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.


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.



Yesterday and today

160919-lezhneva-690x387I went to hear the ACO and Julia Lezhneva last night. It was quite something. The performers left the stage after the fourth encore. Fair enough. They probably wanted to get home, or have a drink. The audience would happily have stayed to listen all night. I could gush about phrasing and timbre and poise and fiddly-fast notes but my post concert tweet says pretty much all I want to say. screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-08-56-pm

I was however interested in a note in the program.

For these performances, the Orchestra will play on gut strings. We like the rawness, roughness and soft hue of the sound these strings produce. And the wind players will perform on copies of instruments from the time.

The pitch is compromised at 415 vibrations per second, which may have been used by some performers in the 18th century. We have little to no idea what the composers intended their music to sound like, so hereby offer you one notion of how it could sound today.

Roughly translated, “Don’t you dare pull the historically-informed-performance card on us. If you do, we won’t hesitate to ask to see your time machine”.

It’s an interesting point. Australian Chamber Orchestra has never staked its reputation on authenticity, whatever that might be, and Richard Tognetti has never claimed to be making scholarly editions when he arranges late Beethoven quartets for string ensemble.  Or Janacek, or Grieg, or Alice in Chains for that matter.

This is in sharp contrast to many other ensembles touting for business these days, where historically informed performance is a key part of the brand. Paris in the 1780s. Vienna in the 1830s. London in the 1690s. You name it, the niches are endless.

None of which I, personally, have a problem with, until it becomes a battleground. When musicians start waving baroque bows threateningly, and start muttering about someone else’s misplaced vibrato or pitch, it starts to get silly. The whole point of the HIPster movement is, surely, to seek meaning, and meaning comes in many flavours, whether it’s how a musician might have played a particular phrase in 1816, as compared to 2016, or what they might have been thinking about at the time. Frankly, if it finds some meaning which I can use in the here and now, I’m pretty happy. As the program writer of the ACO says, the main thing is ‘how it could sound today.’ Because until we get that tardis working, today’s all we got.

(And seriously, do go and hear this one if you can. There’s another performance in Melbourne on Saturday 15 October and the last night in Sydney next Tuesday. Details here.)




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Make it new

World Premiere!
Debut performance!
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.







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?

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For the love of Italy

I recently reviewed the Australian Brandenburg‘s first concert for the year, Amore Italiano, for SMH, but 350 words in a daily broadsheet didn’t quite give me space to cover my thoughts… So a bit of a follow-up.

Paul Dyer introduced his guest directors, Guido Morini and Marco Beasley (aka Accordone) by way of a charming story about a concert in a tiny mountain village in Italy, reached by bus, funicular and a great flight of steps. There was wine, there was song — it all sounded very picturesque. Perfect Brandenburg fodder, in fact, for while there are many words you can apply with confidence to their performances — virtuosity, scholarship, beauty, etc. — their performances also tend towards the picturesque. That is not meant to be a criticism or a faintly praising damnation. It is just that, from my observation, the regular Brandenburg audiences have come to expect performances that are thrilling but also —  how shall I put it? — comforting, a source of consolation or even escape from the big, bad world.

With Accordone, you got all the usual stuff — brilliant performances all round, and I didn’t have space to say how brillianty the fiddles played, or the lutenists for that matter. But from the very beginning, there were questions in the air, curly, disturbing questions to rattle the mind.

The opening sinfonia, for example, was a fine example of seventeenth-century Italian operatic writing. Except that it wasn’t. Instead it was a dead-pan, historically-informed, no vib rendition of a 21st century work modelled on a 17th century work. Which makes the whole authenticity argument a moot point. I’m trying to work out why I found this use of “recycled materials and traditional skills” (as they put it) so disturbing. Somehow, it felt like it was on the edge of a con – the old argument that the closer you get to reproducing something exactly, the more sophisticated, the more duplicitous even, the work is.

Later in the performance came more original music from Accordone, from another opera — they’ve written three already! — called Solve et coagula, a curious tale based on the life of Raimondo di Sangro, an 18th century Neapolitan scientist, alchemist, inventor and all-round strange fellow. And strange it was too. Not, thank goodness, a reproduction antique, but more a baroque re-imagining. Baroque in the sense of mannerist, rococo art, rather than in the musical sense. I found the first extract a bit lugubrious for my taste, but fun, with a touch of the Michael Nymans about it. And I loved the little lyric Luna, which had the stillness of music by Arvo Part.

I’m don’t mean to pigeonhole the music by these comparisons, or for that matter suggest they were less than original. Rather that I found them more honest in the way that they used tools of the past — musical forms, instruments, language — without hiding their contemporary sensibility.

Interestingly, there was some juicy reactions from audience members behind me. “What were they thinking?” and “This’ll lose them subscribers” were two comments overheard. I’m sure they weren’t speaking for the whole audience, but there were a fair few empty seats after interval.

As I said in my review, the early leavers missed out. There was nothing to scare the horses in the second half, and plenty to delight. The three frottolas (two from the 1500s, one from the 2000s) were just lovely, and Marco Beasley stole the show with Le canzone del Guarracino, a patter song to rival the best of G & S. As for the final encore, a Neapolitan soldiers’ song, it was a real coup de theatre to have everyone on stage down tools and sing lustily, not like choirboys,  in four part  harmony.

So… what started as a quaint story of rural Italy turned into a murder mystery and ended up with a Neapolitan street fight.

Accordone push the boundaries musically, historically and aesthetically. It won’t please everyone, but the Brandenburgs can and should try it more often.