littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

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.

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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.

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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.

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an electric ‘cello

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

TWO GREAT WOMEN SINGERS FUSING THE GENRES

Within a couple of days, in the Adelaide Town Hall, I heard two great women singers: one described as a mezzo-soprano, the other, a singer-songwriter. They were 62 year-old Swedish Anne Sofie von Otter and 36 year-old Kate Miller-Heidke. With Anne Sofie, accompanied by piano and sometimes guitar, I was expecting a fairly traditional recital. Kate was accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s concert started much as I expected, although I hadn’t heard of Ture Rangström, Wilhelm Stenhammar or Wilhelm Peterson-Berger; all late romantic Swedish composers. She then sang five songs by Sibelius and after a piano solo (a movement of a sonata by Stenhammar, played beautifully by her accompanist Leif Kaner-Lidström), some well-known Schubert lieder, finishing with Who is Sylvia? Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice is mature and controlled, with, what seemed to me, just the right degree of vibrato.

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Anne Sofie von Otter

After interval there was a tribute to composers who died in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. It reminded me of a concert I attended just over a year ago at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), ‘Forgotten Composers’ https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/10/24/silenced-composers/. During the war von Otter’s father attempted, unsuccessfully, to spread information that he had received from an SS officer, warning about these camps. Terezin was decked out as a ‘show piece’ and before visits from the red cross, children were fed and everything was cleaned up – but only for the duration of a visit. This segment of the concert was fittingly closed with a piano solo: J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E Minor, Komm Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death). I wish that the concert had ended on that note, with that sentiment. But instead there were songs of Abba and the audience was encouraged to sing along. I suppose the aim was to leave the audience in a happy frame of mind. There’s no way von Otter, with guitar and sometimes piano accompaniment, could replicate the mood of the famous rock band from her country. I wish she hadn’t tried.

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Kate Miller-Heidke provides a more complete fusion of ‘classical’ and pop. Her singing was amplified throughout her concert and I found it too loud.

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Miller-Heidke was born and educated in Queensland, receiving her music education from Queensland Conservatorium and the Queensland University of Technology. She has won classical awards and prizes and could have followed a path of being an opera singer. But she joined the Brisbane band Elsewhere and has won international songwriting awards. Her husband is guitarist Keir Nuttall. I thought his playing was fantastic – at times it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. The versatile Adelaide Symphony Orchestra backed most songs. At times Miller-Heidke, in a kind of ‘Bo-Peep’ outfit, played keyboards.

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I didn’t know most of the songs and they weren’t printed on the program. I particularly enjoyed some from a children’s opera, the words by John Marsden. Other songs seemed to be written from Miller-Heidke’s experience, such as ‘losing’ a friend at a pop concert when she was a teenager. Her voice is extraordinarily powerful and her versatility admirable.

A Later note:

I’m writing this a few weeks after Anne Sofie von Otter’s concert in Adelaide. At the time I didn’t mention that I was surprised when von Otter sat to present the second half of her concert. A singer usually stands, to allow for better breath control. I assumed she was tired, or maybe unwell and was coping as one would expect a great professional to do. How shattering to learn that just a few days ago, von Otter’s husband of nearly 30 years, Benny Fredriksson, who was accompanying von Otter on her tour, committed suicide. He had recently resigned from a high profile position as CEO of Stockholm’s State Theatre. Terribly sad. And one can only try to imagine what van Otter was coping with when she gave that concert.

STALIN’S PIANO

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Gough Whitlam spoke in BbMajor – so I learned today at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills where I was attending an Adelaide Festival event, Stalin’s Piano. The music/ creation is a collaboration between composer Robert Davidson and pianist Sonya Lifschitz. A compilation of ‘stories’ or impressions of artists who have informed public policy, politicians who have been involved in artistic projects, artists subjugated to political agendas and politicians who see themselves as artists ‘modelling’ populations as though they are clay. Robert Davidson said that hearing political speeches as music assists him in hearing meanings beyond the words – a deeper emotional communication: find the music in the speech and let the piano provide a frame in which to place the music.

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Brecht as shown in Stalin’s Piano

In this 1 hour concert, Sonya Lifschitz played piano and occasionally read as film was projected to draw our attention to the speech of nineteen political and artistic leaders. These ranged through Brecht, le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright (whose speech was very dry and percussive) through Joseph Goebbels, Percy Grainger (who said that music is derived from screaming), Jackson Pollack, the inevitable Donald Trump, ending with Julia Gillard whose voice and phrasing, I discovered, is far more musical than I’d realised. One of the most moving parts of the performance was when we were reminded of Stalin’s treatment of Shostakovich; in spite of threatening the composer and stifling his voice – banning many of his works – Stalin’s favourite pianist, Maria Yudina, refused to follow the party line and continued to go to church. His favourite piano concerto is said to be Mozart’s 23rd. When Stalin heard this piece on the radio played by Maria he requested the recording, but a recording had not been made that evening, so orchestra and pianist were assembled again to produce what the feared leader demanded. (If you have seen the movie The Death of Stalin, you will be familiar with this.) It is said that when Stalin died he was listening to this recording. In a section of Stalin’s Piano, Sonya Lifschitz played along with some of that old recording made by Maria Yudina. The present-day and 1953 pianos were remarkably in tune, I thought, but the fact that they were slightly out set the audience on edge, appropriately.

Stalin's piano Maria Yudina

BRETT DEAN’S HAMLET

Australian composer Brett Dean has written an opera, Hamlet, which is being performed at the Adelaide Festival, following acclamation at Glyndebourne, UK.

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It is a brilliant collaboration between composer, librettist (Matthew Jocelyn) and director (Neil Armfield). I didn’t come away with the music running through my head; I came away thinking about the play, particularly Shakespeare’s language, which is used faithfully. There are no extraneous words, every word is from the play, although sometimes the sequence is changed, sometimes phrases are repeated. The very first words are, very effectively, ‘or not to be’, from ‘to be, or not to be’, which recurs as a motif later. The whole opera is captured in two acts. Inevitably some bits are cut (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being sent to England), but the essence of the play remains and is indeed enhanced by this creation.

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At the conclusion of a forum about the opera it was noted that there is a wave of interest in new opera and it is becoming ‘a centre of contemporary theatrical practice’. I am not a lover of the classic operas by composers such as Puccini and Rossini. But I do like modern opera. I don’t know why this is, but I wonder whether one reason is because the traditional operas seem to use the story (often flimsy) as a vehicle for the music whereas with an opera such as Brett Dean’s Hamlet, if anything, the music enhances the story and everything is melded together to create drama. At the forum, Brett Dean commented on the frequent change of time signatures in the music: ‘the pulse of the entire story is one of unpredictability … the story is full of duplicity, doubt and danger’. He summed this up as an ‘arhythmia’. Brett Dean said that he tried to capture the music that is already in Shakespeare’s language, with a conscious desire to make sure that every moment counted.

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Brett Dean, composer

It was clear that librettist and composer had worked together very closely. Indeed, at the forum Brett Dean described how they and their partners worked together for several days individually, at first, noting what they thought to be the six essential elements in the play; these were then distilled down to the elements they all agreed on as essential.

hamlet orchestra 1

The time and place for this Hamlet was described by Brett Dean as ‘a kind of now’. Time and place don’t matter very much because the play is treated as a psychological drama: a son, obsessed with Ophelia, who ‘goes off the rails’ at the death of his father … his mother, a queen, ‘in a sandwich of political need and lust’ yet desperately wanting to help her son. Cheryl Barker said she played this role thinking of how she would react if it were her own son. Act I ends movingly; the one time when the music stops and the queen, alone, walks towards a dark back stage, sobbing.

hamlet 2

The production is brilliant. At the very beginning, a chorus is frozen around Hamlet at the grave of his father. In Act II, the ‘alas poor Yorick’ grave scene is done by means of a set that is lowered onto the stage enabling a hole that can be dug and actors can get into. When the ghost enters, everything is turned upside down or inside out.

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The ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

Neil Armfield had directed a production of Hamlet at Belvoir Theatre, Sydney – he sees Hamlet as a manic depressive person – it is plausible for him to act violently. Matthew Jocelyn said that having ‘taken out’ the political context, Hamlet is seen more as a domestic drama, the chorus being witnesses and a lens through which the family is seen.

hamlet ophelia 1

I certainly took away an idea of the whole. But it is necessary to mention the excellent performances of Allan Clayton, as Hamlet, Lorina Gore, as Ophelia and Cheryl Barker as Gertrude.

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