29 June 2014

Hansel and Gretel

Victorian Opera
Arts Centre Melbourne
Saturday 21 June 2014

This Hansel and Gretel had been subject to a celestial staffing efficiency dividend. The 14 non-singing angels had been reduced to three and asked to double as spell-bound children where they did sing – like angels. The sets budget was measured in dollars rather than Met-style millions – and most of that was gobbled up by liquorice allsorts for the gingerbread house. The 13-strong pit orchestra had been herded into the back corner of the tiny stage where they peered out from behind the mini -flats. The oven, into which the witch was propelled with a swift kick in the arse, was a break-away cloth painted with angry red flames. It was 100% make-believe on a shoestring.

The Sandman: superb!
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The production worked for just that reason: ‘suspend belief, it’s a fairy tale’. And the kids did just that; if they were half-smart, so did the grannies.

The other factor, that which may have escaped the grandchildren but was none-the-less critical to the success of this production, was that the music production was high-standard professional.

The six strings, five woods and two brass were tuned to a razor edge even before the oboe’s A. The orchestra was essential to the colour of this opera and this little band provided it. The bassoon, in particular, was splendid: rich and mellow and with just hints of menace. The singers were clearly confident that Fabian Russell’s band would give them the bedrock they could rely on.

Sibling rivalry - German-style
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The singers themselves were immediate-past or present Master of Music students – a testament to their selection and the quality of work they’d got through in less than six months. They were superb!

As Sandman (dressed like a Sicilian spiv: that hat!), Michael Petrucelli’s voice had a beautiful, intriguing golden-sand quality that I’d not heard in a tenor-ish voice before. Cristina Russo’s Gretel was simply lovely: innocent and gentle even when she was beating up her brother.  Carlos E. Bárcenas (he’s an old hand now)  was a wonderful transgender(?) witch (certainly he had some pretty interesting boots for a lady!). Elizabeth Lewis and Nathan Lay acted and sang with the assurance and control we've come to expect from these opera singers: people who understand their part, can act it and can sing it. But for my money the stand-out voice was Emma Muir-Smith as Hansel in the lederhosen role. Her singing was just brilliant. Hers (his?) is a voice to watch. And Hänsel und Gretel together with that sensitive, expert orchestra gave us the most beautiful Abendsegen one could imagine; a three-hanky job. The singing was simple, unaffected and genuine.

This was cut down for length and staging but, as have been all VO’s ‘student’ operas/pantos, the quality of the music was never compromised. Sung in German? Still the action was easily followed without surtitles because the acting was spot-on without being melodramatic.

And, as a bonus, the students (they don’t sound student-like or inexperienced) now have a German role on their CV to sell.
Simply brilliant!

There's no such thing as a free gingerbread house. 
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Over a skinny latté III

Shane Chen
Madeline’s at Jells
Jells Park, Wheelers Hill
8 May 2014
The third in a series of interviews with Flinders Quartet players.
First published in Flinders Quartet: June update 2014

Right place, right time – and nearly twelve years of hard work.

‘I was busking in Equitable Place in the city in June 2003; my hair was permed, my punk-style jeans had a big hole in the knee. It was damn cold; not many people on the street. I was playing Fritz Kreisler. She stood there and I thought, “There’s a nice girl. I’d better play well.” It was Silvia, a friend from school in Shenzhen eight years before when we were nine and in the same chamber orchestra. She told me they had this amazing teacher on violin in Melbourne Uni where she was studying cello.

'Nappies and practice, nappies and practice.'
‘In Years 9 and 10 I skipped a lot of school to play basketball, formed a punk band and practised violin. But I ended up with top marks in  Maths (I could count to four) so when I came to Melbourne on 2001 I had got into a double degree – Commerce and Business Systems.’

The amazing teacher was Bill Hennessy and he gave me six lessons but I couldn't handle two degrees, six hours of practice and English language lessons so I dropped Business Systems and Bill’s lessons.

‘Silvia and I got married, I worked in a shipping company and our first daughter (of three) arrived. Silvia at that time was contemplating that I should do something to fulfil my childhood dream. I applied for a part-time graduate diploma in music at Melbourne Uni. My boss gave me leave so it was nappies and study and practice in the garage (8.30pm till 1.30am) and teaching.

'Interpretation is not perfection. Everyone can bring that on.' 

‘But Bill had gone to ANAM so I applied three weeks short of the cut-off age of 27. Our third baby was due on audition day so I had to leave my phone on. Later, Paul (Dean) told me, “We looked at your application: what have we got? Commerce degree, plays basketball*. What have we got?” I got a scholarship and a bursary. My 2011 recital was Bach G minor sonata (synthetic strings) an Ysaÿe sonata for solo violin and Beethoven Spring sonata in F major.

He got the highest ranking.
Bill was so happy.
*Shane's CV didn't say "plays basketball" but it should have. [SJ]

Following the Dean string quartet II

The Artistic Director’s Office
30 April 2014
The second in a series of interviews with Paul Dean.
First published in Flinders Quartet: May update 2014

‘Here at the Academy the world of Bach and the whole idea of counterpoint opened up to me. As a clarinettist you never play Bach. I realised my music was missing this sense of internal struggle – my definition of counterpoint; that sense that the bass line is ripping apart the middle and upper voices.

‘When I’m writing it’s a visual and a physical contact I have with the performers I’m writing it for. (My current) cello piece is being written for Torleif Thedéen and Kathy Selby. The first gesture that became the basis of the first movement I’ve called Turmoil. I physically see Torleif playing.

‘Second there has to be a story. I find it really hard writing music for music’s sake or absolute or abstract music. For me it has to be some sort of internal logic. When it comes to that (Flinders’) string quartet I'm paying homage to a wonderful young violinist. I was a part of his life in a very small way and in essence I feel that visual physical thing in my head that I’m writing it for Flinders and I’ve got this sort of angel involved at the same time. He’s playing one part of it.

‘And the third thing is the specific sound world (the orchestration) that comes from the initial gestures. The opening note is a sound, that (first) G sharp, that I want to sound other-worldly The A comes in on the first violin two or three octaves higher.

Paul Dean, Artistic Director of ANAM

‘For many years I used the same scale – a bit like a blues scale – but I wrote probably some of my best work using only this scale. It was like a security blanket but when I wrote a piece of music it sounded like me.

‘When I started (my Masters) at Melbourne Uni the first thing I talked about with Stuart Greenbaum was the fact that I was going to scrap the scale and it was really scary I have to say.

‘My first piece was a clarinet quintet.
I used all twelve notes.

It was really liberating.’