30 May 2012

Trine Wilsberg Lund and Alexander Soddy, Bergen International Festival

Nordic Hour
Haarkon's Hall
28 May 2012

I got chased down a lane today by a (not at all angry) waitress. Something about not paying for the wine glasses. Wine glasses? Glasses of wine!  Same difference! Blame the company: a gorgeous Nordic blonde soprano, a superb 29 year old accompanist and 15 oldies including me. We were investigating "Spring Music in Norway and Iceland" with Renaissance Tours and we were spending six days at the Bergen Internatioal Festival.

We'd all had lunch, us olds, with our guests Trine Wilsberg Lund and Alexander Soddy. We'd heard them the day before in the Hakonshallen - a huge 13C stone baronial hall - as part of the Bergen Festival. In a display of enormous courage the two young people had accepted an invitation to eat with a gang of Aussies who were on a sort of concert version of a pub crawl.

Trine had sung songs by Sibelius, Stenhammar, Alfven, Sjoberg and, very importantly for me, Grieg.  A lot of Grieg. I'd played some of the Grieg lied decades before for an A Mus A friend and I loved them. I had worked with singers all my life so I knew how to pick a bad - and a good - accompanist.

Trine had selected songs that showed off her beautiful (lyric?) soprano: a lovely strong head voice with assured high notes and a rich chest voice with no growl and no break in transition from head to chest. But best of all she had the skill and musicianship to sing high notes p, pp and ppp with full depth of tone. That singing was both rare and beautiful.

The singing was simply delightful! We were entranced - sitting in the secod row just behind her proud parents, her sister and her friend from kindy - and one or two of us were moved to tears. We heard Grieg and Norway that day, not the singer, because the songs were in the singer's heart and she gave  each phrase the space it needed to beathe and live.

Over lunch we talked to Alexander about his sensitive accompanying defined as being alongside, about listening (of course he does; she's his fiance) about his career so far from a music degree at Cambridge, moving to Hamburg, meeting Simone Young, becoming her repetiteur and conducting protege, conducting opera and the enormous value of the transition from accompanist through opera work to symphonic conducting so that the conductor lets each phrase breathe. His career so far and his appointments were of a great musician in his own right.

Soon the lunch chatter turned to the Melbourne Recital Centre and Elizabeth Murdoch Hall; a wonderful place to start an Australian recital tour. Soon! Please?

27 May 2012

Natalia Goldmann, Joachim Kjelsaas Kwetzisky

24 May 2012

l heard Natalia Goldmann play a cello today. No, I hadn't heard of her either. She was practising the Rach. opus 19 sonata with Joachim Kjelsaas Kwetzinsky just before lunch so I sneaked into the back of the hall and hoped I would not be thrown out . I had no idea - except that it was late Romantic - what I was listening to so I had to ask. I felt pretty stupid when the other half of the program - the clarinet - told me.

There was talent here. Lots of talent. Natalia was clearly in control of the piece, so much so that I wanted to wander up the front,  close her score and say, "You don't need this".

I stayed to hear the recital because it's good to hear what young people are doing with music.  I heard all the joy then the pathos then the excitement and the Russia romanticism of Rachmanninov that came from the end of her bow.

Natalia and Emilio are Masters students at the Norgesmusikkholehe. Emilio Borghesan, the clarinetist, played Francaix, Widman and Brahms with pianists Per Arne Frantzen and Sigstein Folgero.

Natalia will regret strangling the last note of the third movement (a bowing problem) but she won't do that again. Other than that she demonstrated a wondeful understanding of the soul of the music and how to sing it.

Romantic concertos - and sonatas - are sometimes said to be a (thematic) duel between soloist and orchestra - or piano. In this performance Joachim won the (aural) duel - even though he was technically superb - hands down for most of the sonata. "Down a couple of notches from fff to f, my son!" He was a brilliant pianist but as an accompanist he was not always with her by a millionth of a second. (Perhaps she was simply in the wrong place. Perhaps he could not see her well.) That is, until half way through the last movement when he relaxed enough to catch sight of her bow out of the corner of his eye, then they sang together right through to the gut-grabbing end.

Simply superb!

I sat out in the warm Oslo sun because the others had gone to look back-stage at the opera house and ate a shrimp open sandwich under the pink crab-apple trees in flower and thought how much I had enjoyed the recital, how much talent and musicianship I had heard. My eye caught a dried flower floating in the breeze on a spider thread. I thought about the little stars in life that we stumble on by chance.

I was in Oslo on a Renaissance tour led by Mairi  Nicolson, an ABCFM presenter. I  had been supposed to be looking at Mr Munch's paintings and lithographs at the the time of the recital but music is much more my passion. No contest!

I managed to buy a Metro ticket and get back to the hotel without a map. Not bad for an old bloke.

16 May 2012

Victorian Opera: Midnight Son

Midnight Son
Victorian Opera 
6 May 2012

What a complete sleaze he was. And absolutely convincing. The voice – in other circumstances, a beautiful first-class baritone - or is it a rich tenor? But in this part, Byron Watson’s voice had an edge of hardness and cruelty even in the last (ie, “first”) scene. 
In any successful narrative the reader must warm to or identify with one major character. Ray was not that character even in the extremity of his self-convinced innocence. In a word, the part worked both musically and dramatically.

Midnight Son was always going to be a risky venture especially in conservative Melbourne. Gordon Kerry’s score is contemporary and certainly not melodic but it is very accessible and it works superbly with Louis Nowra’s text. It seems to me that Nowra’s awful rhymes serve not to lighten the whole sordid affair but drive it deeper into awfulness.

A clever libretto, a clever score and soloists who were the part – not acting/singing the part – Midnight Son was a winner. The orchestra knew what the word “accompany” meant and the knew what the word “dramatic” meant.

Dimity Shepherd was an absolutely convincing fool to be sucked in by Ray’s sex appeal. He gave her enough hints, for goodness sake. “Will you swing for me?” and she thought he meant groupie parties where the ropes were not around her neck. But the sell-out aria was Antoinette Halloran’s torch song. I mean, are you sure she’s an opera singer? Poor Marisa/Maria/Juliet. The Good Catholic Girl for whom “swinging” meant something you do in the park on a sunny afternoon with your kids. But underneath that GCG was the luscious, warm woman that Ray apparently never found.

The first-night audience response was not terribly warm. But some elderly ladies – a straw poll of two – assured me that they really liked it, that the score did not put them off and that they were glad the plot was reversed because it gave them "something nice to go home with". 

This production is opera with balls. Big balls!

15 May 2012

The Ringtone Cycle, Seraphim Trio and Lisa Harper-Brown

The Ringtone Cycle (Graeme Koehne)
Seraphim Trio and Lisa Harper-Brown
14 May 2012

A one-woman opera. A solo Brunnhilde? Well, no. More an opera for Brunnhilde and piano trio on a one-hour marathon. But a marathon where everybody galloped over the line with undiminished energy and style.

The parts, of which this opera was more than the sum, were all critical. No passengers here.

Peter Goldsworthy’s libretto: witty and spiced with the pathos of a lonely woman finding only sleeze in internet dating and, not even being able to settle for the least imperfect guy, finding solace only in Mum’s teapot. Here is the frustrating futility of the search for virtual sex or friendship that can only ever yield virtual satisfaction. So underneath the frenetic energy is a carpet  of sadness.

Graeme Koehne’s score: alternately exuberant and desperate but always clever and sharp. This was a score that always – every note – painted a sort of soundscape of Brunnhilde’s emotions: a roller-coater ride of anticipation, hope, frustration, anger and sadness. It's all there in the music.

Seraphim Trio: working damn hard in a complex score that required fast, furious and accurate playing. Trio playing is only for born accompanists. You no listen to each other you bugger it up. In The Ringtone Cycle it was also listen to Brunnhilde. In this respect the Trio was faultless. They always knew where she was going. There always arrived with her, never panting, bring up the rear. The performance was a genuine quartet for soprano and trio.

The “charismatic soprano” Lisa Harper-Brown: inelegant in grey trackie dacks, busy getting outside of a bottle of cheap red and at the mercy of that now so uncool Nokia ringtone singing – and acting – for a full hour. Perfectly placed high notes (no tension here) and no growling chest voice. A lyric soprano. Wikkidefinition: “... a type of operatic soprano that has a warm quality with a bright, full timbre ...” Exactly! We heard a rich, controlled, very expert voice and it was beautiful.

The event was a fund-raiser for Seraphim’s very valuable commissioning program. Even without Mrs. Ayres canapés and Cope-Williams bubbles and Coriole’s wine the fifty buck tickets were a steal.

The only disturbing part of the night was that the same day Nicky Winmar’s famous jumper was passed in at $95k, two Koehne page one scores only fetched $200 each.

09 May 2012

Christopher's Holiday

The man on the aisle struggled to his feet to let me pass to get into my seat. He looked very elderly – well into his nineties. As he stood he slowly bent over and moved his wife's knees so that I wouldn't stand on her feet. She shot me a foul glare, her lips drawn back over her teeth. I recognised advanced Alzheimer's Disease. As I sat she moved her hands over her program incessantly, trying to separate the cover into pages. She did this all through the premier of John Adams City Noir with its jazz rhythms and inflections and chaotic climaxes. At one point her husband tried to take the program from her; he wrestled hard but failed. During interval he ate most of a block of hazelnut chocolate. He offered her his second-last piece but she showed no interest in it and the program origami continued. I wondered who their minder was and how they managed to get safely to their expensive seats in the stalls.

After interval it was Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. She stopped her paperwork and remained silent through the whole piece. Part way through he reached his right hand around to her left cheek and drew her face towards him and kissed her. The music washed over us; the brass-reinforced march that ends the third movement provoked serious applause even though the work was not over. When it did end - the Adagio lamentosa diminishes to pppp – the conductor held the orchestra and audience for a full 30 seconds before he dropped his hands (and the strings let their bows fall from their instruments) and the applause erupted in earnest.

The orchestra was the LA Philharmonic on tour to the east. The conductor was “The Dude”, Gustavo Dudamel, the 28 year-old who had grown up in Barquisimeto in Venezuela. Obviously he was a prodigious talent. Even I, for whom Tchaikovsky is not top of the list, was well and truly captured. The strings were like melted dark chocolate. It was the most magnificent string (and total orchestral) sound I'd ever heard. Jet powered, Christopher called it and I agreed: jet-powered dark chocolate. The Dude refused to take an individual bow. Instead he singled out instruments then stood in the orchestra as part of them while the audience gave him his rock-star reception.

The LA Phil in Chicago was fourth in a series of six concerts heard by a music-groupies tour led by Christopher Lawrence, a presenter on ABC FM. Twenty of us were on a sort of pub crawl (for "pub" read "orchestra") that had begun in Toronto a few days before.

In Toronto I'd heard the young Stefan Jackiw with the superlative Toronto Symphony play the Mozart violin concerto No. 3 then Elgar's first symphony. An international incident was only averted by immense self-control on my part. A couple four rows below me muttered all the way through the delicate lacework of the concerto. A couple immediately behind the visigoths decamped upwards to sit beside me to escape the noise. It turned out that the vandals had brought a picnic to a previous concert, one of the Casual Concert series and thought it was ok to do so this time. Jeans are one thing, salami sandwiches another.

So Toronto was memorable. What could top that? The magnificent L'Orchestre Symphonique De Montréal (French has priority in Montreal), that's what, with the photographable Kent Nagano. They gave a performance of The Creatures of Promethius in the form of a trial: text by Yann Martel for the prosecution, OSM for the defence. Promethius, in spite of the evidence stacked against him, went free and the orchestra, appropriately, played the Eroica. The next night in Montreal, it was Beethoven's First then Ninth - performances that left me (and most of us) gasping. Christopher, in response to those who weren't so sure, drew a distinction between the French style of Nagano with the OSM and the more familiar teutonic style of the Berlin Phil. The romantic in me leaned decidedly to the Gallic.

After breakfast each day  Christopher presented a background discussion about the music of the night's concert: it's origins, and significance. He'd been a student at The Conservatorium High School in Sydney before studying conducting. It showed in the depth of knowledge and critical analysis and understanding or orchestra sound production.

It was generally agreed that, in this orgy of high orchestral music making, the LA Phil in Chicago was the peak, that is until I heard the Chicago Phil in the beautiful, baroque Symphony Hall.

I was up in the Lower Balcony for the second of three concerts in Symphony Hall. I was stunned to see My Elderlies in the second front row which was accessible only to mountain goats. How on earth did they get down there without killing themselves? A young friend came to talk to them and they stood. They took some time to stand, but they managed. The friend left. Mr Elderly gently rubbed his wife's back as she sat. They heard three aggressively modern pieces, a suite derived from his film music, Redes, by Revueltas and the premier of a cello concerto by the Uzbek composer Yanov Yanovsky. The icy wind of the Steppes of Central Uzbekistan swept through its opening bars – and through my soul. Was it the composer or was it the soloist? Oh yes, it was Yo Yo Ma. In the riot of applause that followed composer, soloist and conductor hugged and kissed cheeks. How un-Australian!

But there was more. The orchestra settled down to play Shostakovitch's Sixth symphony. As the lights went down a late cellist wound his way into the back desk. And there Yo Yo Ma played cello and page-turner.

At the end, the standing ovation erupted instantly. Mr Elderly took off up the stairs, leaving Mrs Elderly to follow. Both of them were evidently a little more spritely than they appeared, but not much.

Out the front of the hall teenyboppers (age 15 to 35) had themselves photographed in front of The Dude's poster and Yo Yo's.

But the Fat Lady had not yet sung. Christopher had said quite a bit about "The Dude", and Yanov Yanovsky but little about the last concert, a Sunday afternoon recital by the young pianist Andreas Haefliger who played Mozart's piano sonatas K 300 and 301 including an Ala Turka Andantino that was brilliant but fluid – and technically faultless. His encore, which we worked hard to earn, was a Mozart adagio. There were no virtuoso pyrotechnics, just superb musicianship that extended and developed the Schubert sonata that had ended his recital.

There was one more surprise. After extended calls, standing ovations and exchanging assessments in the foyer I walked along Michigan Avenue. I turned left into W. Washington and there sat My Elderlies, fresh from the recital, waiting for their bus. Two evening concerts and an afternoon recital in three days. And a bus home.That's the sort of stamina I hope to have in my 90s.

I was a paying member of the Renaissance Tours “Orchestras of North America” tour.