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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
On Saturday, 9th March, there was a sublime orchestral concert in the Adelaide Town Hall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Adelaide Town Hall, venue for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert
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/
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.
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.
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.
The Dvořák family in America — Antonin Dvořák on the far right
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 anintegral 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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.’
People left the concert quietly, probably many, like me, poignantly aware of that long reaching shadow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 (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/
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.
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.
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’.
It was also influential on later futuristic movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and possibly even Flash Gordon.