A Cunning Blog

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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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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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The Dumky Three

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L-R Grace Clifford, Clancy Newman, Kathryn Selby.

I’ve heard Katherine Selby play Dvorak’s Dumky Trio (Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90) so many times, in so many different incarnations. It’s a bit of a signature piece, and I thought that I had a definitive idea of the work in my head, cobbled together from years of various performances. But no. Yesterday, in the hands of Selby and her latest friends, cellist Clancy Newman and violinist Grace Clifford, I think I heard Dvorak’s quirky, lumpy, gushy, graceful trio as I’ve never heard it before. This was the real thing.

What was it that made this performance so good? Nothing obvious, and everything subtle. The balance, for one, which was brilliantly judged. Neither Clancy Newman nor Grace Clifford come across as power players. Their virtuosity is a given (Kathryn Selby has excellent taste in friends) but without the blast of egotism that can go with it. Even the opening outburst from Newman felt somehow private, as if we were being invited to listen into a very personal angst. An invitation to listen rather than a demand to be heard.

The communication between players was also a factor: fitting the fragments of song and dance together is an intricate business, and you could hear the fabric of the music stretching at times, but it came back together not with someone banging out a thumpy rhythm or an assertive entry, but by letting each gesture run its course. And the other lovely thing to hear was how one player would introduce some rubato into a phrase  and the next player would take it, and make it their own, as if, with a wink, they were acknowledging a joke and embroidering it. This wasn’t just a feature of the Dvorak. It was there in the Beethoven’s E flat major Piano Trio, Op. 1 No. 1 as well – that sense of witnessing a really thoughtful, enlightening conversation.

Saint-Saens’ first piano trio, his Op. 18, completed the program and it was a real discovery. It’s still not fashionable to like Saint-Saens, but I reckon if you played this to someone blind, without telling anyone who it was by, they’d be utterly charmed. Especially in the hands of three such persuasive musicians.

No more performances from this line-up, sadly, but much good stuff to come from Selby and Friends through the course of 2017.

Now you’ve read this pop over to take a look at the book I’m writing, which is being published by Unbound. In the great tradition of Dickens, it’s available by subscription, and I hope you’ll pledge!

 


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Murder & Redemption

Gush alert. Not really a review. More a colourful account.

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Image: Sam Amidon. Photo by Ferguson

 

With Richard Tognetti ‘in residence’ at the Barbican in London, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s first tour is directed by Finnish fiddle player and long time ACO collaborator Pekka Kuusisto. With him comes Sam Amidon, another fiddler, guitarist and banjolier. Actually, I’m just going to call him a musician, because all this specificity is getting me down. In the same spirit, I’m going to call last night’s concert a top gig, because it hit all the marks for me. It entertained, it wow-ed, it seduced me, it made me think and made me grin from ear to ear. And that, I reckon, is a result.

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Isn’t it weird how a banjo hold is just like a rifle hold? Music not bullets.

Murder & Redemption spliced together Janacek chamber music and American blue grass, minimalism and Messiaen, with an open-hearted enthusiasm which made it seem completely natural. Vast leaps of style, tonality, philosophy even, spanned without fuss by a stage full of brilliant musicians. Amidon is a disarmingly undemonstrative spinner of songs: indeed, there’s a delicious cognitive dissonance in the way his tales of love and death unfold.

“So I drew a revolver from my side / And I shot at the poor boy’s soul”.

As you do.

Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, in Richard Tognetti’s arrangement for string ensemble, was a perfect foil to this. No words, just feverish passages breaking out from the everyday tumble of Moravia dances.

Redemption came in the second half, with an all-too-brief solo set from Kuusisto and Armidon, followed by John Adams’ Shaker Dances. It’s a rare treat to hear improvisation – verbal and musical – on the City Recital Hall stage and even rarer to hear a violinist more often at the head of an orchestra accompanying a banjo. If you haven’t got tickets to Bruce Springsteen you might want to head to the Wild Rover tonight where, rumour has it, this dynamic duo are playing another set.

img_5575Back to the orchestra, and a gripping performance of Shaker Dances, with superbly enhanced sound by ‘a hairy gentleman called Bob’, according to Pekka “I’m Finnish so I can say anything” Kuusisto. The moment where the orchestra turned into an accelerating train was mesmerising, as was the searing intensity of the final bars.

An encore was inevitable. Few would have complained if they played all night. As it was, we got two works for the road. The road to heaven, that is, with Amidon’s traditional ‘O Death’ laying us down and the last of Messiaen’s Four Symphonic Meditations ushering us skywards.

This concert is repeated on Friday 10 at 1.30pm, Saturday 11 at 7pm and Tuesday 14 at 8pm at City Recital Hall, on Sunday 12 at 2pm in the Opera House, and on Monday 13 February at 7pm in QPAC (Brisbane). Highly recommended. For details click here.  

This is A Cunning Blog, a site for reviews, features and the occasional random musing from music critic and writer Harriet Cunningham. If you follow this site you’ll get notified whenever I post a review. If you want to know more about things I do, have a look at my portfolio or skip over to the enlightened publishing house of Unbound


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Watch out, Nige’s about

So, Kennedy’s back in town. Back for more larking about and kicking footballs and making bad jokes. Back for more talking like a fishwife and playing like a dream.

Brix Smith, Ex-Fall guitarist and ex-wife of Nigel Kennedy describes him with affection in her memoir, The Rise, the Fall and the Rise Again, published last year.

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“He’s a magical elf,” she says. “As a friend, he’s amazing”. (She goes on to say she doesn’t recommend him as a boyfriend.)

Magical elf, mouthy oaf. Whichever way the wind is blowing, he’s worth listening to. This was what I thought of him ten years ago (which appeared originally in the Sydney Morning Herald).

Nigel Kennedy
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 1
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Nigel Kennedy is never going to make a career as a stand up comedian. His jokes tend to be lame, in Polish, or both. But he giggles infectiously as he tells them, and if that’s what is needed to rev him up for making some of the most beautiful sounds on earth, bring it on.

Last night’s official program was a two hour concert of concertos by J S Bach and arrangements of Duke Ellington’s big band greats. The reality was a three-and-a-half hour jam session where a cadence could be a harmonic trampoline to melodies from every corner of the musical spectrum; where ‘what if?’ meetings developed into searing musical partnerships; and where Kennedy nudged, cajoled and tickled musicians and audiences out of their comfy concert zone and into a musical lovefest.

Some highlights: Kennedy and Catherine Hewgill playing Bach Two-Part Inventions, first with great delicacy, and then with wild abandon at twice the speed; a soaring slow movement of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, with Shefali Prior; and some bonus Bartok with a fabulous young violinist Kennedy bumped into at his Basement gig. In Kennedy’s estimation Sonja Schebeck “plays classical like a motherf*#ker”. I agree.

Kennedy also brought a very classy quintet of jazz musicians from home with him, who slotted into the Bach without fuss before shining in Duke Ellington. Kennedy switches to electric violin for these numbers, giving him a whole new set of toys to play. ‘In a Jam’ was a grinding, bad boy flood of improvisation, while ‘Dusk’ revelled in floaty resonances and ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ was George Clooney charismatic.

Whether you endure or enjoy his foul mouth and anarchic stage manners, in the end it’s simple. The man plays in perfect octaves like no other, has a tone which makes concertmaster (and fellow Juilliard student) Dene Olding’s sound merely good, and triple stops his way through a jazz riff without ever sounding ugly. Unless, of course, he wants to. You can do anything when you’re King Kennedy.

Nigel Kennedy appears at Sydney Opera House on January 27 and 28, 2017, with his new reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And don’t tell anyone, but he has also been known to hop up on stage at the Basement while he’s in town…


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Summer dreaming

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I’ve been taking a blogbreak over the silly season but I just received the link to the 2017 Dartington International Summer School of Music brochure and this has spurred me into action. I’ve been working closely with Dartington Arts and the Summer School Foundation in putting together Sanctuary, so I’m delighted to post the brochure here and encourage everyone — listeners, players, makers of all ages — to take a look. It’s Joanna McGregor’sjoanna-macgregor-1024 third year as artistic director, and it’s just been announced that she will continue after this year, which is great news. I’ve been to week 3 for the past two years and this year am intending to go to week 2 for a spot of Purcell. There’s also a focus on writing that week, so I’m going to take a fresh box of sharp pencils as well as my violin.

While I’m over there, I hope to also call in at Musique Cordiale 2017, run by the redoubtable Pippa Pawlik in the hilltop town of Seillans in Haute Provence, and take a side trip to visit the famous Horn Cave near Avignon. 2016-10-22-17-07-40-1024x576

Alternatively, I might end up driving kids around NSW, walking dogs, feeding chickens, slaving over advertising copy and studying. But we can dream!