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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.