Archive for March, 2012

Flute and Harp recital

Visiting Austrian flautist Karin Leitner teamed up with local harpist Jacinta Dennett for the Melba Hall free lunch hour concert this week. Leitner chose an all-20th century program that showcased the variety of music for the flute in an era that many audience still seem to shy away from.

Opening with Jacques Ibert’s Entr’ace and Morocco: A Nocturne for Flute by Caesar Giovanni, the duo set a relaxed and meditative atmosphere. Though unusual in their harmonic language, both works tend to steer clear of virtuoso extended techniques, a theme that Leitner seemed keen to carry through her recital. Her still-unusual choice of a wooden flute with modern keywork gave her a great variety of tone colour, especially in the softer dynamics, which blended excellently with the harp.

The Suite for Flute Solo by Egon Wellesz, however, could have packed a bigger punch. All three movements made extensive use of the mellow wooden tone (which Leitner does do wonderfully), but somewhat at the expense of a stronger sound which could have been employed to great effect in the allegretto particularly. Such a tone was, however, put to perfect use in Australian Colin Brumby’s Four Exotic Pieces. Both performers showed a keen understanding of the piece’s musical landscape, although Dennett’s harp lines did occasionally feel a little more forward in the texture than they needed to.

Finally, Leitner teamed up with guitarist Dan McKay for a rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s ever-popular Histoire du Tango. Here, Leitner seemed to spring into a totally different gear, showing that the wooden flute is indeed capable of the loud, the powerful and the downright sexy. Totally at home in Piazzolla’s music, the duo’s sparkle and drive was utterly engaging.


A more widely known composer this time, the Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev started out life as a film score. The story, based on a novella by one Yuri Tynyanov, goes that the fictitious Lieutenant Kije was created due to a copying error by one of the Russian army’s scribes. The Tsar then issues a ream of orders concerning the Lieutenant, and the admirals have no choice but to maintain the illusion of Kije’s existence. Following a pretend romance and wedding, the admirals finally proclaim that Kije has died and stage a  mock burial.

For those interested in the original film, it can be found here:

Despite constant static, the orchestra’s sound comes through well, though the film itself is very much a period piece!

Outside Russia, however, the work is better known in its arrangement as a  jovial concert suite in five movements. Prokofiev’s orchestration is colourful and exciting, making full use of an extended orchestra to evoke the various elements of his story. Kije’s gentle romance, over-the-top wedding and sombre burial certainly come alive, even in a concert hall. The score is fresh and uplifting on the first listening, but not weighty enough to incite any real contemplation.

The fourth movement, Troika, is often used to accompany snow and Christmas scenes in television, no doubt because of its bouncy sleigh bells. There is the option of using a Baritone voice in the score (but usually a tenor saxophone gets the gig), and I’m quite partial to this recording of the Berlin Philharmonic that actually uses it! The voice adds another level of drama, and for me takes it one step close to the sound of Russian folk music.

What a find! Ramirez’s Misa Criolla, probably his most famous work, is a 1964 setting of the mass in Spanish for soloist, chorus and orchestra. In terms of grandeur, it doesn’t compare with the famous masses and requiems of the late romantic and early twentieth century, but it doesn’t need to. Instead the work is personal and reflective, with the settings paying homage to Spanish dance and folk music. A rather daring work considering the subject matter, this was one of the first mass to diverge from the traditional Latin as a result of  the lifting of regulations by the Second Vatican Council.

The opening Kyrie is lullaby-like in its meditative motion and softly caressing melody. Occasional buoyant interjections do not break the serenity as much as remind us of it. The Gloria that follows is undoubtedly the work’s highlight, and at six minutes, feels very much the central movement around which the others revolve. It has a bit of everything: sublimely calm passages reminiscent of Gregorian Chant are interspersed with rhythmic quasi a-capella sections clearly inspired by the folk tradition. This vibrancy continues into the Credo and Sanctus, making using of choral ostinatos and a wide variety of textures to create the dramatic arc of the mass. The Agnus Dei takes a more reflective and sombre tone, but it is nevertheless beautiful in its simplicity. This mass is very much for the choir, the orchestra doesn’t get a mention beyond the accompanying line. However, Ramirez is very much a composer of song, and it is through this that the work’s effortless joy is achieved.

The project is simple:

In an attempt to write more about music, as well as to listen to a wider variety, I am going to aim to publish a handful of blogs a week on concerts I’ve attended or CDs/pieces that I’ve listened to. Mostly this is going to be music from the western art music tradition, what people would generally call ‘classical’, but I’m also out to surprise myself. Some works will be new to me (and probably to most people), so will not. For more common pieces, I’ll aim to review a specific recording, but with the more obscure repertoire I will focus on the piece itself. To start with, I’m setting myself the project of listening through all of ABC’s Classic FM’s ‘Top 100 20th Century’ list, which was voted on and compiled in 2011. Here goes!

Something of a jarring start to a ’20th century’ listening list, this opera is based on the visit of American president Richard Nixon to China in 1972. The action follows the footsteps of President and Mrs Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger, through the several days they spend as guests of Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing. Scene changes are rapid, and through the course of a banquet, visits and a ballet performance, each of the four main characters contemplates themselves and the world they have sought to achieve.

Premiered in 1978 by the Houston Grand Opera, Nixon in China was John Adams’s first foray into the genre. With the libretto of Alice Goodman (with whom Adams later collaborated on The Death of Klinghoffer), this work is both close to and far from Adam’s usual minimalist style. Isolated sections do often display a preference for repetition of figures and chords, but the overall effect is one of gradually shifting tension as sequences build and then are dissipated or usurped.

Far from being overly wound up with the politics of the situation, the opera’s success is that it paints the characters in entirely human lights, allowing the audience to laugh even as they grow to understand what drove them. While the edginess of dialogue can sometimes border on irritating, by far the best scenes are those exploring the characters’ inner worlds.

Listening to this work would certainly benefit from having a copy of the libretto handy, or indeed from finding videos of some of the key scenes. However, armed with just a little background knowledge, the opera is an intriguing and at times intensely rewarding listen.