littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

INVENTI ENSEMBLE AT THE MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE

This concert was a part of the ‘Local Heroes’ series. The Inventi Ensemble is certainly locally bred. Ben Opie, oboist and Melissa Doecke, flute, met when they studied together in Canberra. But their experience extends well outside Australia, as they have performed an extraordinary array of different kinds of music (Bach from a three-tonne truck, BBC Proms, London’s Southbank) in places such as Bahrain, Prague and San Francisco.

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The concert featured 20th and 21st century music. It was entitled ‘Jonathan Harvey and his Contemporaries’.  Jonathan Harvey (1939 – 2012) was a British composer who took up an invitation of Pierre Boulez to work at the Institute for Research and Co-ordination in Acoustics/ Music (IRCAM), linked to the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, where, among other things, Harvey became involved in speech analysis – applying this knowledge to some of his music, including a symphony.

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IRCAM, Paris

This concert featured smaller scale works and it opened with Harvey’s Ricercare una Melodia (1984), which can be played by various solo instruments and tape delay system. On this occasion it was performed masterfully by oboist Ben Opie, with Melissa Doeke operating the tape delay. The piece explores the literal meaning of ‘ricercare’ – to seek, and the music builds up with two 5-part canons, one frenetic and highly energetic, the other, contemplative.

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Jonathan Harvey

This was followed by Oliver Knussen’s solo flute work, Masks (1969), performed by Melissa Doecke, and described as ‘on the one hand an attempt at exploring differentiated musical characters within a single-line medium, and on the other had a dramatic miniature enacted by the flautist’. http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/masks-1172

We then had an amazingly dexterous and jazzy piece for solo oboe by English composer Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978). Once again this displayed the agility of Ben Opie, in this case, technical agility and an ability to play across different genres.

Inventi Ensemble is essentially Ben and Melissa – they nearly always invite guests to work with them and on this occasion the guest was pianist Peter de Jager who, like Ben and Melissa, can play brilliantly across a wide range of genres. Peter played Jonathan Harvey’s Vers, composed to celebrate Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday.

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Peter de Jager

The next piece was by Edwin Roxburgh and I expected it to be for oboe, as I had heard of Roxburgh as an oboist (indeed he held various positions such as principal oboe for Sadlers Wells), but this was for flute and piano – and the piano was particularly described as ‘accompaniment’.

Ben played an oboe solo, First Grace of Light, (1991) by Peter Maxwell Davies, composed in memory of English oboist Janet Craxton and inspired by a poem, Daffodils, by George Mackay Brown:

Sprindthrifting blossoms
from the gray comber of March
thundering on the world
splash our rooms coldly with
first grace of light

The final item in the concert, Run Before Lightning, by Jonathan Harvey, was performed by Melissa Doecke, who had worked with Harvey when he was composing the piece.

Aelita, Queen of Mars

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Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) is billed as being the first Russian science fiction film. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov. A silent film, it was screened in Melbourne recently, thanks to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, with a new musical score presented live by The Spheres, who are an experimental AV ensemble who explore the conflux of sound art, post rock and silent cinematics. Apparently early screenings in Russia were accompanied by Shostakovich playing his own score on piano. I would have preferred the whole 1920s deal as, on this occasion, I didn’t find the music of the Spheres helpful or memorable.

What I found most interesting was the 1924 fantasy of life on Mars and the relationship that this had to Leninist Russia, seven years after the Revolution. There is a useful, more detailed analysis of these aspects of the film at Senses of Cinema:  http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/aelita-queen-of-mars/

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The Martian sets and costumes are breath-taking (incidentally, they didn’t bother too much about a lack of oxygen on Mars), the sets designed by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov, the costumes by Aleksandra Ekster. My view of a 1920s Russia full of peasants burdened with heavy manual work trudging through snow in inadequate shoes was moderated by this – and it didn’t just happen in fantasy-land; in Moscow, there was a ball scene and women abandoned their heavy coats and gumboots to reveal sumptuous gowns, chic hairdos and elegant footwear to be swirled around a glittering dance floor. . . Or was this really more of the fantasy?

The film is about a young man, Los, an engineer who dreams of travelling to Mars. In 1921, a mysterious wireless message is received at various stations. The text of the message is: Anta Odeli Uta and a colleague teases Los by suggesting that the message has come from Mars. This sends Los into a spin where he daydreams about Mars. Aelita, the queen of Mars has a telescope powerful enough to view earth – she sees him and falls in love with him.

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In his dream, Los shoots his wife and builds a rocket ship in which he escapes to Mars with a friend and a stow-away. It doesn’t seem to take much time to get there. When they arrive, Tuskub, the king, orders them killed, ignoring Aelita’s pleas for their safety. On Mars aristocrats rule and slaves are confined underground and frozen and kept in cold storage when not required.

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Los’s friend tells the slaves of his own country’s revolution and inspires a revolt. Tuskub is overthrown and Aelita takes command. But she instructs her soldiers to fire on the workers. Los is horrified and kills Aelita (who takes on the guise of his wife as he does so). Suddenly we are back on earth. There is a poster on a wall, it reads: The only tyres worth your money are… Anta Odeli Uta, so the provocative wireless message had been an advertisement! Los’s wife is alive and well. He promises to stop daydreaming about Mars and to go about working towards a good communist society. The film has been described as ‘a revealing embodiment of the aspiration and uncertainty that characterised Soviet life in the early 1920s’.

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It was also influential on later futuristic movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and possibly even Flash Gordon.

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LOVELESS

Apparently the title of this Russian film comes closer to ‘Non Love’ than ‘Loveless’. There is absolutely not one speck of love. The beginning is arrestingly bleak: slow shots of a snow-covered river bank with piercingly clashing splinters of music. When will we see some life? I wondered.

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After quite some time we see a brief shot of some ducks on the river with their young, then the camera dwells on an unwelcoming concrete building with a flag over the door. We wait – and at last, people – it is a school and the children burst out of the doors at the end of a school day. One of these children is 12 year-old Alyosha.

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This portentous opening immediately reminded me of another Russian movie I saw in 2012: Elena. At the time I described the opening: ‘slow-paced and tense, with wonderful use of sounds – to start with, the early morning sounds as we watch a well-to-do apartment in Moscow gradually coming to life: bird sounds, then traffic sounds, an electric razor. … Phillip Glass’s third symphony pounds through the film, helping to create an atmosphere of tense desperation’. Both films were directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Alyosha’s parents are separating. Each has a lover. They must stay in the apartment – Alyosha’s home – until they can sell it. They argue about what to do with Alyosha – he is an inconvenient piece of property – his mother doesn’t want him. She never wanted him in the first place.

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The father thinks that a child is the mother’s responsibility. Alyosha overhears this argument. We see him hiding behind a door, contorted with anguish.

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Later, the mother confides to her hairdresser that the pregnancy was an accident – a kind of trap: she was scared to have an abortion and scared to give birth. She tells her lover that she couldn’t stand the sight of Alyosha when he was brought to her after the birth and she didn’t have any milk. I wondered whether it is possible for parents to have absolutely no feelings for their child. I also wondered whether the lover could continue to love this woman who, towards her child, is so stonily unloving. He tells her she is a beautiful monster.The mother comes back to the apartment late one night after an evening with her lover. She doesn’t even check that Alyosha is okay. She learns that he is missing when the school reports his absence. And when the father hears of this (he was also spending the evening with his pregnant girl-friend), he doesn’t show any signs of guilt.

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As we watch the bitter exchanges between Alyosha’s parents and then, when he has been reported missing, the prolonged searching by volunteers (the police department is  useless), there is a counterpoint that draws attention to the hollowness of present-day affluent Russia society: plenty of wine, selfies, sex happening everywhere – amazingly (to me) Alyosha’s father is worried that he will be fired from his comfortable job if it is known that he is divorcing. In that workplace the boss instils a kind of Sharia Christianity – one must be married, one must have children, the façade must be preserved at all costs.  A news broadcast refers to a Mayan prediction of the apocalypse due on 21st December and there are other bulletins describing how the world is in turmoil.

The search for Alyosha is thorough, thanks to the volunteers. He is never found. I had been worried that we might find he had hanged himself from one of the bleak trees by the river as early on there are a couple of references that suggest hanging: on his way home from school, walking along the riverbank, Alyosha throws some leftover construction tape over a high branch of a tree. In his room there are some small rings hanging from ropes. But the film is too subtle for such revelation. At the very end we see the construction tape still in the tree, blown by the wind.

Some years after Alyosha’s disappearance, we observe that the removal of their son from their lives has been no assistance to the parents, who are now living with their respective lovers. The father is obviously repeating the ‘mistake’ he made with Alyosha. He and his lover now have a blond-haired toddler, who looks like a young version of Alyosha, but the father, who seems to be unemployed, is irritated by the young child and treats him roughly. And the mother, living with her lover, spends her time on a gym treadmill – boring, repetitive, on the sleety balcony. Her tracksuit top suggests that, with this dull routine, she represents Russia.

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And, years later, there are still signs pasted around a severe, dismally cold city advertising that a 12 year-old boy is missing.

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RICHARD FLANAGAN: FIRST PERSON

Some years ago I read Virginia Duigan’s novel The Biographer, which raises issues about the extent to which it is ethical to reveal personal details in a biography – the tantalising problem that these are often the most fascinating aspects of a person’s life: how far can you go? Richard Flanagan’s First Person demonstrates another, not unrelated, matter: if you ghost-write someone’s autobiography, to what extent might you be taken over by the essence of that person?

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First Person is partly memoir, partly autobiography. Some years ago Flanagan did ghost-write the autobiography of conman John Friedrich – and at the time his wife was expecting twins. In the book, a young as yet unsuccessful writer desperately needs money. He has little choice but to accept a job ghost-writing the autobiography of conman Siegfried Heidl, who is about to be jailed for his crimes. Heidl also needs the money he will get from the book but he won’t open up to the young writer, Kif Kehlmann – not one bit. Early on Heidl says, ‘I have been missing since I was born’. For much of the story, Kehlmann and Heidl are confined together in an office of a publishing house in Port Melbourne. Part of the contract is that they must go to work there every day. Kehlmann is utterly frustrated by his inability to get anything of Heidl’s story and Heidl spends most of the time in avoidance behaviour or going out to what are probably fake meetings and lunches. At weekends Kehlmann goes home to his heavily pregnant wife and 3 year-old daughter in Tasmania and is confronted by the pressing need for money.

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John Friedrich

One of the things that Flanagan does well in this book is to set the brutality of men’s relationships against the harshness of the Australian bush. There is a friend, Ray, who might have provided support to Kif but he is really just a means of demonstrating the bleakness of an alcohol-fuelled mateship. To me, Ray was a rather shallow almost unbelievable character. In backstory we learn that once Kif and Ray tried to cross Bass Strait in a dinghy with the not surprising outcome that they were both almost killed.

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Richard Flanagan

The family in Tasmania is probably intended to be a kind of back-drop – the reason for the desperate need for money. Yet, that’s what kept me reading. Again, not surprisingly, the marriage fails, but Kef has a warmth, tenderness and respect for Suzy: ‘later in the night [he] spooned into Suzy’s back’. For me, the drama was: she’s 8 months pregnant with twins, with threatening pre-eclampsia, they’ve been given a tour of the neonatal intensive care nursery – oh, hell, he’s not going to be there when she goes into labour! And he’s not. He’s not in Melbourne, but home in Tasmania, out drinking after an argument with Suzy. She goes through an horrific labour. Everyone survives. Suzy seems too tolerant, too earth-motherish.

This is all a part of Kef’s transformation into the subject of the autobiography. He becomes more and more like Heidl – lacking principles and morality, rather than the impoverished but genuine writer he might have been. Much later — after Heidl’s death — Kef becomes director of Zero Box Entertainment – far away from ‘shitty’ Tasmania. He travels overseas, has lots of women … There is no going back to the simple home-spun life of a Tasmanian writer.

Heidl dies. It would spoil the story for those who haven’t read it to say how and by whose hand. This is the drama of the book and this is where there is some superb writing; Kef is infused with the harsh bleakness of the bush. Kef and Heidl are both in the bush, near Heidl’s home:

‘And then I was standing above him … Small black ants crisscrossed the red-flecked gruel near his ear… Overhead a black jay was circling.

‘And that’s the worst part.

‘His eyes were moving, following the bird above.

‘He was alive.’

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Another stunning piece of drama takes place after Heidl’s death. He has sent the editor some photographs – slides to illustrate the book. Kef and the editor look through the slides together – they are unexceptional – we hear the click of the slide projector. There is blankness, the ‘show’ must have finished, but no, the slide screen ‘seemed to exist only to have shown us this one image’: a flayed human corpse hanging from a tree.

SIEGFRIED SASSOON: COMPLETE MEMOIRS OF GEORGE SHERSTON

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

Attack

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

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Siegfriend Sassoon’s ‘Sherston Triology’ takes us into the trenches of World War I – particularly France, and a brief experience as an officer in Egypt. It is ‘fictionalised autobiography’ – a three volume account of the life of George Sherston over the war years. These volumes are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (the time leading up to the war when Sassoon was a well-to-do young man, fond of fox-hunting, golf and cricket), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Sassoon’s experiences as an officer in the trench warfare of France, his wounding and convalescence, during which time he comes to question the continuation of the war), and Sherston’s Progress (the outcomes of his fortuitous meeting with neurologist and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers – described elsewhere in reviews of Pat Barker’s books and the effect of this influence).https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/12/15/pat-barker-on-world-war-i/

Sassoon with David Cuthbert Thomas great friend who was killed

Sassoon with his great friend Robert Hanmer

It is believed that the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston accurately outlines the life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated (MC) for bravery on the Western Front. Sassoon said that his alter-ego, George Sherston, personified only about one-fifth of his personality. One large part that is omitted is Sassoon’s homosexuality – understandable as it was illegal in Britain at the time the volumes were published. George Sherston certainly doesn’t make passes at any young ladies and when he is on leave he indulges in sports or solitary pursuits. Sassoon did marry after the war (1933) but the marriage broke down in 1945. There was one son, George, whom Sassoon adored.

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Through George Sherston we confront the realities of ‘The Great War’ with the eyes of an officer and a gentleman. There are descriptions of the mud, the long marches and aching feet, the horror of dead bodies – particularly those with whom one was joking a matter of hours earlier. But there is a lot from the officers’ mess; golfing and imbibing vast quantities of the best whisky, leave and rehabilitation on the estate of Lord and Lady Asterisk. And like all good officers, Sherston has a servant.

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Sherston is injured and convalesces in England. He comes to see the rift between political machinations and the on-going persistence of insisting that the military continue to fight until there is a victor. In a tremendous act of bravery, Sherston / Sassoon wrote a Statement, which was read to the British House of Commons on July 30th 1917 and published in the London Times the next day:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.


I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.


On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

He was saved from court-martial by the actions of his friend Robert Graves who convinced authorities that Sassoon was suffering from ‘shell-shock’. He was hospitalised at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and there was a patient of W.H.R. Rivers who seemed to understand his position and indeed helped young Sherston to see his situation from a broader perspective. Sherston willingly returned to active service realising the ironic twist that one could only escape from the war by being in it, thus attempting to avoid his Statement being dismissed as the rantings of a ‘shell-shock victim’. The final words of the book are: ‘it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us’.

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ENSEMBLE FRANÇAIX AT MACEDON MUSIC

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I have written recently about the beautiful setting for chamber music provided by the Murdochs at Lowland Farm, Mount Macedon. Sixty or so people sit in a living room looking out of large windows to autumnal colourings in the near distance and then, further away, rolling hills of Australian bush.

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I have also written of the wonderful combination of double reeds (oboe and bassoon) and piano that is the chamber group Ensemble Franҫaix. What bliss to combine the two in the Macedon Music concert last Sunday.

Three pieces in the Ensemble Franҫaix repertoire have become old favourites for me: the Trio by Jean Franҫaix, which started this concert and then later the Trio by Francis Poulenc and the final piece, the excitingly jazzy Trio by André Previn. For descriptions of these pieces, please see earlier entries that describe Ensemble Franҫaix concerts. https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/04/07/ensemble-fran%D2%ABaix/

https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/07/23/ensemble-francaix-and-the-harp/

Ensemble Franҫaix commissions works for their somewhat unusual combination. Last Sunday we heard a Ricercare by Queensland composer Chris Healey. Indeed, it was a world premiere. ‘Ricecare’ is a term usually associated with baroque music – music of a contrapuntal style that often weaves around a theme, teasing it sometimes, then ultimately establishing it. For me, one of the best known baroque examples of this device is the theme of Bach’s A Musical Offering. In Chris’s work there were fugue-like passages, but he said he used the idea of ‘ricecare’ as a kind of launching pad. Chris is a relatively new composer who has written for various combinations of instruments and also piano solos. He says he wants to stand on the shoulders of musical greats such as Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.

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Chris Healey

We heard the Australian premiere of Waharoa, by New Zealand composer Ben Hoadley. Ben travels a lot from New Zealand to Australia and the piece was, to some extent, a blending of these cultures. For example, a motif inspired by the New Zealand bellbird, and another, the Australian grey butcher bird. The title of the piece is a New Zealand place in the Waikato region.

Another piece new to me, but not a premiere, was Terra Incognita by Katia Beaugeais. The piece has two movements, the first, ‘misterioso’ depicts the mystery of the ‘unknown’ land that Europeans of the time before the 17th century believed must exist somewhere in the south.

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The second movement ‘appassionato’ suggests the land and its native bird life. One interesting device was to have the oboe and bassoon blow into the open grand piano – the open lid deflected the sound in an eerie way.

 

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The concert finished with André Previn’s Trio and we went home refreshed by its jaunty final movement.

It is well worth visiting the Ensemble Franҫaix website http://www.ensemblefrancaix.com/ I look forward to hearing many more concerts from this talented group.

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THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR

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I came across this book at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Festival (see reviews on elwoodwriters.com    ). British writer Alan Hollinghurst was a guest. I had heard of him: The Swimming Pool Library came out in the 1980s when there was heightened interest in gay culture because of the AIDS ‘epidemic’, then, in 2004, he won the Man Booker prize with The Line of Beauty. But I hadn’t read these books. After hearing Hollinghurst speak, I was keen to read The Sparsholt Affair.

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Alan Hollinghurst

The book is broken into five sections and on one level it can be seen as an intergenerational narrative: in part 1 we see David Sparsholt as a young man briefly at Oxford during World War II – muscular and beautiful, lusted after by clandestine watchers in the black-out. He has a girl-friend and gets into trouble for having her in his room out of hours. In Part 2, David has a teenage son, a bit dyslexic, but good at drawing and just becoming aware of his gay desires. By Part 3 (1970s) the son, Jonathan, is a young art restorer finding out about the delights of living in London and, with his divine looks, asked by a lesbian couple to father their child. By Part 4, Jonathan, an established portrait artist, has a daughter, and some of this part is narrated from her point of view. Jonathan hasn’t married – he has fathered the lesbians’ child and clearly loves Lucy whom he sees regularly. In Part 5, Lucy is old enough to be married – a huge society wedding quite at odds with Jonathan’s style, and father/ grandfather David dies at the age of 89.

The most compelling feature of this novel, however, is not finding out how the different generations turned out; the reader has to piece together exactly what happened in the 1960s – the much publicised Sparsholt Affair. In Part 1 we observe that David Sparsholt, although keen to marry his girl-friend, is not averse to the amorous advances of a man. By the 1960s he is well respected, a decorated airman and businessman. We gradually learn that the ‘affair’ involved gay sex and a parliamentarian. It occurred at the time just before gay sex was decriminalised. After conviction and damning publicity, David Sparsholt left his wife, who was Jonathan’s mother (the girl-friend of Oxford days) and married his secretary. But all this we must piece together; the affair lurks in the background just as it does for Jonathan, who is aware that people befriend him in the hope that they may hear more about his father’s involvement in the celebrated scandal. Even when he is a successful artist, Jonathan cannot escape being David Sparsholt’s son. But the reader learns all of this gradually, third hand. The narrative of the novel is conveyed from various points of view:  firstly a memoir piece written by Freddie, a contemporary of David Sparsholt at Oxford. Much of the narrative is from the point of view of Jonathan, and Jonathan and his gay artistic world is also observed from the point of view of daughter, Lucy. David Sparsholt is first observed through a window at Oxford, exercising his enticingly beautiful body. And that is really how we continue to see him: the rather distant, but very proper war hero,  a father who drives a Jensen, who on one of the rare occasions he meets up with his adult son, dines at his club. When, at the end, Jonathan views his dead father’s body, he, the observant artist, can’t remember the colour of his father’s eyes.

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Oxford 1940s

What carried me through this book – effortlessly – was not the intriguing plot, but Hollinghurst’s vivid descriptions of people and places. The section below is from Part 1, a darkened Oxford in wartime blackout. Evert and Peter are looking up at David Sparsholt’s window:

He (Evert who would later have an affair with Sparsholt) and Peter (an artist who would sketch Sparsholt in the nude, not showing his head, so he couldn’t be identified) stood staring up at the room opposite. Their backs were expressive, Peter smaller, hair thick and temperamental, in the patched tweed jacket which always gave off dim chemical odours of the studio; Evert neat and hesitant, a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river. p.6

Part 2, a scene at the beach. Adolescent Johnny aware he is gay:

The young man was changing, Johnny a second too late as he pulled up his pants with a snap and stood wringing the wet from the tiny green trunks. Johnny could be so absorbed in looking he forgot he was visible, and being looked at. ‘All right?’ said the man – a clench of shame for Johnny, but it was just pleasantness, unsuspecting. The dog ran over, and Johnny scratched its head with sudden rough energy and relief. p. 142

From Part 4, Lucy (Jonathan’s daughter, the product of a lesbian relationship) is the only child at a wake:

A little later Lucy went and stood near Grandpa George, who was in a corner of the crowded room with a tall white-haired man – she knew he hated people barging in when he was talking. After  a minute, though, the older man nodded pleasantly at her and said, ‘And this must be your granddaughter, George?’

He looked down to check. ‘Yes … yes, it is’ – with a momentary smile at her as if confirming he hadn’t lost his car keys. p.355

In Part 5, 60 year-old Jonathan goes to a gay nightclub – something he hasn’t done for many years, but his partner died a few months ago. The casual abandon of the music and dancing provides a precursor to Jonathan’s new world of freedom: his father dies that night :

Now a dark-haired young man was pressed against him, saying something in his ear, and they moved hand in hand into the dancing crowd, the young man stepping back to protect a space for them and make a cute little act of dancing with Johnny – he thought for a moment he was teasing him. He was lean and large-eyed, with a long nose, and a smile which only faded as he lost himself in his trance, then came back as he looked at Johnny, and hugged up close with him as they danced. p. 425

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FLUTE AND OBOE PORTRAITS: A CONCERT AT THE CHURCH OF ALL NATIONS

When I was in Paris last year, I loved that you can wander around the 5th and 6th arrondissements and just happen upon interesting exhibitions and concerts. This is also becoming the case in Melbourne.

I’ve come from a Sunday afternoon concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton: Timmins and Friends – flautist Jennifer Timmins

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Jennifer Timmins

and her highly talented friends had put together an hour or so of music that featured flute and oboe (played superbly by Stephanie Dixon),

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Stephanie Dixon

several New Zealand composers, also music by American composer Robert Muczynski (1929 – 2010), Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (b 1961) and Frenchman Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962). Jennifer and Stephanie were assisted by Laurence Matheson on piano and Tim Murray, bassoon.

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The first item was a Duo by Robert Muczynski, intended for two flutes, but it worked beautifully for flute and oboe, in fact, I found it difficult to imagine a second flute fitting as well as the oboe did. The first movement opened with the oboe playing a firm ascending scale and the flute winding around it, playing with it. There were six short movements – in some of the faster ones the oboe line was quite percussive – a staccato that I imagine can be crisper when played with a reed rather than with the flute.

We then heard solo flute, Harakeke (Flax) by New Zealand composer Philip Brownlee (b 1971). Here the flute was perfect for evoking wind blowing through flax.

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Then we had another case of the oboe substituting for another instrument. ‘Substituting’ suggests that the result was not as good as the intended instrument – but I doubt very much that this is the case. The oboe sounded superb in a sonata for Soprano Saxophone and piano by Daniel Schnyder. The piece explored a jazz/ classical cross-over and, as  oboist Stephanie said, it gave her a chance to play some jazz. The final movement, in particular, is syncopated and jazzy.

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New Zealand composer Bryan James (b 1949) wrote a piece, Tasman Ice, in the mid-1970s. A fantasia for solo flute, it was originally used in the sound-track of a film about the Tasman Glacier, made for the Department of Land and Survey/ Conservation. I am not surprised to learn that James plays the shakuhachi and has a deep interest in Japanese and Chinese music – the piece contrasts icy tinkling and mysterious depth.

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Tasman Glacier

Two pieces for flute, oboe, bassoon and piano by Jacques Ibert were followed by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher’s (b 1993) Unfinished Portrait, for the same instruments. This is a response, by the composer, to letters between New Zealanders artist Rita Angus (1908 – 1970) and composer Douglas Lilburn (1915 – 2001), and interest in a portrait, in oils, that Angus attempted, some years after her first portrait of Lilburn.

timmins douglas lilburn

Early Portrait of Douglas Lilburn by Rita Angus

Angus hoped that this second portrait would express her ‘long and deep devotion’. But she was unhappy with the result, and after eight years, destroyed it. Salina Fisher’s piece was written at the time of the centenary of Lilburn’s birth. I sensed at times in the piano part a ‘fluid’ motif that suggested to me the on-going motion of painting – at the end, the piece trails off, with a single line from the piano, as it were, into nothingness.

Rita Angus 1

Rita Angus, Hawkes Bay Landscape, 1966

Congratulations to Jennifer Timmens and her friends for putting together and performing such an imaginative and beautifully executed concert.

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Rita Angus, Flight, 1969

 

 

 

 

 

PIANO AND ‘CELLO AT MOUNT MACEDON

Melbourne-based performers Blair Harris (‘cello) and Caroline Almonte (piano) gave an inspired and interesting performance at Macedon Music this Sunday. Mount Macedon is about 70 km to the north west of Melbourne — it was once a hill station resort, where the wealthy retreated from hot Melbourne summers.

MACEDON MUSIC APRIL 15 2

It’s surprising that I don’t write more often about Macedon Music http://www.macedonmusic.com/ –  such a worthwhile institution: formed about 25 years ago, chamber music is performed in the home of Helen and Peter Murdoch. The audience sits in a living room and looks out large windows to sweeping views of Mount Macedon bush-land: just as chamber music should be – in an intimate setting. But more than this, the Macedon Music committee selects music that is new, interesting and of the highest quality. I’ve been attending the concerts since their inception and there is always something new, diverting, stimulating …

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Blair Harris, ‘cello

This time, one of the new experiences for me was to hear an electric ‘cello, on which Blair Harris performed Sept Papillons for solo ‘cello by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

MACEDON MUSIC APRIL 15 ELECTRIC CELLO

an electric ‘cello

These seven brief descriptions of butterflies seemed to suit the electric ‘cello – light and flighty.

macedon music april 15 butterfly

The main difference I noticed in the electric instrument is that the finger board seems to be more responsive than that of an acoustic ‘cello. This was followed by a piece of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929 – 2014) for ‘cello and piano, which depicts ducks on a billabong – very appropriate for our rural setting.

Then we heard local composer Caerwen Martin’s Heart of Yours, Heart of Mine, composed especially for Blair and Caroline and publicly performed on only one other occasion. Before interval we also heard Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror(s) in the Mirror) composed in 1978. Minimalist music, the title suggests infinity and the idea of reflection, with the ‘cello and piano playing scale passages in opposite directions: as the ‘cello ascends, the piano descends, etc … The piece was originally written for violin and piano. It has been used in theatre and film – including a short film by Jean Luc Godard.

macedon music april 15 multiple reflections 1

After interval (wine and sandwiches on the lawn), we were reminded that 2018 is the centenary of the ending of World War I with a piece written by E.J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) when he was convalescing from a WWI injury. After this came the major work:  Frank Bridge’s (1879 – 1941) ‘cello sonata in D Minor H125, composed over the years of the war.

MACEDON MUSIC 15 APRIL E.J. MOERAN DURING WAR

E.J. Moeran during World War I

 

There are two movements. The first starts with an ascending ‘cello scale that maybe suggests hope, but this is not maintained. The second movement has been said to express Bridge’s despair over the futility of war and the general state of the world at that time.

MACEDON MUSIC APRIL 15 FRANK BRIDGE

Frank Bridge just after World War I

I would have preferred that the concert end here, as programmed, but the generous Blair and Caroline provided as encore a piece by Australian composer Gordon Kerry (born 1961) inspired by the mining of diamonds on Aboriginal land. I would have preferred to hear this another time, not when I was immersed in thoughts about the impact of World War I, inspired by Bridge’s powerful sonata.

MACEDON MUSIC APRIL 15 WORLD WAR 1

TOMBEAU DE CLAUDE DEBUSSY, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC, SATURDAY 24TH MARCH 2018

 

Debussy 4

25th March, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy, a composer whose works were a seminal force in the music of the 20th century. To pay tribute to this great composer, ANAM put together a concert of works that in various ways acknowledge the pervasive influence of Debussy’s work on all kinds of 20th century music – it is noted in the program that George Gershwin ‘devoured’ the music of Debussy and he influenced not only significant ‘classical’ composers such as Schoenberg and Bartok, but also modern jazz.

Debussy 1

Each item on the program had a relationship to Debussy’s music, although only two pieces were actually composed by him: his own compositions will be dwelt on as the year progresses. Each piece had its first performance in 1920, after Debussy’s death. The first item was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, orchestrated by Benno Sachs – particularly beautiful wind playing by Eliza Shepard, flute and Owen Jackson, oboe. The other piece by Debussy was an arrangement of his flute solo Syrinx for 3 flutes and this was followed by Hirokazu Fukushima’s Fantasia on a theme of Syrinx for 3 flutes, composed in 2015.

debussy 6

Piano works that paid tribute to Debussy were by Roussel, Malipiero, Eugene Goossens, Dukas, Bartok, Schmitt and Stravinsky – the latter giving the basic chord structure for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which, conducted by Richard Mills, provided a fitting end to the program.

Debussy at the piano

Debussy at the piano

Maybe stretching the realm of Debussy’s influence a little wide, was inclusion of an oboe solo, Studie über Mehrklänge (Chordal Study) by Heinz Holliger. It was performed by ANAM director, Nick Deutsch. It is a compendium of every effect possible on the oboe (or, at least every effect considered possible when it was composed in 1971). Multiphonics, circular breathing, triple and flutter tonguing were ably demonstrated by Nick, showing how music developed in the 50 or so years from Debussy’s death.

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Nick Deutsch, director, ANAM

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Other tributes to Debussy were songs, Quatre petites melodies by Satie, sung by guest mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan, an exciting sonata for violin and ‘cello by Ravel and Homenaje for guitar by Manuel de Falla.

I came away from the concert with an expanded sense of Debussy’s role in shaping 20th century music. I have always loved his use of the whole tone scale and had been aware of his interest in Asian music – unusual for 19th century Eurocentric composers. But I realise now how he opened up a fresh palette of sound that made possible the wealth of ‘classical’, jazz and other styles of music that continue to enhance musical composition 100 years after his death.

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