littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

ANAM Concerto Competition

Today, Sunday 29th September, we heard the Melbourne final of the ANAM Concerto Competition at the ANAM ‘home’: the South Melbourne Town Hall. As the director said, in his introduction to the concert, the Australian National Academy of Music is not a competitive institution — the musicians there work collaboratively to perform at their very best. But this competition is an annual event. We were hearing the ‘Melbourne Final’, where the three finalists perform their concertos with piano accompaniment and the audience votes for a ‘winner’. In a week’s time, the same musicians will perform in Hobart with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and professional judges will decide on a winner. I’ll keep you posted…

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South Melbourne Town Hall: home of ANAM

The concert opened with Cassandra Slater playing Ibert’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra Opus 37, written in 1934. The considerable task of playing a piano reduction of all the orchestra parts was performed by ANAM associate artist Louisa Breen.

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Jacques Ibert

Cassandra played with a beautiful ringing tone — plenty of dynamic variation and, what seemed to me, flawless technique. What I found most admirable was her engagement with the audience. Although Cassandra played with music in front of her, this was in no way a barrier between her and the audience — she looked at us frequently and she moved appropriately with the music: she seemed to ‘live’ the music.

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Cassandra Slater, flautist

After the Ibert we heard Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, performed by Johnny van Gend and the fearsome orchestral reduction was performed superbly on piano by  Peter de Jager.

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Bela Bartok

This substantial work is almost twice as long as the Ibert flute concerto. Johnny played the whole piece from memory. This should have freed him to communicate with the audience, but I did feel that it was a more cerebral performance than Cassandra’s — he played beautifully, but I felt as though he was locked into his own brain rather than sharing his musicianship with us. It is an exciting piece of music and Johnny and Peter displayed both its fiery and lyrical themes.

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Johnny van Gend, violinist

There was an interval, then we were treated to a performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for ‘cello and orchestra, composed in 1950. This is one of my favourite pieces of music — a late work; Prokofiev had experienced the Russian revolutions, Stalinism, and his life had witnessed the holocaust and two world wars — much of this seems to me to be encapsulated in this work.

ANAM Concerto James Morley

James Morley, ‘cellist

James Morley and Leigh Harold (associate artist — piano) gave a fine performance. James played from memory, and he played to the audience — his sound is resonant and beautiful with an evenness that extended to some of the very high notes in the music.

Up to interval, I was giving my vote to Cassandra — she lived the music and conveyed this feeling to the audience. Johnny’s playing was technically excellent — and the piece he had chosen was challenging — but he hadn’t reached my heart. But now, having heard James Morley play, I was torn. It is difficult enough to compare two different instruments — particularly from two different families, woodwind and strings. How much more difficult when  one piece (the ‘cello concerto) is more substantial than the other. When it comes to concerto competitions, wind players may be at a disadvantage. Has anything like the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante (or, indeed the Bartok concerto) been written for flute? Some may challenge this, but I don’t think so. What does a judge do? Cassandra probably couldn’t have chosen a better piece of music (indeed the Ibert is a fine piece) but, as they say, it’s like judging apples and oranges. In the end, I gave my vote to James playing the Prokofiev. In a week’s time, we will know the result of the professional judges after the performances with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

 

Astra and Inland : a pleasing mix of contemporary and medieval music

One of the first concerts I went to as a primary school student was the Astra Ladies Orchestra — probably thought appropriate because it showed that women could, unassisted, put on an orchestral concert. I remember giggling at the ladies in floppy pink dresses. I think that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was on the program. By the time I was at secondary school and during my student days, George Logie-Smith had taken over the orchestra — he added a choir (and men) — and, indeed, I sometimes played oboe in the orchestra. I recall it as fairly traditional fare, but he apparently included composers such as Bartok, Britten and Penderecki.

Astra George LogieSmith

The days of George Logie-Smith

Forty years ago John McCaughey took over Astra — he is still their Musical Director. My impression at the time was that he had vision — he could see that there were quite a few competent choirs around Melbourne — how could Astra be something special? He took on new music and encouraged commissions particularly from Australian composers. He is quoted as having said: ‘Music has to renew itself or it dies, and there is a feeling that a lot of it is dying’. Thanks to organisations such as Astra and John McCaughey, music in Melbourne is far from dying. This is apparent when we attend an Astra concert — such as the one I heard in the Church of All Nations last night, where McCaughey had deftly interposed Stravinsky, music composed within the last couple of years, and medieval music. The concert was presented by Astra and Inland, a group of instrumentalists with aims and styles similar to those of Astra, presenting new and unfamiliar music.

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The program flowed from one item to the next with applause only at interval and at the end of the concert.

Interposed between instrumental compositions (of 2018 and 2019) by Filippo Perocco and Anthony Pateras were  excerpts from Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, which we were told in comprehensive program notes offered ‘both a metaphor for the concert… and a musical source radiating to different forms of future and past’. Apparently Stravinsky (in his late 70s) took a long time to compose this work, reaching to medieval and folk music and the serial world of 12-tone music. The Agon excerpts were brilliantly played on two pianos by Kim Bastin and Joy Lee.

Astra Agon ballet

Dancing the Argon ballet — although the performances at this concert were purely instrumental

Between Agon Parts III and IV were two superb pieces for choir by Stravinsky,  The Dove Descending (from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) and an arrangement of Full Fathom Five from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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Stravinsky at a rehearsal of Argon in the 1950s

After interval the choir and two soloists sang, in Italian, Giovanna Dongu’s Rising Through the Mellow Shade, composed in 2018. It was a first performance. The words are by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Many a night I saw the  Pleiads rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Astra quarter-tone bass flute

Quarter-tone bass flute

There was another first performance: Rohan Drape’s Chalk (2019) played by Rebecca Lane, quarter-tone bass flute, Jon Heilbron, double bass and electronics devised by Rebecca and Jon and manipulated by Rohan Drape. There was a 14th Century madrigal followed by a first performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Ave Maria (2019) for two sopranos and choir, and a piece for double bass by Jon Heilbron, there are wild fires (2019) segued into Maura Capuzzo’s O falce di luna (1995) for choir and double bass. Then came James Rushford’s Leyning (2019) for two portativ organs and electronics (another first performance) — based on the Jewish tradition of textual chanting.

Astra Jon Heilbron

Jon Heilbron

The concert finished with a 14th century Ballata for voices and instruments, sung in Italian, Ecco la primavera, by Francesco Landini, the blind organist of San Lorenzo.

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Portativ organ

What a program! Congratulations to McCaughey and Astra for promoting so much new music and for giving us in the audience such a rewarding experience.

Solaris

In 1962, Stanislaw Lem wrote his masterful science fiction classic, Solaris. It was the year after Russia had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

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Lem’s story takes place on a space station that is orbiting a planet Solaris – there is lack of progress – why? Scientist/ psychologist Kelvin is sent to find out what is going on. He finds a crew haunted by ghosts of figures from their pasts. And this soon befalls him when he is ‘visited’ by his dead wife.

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The planet Solaris is surrounded by a mysterious ocean that disturbingly probes the deepest recesses of the human mind. This ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is not apparent. Can the scientists understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts? As Lem says, ‘Man has gone out to explore other worlds … without having explored his own’ [page 164].

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A play, based on Lem’s book, written by David Greig, was staged at the Malthouse Theatre earlier this year.  The main ingredients of Lem’s novel are retained, although scientist Kelvin is a woman. Greig says of the experience of Gagarin’s historic flight, ‘It was as if, after 100,000 years of human existence, we were suddenly offered a mirror. It was a strange and disorienting experience.’ (Malthouse Theatre program notes) The realisation that we may not be alone is strangely disorienting, and, in the play and the book, the characters are confronted with the question, do we or don’t we attempt to make contact?

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A film has been made of Solaris, and I have not yet seen it. Film may be a more successful medium because it can be more versatile. The stage provides an excellent opportunity for conveying people confined in a space station — and this was portrayed with alarming reality. But the sea, which for me was central to the story — a constant, looming presence – could not be conveyed successfully on stage. The sea was shown by film, but the way it was done, between the many deftly executed scene changes, inevitably emphasised the psychology of the claustrophobic space station more than the powers of the manipulating and mysterious sea. Nevertheless, the central message of Solaris comes across: that humankind has ventured into other worlds without thoroughly examining its own.

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Never Look Away

 

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I recommend this movie — it is well worth the 3 + hours of viewing. On one level, it follows the life of an artist, Kurt – modeled on the German artist Gerhard Richter. But it is much more than a biography of someone who grew up in the terrifying circumstances of Germany during World War II, who was forced to study Social Realism in painting in East Germany, then escaped with his young wife to the freedom of West Germany in the early 1960s.

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As I viewed the film, at times I thought of Antonioni’s Blow Up – the kernel of the story is about intense observation. The film opens with 6 year-old Kurt attending an art exhibition with his young aunt, Elisabeth, whom he adores. She dares to divulge to him that she actually likes the Kandinsky that the gallery guard has been denigrating.  The intent way that young Kurt observes the world has been described as ‘like a camera with the shutter left open’.

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On the surface Elisabeth is a fine example of what the Nazi party wants in youth – fair and good looking. But she is diagnosed, by party doctors, as insane. Kurt observes her being forced into a vehicle and whisked off to an asylum. Sterilization follows (so that no more people like that will be born) and then, with other ‘insane’ women, she is euthanased. The SS doctor who authorises this is Professor Carl Seeband (he insists on being addressed as ‘professor’).

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Kurt has always wanted to be an artist. After the war, he is painting road signs in East Germany, then he gets into an art school where everyone must paint according to socialist realism.

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We, the audience, ultimately come to realise that the girl Kurt falls in love with is the daughter of Professor Seeband, whose grossly inhuman attitude is underlined when he performs an abortion on his daughter – supposedly because she has become pregnant before marriage; Seeband doesn’t approve of the young man, he believes that if the couple are confronted with the distress of losing their child, the relationship will break up. The couple doesn’t break up. But much later (after they’ve married and escaped to Western Germany) the daughter is told that because of the way that abortion was performed she won’t be able to have children. Devastating for the couple. However, some time later, they do successfully have a child. Seeband and his wife have been advised to flee to the West. Money is no problem and we see slides of the luxurious holiday they have.

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Kurt seems to be gradually piecing together the truth that Seeband worked for the SS – particularly when there is news that Seeband’s previous leader has been arrested (this is announced by a newsboy and Seeband leaves a restaurant hurriedly, where he was lunching with his son-in-law, Kurt). Kurt takes up a style of painting (that was actually practised by Richter) based on photographs (particularly of Seeband and the SS). Kurt seems to confirm his significant discovery when he juxtaposes a photograph of Seeband with one of himself and his beloved young aunt. Seeband sees the painting, obviously recognises young Elisabeth, and leaves in a state of agitation.

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a painting by Gerhard Richter

Apparently artist Gerhard Richter doesn’t recognise the film (or the book on which it is based) as an accurate depiction of his life.

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a painting by Gerhard Richter

 

 

 

 

Brett Dean’s Hidden Agendas String Quartet

Book-ended by a refreshing Haydn string quartet  (opus 33 no 4) and a dramatic, 21st century interpretation of Beethoven’s late quartet in C-sharp minor (opus 131), the brilliant Doric Quartet performed last night a new work by Brett Dean for Musica Viva.

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The Doric Quartet, from England

Brett Dean is an outstanding, internationally recognised Australian composer. I have written before about the performance of his opera Hamlethttps://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1010 .

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Before the performance, Brett Dean came on stage and told us that he composed this piece in London just recently, during the present ‘democratic challenges’ posed by the Brexit situation in Britain. The piece was commissioned  through Musica Viva for the tenth anniverary of the Melbourne Recital Centre.

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Brett Dean at work

It is absolutely a piece of the moment. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time. The very idea of ‘Hidden Agendas’ evokes ‘aspects of the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities, Twitter outrage, groupthink and other challenges to the democratic process in which we seem to find ourselves as we enter the 2020s’ [Limelight Magazine].

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There are five movements. The first movement, entitled ‘Hubris’ conveys a false sense of confidence, an unease, that pervades the whole work. The music gives an expectation of change — but it doesn’t happen (reflecting, for me, very much Britain’s dealing with the European Community). By the second and third movements, ‘Response’ and ‘Retreat’, the musical lines become more fragmentary. After the third movement, before the fourth, titled ‘Self Censorship’, the players clean the resin off their strings and take up resin-free bows — resin helps the bow to grip the strings, so without it the sound is more tentative: whisperings and flutterings. Gradually, led by the ‘cello, the players start to play with resin again and embark on the fifth movement: ‘On-message’. Is it a kind of reconciliation? There is a sense of confidence, but it came across to me as a false confidence.

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This work depicts our times: the bombardment of messages, fakeness, uncertainty. The work ends violently with finely wrought energetic aggression. I am sure that the work requires performers of the calibre of the Doric Quartet, who achieved magical contrasts in tone and dynamics with mind-blowing technical facility.

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The Mahler Chamber Orchestra

On Saturday, 9th March, there was a sublime orchestral concert in the Adelaide Town Hall.

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The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has its roots in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, founded by conductor Claudio Abbado in 1997. Members of the orchestra share a vision of being a free, democratic and international ensemble that unites to tour across Europe and the world. The present Mahler Chamber Orchestra was founded 21 years ago by the musicians themselves. It is an orchestra of 45 soloists from over 20 nations.

MCO 2

In this concert, there were two symphonies : Schubert’s 3rd – not well known, and Bruckner’s  Symphony No. 4 (‘The Romantic’). The Schubert symphony was written when the composer was only 17, and it was not published during his short life time — he died at the age of 31.

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Franz Schubert

During the allegro section of the first movement I became aware of superb clarinet playing: the principal clarinet plays a solo over syncopated strings — at first it is extremely soft and gradually it develops to a full orchestral sound. Whilst beautifully controlled, the clarinet was played in an almost ‘folksy’ style — singing above the strings and the player himself was far from sedate, moving as much as possible in the confines of an orchestral chair. During the playful minuet movement of this symphony the players smiled at each other.

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Vincente Alberola, principal clarinet player

This orchestra’s sound is characterised by a chamber music style of ensemble playing from alert and independent musical personalities. The words of the concert program were borne out. The players ‘bring a palpable collective musical intelligence and evenness of skill to whatever they play’. The orchestra was conducted by Daniel Harding.

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Daniel Harding

Still only in his forties, Harding is renowned as an opera conductor at La Scala, Milan and he also conducts the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. I was particularly drawn to the superb blending of the woodwind, and I have never before heard such precise and beautiful pizzicato.

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Jaan Bossier, clarinet

Influenced, perhaps, by his opera experience, and speaking about the Bruckner, Harding talks of the ‘choirs’ of instruments in the orchestra: brass, strings and woodwinds.  (Limelight Magazine, March 2019). He aims for these ‘choirs’ to be more ‘equal’ rather than, say, brass dominating in the fortissimo sections. Of the Bruckner, he has said that it is  full of Austrian folk music – not just ‘monumentalism’. (Limelight Magazine,March 2019).

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Anton Bruckner

When a piece of music, particularly a symphony, is based on some form of narrative it can be said to have a ‘program’. Symphony No. 4, which the composer himself labelled as ‘The Romantic’ is believed to follow a program:  ‘Mediaeval city—Daybreak—Morning calls sound from the city towers—the gates open—On proud horses the knights burst out into the open, the magic of nature envelops them—forest murmurs —  bird song —and so the Romantic picture develops further…’ (Williamson, John 2004, The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner, C.U.P., p.110). The symphony opens with a beautiful horn solo over shimmering strings, and throughout the symphony,  particularly the 3rd movement, there is much suggestion of a rollicking hunt of nineteenth century landed gentry. In the 3rd movement came the cleanest, clearest pizzicato I have ever heard — the entire string section — violins, violas, ‘celli and basses — playing as one.

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Mizuho Yoshi-Smith, principal oboe

At the end of the concert, after much applause, the members of the orchestra hugged each other. I recall that members of the Berlin Philharmonic did this after their concert in Sydney many years ago: confirmation that they are a team who love performing together.

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Adelaide Town Hall, venue for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert

 

 

 

 

 

A DVOŘÁK MARATHON

A marathon is usually associated with running. It is believed that Pheidippides ran as a messenger from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to report victory over the Persians, and a marathon race has been included in the modern Olympic Games (since 1896). On Sunday 24th February, the people of Melbourne were able to sit through a complete day of concerts of Dvořák’s music — there was nothing exhausting or gruelling about the experience for this member of the audience. The day of music-making, described as the Dvořák Marathon, raised money and increased memberships of community radio station 3MBS https://3mbs.org.au/ 

DVORAK 3MBS

For the past six years, 3MBS has held ‘Marathons’ — each year a different composer has been featured: Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart — in 2018 it was the Bach family. Performers donate their time.

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Antonin Dvořák

Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904) is well known for works such as his symphony From the New World and his ‘cello concerto. This whole day of concerts visited some of these favourites but also gave an opportunity to hear lesser known works such as the opening item, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, which is a meditation on the anguish of Mary at the cross: ‘The grieving mother stood beside the cross, crying while her son was hanging’. This grief is all the more poignant when we learn that Dvořák wrote this work at the time of the death of his infant daughter Josefa. Within a year, two other of Dvořák’s children would die in infancy. The work was first performed in Prague in 1880. It was first performed in Melbourne in 1885 by the Royal Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and indeed, this long-standing group gave the performance last Sunday  (presumably no members from the Australian premiere performance took part).

Much of Dvořák’s music is infused with elements of his Bohemian background — often what seem to be reminiscences rather than direct quotations of melodies. For example, the idea of ‘Dumky’, a diminutive of the term ‘duma’ — a lament of captive people, brooding and introspective. In the second concert of the day, Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor was performed (piano, violin and ‘cello). It is known as the ‘Dumky’ trio and the music critic Daniel Felsenfeld had said that the listener is taken to ‘some dizzying, heavy places to be able to be both brooding and yet somehow, through it all, a little lighthearted’. Most of the six movements move through changes in tempo, such as moderate slowness to playfulness.

I won’t describe every piece of music performed throughout the day — I was swept up by the mood of Slavonic dances, played in piano duet form. I hadn’t known that Dvořák  wrote organ music — preludes and fugues. These were performed and several showed a clear influence of Bach.

Dvorak America

Dvořák was a professor at the Prague conservatory. In 1892 he moved to America for three years where he was director of the National Conservatory of Music in America, based in New York. Some of the music he wrote at this time is influenced by Negro sprituals. This is where he wrote his Symphony From the New World, his ‘cello concerto and the  popular ‘American’ string quartet (No. 12 in F major). This latter was written when on vacation in Iowa and when listening to it I realised that I was experiencing some of the most joyful music I have ever heard; a pure joy, no bitter sweetness, an expression that transcended personal griefs, such as the deaths of three children. At the time I thought that some of the rhythms in the faster movements derived from the regular hoof beats of  horses that may have carried the Dvořák family through the Iowa countryside, but I later learned that Dvořák  loved locomotives. Maybe it is the rhythm of a steam train.

Dvorak in America

The Dvořák  family in America — Antonin Dvořák  on the far right

DVORAK PIANO QUINTET

A sense of springtime and joy flows through the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major although this work incorporates elements of the Slavic dumky and Bohemian dance rhythms — it is thought to have been a reassessment by Dvořák of his first piano quintet, which he destroyed after its first performance. For me, a large part of the delight in listening to this work was the superb playing of Elizabeth Sellars and Wilma Smith (violins), Caroline Henbest (viola), Chris Howlett (‘cello) and in particular, Stephen McIntyre (piano). I doubt that I have ever heard more sensitive piano work — the piano melted into the strings and yet also stood out with the brilliant, crisp technique required for the Bohemian furiant and the frenetic energy and sharp swings of mood in the final movement.  It was a true quintet, not a piano accompanying four string instruments.

DVORAK STEPHEN MCINTYRE

Stephen McIntyre

It was also a joy to hear young virtuoso Christian Li and Laurence Matheson perform the Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G Major. Li was born in 2007. He has already won the prestigious Junior First Prize at the 2018 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in Geneva, 2018. Although a little older, Laurence Matheson has won a string of awards, including the Director’s Prize of the Australian National Academy of Music. Together they gave a beautiful performance of the Sonatina, which was first performed by Dvořák’s children. According to program notes, inspiration for part of the slow movement came to the composer when he was hiking at Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota. With no paper to hand, he scrawled the tune on his shirt cuff.

DVORAK CHRISTIAN LI

Christian Li and Laurence Matheson

My final joy for the day was a performance of the Serenade for Wind Instruments, ‘Cello and Double Bass. This is one of my favourite pieces of chamber music — I like the tempering of the ‘wind band’ sound by the lower strings and also I have happy memories of playing this work myself many years ago, so I am intimately familiar with every note. It is a fairly early work, having been written in 1878 after hearing a performance of Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’ Serenade. Is the imperious first movement a bit smug? We are swept away by dance movements and lilting melodies. A contrabassoon was included in this performace.  Dvořák made it an optional addition, because the huge instrument can be hard to come by. It certainly adds a fuller dimension to the bass line. Several days later, I still have this music running through my mind.

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The Favourite

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The James Plays, by Rona Munro, at the Edinburgh Festival. These plays depict the lives and times of three generations of royalty in 15th Century Scotland. As I watched these plays, I became aware of the power and influence of women in the Scottish court at that time. (I’m aware of the fact that these plays are written by a woman!) Up until then I had thought that, with some notable exceptions (Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria), women played a fairly submissive role in the shaping of history until the first waves of Women’s Liberation  — the Suffragettes in the early 20th Century. I was wrong. Consider  the influence of many of Shakespeare’s women characters: Goneril obessessed with overthrowing King Lear, and Lady Macbeth goading her husband into grasping power.

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Queen Anne

The film The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lathimos does not aim to be an exact depiction of the times of Queen Anne (who reigned in early 18th Century Britain), but it does help us to imagine what it might have been like to be in her position in those days. Lathimos underlines this intended lack of historical fastidiousness by playing around with some of the court dancing and having costumes that are almost right, but not made of contemporary fabrics. Most of the music has a degree of authenticity (Queen Anne loved the music of Handel) — and incidentally there is glorious singing by Angela Hicks.

Anne was married to a Danish prince, but the film opens after he had died and Anne (played by Olivia Colman), who would have then been considered ‘middle aged’, is a sickly and in many ways lonely woman, tormented by the memories of her 17 children whom she lost through miscarriages or early childhood death. In the film, these children are cleverly represented by 17 ‘cute’ rabbits, kept in her bedchamber. When Anne plays with her rabbits she becomes playful and maternal — but overall she is a troubled woman.

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Olivia Colman as Queen Anne

Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough, Rachel Weisz) did play a significant role as an advisor to Queen Anne.  In the film, when out of the eye of officialdom, Anne and Sarah at first behave like the childhood friends they were. Sarah, pushing Anne in her wheelchair, asks if she wants to go fast, and they race back to her chambers. Clearly, they confide in all kinds of things and Sarah is in a position to influence Anne in making political decisions; Sarah aligning with the Whigs whereas Anne, when she is well enough to concern herself, is more disposed towards the Tories.

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Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

In the film Anne and Sarah’s relationship is sexual. This seems quite plausible — the lonely queen — Sarah probably now the only person to whom she is close. However, when Abigail Masham, a new servant, comes on the scene, Anne is clearly attracted to her. Sometimes it is Abigail who is invited to the royal bedchamber.  Jealousy flares. In the film, Abigail is shown as scheming. Through her relationship with Anne she marries a nobleman and from her fallen state (she is a cousin of the Duchess) she resumes a position in keeping with her previous status.

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Abigail, the butt of Sarah’s jealousy

We might at first have sympathy for Abigail. She is intelligent. She is not cut out for scrubbing floors … But one time, in the Queen’s chamber, when the rabbits have been released to play, we see Abigail press her foot destructively on a rabbit at her side. Anne, feeling unwell at the time, does not notice.

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Abigail after resuming her upper class status

History suggests that Anne and Sarah fell out over political differences. This is mentioned in the film, but far stronger are the jealousies of a lesbian love triangle.

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The ending of the film is by no means definitive. This is apparently typical of other movies directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. There is a shot that merges  images of Anne, Sarah, Abigail and the rabbits — maybe Anne’s state of mind?

I found the film interesting as a study of the possible inner life of the lonely, tormented Queen Anne. It is also a reminder of the influence that could be wielded by women at that time. As one reviewer says, ‘ The male politicians stand around in their peacock finery trying to exploit what opportunities they can find, but it is the women who hold all the cards and are not afraid to deal them.’ https://www.historyextra.com/period/stuart/real-history-the-favourite-film-queen-anne-olivia-colman-hannah-greig/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUSIC FOR ARMISTICE DAY

11th November, 2018 was the centenary of the signing of the Armistice – the armistice that ended fighting in World War I between Germany and the Allies. The Armistice came into effect at 11.11am, French time on the 11th day of the 11th month. It marked a victory for the allies and defeat, although not a formal surrender, by Germany.  The war was so brutal and so shattering for most of the Western world that 100 years on, it continues to be represented in all kinds of art forms.

The signing of the Armistice 11th November 1918

My own writing group, Elwood Writers [https://elwoodwriters.com/ ] had provided a program of short stories and poetry, which we read on the Vision Australia radio program, Cover to Cover [https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover]. It was broadcast on Sunday 11thNovember. That day I also attended two concerts.

Meat Market Centre

In the afternoon, at the Meat Market Centre, Melbourne, we heard the Australian contribution to ‘100 for 100’: a celebration of the centenary of the rebirth of a free Poland, which occurred as a result of the signing of the Armistice.

Daniel Clichy, Director and Editor-in-Chief of a publishing house that has aimed to preserve and promote Polish music over the past 100 years, explained in program notes that for this enterprise 100 works written since 1918 by Polish composers would be presented throughout the world. Concerts took place at roughly the same time in 11 venues outside of Poland: Chicago, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Lviv (Ukraine), Milan, New York, Paris,Tokyo, Vienna and Melbourne, and at 11 venues within Poland. So there we were, sitting in the Meat Market Centre, participating in this celebration of Polish freedom and culture. Programs were different in the various venues, but all concerts were of Polish music composed since 1918.


Dominik Karski

We heard Contragambilles, composed in 2014 for string quartet, by Andrzej Kwieciński (1984). Program notes suggested that, for Kwieciński, instruments and performers are melded as one whole. The piece is influenced by dances of Rameau where the composer focused on the gestures of musicians as well as sounds. For Kwieciński, the program notes tell us, ‘the noise of the bow rubbing against the strings – the very techniques of sound production become music …’.  At the very end of the piece, the violist threw away a tambourine he had been playing, the sound and gesture being an integral part of the music. Jagoda Szmytka’s (1982) piece, Inane Prattle was written in 2013. The piece is for solo trumpet, accompanied by flute, piccolo, transverse flute, oboe, clarinets and strings, with a tape of distorted sounds of an Arab doctor describing a skin disease –the inane prattle that surrounds us in everyday life.

We also heard Kazimierz Serocki’s (1922 – 1981) Phantasmagoria for piano and percussion, composed in 1970 – 1971, Dominik Karski’s (1972) Motion + Form, composed 2003 – Karski lives in Australia, as does Dobromiła Jaskot (1981), whose piece for two flutes, Hgrrrsht, explores the borderline between flute sounds and human voice and breath. The piece included chattering teeth and tongue clicks.

 

Image by Rochelle Thompson

 

 There was also a homage to Poland’s most famous (although pre 1918) composer, Chopin – Sighs, by Marcin Stańczyk (1977). The ‘sigh’ refers to the technique (not notated by Chopin but used when performing his piano music) of slowing down the tempo according to ‘the naturalness of musical phrase and gesture’ (from the concert program) – a technique known as rubato. I have recently read Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano (Penguin Randon House, 2018), where, discussing performance of Chopin’s piano music, rubato is desribed: ‘the best rubato is like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’ (page 263).

Rubato

Whilst the horrific slaughter of World War I will not beforgotten, it was invigorating to be a part of a celebration of a positive outcome of that war and to sense that in 22 other cities, audiences were, almost at that very moment, listening to and honouring Polish music with us.

We then moved to another concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton, where the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble presented a concert in remembrance of 11th November 1918. I suppose 100 years ago,festivities would have focused on victory, but this concert was one of remembering.

Otto Dix

The first item, Meditationson Der Krieg (war) was composed this year by Rohan Phillips in response to seven of fifty works created by German artist Otto Dix that captured scenes with which he was confronted as a soldier in World War I. The music was reflective and, according to program notes, almost liminal – outside of time. The next piece, for solo piano, provided a strong contrast with action and jarring rhythms. The Drumfire was Incessant, was composed in 2012 by Andrew Harrison, after reading an account of the Battle of Pozières, in which his great-great uncle was wounded. Helen Gifford composed Menin Gate, also for solo piano, in 2005. The Gate, in Belgium, is a tribute to the 350,000 allied soldiers who died in battles fought at Ypres. The program notes include Siegfried Sassoon’s reference to ‘The unheroic dead who fed the guns’.

Menin Gate

The two pieces for solo piano were followed by another by Andrew Harrison for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra, If Not In This World, composed this year. This was like a miniature opera based on letters written by relatives of the composer: Leslie, a young farm labourer, describes his experience in the trenches while trying to placate his mother’s anxiety ending, ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, in the next’. Leslie was killed. His voice is contrasted with the authority of correspondence from the Australian War Office, and his mother’s pleading for them to find a good luck ring she had given her son. Not surprisingly, the ring is never found and she is left, a broken-hearted lonely mother. As the composer states in the program notes, ‘The end of the war did not bring closure, but opened up a gaping wound that tore at the internal fabric of society…’  The text is framed by three short instrumental ‘laments’.

The final item in the concert was a poetry reading of excerpts from Frederick Phillips’s An English Vision of Empire (1919). The poet was the grandfather of Arcko’s founder and conductor, Timothy Phillips. Frederick Phillips, like so many WWI soldiers, returned with shell-shock or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and after many years of suffering ultimately killed himself. As the program notes say, ‘His story and the poem stand as a testament to the long reaching shadow that war casts over people’s lives.’


Pozières

People left the concert quietly, probably many, like me, poignantly aware of that long reaching shadow.

A MOAN OF OBOES

ADRS 3

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.

ADRS 5

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.

ADRS 1

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.

ADRS 4

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.

ADRS 6

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.

ADRS 7

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.

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