26 February 2015

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood: Broken Consorts

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood
45 Downstairs
23 February 2015

How does a classical music writer deal with performance they don’t understand and music they don’t really like? That was my only (personal, I admit) problem with this recital. It was one of programming.

45 Downstairs was an ideal venue for these instruments. The bricks and glass windows behind and the ancient timber floor beneath liked the strings and were bright enough not to lose the woods and percussion.

Which brings me to this: as percussionist and joint music director for the series, Claire Edwardes confirmed her position as top-notch percussion – and indeed musician - in Australia.

A consort, the program told me (I didn’t know that!) is a collection of similar instruments, eg viols. A mix of consorts equals a broken consort. Musically, there was nothing broken about this lot. They had thought carefully about this concert - even their ‘broken’ dress: black, white, and black and white.

Their real genius was their treatment of the music: 17th century pieces seen from a 21st century perspective. Matthew Locke, student of Edward Gibbons, (student of Orlando) wrote music that is firmly English Baroque – very contrapuntal and no tremolo – on gut strings, in this case obviously written for dancing not for singing. Consort of Flower Parts was played straight – simply gorgeous. Later, his Suite from The Tempest became a tantalising walk through some history of music. It was C17 played with prepared piano, bass clarinet, glass bells and bowed, prepared vibraphone. And it worked. That is, it grabbed me – even the impromptu sing around the piano (Google, “Tie up the wind”.)

William Lawes Consorts in Six Parts was fugal, deliciously complex and richly played on contemporary instruments. It drew me to Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites except that Bach* did it all with one string line.

The Broken Consorts idea was clear in Felicity Wilcox’s Uncovered Ground. It was an intriguing dialogue between early and new music where she had written glimpses of the (musical) ground like a ‘chipped paint wall’ before the ground is revealed. The bowed vibraphone was eerie, the bass clarinet didgeridoo-like and it took me to the Australian bush. Was it intended to? It doesn’t matter. The piece was commissioned by Ensemble Offspring. I’m glad they did.

I came unstuck with Damien Ricketson’s Trace Elements (badly) and less so with Mary Finister’sSilva with its dripping rainforest references.

This program and these instrumentations could easily have been simply ‘clever’. The program was cleverly intelligent. The performance was great. I loved it.

I went to this recital with a freebie I 'won' from a link to Flinders Quartet newsletter.

WL 1602 - 1645 Musician to Charles 1; killed fighting for the Royalists at the siege of Chester.
ML 1621 - 1677 Composer in Ordinary to Charles 11; succeeded by Purcell.
JSB 1685 - 1750

22 February 2015

The Flying Dutchman

Victorian Opera
Palais Theatre,
15 February 2015

Four or five bars were enough and I grinned to myself. We had an orchestra that knew what it was doing. So they were Young People. So? So the youngest was 15. So? To quote Jason*, ‘Your point being?’.

Orchestrally speaking it’s what comes out of the pit that matters. Not that it was, strictly speaking, a pit - more like a small depression in the stalls’ floor with excited fans held at bay by a small post-and-rail fence. (How Aussie!)

It’s always a risk with a pit orchestra. If the strings are not exactly in tune the high notes, where the strings are most exposed, sound unhappy. They didn’t. If the bangers and thumpers up the back are not exactly on their game the bang stands out like the proverbial dog’s. Not this lot. If they’re in a hole in the ground the sound is dead. They weren’t; it wasn’t.

But at about bar four I relaxed. It’s a point I’ve made before about AYO: with them we get enthusiasm and energy. It’s something missing from some of our orchestras and I know that, of itself, it’s far from being enough to guarantee a great performance.

As well, the musicianship and technical skill of the musos of the AYO was also obvious early on. But the overture was only a taster for the spin-tingling performance of Senta’s Act II aria, Traft ihr das Schiff. Lori Phillips, Richard Mills and the AYO came together in a tightly drawn, magnificently sung, brilliantly accompanied, emotionally charged performance.

Senta is obsessed with the portrait of the Dutchman that she’s clutching. She’s slowly going mad with love, singing to the image.
Have you seen the ship upon the ocean
with blood‑red sails and black masts?
On her bridge a pallid man,
the ship's master, watches incessantly …
Let me be the one whose loyalty shall save you!
May God's angel reveal me to you!
Through me shall you attain redemption!**

Mary (Liane Keegan) L; Senta (Lori Phillips) R from

The orchestration provides the clues about Senta’s psychological degradation: bassoons and so on. And that’s not going to work if the orchestra and the conductor – together – don’t know exactly what they are doing. And they did. They did!

Dr Mills had worked hard with that orchestra: intensive rehearsals section by section, teaching them to listen to the mini-ensembles they were part of and to find the broad sweeping lines of intense emotion that are fundamental to this – and the other – Wagner master-operas.

So it all came down to the Artistic Director of VO. He took the risk – there never was one – of hiring the AYO and he worked them into the ground. He, Richard Choc-o-late Bonbon Mills*** even organised a special gig for the quintet of off-stage horns: a reprise in the dress-circle foyer before the opera - their mini 'on-stage' moment.

* my mate. Well, one of ‘em
*** CJ Dennis in The Sentimental Bloke, about Ginger Mick, ‘A choc-o-late bonbon, tough on the outside, soft on the inside.’

15 February 2015

Timothy Nankervis Recital

Recital for Solo Cello 
St Brigid’s Church,
13 January 2015

Bach, Suite no. 1
Britten, Suite no. 1
Taverner, Thrinos

A standing ovation!
Rare enough in a city concert hall but rarer still in a 100 seat country church.

On several levels Tim had nowhere to hide.

He had, at most, a maximum of two strings to play at any one time. To build a harmonic such as a chord he had to rely on the residual memory of the preceding one or two notes. So harmonic depended on total accuracy, especially in the Bach Suite.

No violins, no viola were going to rescue him if he fell over; no multiple piano strings to hide amongst.

His musical isolation was most obvious  in the Bach Suite. There are no surviving dynamic markings for the suites for solo cello; no louds or softs, no fasts or slows, no pauses, no nothing. Any markings in modern scores are figments of some earlier performer’s mind. A musician of the calibre of Tim would be insane to even look at them.

All of this just made the performance interesting. It was made exciting by the cellist’s naked musicianship. The first cello suite is nice to listen to played by any half competent musician such as the teenager I heard busking in Paris. But to lose yourself in Bach’s head, to sit beside him late at night in the light of a couple of candles when all the kids are finally in bed, to understand what was coming out of his psyche as his musical soul took off, needs more than technical competence; that’s assumed. Tim needed the ability to lose himself in Bach’s mind and his musicianship so that what he found could be heard coming from the string or strings he had under his bow. And the sound from under Tim’s bow was superb.
Tim Nankervis, St Bridget's Maldon
Image © Denise Jackel

But there was more.

Britten’s suites are modelled the baroque dances that form the structure of Bach’s cello suites. But ‘there is no more forlorn opening to a work by Britten than the beginning of this (Number One) suite’. A ‘doleful Canto’ opens and intersperses the work where ‘Britten conjures a whole peasant band’. Tim’s ability was laid bare in his attack on the complexity of the suite: ‘a battlefield call … drums … dull tabors and droning brass … a gauche stumping tune … a lyrical piece brought to an end with a ghostly bugle call’*.

It is an exhausting work and the performance was electric.

(Not the Elizabethan) John Tavener’s Thrinos was never going to be an encore to ease us out into the heavy Summer rain. Tavener said the title 'has both liturgical and folk significance in Greece - the Thrinos of the Mother of God sung at the Epitaphios on Good Friday and the Thrinos of mourning which is chanted over the dead body on the house of a close friend’. If for no other piece that day it was this lament that got the audience on its feet.

A few days before the recital Tim told me has was having butterflies just thinking about (the recital) and he knew that a beer afterwards would be fabulous.

You earned it Tim!

Timothy Nankervis is member of the Seraphim Trio, The Sonus Piano Quartet and Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and an ANAM graduate.

*Kidea, P, 2013, Benjamin Britten A Life in the Twentieth Century, Allen Lane, London