Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: Australian National Academy of Music

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





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.


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, 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.


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.


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: 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.


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.


Frank Bridge






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.

Debussy 3

Nick Deutsch, director, ANAM

debussy 6


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.


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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