littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

Virginia Gay’s Cyrano

There have been many adaptations of the late 19th century play, Cyrano de Bergerac, including opera and many film versions But Virginia Gay has done something special.

In case, like me, you haven’t read the original play, here is a summary adapted from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrano_de_Bergerac_(play)

This is a very cut-down account of Cyrano de Bergerac, the original play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, and the play is a fictionalisation following the broad outlines of his life. The play has been translated and performed many times, and it is responsible for introducing the word “panache” into the English language. Cyrano (the character) is in fact famed for his panache, and he himself makes reference to “my panache” in the play. Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet (nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted, joyful poet and is also a musical artist. However, he has an obnoxiously large nose, which causes him to doubt himself. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful and intellectual Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness would prevent him the “dream of being loved by even an ugly woman.”

One day Roxane and Cyrano have the opportunity to talk privately as she bandages his hand (injured from a fracas at the Port de Nesle); she talks about a man with whom she has fallen in love. Cyrano thinks that she is talking about him at first, and is ecstatic, but Roxane describes her beloved as “handsome,” and tells him that she is in love with Christian de Neuvillette. Roxane fears for Christian’s safety so she asks Cyrano to befriend and protect him. This he agrees to do, which gives Christian the opportunity to confess to Cyrano his love for Roxane but his inability to woo because of his lack of intellect and wit. When Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane expects a letter from him, Christian is despondent, having no eloquence in such matters. Cyrano then offers his services, including his own unsigned letter to Roxane. Later, when Roxane and Cyrano meet up again, Roxane says that Christian’s letters have been breathtaking—he is more intellectual than even Cyrano, she declares. She also says that she loves Christian.

Later, during a meeting with Roxane, Christian makes a fool of himself trying to speak seductively to her. Roxane storms into her house, confused and angry. Thinking quickly, Cyrano makes Christian stand in front of Roxane’s balcony and speak to her while Cyrano stands under the balcony whispering to Christian what to say. Eventually, Cyrano shoves Christian aside and, under cover of darkness, pretends to be Christian, wooing Roxane himself. In the process, he wins a kiss for Christian.

Roxane tells Christian that, because of the letters, she has grown to love him for his soul alone, and would still love him even if he were ugly. Christian tells this to Cyrano, and then persuades Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, saying he has to be loved for “the fool that he is” to be truly loved at all. But, before Cyrano can tell Roxane the truth, Christian is brought back to the camp, having been fatally shot.

Fifteen years later Roxane resides at a convent outside Paris, eternally mourning her beloved Christian. Roxane expects Cyrano to come by as he always has with news of the outside world. On this day, however, Cyrano has been mortally wounded by someone who dropped a huge log on his head from a tall building. Upon arriving to deliver his “gazette” to Roxane, knowing it will be his last, he asks Roxane if he can read “Christian’s” farewell letter. She gives it to him, and he reads it aloud as it grows dark. Listening to his voice, she realizes that it is Cyrano who was the author of all the letters, but Cyrano denies this to his death. While Cyrano grows delirious, his friends weep and Roxane tells him that she loves him. He combats various foes, half imaginary and half symbolic, conceding that he has lost all but one important thing – his panache – as he dies in his friends’ arms.

Gay wrote her Cyrano while suffering from COVID-19. She says, ‘It felt like somebody was trying to press my brain and eyes out of the front of my skull’. https://www.theage.com.au/culture/theatre/hellish-covid-19-and-a-broken-heart-fuel-virginia-gay-s-new-look-cyrano-20210719-p58az3.html

I saw one of the few performances at the Melbourne Theatre Company before Melbourne went into the current lockdown. Because of the previous lockdown, rehearsals had been mainly by Zoom. There had been one dress rehearsal held the afternoon before we saw it and Gay, who, as well as having written the piece plays the role of Cyrano, warned us that things might go wrong. So far as I could tell, they didn’t.

Virginia Gay

The big difference in Gay’s adaptation of Cyrano is that in her piece, Cyrano is a woman. And the outstanding quality is that, as in the original, Cyrano is a wordsmith. In fact, although this was an acted, almost cabaret-like play, it was the words I wanted to see: the deft use of late Victorian poetry, reference to the near impossibility of trying to resolve the politics of the Middle East — I know that I missed a lot. In the original play there is mention of Roxane’s balcony. (I am spelling her name ‘Roxane’, as in the original play, although I think Gay may use ‘Roxanne’ — there was no program, so I couldn’t confirm.) I was drawn to thinking of Romeo and Juliet as the balcony was central to much of Gay’s Cyrano. The main reason I’d like to read the script is that I think I probably missed a lot of good things.

I guess that when you change the gender of a major character in a play there is a risk of being a bit precious about it. This was not the case. Changing the gender and also not having a false ugly nose (although reference is made to Cyrano’s large nose) meant that there could be more emphasis on Cyrano’s not feeling worthy of love. This came out clearly as what the play is about — not feeling worthy of being loved by anyone, which is apparently how a young gay person can feel growing up in a heterosexual world. Another important difference from the original Cyrano is that Roxane is much stronger and far more independent than her 19th century version — Gay’s Roxane is a woman of colour (Tuuli Narkle who plays Roxane is of Aboriginal descent) and university educated — she is an intellectual match to Cyrano.

Gay gives her play a happy ending — a ‘joy bomb’ — Cyrano and Roxane make love in a (quickly dragged onto the stage and unfolded) leafy bower. While Cyrano’s panache may have faltered while Roxane was in the arms of Yan (the equivalent of Christian), it has certainly returned by the end of the play.

I want to see this play again, but I realise that with lockdowns, I’m privileged to have seen it at all!

My Name is Gulpilil

This documentary of actor David Gulpilil is not so much about him; it is him. He narrates it and, one feels, is totally in control of it. The director, Molly Reynolds, has worked closely with him in a number of his movies. The career of this revered Indigenous Yolŋu actor spans 50 years and the story moves gently between present and past, the past being deftly inserted clips from Gulpilil’s many movie performances. Although he seems a fish out of water when he had to go to London (he’d barely been to Adelaide) after the success of Walkabout (1971) – he can joke about having to eat with a knife and fork.

Gulpilil’s present existence is that of a 60-something-year-old cancer sufferer and we see him having chemo (with Mary his friend and carer close by) and having radiotherapy. We see what an effort it is for him to walk to the post box each morning. I was interested at how this movie managed to show a kind of blending of Western medicine and Indigenous – to me, some of the diagrams of lungs shown were reminiscent of Indigenous paintings. But, as Gulpilil says, there is a difference – a difference which he manifests: Western medicine tries to beat the disease, but the Indigenous approach is one of acceptance and Gulpilil is going ‘back to country on a one-way ticket’.

Clearly, his days are numbered and I couldn’t help thinking that it is the Western lifestyle of movie-making that made him the drug addict and alcoholic that he admits to being. In a shot described by the Guardian reviewer as ‘Buñuelian’, Gulpilil is filmed from overhead, lying in a coffin with spools of film all around him as though they are sprouting from him – this is David Gulpilil.

Supernova

So far the movies I’ve seen this year have all been about death and/ or dementia. This hasn’t been a deliberate choice, although obviously something attracts me to them. From my perspective, with each movie, there has been an even better more beautiful dimension offered.

Tusker, a writer, played by Stanley Tucci, sits outside one evening with his partner’s niece (who is perhaps in her early teens) looking at the evening sky — showing her how you can see the Milky Way but also talking about infinity: the unimaginable vastness of space. She doesn’t quite understand. Who does? And maybe Tusker, who has early onset dementia is soothed by contemplating this unknown. He knows, but can’t admit, that he is now unable to write and won’t be able to complete his novel.

Tusker and his long-time partner Sam (played by Colin Firth), try to confront this illness by going on a road trip up north to the Lake District — brilliant incidental humour, they think that the Sat Nav lady sounds like Margaret Thatcher. They have the shared jokes and irritations of a typical longterm couple, as the Guardian review says, they have ‘a sweet and gentle chemistry’

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/22/supernova-review-colin-firth-stanley-tucci-toronto.

But of course underlying (or indeed dominating) all of this is Tusker’s illness. Tusker is getting worse — they both know this. One time when Sam stops the van to get provisions, Tusker wanders off and gets lost. At a family gathering (everyone silently acknowledges that it’s a kind of farewell celebration) Tusker is unable to read a speech and Sam has to take over. Inevitably, when rummaging through Tusker’s things, Sam finds a tape to be played post mortem and suicide medication.

Throughout the movie we see in Sam’s expressive face — particularly Colin Firth’s eyes — the incredible toll this is for Sam. Firstly, he wants to prevent Tusker from carrying out his plans, then he ultimately comes around to seeing that the most loving thing to do is to be there to help him.

More than any of the other movies I’ve seen about euthanasia, Supernova takes us to the impact on the partner. As the illness progresses, the natural thing to do is to do more for the partner. But that isn’t what the partner wants — in this movie we see how very much Tusker needs to be in control — this need is paramount.

The success of this movie hinges on the fine acting of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci and the direction of Harry Macqueen (who also wrote the script). At the very end, after the screen has been grey for a few seconds, it is Colin Firth himself who sits at a grand piano and plays Elgar’s Salut d’Amour — a favourite piece of Tusker’s. Sam is now alone.

The Father: an experience of dementia

In a review in The Guardian, Benjamin Lee describes this movie as showing ‘the bone-chilling horror of living with dementia’:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jan/27/the-father-review-anthony-hopkins-olivia-colman .

Up to the time of seeing this movie I had imagined that the experience of dementia might be worse for the loved-ones, family close to the dementia sufferer. I now feel differently.

Florian Zeller, the writer-director of this movie first wrote a play, drawing on the experience of being very close to his grandmother who started to experience dementia when he was fifteen. Zeller said, ‘we go through that labyrinth… without being absolutely aware of where we are going’ — life is a puzzle and a piece is always missing.

The brilliance of this movie (and presumably the play, which I haven’t seen) is that we, the audience, get some insight by experiencing that labyrinth. For the first few minutes the movie seems to convey a dutiful daughter (Anne, played by Olivia Colman) visiting her father (Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins) in a well-to-do flat in London — we assume it is his flat. He is listening to a counter tenor solo from Purcell’s King Arthur — an educated gentlemanly person. But then, we the audience, start to become confused. Is it his flat?

Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are superb — sustaining this horror of confusion. Anthony in his early eighties, is still quite agile — he does crossword puzzles, can make a cup of tea, when the CD sticks he takes it out and cleans it — quite self sufficient in many ways. But who are these people coming into his flat? Intruders? Does Anne have a husband? Why doesn’t his younger daughter ever visit? (The audience finds out that she died in an accident some years ago — for a short time Anthony thinks that one of the carers reminds him of her — why does her painting sometimes vanish from its place over the mantlepiece?) And although the movie mainly shows life from Anthony’s perspective, there are glimpses of the tension caused by the distruption to Anne’s life. Sometimes Anthony says things that are hurtful — she is not the favourite daughter — Anne gives a momentary wince and then her attention returns to his needs.

Anthony constantly mislays his watch — is sometimes obsessive about the time (although it doesn’t really matter) — he has a ‘safe’ place, where his watch can usually be found by Anne. One time there is a fork there too. Is Anne going to live in France — abandoning him? He repeats the phrase that his daughter wouldn’t go to Paris because the French don’t speak English. But for much of the time he seems to be a fairly agile, well-dressed elderly man.

By the end of the movie the audience knows that Anne did go and live in France, but she visits her father frequently. He did have to go into a nursing home — something that, earlier in the movie, he said he would refuse to do. And his dementia has progressed — he seems to be completely lost, crying, and wanting his mother. The nurse looking after him tries to comfort him — a treat would be a walk in the park. What a hauntingly terrible life.

An Opera with No Singing!

This is my kind of opera. I have to confess that I don’t like ‘Grand Opera’. It’s mainly because of the style of singing — so thick, so much vibrato that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where the note is. Thinking of all of the effort and skill that the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo have put into their work, I know that this is a sacreligious thing to say — I just can’t appreciate it. I like a pure singing voice; a soaring counter tenor or the bell-like quality of a boy soprano.

On Tuesday 30th March, a wind ensemble of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) under the direction of Nick Deutsch (former artistic director) put on a one hour performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. This mode of production of the music would have been familiar to Mozart — in his day, with no means of recording for radio or disc, people were familiarised with the latest music of his operas by wind ensembles (harmoniemusik), who presumably performed in public places.

In this case the ensemble was two oboes (including the leader, Nick Deutsch), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and one non wind instrument, a double bass, which provided, I thought, a necessary string texture that helped to blend the melodic lines.

Nick Deutsch

The program notes (written by Phil Lambert, ANAM Librarian) gave us a synopsis of the story, which even an opera philistine like me is familiar with.

The action unforlds at the palace of Count Almaviva in Seville. It is the wedding day of Figaro, valet to the Count, and Susanna, maid to the Countess. The Count has had his eye on Susanna for some time, and hopes furtively to invoke the ancient privilege of ‘droit de seigneur’ on her wedding night. Further obstacles in the young couple’s path include middle-aged Marcellina, who claims a legal hold over Figaro, and Cherubino, the horny page-boy whose sudden explosion into puberty has thrown the household into mayhem. The last piece in the puzzle is the young Countess Rosina, sadly aware of her husband’s infidelities but powerless to stop loving him. She and Susanna realise they must join forces to bring the Count to account.

When I looked at the program I assumed that a narrator would recount the story while excerpts of music were played. Little did I realise that actor/ writer Bethany Simons was waiting in the wings. Bethany acted out and narrated her version of the story — covering all of those characters with gentle reference to the present day — particularly the practice of misogyny. It worked really well. Marcellina was distinguished by a slight American accent and (miming of) smoking and Cherubino was very much the cool (or maybe ‘sick’) adolescent. And there were just enough amusing asides, such as asking the wind ensemble when the Susanna character prepares for her wedding — hey, are you guys available for weddings?

Bethany’s acting and writing was brilliant, as was the playing of the wind ensemble who took the overture at a rattling good pace with lots of clean double-tonguing and then played the tunes of well-known arias with silky smoothness.

Blackbird: a movie about euthanasia

From my limited experience I’ve found that people are often critical of fictional accounts of euthanasia — it is such a delicate topic. It delves into religious beliefs, our own fears of death and particularly the question: is a life ever not worth living?

The movie Blackbird, directed by Roger Michell, is based on an earlier Danish film (2014), Silent Death. I haven’t seen that movie. In this film we are in an environment of privilege where an upper middle class family comes together in The Hamptons, New York State. Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has a degenerative terminal disease. Her husband (played by Sam Neill) is a doctor. He has been able to procure appropriate drugs for Lily to take to end her life — euthanasia is illegal. Lily has decided that her time has come and she wants to die before she becomes further disabled.

The family comes together: two daughters, one is extremely uptight, the other seems very unstable and has been the ‘black sheep’ of the family — their partners, a son, and Lily’s old friend who has been a part of the family for many years. They know that the purpose of the gathering is to farewell Lily.

the daughters

But of course family members react in different ways. This must be the case in so many such highly-fraught situations. For a while it seems that one of the children will report her father. I was so worried that the loving Sam Neill character would end up before the courts. One of the daughters sees the father kissing Lily’s old friend in a more than friendly manner. She thinks this is unforgivable. But Lily knows about this. The two have had an affair and Lily seems contented to know that they will have each other for support after she has gone. Lily’s final wish is to celebrate with a Christmas dinner, even though it isn’t Christmas time. Ultimately everything is resolved and we know that Lily will go peacefully to sleep in the arms of her daughters.

Benjamin Lee, reviewing the movie at the time of the 2019 Toronoto Film Festival, finds the movie uninspiring and ‘boringly reheated’ — by this he suggests that there are excellent actors, somewhat miscast, working on a plot that we’ve all seen before. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/07/blackbird-review-sarandon-and-winslets-lifeless-death-drama I disagree. I think that the question of euthanasia is of immense importance and possibly the most heart-wrenching decision some of us will ever have to make. To look at it from various perspectives and to revisit it seems worthwhile. I am in favour absolutely, in theory — but when confronted by a particular case — is this person’s life worth living? — the question is by no means straighforward, no matter how firmly one may hold one’s theoretical views. It is therefore interesting to have set this story in the heart of a privileged family — their wealth does not provide extra resources to bring to bear on an agonising situation.

The Sleeping Beauty: a refreshing interpretation of Respighi

Lockdown caused postponement of the opening night of the Victorian Opera’s presentation of Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty — fortunately the delay was just a few days. A review in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was rather uncomplimentary: ‘it felt more weary than wondrous’. I totoally disagree. I went away thinking that here was a stage production so imaginative that no amount of fancy 3D filming or other complex technology could have improved it.

The story is the well-known fairy tale. A king and queen have been unable to conceive a child. At last they do and a little princess is born, but the jealous Green Fairy (who has been excluded from celebratory festivities) pronounces that on her 20th birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep. This happens, and the whole castle is put under a spell of deep sleep. But this is ameliorated a little when the Blue Fairy pronounces that one day the princess will be awoken by the kiss of a prince. In the story I remember from childhood, a bramble hedge grows thickly around the castle. In this opera, humming spiders wrap the castle in their silvery web.

Respighi wrote this opera in 1921, straight after the devastation of World War I and the Spanish Flu. It was written for a puppet theatre in Naples, where the puppets were marionettes and the singers were in the orchestra pit. In this 2021 production, the singers are onstage with the puppets, working in a parallel universe. There are clear comparisons with the state of Italy in 1921 and the state of our world in 2021 — these are made subtly, even when a puppet, ‘Mr Dollar Cheque’ looks remarkably like Donald Trump. I found this new kind of interaction refreshing, where a character is both a puppet and, standing just a metre or so away, a singer — or, in the case of the Princess and the Prince, a singer and a ballet dancer. The use of lighting was, literally, fantastic — particularly when we, the audience, were enmeshed in the spiders’ web spun around the sleeping palace.

The Age review https://www.theage.com.au/culture/opera/exquisite-voices-save-opera-that-proves-more-weary-than-wondrous-20210224-p575c9.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_feed suggests that there is some uncertainty as to whether this production is for adults or children: ‘The huge puppets, slapstick humour, dancing and running around feels entirely for children. There are also moments of darkness, grief and references intended for adults – some work, some do not. (Please spare us the Donald Trump cameo. It’s just not funny anymore). It was difficult to grasp the greater moral lesson amidst the madness.’ I found none of this confusion. It didn’t occur to me once that this production was aimed particularly for children. Although the whole idea of a palace going into ‘lockdown’ in a deep sleep is very close to the bone, through fantasy, I was taken there willingly and I left the theatre feeling uplifted and refreshed.

Green Fairy

The music was superb. I was particularly entranced by Kathryn Radcliffe’s Blue Fairy and Juel Rigall’s Green Fairy. Orchestra Victoria was led by Jenny Khafagi conducted by Phoebe Briggs. The director of this brilliant production was Nancy Black.

Ammonite: another overlooked Victorian woman

Recently I reviewed a concert of women composers from the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century most of whom, at the time of their work, were overlooked. The movie Ammonite, directed and written by Francis Lee looks at the life of Mary Anning, a female paleontologist of the mid nineteenth century who lived with her mother in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and eeked out an existence mainly selling fossil trinkets to tourists. Mary’s substantial discoveries were overlooked or, more often than not, credited to someone else — inevitably a man.

Mary must have been largely self educated, with some help from her father, who had died long before the time conveyed in this movie. A girl from a poor family, it is unlikely she even completed the equivalent of primary school education, but she trained herself to be a knowledgeable and keenly observant scientist. The Mary we meet at the beginning of the movie (superbly played by Kate Winslet) is gruff and terse, crunching over the pebbly beach in her simple check dress — her eye ever alert for an interesting specimen.

Presumably to help the box office, Francis Lee has added a lesbian love story to his depiction of Mary’s life. This may or may not have taken place. Certainly it is known that she did establish a close friendship with Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan) left with Mary by her imperious paleontologist husband to recover from the psychological trauma of a miscarriage. At first both women resent this arrangement. Charlotte becomes ill — the effects of a chill after swimming from a bathing machine (supplied by the hotel where she is staying). If Mary wants to swim, or explore the seabed, she plunges in in her undergarments. (A Guardian review of this movie accurately describes women of this time as ‘bodiced and bonneted’.)

Charoltte collapses on Mary’s doorstep and there seems to be no other option but for Mary to care for her. And gradually a tenderness develops.

Tension develops between the two women when the local doctor invites them to a musical soirée. We can see how much more relaxed the upper middle class Charlotte is in this kind of company — also, she gets on rather well with a woman who may have been Mary’s former lover — one can only speculate. But the relationship between Mary and Charlotte becomes passionate. Even Mary’s mother (for whom the couple has had to quieten nocturnal love-making) seems to understand Mary’s sadness when a carriage is sent for Charlotte to return to her husband in London.

Some time later Charlotte invites Mary to visit her in London. At what to her is great expense, Mary takes a boat and arrives at Charlotte’s London residence. In a bit of cliché, the maid directs her to the servants’ door and Mary has to explain that she is a friend of the mistress of the house. Charlotte has secretly set up a room for Mary, assuming that she would want to come and live with her and her husband — the room is right next to Charlotte’s room, perfectly situated for dalliance. I did think that an intelligent and sensitive woman such as Charlotte would realise that Mary would be unable to abandon her life’s work and particularly that she would be quite out of place and uncomfortable in the palatial surroundings. Such a gesture would have suited Charlotte well but shows no empathy for Mary. Mary cannot bring herself to stay and instead goes to the British Museum where she sees one of her discoveries on display (it wasn’t clear to me whether this was labelled as a discovery of Mary Anning or attributed to someone else).

I had not known of Mary Anning before seeing this movie. It is good to be reminded of the gruelling hard work and abysmal lack of recognition of women such as her. Mary died in her forties of breast cancer.

A Second ‘Live’ Concert for 2021

This chamber music concert was held in Melbourne at 45 Downstairs — an old warehouse turned into an arts venue that is an excellent space for concerts, readings and plays and has an art gallery where one can browse, sipping a pre-concert drink.

The concert was performed by the Rathdowne Quartet — a group of brilliant young players who studied at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), they are led by Kyla Matsuura-Miller.

Rathdowne Quartet

The first item was a string quartet by Schumann that I wasn’t familiar with, Opus 41, number 3. Tender playing in the slow movements – particularly between cellist James Morley and Kyla – contrasted with the youthful exuberance brought to the Assai Agitato and Allegro Molto Vivace. Schumann would have been only in his early thirties when he composed his first string quartets in the summer of 1842, after a close study of the great quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The three resulting quartets were first performed on 13 September 1842, as a present for his wife on her 23rd birthday.

Tamara Smolyar


Move ahead one hundred years. The quartet was joined by pianist Tamara Smolyar to perform Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 57. For me, this was the highlight of the evening. There is much pairing of instruments and the first time all five play together for any length is in the memorable scherzo – the third movement – an ironic movement, where joyful dance is underpinned with lurking menace. Some of the ironic sweetness of the Scherzo returns in the Finale, although it seems gentler and ends almost like a fairy story (‘they lived happily ever after’) but from Shostakovich’s pen we can be sure this was not to be taken literally.

Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor op. 57 (Fitzwilliam Quartet & V.  Ashkenazy) - YouTube

A ‘Live’ Concert at Last! Music, She Wrote

The venue for this concert was a fairly new space in suburban Melbourne, The Button Factory. A pleasant place to be on a hot day with a bar at the back, plenty of indoor plants and an interesting gallery. https://thebuttonfactory.com.au/

I had heard nearly all of the performers in pre-Covid days – often in concerts associated with the ASTRA Society or Melbourne Opera. I had assumed that all were fully professional and was surprised to read that some of them have ‘day jobs’ such as pharmacist and physiotherapist – a sign of the hard lot of the professional musician.

The theme of this concert: ‘Music, She Wrote’ was an admirable exploration of the work of women composers of the 19th and early 20th century. The only composer I’d heard of was the most recent, Margaret Sutherland (1897 – 1984).

As I sat listening to engrossing substantial pieces of music I realised that I couldn’t think of a musical equivalent of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. In other words, in literature, although it was very difficult for women to have their work accepted, some outstanding writers managed to be recognised during the 19th century, but I couldn’t think of a female composer with the standing of, say, Schubert or Tchaikovsky.  I cast my mind to the lot of Alma Mahler, discussed elsewhere on this blog: https://jenniferbryce.net/category/my-reading/page/2/ As a young woman her musical composition was close to her heart, but when she married Gustav Mahler he announced that she was to stop composing her own music – he used her as a copyist.

The concert opened with a Little Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon by Margaret Sutherland. The piece was composed for bassoonist George Dreyfus and first performed in 1960. We were reminded that Sutherland’s psychiatrist husband didn’t approve of her composing and she didn’t receive much acknowledgment of her substantial oeuvre until after the marriage ended.

Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979) was an internationally recognised violist –one of the first female professional orchestral players. Born in England, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, but she spent most of her adult life in the United States.  Those of her compositions that were published in her lifetime were largely forgotten after she stopped composing.

Rebecca Clarke’s Wikipedia entry suggests that the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—for her work made her reluctant to compose. Interest in her work has been revived and there is a Rebecca Clarke Society that was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music. Not surprisingly, much of her work features the viola. On this occasion we heard a Lullaby and Grotesque for Viola and Cello, composed in 1916. The Lullaby explored some interesting harmonies and the Grotesque was lively, but not as discordant as I’d expected.

The next item was Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op 28, by Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850 – 1927). An only child, Le Beau received piano lessons beginning at the age of five, and composed her first piece at the age of eight. She was educated at a private institution for girls and when she left there at the age of sixteen, she devoted the rest of her life to music. The Le Beau family decided to relocate to Munich to facilitate Luise studying under composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.  Due to the regulations put in place by the Royal Music School, Le Beau was tutored separately from the male students.

In the 1880s, Luis had some success with compositions such as Op.27, Ruth – Biblical Scenes for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra, and she won the first prize for her Cello Sonata Op.17 in an international composition contest. Around this time, Georg Vierling, a member of Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts nominated Le Beau for a chair position at the Royal School of Music. But Le Beau was not granted the position, as it was never assigned to women. As well as chamber music, Le Beau wrote symphonies, an opera and choral music. The Piano Quartet performed at this concert was held together by a recurring theme. The music reminded me at times of Schubert – certainly a substantial piece of nineteenth century romanticism.

After interval we heard a Sextet in C Minor, Op 40 by Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875). Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, there were two lively movements on either side of an andante sostenuto – virtuoso piano playing was required and pianist Peter de Jager magnificently rose to the occasion.

Born in Paris, Louise Farrenc was a brilliant pianist and also studied composition with Anton Reicha, possibly away from the Paris Conservatoire where he taught because the composition class was open only to men. She married a flautist and for a while they toured together performing her works. He, however, soon grew tired of the concert life and, with her help, opened a publishing house in Paris, which, as Éditions Farrenc, became one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc’s piano playing was so accomplished that in 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the  Paris Conservatoire, a position she held for thirty years and one which was among the most prestigious in Europe. But initially she was paid less than her male counterparts. As well as piano music and a considerable number of chamber music pieces, Farrenc wrote two overtures and three symphonies. 

Sincere thanks to the performers: Bernadette Baker, violin, Lisa Clarke, clarinet, Peter de Jager, piano, Nicholas Jensen, cello, Sara Rafferton, bassoon, Ely Ruttico, viola, Phoebe Smithies, horn, Jasper Ly, oboe, and Kelly Williams, flute. It was so good to be made aware of these largely forgotten composers and to spend a pleasant couple of hours listening to their music.

Barry Lee Thompson

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