NIJINSKY - Australian Ballet
There was really only one ballet this year I wanted to see, and it was Nijinsky. I didn't even know anything about the production, but the name itself conjures up greatness, and was all the hook I needed. It was a joy to come to the production without any research and just absorbing what was on stage; and what a thrilling ride it was. The ballet has a visceral energy that begins with the chaos of the opening ball scene - early glimpses of madness yet genius, and continues through the myriad of complex relationships and stage roles. I only wish I could have seen it a second time to unravel more of the layers of this important for. The production doesn't shy away from the erotic energy of the dancer, nor the unique relationships he had with Diaghilev and co.
Click below for a great review of the ballet.
With the ensemble name like La Fraternità di soloisti, and a chamber group consisting of strings, my expectations were set to expect a program of Vivaldi and Corelli. And with a concert name like winter chills, could we be hearing anything but at least one of the Four Seasons?
Of course that would be far too obvious a program for one of Melbourne's newest ensembles of professional musicians ably conducted by the imposing Gyula (pronounced Jule) Cseszkó. I was delighted to discover a wonderfully varied program, featuring Arvo Pärt, Handel, Ernst Bloch and Dvorák.
We were guided through the program by a musicologist who gave the background to all the pieces of the concert. I very much appreciate this approach, especially for a lesser known program. It adds interest and provides a lilting rhythm to a concert. In this case the speeches were given quite earnestly, but the gentle humour was there for those who listened out for it.
The Pärt began the concert in a meditative, quasi-religious mood which suited the slightly gothic setting of the Auburn Uniting church. Its a surprisingly squat but large church, allowing the audience to surround the musicians; giving an "in-the-round" feel to the performance. The sonorous strings rising and falling like gentle waves in a sheltered bay, allowed the audience to shed outside cares and become present for the concert. If you needed anymore help to transport you to another era, you could have read the olde world version of the ten commandments emblazoned on the church columns. I realised there were many things of my neighbour's that I wasn't allowed to covet.
In the background to the group of about fifteen string players was the massive church organ, which was majestically brought into play for the Handel Organ concerto in B flat. Geoff Urquart strode confidently to his seat at the keyboard, and we could see the twinkle in his eye through the mirror he used to observe the conductor. The Handel concerto galloped along jauntily, and held together tightly. This was no sombre church music, but a joyous expression of the organ, beautifully accompanied by full throated strings, relishing the runs and turns.
My favourite piece for the concert was the Ernst Bloch - from "Jewish Life". Soloist Imogen Manins emerged from the orchestral group to sit next to the conductor. The opening of the piece began with weeping yearning cello, with the rich notes reverberating through the massive church pile, ably supported by the lower strings . I enjoyed the space given to the notes, the beautiful phrasing, the lingering in pain and sorrow. Just when the ache could be born no more, we were into the second movement, which was more beautiful, more lyrical; a pure tune of hope. It felt like being renewed in a bubbling fresh spring surrounded by soft grass. The third movement was an expression of love, underpinned by the interplay between solo cello and soli viola.
The encore evoked the spirit of Jaqueline du pré, and surprisingly the orchestra cello joined in towards the end. Beautiful.
After the interval, The "Fraternity of soloists" played the Dvorak Serenade for strings. Although I don't know the piece very well, I felt the early tempos were a little sombre for this piece. I found myself willing it along. Maybe I was eyeing off the tea and coffee, maybe I was looking for a bit more interest in the music. The musicologist described the piece as "joyful" and maybe that raised my expectations. The orchestra came through with the joy for the scherzo movement and the final Allegro vivace.
This is an orchestra in its president's own words, "finding its feet", and I very much appreciated the interesting programme, the fine playing and the added context provided by the musicologist. They are also attempting to give the audience a chance to connect with the experience by providing a social time afterwards with ample refreshments and access to the musicians. This was quite successful with a substantial part of the audience staying back to take up the offer, in the afterglow of a lovely concert.
Quirky is the wind quintet, even by their own admission.
Jaunty was their concert opening with three short pieces by Jaques Ibert. The opening allegro bounced around like a jalopy on a rough mountain track. The oboe is given some pretty slick work early on, but soon all join in to some pretty relentless technical work, handing runs on between each other with precision. The andante has beautiful pastoral tunes, dominated by a lovely clarinet and flute duet, whilst the final of the three plays to the quirkiness of the quintet, led by a clarinet solo with lots of interjections from the other players.
Arcadia is a fine new group, of confident and energetic performers coming out of ANAM and nurtured by Musica Viva. They look good on stage, each bringing their individual personality to the performance. It was great fun to watch them interact in bringing the music to life. They had also prepared some wonderful introductions to the pieces allowing them to each express their personality behind the microphone as well. I think this worked very well for such a programme which is less immediately recognisable.
This concert also presented the world premiere of a piece created by Musica Viva's Hildegard project. The Hildegard project aims to commission works by female composers. Composer Gabriella Vici is only 21 years old.
The piece "To Ash from Embers" was introduced by composer Gabrielle Vici herself. The piece begins serenely, but soon builds in excitement, like the swirling smoke and sparks evocative of the title. To help the reader get a sense of the piece, it reminded me of the excitement and rhythmic pulse of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. A barely contained chaos, yet with great structure and form. I imagined nymphs dancing in a shower of sparks from the fire. An enjoyable showcase for this talented quintet, and finally some modern classical music that you can listen to.
The spoken introduction to the final piece Carl Nielsen's wind quintet Op 43, was a joy to experience from this well spoken quintet. They told the famous story that Nielsen was inspired to write the piece after hearing the Copenhagen wind quintet play in the background when he was on the phone. The story goes he wrote the piece for these individuals to suit their character. This can all be found by a casual glance at Wikipedia, but the The Arcadia Quintet introduction went further to describe these various player characteristics, and challenged the audience to decide whether they too had these characteristics. They played up to these characteristics somewhat during the piece much to the delight of the audience. I particularly enjoyed the cor anglais section in the final movement of the work, as well as the interaction between the clarinet and bassoon which was highlighted in the talk. Now which instrument won the battle?
These guys are a bunch of fun with a lot of character. They also have a fine sense on how to entertain and put on a concert with great virtuosity with just just the right amount of humour and quirk to delight any audience.
There is something quite romantic in the idea of making a trip out of town to attend a music festival, especially in the middle of winter to one of the coldest places close to Melbourne, Woodend. The weather was bright but oh so chilly, while the church hall was warm and resonant with great music making. In between concerts we found ourselves an open fire and Glühwein at some of the local establishments.
The first thing that impressed us at Hofland Music, were the excellent acoustics of the Ambrose Church hall. The high domed ceiling and rectangular shape was reminiscent of fine concert halls like the Wigmore in London or the Konzerthalle in Berlin, though on a much more intimate scale. The sound was resonant and warm, all the way to the last pew. I did entertain a fantasy of ripping out the hard wooden church pews and replacing them with some lovely concert hall seating to complete the analogy.
I was lucky to sit up close and intimate to the booming rich accordion as played by the Italian Pietro Roffi. This instrument was an orchestra in a box, and Pietro had such a wonderful control of the bellows it was inspiring to watch. He gave a varied concert of "classical favorites" transcriptions and some exciting original music written for the instrument. The most interesting for me was a piece entitled Gernika by Gorka Hermosa. It was inspired by the Picasso painting of the same name. The piece captured the wrenching conflict, mirroring the chaos of the painting, the sheer terror and the beauty as well of the human spirit. He also played Astor Piazolla, a composer that is highly suited to the gypsy sound of this instrument, and Wladislaw Zolotarjov.
In the evening I got up close and personal to the big shiny black Steinway in the St Ambrose Hall. For a plain hall it was packed with atmosphere through its soft lighting, and warming heaters. The piano was placed well inside the semi circle of chairs. The audience surrounded pianist Clarence Lee, who came out looking the part in full concert regalia. His playing was big and exciting tackling the debussy Estampes, Chopin Ballade No 4 and Liszt Transcendental Etude No 8, Schubert Fantasie in C Major. He played with amazing attention to detail as well bringing out the music. I don't think he put a note wrong, and he captured the imagination of the audience, who almost wouldn't let him go. They cheered and stamped their feet until he gave two beautiful encores, graciously thanking the audience. By the end of the performance he was physically spent and dripping with sweat. A remarkable evening that would have stood its own in a much grander location but was all the more enjoyable for being in this intimate space.
The curator of the Melbourne Jazz festival introduced Hiromi trio project as a group playing at the forefront of modern jazz.
I’ve come back for a second concert, as I really enjoyed her incredible energy and technique when I was introduced to her in Singapore a few years ago. She attacks the piano with energy and joy, her fingers showing perfect classical technique, which she employs to create her spectacularly fast yet almost minimalist jazz. Usually she plays like one possessed by Satan. Yet in her reflective moments is angelic and delicate, and almost tuneful.
The music she plays is quite an intellectual challenge. Some of it seems to be merely in order to display the trio’s incredible precision. No matter how fast or complex the rhythms, the three players were glued together in the pocket. At its core the music could be described as Phillip Glass on speed. It was all repetition and texture with hardly a tune to be revealed. Due to the super hot drum playing, which in the final analysis was far to loud in the mix, Hiromi didn’t have the chance to display the emotional range that she did in Singapore. It felt a bit like a competition between the piano and drummer, with the big black Yamaha losing out in the end despite a bank of microphones pointed to the massive soundboard. How can you win against a towering drum kit with about 100 inviting things to hit hard? The drummer has played with a lot of rock bands including The Who. The poor old guy on bass never had a look in despite some pretty vigorous strumming. If you have watched the film whiplash you would get an idea of the intensity of drumming on display. There was one big cymbal at the front of this massive tower of a kit, which I was just aching for him to hit. Finally in the last piece he got around to it, and it boomed out like a gong at a Buddhist temple.
Having made my complaint about drummers who abuse their fire power, there was a lot to like about the concert. At times it was almost mesmerizing as the trio were so seamlessly together. Hiromi is a rare talent sitting at the piano, punk hair in a tangle of pseudo dreadlocks that point to the sky. Her face flits between elfish and devil as she shows complete mastery of the keys. Her connection with the audience consisted of impish stares and wide-eyed delight as the notes rolled away in a whirling dervish. She augmented the piano with a small electric number sitting on the deck, usually playing one up and one down, never one to sit still long. The audience loved the show, but from what I overheard were split between, the drummer being the wickedest thing since the Rollin Stones or that he was just too much. But all agreed Hiromi is a little dynamic wonder, the energy behind this little band of opposites.
A few weeks ago I indulged in a little guilty pleasure of going to see Baby et Lulu, a cute group I discovered at the Port Fairy folk festival. This was a singing duet of powerful ladies again having an all male band behind them. The name is a hint to the fact that this group likes to be a little bit French, and they are as retro as Hiromi Trio Project is modern. They delight in presenting a humorous faux French front. They switch cleverly between faux French accents and broad Australian accents. To keep the audience feeling smug with itself, they throw in enough French that we all know, to make us feel like we are in on the joke as well. They sing many classic French Chanson in the vein of Serge Gainsbourg and Eidth Piaff, as well as songs they have written in the same style.
The patter is funny, sometimes a little awkward, always very knowing. Sometimes it’s a little play on cliché, the sexual innuendo is light, with the joke mainly being on the boys. But it’s the perfect interlude to some very good singing. Musically the band shines. Beautiful voices, well suited to the repertoire, with very even French intonation. The piano a bass player and a small drum kit complete the picture. The bass player is very funny, and the pianist chimes in occasionally as well.
This very retro show played perfectly in the caravan club which is itself super retro. A gem to discover down in suburban Oakleigh. Looking forward to more shows down here.
Orchestra Victoria is one of my favourite Melbourne Orchestras. Maybe I have a soft spot for them because my oboe teacher Stephen Robinson is a long time member, but its bigger than that since they are the hard working orchestra that accompanies the ballet and the opera in Melbourne. This year they will even be in the pit for the Houston ballet tour of Melbourne, and Opera Australia's Ring cycle.
To the four winds was presented at their rehearsal home down at the Albert Park lake, and by 4.45 there was standing room only for this free concert presented by the Orchestra Victoria Wind section, in various configurations from duo to quartet.
All the works were presented with a (usually humourous), short introduction by the players themselves. The playing was of course flawless, and in the pocket. The program choices were delightful. It started with Beethoven variations for two oboes and for angles on a theme by Mozart. The tune was of course recognisable and the playing smooth and rich in tone. A bassoon duet written by Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone was a great showcase for these bass winds.
Demonstrating the delights of seeing music performed live, the clarinet section gave a wonderful performance of Francis Poulenc Sonata for two clarinets. Paul and Justin weaved their bodies and soared together seamlessly, providing a complete performance both visually and aurally. Music you can see being made and expressed.
A quartet came together for Bozza, a stalwart of wind chamber composing. Australian composer Ross Edwards was also featured in a flute duet entitled Ecstatic Dances for two flutes - a title for which one can only imagine the flute playing.
The program concluded with Malcolm Arnolds Divertimento for flute oboe and clarinet. One of those finger flying pieces with contemplative interludes.
A fun afternoon of great playing. I'd love to encourage everyone to get behind this series, but I don't need to. Top tip - arrive early for the next one.
Sometimes Hofland Music goes out after dark without a microphone. Here's a selection of great culture that we have seen