18 March 2018

Death and the Maiden

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Alina Ibragimova, Guest Director & Violin
Hamer Hall
Sunday 18 March 2018

My mate Ian had heard Seraphim Trio.

“Do they have other jobs?” he asked.

“Well,” I expertly replied, “take my mate Tim. He plays rank-and-file with the Sydney Symphony, he teaches at Sydney Con, he plays with the Sydney Soloists and Sonus Quartet. Seraphim takes up a lot of time when they are on tour up and down Eastern Australia. As well, he gets an occasional call from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The present ACO tour involves him playing Newcastle-Canberra-Melbourne-Sydney-Melbourne-Sydney for a couple of weeks. Somewhere in all that there’s a concert-standard viola-playing wife and a couple of nippers.”

The call from ACO meant he had to be absolutely note-perfect – ie know the program more or less from memory – before the first rehearsal: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, (which was new to him and, presumably, the rest of the gang) Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ arranged for string orchestra.

Tim might be able to hide in the ten cellos of the SSO but in the Seraphim Trio any cello problems are down to him. Alone. On Sunday afternoon he was one of three ACO cellos in a total of 17 strings so a mistake of any sort – note, timing, dynamics – shows. He was totally focussed and played superbly. In that respect Tim was typical of the ACO gang on the stage of Hamer Hall.

Their playing was meticulous: the phrase entries and exits (without a bloke in a bow tie up front) were precise but warm – except in Hartmann’s concerto. It was clear that each player had the arch of each phrase in their head before their bow touched the string. Each player had the same vision but the vision was organic – far from mechanical – and capable of evolution as the first chairs responded to the leader, Alina Ibragimova.

I’d gone to hear Tim play ‘the Maiden’ and discovered Herr Hartmann. His was a stunning concerto written in 1939 and revised in 1959. The music overflows with the intellectual and spiritual hopelessness of the period but the chorales of the outer movements were written as expressions of hope. So the piece demands huge understanding and high energy. It got it from the soloist, Alina Ibragimova, and the other 16 players. They gave it a whole body approach that made the listening disturbing, exhilarating and, sometimes, exultant. It was not easy to listen to – it demanded concentration – but it gave me a ‘Wow!’ and ‘I want to hear it again’.

Alina Ibragimova demonstrating it is possible to play a classical (or period) violin without black dress.
source: http://pronetoviolins.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/alina-ibragimova.html

Part II: I hadn’t re-read the program so it took me a while to realise what I was listening to. I’m not a big Arvo Pärt fan but when ‘the Maiden’ began, the programming made excellent sense. The harsh, sometimes anharmonic Hartmann concerto gave way to Pärt then Schubert and my Prussian-ish genes were massaged; they approved.

‘Death and the Maiden’ was the real danger territory for this gang. Most of the audience knew it, some very well. It was a scaled up from string quartet version and its playing needed to retain the delicacy and transparency of the original quartet. The ACO did just that with delicacy, lightness of touch and incredible knife-edge-accuracy. They played with a high musicality that put Schubert in the centre of the performance: his pathos, his anguish and his little specks of joy. Tognetti’s arrangement reverted to quartet at times and the full orchestra re-appearances were gentle and seamless every time. Occasional vibrato-less playing simply heightened the tension the music created. For my ears the brilliant, absolutely precise Presto movement was an absolute stand-out. So often orchestral strings in this city go to mush when they play very fast. When did you last hear the Allegro con brio movement of Beethoven 7 played with absolute clarity? 

Play it faster, boys. Bugger the clarity.

Thankfully, there was no encore.

But I wondered … was the lone double bass (who was magnificent) rank and file or first chair? Did he get the first chair fee? Never upset the tympani; never upset the bass. They can bugger the tempo at will and there’s not a hell of a lot the conductor can do about it. In this performance he was but one of a collection of stunning musicians.

This concert/recital was among the best I’ve ever heard – world-wide.

Even in rehearsal, Bloody brilliant!
[Tim cello at 0:29]

13 March 2018

Seraphim on the Mount: Music at Resurrection

Seraphim Trio
Church of the Resurrection
Sunday 11 March 2018

If I believed in hell I’d be worried at saying this but the bushfires that ripped through Macedon in 1983 did one good thing. They cleared the block for the construction of a superb new building: The Church of the Resurrection. The building has a billion* dollar Leonard French stained glass window and acoustics that are absolutely ideal for chamber music.

Add the Seraphim Trio and you have a world-standard concert. And the delight is that it’s all tucked away in a tiny Anglican church, capacity about 150, in a tiny town 60km from The Smoke.

The building has a red brick floor, timber and glass walls and a soaring, multi-faceted timber roof. It’s the roof that reflects the sound across and out so that a piano trio sounds like a sextet – at least. On Sunday it had to deal with an unusually good concert grand, three international-standard concert musicians and a program that, to quote Tim Cello, evolved over the three trios of the afternoon to become superbly cello-esque.

That beautiful timber roof immediately fell in love with Tim’s cello. It was very, very respectful of Anna’s piano. It simply sparkled at the thought of Helen’s violin. Make that two of each as the acoustics of the ceiling played with the sound and we had a mini piano concerto.

The program began with some (at first glance) light-hearted Mozart written in 1786 when he was 30. It was cast as a trio but it was really piano (or piano ancestor) with a couple of strings. This was Anna’s first and final chance at being lead instrument so she grabbed it with both hands (sorry!) and made it sparkle. Anna was clearly able to get into young Wolfgang’s head.

Ten years later, in 1797, young (he was 27) Beethoven wrote a piano trio, his first, that makes a mockery of the ‘this is serious stuff and it must be played in white tie and tails; no smiling’ syndrome. In it, the strings are beginning to put the piano in its place as equal rather than superior instrument. Could the trio let their hair down enough to find the working-class humour in the last movement: nine variations on "Pria ch'io l'impegno" or, prosaically, "Before I go to work I need to get some tucker into me.” (fair enough) Yes, they could! This is a group who knows (Helen summarised the idea in the introduction) they are not front and centre; it’s not even the place for the composer; it’s the place for the music. At some point in the variations of the tune whistled in the lanes, a cockatoo (aptly name Cacatua) screeched. It wasn’t out of place.

Helen had heard Anne Sofie von Otter singing Schubert; "The music is even more important than the composer - and certainly more important than the performer."

But then, with Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1 in B flat major death stared us in the face. He wrote it in 1827. He died on 19 November 1828. I think it’s death and defiance in equal quantities. Writing that knowing you have months at the most to live would have been hell on earth. Getting it out and making it work as music that hits us in the gut is much more difficult. It needs mature musical minds that have dissected it, thought about each phrase and put it all back together into a coherent whole. Audience comment said they nailed it!

Friends of Music at Resurrection curate Music at Resurrection. They, including Dianne Gome (organ recital on 23 September) and Elaine Smith, have extracted a promise from Seraphim to present an annual recital that Elaine underwrites in tribute to her late husband.

I would be glad to be remembered in a similar way.

*Only slightly hyperbolic

11 March 2018

MSO vs TSO: no contest!

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
Saturday 3 March, Hamer Hall Melbourne

Beethoven: Piano Concerto Number 5 in D major, Op. 61; Nelson Freire (piano)
Wagner, Verdi: arias; Stuart Sketon, tenor

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
Marko Letonja (conductor)
Friday 2 March 7.30pm
ABC Classic FM Concert broadcast from Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61; Veronika Eberle (violin),

“Not much oomph.”

The three mature-age gentlemen were in a huddle at half-time. One clutched a plastic flute of bubbles; another, an icy pole; the third, hands in pockets. Bubbles leaned his head into the triumvirate. He spoke slowly and deliberately, “It just lacked oomph”.

And that about sums up the MSO, the Emperor and Freir.

I’d saved up my pension specifically to hear Stuart Skelton again. First in the Adelaide Ring, then Mahler in Sydney, Tristan in Hobart and now ”Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” from Die Walküre. The bonus was going to be The Emperor – I’d first heard it and was fascinated by it when I was about 15 – played by Nelson Freire.

The MSO has some of the best orchestral players in the world. It does not have the best conductors. Neither does its managers always select the best soloists.

Nelson Freire is a gentle pianist without the very up-front pianism of, say, Stephen McIntyre or Timothy Young or Kathryn Selby or Anna Goldsworthy or Stefan Cassomenos or Benjamin Martin or Kristian Chong or Adam McMillan or Laurence Matheson et al. His playing seemed not to inspire the orchestra. Neither did Davis. But worse, more fatally(!) Davis got the balance wrong. Too-loud, turgid double basses swamped the brilliance of the smaller strings and the piano; even the bassoons struggled. So the texture of Beethoven’s brilliant, often angry, very harmonic orchestration was never there. I thought about the Victorian performances of Messiah with a 1000 voice choir and the sort of conducting that Malcolm Sargeant excelled at: Tom Sawyer with his 4” whitewash brush attacking the neighbour’s fence when a #3 camel hair bush was all that was needed. Beethoven got the 4” brush treatment and the MSO’s pre-break playing made me glad I’d subscribed to other bands in Melbourne for 2018.

Perhaps the problem is that, in spite of their high-level technical skill, the MSO musicians don’t like or don’t respect Davis. The tension sometimes erupts with sniping at each other in rehearsal. I wondered if Davis hears the orchestra in the conducting sense. If I can hear 'turgid', 'moribund', 'boring' surely he can - or can he?

The balance and the lightness of touch needed to expose Beethoven's complex textures was way off in the first half. Things fell into place much more happily when Skelton and Wagner hit the stage. (Wagner? Lightness of touch? Nah!) He wasn’t togged up in the ridiculous 19thC tail coat that the orchestra had to wear. Did that fact alone give them hope?

The TSO is a much smaller band – but still big enough to handle Wagner brilliantly. It’s true that they excel at baroque repertoire and that’s next door to Classical Beethoven.
It was no surprise that the TSO made their Beethoven sing and sparkle. I had the advantage that a broadcast gave me of standing in and above the orchestra. From that position the balance was spot-on. You can’t hide technical wobbles from a microphone a few feet from you and there was none as you’d expect. It was the controlled energy and unrestrained musicianship that made this performance so exciting. Veronika Eberle, Latonja and the TSO band understood each other and you could hear them all smiling at each other at the end.

There are some world-class conductors tucked away in hidey holes in Australia. One is running Vic Opera, another is playing clarinet in the QSO, a third is conducting the Adelaide Symphony.

It’s time to get rid of the Europo-centric cringe and put a great Australian musician-conductor whom the musos respect in front of the MSO. Until MSO’s manager do something courageous I’ll spend my concert ticket allowance elsewhere. There are lots of choices in Victoria.

10 March 2018

Thomas Tallis’ England

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Australian Brandenburg choir
Paul Dyer, conductor
Max Reibl, counter tenor

Melbourne Recital Centre
7:00pm Saturday 24 February 2018

And ABC Classic FM Weekend Afternoons (from Angel Place)
Saturday 10 March 2018

A few of us ganged up to buy Chris and Ian an Oz-Brandenburg subscription as a wedding present. Great idea: they renewed it for 2018 in the same row as us – up near pensioner class. “Thomas Tallis’ England” on a warm Summer evening was superb on so many fronts – the ideal (extended) wedding present for them.

Someone with an excellent working knowledge of music history (Mr Dyer et al) had drawn on their research to find well/not-well known music from composers who had worked together, succeeded each other, inspired each other and who had, very importantly for a composing career, managed to survive a potentially fatal devotion to the wrong religious brand.

The concert was a programming masterpiece. Every piece earned its place in its own right. And there was a couple of little private bonuses that every programmer has the right to enjoy.

Bonus 1: Here’s the question: Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazar, how do I know it? But there’s no answer unless you read the program note to its end. (It was used 250 years later by another brilliant Englishman in his Young Person’s Guide …).

Bonus 2: Tallis’s Third tune (Psalm 2) of 9 Psalm tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter was played without comment. Here’s the question: I know that theme, but where, how?”.

Thomas Tallis wrti.org
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrti.org
Wait three minutes and you’ll get it. It was recomposed into a landmark fantasy by Vaughn Williams 340 years later.

Listen for the viola part

Paul got it right with this program. He got it right with Max Reibl, particularly when he was paired with Timothy Chung and he got it right – as usual – with the orchestra and chorus.

The Brandenburgs – vocal and instrumental – have extremely high order musicianship. That’s by no means universal in Australian orchestras so it makes this gang stand out. But, most importantly they have a very rare precision. It’s not the mechanical, cut glass precision that many German-style orchestras have. It’s an organic variety that is precise but warm. We are enticed into the piece with the musicians to enjoy it’s warmth and joy. Reibl fell into that style too and the bonus he gave us was his acting. He brought “Cold Song” from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur to life with that most difficult of all acting techniques, ‘doing nothing’.
I can scarcely move or draw my breath,
Let me, let me freeze to death.
Simply wonderful, superb, unpretentious, gut-grabbing!

Dyer has a secret weapon; the like him! They have complete confidence in him (and him, them) and they trust him.

Word has got around. MRC was sold out – twice. Thomas Tallis’ England was a ten-out-of-ten concert.

I went hunting for a seat for the Sunday arvo repeat; I found two; I bought neither. The 5:30pm start would have made me very late for dinner with my ginger grandbrats; something that was always going to have higher production values than a Dyer job – even if he did have Australia’s best baroque musicians to work with.

09 February 2018

Liberal senator General Jim Molan

The Australian on July 19 published an edited extract of General Jim Molan's  Running the War in Iraq, Harper Collins AU, 2008.

According to Chris Doran in ON Line Opinion 4 August 2008, General Molan’s excerpt ... suggests that the attack on Fallujah, codenamed Operation Fury, was little more than a few surgical missile strikes which unfortunately and only occasionally resulted in civilian deaths.

Further, Doran writes, (General Molan)  omits

  • 'the fact that an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians still remained in Fallujah when the attack began. Citizens had been instructed to evacuate the city, population 250,000, before bombing began in October 2004, but any and all men aged 15 to 45 were prohibited from leaving.
  • ...  the now irrefutable evidence that chemical weapons, specifically white phosphorous, were used under his command on Fallujah. Irrefutable because US Colonel Barry Venable admitted it to the UK’s Independent newspaper a year later.
  • that 'In a November 2005 editorial denouncing its use, the New York Times described white phosphorous: “Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy's positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body.'

Is General Molan a fit person to sit in the Australian senate?