A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.

 

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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 

 

 


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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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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.

 


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Yesterday and Tomorrow

After my devil’s advocacy earlier this week, I found myself surrounded by HIPsters* yesterday. The Australian Haydn Ensemble, playing Beethoven, in chamber arrangements, in Sydney Opera House, on original instruments. In 2016.

The AHE have been going for five years now, and they’re beginning to build momentum. Their chosen niche is late Baroque and early Classical repertoire, and they wear their scholarship with pride. Performance as research. Research as performance. Performative research. The question I have to ask is whether this approach is limiting, in terms of artistic expression and communication with the audience. Are we, the audience, being set free from preconceptions? Or are we getting tied up in HIPknots?

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Yesterday’s performance suggests the former. In a packed Utzon Room, playing against panoramic views of a sunny day on Sydney harbour, the ensemble performed Beethoven in a way that reframed not just the sound but the rhythmic and textural structure of the works. It was, in a word, discovery.

Central to the performance was the triple-strung, wooden-framed fortepiano, a replica of an early nineteenth-century instrument by Conrad Graf. As guest soloist Neal Peres da Costa explained before they began, the instrument’s four pedals meant he could realise the composer’s markings in a way not possible on a modern piano. In particular, the una corda marking, which shifts the hammer mechanism so that it only strikes one string, produces a distinctly ethereal tone, bringing an other-worldly character to the second movement. Then the return of the una corda marking in the final movement was like a ghost from the past. Peres Da Costa was imaginative and bold in his phrasing, flirting with the inegale, and finding a fascinating range of tone colours. Forget the heroic, domineering piano virtuoso: this felt like the tentative steps at the start of a new relationship. Occasionally klutz-y but very exciting.

A quick reshuffle for a fine reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. In this period arrangement for string sextet, flute and fortepiano continuo, some of the work’s signature gestures were missing – violas are not horns, and a period bow cannot sustain a note in the same way as a wind player can — but other, more intricate details emerged from the textures, which made up for the loss of that big orchestral sound. I sat there trying to imagine how I would listen to this, if I didn’t know it as a symphony but as a chamber work. Did it sound like the early string quartets? Would Beethoven have written it like this if he only had six voices? I’m not sure that he would have, but I found myself completely involved nevertheless.

Yesterday and tomorrow? That’s when the performances are. Go hear for yourself.

A few words about the Utzon Room. It has so much going for it: the kudos of being under the roof of the Opera House, and the support of the Opera House’s marketing efforts, a drop dead gorgeous view of the harbour and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and a perfect size for chamber music. It is always a pleasure to go there – it feels special. The downside, however, is the acoustic and sightlines. It wasn’t designed as a performance space, and it shows. We sat at the end furthest from the public entrance, on keyboard side but, after advice from another listener, I’ll try the other end, where the curve of the roofshell seems to give the sound a little more resonance. Indeed, it would be interesting to experiment with putting performers in that position, under the roof arch, to see if it throws the sound out into the room. Inconvenient for entering, perhaps, but if it improves the acoustic, worth a try.

*HIPsters – collective noun for practioners of Historically-Informed Performance.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a review for most small to medium music ensembles in Sydney. I am doing my best to support artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.


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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.)