Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

Too Jazzy: The Melbourne Composers’ League

The Melbourne Composers’ League was formed in 1997. It promotes the indigenous and art music of Australia in an Asian Pacific context. Over the years it has presented 640 works in concerts, including 544 compositions from Australia and 92 from the Asia-Pacific region. Over recent years I have attended several of these concerts. The concert held on Saturday 11th February was the best I have been to so far.

This concert presented recently composed music from Australia, Thailand and the Philippines. ‘Too Jazzy’ is the title of the final item on the program. One reason why this concert came over so well was the excellent performers: Michael Kieran Harvey, piano, Tristram Williams, trumpet, Peter Neville and Hamish Upton, percussion and Nic Synot, contrabass. It was held in a venue with excellent acoustics: The Church of All Nations in Carlton, Melbourne.

Tristram Williams

Trumpeter Tristram Williams was kept very busy, and the program started appropriately with a trumpet fanfare composed in 2021 by Andrew Batterham. Several minutes long, the fanfare culminates in what the program describes as a ‘mash up’ of two styles: grand processions and fast, exciting statements. Tristram had a rest during the next two pieces: Brendan Colbert’s Alter(n)ations for piano and vibraphone, and Annie Pirotta’s Musical Experiment with Phonesthemes. Then came Weerachat Premananda’s Panchromatic of the North Winter Wind Dance, for Trumpet and Piano, composed in 2022. Weerachat Premananda is Professor of Music Composition at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. I had naively expected this music to sound very ‘Asian’, with gongs, bells and little cymbals but it was far more international in flavour punctuated with loud short discords from piano and trumpet. Inspired by the Lantern Festival of Lan Na, the program notes told us that ‘the two instruments move characteristically and independently whilst the music preserves the uniqueness of the tradition’.

Next came a very challenging piano solo, L’architecture du cosmos, by local composer Andrián Pertout. In fact, I wondered whether anyone other than Michael Kieran Harvey could have played it, it is so technically demanding. It is a hommage to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007). I listened to the piece prior to reading the program and thought I could hear snatches of Franz Liszt and Debussy, which indeed were included along with other composers — Stockhausen , Bertrand, Ravel and Ornstein. Quite apart from marvelling at Michael Kieran Harvey’s virtuosity, I thoroughly enjoyed the music.

Michael Kieran Harvey

A piece for Trumpet, Piano, Percussion and Contrabass by Australian composer Joseph Giovinazzo followed, a homage to jazz fusion. The title, Miles of Blue in Green is a play on the composition of renowned jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s Blue in Green. It uses the same instrumentation as the Miles Davis Quartet.

After interval we heard a work by Filipino composer Ramon Pagayon Santos. This piece, Abot-Tanaw IV, scored for Trumpet and Percussion, aims to simulate the different techniques in a kulintang (gong) ensemble. I was amused by the next very energetic piano solo composed and performed by Michael Kieran Harvey, entitled Lawyers Are Lovely Misunderstood People And We Should Be Much Kinder To Them. In the program notes Michael Kieran Harvey said: ‘After years spent tussling with a particularly gnarly legal issue for my wife and I, Craig Mackie jokingly asked for a piece of music with this title as payment and this is the result.’ This was contrasted by local composer Eve Duncan’s Winter Persephone, based on the myth where Zeus and Demeter’s daughter Persephone is to be abducted by Hades to the Underworld. In response, grief-stricken Demeter caused many years of famine, which prompted Zeus and Hades to allow Persephone to return to her mother — but, she is offered a single pomegranate seed and eating it condemns her to go back to the Underworld each winter.

I expected Bruce Crossman’s Fragrant Rainclouds of Love, for Percussion and Piano, to be a gentle piece but there was interesting use of ‘Stopped piano’, where, with a device, the piano sound is blunted and after some sonorous ‘fragile’ sounds there is eruption to ‘climactic jazzy extemporization-like’ sonorities. At the close of the piece, percussion in particular suggests ‘whisperings of young lovers’.

The final piece, ‘Too Jazzy’, for Flugelhorn (played by Tristram Williams), Piano, Contrabass and Percussion by Scott McIntyre was indeed ‘jazzy’. The composer says he is intrested in the harmonic elements of jazz. Apparently the opening interval is a Major 14th — which I’d never heard of before. The piece was constructed around particular modes, each tied to a specific player in the group.

This was a fascinating concert. Do we realise how many talented composers are working in Melbourne, quite apart from the guests who contributed from the Asia Pacific?

ANAM ChamberMusic Festival

A brilliant way to finish the year — four concerts of chamber music played by the talented students of the Australian National Academy of Music. And three of my favourite pieces were included. Even now, four days later, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is running through my head.

The first piece provided a bit of nostalgia for me, because I had played it several times years ago and love it. Jan Dismas Zelenka has rightly earned the title, ‘the Czech Bach’. He lived at the same time as Johann Sebastien Bach: Zelenka 1679 — 1745, J.S. Bach 1685 — 1750. His music is different from Bach’s — possibly more influenced by a folk tradition, but it has similarly rich harmonies and ingenious use of fugal themes. I was pleased that on this occasion Trio Sonata number 6 was performed on conventional rather than Baroque instruments (with the exception of harpsichord). The parts, for two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and double bass are technically challenging even with modern day key systems. I try to imagine how the players of the early 18th century wind instruments managed. Their oboes and bassoons were made with very few key coverings — similar to the recorders we know today. The ANAM players gave an enlivened and thoroughly satisfying performance.

A Baroque oboe

In keeping with the theme of Bohemia, we heard a Piano Trio by Smetana, unfamiliar to me, and then the String Quintet in G major by Antonin Dvořák.

First of three concerts the next day started with Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds. The ‘winds’ are flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn — essentially a wind quintet and piano. I was familiar with a couple of movements of this piece: the middle movement, a Divertissement: Andantino and the final Prestissimo movement (very fast). Poulenc was self-educated musically as his parents thought he should join the family business. Many of his works are playful and irreverent although, particularly later in his life, he wrote more serious religious music. He joined five other young French/Swiss musicians, Les Six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre) who reacted against the impressionism of fellow countrymen Debussy and Ravel.

We then heard Instruments III by Morton Feldman (1926 — 1987) for flute, oboe and percussion. I pitied the wind players — they blurted out sounds at each other — the oboist had to play oboe (and cor anglais) with a mute, which distorted the sound and tuning.

Amy Beach

The next piece I did enjoy, by a composer unknown to me, Amy Beach (1867 — 1944). Amy Beach was the first female American composer of large-scale art music, having written a symphony. When she married, Amy had to agree to live according to her husband’s status (he was a Boston surgeon) — this meant that she had to agree never to teach piano and she gave only two public recitals a year, the proceeds of which went to charity. After her husband’s death in 1910 she would go in summer to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she could meet other women composers. The piano quintet we heard is thought to have been influenced by Brahms, with its lush textures. The piece is for string quartet and piano. During her lifetime, Amy — a very accomplished pianist — would often play the piano part at public performances.

In the afternoon we were treated to some superb chamber works, starting with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elégiaque in G minor (violin, cello and piano) and then moving to one of my favourite pieces of music, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. I had heard a fantastic performance of this work in Adelaide earlier in the year and although this was superbly played, it didn’t quite live up to my recollection of Konstantin Shamray and the Australian String Quartet This was perhaps partly because the cellist kept tapping his foot quite loudly on the bare wooden floorboards! It was nevertheless wonderful to hear this work of underlying rebellion.

Shostakovich (and Stalin)

The Shostakovich was followed by Stravinsky’s Octet (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone), and then Janáček’s Mladi, for flute, oboe, two clarinets (one bass), bassoon and horn. This piece was composed near the end of Janáček’s life and in 1925 (he died in 1928) it was awarded the Prize of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Rebecca Clarke

The final concert was subtitled ‘A Soirée in Vienna. It opened with the Mozart Horn Quintet, the horn part ably played by Stefan Grant. We then moved to a piece new to me, Poem for String Quartet by Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979). She was a violist and is described as one of the most important British composers between World War I and World War II. Clarke ended up living and working in America when she was thrown out of the house after criticising her father for his extra-marital affairs. She used a male pseudonym to tie for first place with Ernest Bloch in a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. At the time, the idea that such music could be written by a woman was inconceivable.

After a short interval we heard Webern’s Langsamer Satz (slow movement), composed in 1905. Webern is recognised as a follower of the ’12 tone’ approach to composition, whereby in a piece no one note in the chromatic scale is favoured (no key note or centre). But the system wasn’t put into use until the 1920s, so this string quartet, composed when Webern was twenty-two was harmonic and tonal.

The concert concluded with a brilliant performance of Schubert’s Quntet in A major (‘the trout’). I love this piece and have heard many live performances, but I felt that this was utter perfection. The music is still ringing through my head. Liam Freisberg, who led on violin, did a magnificent job. Ben Tao played viola, Noah Lawrence cello, Paul Oakley double bass and, especially outstanding, Leo Nguyen on piano.

Emanuel Vardi: Schubert Trout Quintet (Vardi was a virtuoso violist)

Cow: A film directed by Andrea Arnold

What is it like to be an animal? This film takes us a long way from anthropomorphic attempts to assume that animals have feelings like human beings. But what is it like to be a cow? Luma, who lives on a state of the art dairy farm in Kent, England stares at us (or into the camera) with what has been described as ‘mysterious placidity’

The film runs for well over an hour and during that time we are with Luma as she goes about the routine of her life — her raison d’être is to provide milk. We first see her giving birth — the film was made over a four year period. The calf is pulled out with rope — this seems to be standard. There is a touching scene where Luma licks her calf clean, the calf tries to suckle, but is taken away and hand fed and, the after-birth still trailing, Luma is encouraged into the electric milking machines.

Cruel? Probably not as large-scale dairy farms go. Extraordinarily, there is no narration, although we hear the farm-workers talk to the cows in a kindly way (even if ‘girlies’ is a bit inappropriate). Luma is called by her name and on the whole gently enticed into the milking machines and the pen where, a few months later, she is mated again and there is another pregnancy. In spring, the cows spend time in lush green fields and they trot willingly (of necessity?) back to be milked. My sense was that they know what is going on. When her calf is taken away from her, Luma’s mooing is plaintive — the calf calls out and she answers — this goes on for some time, some days, I think. Of course we immediately transfer this experience to the thought of a human child being taken from its mother — but Luma was upset. Distraught, one might say.

In an interview, the director Andrea Arnold said, ‘They say the difference between humans and animals is that we can see the past and think about the future, but I could see that Luma knew what’s coming when she’s pregnant. She got particularly mad when she saw the farmer taking away a calf from another cow.’

The film is said to follow the approach of the cinema vérité of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) about the life of a donkey who ends up with various owners most of whom treat him callously. Andrea Arnold says that the film is not intended to be political, but ‘a presentation of life’. She chose a cow because they work so hard. However, as we left the cinema people were proclaiming, ‘I’m never going to drink a latté again’. I had feared that there would be scenes of slaughter, but Arnold chose a dairy farm. Luma worked until she had provided pretty much every drop of milk possible. By the end of the movie she is old, having had at least six calves. Her udders are grossly enlarged from so much milking — to the extent that she has trouble walking. A humane end? She is taken into a reasonably spacious pen, given a bucket of what I presumed is pleasant food, and quickly shot.

My feeling is that this film will be viewed in a political light by many — even if this isn’t the intention of the director. Luma’s life may well have been better than that of many cattle (in a Q & A after the film we were given some insight into an appalling situation in India — home of the sacred cow). For how long can the world justify industries of this kind? Luma couldn’t have escaped — she was enslaved, albeit in a kinder and gentler fashion than in some other areas of the cattle industry.

Astra Concert: 21 Rational Melodies, 14 instruments, 7 composers

I remember being taken to Astra concerts when I was in primary school — a string orchestra of old ladies playing works such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Apparently the orchestra started officially in 1951, but there were concerts earlier than that. A little later, Astra was taken over by George Logie Smith — it was then a choir and orchestra, and by the 1970s I was playing oboe in the orchestra. I remember the music as fairly conventional, but perusal of Astra’s extensive archive suggests that this was not always the case In 1978, John McCaughey became director, and his vision has led the organisation into exciting territory and has brought to Melbourne leading-edge works and concerts such as the ’21 Rational Melodies…’ we heard on Saturday 27th August.

Andrew Byrne

The Church of All Nations was set up for a concert ‘in the round’, with chairs grouped around an assortment of keyboard and percussion instruments in the middle. The concert was curated by composer Andrew Byrne, who has worked in New York and Australia and is known here in Melbourne for his work with Chamber Made Opera . Indeed, as he said, the array of keyboard and percussion instruments provided ‘a glittering palette of sound’.

Tom Johnson (b 1939) is one of the American composers who founded ‘minimalism’ — perhaps better known through the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is believed to have coined the term. One of his compositions dating from 1982, but not performed before in Australia, is Rational Melodies, which, according to Andrew Byrne’s program notes, ‘offers a compendium of minimalist systematic procedures in 21 pieces’.

During the course of the evening we heard these twenty-one melodies, though not in numerical order but, perhaps more interestingly, five Melbourne composers had been invited to write responses to these melodies. For example, David Chesworth wrote two irrational melodies, surd 1 and 2 — an ancient mathematician had called irrational numbers ‘inaudible’. In phonetics, a ‘surd’ refers to voiceless consonants, uttered by breath and mouth: f,k,p,s,t. The program notes informed us that ‘Surd 1 combines phonetic surds with the expulsion of air from various organ bellows to create a subtle force that aerates the performance space, temporarily blowing away any residual pitches and patterns from Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies‘.

Quite different was Warren Burt’s electronic piece, Through the Studio Door, a reponse, he said, to the general permutation process used by Johnson, rather than to any one particular ‘melody’. As a piece of music I found this more satisfying than some of the other responses. I very much liked Catherine Schieve’s reponse: Three Foghorns for Rational Melodies. She describes her composition as ‘a performed soundscape surrounding a segment of Rational Melody performances… The foghorns appear “out of the mist” and create an ambient environment’. Each of the three pieces was aligned with a particular foghorn — for example, Foghorn 1 was Heceta Head, Oregon USA: ‘During obscure conditions, the horn will blast 3, over a slow count of 6, followed by a count of 7 rests’. The foghorns were performed by organs.

The concert was book-ended by Johnson’s melodies (as well as a scattering throughout the body of the concert). The final piece we heard was rational melody 15, played on the amazing array of harpsichord, organ positiv, celeste, regal, toy piano and qanun. The performers did an amazing job of switching from one (often obscure) instrument to another, they were: Alexander Meagher, Kate Tempany, Kim Bastin, Jennifer Yu, Vahideh Eisaei, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee.

An evening with the Z.E.N. Trio

What is the magic that binds a chamber music trio – that causes three individual musicians, on different instruments to play as one? Maybe the answer is love. Each member of this trio lives in a different country – so it is rare to have the opportunity to come together to rehearse. Violinist, Esther Yoo says, ‘Regardless of how little or how much time has elapsed in between our meetings, we are always able to pick up right where we left off. It is quite easy for us to talk for hours, so we have to keep track of time – especially in rehearsals!’ Even with time together being so precious, just like good friends, the trio makes time to go to movies or shopping together and, each being a solo artist, to attend each other’s performances. ‘Z.E.N.’ is an acronym formed with an initial from each trio member, and a philosophical statement about their performance style.

Above everything else, at the concert I attended last Saturday, I was blown away by the music-making of this trio – a combination of utterly brilliant technique (I’m not sure I have ever heard such clear, crisp, brilliant piano work, or such mellowness on the high register notes of the violin) and breathing and performing as one.

Pianist Zhang Zuo is known as Zee Zee. She started her piano studies in Germany at the age of five, then returned to her native China, completing her studies at the Shenzhen Arts School. She was then invited to the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School (New York). She continues to receive guidance from Alfred Brendel. She has made recordings with prestigious orchestras such as the Philharmonia.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan seems to have played with most of the major orchestras of the world. His list of recitals and orchestral performances is most impressive. He was mentored by the late Rostropovich. He has won many awards, including First Prize at the Aram Khachaturian competition. Narek was born in Armenia and in 2017 was awarded the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’.

Violinist Esther Yoo’s interpretation is widely praised. She was born in the US, then was educated in Belgium and Germany – her heritage is Korean. She made her concerto debut at the age of eight.  Esther has performed concertos with celebrated conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. She featured prominently on the soundtrack of the film On Chesil Beach.

Thus each member of Z.E.N. is a virtuoso soloist. I think it’s quite exceptional that as well as being brilliant solo performers they can meld together to create the sublime music we heard on Saturday night.

The first item was a trio by a composer new to me: Arno Babajanian (1921 – 1983). He is Armenian – hence the interest of Narek, the cellist. The piece seemed to me a mixture of some familiar Russian music – Rachmaninoff, for example, although some of the folk melodies captured in the music are, apparently of Armenian origin. I particularly enjoyed the lively third movement, reminiscent (to me) of Kossak dancing.

Matthew Laing

We then had a world première performance. Australian composer Matthew Laing (b 1988) had been commissioned by Musica Viva – Graham Lovelock and Steven Singer – to compose his piece Little Cataclysms. Matthew Laing (who was present at the concert) was able to explain: ‘Piano trios naturally lend themselves to large-scale works, so I wanted to try and recreate that, just in small timeframes’. He said that the music is about ‘intimate, personal disasters in miniature form – like a deep-seeded memory awoken, reimagined changed or unchanged, then gone, where the reimagining informs the memory in the silence that follows’.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Z.E.N.’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op 90, ‘Dumky’. I am familiar with the trio, but this performance brought out aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. So poignant, so majestic and at times, so lively. I wanted to go away with the themes singing in my brain and was momentarily dismayed when, after much applause, I could see that the trio planned to play an encore. I didn’t want to tarnish the beautiful memory of the Dumky. The encore was the well-known Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d never heard it played like this. Such rippling joy! It was a fitting end to this memorable evening.

Z.E.N. Trio with Matthew Laing

Come Rain or Come Shine

This play, based closely on a short story of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, was performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It received mixed reviews. I liked it very much.

Ishiguro’s story is in an anthology, Nocturnes, published in 2009. The stories all have musical themes. The text of the play follows the short story almost punctiliously — much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the story. Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, reviewing in The Guardian, summed it up: ‘an entertaining, if occasionally disappointing, way to spend a couple of hours’. She found the songs ‘unmemorable’ and the play ends ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and I obviously have very different musical tastes. I find American jazz songs such as ‘Georgia on my Mind’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ some of the memorable, most beautiful music I have ever heard. The title of the play (and story), ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ is the title of a song (the theme of which is, I’ll love you forever, no matter what) and when they are at university, friends Ray (played by Angus Grant) and Emily (played by Gillian Cosgriff) argue about whether Ray Charles’ version of the song is superior to Sarah Vaughan’s. And I think this is what Ishiguro is saying about friendships forged during the formative undergraduate years of university — no matter what you do in life, that bond of friendship will be there. Ray and Emily, as undergrads, seem as close as close can be — they dance to the music, they argue about it, they love it — and (although this isn’t said in the story) maybe the friendship would be sullied if it were to become sexual — maybe Ray senses this. He looks at Emily as though he is in love with her. They dance, they snuggle together on the sofa.

Ray and Emily

As happens, Charlie (played by Chris Ryan), Ray’s flatmate at university ends up marrying Emily. There is a poignant song, written by Tim Finn, which Ray sings as best man at their wedding. All of the music is brilliantly handled. It is a combination of old recordings of Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland and music composed by Tim Finn, played by an on stage band. As Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in The Guardian acknowledges: ‘The small band, under the musical direction of Jack Earle, is terrific, supple and evocative; their presence is glimpsed rather romantically through the slats of an apartment upstairs’. What no one else mentions is that the performed music segues seamlessly into the recorded music and vice versa — it must have been so difficult for the on stage band to be perfectly in tune with the recordings of Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles — but they are.

In my experience, those friendships made at university are lifelong. Inevitably, everyone turns out differently — the corporate lawyers in their BMWs, and writer/ researchers like me on their bicycles. But there is a lasting understanding — and even after years apart the friendship picks up and continues. By the time they are in their late forties, Emily and Charlie are consumed by the corporate rat race — they see Ray (who is an ESL teacher) as a bit of a loser and they imagine that they can reform him. Charlie imagines that if Ray stays with Emily for a few days she will come to appreciate that, in comparison, he is a great success and their marriage, which is shaky, will blossom once again. But these things won’t happen and no matter that Emily might write ‘groan’ in her notebook when she knows Ray is coming to stay, we know that in the longterm, nothing will change.

For me, what is perhaps intended to be the climax of the play, is maybe its weakest point. Ray finds it hard to stand up for himself and when it is going to be clear that he has been sneaking a look at Emily’s notebook that she left on the kitchen table, he goes, with Charlie’s prompting, along with what they hope will be an elaborate cover-up. He has to end up wrecking Charlie and Emily’s pristine London apartment pretending to be an unwelcome dog. Of course, Emily arrives home before the act is complete and assumes Ray has ‘lost it’. But they are soon relaxing with glasses of Bordeaux and then, prior to much tidying up being done, they are in each others’ arms dancing…

The Guardian review sums this up as: ‘What’s meant to be absurd realism plays out as a confused and confusing comedy of errors’. No — I expect the dog-wrecking routine (also in the short story) is there to add some drama and some humour. It helps to highlight weak aspects of Ray’s character. And Giselle says that the play ends, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. How does it end? I don’t have before me the exact words of the play, but it faithfully follows the short story, where Emily and Ray are arm in arm dancing to Sarah Vaughan’s version of ‘April in Paris’. And, in Ray’s voice: ‘for another few minutes at least, we were safe, and we kept dancing under the starlit sky.’

I believe that says a great deal about friendship. Ray and Emily will always have that bond, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’.


This is, sadly, an appropriate time for a concert entitled ‘Sounds of War’, which opened the Australian National Academy of Music Chamber Music Festival on Friday 24th June.

Three works were performed. I was familiar with two of them: Stravinsky, L’histoire du soldat (a Soldier’s Tale) and Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The other work, Janȧček’s Capriccio, chamber music featuring piano written for the left hand, was new to me.

The Stravinsky is written with a libretto, based on a Russian folk tale where a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil in return for wealth. The piece was premièred near the end of World War I. On this occasion it was played purely as a piece of chamber music for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass. The strange combination of instruments (strings at either end of the pitch range, one single reed and one double reed wind instrument) gives a devilish timbre to the music. The ANAM students performed this superbly, without a conductor — the clear, precise rhythms brilliantly executed. The playing was so expressive that there seemed no need for a narrator or an outline of the story.

I’ve never been drawn to Janȧček’s music, but I can only say I was gobsmacked by the Capriccio. In the end Janȧček wrote it for pianist Otakar Hollman, who lost the use of his right hand during World War I. Hollman joined left-armed pianist Wittgenstein in seeking the composition of more works that could be played by unfortunate victims of the war. Apparently Janȧček was initially reluctant to oblige, saying it would be like creating a dance for a person with one leg. He apparently labelled this resulting work Vzdor, meaning ‘defiance’ and although there are various ways this might be interpreted it did seem to me that the work is so fiendishly difficult that Janȧček may have intentionally placed further barriers before the aspiring pianist. To his great credit, ANAM student Leo Nguyen played the part superbly. The piano doesn’t always have the lead but when it does, the left hand must execute rippling arpeggios, scales and trills over the full compass of the instrument. The extraordinary instrumentation adds to the uncanny, at times spine-chilling outcome: flute, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone and euphonium.

The final work, Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It is believed that these were the instruments available to Messiaen when he was in a German prison camp during World War II. The lack of solo piano parts in the piece may be because the Germans provided a poor quality piano. In 2014, at the Edinburgh Festival, I had attended a talk by Peter Hill, an emeritus professor and well-recognised interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music who worked closely with the composer before his death in 1992. Hill suggested that Messiaen wrote a work to transcend war, looking to eternity and the life beyond. Before his capture by the Germans Messiaen was a medical orderly at Verdun. (He had poor eyesight and was therefore assigned a non combative role.) He chose to go on watch at an unpopular time, the early hours of the morning, so that he could hear the bird call, which he transcribed. The third movement of this piece is: Abîme des oiseaux. Peter Hill pointed out that in this work the end of time is literal as well as figurative. In the final movement, as the piece slows to the end, it becomes so very slow that it kind of runs out of rhythm. It is infinite slowness. Thus, the end of time.

Macedon Music in Late Autumn

I have written before about the beautiful setting of Lowland Farm Mount Macedon for chamber music concerts. Yesterday we had the first concert for about 2 years, thanks to Covid. A tranquil, crisp late autumn afternoon and beautiful music from the Seraphim Trio (Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayers and Tim Nankervis), joined by violist Christopher Moore.

The first item (for piano, violin, viola and cello) was by a composer I hadn’t heard of, Dora Pejačević (1885 — 1923) who in fact was a Croatian countess: Countess Maria Theodora Paulina. Her landmark composition seems to have been her Symphony in F sharp minor, considered to be the first modern Croatian symphony. She was also the first Croatian composer to write a concerto (for piano). A film has been made of her (partly fictionalised) life: Countess Dora, 1993.

On this occasion we heard Pejačević’s Piano Quartet in D minor, Op. 25. Four fairly conventional movements: Allegro, Adagio, Minuetto/ Allegretto/ Trio, and a final Rondo/Allegro. From the opening strains of the first movement this was clearly a late Romantic piece — lyrical and contrasting themes, returning from time to time so that they sang in my head as I was transported to my imaginary early 20th century aristocratic Croatia — a drawing room after a dinner of several courses. The liveliness of the final movement was conveyed by spirited pizzicato. Pejačević also wrote many lieder, piano solos and chamber music, mainly for strings and piano.

Dora Pejačević

My favourite work on this program, by Brett Dean (b 1961) had been commissioned by the Seraphim Trio. Dean seems in touch with and able to express significant elements of our present lives, such as climate change, palliative care, and now Covid. This piece of nine interconnected short movements was written in London when Dean was recovering from and sheltering from Covid, having caught it in the relatively early days of the pandemic (March 2020). Most of the short movements of this piece were characterised by a bouyant rhythmic drive — energetic and optimistic, but there was also a stillness, shade and depth, such as in a middle section that was a tribute to Dean’s teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, John Curro. And in another of these sections of quieter profundity we had the chilling confrontation of playgrounds without children.

Brett Dean

The final item on the program was Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor K478 and as we listened, we could see, through the expansive windows, a golden autumnal sunset.

Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, Melbourne Theatre Company

When I was attending my privileged independent school in Melbourne I genuinely thought that it was good to make toffees to sell at our stall to help support a mission school for poor Aboriginal children up in the Northern Territory. I thought that we should try to give them something that approximated our own education. It didn’t strike me until decades later that we could learn a huge amount from the First Australians — indeed, their relationship with and knowledge of the land is integral to our attempts to understand and try to navigate the world out of the disasterous consequences of climate change.

Joshua Harmon

Members of the Melbourne Theatre Company audience are very much a replica of the people this play is about: mainly white, well educated, middle class, with ‘progressive’ opinions. Indeed, in the play all of the actors are white — we never see the people of colour who are, we are told, a significant part of their lives.

Admission Manager’s Office

The setting for the play is Hillcrest, an elite, New Hampshire boarding school. The stage set shows a library of oak bookshelves holding 19th century tomes and the admissions manager’s office has solid antique furniture. In the first scene, a teacher is reprimanded by the admissions manager for producing a prospectus that ‘looks too white’ — she is trying to build up ‘diversity’, which means attracting more students of colour. But as the play progresses we come to realise that it is the ‘look’ that is important rather than the values.

Charlie argues with his parents

Everything blows up and truths seep out when a Hillcrest student of colour is accepted into Yale and the admissions manager’s son (who is white and got good grades) is not. Charlie, the son, brilliantly played by William McKenna, is initially put out by the news — in the usual rivalling way when a friend wins something and you don’t. But then he decides that he doesn’t want to go to a prestigious college and he wants the money his parents would have spent on his Yale education to go towards a scholarship so that some less privileged student can attend Hillcrest. His parents absolutely refuse. There is no way that they will accede or even listen to their son’s arguments. In a typical privileged way the mother starts to make enquiries and pull some strings totally against her son’s wishes. It is far more important to the parents that their son go to Yale than that a student of colour get a scholarship to Hillcrest.

William McKenna

Would I do the same thing if I had a son who didn’t get into Yale? I hope not — but I have a sneaking feeling that I might be torn towards such behaviour, or I might just offer some token donation to salve my conscience. Altogether a brilliant play.

Syzygy Ensemble: a concert of four world premières

I’ve written a post about the Syzygy Ensemble before, but that was back in March 2020, the last concert they gave before we plunged into the thick of Covid-19, lockdowns, and very little work for artists. How exciting to attend this concert two years later — to hear that their superb music-making is as good as ever inspite of the drought of performance opportunties, and to experience four world première performances, all composed since that concert of two years ago.

The concert was entitled ‘Revive’. As pianist Leigh Harrold says in his program notes, ‘We’ve been here before’. In other words, the ensemble has been trying/ hoping to put together a concert for some time and with so many set-backs — new strains of the virus, new regulations, there’d been a feeling of cynisism as to whether the concert would ever eventuate. Congratulations Syzygy — it was a memorable evening.

Zinia Chan

Recently I’ve been fascinated by writers and composers I’ve come across who draw their inspiration from the study of plants. In this case, in Weaving Threads, composer Zinia Chan draws parallels between the relationships of fungus and plants and the symbiotic nature of human relationships. Chan says, ‘I wanted to explore the current time and also the importance of human connection and to draw the comparison between the Mycorrhiza network and humans; how although trees are seemingly separated and distanced, they are in fact connected through a mass of thin threads, known as mycelium (fugus).’ Her music explored these connections. It had been commissioned for Melbourne Recital Centre by Jane Kunstler.

The piece that bowled me over for the evening was by Australian/ British composer Keyna Wilkins. The program notes told us that Keyna’s music is characterised by a fascination with astronomy, First Nations culture, jazz, dance forms and intuitive improvisation. Her piece, Virago(meaning female warrior), celebrates women leaders. Keyna had taken four contemporary leading women and short sound bites of their speeches were incorporated into the composition: Greta Thunberg ‘We will not let you get away with this…’,

Greta Thunberg

Grace Tame ‘Share your truth it is your power…’,

Grace Tame

Jacinda Ardern ‘It takes courage and strength to be empathetic and I’m very proudly an empathetically-driven leader…’

Jacinda Ardern

and Angela Merkel ‘Anything that seems to be set in stone or unalterable can, indeed, change…’ The music reflected the energy and wisdom of these words.

Angela Merkel

Another favourite for me was a piece that had been especially composed for Syzygy and commissioned by the Echo Commission, founding donor, Dr Rosalind Page. Composed by Anthony Moles, The Tower, celebrates Sydney’s inner west, in particular the Petersham Reservoir, which is an interesting structure where a kind of nested tower structure is built over the old, covered, reservoir of 1888. The tower also depicts a tarot card — a tower with no obvious entrance. There was vibrancy and energy in the music — strength in the face of adversity — destruction of the old and emergence of the new. The piece is written in memory of composer Louis Andriessen.

Anthony Moles

The final item by Cyrus Meurant was also a memorial, commissioned by writer and former ABC producer Mark Wakely for his dear friend Steven Alward. To me, the music was a little more conventional than the other items but was nevertheless a beautiful tribute, with inspiration from Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, each movement depicting the crossing of a sea: The light that glows on the sea waves — Love, Amduat — Loss and Our different worlds — Transformation.

Steven Alward
Cyrus Meurant
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