31 March 2013

Schubert Trio No. 2 in E flat, D 929

The Poet
Seraphim Trio
25 March 2013
Temptation: Faust and Schubert
Firebird Trio
27 March 2013

The Salon
Melbourne Recital Centre

At the age of 30 could Schubert see the dread spectre? Did the prospect of doing business with him terrify the man or did he decide to take Him on, to scorn him, to dance around him and defy him to do his worst - or all of the above? At 30? Surely not – except the dance bit.

Schubert like any other normal, fit, young, teutonic male was invincible – immortal, full of energy and as eager to attempt to spawn progeny (he may have died of mercury poisoning, a common treatment for syphilis) as the bloke next door. Alive, happy, full of life and fun, needing to dance.

Young Franz  - possibly

How do we know all this? It`s in his writing. An artist of any sort can only write what`s in his head and that profile is in Schubert`s music. It’s all there in The Trout quintet at 22; as you’d expect.

It`s all there in his second piano trio too, but in this case the joy is underpinned by something much blacker, something much more terrifying.

The second movement, Andante con moto. Note the cello theme

I know the trio of course or I thought I did. Then I heard two performances three days apart both in the same room using the same Steinway by trios who were much the same age. Pure good luck. What a great opportunity to compare and contrast.

I was entranced by Seraphim’s interpretation. Anna is, technically, incredibly secure. So are the others but the fact is more obvious on the percussive piano. Helen’s filigree was ethereal and Tim’s cello was, seriously, without peer in terms of pathos, particularly in the second movement. It has developed cracks, he told me, and acquired a hum as a consequence, but it wasn't audible to us even in the intimate Salon.

I wondered why nobody had commissioned a recording of Seraphim’s take on this trio. And I wondered if a recording could capture the sonorous pathos that Seraphim found in this work. It was an electric performance – intense and emotionally exhausting. We, the audience, should have had a minute or two to start breathing again before the applause began.

The manuscript

Two days later: Firebird. What luxury. And this was as good an expression of the richness of Melbourne’s music scene as we’ll get: two world-standard gangs performing the same work in the one week.

Seraphim had opened with Haydn and Beethoven, Firebird with, among other things, a brilliant Busoni arrangement by Benjamin Martin. Both groups provided masterful first halves. Seraphim really understand Hayden – classical but at the same time humorous. I loved Firebird’s Busoni-Martin. Wonderfully spikey and it made me smile.

However, at the end of Schubert’s number 2 Trio Firebird got a standing ovation. Why?

Technically, they were as secure (as you’d expect) as Seraphim but it seemed to me that Firebird’s job came down to Benjamin’s piano – emphatically, and not just my opinion. He had the emotional control, the master of understatement. He let the poor bugger (Schubert) sing at every opportunity – and there were many such – where a major key idea burst out over the tragic minor and the cello. He breathed it like an accompanist, delicate, delightful against the raw energy of lashing out – against death? I decided he was/is a singer or he had spent his younger years playing for church.

In the end both performances left me satisfied - and proud to live in a town where music performance of this quality (as good as any I've heard anywhere else in the world) was available. The two performances were the same and so different. In the end I decided that Seraphim edged towards Schubert’s symphonies – more orchestral, more sonorous. Firebird’s edged towards his songs – more delicate, more lyrical.

And don’t ask me which I liked/admired more. The question simply does not compute. Benjamin says, “Huge work the Schubert. Just having a concept won't get you through. One needs the will too... And both groups had it – in spades.

Approved (male) cellist concert dress (fake beard not included)

01 March 2013

Australian Youth Orchestra

Australian Youth Orchestra
Melbourne Town Hall
Conductor, Arvo Volmer
Monday 18 February 2013

Evidently the dress code said “all black” so she did: tight black “slacks” very high-heeled black shoes and jet black hair. What a stunner - and in the front row on the first violins. Then there was the viola with red blobs in his black hair and the trumpet with the huge Dudamel-style afro.

Go for it kid!

All of this crashes, of course, if you can’t play. Could they play? You betcha!

Energy, enthusiasm and huge talent – an unbeatable combination. They loved Himself too. You can tell when orchestras love their conductor. He must have taught them and appreciated them. Certainly, at applause time, he parked himself behind the podium beside Leader making himself part of the group, not god-almighty out the front as if it was all his doing. They loved her (Leader) too, by the way.

Hannah Buckley

I love the way young orchestras stamp their feet. The sound of one hand clapping when you are holding a bow or a tuba is pretty feeble but the thunder of shoes on a stage like a stampeding herd of wildebeest, that is something else again on the “we love you” meter.

Jonathan Heilbron

It wasn’t kiddie music though. The premiere of Nigel Westlake’s harrowing The Glass Soldier Suite  required every percussion known to man but more importantly, the ability to produce the horror and pathos of trench warfare. And they did it.

Nigel Westlake

In a piece of inspired programming Westlake was followed by the tremendously difficult Concerto for the Left Hand of Ravel (which included, I’m sure, a drum beat quote from Bolero). At some point it required the brilliant Kristian Chong to play the piano piano in 6/8 (while sitting on his right hand) while the trombone played mezzoforte in 2/4. Two themes were played simultaneously in different time signatures. How do they play that and how do you conduct it? Huge talent, clearly and a cart-load of hard work.

After playtime it was, logically enough more Ravel - Mother Goose. Great fun and then, with wonderful logic, Firebird. Is it French – as in L'oiseau de feu or Russian Жар-птица? Whatever … the orchestra loved it - and it showed - and gave us an electric performance.

But wait. There’s more (to coin a cliché): a wild, ecstatic, Argentine ballet, Estancia by Ginastera. Now was something that the kinder could get their teeth into and let their hair down (to mangle some metaphors).

It was a piece where, having got the notes under control, the musos could let ‘er rip; so they did. A front-row second violin was so into it that the jumped out of his chair to get more emphasis. And when the dust finally settled he sat there grinning like a loon, his bow tie askew, looking like a very very happy drunk. Perfectly reasonable!

Victorian Opera 2013

Victorian Opera

I’m worried.

I‘m worried that Victorian Opera is being dragged – but not visibly kicking and screaming – back into the twentieth century.

The Rite of Spring ballet was first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. The audience wore formal gear: women in evening dresses (Coco Chanel could afford them), men in top hats and tails.

In December 2012 Victorian Opera’s 2013 season launch featured Orchestra Victoria (on stage, I grant you) in evening gear. The Maestro made his entry and formally shook the hand of The Leader. The men in the orchestra wore white bow ties and quaint tailed suits. Why?

In February 2013 Victorian Opera’s Gala Concert featured Orchestra Victoria (on stage, I grant you) in evening gear. The Maestro made his entry and formally shook the hand of The Leader. The men in the orchestra wore white bow ties and quaint tailed suits. Why?

The Gala Concert featured the incomparable Wagnerian wunderdame, Lisa Gasteen and the current Master of Music (Opera Performance) students, Carlos Barcenas Ramirez, Kirilie Blythman, Olivia Cranwell, Christine Heald, Jeremy Kleeman, Timothy Reynolds, and Daniel Todd. Superb! The kinder were in complete contradistinction to "Star baritone José Carbó" and the soprano who may have been able to sing once but now launches a  bellow to attack every high note. I struggled to be nice and work out why she was there when, on the same platform, Olivia Cranwell showed every indication of becoming Australia's next great Wagnerian soprano.


I’ve become used to a much more democratic – and less pretentious – scenario. At recent Victorian Opera productions the orchestra wandered into the pit and did a bit of practice, tuned up a bit, had a chat with the conductor who was having a bit of a show and tell at the piano with a student (how much an hour was that worth, the lucky bugger?) and eventually he (the conductor) stood up in his lounge suit or black skivvy and got on with it.

The whole milieu of VO performances has become down-beat, accessible, unpretentious (unlike Proper Productions in The Big City) but still highly professional. Over the road Melbourne Chamber Orchestra members are now in 21st century black gear. Tails and the like – shiny bums and the occasional moth hole – are hanging behind the door, waiting for a trip to Vinnie’s Boutique where they belong.

The 2013 Season Launch was enormously successful (even if it did start with the totally unrelated bit of rubbish, the overture from the thankfully never-performed Weinberger opera Schwanda the Bagpiper). If the criterion was audience response the program was seen to be a winner. Nixon in China? Roar of approval. Magic Pudding? Too right mate! Maria de Buenos Aires? Tango and fatal passion! Pus in Boots? My billylids will love it. A bloke two seats from me sang along, sotto voce and grinning, with our stunning M Quaife as Madam Mao. The season list got enthusiastic approval from the crowd and so it should have. Nowhere to be seen were the nineteenth century potboilers – wall-to-wall Verdi (although I could handle wall-to-wall Britten)- that fill Australian Opera’s list. This repertoire is unusual, innovative and contemporary; risky perhaps but it seems that young people are beginning to find it.

The list has an excellent chance of appealing to young people so why re-erect the uniform – the clothes and behaviour - that tells them, like bishops' regalia, that they are witness to an arcane art that is being practised by anointed ones, set apart and far above the common herd?

VO has had a policy of promoting young singers. They’ve been carefully chosen and cast and they’ve performed brilliantly. AO’s last production of La Boheme in Melbourne was, quote Gill, “eurotrash” and the leads were appalling. I’ve walked out of every VO event – complete seasons and extras – wrapt, enchanted, delighted, happy for the future of opera and opera singers in Victoria.

'Tucker-time, boss'

We don’t need tails, white ties or top hats. This is 2013 Melbourne, boys, not 1913 Paris or 2012 Sydney.
Lindsay plus Goldsworthy and Bowman. 4 to 6 October 2013

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra: Eroica

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Melbourne Recital Centre
Monday 18 February 2013

First clarinet and Timpanus* were in My Mexican Cousin getting fortified with double-shot espressos in a lurid green cups. They had an hour or so before Beethoven 3; plenty of time for started and by the time it did it was clear that the caffeine really had kicked in.

 Guy du Blêt not playng a tympanus

But it was Britten before the drinks break: his 10-song Les Illuminations to poetry by the controversial young French poet/gun-runner, Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. 

Britten may have preferred Peter Pears’ version but the songs fitted the rich voice of Merlyn Quaife superbly. They took her well into the mezzo range and she appeared not to notice. Ms Quaife had voice control and dramatic sense and power enough to produce an electrifying performance; wild, beautiful and full of non-romantic dissonances. I wanted to hear it again.

Merlyn Quaife

Sometime about the age of 15 I acquired a second-hand console radio. It stood about three feet tall and had a flat top – just the thing on which to perch the cream bakelite Collaro turntable I’d installed in a wooden box and hooked up to the innards of the radio. It was my ticket to vinyl - World Record Club vinyl - and that included poor Beethoven’s Number 3 in glorious lo-fi mono.

With the passing of 55 years I’ve acquired a working knowledge of the music but MCO’s performance was a revelation.

Only 30 odd (that is +/-) musicians in a hall that was perfect for them. EM Hall loves deep strings and it loves brass. It’s pretty keen on tympani too. Clearly the caffeine had kicked in just in time for the Eroica. Hennessy, W probably thinks he led his brilliant, talented and superbly well-prepared young players but every timpanist knows they do (give or take some fractured grammar).

The same case might be made for the double bass player**. She was the wonderful, growling foundation for the funeral march.

Emma Sullivan

But then again it’s hard to argue with a French Horn and only a fool would have tried to get the better of the trio of them; precision, control and rich beauty.

But it’s the strings I’d give the gold star to. Many are ANAM graduates, many play in a chamber group, all of them know how to pitch the note (and this was supremely evident in some very high pp bits) perfectly. Even though many past strings have evolved into other, more well-known orchestras or conducting, the strings still have the stamp of their true leader. Hennessy, W has chosen well and trained well. They are equal to the best world –wide.

The Grabbott had clearly done the work long before we arrived. His (their) Eroica was rich, full-textured and brilliant. He knew exactly what dynamics, what emphases, what passion he wanted – and so did his team - so he raised only a minor sweat in his lounge suit. Note: no ridiculous white ties for this lot. The small group allowed the wonderful, vertical structure of the music to show and we got none of the mush that 100-strong orchestras often produce.

 Graham R Abbott

A good whack of the audience were young people. They heard music performance that should bring them back – jeans and tee shirts and all (and about time).

*Guy du Blêt moonlighting from Lucovico’s Band
**Emma Sullivan