Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: Leo Nguyen

ANAM ChamberMusic Festival

A brilliant way to finish the year — four concerts of chamber music played by the talented students of the Australian National Academy of Music. And three of my favourite pieces were included. Even now, four days later, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is running through my head.

The first piece provided a bit of nostalgia for me, because I had played it several times years ago and love it. Jan Dismas Zelenka has rightly earned the title, ‘the Czech Bach’. He lived at the same time as Johann Sebastien Bach: Zelenka 1679 — 1745, J.S. Bach 1685 — 1750. His music is different from Bach’s — possibly more influenced by a folk tradition, but it has similarly rich harmonies and ingenious use of fugal themes. I was pleased that on this occasion Trio Sonata number 6 was performed on conventional rather than Baroque instruments (with the exception of harpsichord). The parts, for two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and double bass are technically challenging even with modern day key systems. I try to imagine how the players of the early 18th century wind instruments managed. Their oboes and bassoons were made with very few key coverings — similar to the recorders we know today. The ANAM players gave an enlivened and thoroughly satisfying performance.

A Baroque oboe

In keeping with the theme of Bohemia, we heard a Piano Trio by Smetana, unfamiliar to me, and then the String Quintet in G major by Antonin Dvořák.

First of three concerts the next day started with Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds. The ‘winds’ are flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn — essentially a wind quintet and piano. I was familiar with a couple of movements of this piece: the middle movement, a Divertissement: Andantino and the final Prestissimo movement (very fast). Poulenc was self-educated musically as his parents thought he should join the family business. Many of his works are playful and irreverent although, particularly later in his life, he wrote more serious religious music. He joined five other young French/Swiss musicians, Les Six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre) who reacted against the impressionism of fellow countrymen Debussy and Ravel.

We then heard Instruments III by Morton Feldman (1926 — 1987) for flute, oboe and percussion. I pitied the wind players — they blurted out sounds at each other — the oboist had to play oboe (and cor anglais) with a mute, which distorted the sound and tuning.

Amy Beach

The next piece I did enjoy, by a composer unknown to me, Amy Beach (1867 — 1944). Amy Beach was the first female American composer of large-scale art music, having written a symphony. When she married, Amy had to agree to live according to her husband’s status (he was a Boston surgeon) — this meant that she had to agree never to teach piano and she gave only two public recitals a year, the proceeds of which went to charity. After her husband’s death in 1910 she would go in summer to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she could meet other women composers. The piano quintet we heard is thought to have been influenced by Brahms, with its lush textures. The piece is for string quartet and piano. During her lifetime, Amy — a very accomplished pianist — would often play the piano part at public performances.

In the afternoon we were treated to some superb chamber works, starting with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elégiaque in G minor (violin, cello and piano) and then moving to one of my favourite pieces of music, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. I had heard a fantastic performance of this work in Adelaide earlier in the year and although this was superbly played, it didn’t quite live up to my recollection of Konstantin Shamray and the Australian String Quartet This was perhaps partly because the cellist kept tapping his foot quite loudly on the bare wooden floorboards! It was nevertheless wonderful to hear this work of underlying rebellion.

Shostakovich (and Stalin)

The Shostakovich was followed by Stravinsky’s Octet (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone), and then Janáček’s Mladi, for flute, oboe, two clarinets (one bass), bassoon and horn. This piece was composed near the end of Janáček’s life and in 1925 (he died in 1928) it was awarded the Prize of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Rebecca Clarke

The final concert was subtitled ‘A Soirée in Vienna. It opened with the Mozart Horn Quintet, the horn part ably played by Stefan Grant. We then moved to a piece new to me, Poem for String Quartet by Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979). She was a violist and is described as one of the most important British composers between World War I and World War II. Clarke ended up living and working in America when she was thrown out of the house after criticising her father for his extra-marital affairs. She used a male pseudonym to tie for first place with Ernest Bloch in a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. At the time, the idea that such music could be written by a woman was inconceivable.

After a short interval we heard Webern’s Langsamer Satz (slow movement), composed in 1905. Webern is recognised as a follower of the ’12 tone’ approach to composition, whereby in a piece no one note in the chromatic scale is favoured (no key note or centre). But the system wasn’t put into use until the 1920s, so this string quartet, composed when Webern was twenty-two was harmonic and tonal.

The concert concluded with a brilliant performance of Schubert’s Quntet in A major (‘the trout’). I love this piece and have heard many live performances, but I felt that this was utter perfection. The music is still ringing through my head. Liam Freisberg, who led on violin, did a magnificent job. Ben Tao played viola, Noah Lawrence cello, Paul Oakley double bass and, especially outstanding, Leo Nguyen on piano.

Emanuel Vardi: Schubert Trout Quintet (Vardi was a virtuoso violist)


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.

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