littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

A MOAN OF OBOES

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On a whim, I decided to join the Australian Double Reed Society (ADRS), which, according to its website, promotes and enhances knowledge of double reed instruments (oboe and bassoon family). https://adrs.org.au/The annual conference was to take place at Scotch College, which is a kind of alma mater for me because that’s where had I my very first music lesson (piano) at the age of four.

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The conference was held in the James Forbes Music Academy at Scotch. It is a most impressive resource and it is pleasing to see an independent school open its facilities to an ‘outside’ organisation such as ADRS. This academy was built quite recently. When I was four Scotch had a ‘music school’. I remember shady trees, possibly elms, a row of about six music rooms with soundproof double doors, a classroom, a performance hall and towering above all of this the school library. Returning to the school was quite a welcoming experience for me – I used to know it well because my grandfather was the principal and my grandparents lived in a large flat in one of the school boarding houses. I loved visiting them.

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As I approached the foyer of the James Forbes Music Academy I could hear oboes and bassoons being tried out and the squeaking of reeds being tested. Recently on a breakfast program, listeners were asked to come up with a collective noun for a gathering of oboes. Unfortunately the chosen word was a ‘migraine’ of oboes. I guess that’s the way some music teachers feel – but I think that a ‘moan’ of oboes is better! There was a large display of ‘wares’: oboes and bassoons of all kinds, reeds, reed making equipment … I enquired about various kinds of reeds and looked at new oboes, though at $14,000 I wasn’t tempted to buy one. My impression is that professional oboists change their oboes frequently, whereas I have had my two oboes since student days.

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Participants ranged from school students – some as young as ten – to the principal oboe of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A few presenters had come from overseas and a lot of people were from interstate. I was expecting to feel like a fish out of water because I haven’t played in an orchestra or been involved in teaching for many years, but there were a few familiar faces and I was soon involved in ‘oboe talk’, which is usually about reeds.

The James Forbes Academy is big enough to have many sessions running concurrently: recitals, bands, workshops, master classes … The first recital I attended was by Briana Leaman – Pipe Dreams. She walked into the room playing Debussy’s Syrinx, written for unaccompanied flute. It worked well on the oboe. This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Pan, also unaccompanied. The centrepiece of her recital was the Australian première of Eric Ewazen’s concerto, Hold Fast Your Dreams. On this occasion it was played with piano. The piece was inspired by an oboist’s mother who, through the tribulations of life held fast to her dreams. Briana is from South Carolina but she now resides in Melbourne with her saxophonist husband.

I then heard Heather Killmeyer, from East Tennessee, play Coal Trails on Rails, a piece for oboe and electronics, written for her by Brian DuFord. Heather comes from a railway town in the Appalachian region of North America. She had recorded the sounds of different kinds of trains shunting, blowing their whistles – all kinds of sounds – and sent them to the composer. There are train sounds throughout the piece, with the oboe playing quite often rollicking tunes that blend with them. The electronics sound track includes accompaniment by instruments that lend a blue grass element to the music – particularly banjo – blue grass music is strong in the Appalachian mountains. Heather is an associate professor at East Tennessee University and after the performance she chatted about commissioning work such as this. I had imagined that the oboe in this work might imitate train sounds, using multi-phonics and other tricky devices, but the oboe part is quite accessible to play – much of it jazzy blue grass melodies.

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There was a workshop on the basics of oboe playing where young beginners (and one brave older woman) got out their oboes and learned techniques for breathing and tone control. Then there was ‘Mass Double Reed Ensemble Playing’, where everyone who wished, assembled with their instruments and played a short piece written for a collection of oboes and bassoons. I had brought my oboe, so I joined in.

In the afternoon, Jeff Crellin, Principal Oboist of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave a master class where promising young oboists performed their chosen pieces and were given advice by Jeff: think of yourself as singing the piece, remember to breathe out before you take a breath – make a panting sound, like a dog. All participants improved noticeably when they followed his advice.

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Then to the final concert for me, Ben Opie, Jasper Ly, Edward Wang and Brienne Gawler playing several contemporary pieces for combinations of oboes and cors anglais (or should one say cor anglaises?). A cor anglais is an alto oboe – rather like the viola of the oboe family. Most oboists can also play cor anglais. The first piece I had heard before, Jonathan Harvey’s Ricercare una melodia (To seek a melody) written in 1984 for oboe and feedback tape – the feedback is now accomplished by computer. Jasper played oboe, hooked up to a laptop manipulated by Ben. To me, a novice, it seemed that the computer manipulated the sounds as they were played by the oboe and blended them into an accompaniment. We then heard Paul Stanhope’s Aftertraces, written in 2011 – it was a trio for oboes, two of them sometimes doubling (changing to) cor anglais. The final piece was Scottish composer James Macmillan’s Intercession, written in 1991. The piece depicts a peal of bells and like bells, as the composer says, the notes are ‘thrown from one player to another’, it then moves to a somewhat more jaunty dance movement, which I thought particularly suited the three oboes.

There was another concert, but by this time I felt I had absorbed sufficient. It had been good to immerse myself again in a moan of oboes.

 

 

 

 

LADIES IN BLACK

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A Melbourne-dweller, I visited Sydney – a family holiday – in 1960. My mother had worked there during the war and she enjoyed showing us around. We went to Coogee Beach on a tram and ate lunch at a Repin’s Coffee Lounge. So, I remember the Sydney of 1959, depicted fondly by Bruce Beresford in his recently released film, Ladies in Black.

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Lisa is 16 years-old, much the same age as I was on that 1960s holiday, and, having just finished school, she has a Christmas job at Goode’s department store, which is very similar to David Jones. In those days we didn’t have a David Jones store in Melbourne – everyone went to Myer’s or if you needed something really special, you went to Georges – mentioned disparagingly by some of the Goode’s ‘Ladies’; Melbourne/ Sydney rivalry was very strong in those days.

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I mainly remember Georges for a make-up consultation I undertook with my friend Caroline in the school holidays when we were 16. Her complexion was analysed as peaches and cream, whereas mine was banana (the consultant clearly had no imagination!). Desolated, in rebellion I bought a face-powder called ‘dark Rachel’, which I plastered over my pale olive face.

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shopping in David Jones in the 1960s

 

Ladies in Black can be seen as a coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Lisa (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice) is very bright, but her father is strongly against a young woman going to university where one comes in contact with such despicable sorts as communists and libertarians. Lisa’s parents call her Lesley, which she doesn’t like because it is also a boy’s name. During the story, as she works in the dress department of Goode’s, she asserts her right to use ‘Lisa’, stops wearing her spectacles and becomes quite sociable in adult company. Much of this transformation is aided by Slovenian ‘reffo’, Magda, a potentially terrifying manager of Model Gowns. Magda sees that with her intelligence, a little make-up, the right clothes, Lisa can make something of herself. Through Magda, Lisa and her fellow worker Fay meet other European migrants, who are viewed as rather intriguing. ‘Do you speak English?’ Fay asks the young man who, in the end, will be her husband.

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Magda helps Lisa to make something of herself

I remember learning in a similar way from an Italian ‘reffo’, Mrs Tosti, who ruled the typing pool at my father’s business where I worked in the school holidays. Mrs Tosti taught me how to eat spaghetti – real spaghetti, not the stuff you had on toast out of a can.

Most of us enjoy a nostalgia trip, but Ladies in Black is far more than that. It reminds us of the kind of Aussie mateship that prevailed in male company around the 6 o’clock swill (I think maybe by the 1960s New South Wales was a little more civilised, with 10 o’clock closing, and Victorians would cross the border to get an alcoholic drink after 6 pm.) Although all of us except the First Australians are migrants of some kind, the European refugees who settled here after the war were ‘reffos’; foreigners who ate strange food like salami and olives, and who were, it seemed, a little more relaxed in mixed company.

I had read Madeleine St John’s book, Women in Black, some years ago. When I came out of the movie, I felt a little flat. I had thought that there was more drama about Lisa going to university (she gets excellent Leaving results) and between Patty and her husband Frank who seems so daunted after ultimately having such a passionate time in bed with his wife (they have been married some years) that he leaves home in a kind of shock and returns weeks later. I had remembered their relationship as being more fraught – but I was wrong.

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Madeleine St John

The film follows the book faithfully. I re-read it after seeing the movie. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the novel. The only exception is that, when Patty visits a doctor because, after all this time, she hasn’t conceived, in the movie the doctor talks of ‘relations’, whereas in the book it is ‘intercourse’ – a term used widely even amongst early 1960s school-girls. I’m not sure why the prudish euphemism was used, but maybe it was felt that the cataclysmic changes in attitudes to sex that have taken place since 1959 needed to be emphasised.

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Madeleine St John working with Clive James (at typewriter) on the Sydney University student newspaper in the early 1960s

Madeleine St John was a part of Bruce Beresford’s group at Sydney University. She died some years ago of emphysema and related illness. Beresford says in his introduction to the recent Text edition of the book (2018): ‘I certainly underestimated Madeleine St John in our student days … It was only when I read Women in Black … that I became aware of Madeleine’s powers of observation, her understanding of character, the insights behind her wit, her rather unexpected warmth …’ The film that Beresford has made is utterly faithful to the book and a warm and fitting tribute to a writer who died far too young.

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Lisa ready to face the world of university

 

 

 

 

BENJAMIN BRITTEN AT THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC (ANAM)

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I first heard of Benjamin Britten when I was about 6 years old and my mother bought collections of his folk song arrangements for voice and piano, which she played and sang – I loved Down by the Salley Gardens. Even at that age I could tell that there was something special about the way the piano accompanied well known songs, such as The Ash Grove – complementing but not exactly following the melody. To my delight, Britten wrote six pieces for unaccompanied oboe (Metamorphoses after Ovid), and I learnt them about 10 years later and came across many of his other compositions, including the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, which I discovered just recently, he must have written when only 19 years old.

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Britten (born in 1913) was a child prodigy with an ambitious mother – determined he would be the fourth of the great ‘Bs’ – who were, in her view, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He must have been a very good pianist and also played the viola. He composed a great deal, even when at primary school, and started to study composition with Frank Bridge when barely 14 years old.

On 7th September, at a morning concert at ANAM, we were treated to some of Britten’s early works. This academy provides an ideal facility for exploring work of this kind in depth. Vitality and a high standard of performance can be relied upon and students seem to thrive on these in-depth excursions into particular areas of music. This year there has been a focus on Debussy because it is a centenary since his death. But for a couple of weeks there has been a focus on Britten, who died of heart problems in 1976 at the relatively young age of 63.

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Benjamin Britten, school boy

We heard the Phantasy Oboe Quartet which, the program notes suggest, Britten composed for oboe because, at this early stage in his career, he didn’t want to place himself in competition with the monumental body of string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. A further reason is most likely that Britten was studying at the Royal College of Music where he would have met oboist Leon Goossens, who, with his beautiful mastery of the difficult instrument, had demonstrated its potential. He was, arguably, the greatest oboist of the early 20th century and had many works, like this one, written and dedicated to him.

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Leon Goossens 1897 – 1988

I had never heard Britten’s 3 Divertimenti for String Quartet, composed from 1933 to 1936. We were told that these were arranged from ‘character pieces’ based on memories of Britten’s school days. With movements headed fairly conventionally ‘March’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Burlesque’, the ‘comic grotesquerie’ was a surprise and it was easy to imagine the young British school boys who had inspired this music.

The earliest piece on the program was Movement for Wind Sextet (1930) – Britten was only 16. There was no sense that this was an immature piece, although it is apparent that he was trying out ideas from the Second Viennese School – that wellspring of inspiration from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. We were told that Britten intended to write further movements, but they never eventuated.

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Britten said that the sound of rushing water was his first memory

 

The final item on the morning concert’s program was Britten’s first string quartet, composed in 1941, by which time he had moved temporarily to America – escaping war-torn England – he was a pacifist. The work conveys an unsettled mood – tempo changes, harmonic tensions that might be interpreted as a yearning for England. The last movement is optimistic and indeed, fairly soon after completing this work he returned to the country he obviously loved.

The next evening there was a second concert devoted to the work of Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote only three string quartets and at this concert we were given the opportunity to compare an early one (No.2 in C Major written in 1945) with his final one (No. 3 in G Major written in 1975), which turned out to be, as the program said, his ‘final musical statement’. The third quartet was written in Venice – where, just a few years earlier, he had set his final opera, Death in Venice. In the quartet there are links to the opera; harmonic, tonal and a motif that we are told was the sound of a Venetian bell. The program points out that the final movement is mainly in E major, the key associated with Aschenbach in the opera, but the final chord, marked ‘dying away’ contains a harmonic surprise, which, the notes say, leaves the music ‘exquisitely unresolved’.

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Benjamin Britten and Frank Bridge: Britten was a keen tennis player

After interval the stage filled with musicians – all string players – for Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, composed when Britten was only 23. As mentioned, Bridge was Britten’s composition teacher and he must have been both mentor and father figure – greatly admired. Britten used to stay with Bridge and his wife Ethel at their country home.

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Britten with Ethel and Frank Bridge

Britten’s admiration for Bridge is clear: ‘Not only did he keep my nose to the grindstone, but he criticised my work relentlessly … He taught me to think and feel through the instruments I was writing for.’ [Powell, N. Benjamin Britten A Life For Music, Henry Holt & Company, 2013.] These variations were written for the 1937 Salzburg Festival. I had expected something like a theme and variations. No, it is far more than that. There is a theme, taken from Bridge’s Idyll No. 2 for string quartet – but the ten variations take up aspects of Bridge’s character, his wit, his energy. They are labelled fairly conventionally; Adagio, March … ending with a Fugue and Finale which seem masterfully to capture and bind those special elements of Bridge’s character, ending with an ethereal affect from the upper strings.

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Frank Bridge

 

 

 

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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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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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.

TIMMINS HARAKEKE.jpg

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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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