A Cunning Blog

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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

 

 


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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!

 

 


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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