A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


Leave a comment

Musique Cordiale #4: Siegfried and the Wolf

IMG_0838

All set up, ready to play in L’Eglise San Leger, a Romanesque Church from the 11th century. This will be my last concert in France as tomorrow I head north to Dartington. It’s been a mighty week. Old friends and new colleagues and ridiculously beautiful medieval villages and all the rose you can drink. Wish me luck holding my own in the Siegfried Idyll and Peter and the Wolf. It’s been a privilege to play in the Musique Cordiale Orchestra. I’ve enjoyed every minute, and I’m immensely grateful to the inspiring director, Pippa Pawlik and her dynamic team of assistants, volunteers, musicians, donors, singers, players, actors, chefs, drivers, stand-luggers and water-bottler hander outerers. Gros Bisous.

Now, as a mistral blows into town sweeping away the Saharan Desert air, they’ll be rehearsing for a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers later in the week. Making music, making friends. Vive la musique entente cordiale.

 

 


Leave a comment

Musique Cordiale #3: Melting moments

IMG_0823Another day, another 11th century Church, this time L’Eglise de Saint André in Tourettes. Thank God, literally, for thick stone walls, which provided some respite from the searing heatwave conditions outside, but there would still have been plenty of sweaty moments and sticky fingers, no doubt, for the performers.

The concert featured the ten students of the Musique Cordiale Academy 2017, young artists aged from 15-20 who work with a team of experienced professionals (lead by Levon Chilingirian) to develop individual and ensemble skills. At the end of a ten day stint they joined in with the Musique Cordiale Orchestra and also presented solo and chamber items in their own concert.

tourrettesAs ever, their endeavours were inspiring. I mean, what’s not to love about young players, full of potential, full of enthusiasm, playing at a consistently high level, with frequent  flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure. There was some spirited ensemble playing and solos ranging from brave but blustery to utterly amazing. There were also poignant moments: the audience were there with one player as she stumbled, stopped, thought about giving up, then took a deep breath and pressed on; we drank up the delight of a new work, composed that week, by one of the students; and we saw their glee at sitting right in the thick of an orchestra, alongside professional players.

The Musique Cordiale Academy is not your average music camp: it’s exclusive stuff, elite training for elite students in a bijoux festival in the South of France. But it its own small way it demonstrates the importance of the generational transfer of skills and knowledge, as cherished artists pass on their wisdom and — who knows? — perhaps refresh their own artistic lives as well.


Leave a comment

Musique Cordiale diary #2: Amor interruptus

IMG_0764

Come inside. It’s much cooler in here. The Église Saint-Étienne at Bargemon

After twelve hours of rehearsal, two concert programs learnt, one performance done and many glasses of Provencal rose drunk, I’m beginning to acclimatise to the heat and pace. It helps when you spend the middle of the day within the thick stone walls of 12th century Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Ormeau just outside Seillans, listening to Schumann.  Young German tenor Michael Mogl‘s recital included songs by Mozart, Wolf, R Strauss alongside Schumann’s Dichterliebe, with accompanist Rebecca Taylor extracting wonderful sounds from a clavinova. The generous resonance of the chapel muddied the mercurial texture of the Mozart and Wolf songs, but did not hide the handsome bloom of Mogl’s voice, with its clear, unforced top and sensuous mid-range. He became more consistent, more agile, as the recital went on, diving into the emotional maelstrom of Dichterliebe, the audience hanging on every note until disaster struck. PFFT. The lights flickered. The power went out. And with no electricity for the keyboard, the music stopped.

 
Meanwhile, back in the air-conditioned comfort of Seillans’ Salle Polyvalente, rehearsals for two orchestral concerts continued. Musique Cordiale’s Academy Strings, a group of young students who spend a week playing together and alongside professionals, joined the orchestra to play Schubert and Prokofiev. Schubert’s tricky: initially more straightforward than Prokofiev but, as conductor James Lowe explained, demanding an exquisite attention to detail in terms of attack, articulation and tempo. Not PFATT. More phwoom. Peem. Whooofve… And don’t get sidetracked by articulation into slowing down. So much to think about, but the students came out grinning.

IMG_0765The other program was an all-French affaire, with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Berlioz’s Nuit d’ete, with the radiant Isabel Pfefferkorn, and Ravel’s weird and spiky Tzigane, with soloist Jonathan Martindale. Martindale gave a searing performance, bouncing the terrifying opening cadenza off the thick stone walls of the church and tearing through the dance with fiery energy.

You’d think he’d earned his cold beer with that, but no. He returned to the stage to lead the orchestra in the Mother Goose Suite, and nearly made me cry with the delicate beauty of the solo in the final movement. Good gig.


Leave a comment

Angels and Demons

ebb94e9213bbd23d4b2e0811a7099945The relative speed of light and sound has always fascinated me. The way that, on the cricket pitch, you see the batsman swing and follow through a good second before you hear the tock of willow on leather. Or, in the concert hall, how the conductor’s baton goes down and nothing happens for a split second, then this great noise wells out from the stage, even as the stick is rebounding for the next note. That gap between sight and sound is tantalising: eyes open, the orchestra looks like it’s not playing on the conductor’s beat, but eyes closed, it sounds tight as a drum. When you also consider that the wind, brass and percussion are themselves factoring in the sound lag, playing micro-seconds ahead of the beat, which is microseconds ahead of the strings, to achieve the desired ensemble, the complexity of relationships between players, conductor and audience becomes quite mind-blowing. As the Doctor would say,   it’s “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”.

There was plenty of timey wimey stuff on Friday night. American conductor James Gaffigan did his thing, the orchestra did theirs and, as if by magic — but actually by a whole heap of skill and little bit of physics — it all came together. The lilt and swagger of the Kodaly’s Hungarian csardas, the wistful lingerings of Rachmaninov’s waltz, the unforgiving perpetual motion of the finale… The Sydney Symphony were on fine form, soloists from within the ranks shining through exhilarating tuttis.

26753-275-prom_21_bach_alina_ibragimova_chris_christodoulou_resizedBartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 dances to a different kind of time, simultaneously strange but familiar. Soloist Alina Ibragimova brought a punchy, physical toughness to the unrelenting virtuosity of the first movement, riding the orchestral tuttis like an extreme surfer. All that changed, however, in the second movement, where the solo line floated, as if without effort, across the crystal sheen of high strings and harp. The finale was fraught, taut, terrifying. Brilliant.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for inviting me to this concert, and I hope to hear Ibragimova again, soon. In the meantime, the orchestra welcomes back its chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, next week for the Big One – Mahler 3. If they play like they played on Friday, it’ll be fab.

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my book project, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now at Unbound. You can buy advance copies and pledge for a range of rewards including coming to a concert with me, music criticism workshops, or the opportunity to work with me on telling your story in music and words

 

 


Leave a comment

Paris, 1780s

ahe-subscriptionsThe Australian Haydn Ensemble have pulled off quite a coup in securing legendary forte pianist Melvyn Tan as soloist for their latest gig. Back in the 80s — the 1980s — Tan was at the frontier of the new territories for the keyboard, working with Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardner to refashion great swathes of the classical repertoire. That was then, and he’s moved on (as he explains in his appearance on The Music Show, well worth a listen). Nevertheless, he returns to Mozart with the same fleet, fresh touch that thrilled all those years ago.

Tan plays on a fortepiano made by Chris Maene in 2014, modelled on a Walter & Sohn instrument, prepared by Colin Van Der Lecq and loaned to the AHE by Ivan Foo. It’s a gorgeous looking instrument with a beguiling sound, but it takes a while to tune into its limited dynamic range; during the opening tuttis, Tan could be air-playing. The instrument’s sonic delicacy raises the stakes in terms of phrasing and articulation: the music is no longer defined by contrasting attack and heft, but by the speed of decay and the unweighting of notes, giving the fortepiano space to sound. When they get it right, it’s  like champagne. Not cheap fizz, mind, but serious, vintage champagne, with a lingering complexity amongst the pinpricks of effervescence. It’s an impressive and very enjoyable skip back in time.

Framing the concerto are two works, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major ‘La Reine’ and, to start, a mini-symphony from one Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St Georges. Bologne is an intriguing figure, the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner who, in spite of his skin colour, became a society figure in 18th century Paris. He was, apparently, a famous swordsman and a celebrated musician and composer. His Symphony Op. 11, No. 2 in D major, which doubles as overture to one of his many operas, L’Amant Anonyme, is perhaps not quite as interesting as the man, but a fun and nicely-done beginning.

marie_antoinette_adultBologne also made his mark as a patron, commissioning a suite of symphonies from one Joseph Haydn in 1785. Whether inspired by the generous commission, the substantial forces of the Loge Olympique Orchestra, or the glamour of Paris, Haydn’s resulting set of works were real crackers, with No. 85 supposedly a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette. And with a performance like the AHE gave it, it’s not hard to hear why. Artistic director Skye McIntosh’s choice of tempi were bold and convincing, showing off a nimble, finely-tuned string section and spectacular virtuoso playing in the horns.

The Australian Haydn Orchestra have come a long way since their first season in 2012. McIntosh has assembled a fine band of period string players and the wind section — often a weak spot in historically-informed performance —  made all the right noises. They’ve fixed their intonation across the board and found a more consistent tone; their vision and style is beginning to shine through. More, please!

 

 


Leave a comment

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. 


1 Comment

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…