Archive for December, 2012

Friday 7th December

Despite my reservations about a program consisting mostly of Mozart in what has to be described as a very large concert hall, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with British tenor Ian Bostridge and conductor Bernard Labadie was highly enjoyable. Labadie’s reputation is for conducting Baroque and Classical repertoire, and it is because of this that the program had such a strong focus on the works of Mozart.

The selection of five Schubert songs was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Bostridge appeared totally at ease with the music, exploring the intricacies of colour and melody in Schubert’s writing. The orchestral accompaniment – arranged by Webern – augmented the possibilities of vocal shading while still maintaining the intimacy of piano writing. Though at moments the proximity of a chamber music venue would have better allowed for Bostridge’s subtleties of colour, the Hamer Hall acoustics delivered superbly, and a pleasing balance of instruments and voice seemed effortless on the part of the performers. The brooding Ihr Bild (Her Image) was particularly striking, and Bostridge’s upper register in these songs was outstanding.

The excerpts from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo which preceded the interval, while equally stunning technically,  felt somewhat out of place in the overall arc of the concert. Bostridge executed the arias with passion, ringing Italian, and particularly impressive cadenzas. However, the flow of this segment was unconvincing, with the music seeming to loose rather than gain momentum heading into the interval.

Framing the vocal works, Mozart’s symphonies no. 31 (Paris) and the famous no. 40 were played with buoyancy and delicacy. The opening movements of both works erred on the side of dainty when they could maybe have used a little more umph. It was clear that Bernard Labadie’s musical focus was with the minute gestures rather than the greater arc of the music, which gave the second movement of the Paris symphony in particular a dazzling clarity of sound and musical contour. Lower voices carried beautifully, with even the gentlest of cello pizzicatos clearly audible. It was maybe a little surprising, then, that the woodwind were not more present in the mixture, and that inner-voice melodies in the concluding symphony were occasionally unclear. Both works gained momentum heading into the final movements, with Labadie demanding crisp articulation and bubbling energy.

A concert on the light side thematically perhaps, but nevertheless performed with flair and sparkle.


Stop, repair, prepare…

Allora & Calzadilla Kaldor Public Art Project

16th November – 6th December

Cowen Gallery, State Library of Victoria

A pianist strikes the opening chords of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, well-known to many but still stunning. More remarkable though, is that they aren’t seated at the  instrument. The piano for this public art installation has been transfigured, or should I say disfigured, to hold the player inside it.

The clever thing about this project is that there are many reasons that it is intriguing and catches the imagination of those passing through the state library’s gallery space. Visually, the whole concept is bizarre. The piano has a gaping hole right where many of the strings should be – complemented by one cut in the lid for visual effect. The player leans out over the keys, playing them backwards and upside-down to create a dazzling contortion of technique. Not only that, but the usually stationary instrument is dragged round the gallery while playing, with the pianist using their body weight to drive the instrument.

All this is clever, and certainly draws an audience, but I think that if this was simply a visual spectacle with little-known music it would be less effective. The power of the project comes from the use of Ode to Joy – indeed the pianist is playing the whole 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – a piece that is almost universally known and loved. The listener is drawn into the musical and physical struggle of the performer as they do battle with their constricting position. Even those who had no musical training, it seemed, had some idea of what came next, of the magnitude of the music being performed. And, I think, this is one of the reasons they stayed.

Just as the instrument is incomplete, so is the music. Drawing on the idea of a ‘prepared’ piano with nuts and bolts inserted, the piece makes full use of the instrument’s percussive nature. The central two octaves – with strings removed – are nevertheless explored, adding thuds and taps where one would except Beethoven’s melody to continue. The performer also plucks strings – why not, they’re right there? – and even the sound of the instrument moving round becomes an eerie accompaniment to the music. The pianist seems utterly compelled to make this music, otherwise the physical constraints of the upside-down piano would render it impossible.

Audience reactions to this are incredible and diverse. Of course, many film it on iphones, wanting to share the bizarre nature of the performance. Some follow the piano as it moves round the room, others feel that they should stay still and appreciate the piano from a single angle only. Still some whistle or hum along, caught up in the drama of the music.

Stop, repair, prepare is only on until Thursday 6th December at the State Library of Victoria. If you can go, go! Bizarre, indescribable, this is also deeply touching and a reflection on the power that music has on us both as a listener and a performer.