31 October 2014

Victorian Opera-MCM Master of Music (Opera Performance) Recital

Melba Hall
The University of Melbourne
Thursday 30 October 2014

The secret is in the socks.

The singers generally had eight or nine minutes between finishing one aria and going back on to re-orient their head-space towards the next. Perhaps they liked to walk about a bit backstage to hum the orchestral introduction and sing the entry.

The orchestra, in this case Simon Bruckard, had less than half a minute to get the key, time signature, the nature of the aria and the opening dynamics settled in his head. That’s why accompanists have shiny knees. Not just from praying to St Cecilia. They have no time to find a hanky before he/she makes their entry so they wipe their sweaty palms on their trousers. In a few seconds Simon transported himself in time: from Mozart to Menotti, from Bellini to Bizet. Once oriented, he played each opening section to match what he knew would be the singers’ own dynamics: speed, volume and density of sound. The voice entries were seamless; Simon saw to that.

Simon Bruckard, Image courtesy of Victorian Opera
We saw all this tonight. Unsung, unacknowledged, except in the last few seconds of the recital, the orchestra – because that’s what he was – formed the base on which the singers built their magic. Even the invitation to drinks asked us to meet the singers – not the musicians, just the singers. Without his art, his magic, his solid expertise, his underpinning musicianship, no amount of wonderful acting – even that new-found skill of Matthew Tng, no amount of first-class singing would have saved the singers.

He didn’t follow. He didn’t lead. He was there with them, singly and together in ensemble every note of the way. Like a great hockey player he knew where the ball was going to go so he ran with them to that point. And if he is as good as he appeared to be in tonight’s performances they wouldn’t have realised he was doing it.

Simon is a virtuosic pianist:
Simon Bruckard, Image courtesy of Victorian Opera
but he is more than that. He’s that rare musician: an accompanist. And more than that he’s a répétiteur: pianist, language coach, voice coach and rehearsal coach. He provided the lovely running figure under their lovely legato lines in Cosi. He provided the chromatic and timing structure for then to be secure in the recitatives in Figaro: spot-on all the time. He provided the frenetic dance colour in Carmen. He provided the beautiful cello-ish line in Die Zauberflöte. His was a superb performance. Sometimes I would have like more assertiveness, though, f or ff instead of mf, because it’s better to ask, I think, ‘Am I too loud?’

How did he, in an instant, transport his head in time – Délibes to Donizetti? It’s the socks. He has three pair. Look for the Tardis.

27 October 2014

Moments of Transformation by Paul Dean

Flinders Quartet premiere performance

Sunday 26 October 2014

Listening to the first performance of Moments of Transformation was a bit like watching the birth of a child. Suddenly it’s there making itself heard and you can’t put it back. But at the back of the arrival, unseen, lie the idea that gave rise to the conception, the weeks and months of  the hard work of gestation and the pain and sweat of its nativity.

Out of the tragic accidental death of the brilliant young violinist Richard Pollett came Paul Dean's monumentally powerful string quartet.

The fabric of the piece is clearly woven of tragedy but it is never a memorium or a homage – a funeral panegyric – to Richard Pollett (the brilliant young violinist killed on 2011) either in its writing or in this, its first performance. The writing is immensely powerful, disturbing even. It asks the players to use a huge range of the languages of strings including mutes, sustained very high notes and no vibrato on Violin I over the other three. So it produced (it seemed to me) the life of a young person in transition from his family, from the world of music, from people who loved him to another place and the composer’s deep sadness that it happened.

There is no place to hide in this immensely difficult work. Shane Chen commented a week or so ago that his job – their job – was to make it look easy. That was never going to be the case. However the Flinders people did give us four virtuoso performances and in doing so produced music that cut straight into my gut. Was it Paul’s genius or the combined genius of Shane, Helen, Helen and Zoe? Or all five?

To put it simply, the Flinders people got it. They had worked on it note by note – I had heard them doing so. They were note and phrase perfect but, more than that they understood it; they got it. And they owned it and loved it – I had heard them tell Paul so. It was written for them  with them individually in mind   and it was theirs.

To my mind, in spite of Paul’s intent, the work does have elements of immense grief and it does demand answers to the unanswerable question, “Why?” but in the end today we watched, with a sort of joy, the young, glittering star transform to the place of the gods.

ABCFM Evenings Monday 27 October 20147:00PM

Flinders Quartet Live
Presented by Phillip Sametz from The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Paul Dean, clarinet
Flinders Quartet
Italian Serenade - string quartet
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op 115
Paul Dean
String Quartet
and http://www.abc.net.au/classic/listen/

20 October 2014

Following the Dean string quartet III

The Artistic Director’s Office
5 August 2014

The third in a series of interviews with Paul Dean.
First published in Flinders Quartet: October update 2014

Paul played me an electronic version of the first three movements of the quartet. I found it, especially the third movement, emotionally very powerful. I wondered how much my response depended on knowing ‘the back story’. But he wanted to talk first about his place in history as a composer.


When Mozart finished his quintet for piano and winds he wrote to his father, “This is the greatest piece I’ve ever written”. Beethoven knew that but still wrote his own piano quintet about eight years later.

Paul had talked to Andy Ford and other composers about being weighed down by monsters like Mozart sitting on your back when you are writing. Their view? It is essential to take “a bit of a Beethoven response”. ‘He just went and wrote it.’ Paul said. ‘There was no sense of “Oh god! I can’t compete”’.

‘Rather than just try to ignore the past I took the scores and CDs of Bartok second, Ligeti first and Janacek second quartet to Apollo Bay. I got a lot more out of just looking at them than listening, particularly the Bartok second. Miraculous! How did he get that sound? How did he transition from that to that? That was a really big turning point for me.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzsWlJwjrHQ

Paul knew Richard Pollett as a brilliant violinist very well – he was a student at ANAM – and he is a close friend of Richard’s parents. Did the tragedy that is the impetus for this new string quartet overwhelm its writing? Paul is very clear that he has dedicated the piece, not in homage to Richard, but to Patricia and Phil. in Richard’s memory.

That created the biggest problem: the nature of the quartet’s sound world. Originally, Paul’s ‘corny first thoughts’ involved dialogue between violin and viola because he regards Patricia as one of our great viola players. But the music didn’t come out that way. ‘I just let the music go where I thought it was going,’ he said, ‘and that got me into troubles because I went off on tangents that didn’t work (laughs) and didn’t have logical consequences.’

Paul Dean

‘I have tried to make the start of the first and third movements beautiful,’ he said,’ but beautiful in my language rather than in the sense of a lush G major or G minor chord and a luscious tune. I wanted to write an expansive work with expansive sections and that’s been the challenge. I’ve tried to use my language and that’s one of the complicating things.’

‘The second movement will be just totally ferocious’, he said, ‘and I’ve given Shane*’s nimble fingers lots of work. The fourth movement will be fast and frenetic but a different sound world to the second movement. I wrote a chorale for the last movement but I’ve ended up using it in the third movement. Maybe the last movement will be a violin solo to finish the piece; the violin playing with a practice mute so it will have the feeling of being the sub-voice to the others.’

‘It’s just my quartet and it may only have one week of performances or it might be the piece that is my breakthrough. If it’s good it will have a life. If it’s not, it will sit in the Australian Music Centre Library.’

*Shane Chen, violin Flinders Quartet

Flinders Quartet: Over a skinny latté IV

Richard Gubbins and Peter Kingsbury
ANAM and St Michael’s Church
9 May 2014, 6 July 2014

The fourth in a series of interviews about Flinders Quartet.
First published in Flinders Quartet:October update 2014

A pair of old friends, both with a long-standing love of music, agreed to commission Paul Dean to write the piece for Flinders Quartet. They discussed why they are doing it.

 Twenty years ago Andrew Ford on Classic FM talked about the idea of people forming a group to commission compositions. That idea stuck in Richard’s mind until he was able to commission Calvin Bowman’s The Curly Pyjama Letters for Flinders Quartet. The Paul Dean string quartet is a larger scale commission that emerged from a lunch with Paul, Richard and Richard’s dentist, Peter Kingsbury. ‘It involved an inheritance from my mother’ Richard said, ‘and I have burnt all that.’

Peter Kingsbury

For Peter, commissioning music is not about leaving a memorium; nobody remembers the sponsor. His motivation is about fostering an Australian idiom – how we as Australians see music as part of culture. ‘There are lots of wonderful new composers that need support,’ he says. ‘They don’t write for nothing. Mozart found out to his great horror that we die if we don’t get enough sustenance.’

Richard says he was far too slack to have learned an instrument. ‘I had the opportunity as a child. My parents acquired a piano from Allen’s on hire-purchase but it had to be returned.’ He sang first bass with Melbourne Chorale for 15 years and he loves the march in Beethoven’s Ninth because of its lovely tessitura. He thinks it is great fun to sing, and exhilarating. He loves Vaughan Williams’ Sea symphony. ‘It’s beautiful. It starts off with “the sea itself” and you feel the waves of sound.’ ‘My taste is catholic’ he says,’ but others might say I’m just a prostitute – a musical prostitute; I don’t understand most contemporary music.

Richard Gubbins

Peter used to play, very badly, the recorder in third grade at Cheltenham East State School. ‘I gave up because I couldn’t get past ‘Merrily, we roll along.’

For him, a commission is not about fame or immortality. It’s about trying to say, “this is how Australia was and how Paul Dean interpreted Australia and how Flinders Quartet interpreted Australia at the beginning of the 21st century”. So Paul has artistic carte blanche.

Peter sums it up, ‘it should speak to my emotions otherwise I don’t think the piece of music will survive’.

09 October 2014

Victorian Opera: The Play of Herod

Victorian Opera
Newman College
Friday 2 October 2014

Newman College chapel is about as far removed from The Big Opera Theatres as you can get. The Play of Herod is about as far from The Two Big Money Spinners – Verdi and Puccini – as you can get. For this production they both – the space and the opera – worked and worked spectacularly well.

Victorian Youth Opera The Play of Herod Nativity

The hard stone walls of the long, narrow, high ceilinged chapel loved the trombones and trumpets (it really was a day for trombones). The walls loved Elizabeth Barrow’s assertive Archangel. They also loved the grand organ, the panic-stricken piano and glockenspiel. They loved the divided voices and orchestra – part at the front, part high in the choir loft at the back – and surrounded us with powerful (in every sense of the word) sound that placed us firmly in the centre of The Play.

The Play of Herod is the gutsy, risk-taking, iconoclastic stuff of the sort that is giving VO a valuable reputation as being as far from Sniffy North Shore opera practice as it could get. It’s as if The Play was designed to consume money (but not much) not make it; the chapel holds only a few hundred people. If you want to mount extravagant AO-type sets you need to pander to the matrons whose hubbies hold the cheque book. If your set consists of a red cloth on a stick (to hide the slaughter of innocents) you can ignore the need to find funds sufficient to re-run Aida with elephants and mount something with style and class. We got both: style and class.

The mostly student-age voices from Victorian Youth Opera were superb (or superbly cast) with the magi – including a stunning bass – at the top of the list. Jacob Lawrence’s tenor suited the proto-evil Archelaus as well as it suits his usual Scots Church repertoire and Shajeda Kalitzki-Abedin gave us a controlled, agonising Rachel. All the kids could sing and they sang well, most superbly.

Victorian Youth Opera The Play of Herod.
Jacob Lawrence (Archelaus) Kiran Rajasingam (Herod)
 But for my money – and the tickets really were far too cheap for 75 minutes of excellent music-making – the star performance was Richard Mills’ score: its harmonic invention and its orchestration. Dr Mills seemed to be able to refer back to the 12th century Fleury manuscript – the horrific mediaeval tale – without the load of romantic agony we’re used to in 19th century Italian opera. There was agony but it was controlled. The magic was his orchestration and his genius was out in front in this work: his gentle pastoral treble recorder (a leitmotif?) at one end and his magnificent brass at the other with panic-stricken piano running somewhere in the middle. It was restrained, powerful emotion reminiscent of Benjamin Britten in harmony and control.

Expensive sets? Who needs ‘em? When the score, the orchestration and the singing are right, the production works.