and the Schubert (a big play for Ian Munro) the most.

9. 17 9 SSO Piano

Back next to Elizabeth for a recital by Benjamin Grosvenor.  The self-consciousness of our first encounter now resolved.  The program was:

JS BACH French Suite No.5, BWV 816
MOZART Piano Sonata in B flat, K333
CHOPIN Barcarolle, Op.60
GRANADOS Two pieces from Goyescas: Los requiebros and Quejas ó La maja y el ruiseñor
RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit

The Chopin replaced a previously advertised transcription of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Grosvenor drew a big crowd, and justly so.  My friend and former piano teacher P liked his Bach the most, the Mozart not so much.  I was the other way around: I loved how he made a lot of variations in the rather spare texture which to me came out as  solo and tutti sections as in a concerto.

At the end of the Ravel, Albert Landa (prominent Sydney pianistic identity) jumped in early and alone with very loud clapping.  I wish he could have waited a little longer.  We all knew it was good. BG was visibly bemused.   I felt bruised.  And then AL walked out before the encore!

After the initial rush at the beginning of the year, I am hearing of same-sex marriages amongst my acquaintances.  D has been a witness at a female one.  He had to return for a re-signing because the paperwork the celebrant provided needed to be replaced by forms with gender-nuetral “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2.”

Amongst older, long-established couples, a reason often offered for taking the leap has been the advantages conferred in the face of possible health emergencies, including when travelling.  At Angel Place  one such couple told me they were getting married at home the next Saturday.

One of them first married many years ago, in Brisbane.  Max Olding was his piano teacher and a very young Dene Olding played at the wedding.  It would have been fun, I thought, if Dene could have been engaged again, even if something more than orange juice and biscuits might have been asked as a fee.

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.)

[Postscript: this concert surfaced on ABC “Classic” FM in November and yes, the piece was better than that.  It was mainly the first movement where the mode of homage was direct, and as I listened I realised that (much as I am a fan of Geoffrey Collins) it really was the presence of the flute that made it sound like the Melvyn Tan soundtrack to P&P: I suddenly realised that Schumann didn’t really write much for the flute – perhaps it had too many associations for him of slightly Philistine gentleman amateurs, or maybe it simply lacked his preferred romantic intensity: he wrote chamber works and orchestral solos for horn, clarinet, and even oboe, but Schumann flute moments do not really spring to mind.  In the later movements, when the mode of homage was less direct and Williams moved more into her own style, the flute was still there but no longer seemed incongrous.]

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.