littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: Australian National Academy of Music

A CONCERT: SOUNDS OF WAR

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.



An Opera with No Singing!

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

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

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

Nick Deutsch

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

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

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

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

Music and Art: Roger Kemp

Students of Australian National Academy of Music, curated by ANAM faculty member, percussionist, Peter Neville, performed a fascinating concert: ‘A Choreography of the Spirit’ in a gallery of paintings by Australian abstract artist, Roger Kemp (1908 – 1987). We sat in a gallery that displayed Kemp’s later works while the ANAM students performed music inspired by Kemp’s work.

Roger Kemp 1

Kemp was a young artist in the 1940s when the Ballet Rambert came to Melbourne — it had a tremendous influence on many young artistic people, particularly Kemp, whose early paintings are full of rhythm and some actually seem to be choreographed. It was therefore appropriate to start the concert with Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz. This was followed by a masterfully arranged selection of Bach, jazz, Mozart flute quartet, ending with Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti (1967). I never thought I would like Thelonious Monk played on harspichord — but the arrangement of Epistrophy worked well.

Roger Kemp 3

There was no break in the music — it had been arranged so that Coltrane flowed into Bach, which flowed into Monk. Kemp’s work became more abstract and the figures in his later works merge into the design itself. We sat there, listening, and taking in the abstract shapes that danced around us.

Roger Kemp 5

 

 

BENJAMIN BRITTEN AT THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC (ANAM)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN 4

I first heard of Benjamin Britten when I was about 6 years old and my mother bought collections of his folk song arrangements for voice and piano, which she played and sang – I loved Down by the Salley Gardens. Even at that age I could tell that there was something special about the way the piano accompanied well known songs, such as The Ash Grove – complementing but not exactly following the melody. To my delight, Britten wrote six pieces for unaccompanied oboe (Metamorphoses after Ovid), and I learnt them about 10 years later and came across many of his other compositions, including the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, which I discovered just recently, he must have written when only 19 years old.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN 3.png

Britten (born in 1913) was a child prodigy with an ambitious mother – determined he would be the fourth of the great ‘Bs’ – who were, in her view, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He must have been a very good pianist and also played the viola. He composed a great deal, even when at primary school, and started to study composition with Frank Bridge when barely 14 years old.

On 7th September, at a morning concert at ANAM, we were treated to some of Britten’s early works. This academy provides an ideal facility for exploring work of this kind in depth. Vitality and a high standard of performance can be relied upon and students seem to thrive on these in-depth excursions into particular areas of music. This year there has been a focus on Debussy because it is a centenary since his death. But for a couple of weeks there has been a focus on Britten, who died of heart problems in 1976 at the relatively young age of 63.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN 1

Benjamin Britten, school boy

We heard the Phantasy Oboe Quartet which, the program notes suggest, Britten composed for oboe because, at this early stage in his career, he didn’t want to place himself in competition with the monumental body of string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. A further reason is most likely that Britten was studying at the Royal College of Music where he would have met oboist Leon Goossens, who, with his beautiful mastery of the difficult instrument, had demonstrated its potential. He was, arguably, the greatest oboist of the early 20th century and had many works, like this one, written and dedicated to him.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN LEON GOOSSENS

Leon Goossens 1897 – 1988

I had never heard Britten’s 3 Divertimenti for String Quartet, composed from 1933 to 1936. We were told that these were arranged from ‘character pieces’ based on memories of Britten’s school days. With movements headed fairly conventionally ‘March’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Burlesque’, the ‘comic grotesquerie’ was a surprise and it was easy to imagine the young British school boys who had inspired this music.

The earliest piece on the program was Movement for Wind Sextet (1930) – Britten was only 16. There was no sense that this was an immature piece, although it is apparent that he was trying out ideas from the Second Viennese School – that wellspring of inspiration from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. We were told that Britten intended to write further movements, but they never eventuated.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN 2

Britten said that the sound of rushing water was his first memory

 

The final item on the morning concert’s program was Britten’s first string quartet, composed in 1941, by which time he had moved temporarily to America – escaping war-torn England – he was a pacifist. The work conveys an unsettled mood – tempo changes, harmonic tensions that might be interpreted as a yearning for England. The last movement is optimistic and indeed, fairly soon after completing this work he returned to the country he obviously loved.

The next evening there was a second concert devoted to the work of Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote only three string quartets and at this concert we were given the opportunity to compare an early one (No.2 in C Major written in 1945) with his final one (No. 3 in G Major written in 1975), which turned out to be, as the program said, his ‘final musical statement’. The third quartet was written in Venice – where, just a few years earlier, he had set his final opera, Death in Venice. In the quartet there are links to the opera; harmonic, tonal and a motif that we are told was the sound of a Venetian bell. The program points out that the final movement is mainly in E major, the key associated with Aschenbach in the opera, but the final chord, marked ‘dying away’ contains a harmonic surprise, which, the notes say, leaves the music ‘exquisitely unresolved’.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND FRANK BRIDGE 1930

Benjamin Britten and Frank Bridge: Britten was a keen tennis player

After interval the stage filled with musicians – all string players – for Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, composed when Britten was only 23. As mentioned, Bridge was Britten’s composition teacher and he must have been both mentor and father figure – greatly admired. Britten used to stay with Bridge and his wife Ethel at their country home.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND FRANK AND ETHEL BRIDGE

Britten with Ethel and Frank Bridge

Britten’s admiration for Bridge is clear: ‘Not only did he keep my nose to the grindstone, but he criticised my work relentlessly … He taught me to think and feel through the instruments I was writing for.’ [Powell, N. Benjamin Britten A Life For Music, Henry Holt & Company, 2013.] These variations were written for the 1937 Salzburg Festival. I had expected something like a theme and variations. No, it is far more than that. There is a theme, taken from Bridge’s Idyll No. 2 for string quartet – but the ten variations take up aspects of Bridge’s character, his wit, his energy. They are labelled fairly conventionally; Adagio, March … ending with a Fugue and Finale which seem masterfully to capture and bind those special elements of Bridge’s character, ending with an ethereal affect from the upper strings.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN FRANK BRIDGE

Frank Bridge

 

 

 

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

 

Debussy 4

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.

Debussy 1

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.

debussy 6

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.

SILENCED COMPOSERS

A couple of years ago I wrote about composer Messiaen’s, The End of Time, written while incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. Last week, the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) reminded us of the music of those composers who did not survive – composers who were Jewish victims of Nazism. Three of these composers were in their 40s when they died/ were murdered, and one was only 26. We can only know their early and mid-career music, and must imagine what they might have created had they lived their natural life-spans.

All of the music in this concert was for wind instruments, some also with piano. The first piece was a wind quintet by Pavel Haas, written when he was in his early twenties, some years before the war. Although I play a wind instrument, I sometimes don’t like the medium of wind quintet – the winds, I feel, need support from a more flexible, perhaps forgiving timbre, maybe a ‘cello. But in the case of Haas’s Wind Quintet Opus 10, the medium seems absolutely right. For example in the first movement (Preludio) the clarinet and oboe play a short driving rhythm beneath the soaring melodic flute. There is delightful playfulness in a Ballo Eccentrico movement. Much of the music in this concert was joyous, written well before awareness of the dark days to come.

There were two pieces by Erwin Schulhoff who, the program tells us, was a child prodigy pianist. At the outbreak of WWII he tried to resettle in the Soviet Union, but was arrested in Prague. We first heard Schulhoff’s Divertissement for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, written in 1927 and redolent with jazz chords and rhythms – there is a movement entitled Charleston. Then, after interval, a flute sonata also written in 1927, which displayed the superb playing of guest flautist Silvia Careddu, who, among many other posts, is principal flute in the Wiener Symphoniker.

Although Leo Smit’s Sextet for five winds and piano was written in 1933, this was its Australian première. Smit studied in Amsterdam and was influenced by the composers known as ‘Les Six’, particularly Francis Poulenc. The structure is traditional: three movements, Allegro Vivace, Lento and Vivace. I loved the first movement – a bouncing rhythm, sustained by the piano, then in the slow movement there is a beautiful oboe solo, with, perhaps, fleeting touches of Cole Porter. The final movement is another energetic vivace.

The concert finished with a wind octet (two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns) by Gideon Klein who, the programs tells us, had to turn down a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London, because of restrictions on travel for Jewish people. Undoubtedly, if Klein had been able to take up this scholarship he would have survived. Instead, he was deported to Terezin, a concentration camp in north-eastern Czechoslovakia – a propaganda tool to look like safe, modern accommodation, but it was a staging post to extermination camps such as Auschwitz, where Klein’s life was ended.

A Concert of Beethoven and Crumb

Why play the music of Beethoven alongside that of the 20th/ 21st Century composer George Crumb (born 1929)? Pianist Paavali Jumppanen, who is currently undertaking a residency at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in South Melbourne, believes(according  to the program notes) that both composers share a similar deep worldly human experience. In an interview he said, ‘When we listen to Beethoven’s Ninth  Symphony it is a journey from darkness to light on a grand scale. And in the end we see the components of society joining in a celebration of brotherhood and so on. It is right there, even though the piece is called a symphony. With Crumb’s Macrocosmos III the journey is more intricate; we are in the middle of an African jungle, and then we are in the middle of some sort of spiritual celebration …’

The concert started with Beethoven, the Emperor piano concerto (number 5 in Eb opus 73). It’s a longtime  since I’ve heard a live performance of this well-known work. Jumppanen is recognised for his performance of Beethoven’s works, having performed internationally all of the concertos and chamber sonatas. On this occasion he worked with the ANAM orchestra and the performance was as it might have been in Beethoven’s day – conducted from the piano by the soloist with no separate conductor. This was a great achievement for the fairly large orchestra of 15 violins, 6 violas, 5 celli, 2 double basses and the usual complement of woodwind and brass. The timpani play an important role in this piece. To the credit of the student orchestra, led by Kyla Matsura-Miller, everyone played together as though it were apiece of chamber music. Jumppanen’s playing was brilliant; the scale passages were fluid and rippling. Because he was conducting from the piano and all of the orchestra members needed to see him, the lid couldn’t be raised in the usual way. Nevertheless, the balance seemed just right.

George Crumb’s Makrocosmos III was completed in 1974. There are five movements: Nocturnal Sounds, Wanderer-Fantasy, The Advent(including Hymn for the Nativity of the Star-Child), Myth and Music of the Starry Night. It is performed my two prepared pianos and a large variety of percussion instruments including gong and tubular bells – I was amused to see that ‘percussion’ included slide whistles –percussion players have to be versatile. Three movements are based on poems by Quasimodo, Pascal and Rilke. I had expected the ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ movement to relate to the technically challenging piano piece of that name written by Schubert, but in fact the Crumb movement was very different, being the most calm and dream-like of the five movements. Likewise, I had thought that ‘Music of a Starry Night’ might relate to the Van Gough painting of that name – indeed, it did for me, the piano strings, covered with paper, gave a surreal effect and the percussion was bright and scintillating. I found this movement the most interesting. The whole piece is described by the composer as a ‘cosmic drama’,  influenced by the work of Bartok, whose piano pieces, Microcosmos, were much admired by Crumb.

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