Archive for the ‘Australia Ensemble’ 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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Australia Ensemble

September 20, 2016

I have been going to the AE @ UNSW for about 10 years now.  I was a late starter because for many years, as I lacked a car, the schlepp out to Kensington was too much trouble.  Once I started going, I had a car, but the subscription habit crystallised because my friend and former piano teacher, P, also went and I was conveniently (for me) not far out of her way there.

This year has not been a good year for me and the AE.  I have only been to 3 out of 5 concerts so far.

The first concert I missed, in August, was a failure of organisation on my part in resolving a clash with my set series seat for Così fan tutte.  Then my aunt was taken ill in Albany, WA and I missed the September concert.

In the meantime, at the beginning of September, the Ensemble’s season for 2017 was launched at a function for donors and sponsors.

In past years, next year’s series has been announced at the final concert, rounded off by a kind of party where free drinks and particularly delicious chocolates were dispensed.  I fear we won’t be getting those this year.  I expect the presence of a children’s choir as guest artists at the final concert might have seemed incompatible with such largesse.  If so, that will be a break from tradition which I shall regret.

2017 will be, I think, the second season for which Paul Stanhope is responsible as artistic director.  He has taken over after a long incumbency by Roger Covell, and predictably this has been accompanied by the usual motions to re-invent and freshen things up.

Innovation and breaks from tradition are flip sides of the same coin.

It’s true that in recent years there have been a few attempts to shake things up a bit – with dance, multi-media and the like.  Mostly I’ve found these just a bit naff.  What’s wrong with the repertoire for various ensembles drawn from the Ensemble’s make-up plus some supplementary artists?  If variety is needed, there is plenty of scope for that including by featuring more “cutting edge” works.

So yes, I find myself a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

Two aspects of next year’s season are, at least in prospect, less enticing than I would hope.

First, we are to have a program The Sound of Pictures, “hosted” by “Radio National’s The Music Show host, Andrew Ford” which will offer “an exploration of music written by composers for film as well as concert music that makes use of the moving image as part of its presentation.”

My general rule is the less talking at a concert, the better, even if by Andrew Ford, who I’ll freely concede is a great communicator.  And I’m not really a fan (as indicated above) of the craze for “film music” concerts.  I also squirm just a bit at the implications of the “Radio National” reference.  To me this is redolent of Opera Australia’s penchant for casting personalities in musicals, of which the (ultimately aborted) casting of Alan Jounes in “Anything Goes” was but the latest example.

Secondly, there is a usual format for AE concerts and an established ecology of an AE season.  The first half of a concert will usually have a number of shorter works, including, often, the novelty and more modern works; the second half usually has the “big work” – most often a stalwart of the mainstream chamber music repertoire – which mostly means nineteenth century big works or well known (and hence crowd-pleasing) C20 works – eg, in September, the Quartet for the End of Time.  As to the ecology, over a season the big works will usually make up a mix of standard-format ensembles (string quartet, piano trio, quartet, quintet) and larger ensembles drawing on guest artists.

Next year, the “big works” are:

  • March – Borodin, String Quartet No 2
  • April – Mozart, Clarinet Quintet
  • May – Adams, Gnarly Buttons, with Dvořák’s “American” string quartet as a kind of backup.
  • August – Schubert Octet
  • September – unclear, this is the “film” music concert;
  • October – Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence (for string sextet).

What’s missing?  Well, to me, and I expect also to P, what’s missing (apart from the Arensky Trio which is a welcome inclusion in the March concert) is any “big work” for an ensemble including Ian Munro, a pianist we both admire.

What’s going on?  It would be pointless to speculate.  I can only hope this is a temporary aberration.

 

Tally-ho!

May 24, 2016

On Saturday 14 May to UNSW with P and her son T to hear the Australia Ensemble.

For the second time this year, there was a large flock of corellas roosting in the big gum trees at the front of the John Clancy Auditorium.

The program was:

MILHAUD: Sonata for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano
STRAUSS: Piano Quartet Op. 13
BALL: Three Dreams in Pulse – new work for clarinet and piano (first performance)
MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E flat major Op. 20

The Strauss (Richard) was said to be a Brahmsian work. I suppose compared to where Strauss went afterwards it was, though I didn’t hear all that much Brahms until the third movement and the busy beginning to the finale.  There were unmistakeable signs of the future Strauss starting from the Heldenleben-ish big tune in the first movement and right up to the characteristic (think Till Eulenspiegel, or the boy coming back for the hanky at the end of Der Rosenkavalier) playful curlicues.

The Ball was a commission, originally for Catherine McCorkill, who sadly is no longer billed as part of the ensemble.  The “Pulse” in the title clearly refers to rhythm rather than legumes.  It was given a rousing rendition by David Griffiths, still listed as a mere associate artist.  And, of course (though less rousingly) Ian Munro at the keyboard.

The Mendelssohn is of course a wonder, though not quite the marvel it is often touted to be (on account of his extreme youth when he wrote it) because the version we hear was polished up by him a few years later.  The string members of the ensemble were joined by the Tin Alley Quartet.  The octet is such a well-known work that I found it almost nerve-wracking to witness, especially in the big first movement which really gave Dene Olding a work-out (as does the whole thing really).  I should lighten up.  The second movement (the least well-known) was a relief by comparison.

I have let too much time pass to make any very meaningful comment about the Milhaud.  P is often critical of some wind ensemble music, but I find myself nearly always beguiled by the sheer sound of the wind instruments playing together (or, in this case, with the piano as well).  I think it is because instruments supported by breath are so much like the voice.  The music is almost irrelevant to this.  From memory I liked the first and last movements the most, though the explosive third movement was pretty exciting.

In the last movement, I noticed the oboist, Huw Jones, sticking something up the bell of the instrument when he was playing some low and quiet notes.  A few bars later he took it out and almost surreptitiously stuck it back in his pocket.  I guessed it was some kind of mute – it is difficult to play the oboe low and quiet and it has a propensity to quack a bit.

At interval, I ran into Jones. When I asked him about the mute he pulled it from his pocket where it still was: a packet of Tally-ho cigarette papers.

You often see woodwind players doing something with cigarette papers mid-performance and especially oboists, when they are not (as they also often are) fiddling with their reeds.  Internet “researches” suggest that they are drying the pads.  Some woodwind supply shops actually sell cigarette papers.

Jones told me that there were cloth mutes that people sometimes used but the Tally-ho pack was just the right size.  I’m guessing it is probably also convenient if you are going to have the packet with you anyway on account of the other uses for the papers.

What will oboists do in the not-so-distant day when all smoking is forbidden and smoking paraphernalia are no longer so widely distributed?  It could be a bit like the problem which is already emerging in relation to the million-and-one home uses for newsprint.

 

 

 

Transfigured Night

March 23, 2016

On Saturday to the first Australia Ensemble concert for the year. It’s good to be back.

The program was:

Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949): Circulo Op.91 (1942)
Don BANKS (1923-1980): Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two (1968)
Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975): Piccola musica notturna (1954)
Ravi SHANKAR (1920-2012): L’Aube Enchantée (The Enchanted Dawn) (1976)
[Interval]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Notturno D897 in E flat Op.148 (c.1827)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (Transfigured Night) (1899)

The Turina was effectively a short piano trio in three (titled) movements.  A few little quirks aside it could have been written in Paris in about 1900 rather than in Madrid in 1942.

I’d never heard of Turina.  The program notes said he was persecuted by the Republicans during the civil war.  I’m not saying that never  to anyone (far from it) but these days it is a rare distinction to be claimed on behalf of anyone.

The piece was quite unknown to me: a bit of internet burrowing suggests that it may have come to the Australia Ensemble via a performance given by Julian Smiles as one of Katherine Selby’s “friends” (as opposed to former members of the Macquarie Trio, who presumably are not) in 2013.  The first movement was particularly lush.

I would like to have got more out of the the Dallapicola than I did.  The Ravi Shankar struck me as verging on musical blackface: harp and flute pretending to be Indian instruments.  It was fun at first but perhaps it was my ignorance that led me to feel by the end that it was going on a bit, whatever admiration I had for the virtuosity of the players and particularly Geoffrey Collins.  Too many notes! I was beginning to think – and certainly there were a lot.  Still, I always enjoy a good dose of harp and despite early exposure to the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto it must be said that flute and harp make a good combination.  The Banks was enjoyable without I think even professing to be profound.

Before the concert, P, my A-E-going companion, said that she was looking forward to hearing the Schubert Notturno as she hadn’t heard it before.  It is actually an orphan piano trio slow movement.  Once we had heard it she agreed that she probably had heard it: I was sure I had.  I enjoyed it.  How can one not enjoy a Schubert slow movement?  There is one slightly idiosyncratic passage when the strings break out rather unexpectedly into pizzicato to accompany the theme, sustained by the piano:

Schubert Notturno fragment

This still sounded odd when it returned.  I wonder if that moment has something to do with the movement’s failure to find parents.

The Schoenberg, after which the concert and this year’s series were named, was the undeniable highlight.  The core quartet was joined by Umberto Clerici and Justin Williams from the SSO.  We don’t get to hear string sextets that often but when we do  I am struck at how rich yet intimate they can be.

It’s hard to avoid clichés like “absorbing” and “compelling” so what the hell, I haven’t avoided them. I loved the bit which corresponds to when in the eponymous poem the man tells the woman who has just told him she bears another’s child that his love for her is unassailed, even deepened.  Julian Smiles came in with a big bright sound that blazed out transfiguration. The final section with its night twitters, was spellbinding.  I doubt if the orchestral version could ever match this.