Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: John McCaughey

Astra and Inland : a pleasing mix of contemporary and medieval music

One of the first concerts I went to as a primary school student was the Astra Ladies Orchestra — probably thought appropriate because it showed that women could, unassisted, put on an orchestral concert. I remember giggling at the ladies in floppy pink dresses. I think that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was on the program. By the time I was at secondary school and during my student days, George Logie-Smith had taken over the orchestra — he added a choir (and men) — and, indeed, I sometimes played oboe in the orchestra. I recall it as fairly traditional fare, but he apparently included composers such as Bartok, Britten and Penderecki.

Astra George LogieSmith

The days of George Logie-Smith

Forty years ago John McCaughey took over Astra — he is still their Musical Director. My impression at the time was that he had vision — he could see that there were quite a few competent choirs around Melbourne — how could Astra be something special? He took on new music and encouraged commissions particularly from Australian composers. He is quoted as having said: ‘Music has to renew itself or it dies, and there is a feeling that a lot of it is dying’. Thanks to organisations such as Astra and John McCaughey, music in Melbourne is far from dying. This is apparent when we attend an Astra concert — such as the one I heard in the Church of All Nations last night, where McCaughey had deftly interposed Stravinsky, music composed within the last couple of years, and medieval music. The concert was presented by Astra and Inland, a group of instrumentalists with aims and styles similar to those of Astra, presenting new and unfamiliar music.

Astra choir at Church oF all Nations.jpg

The program flowed from one item to the next with applause only at interval and at the end of the concert.

Interposed between instrumental compositions (of 2018 and 2019) by Filippo Perocco and Anthony Pateras were  excerpts from Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, which we were told in comprehensive program notes offered ‘both a metaphor for the concert… and a musical source radiating to different forms of future and past’. Apparently Stravinsky (in his late 70s) took a long time to compose this work, reaching to medieval and folk music and the serial world of 12-tone music. The Agon excerpts were brilliantly played on two pianos by Kim Bastin and Joy Lee.

Astra Agon ballet

Dancing the Argon ballet — although the performances at this concert were purely instrumental

Between Agon Parts III and IV were two superb pieces for choir by Stravinsky,  The Dove Descending (from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) and an arrangement of Full Fathom Five from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Astra stravisnksy agon

Stravinsky at a rehearsal of Argon in the 1950s

After interval the choir and two soloists sang, in Italian, Giovanna Dongu’s Rising Through the Mellow Shade, composed in 2018. It was a first performance. The words are by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Many a night I saw the  Pleiads rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Astra quarter-tone bass flute

Quarter-tone bass flute

There was another first performance: Rohan Drape’s Chalk (2019) played by Rebecca Lane, quarter-tone bass flute, Jon Heilbron, double bass and electronics devised by Rebecca and Jon and manipulated by Rohan Drape. There was a 14th Century madrigal followed by a first performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Ave Maria (2019) for two sopranos and choir, and a piece for double bass by Jon Heilbron, there are wild fires (2019) segued into Maura Capuzzo’s O falce di luna (1995) for choir and double bass. Then came James Rushford’s Leyning (2019) for two portativ organs and electronics (another first performance) — based on the Jewish tradition of textual chanting.

Astra Jon Heilbron

Jon Heilbron

The concert finished with a 14th century Ballata for voices and instruments, sung in Italian, Ecco la primavera, by Francesco Landini, the blind organist of San Lorenzo.

Astra portativ organ 2

Portativ organ

What a program! Congratulations to McCaughey and Astra for promoting so much new music and for giving us in the audience such a rewarding experience.

A memorial concert for Lawrence Whiffin

This concert was presented by the Astra Choir and guests ‘Astra’ has been a part of the Melbourne music scene for as long as I can remember. When I was in primary school I went to a concert by the Astra Orchestra – a whole lot of ladies in pink floppy dresses playing violins. There must have been some violas, ‘celli and double basses, but I don’t remember wind instruments or percussion. We were given tickets by benefactor Lady Jacobena Angliss, whose granddaughter went to my school. At the time Lady Angliss was president of the Astra Chamber Music Society. The orchestra had formed in 1951 under the direction of Madame Asta Flack, who had migrated from Lithuania.

Years later I myself played in that orchestra – but I venture to suggest that it was very different from the pink floppy ladies: conducted by George Logie-Smith, who extended the orchestra (in terms of gender and instruments), and established the Astra Choir. I particularly remember playing Bach, but in those days the repertoire also ventured into the 20th century – Stravinsky and Penderecki.

The present musical director, John McCaughey, took over in 1978. He had the foresight to focus on recent compositions and modes of presentation that were novel at the time. By the early 1980s there were several high standard choirs in Melbourne and McCaughey’s fresh orientation made the Astra choir special. It is still going strong, and whenever I attend an Astra concert I am stimulated by something new. This is borne out by the website that describes how each program is planned so that the audience will learn something ‘from the sound of voices in changing configurations of style, space and other sound sources’.

The concert for Lawrence Whiffin (1930 – 2012) was presented in the Church of All Nations, Carlton, with its great acoustics and ample space for performers and audience. I had not come across Whiffin’s music. The program tells us that he wrote in a ‘heterogeneity of styles’ and spent some time in Rome, working in the popular music sphere.


The concert began and ended with Es ist ein Reis Entsprungen, the first arrangement by Alban Berg in 1906 and the final piece the better-known Praetorius arrangement (1606). The concert was a well-balanced presentation of vocal and instrumental pieces.

Perhaps the most entertaining piece of Lawrence Whiffin was his Mother Goose Rhymes, brilliantly presented by soprano Merlyn Quaife and pianist Kim Bastin, who had edited the music launched at this concert, which included Whiffin’s Cat Pieces for solo piano. The Mother Goose songs are seemingly in French, but are in fact homophonic: ‘Little Miss Muffet’ is ‘Lit-elle messe, moffette’.


Other works we heard were a first performance of It was by local composer Kym Dillon (2016). This was a setting for split choir (ie on either side of the ‘stage’) and French horn, of the beginning of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I particularly liked a first performance of Kathryn Sadler’s Keats (2016). Using 8-part choir and four vocal soloists, the work was built on ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty’, from Ode on a Grecian Urn, and ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, from Endymion. We heard the first performance of Eve Duncan’s Stars (2016), for 4-part choir and wind quintet, words written in 1970 by David Malouf, and the first performance of Daniele Locatelli’s  The Killing Ground (2015), for 8-part choir, words ‘freely’ from a story by J.G. Ballard.

The program also included music by Giandrea Pauletta (8-part choir, first performance, composed 2016), Brendan Colbert (piano solo, first performance, composed 2016), George Dreyfus (treble voices and wind quintet, 2015), Jenny Barnes (solo voice and computer, 2015), and John Arthur Grant (4 and 5-part choir, first performance, 2015).

As we face a new year of bleak political uncertainty it is refreshing to spend a few hours being transported to realms that are not necessarily assuaging, but that offer us a deeper perspective from which to view our present lives.

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