A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.

 

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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 

 

 


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Intricate Models

The Natural Order of Things was commissioned from composer James Ledger for the Australian Chamber Orchestra by David and Sandy Libling, in honour David’s father. Simon Libling lived an extraordinary life. He was born to a wealthy family in Krakow in 1912 but, as you can imagine, they didn’t stay that way. When he finally arrived, with his wife and child, in Melbourne in 1960, Libling had lived through halfBlakusCelloMed-e1348130472704 a century of economic and social turmoil. Two wars, the Great Depression, occupation, living under a totalitarian regime… There’s a (necessarily) abridged version of a long and eventful life in the program booklet and, as Ledger says, it reads like a film script. The beauty of Ledger’s five movement work, however, is that he has resisted the temptation to use filmic techniques, emotive musical language or empty drama. This is an intensely thoughtful work, full of considered gestures and deft layering of sound. Sudden, sculpted outbursts dot the musical landscape as if at random, but clearly placed with exacting accuracy by disparate soloists within the ensemble. Designed, but not contrived, organic but not predictable. It’s like turning an intricate model over and over in your hands, discovering it from different angles. This is a fine work which would grace the repertoire of any string orchestra and a beautiful memorial to a life well-lived.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Satu Vanska, brought their habitual virtuosity to this and all the other works on the program. Indeed, the evening was like a collection of intricate models, each work with its own set of fearsome demands. I was thrilled to hear a work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (yes, mother of Peggy Seeger, stepmother of Pete Seeger, wife of Charles Seeger and, most importantly, a composer who music critic Peter Dickinson called ‘a kind of American Webern’). Her Andante for Strings, the second movement of her 1931 String Quartet, is an arresting work, beginning with tense, dissonant smears of sound which build to a brilliant, crystalline cacophony. If that sounds chaotic, let me assure you it’s not: the restraint with which she adds voices — you have to wait till nearly the end for the double bass — is fascinating. The ACO’s performance makes a powerful case for hearing the whole thing.

Another intricate model took the centre stage in the second half : a 1616 Hieronymus and Antonio Amati cello, the latest acquisition of the ACO Instrument Fund. And to show it off, a new arrangement by Jack Symonds of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello, with Tipi Valve as soloist. I don’t know the sonata well, but whatever Symonds and Valve did, it worked brilliantly. The cello line emerged, glowing, from a delicate mass of string textures.

A Vivaldi Concerto bounced off the stage with verve, but the real showpiece was Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12After the profundity of what went before this piece comes across as completely nutty: the soloist ricochets off into a series of cadenzas designed to test the limits of the instrument. In fact, it’s more impressive as a pyrotechnical display of digital dexterity than as an artistic statement. However, when you are a virtuoso violinist and you come across a concerto subtitled The Harmonic Labyrinth – Easy to enter, hard to escape, the gauntlet is well and truly thrown, on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up. Satu Vanska, who has been known to perform Paganini Caprices in clubs and on surfing retreats, is completely up for a challenge, and her heroic performance got a well-deserved standing ovation.

All that and Mendelssohn too. A night of many notes. (Not too many, though). Catch one of the last two performances if you can, tonight, Weds 17 May or Friday 19 May, both at City Recital Hall.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please feel free to rummage further around my blog, or search for other features and reviews I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, or check out my book project, Sanctuarya cultural history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. 


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Brandenbatics

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Photo (and all the rest of them too): Steven Godbee

In 2015 the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra collaborated with contemporary circus ensemble, Circa to create a pasticcio around music of the French Baroque. They’re back for more in 2017, this time with a Spanish-themed pasticcio. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has let his imagination loose on the image of the bull ring, taking inspiration from thrumbing rhythms and plangent emotions of Catalan song. ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, has spiced up his ensemble with baroque guitarist Stefano Maiorana from Rome, soprano Natasha Wilson (pictured below) and a medley of old and new arrangements.

18193405_10155227412299254_7813138481784460886_oIt’s a terrific show. The eight performers surprise and delight, impress and astonish with their repertoire of tumbling, rope-climbing, trapeze work, silks and physical theatre. Their balance, strength and grace are constantly amazing and they heighten the audiences engagement with a subtle and often funny overlay of character acting.

We interrupt this review for a quick announcement. Normally at this point I’d be asking you to visit my book project, now crowd-funding at Unbound. However, today, I would rather that you went to www.fairgofairfax.com.au to read about the cuts to editorial staff at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m still a Herald contributor, in theory, but the arts coverage has shrunk dramatically, so I rarely get a gig these days. Luckily for me, it’s not my bread-and-butter, but it’s devastating and not just to the journalists. In my neck of the woods the whole arts eco-system suffers when intelligent and in depth coverage is curtailed. Without the support of mainstream media, you’re stuck with the likes of me and the rest of the inter webs. Please let Fairfax know if you’re happy, or not, with this situation, and please let artists, arts writers, bloggers and arts companies know too! Thank you. Now read on.

The musicians — just one to a part — are ranged across the back of the stage, with Circa artists in front and singer Natasha Wilson drifting in between the two. The band plays with high energy and patchy brilliance; the improvisations don’t always click and the energy doesn’t always make it past the acrobatics, but when it does, it’s thrilling. Natasha Wilson, making her Australian debut, sings with unfettered clarity and a slightly other-worldly detachment, giving the heart-on-sleeve ballads a tantalising sense of mystery.

18278628_10155227414344254_4469351965812937694_oOn one level it’s good, old-fashioned acrobatics, with a classy backing band and bull-fighting theme. On another level, it’s an attempt to create something bigger – a synthesis of art forms which bounce off each other to create something new. Does it work? Yes and no. As a rip-roaring display of musical and physical virtuosity it is hard to beat: I challenge anyone not to gasp and grin during the performance. As a pasticcio it’s less convincing for me — if there’s a narrative in there, it comes and goes, with human drama upstaged by spectacle. There are so many moments of genius — the red wheelbarrow as bull and bull-fighter’s cape, for example, and the bull-fighters (bulls?) charging across a tabletop — that it feels like overthinking it to get stuck on genre-bashing.

Ultimately, Spanish Baroque has all the makings of a festival piece, a show which could tour anywhere in the world. Fortunately for me, it all started in Sydney.

18238473_10155227413469254_5682927937048582983_oFurther performances – Friday, Saturday 5 and 6 May, Wednesday and Friday 10 and 12 May, all at 7pm, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday 6, all in City Recital Hall, plus two performances on 12 and 14 May at Melbourne Recital Centre and one performance at QPAC in Brisbane on 16 May. 

 


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Those British chaps

National identity is a funny thing. When you’re in it, you can’t necessarily see it. Which is perhaps why it takes someone from the outside to make the most insightful observations. For example, Australia’s own Paul Kildea is one of the world’s leading scholars on the music of Benjamin Britten, and it was Vladimir Ashkenazy who took it upon himself to present a festival of the music of Elgar.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that American conductor Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is the one championing a program of music from British composers. He makes a great case for them.

Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder is a mishmash of the orchestral interludes from his 1984 opera Higglety Pigglety Pop, based on the Maurice Sendak book of the same name. It’s great to see the SSO digging into this — new repertoire for them — with such commitment and energy. Knussen’s orchestration is beautifully judged, and Spano outlines the rhythmic complexities with clarity so that the orchestra can really dance.

The image of Jacqueline du Pre, head flung back as she is transported by the music, haunts Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Indeed, it’s a ghostly work, full of wisps of memories of fragments of meaning, with melodies that almost break under the weight of sustained emotion. Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh approaches its fragility with breath-catching poise, but her performance, for me, is a little too spectral, getting lost in the corporeality of the sympathetic but not unsubstantial accompaniment. Fade to grey.

krijgh_800x700__copyright_marco_borggreve-s-w1000-h750-q50-m1485833976Last on the program, the rarely performed Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s an extraordinary work, with its first movement’s series of ecstatic ephipanies, its sybaritic Romanza and eloquent Passacaglia. It’s not so much heart-on-sleeve as in-your-face. And that’s perhaps one of the challenges: to keep an eye on the overall architecture of the work without getting mired in scrunchy harmonies and lingering melodies.

Robert Spano was an excellent guide here, allowing the sound to bloom but still moving things along. And bloom it did, in glorious solos from, amongst others, Alexandre Oguey on cor anglais and Robert Johnston on horn. Above all, the strings were outstanding, resisting the temptation to over-indulge and giving VW’s intricate passage work crystalline form. The violins, in particular, under the leadership of Andrew Haveron, are sounding as good as I’ve ever heard them, and that’s very good indeed.

No space in the Sydney Morning Herald for this review, but look out for a review of Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Monday. And if you enjoy my writing, make my day by visiting Unbound to read more about my book on Dartington International Summer School, then share it, tell all your friends, and pledge. Bisous xxx


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Bach to basics

Before reading this post, please take a few minutes to go and book tickets to one of the remaining four performances if there’s any way you can get there. You won’t regret it.

Done? Now read on.

Bach has a central place in the repertoire of violin players. You cut your teeth on the A minor concerto. Playing the Bach Double with your teacher for the first time blows your mind. You grow up with the Solo Partitas. So when you hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Bach Violin Concertos you can expect the music to be in their bones, the rhythms in their blood, the slow movements like one great sigh, from the heart. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how good this concert would be.

If ever a gig illustrated a killer strategy for making classical music sell, this one did. The strategy? It’s simple: be bloody good. You don’t need gimmicks when you play this well. You don’t even overt scholarship or extreme tempi or bells and whistles. You just do what you do. If you want details, there’s a formal review from me in the Sydney Morning Herald, but don’t go looking for incisive analysis because it’s a shameless gush, to be honest.

Not all performances can be this good. In fact, not all performances should be this good. Music-making doesn’t have to be a competitive event, and it certainly doesn’t have to be perfect. Every so often, however, it’s a treat to bask in the sheer bloody-goodness of JSB with ACO.

Further performances are on April 9 at 2pm, April 11 at 8pm and April 12 at 7pm, in Brisbane’s QPAC on April 10. Do go if you can. If not, It’s being livestreamed on ABC Classic FM at 2pm today, April 9, and then on demand at the ABC Classic FM website.

I promise I’ll sharpen my tongue next time…

 

 

 


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HIP hop

6b04a44d01596a1cc841605b41d31d88It feels eerily like things have come full circle. From Stokowski’s Bach, lush and lugubrious, to the so-called cobweb brigade, blowing the dust off old scores and treatises to let the music speak for itself. And now the HIPsters, restoring the mud of history to those pristine patterns. Vibrato, portamenti, notes inegales, pitching and rolling through the looking glass of twenty-first century scholarship.

None of which really matters, on one level. “We readily acknowledge that we will never know if we are getting it exactly ‘right’,” says Megan Lang, education manager of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO). What does matter is that this orchestra, a relatively new kid on the block, is bringing an academic rigour and intellectual curiosity to performing music which has sat so comfortably in the mainstream as to have avoided much of the endless stylistic skirmishes surrounding baroque music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wolf and, later in the season, Rossini, Schubert and Mozart: music we think we know, reframed. Works which have very much acquired a life of their own, based around score-based analysis, run through the new musicology mill to emerge not as timeless works of art, but as living history.

With their first concert for 2017 ARCO (the orchestra formerly known as orchestra seventeen88) has staked its claim as the next big thing in historically-informed performance. It’s a band stacked with international experts sitting alongside dynamic new faces, all brandishing instruments with impeccable pedigrees for those unexpected sounds. They’re intent on their aim, they’re excited and they’re good. Very good.

They’re good, but not great. Not yet. Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan opens with a fearless blast and an impressive sense of ensemble. And his 12 Contradanses, which the orchestra presents interleaved with extracts from the composer’s heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament, read by artistic director Richard Gill, skip along, in irony-laced technicolour. His Romance in F major, however, doesn’t quite find its mojo (if indeed, there is a mojo to find – I’ve never managed to make sense of the strangely awkward Romances) although Rachel Beesley plays with knowing style. Indeed, ARCO’s interpretation of Beethoven wears scholarship on its sleeve, interpolating slides and blips and gestures which yell ‘bet-you-didn’t-think-that-was-authentic’. It’s surprising, fascinating even, but it still feels a little mannered, like an actor doing a good rendition of a regional accent, but still occasionally slipping into their native vowels.

ARCO speaks Mendelssohn, however, like a native. His Symphony in A major op.90 ‘Italian’ rips off the stage with glittering urgency, and the period tang of phrasing feels so alive, so right. The rusty growl of period bassoons and basses underwrites the rich textures and the first violins in particular play with a clean but not brash fluency that could fool you into thinking all those notes are easy. Meanwhile the horns demonstrate to perfection the abilities and, more delicious, the inabilities of their instruments, walking the tightrope of wobbly overtones and harmonics without flinching.

At the end of the concert, as the applause dies down and audiences check their bus timetables, orchestral members turn to each other, smiling, shaking hands, hugging in a touching demonstration of collegiality. They know they’ve done good. And they know there’s more to come.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra perform Rossini and Schubert in May, and Spohr and Mozart in September. Highly recommended.

 


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Big Music

c7arydgw0aeouhtA fantastic Sydney Symphony concert this afternoon. Benjamin Northey conducted the band in Andrew Ford’s Headlong, followed by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Simon Tedeschi as soloist, and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 to finish.

You don’t hear these pieces often. The Rach is a monster to play (not that Simon Tedeschi seemed to have any problems…). The Copland is huge and complex and requires virtuoso performances from every corner of the stage. And Headlong is by an Australian composer not called Percy Grainger, which is a tough place to start. Add to that its scoring, for basically everything in the box, including celesta, harp and kitchen cabinet of percussion, and the fact that the composer, Andrew Ford, pulls no punches in terms of what he expects of the players, creating a real concerto for orchestra. The SSO more than rise to the occasion, of course, but it’s not the sort of piece you could sneak into any program on a whim.

It’s also not, in my opinion, Ford’s most successful work. Not yet, at least. In his program note he explains how it has changed since its first outing, in 2007, introducing more space and a flamboyant but intricate final bar (which instantly, and delightfully, set off my Rite of Spring sensors). There is still, however, a level of opacity to the work which doesn’t fit with my sense of Ford as a subtle and insightful arch-communicator. It feels like there’s all this stuff in the texture which wants to be heard, but isn’t.

I’d never heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 performed live before and it was a fascinating experience, not just for the eye-wateringly tricky solo, but also for the way that the music forms a seamless continuum with the rest of Rachmaninov’s work. The first movement begins in media res, as if picking up from where the previous concertos left off, and there are constant wisps of melody that seem vaguely familiar. Is it possible to generate the feeling of nostalgia, without the knowledge of what one is nostalgic for?

Out of the crashing waves of melodic energy the soloist emerged not as the triumphant hero but as someone very much at one with his surroundings — far more part of the orchestra, a fellow musician, than the flashy virtuoso. A heroic anti-hero, if you like. Tedeschi’s legato is astonishing (and achieved with minimal pedal, it looked like) – giving Rachmaninov’s music a diamond-cut clarity, sorting out the themes from the nutty mountain of notes.

58.102While the piano was being moved for the Rachmaninov conductor Ben Northey gave the audience a few insights into the final work, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. This is the one that builds up to and integrates his previous work, Fanfare for the Common Man, in its blazing last movement. Northey pointed out that this passage appears at first as a passacaglia in the flutes, rather than a declamation in the brass (and you can hear the bones of the chord progression forming in the first movement too…) The point being, that this is not intended as a bombastic work, and far less a nationalist one, even though it has been dubbed the Great American Symphony. It’s stirring, it’s noble, but we needn’t conflate high ideals with a particular nation.  Hence the concert’s subtitle, Symphony for a Common Man.

Well said, Ben. And well played, SSO. Big music for big ideas, and a huge orchestra, held together by the finest of threads, all knitted together by Northey. Many soloists deserve a shout out — Ben Jacks and Rosemary Plummer in particular were outstanding — but in truth, this was the ultimate Concerto for Orchestra.

 

The black and white photo above is taken by Catherine Scudamore and is part of the Summer School Archive. It shows Aaron Copland (r) and Manoug Parikian (l) in front of the steps to the Great Hall at Dartington in 1968. You can see more of the archive by pledging to buy my book, Sanctuary. Do take a look!

 

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