Archive for April, 2013

Melbourne Recital Centre, April 20th

A grand finale to Melbourne’s Metropolis New Music Festival, Shadows showed off the wealth of music that comes under the festival banner. It also made me wish that I’d had time to go to a few more of the numerous other concerts across the festival’s two weeks.

British composer and conductor Thomas Adès both programmed and conducted the concert, showing himself to be both versatile and daring in his approach to new music.  Adès’s works are almost approaching mainstream in both his native England and overseas. While maybe not so well-known to Australian audiences, the opportunity to hear these works conducted by the composer was not to be missed. The program was tantalising in its variety, juxtaposing the more conventional orchestral forces with solo cello and large chamber configurations, and Adès was totally at home on the podium.

Niccolo Castigliano’s Inverno In-ver was an intriguing study in the the variety one can achieve with a limited soundscape. In this case, the limiting factor was pitch – all eleven movements were concerned with the high and tinkly. The variety of sounds produced (if occasionally a little taxing on the ears) was mesmerising, a wonderful study in colour and orchestral texture. Each movement felt exactly right in its length and scope, and the work left the impression of having been treated to an exquisite tasting-platter of sound.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Kai for solo cello and ensemble dragged the audience out of this dream-like state into a harsher reality. The cello was constantly pitted against the full force of the ensemble (including bass guitar and drum kit), forcing soloist Steven Isserlis to respond with a dramatic and occasionally forced musical vocabulary. Isserlis executed the solo part with incredible sincerity and flawless technique, though the piece as a whole might have benefited from a little more contrast in colour and instrumentation.

Isserlis’s solo performance that followed the interval was breathtaking in a totally different way. Four movements of Gygory Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages for solo cello, the miniatures were delicious in their economy of gesture and idea. Isserlis’s performance captured this beautifully, demanding absolute attention of the audience as he captured even the most delicate of gestures. It was a pity that this segment of the concert seemed to be over too quickly – placed directly after the interval it took the audience the first few of these short movements to settle down and stop rustling! I could quite happily have listened to the whole work; the performance was one of the rare moments where it felt like soloist and work were perfectly matched.

While this may have been my high point of the concert, I was still suitably impressed with what followed. One of the winners of this year’s Cybec composition competition, Lachlan Skipworth showed that the younger generation of Australian composers are continuing to produce new and interesting works. His piece Afterglow, while not really resembling the piece described in the program note, was nevertheless refined and a pleasure to listen to. Framing a central piccolo solo (played by Andrew Macleod with his usual precision), the work showed an economy of gesture and interesting attention to the details of colour.

Adès, having shown the same enthusiasm for every piece on the evening’s program, finished the concert with three dances from his first opera Powder Your Face. Lively and catchy as one can be while still staying in the new music vein, the dances rounded out a spectacular evening (and I am told festival), and were certainly a crowd-please. For me – I’ll certainly give the opera a listen very soon, but failed to be quite as revved up by the dances as I thought I would be. Maybe, after reading the opera synopsis in the program, I wanted a little more drama. But then new music never intends to please universally, the challenge to confront the unknown is far more important.

Bring on Metropolis 2014, next time I will make sure to attend more!


My first attempt at a musically-related book review!

Richard Gill’s memoir Give Me Excess of It is a rather unusual blend of self-reflection and a survey of the Australian music and music education scenes of the last 50 years. The book is full to the brim with Gill’s personality, and his voice is clearly audible in every paragraph. Indeed, it sometimes feels that in his haste to get this done and then be onto another task, Gill dashed off a first draft and left it as was – no editing needed! Honest (sometimes brutally so) and witty but occasionally rather brusque, it was easy to imagine him reading the whole thing.

Gill’s memories of his early years are without a doubt the funniest. Though occasionally making himself out to be unbelievably stupid as a boy (hard to believe considering how far he has come since then) the various incidents are poignant and insightful. Gill seems almost pleased with himself at times, then shocked at others, but tells all with a wonderful clarity and attention to detail.

From the beginning of Gill’s tertiary years, there is a marked shift in narrative focus – it becomes almost exclusively focused on music. The young adult that we see making forays into the wider world is so single-mindedly focused on classical music that I would certainly forgive some of his students for being less than interested in what he had to offer. When, later, Gill meets his wife and gets married, it is mentioned almost in passing. His children seem to appear on the scene at around the age of two without any prior announcement, giving the impression that he was so focused on his various jobs that he almost failed to notice them himself. It is due to this, I feel, that the title of memoir is rightfully earned. It is a book about music, and anything else that makes its way into the pages is auxiliary.

Gill’s career – working with various tertiary music institutions, Victorian Opera, Opera Australia and the Sydney Symphony – is fascinating to read as a music student. His involvement and dedication has without a doubt given a huge amount to Australian opera and music education. For me, in particular, it was interesting to read about the history of Victorian Opera and how it has arrived at its organisational structure and method of presenting works. However, I wonder whether this would necessarily be the case for a broader reading audience, who might appreciate a few more amusing anecdotes and a little less name dropping.

South Melbourne Town Hall, 28th March

The only way to describe this concert was wow! Wow for the sheer gumption to program such challenging and contrasting works, and wow for the dramatic performance that resulted.

From the first minutes of Peter Hill’s pre-concert talk, it was clear that we were in for something special. Hill, arguably the world’s most pre-eminent Messiaen scholar, was also a incredibly articulate speaker, and gave a wonderfully engaging survey of the composer’s career. The narrative was not overly academic – equipping the audience with valuable knowledge in preparation for music that is without a doubt intellectually challenging. One could say he was preaching to the converted – we had all already bought a ticket – but Hill went beyond this, making the works on the program highly accessible and indeed incredibly exciting.

The concert itself, while possibly a little on the long side, balanced Messiaen’s large-scale work Visions de l’amen in the second half with a selection of smaller ones – Préludes No.1, Catéyodjayâ and two movements of 4 Feuillets inédits – in the first. Directly preceding the interval, of all things, were four of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. As a whole, this seemingly disparate program had a wonderful arc to it, and was a wonderful showcase of both Hill’s versatility and the skills of the ANAM piano students.

Visions de l’amen, clearly the central focus of Hill’s masterclasses at ANAM during the week, is an epic and deeply meditative work for two pianos. Hill played the second piano part throughout, while the six ANAM students shared the first part in something of a relay. Though this set-up had the capacity to be distracting, the result was nevertheless stunning. Each student brought a new energy to the instrument that was very much in line with the varied musical material of each movement. Aidan Boase and Jacob Abela, in particular, were stunning in the final three movements. Hill’s profound understanding of the work underpinned this, making for complete performance that was utterly thrilling.

The students’ performances of the Bach may have suffered a little from the Messiaen work being the week’s central focus, though Gladys Chua played Book II, C sharp major with a wonderful fluidity. Hill’s Book I, C major and B minor were stunning, with an elegance of touch and economy of gesture that show him to be an all-rounder in the most complete of senses.

London Klezmer Quartet

Melba Hall free lunchtime concert – 25th March

Something a little different on the menu for Melba Hall’s free lunchtime concerts is always a welcome surprise. It was great to see that the London Klezmer Quartet drew such a large crowd – even if it did seem like a few members of said crowd had become a travelling fan club. Despite some technical difficulties, the quartet were mostly up-beat and played a wide range of tunes interspersed with a few songs.

I did wonder a little whether this was quite the right venue for such a group – though they certainly seemed unfazed by the wide stage and hushed audience. The problem was that all felt the need to be on their best behaviour, to applaud at the right times and to keep any extraneous body movement to a minimum. Something of an oxymoron when the music is so intrinsically linked to dancing! I certainly found myself jiggling away in my seat, and would much prefer to have been in a bar or at a festival. When the audience did join in with clapping, it was almost apologetic.

The group played with ease of ensemble and complete mastery of technique, but seemed just a little flat at times. Though this was probably a result of the group’s rather hectic touring schedule, I nevertheless left wanting a bit more. The concert’s musical highlight was certainly the set of two tunes group members Susi Evans and Carol Isaacs had written while in Thailand (of all places). Complete with a pithy introduction from Susi, the tunes were fresh, buoyant and just unusual enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

I, as one of the un-initiated, felt that I wanted to know a little more about the history of Klezmer music than the program an general banter provided, but I was probably in the minority. Bass player Indra Buraczewska’s songs were a wonderful addition, featuring her remarkably low voice to great effect in a hilarious song about potatoes. The relative similarity of the instrumental tunes might have been broken up a little with one or two more songs featuring other members of the group.