littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

ENSEMBLE FRANÇAIX AT MACEDON MUSIC

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I have written recently about the beautiful setting for chamber music provided by the Murdochs at Lowland Farm, Mount Macedon. Sixty or so people sit in a living room looking out of large windows to autumnal colourings in the near distance and then, further away, rolling hills of Australian bush.

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I have also written of the wonderful combination of double reeds (oboe and bassoon) and piano that is the chamber group Ensemble Franҫaix. What bliss to combine the two in the Macedon Music concert last Sunday.

Three pieces in the Ensemble Franҫaix repertoire have become old favourites for me: the Trio by Jean Franҫaix, which started this concert and then later the Trio by Francis Poulenc and the final piece, the excitingly jazzy Trio by André Previn. For descriptions of these pieces, please see earlier entries that describe Ensemble Franҫaix concerts. https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/04/07/ensemble-fran%D2%ABaix/

https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/07/23/ensemble-francaix-and-the-harp/

Ensemble Franҫaix commissions works for their somewhat unusual combination. Last Sunday we heard a Ricercare by Queensland composer Chris Healey. Indeed, it was a world premiere. ‘Ricecare’ is a term usually associated with baroque music – music of a contrapuntal style that often weaves around a theme, teasing it sometimes, then ultimately establishing it. For me, one of the best known baroque examples of this device is the theme of Bach’s A Musical Offering. In Chris’s work there were fugue-like passages, but he said he used the idea of ‘ricecare’ as a kind of launching pad. Chris is a relatively new composer who has written for various combinations of instruments and also piano solos. He says he wants to stand on the shoulders of musical greats such as Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.

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Chris Healey

We heard the Australian premiere of Waharoa, by New Zealand composer Ben Hoadley. Ben travels a lot from New Zealand to Australia and the piece was, to some extent, a blending of these cultures. For example, a motif inspired by the New Zealand bellbird, and another, the Australian grey butcher bird. The title of the piece is a New Zealand place in the Waikato region.

Another piece new to me, but not a premiere, was Terra Incognita by Katia Beaugeais. The piece has two movements, the first, ‘misterioso’ depicts the mystery of the ‘unknown’ land that Europeans of the time before the 17th century believed must exist somewhere in the south.

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The second movement ‘appassionato’ suggests the land and its native bird life. One interesting device was to have the oboe and bassoon blow into the open grand piano – the open lid deflected the sound in an eerie way.

 

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The concert finished with André Previn’s Trio and we went home refreshed by its jaunty final movement.

It is well worth visiting the Ensemble Franҫaix website http://www.ensemblefrancaix.com/ I look forward to hearing many more concerts from this talented group.

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FLUTE AND OBOE PORTRAITS: A CONCERT AT THE CHURCH OF ALL NATIONS

When I was in Paris last year, I loved that you can wander around the 5th and 6th arrondissements and just happen upon interesting exhibitions and concerts. This is also becoming the case in Melbourne.

I’ve come from a Sunday afternoon concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton: Timmins and Friends – flautist Jennifer Timmins

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Jennifer Timmins

and her highly talented friends had put together an hour or so of music that featured flute and oboe (played superbly by Stephanie Dixon),

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Stephanie Dixon

several New Zealand composers, also music by American composer Robert Muczynski (1929 – 2010), Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (b 1961) and Frenchman Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962). Jennifer and Stephanie were assisted by Laurence Matheson on piano and Tim Murray, bassoon.

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The first item was a Duo by Robert Muczynski, intended for two flutes, but it worked beautifully for flute and oboe, in fact, I found it difficult to imagine a second flute fitting as well as the oboe did. The first movement opened with the oboe playing a firm ascending scale and the flute winding around it, playing with it. There were six short movements – in some of the faster ones the oboe line was quite percussive – a staccato that I imagine can be crisper when played with a reed rather than with the flute.

We then heard solo flute, Harakeke (Flax) by New Zealand composer Philip Brownlee (b 1971). Here the flute was perfect for evoking wind blowing through flax.

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Then we had another case of the oboe substituting for another instrument. ‘Substituting’ suggests that the result was not as good as the intended instrument – but I doubt very much that this is the case. The oboe sounded superb in a sonata for Soprano Saxophone and piano by Daniel Schnyder. The piece explored a jazz/ classical cross-over and, as  oboist Stephanie said, it gave her a chance to play some jazz. The final movement, in particular, is syncopated and jazzy.

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New Zealand composer Bryan James (b 1949) wrote a piece, Tasman Ice, in the mid-1970s. A fantasia for solo flute, it was originally used in the sound-track of a film about the Tasman Glacier, made for the Department of Land and Survey/ Conservation. I am not surprised to learn that James plays the shakuhachi and has a deep interest in Japanese and Chinese music – the piece contrasts icy tinkling and mysterious depth.

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Tasman Glacier

Two pieces for flute, oboe, bassoon and piano by Jacques Ibert were followed by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher’s (b 1993) Unfinished Portrait, for the same instruments. This is a response, by the composer, to letters between New Zealanders artist Rita Angus (1908 – 1970) and composer Douglas Lilburn (1915 – 2001), and interest in a portrait, in oils, that Angus attempted, some years after her first portrait of Lilburn.

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Early Portrait of Douglas Lilburn by Rita Angus

Angus hoped that this second portrait would express her ‘long and deep devotion’. But she was unhappy with the result, and after eight years, destroyed it. Salina Fisher’s piece was written at the time of the centenary of Lilburn’s birth. I sensed at times in the piano part a ‘fluid’ motif that suggested to me the on-going motion of painting – at the end, the piece trails off, with a single line from the piano, as it were, into nothingness.

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Rita Angus, Hawkes Bay Landscape, 1966

Congratulations to Jennifer Timmens and her friends for putting together and performing such an imaginative and beautifully executed concert.

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Rita Angus, Flight, 1969

 

 

 

 

 

PIANO AND ‘CELLO AT MOUNT MACEDON

Melbourne-based performers Blair Harris (‘cello) and Caroline Almonte (piano) gave an inspired and interesting performance at Macedon Music this Sunday. Mount Macedon is about 70 km to the north west of Melbourne — it was once a hill station resort, where the wealthy retreated from hot Melbourne summers.

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It’s surprising that I don’t write more often about Macedon Music http://www.macedonmusic.com/ –  such a worthwhile institution: formed about 25 years ago, chamber music is performed in the home of Helen and Peter Murdoch. The audience sits in a living room and looks out large windows to sweeping views of Mount Macedon bush-land: just as chamber music should be – in an intimate setting. But more than this, the Macedon Music committee selects music that is new, interesting and of the highest quality. I’ve been attending the concerts since their inception and there is always something new, diverting, stimulating …

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Blair Harris, ‘cello

This time, one of the new experiences for me was to hear an electric ‘cello, on which Blair Harris performed Sept Papillons for solo ‘cello by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

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an electric ‘cello

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

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The main difference I noticed in the electric instrument is that the finger board seems to be more responsive than that of an acoustic ‘cello. This was followed by a piece of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929 – 2014) for ‘cello and piano, which depicts ducks on a billabong – very appropriate for our rural setting.

Then we heard local composer Caerwen Martin’s Heart of Yours, Heart of Mine, composed especially for Blair and Caroline and publicly performed on only one other occasion. Before interval we also heard Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror(s) in the Mirror) composed in 1978. Minimalist music, the title suggests infinity and the idea of reflection, with the ‘cello and piano playing scale passages in opposite directions: as the ‘cello ascends, the piano descends, etc … The piece was originally written for violin and piano. It has been used in theatre and film – including a short film by Jean Luc Godard.

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After interval (wine and sandwiches on the lawn), we were reminded that 2018 is the centenary of the ending of World War I with a piece written by E.J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) when he was convalescing from a WWI injury. After this came the major work:  Frank Bridge’s (1879 – 1941) ‘cello sonata in D Minor H125, composed over the years of the war.

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E.J. Moeran during World War I

 

There are two movements. The first starts with an ascending ‘cello scale that maybe suggests hope, but this is not maintained. The second movement has been said to express Bridge’s despair over the futility of war and the general state of the world at that time.

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Frank Bridge just after World War I

I would have preferred that the concert end here, as programmed, but the generous Blair and Caroline provided as encore a piece by Australian composer Gordon Kerry (born 1961) inspired by the mining of diamonds on Aboriginal land. I would have preferred to hear this another time, not when I was immersed in thoughts about the impact of World War I, inspired by Bridge’s powerful sonata.

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TOMBEAU DE CLAUDE DEBUSSY, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC, SATURDAY 24TH MARCH 2018

 

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25th March, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy, a composer whose works were a seminal force in the music of the 20th century. To pay tribute to this great composer, ANAM put together a concert of works that in various ways acknowledge the pervasive influence of Debussy’s work on all kinds of 20th century music – it is noted in the program that George Gershwin ‘devoured’ the music of Debussy and he influenced not only significant ‘classical’ composers such as Schoenberg and Bartok, but also modern jazz.

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Each item on the program had a relationship to Debussy’s music, although only two pieces were actually composed by him: his own compositions will be dwelt on as the year progresses. Each piece had its first performance in 1920, after Debussy’s death. The first item was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, orchestrated by Benno Sachs – particularly beautiful wind playing by Eliza Shepard, flute and Owen Jackson, oboe. The other piece by Debussy was an arrangement of his flute solo Syrinx for 3 flutes and this was followed by Hirokazu Fukushima’s Fantasia on a theme of Syrinx for 3 flutes, composed in 2015.

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Piano works that paid tribute to Debussy were by Roussel, Malipiero, Eugene Goossens, Dukas, Bartok, Schmitt and Stravinsky – the latter giving the basic chord structure for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which, conducted by Richard Mills, provided a fitting end to the program.

Debussy at the piano

Debussy at the piano

Maybe stretching the realm of Debussy’s influence a little wide, was inclusion of an oboe solo, Studie über Mehrklänge (Chordal Study) by Heinz Holliger. It was performed by ANAM director, Nick Deutsch. It is a compendium of every effect possible on the oboe (or, at least every effect considered possible when it was composed in 1971). Multiphonics, circular breathing, triple and flutter tonguing were ably demonstrated by Nick, showing how music developed in the 50 or so years from Debussy’s death.

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Nick Deutsch, director, ANAM

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Other tributes to Debussy were songs, Quatre petites melodies by Satie, sung by guest mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan, an exciting sonata for violin and ‘cello by Ravel and Homenaje for guitar by Manuel de Falla.

I came away from the concert with an expanded sense of Debussy’s role in shaping 20th century music. I have always loved his use of the whole tone scale and had been aware of his interest in Asian music – unusual for 19th century Eurocentric composers. But I realise now how he opened up a fresh palette of sound that made possible the wealth of ‘classical’, jazz and other styles of music that continue to enhance musical composition 100 years after his death.

TWO GREAT WOMEN SINGERS FUSING THE GENRES

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

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

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Anne Sofie von Otter

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

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

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

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

A Later note:

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

STALIN’S PIANO

Stalin's piano Ukaria Cultural Centre

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

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Brecht as shown in Stalin’s Piano

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

Stalin's piano Maria Yudina

BRETT DEAN’S HAMLET

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

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

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

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Brett Dean, composer

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

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

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

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The ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

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

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

In the Club, by Patricia Cornelius, Adelaide Festival

 

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This play was commissioned by the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It shines a light on sexual violence associated with the pack mentality of young men, in this case, football players. All of the actors were excellent. There were aspects of this play that were moving and thought-provoking, but I came away asking myself: is it a play? Where is the drama? At times it was almost more of a kind of dance; Gazelle Twin’s electronic music creating an at times haunting, at other times ‘in your face’ atmosphere, and the actors interacting with the ever-present water on stage, which one might say is also a character, although I’m not certain of the role it plays.

There are three young women and three young men. On the whole, the men represent ‘the pack’, although through Angus, in particular, we can see how individually they want to do ‘the right thing’, but the pack mentality takes over. The play starts with each of the young women telling her story – and each is very different. As a result of being pack-raped at 16, because she was keen on the footballers, and genuinely interested in the game, Annie becomes a nymphomaniac – she seems to know no other behaviour and to be utterly unable to assert herself. I did wonder whether she represents how the footballers see such women who naively offer themselves to the strapping young players.

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Annie

Olivia is romantic and influenced by external pressures and conventions – she wants to fall in love and, although she has no interest in football, when she meets footballer Angus, she thinks, for a moment, that she has found the real thing. Total disillusionment. After glorious sex, Angus says he will be back in a moment. We are told that the pack takes over. Olivia is left lying in the water in a foetal position. Ruby reckons she can handle the men. She seeks out sex with the sleek, muscular footballers, but she is canny enough to have them one by one.

That was the play. It focused on the women, yet, if I came away with anything it was a disturbing awareness of the power of the pack. And the water, misting everything, sloshing, reflecting; suggesting something primal.

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CYBEC 21ST CENTURY AUSTRALIAN COMPOSERS’ CONCERT 2018

 

Cybec Tianyi Lu

Each year since 2003, the Cybec Foundation has supported a program whereby four young composers are selected to write 10 minute pieces for a particular orchestral combination that is performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Each composer has a mentor, an established Australian composer, who works with them during the composition process. One of these young composers will be chosen to be the MSO’s Young Composer in Residence for 2019 and commissioned to write more pieces. The young composers attend the concert and in preparation they have been present during rehearsal to gain experience into working with instrumentalists and to have the opportunity to see how their compositions might be ‘tweaked’ to gain  desired effects.

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The first piece, Rituals of Heartland, was by Catherine Likhuta, who was wearing a beautifully embroidered shirt from her mother-country, the Ukraine. Her composition is program music – it has a story, influenced by Catherine’s 4 year-old daughter: a fairy-tale about a brave young girl from Medieval Ukraine and her puppy, lost in an enchanted forest – the puppy had to be rescued from a witch, which provided opportunity for use of the considerable battery of percussion available to these composers. Catherine had made use of Ukrainian folk dances, which are described as having ‘angular’ rhythms. The music was easy to listen to and at times playful.

Catherine Likhuta with daughter when younger

Catherine and her daughter

We then heard the work of Adelaide-based Daniel Thorpe, From Above, which took us from a clearly-outlined fairy-story to something very intimate; exploration of queer culture from a personal perspective. Of the queer body, Daniel says, ‘we have to re-learn our intuition, carve space for ourselves to understand our bodies on their own terms’. Daniel speaks of the ‘wordlessness’ of touches, and some of the music was so soft it seemed to be at the extremity of human hearing – a tiny shimmer from a harp, or magical soft bowing of strings.

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Daniel Thorpe

May Lyon’s piece, Ignition, is a dedication to a close friend who passed away in May 2017. The music reflected his ‘mercurial’ personality and his love of driving – he is described as having an ‘enigmatic’ character. The music was very exciting and engaging, making great use of the contra bassoon and percussion. It reminded me very much of Bernstein’s West Side Story, particularly ‘the Jets are in gear’.

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May Lyon

Mark Holdworth’s L’appel du vide, (the call of the void), uses the phenomenon of suicide ideation as a framework for examining the human proclivity to self-destruct. This is inspired by consideration of ‘the declining global socio-political climate, and the pervasive depiction of violence and depravity in the media’. The piece depicts the seduction of good by evil. Influenced very much by this compelling framework, I did find it the most interesting piece of the evening. There was plenty of percussion and rough bowing (it seemed to me like scraping) of strings, use of instruments such as piccolo and cor anglais was subtle.

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Mark Holdsworth

We will have to wait until the Metropolis concert in April to find out which of these four talented composers becomes the MSO Young Composer in Residence for 2019.

Jules et Jim

Why is it that this film has remained one of the most significant movies I have seen? It has been there, in the background of my life, ever since I first saw it at the age of about 20. A part of this is a sweet nostalgia for university days – I would have seen it at a late night screening on campus. But other films viewed in those seemingly carefree times haven’t stayed with me like Jules et Jim. I saw it again recently.

J et J title for the film

Directed by Francois Truffaut, the context of the film isn’t really very important. It is set before, during, and after the Great War . Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy writer from Austria, who forges a friendship with the more extroverted Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre). They share an interest in the arts. They also share women. One woman they meet at this time is Thérèse, who has an extraordinary way of smoking (so daring for those times), blowing out the smoke like a train. I believe Truffaut knew someone who smoked like that.

j et j therese being a train

At a slide show, the young men become entranced with a bust of a goddess and her serene smile and travel to see the ancient statue on an island in the Adriatic Sea.  After encounters with several women, they meet the free-spirited, capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose smile reminds them of the statue. Both men are affected by her attitude toward life. And this is what interests me. Later in the film, Catherine (accompanied on guitar by a lover) sings a song, Le Tourbillon de la vie, The Whirlwind of life, and this seems to be what Catherine’s life is like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjJqHF0mb_k

j et j the song

Throughout the film a narrator tells us of Jules and Jim’s thoughts, but we never get inside Catherine’s mind. She seems to have to make statements – out of frustration? She dresses up as a boy, Thomas, ‘because only men are free to do as they want’.

J et J Catherine as Thomas

And one time when the three have been to see a Swedish play together (maybe The Dolls House?), walking home the men are discussing it together when Catherine suddenly jumps into the Seine to gain their attention.

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The movie is very much about Catherine. About feeling restricted by convention. Yet the title is Jules et Jim.

The two men are separated by the war and must fight on opposing sides. Each fears that he might have killed his friend. Jules and Catherine marry and have a daughter, Sabine.

J et J Catherine et Sabine

After the wartime separation, Jim visits, and later stays with Jules and Catherine in their house in the Black Forest. Things are a little awkward at first, they sit together in silence: ‘Un ange passe’.

J et J un ange passe

Jim senses tensions in the marriage. Jules tells Jim that Catherine has had numerous affairs, and she once left him and Sabine for six months. He is unbelievably calm and tolerant of her behaviour – a loving acceptance.

Catherine ultimately seduces Jim, who has never forgotten her. Jules, desperate that Catherine might leave him forever, gives his blessing for Jim to marry Catherine so that he may continue to visit them and see her. Jules seems to understand Catherine’s ‘whirlwind’ nature, he says, ‘She expresses herself in cataclysms. Wherever she is, she lives surrounded by her own brightness …’ For a while, the three adults live happily with Sabine in the same chalet in Austria, until tensions between Jim and Catherine arise because of their inability to have their own child.

Jim leaves Catherine and returns to Paris. After several exchanges of letters between Catherine and Jim, with crossed letters and misunderstandings, they resolve to reunite when she learns that she is pregnant. But then Jules writes to tell Jim that Catherine suffered a miscarriage and she no longer wants to live with Jim.

After a time, Jim runs into Jules in Paris. He learns that Jules and Catherine have returned to France. Catherine tries to win Jim back, but he rebuffs her, saying he is going to marry Gilberte. Furious, she pulls a gun on him, but he wrestles it away and flees. He later encounters Jules and Catherine in a movie theatre. Jules’s loving fondness is expressed when he gently adjusts Catherine’s scarf as they come out of the movie.

j et j Jules and the scarf

The three of them stop at an outdoor cafe. Catherine asks Jim to get into her car, saying she has something to tell him. She asks Jules to watch them and drives the car off a damaged bridge into the river, killing herself and Jim. Jules is left to deal with the ashes.

jules et jim jim AND CATHERINE IN CAR

There are hints at this ending throughout the film. Firstly, the metaphor of the bridge. Early in their relationship in Paris the three chase each other across a bridge when they seem to be ecstatically happy.

j et j metaphor of the bridge

Then, as described above, Catherine jumps off a bridge to gain the men’s attention. The ‘final’ bridge in a sense has no end – it is broken off. The music (by Georges Delerue) plays an integral part in preparing our feelings. There is a sweeping circular, very French, theme – the ‘circular’ rhythm suggests the wheels of the bicycles that the three ride from time to time and of course the wheels of Catherine’s car. When there are tensions in relationships, tensions are built into this sweeping music – slight discords, the harmonies are tinged with dissonance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhCsqL5pfHs

The warmly observant Jules tells Jim in a letter that after the miscarriage Catherine walked around ‘with the fixed smile of a corpse’.

Jules is left with the ashes of the two people who have meant so much to him. The narrator tells us: ‘A feeling of relief swept over him’ and the music strengthens. Truffaut described this movie as ‘a hymn to life and death’. It is far more than a failed ménage à trois : a gem of a movie.

j et j the end

 

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