A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Play it again

I have a secret, which I’m going to tell you. Only you.

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Photo: Steven Godbee

Last night, Avi Avital played the slow movement of a Vivaldi Concerto just for me. The lights went down, the hall fell silent and, although he didn’t actually meet my eyes, I’m sure he was playing to me alone. It is with much regret that I acknowledge that everyone else in the hall probably felt exactly the same way.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra don’t generally bring back artists after only two years but they’ve made an exception for Avi Avital. Frankly, I’d be quite happy to see him back every year, but I’ve a feeling the rest of the world might get jealous.

By now you’ll have gathered that this is a rave, but I’m not going to apologise for my enthusiasm. Avi Avital is a rockstar. His instrument is smaller than your average guitar hero, but the energy with which he plays powers up the performance to epic levels. The difference between his performances and, say, Jimi Hendrix’s, however, is that his sound is amplified not by electricity but by intensity. This is music under the microscope: tiny modifications to timbre, exquisitely turned phrases, and a brilliantly judged sense of timing which has you catching your breath as he places a single note, perfectly.

The other effect of Avital’s  playing is that it makes you listen. That’s partly practical: the mandolin is a quiet instrument which can only sustain notes in two ways: either by using tremolo in a sort of sonic pointillism, or by creating the space — in other words, silence — to allow a single note to ring on. It’s practical, and it’s also rewarding.

I’m happy to report some outstanding listening last night, and not just from the audience. The ensemble were brilliantly focused and responsive, taking their cue from his sound, his phrasing. Indeed, Avital was not the only one on form last night. The ensemble was sounding as good as — dare I say it, better than — I’ve ever heard them. They accompanied Avital in the two Vivaldi concertos with their customary stylishness and rose to the timbral and rhythmic challenge of Tsintsadze’s Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes, and the torrid Paisiello.

A highlight of the night, however, was a new find from artistic director Paul Dyer, by a Venetian contemporary of Vivaldi by the name of Giuseppe Valentini. His Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op. 7 No. 11 features soloistic breaks for cello and all four violins. In the opening Largo concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen drew a complex, woody timbre from the band. It felt much more freer, more characterful, from an ensemble that sometimes gets stuck on detail.  Then, in the allegro it was a classic case of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’. The first violin threw down a musical gauntlet, passed along the line to violinists Ben Dollman, Matt Bruce, Matthew Greco in ever evolving forms until it reached cellist Jamie Hey. They met Lee-Chen’s challenge with thrilling flair, confirming what we already suspected, that these guys can really play.

The combination of a charismatic and winning soloist and a concertmaster who is not afraid to take a bold stand must make this a contender for Brandenburg best concert of the year. But don’t take my word for it. Go and hear them on 28 and 29 October and 2 and 4 November at 7pm and 29 October at 2pm in Sydney, or on 5 November at 7 and 6 November at 5 in Melbourne, or at 7.30 on 8 November in Brisbane.

And if you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

 

Super Sato and the Boy Wonder

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Back in Sydney, and back to the Brandenburgs last night, for a concert with violinist Shunske Sato as guest director and soloist, in a program which took the band out of their home territory and into the lush sounds of the nineteenth-century. tardis

Sort of. In fact, it was lush sounds filtered through period instruments, period sounds filtered through a romantic sensibility, and a romantic-sized orchestra making up the numbers. Take Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, a late-nineteenth century pastiche of an imagined eighteenth-century sound, played by twenty-first century artists on seventeenth-century instruments. Talk about time travelling!

In the end, this was a very personal — idiosyncratic, even — performance. With Sato directing, it turned into an exercise in boundary pushing which, for me, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Tempi were extreme. Fast movements were not just allegro vivace or con brio, but prestissimo, as fast as possible, and sometimes faster. It was exciting but the notes raced past in a blur. Slow movements were expansive, delicious, indulgent, but sometimes lingering over the lyricism to that point that they only just avoided stalling in mid-air. And that cheeky little catch of breath before a phrase return, that ‘wait for it, wait for it…’ worked brilliantly the first time, but its impact faded with repetition, like an over-worked punchline.

I’m going in hard here, and I’m aware that it’s at least partly because, for my sins, I know Grieg’s string writing back-to-front and upside-down. This was a highly original, and even risky, performance and, as I might have said before, I’m all for taking risks. So bring on the rubato, rock that voluptuous portamento, take things as far as they can go, and then maybe a little bit further. It certainly got my attention, if not my unqualified admiration.

Before the Grieg, we had Mendelssohn-the-Boy-Wonder and the third of his String Symphonies. Back in the musical time machine as a nineteenth-century twelve year old remodelled an eighteenth-century format. With Sato at the helm the Brandenburg’s string sound was distinctly different: less hard edges, more elision, minimal vibrato. He launched into the first movement at a cracking speed, and the band were up for for it, matching their rhythm and articulation with thrilling sense of ensemble. Exciting stuff.

Then Paganini.

paganiniPaganini inhabits a strange place in classical music because, as we all know, he was basically a freak. A freak, a showman, a shyster, all rolled into one big bundle of superhuman talent. Not such a bad fit, then, for the Brandenburg Orchestra, with the right frontman, and last night we had two. Sato romped through the fourth Violin Concerto, making it sound terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. Not to be outdone, Paul Dyer directed a supersize orchestra, kept up with the soloist and played the triangle. It was quite a show, and brilliantly done by all on stage. (Special mention to the trombones and trumpets). The only disappointment was that Sato declined the audience’s vociferous requests for an encore. By this time, we knew he could do anything. Anything. Maybe a wafer-thin caprice? Pretty please?

But no. In true showman style, he left us wanting more. Let’s hope he’s back soon.


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Make it new

World Premiere!
Debut performance!
Newly-discovered!
Never before heard/seen/smelt/felt….

 

Plus ca change.Whether it’s the 1700s or the 2000s, we’re all suckers for novelty. The overseas star, the new commission, the next big thing. Even in the sometimes fusty arena of classical music, ensembles entice us to their concerts with tantalizing promises of something a bit different.16ABO BlazingBaroque SYD opening-46

So when the Australian Brandenburg offers up a concert with no headline star, no gimmick, not even program details, just a promise of ‘blazing baroque’, it’s curiously unsettling. The music starts, soloists stroll on stage, in the middle of the music, we’ve never heard of half the composers, we clap at all the wrong moments… Is this deliberate obfuscation, to shake us out of our comfort zone?

Whatever the intention, it has the effect of bringing a fresh mind to the music. The racy clatter of a Sammartini (Giovanni or Guiseppe? Not sure) overture, the juicy textures and crunchy harmonies of a Vivaldi Concerto (which one — oh, y’know, just one of ’em), the pomp and thunder of Fasch (who he?), the poly-stylistic Telemann… Two hours of random baroquerie from those eighteenth-century workhorses who wrote music by the metre, day in, day out, for a pre-Spotify audience. And we’re there with them, listening avidly.

There is plenty to hear.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for several instruments in F major, RV 569, for instance, puts the spotlight on multiple soloists, all drawn from within the regular ensemble, including ludicrously difficult breaks for pairs of oboes and horns, for solo cello and bassoon, all led by a solo violin. Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E minor, (TWV42:e1) is exquisitely beautiful — those liquid lines entwining around each other — but it is also peculiarly fascinating, because of the closeness in timbre of the two solo instruments. Same but not quite same. Worth listening to really closely. And of all the works on this program, the final movement of this one delivers the biggest surprise, as the ensemble overcome the lead weight of a rustic drone, using it as a springboard into dance.IMG_4916

Two other highlights: Telemann’s Grand Concerto in D major (TWV deest), featuring a pair of baroque trumpets, played with thrilling edge and clarity; and, throughout, the leadership of the Brandenburg’s new concertmaster, Shaun Lee-Chen. Just his presence on stage seemed to amp up the energy of the ensemble. As for his solos, they were something else. Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin in D major ‘Grosso mogul’ (RV 208) is weird and wonderful, with a notated cadenza in the first movement which would make Paganini’s eyes water. Lee-Chen delivered it with mesmerizing pace, like a spontaneous flood of invincible virtuosity. Then, in the recitativo, he stepped it back, lingering over awkward suspensions, taking dangerous liberties with the line, to deliver something strange and beautiful.

The Brandenburg’s usual practice of building programs around visiting soloists is sound: it brings inspiring new voices and ideas to Australia. However, from the evidence of this concert, there is plenty of inspiration to be heard from within this fine ensemble. Leave your expectations and the door and just enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 


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The Code: a guide to concert dressing, part 2

Barbara Bonney (left) and Fiona Campbell (right) in Seoul in 2010. Of all four outfits (white tail coat, bias cut oyster satin, black so-tight-can't-sit-down sheath and red satin, this got the most votes)

I had to review the Australian Brandenburg concert for SMH last Friday. It was, as expected, a great concert. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell and have been ever since I saw her in Pinchgut’s Juditha Triumphans. This was my first opportunity to hear her on the concert platform, and it was terrific.

Come review writing time, however, I hit a knotty problem. Campbell is a very theatrical singer, and she was performing operatic arias. To heighten the drama, she had four costume changes during the evening. Would it be frivolous to review the dresses as well as the music?

A bit of a different look for baroque divo and diva

In the end, this is all that 350 words could fit.

But it got me thinking about onstage concert gear. For the diva, a wardrobe full of glitzy evening gowns is de rigeur. For most orchestral musicians, however, the choice is black tie, white tie, or, more often than not, just common-or-garden ‘concert blacks’. These days, as classical ensembles react to the flight-to-hipness, more and more ensembles are getting trendy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra have had Akira Isogawa designing their outfits for nearly a decade now, and Carla Zampatti designs the ladies outfits for the Australian Brandenburg. The Goldner Quartet stick to own choice blacks, while the Australian String Quartet, currently all ladies, go for own choice evening gowns.

Does it matter? Do we like frocking up? And any suggestions for who young artists about town might get to design their costumes?