littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

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.

DARE TO HOPE: A FINAL CONCERT BEFORE LOCKDOWN

syzygy 8

On 12th March, just a few weeks after devastating bushfires had destroyed much of the south-east coast of Australia, the chamber music group Syzygy Ensemble performed a concert entitled: Terra Subitis 1: Dare to Hope. By this stage, we knew of the existence of the highly infectious COVID-19, but we were still ignorant of the profound impact it would have on our lives. This is likely to be the last concert I  attend for many months.

Syzygy 2

Syzygy, an ensemble of flute, clarinet, ‘cello, piano and violin, specialises in playing new music and on this occasion the ‘oldest’ piece had been composed in 1995. The usual group of Laila Engle, Robin Henry, Campbell Banks and Leigh Harrold was joined by violinist Zoë Black.

Syzygy 5

Zoë Black

The concert opened with the Australian premiere of Greg Caffrey’s for peace comes dropping slow;  calming and fluid, the title from Yeats’ poem, Isle of Innisfree: ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ — tranquility recalled when the poet was in a bustling city.

Then a contrast. John Psatlas is a New Zealand composer with a Greek cultural heritage. His three Island Songs were full of the energy of Greek dancing, the Eb clarinet providing a shrill intensity.

Sublimity followed. Caerwen Martin’s ‘Spacious and Expressive’ The Beauty of Now was originally written for violin and piano, but in 2019 she revised it for flute and piano and Laila’s mellow playing — even in the high ranges of the piccolo — took us to an ethereal place.

Syzygy 3

Laila Engle

The final item was composed at the very end of the 20th century by Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin: Our Finest Hour. The piece celebrates the joy of creation, scientific discoveries, and then in the last movement there is a tape of Churchill from his speech made in 1940, where he was determined that England should persist in the war with Germany: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”  ‘This was their finest hour’ was deftly inserted into the music by Laila — the piece is scored for violin, ‘cello, piano and clarinet — no flute.

Whilst reflecting on the current turmoil of our world, we were left with the reminder of humankind’s achievements —  a strand of hope that we can clutch over the ensuing months as the world locks down.

syzygy 7

 

 

 

 

 

Dimanche: a brilliant depiction of climate chaos

dimanche 5

Dimanche has been described as a ‘family show’, but it is far more than that. I went away from the wordless performance of mime, puppetry, film and sound asking myself — why is this so much more powerful than seeing a movie? Maybe it is the lack of words. We are weary of clichés about climate change.

Dimanche was presented at the Adelaide Festival by two Belgian companies: Compagnie Chaliwaté and Cie Focus. One of the members said: ‘We want to speak about the denial in which we find ourselves, the mismatch between the extreme urgent need to act and our difficulty to assimilate this urgency’. They do this superbly well, juxtaposing scientists documenting the last living species on earth and a family trying to carry on with their usual life on a Sunday (Dimanche) against the odds of  extreme heat (the table legs melt), cyclonic winds and flooding tsunami.

Dimanche 1

Some brilliant puppetry: an almost life-size polar bear is separated from its cub when melting ice cracks.  An exotic bird seeking food for its chick is killed in the devastating winds (its remains are blown into the family’s home and they intend to feast on it). Apart from these poignant depictions of loss, a memorable piece of acting is when the three scientists are driving in polar regions in their van — simply done with a steering wheel, hand-operated windscreen-wipers (the actors take it in turns) all bouncing up and down in unison to suggest the rough terrain over which they’re driving.

dimanche 6

There are underwater scenes too, with fish puppets. Articles we recognise from the family’s house are at the bottom of the ocean — a woman in a kayak (rowing in time with the sound of the water) ‘fishes’ up some items. But she too will be taken by the tsunami.

dimanche 2

elderly mother puppet, whose feet are cooled in ice

 

dimanche 4

 

I think it was the lack of words that made this so powerful.

 

An extraordinary Mozart Requiem

A requiem is a mass for the dead, for repose of the soul. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor was written at the very end of his life, in fact, he did not live to finish it.  One version was completed by his pupil, Franz Xavier Süssmayr.  This extended version was used, along with additions to what is described in the program as a ‘musical montage’ performed at the 2020 Adelaide Festival by the Adelaide Festival Chorus, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Australian Dance Theatre and soloists Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco and boy treble, Luca Shin — there was also a baby, just a few months old — I hope he/ she received actors’ equity rates! The production was directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Rory Macdonald.

What can a Requiem mean for us in 2020? What kind of repose might we seek, as we face a world that is being destroyed by our own negligence, with governments more interested in narrow self interest than confronting the reality of climate change, with the likelihood that a virus will wreak havoc in populations across the globe?

Mozart requiem 1

This production of Mozart’s Requiem was certainly oriented towards a 21st century world. I was sitting too far back to see some of the detail that occurred on stage. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience would have been able to see, for example, that the person who is going to bed while introductory Gregorian plainchant is sung, is watching TV news headlines about the recent devastating bushfires. Expecting something to do with the crucifixion, I thought that the figure was some kind of modern-day Christ and that the bed from which he/ she ultimately disappeared represented a version of a crucifix. No — I was reading too much into an elderly woman getting into bed and dying.

Some of the dance sequences reminded me of pagan sacrifice (the Rite of Spring flashed through my mind) — the movements did fit to Mozart’s music, and to their great credit, the chorus sang superbly while performing folk dance-type movements and sometimes lying prostrate.

Mozart requiem 3

The idea of a 21st century requiem was captured best for me by  the projection onto the back wall, throughout much of the production, of an ‘Atlas of Great Extinctions’.  We were reminded of so many things that no longer exist: the names of flora, animal species, human species, languages, buildings, artworks, religions and finally suggestions of human abilities and traits that may become extinct: thought, tears, wonder, love… Thus we were encouraged to reflect not only on our individual lives but humanity’s destiny and the future of our planet.

Near the end of the production there is suggestion of destruction — my interpretation was destruction of our world — everything that was pristine and white is blackened. Many of the performers disrobe on a darkened stage. There are piles of dirt. A burnt out car. When the performers are off stage, the floor is tilted, so that the dirt and debris slides forwards.

Mozart requiem 2

At the very end is another Gregorian chant, In Paradise, traditionally sung at the end of a Catholic funeral. And this is where there is hope, symbolised in the tiny baby left alone for a few minutes on stage. (Space Odyssey 2001 flashed through my mind.)

Mozart requiem 5

Elements of this enormous production were memorable and moving but, for me, I would have been happy to have listened to the beauty of the music (which was superbly performed throughout). Sometimes, I think the activities on stage detracted from music which by itself has a universal message. Even for those of us who do not subscribe to traditional religious belief, Mozart’s music alone can offer at least some hours of repose.

1917

1917 title

In the credits at the end of the movie 1917, Alfred H. Mendes is mentioned and thanked for his stories. A Wikipedia search tells me that he was Sam Mendes, the director’s, grandfather. He was a writer — he joined up to serve in World War I when he was seventeen.  This film is presumably based on stories of incredible acts of bravery and compassion during a brutal war that surely we will never forget. On 6th April 1917, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake must take a crucial message to British troops on the other side of enemy territory. This British regiment wrongly thinks that the Germans (the Boche) have withdrawn. No – it is a strategic withdrawal and the Boche are lying in wait. If the message doesn’t get there by sunrise, vast numbers of British troops, including Blake’s brother, will be slaughtered.

1917 Blake and Schofield

Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield

By making the filming appear to be one continuous take, we travel with the two young Lance Corporals on their frightening journey – the whole film is from the point of view of one or other of them.

1917 trenches 2

In abandoned German trenches

Fantastic depiction of the trenches. All we needed was the smell. Amazing scenery – particularly fiery shots in a bombed-out church.

1917 ruins

Others who have seen this film describe it as ‘nail-biting’ and that they were on the edge of their seats most of the time. Well – maybe I’ve seen too many WWI movies. So many depictions of sublime pastoral landscapes that are suddenly sullied – turned into grisly quagmires, so many brutally wounded fresh-faced, terrified soldiers with bloodied stumps for limbs.

1917 landscape

One thing that stood out in this film was the humanity of these young fighters. Blake is killed as a result of trying to assist a German pilot whose legs are still burning after his plane crashes. Schofield has managed to fill his caddy with milk found at an abandoned farm-house. He is exhausted and hungry, but gives the whole caddy to a young woman who is caring for a baby she has rescued. There are many close-ups of the soldiers’ innocent faces. Before a section of a regiment faces up to battle, a young man sings to them with superb clarity and purity The Wayfaring Stranger.

1917 landscape 2

I can imagine that all of the incidents that make up the horrific odyssey of the young men’s journey to avert catastrophe may have been pieced together from the observations and experiences of Alfred H. Mendes. From the beginning I was pretty sure that at least one of the young Lance Corporals would survive – otherwise, why tell the story?

For me, there were too many coincidences: part of a British regiment turns up in trucks and is able to give Schofield a lift some of the way after he leaves an abandoned farm house, devastated by the death of his companion, who was killed by the German he’d tried to help. When Schofield comes across a young woman caring for a desperately starving baby, it just so happens that Schofield has milk in his canteen. Schofield has used a swiftly flowing river for his escape from an occupied bombed-out village. He climbs out, a whole lot of dead bodies provide gruesome foot-holds; he has left the river at the very spot where the regiment he needs to contact is based. And the music – beautiful – at one time reminding me of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – tends to anticipate the action. As Schofield dodges his way through ruins in an early dawn, we correctly anticipate that a German soldier will be around the corner…

1917 soldiers that are saved

The soldiers who were saved by Schofield and Blake’s courageous mission

World War I is hugely significant to our modern world. So many were killed. So many social changes resulted from those four atrocious years. Some political and economic changes that were fought for were short-lasting but in other ways the world we live in was shaped irrevocably. We should keep telling the stories from it and keep making and watching movies such as 1917.

Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto

I first heard the remarkable Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, in 2001 at a Huntington Music Festival – he was then in his early twenties and I remember being amazed by his versatility: dynamism coupled with tenderness. Also at that festival was a young Benjamin Martin – now a leading Australian pianist. As a part of his diverse career as soloist and composer, Pekka is Artistic Director of the ACO Collective – described as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ‘regional touring and education ensemble’ of ‘emerging’ professional string players.

Pekka and ACO collective

Pekka Kuusisto leading the ACO Collective

Pekka is a good friend of composer Nico Muhly (who worked as an editor of Philip Glass), and the two came together last December to present a memorable concert.

Pekka 2

Pekka Kuusisto

After a five minute ‘Drone Meditation’, which maybe served as a kind of warm-up, we heard a duet for two violins by Steve Reich, played by Pekka and Harry Ward, which demonstrated the idea of canons ‘drifting out of sync’ while the ACO strings shimmered away in the background. There was then an arrangement for strings of Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here. Originally a string quartet, the piece depicts a couple’s long-term relationship. After interval we heard Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise. The piece depicts the many colours of Birds of Paradise and large sections of the music were bird calls.

Pekka 4There was a world première of Welsh composer Alex Mills’s One is Fun, which was described in the program notes as ‘a constant state of intrigued stress’ – a push and pull effect created by the two violin soloists (Pekka, and Liisa Pallandi). The final programmed piece was another world première of Nico Muhly’s, Shrink: Concerto for Violin and Strings, which had been commissioned by the ACO and Melbourne Recital Centre. As the composer tells us, each of the three movements ‘obsesses’ over certain intervals – ninths in the first movement, sixths in the second and in the final movement ‘a tiny set of anxious intervals between unisons and fourths’. He describes the unisons as ‘coming in and out of focus’.

Nico Muhly 2

Nico Muhly in his studio

This was indeed a mind-blowing concert. But it didn’t end with the final programmed item. The concert program invited audience members to ‘please get a drink and join us back… for Breaking Ground, a special duo set that will include improvisation and Finnish folk songs’. What generosity! After their demanding concert program, Nico Muhly played piano and, as well as improvising on his violin, Pekka, at times, sang and whistled. One could sense the pure joy of music-making shared by these two extremely talented musicians.

Nico Muhly and Pekka 1

Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly

 

 

 

 

 

 

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