14 May 2018

Island Songs

ANAM Brass and The Tasman Trio
Friday 11 May 2018
South Melbourne Town Hall

I walked up the ramp (because I was clutching a take-away coffee and an umbrella) in the rain. There was a gaggle of brass inside practising, presumably for the 1pm recital. The sound was fresh and clean. It was as sharp and precise as the freezing wind that had been annoying the penguins in Antarctica a few hours earlier. I had no idea what it was but I knew I’d recognise it later from the little teaser I’d heard.

A brass quintet is impossible to ignore. It’s the sort of group you hire if you want a memorable party – more so if you ask them to play Bozza’s Sonatine. Some furtive Googling revealed that Eugène was a sort of younger contemporary of Ravel but with a much more well-developed, dry sense of humour. I was amazed at the complexity, humour and agility that underpins this piece and that humans could actually play it, that is, get the rhythms together. It seemed that this lot did this with ease (after hundreds of hours of practice – alone and together).

ANAM Brass was dominated (in every sense) by the bass trombone – a really big bugger played by Simon Baldwin, a big bugger (you need the lung capacity).

In terms of musicianship, there was nothing to choose between this gang. But I reckoned, from the perspective of complete ignorance about brass instruments, my money was on Maraika Smit. She who had complete mastery of her French horn. Absolutely beautiful articulation and not one bung entry. An instrument pitched by your lips is amazingly difficult to play; one that is pitched by lips and fist must be horrendous. Evidence: the bung entries you hear from the French horns of that major orchestra just up the road in Hamer Hall.

And that is in no way to denigrate the playing of Sam Beagley and Sophie Spencer who played stunningly virtuosic silver-sounding trumpet or Dale Vail who played ‘normal’ trombone.

Maraika Smit - 20% of ANAM Brass

But all that is irrelevant when you get the sound we got from this quintet: exciting and compelling music written by a young bloke (he was 46) who had survived the Nazi occupation France – apparently with his head intact – who wrote this mad piece that refuses to be taken seriously. The first movement is marked Allegro vivo, the fourth Largo – Allegro and somewhere in between there’s a Scherzo!

And these your musicians nailed him, young Bozza.

The recital was called “Island Songs” for one excellent reason: John Psathas’ superb Greek/New Zealand Island Songs had an airing – an Oz-première? The Tasman Trio attacked the complex rhythms with absolute assurance. These tiny songs/fantasias sang. By about Bar III of Song I (Driving … um … Driving?) I’d forgotten about the three musos. Their playing of these spiky, sparky, engaging contemporary pieces had pulled me in. The big test applied: I wanted to hear them again.

The program notes said, somewhat ingenuously, ‘Each instrument [piano, cello, violin] … is allowed to showcase technical facility.’ That sentence was obviously redundant from the recital’s outset. Why not say outright, ‘These are bloody difficult. We’ve programmed them because we like them and they show off our spectacular talent.’

Go for it!

But it was in Brahms’ #2 Trio that Tasman showed they could match the bar set by ANAM’s Brass Quintet. It is at the pinnacle if chamber music. It is highly technical and highly chromatic. It demands three mature minds that can understand the ideas and get them out of their own head into ours. 

It has been described as ‘an astonishingly vast scale of expression’ so, to play it in front of people who have had a long lifetime of listening to it a trio of young musicians would need an ego a mile high or have worked their arses off. Just look at the score!

Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 87, Brahms

Of this trio I’d heard only Liam Wooding before in November 2017. He’d left me in awe of his technical skills and high musicianship. The challenge now was for the three of them – Liam, Laura Barton playing violin and Daniel Smith playing cello – to make this performance a trio rather than a two strings trying desperately to compete with a full-bodied Steinway. A few years ago I heard one mature, professional trio consistently perform that way and it wasn’t pretty. It didn’t occur to me until the end if this performance that that problem should be considered. I realised, at the end, that I’d settled back to enjoy a familiar chamber work in the hands of experts.

The Tasman Trio I - Daniel Smith, Laura Barton, Liam Wooding

I didn’t want to be dazzled by pyrotechnics; I didn’t want to be impressed by technical wizardry – and I wasn’t. I wanted to get inside the head of a complex man – one who had been a consummate concert pianist, who'd fallen hopelessly in love with the wife of his close friend and who never rid himself of the giant of Beethoven on his back – and I did.

The Tasman Trio II - Liam Wooding, Laura Barton, Daniel Smith

Today I heard a rich palette of piano trio sounds and textures. I heard an intimate collection of three individual strands welded into an ensemble with a powerful unity. 

The freezing wind added a powerful tympani line, battering the hall doors. It didn’t come close to disturbing this trio.

30 March 2018

Turnbull's un-Australian Liberal Party: government: cruel and hypocritical

The federal government has outlined its plan to cut income support from up to 7,000 asylum seekers living in Australia from June, in a move lawyers and refugee support groups say could leave people destitute, hungry and at increased risk of self-harm.
Some of the asylum seekers likely to be affected have been in the country more than five years waiting for the government to make a decision on their application for protection. The Department of Home Affairs has also specifically said asylum seekers studying full-time will have their support cut.
The Guardian Australia 30 March 2018

Barnaby Joyce and five former parliamentarians disqualified by section 44 of the constitution have had their debts waived by the finance minister.
Mathias Cormann has waived the debts of the member for New England and the four senators ruled ineligible in October by the high court due to dual citizenship – the Greens’ Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, the former Nationals deputy leader Fiona Nash and One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts.
Guardian Australia 30 March 2018
This is bastardry of the highest order.
I'm ashamed to be an Australian.

24 March 2018

Peter Dutton: a member of the kakistocray.

kakistocracy (/ˌkækɪsˈtɒkrəsi, -ˈstɒk-/) is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.

Mr Turnbull's Liberal- Nationals front bench - including Peter Dutton -  is such a system of government. 

" ...Hamed Shamshiripour is dead to him. He was mentally unwell, his case well known to Australian authorities. He killed himself on Manus Island after asking to be returned home, his persecution in Iran preferred over the conditions Peter Dutton had created for him.
Perhaps it is glib bravado when Peter Dutton announces that the press is dead to him. Perhaps on talkback radio the echo of his voice makes him feel important.

When Peter Dutton says the press is dead to him, he means that he will not answer to its criticism. He means that he views himself as being above reproach."

As usual First Dog on the Moon says it all:

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 (Tim Gibbs, whose barely audible pizzicato - with the cellos also pizzicato then under the legato cellos in the Maiden - 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]

Sort of disclaimer:
We (my wife and I) went to the repeat of this program at Hamer Hall on Monday 26 March. The seats we were given were at the front of the Circle with all the nice people. Thank you Tim cello Nankervis for arranging them. Thank you Australian Chamber Orchestra for supplying them.
"Death and the Maiden" was even more superb.

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