What an orchestra!

A bewitching composition by Elena Katz-Chernin

A bewitching composition by Elena Katz-Chernin

Reflecting the unique nature of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), its fifth birthday concert on 28  September  in the Sydney Opera House could be reviewed from two different perspectives. Both are worthy of resounding praise.But first, a summary of what this orchestra is all about. It began with an idea developed by two Australian musicians, oboist Nick Deutsch and conductor Alexander Briger. They wanted to assemble Australian musicians who had won places in the finest orchestras around the world and put them together with the best players in Australian state orchestras to play occasional concerts in Australia – although its popularity has now created opportunities to play overseas. The first concert was in 2011and was so successful that it has created continuing sell-out demand, partly because it is one of the best orchestras in the world and partly because it plays so rarely. Moreover, each time it is heard it comprises a different set of players – giving it a mystical quality.

The orchestra booked the Sydney Opera House for two consecutive nights with a different conductor and program for each. Last night, under Alexander Briger, the AWO played Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 and a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin.

First, let’s look at this as a purely classical concert. Because the players are all top rated orchestral musicians (as distinct from soloists) they naturally form a perfect combination. The sound makes you feel as though you’ve just had the wax cleared from your ears. It is needle sharp in attack, grand in its ability to produce massive volume without harshness, and a clarity within instrumental sections that is hard to believe.

Initially, I questioned the wisdom of opening the concert with the hackneyed Ravel’s Bolero, but the performance totally won me over. Maestro Briger walked to the podium, the music began, but he didn’t conduct it. Rather he stood listening to the familiar, faint dialogue between kettle drum (placed in the geographical centre of the orchestra) and flute. It wasn’t until well past the halfway mark that he released his folded hands to direct his players. Bolero served a dual purpose. It methodically introduced these outstanding instrumentalists in ensemble groups or as soloists and, to me, was a metaphor for the birth and growth of the AWO project. I doubt Briger consciously intended it that way, but I’ll take credit for this interpretation.

Bolero was followed by a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This was not only an Australian premier, but a first-time experience for musicians and audience alike. The eight double bass players migrated from the back of the orchestra to the front of the stage, placing the conductor behind them – which presented a challenge because they couldn’t see him. I guessed that Kats-Chernin had taken this into account with her four movement score, because there seemed to be no call for a coordinated hit from soloists and orchestra.

The work makes for accessible listening but still manages to create a unique sound palate. The eight double bases sometimes played in unison and sometimes in parts. The effect was almost physical as the giant notes vibrated audience backbones and sternums. This was music that was easy to love at first hearing, switching between percussion jousts, the distant tinkling of the celeste, rhythmic storms, floods of strings and the occasional descent into spooky darkness.

Alexander Briger told me that after its Australian premier, quite a number of prominent conductors, Sir Simon Rattle among them, want the score for a performance. I rate this piece an outstanding addition to Australian composition.

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 in E Minor, which gave the AWO an opportunity to show just what it could do with the variety of colours on offer. Like Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s fifth is a veteran of orchestral concerts, but played by the AWO (and let’s not discount Briger’s masterful conducting) it sounded almost like a new piece.

The other perspective I mentioned earlier is to review the night as entertainment. In addition to the three ‘serious’ pieces, the program included two short works played by a combination of some AWO members and talented musical kids from around NSW. Then, to add to the festive feel of the concert, certain audience members sitting in the boxes had been given streamers and throwing lessons so the musicians might feel like they were aboard a departing ship. And, unusually, the orchestra played an encore: Star Wars no less. Fun, yes, but being a grumpy old bugger I could have done without it. I got my best laugh towards the end of the Tchaikovsky when Briger paused the orchestra in a rest and some chump in the circle started clapping.


A little too gentle?

Like to have a cup of tea and a scone with Nelson.

Like to have a cup of tea and a scone with Nelson.

After his sensitive and powerful rendition of the Schumann piano concerto with the SSO last week I was looking forward to a sparkling solo recital form Nelson Freire last night – but I didn’t get it.

Freire has been, and probably still is, in the top drawer of international pianists – certainly by reputation, anyway. And, if you like the piano to sound as though somebody has sprayed foam inside it, this was the recital for you. Although 72 year old Freire still possesses a formidable technique and is a master of phrasing, he keeps the sound bottled up for most of the time. Many of my audience colleagues to whom I spoke didn’t agree with me and I’ll take that one on the chin. I was looking for excitement rather than gentle contemplation and maybe they weren’t.

On the indisputable plus side was the choice of program. It covered Bach piano transcriptions, a Beethoven sonata, a Debussy suite and a Chopin sonata. In other words, something for everybody, thank you Nelson.

We began with Siloti’s take on Bach’s Organ Prelude, BWV 535 – a great recital opener because it allows a warmup with unhurried, predictable chords before suddenly exploding into two handed runs and forte wallops. Another prolific Bach transcriber, Busoni, provided piano versions of two choral preludes, BWV 639 and 667. They seemed to want more vivid treatment from Freire even though the wheels wobbled fearsomely towards the end of 667.

Myra Hess’s crowd-pleaser arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring rounded out the transcriptions. Freire’s reverential quiet was well placed here.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op 110 got the Chopinesque nocturnal treatment from Freire when I was itching for a bit of blood and thunder. The only passages that approached forte were near the end of the final movement.

This gentler take on Beethoven may have made for pleasant enough listening, but didn’t demand my attention.

If Freire’s Beethoven was contemplative, it was no surprise that Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite danced about on spongy grass. These pieces were composed for Debussy’s daughter, ‘Chouchou’, and are utterly charming. Freire played them in that context, but his interpretation would have had a bigger impact if they had been preceded by lustier playing.

The jewel in the crown was undoubtedly the Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op.58. Chopin had reverted to the four movement sonata form at this stage in his composing career, but he broke new ground within that framework. This is Chopin at his most dramatic and also his most lyrical. Although you couldn’t accuse Freire of hitting wrong notes or not being able to attack a passage like an express train, his right and left hand often seemed to be in disagreement as to where they were in the score. Having said that, I loved his third movement, largo. When the melody shifted to the left hand, supported by a repetitive major sixth figure in the right, it became a heart melter – perfectly suiting his performance style. In the final presto non tanto movement Freire let the lion out of its cage with a brilliant technical and interpretive display and I wish he’d opened the door earlier in the recital.

Apart from his playing, Nelson Freire extracts great affection from his audience. Modesty comes across in the way he walks, sits unmoving at that keyboard (like Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz used to) and shyly bows to applause. On this occasion he was generous with encores which included a deliciously played Chopin Mazurka and Grieg’s “Wedding day at Troldhaugen” – more of a shotgun wedding actually, judging by its furious speed.




Boys from Brazil

Marcelo Lehninger let his hair down with Rachmaninov's second symphony.

Marcelo Lehninger let his hair down with Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Not athletes or para-athletes in Rio this time, but a Brazilian conductor and a pianist who, with considerable help from the SSO, produced an outstanding concert in the APT Master Series last night. The conductor was Marcelo Lehninger who, at 37, is in baton world ascendancy while 72-year-old pianist, Nelson Freire, showed that age is irrelevant when it comes to technique and musicality. The program began, appropriately, with an overture. Beethoven wrote several as concert pieces not related to specific theatrical works. This time we were treated to Coriolan, Op.62 which, after arresting unadorned C octaves and big replying chords, gives way to a pleasant theme with a few detours into dramatic recapitulations. The conclusion is so hushed that it had those not familiar with the piece wondering why Lehninger had stopped waving his arms.

The furniture removalists then got work positioning the Steinway in centre stage and redistributing the orchestral chairs for the arrival of Nelson Freire to join the SSO in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. Although this piano concerto ranks among the best of the genre, it is not as popular as it once was, lacking the growl and howl of those by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Grieg, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky, all crowd favourites in the current heroic age.If you want liaisons with the orchestra and unobvious technical demands, this is the perfect piano concerto.

The first movement sat around unloved for years as a Phantasie for Piano and Orchestra before Schumann added a second and third movement, thus enabling his famous pianist wife, Clara, to show it off in her repertoire.

The first dramatic statements from the piano immediately established Freire as both a powerful and sensitive interpreter of this concerto. For the most part, he played with bell-like clarity, taking a great deal of trouble to merge with the orchestra and hit bullseyes together. Only very occasionally was a flicker of muddiness discernible, such as in the two descending runs in the first movement cadenza. Perhaps because I was brought up on the peerless Lipatti recording of the Schumann I’ve become too fussy. Anyway I’m looking forward to hearing Nelson Freire in his solo recital next Monday where he’ll range over several composers.

The removal of the piano and another shuffle of chairs brought the orchestra back, this time with substantial reinforcements (bull fiddle count: eight) to perform Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27. Hard to believe, but Rachmaninov had great doubts about this second symphony, especially after the hostile reception to his first. Vladimir Ashkenazy once told me: ‘Rachmaninov was not a confident composer’ yet to hear the second symphony you’d think just the opposite. It lasts for just on an hour without ever dragging or allowing you to nod off, or even relax. Most of the orchestra is busy for most of the time and pulls you along with it. The sweeping passion, the rich sadness and the occasional driving rhythms make this a great showpiece for a good orchestra, and the SSO responded brilliantly. Yes, the players were up to it, but I had the feeling that the conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, had a lot to do with the excellence of the performance. He’s an animated mover on the podium; not a leaper like some, but an upper body flinger. During quieter passages he’d lean on his podium rail or use his hands instead of his baton. I didn’t take this as affectation but as an overwhelming enthusiasm for the music. It certainly gave the appearance of having the orchestra totally with him.

The symphony comes in four distinct movements but fragments of earlier themes return to enhance cohesion. The fourth and final movement is spectacular, finishing with a heart-bursting roar after building, falling away and building again in Wagnerian style. And you can’t help being reminded of Tchaikovsky, except that the orchestration is better.  But for sheer beauty, to the point of tears, you’d go no further than the third adagio movement which, to quote the program notes by Philip Sametz, ‘is perhaps the greatest love duet never written for the stage.’ Here, the honeyed clarinet of Francesco Celata wove pure magic.





Beware the high-tech shopping trolley

This trolley is loaded with menace

This trolley is loaded with menace

Shopping trolleys have not escaped the march of technology. Once, there was only one model that every retailer used until the Ancient Order of Trolley Shopping Designers produced the one whose wheels clamp themselves on to the moving footway and seem to defy gravity. Then came the lite trolley, a limited capacity two-storey model for afterthought shopping. Now we have the smart trolley that gets extremely shitty when you take it out of its territory and petulantly locks its front wheel.

I never took too much notice of this miracle of trolley self-determination. I imagined a trolley wheel locking control room deep in the bowels of the shopping center where CCTV would show a uniformed operator which trolley was about to enter unauthorized territory and would throw the wheel locking switch. But no, it would all be computer controlled, like every other bloody thing.

Fast forward to my visit to Dan Murphy’s last Sunday evening. I’d left my wife organising a social event at the Golden Sheaf Hotel (there used to be a brothel in Surry Hills called the Golden Sheath, I recall) while I went to Dan Murphy’s to stock up on alcoholic beverages and spirituous liquors. I’d parked the car in the street to avoid having to fork out hard earned cash in favour of an overstay in Woolies car park.

I get a bit fanciful once I’m let loose in Dan Murphy’s. In addition to needful beers, mixers and wines, I become mesmerized by the variety of drinks I’ve never seen before and have to try. My Dan Murphy’s trolley was near capacity when it came to the checkout where one of those young men who are trained to do things very quickly consolidated my selections into two, very heavy boxes. I paid and pushed my trolley to the moving footway and proceeded at bridal speed to ground level. My car was strategically parked about 100 meters away and I set off, pushing my smart trolley in front of me. As soon as I left the invisible radio field of the building the trolley pulled its predetermined trick and its front wheel locked.

My load of alcoholic beverages and spirituous liquors was too heavy to allow me to lift the trolley back into its happy zone. It might just as well have been welded to the pavement.

Dilemma. The two laden boxes were too heavy to carry to the car together but if I carried one, I’d have to leave the other to the Double Bay liquor street thieves who hang around for such opportunities.

Since it was about seven o’clock in the evening and the crowd had thinned out a bit, I reasoned the Double Bay liquor street thieves might have called it a day too. Anyway, I had no choice. I selected the box with the more expensive grog and waddled away to my car, risking a triple hernia. Once I’d secured it inside I ran back, ready to wrestle my remaining grog away from a felon, but the immovable trolley was still there with its load. I took the second box to the car.

Now, what revenge could I wreak upon the trolley? I had no weapons. Hitting it would hurt me more than the trolley. I could have kicked its offending wheel but broken my big toe. In the end, I left the bastard where it was. Dan could deal with it.

Piano man goes back to school

Piano man goes back to school

While I can play the piano, my childhood piano teacher, Miss Bayley, didn’t teach me much music theory – largely because she didn’t know much herself. About sixty years later I decided to correct this by going back to learn theory. But not to Miss Bayley, who would be about 128 years old and possibly retired. In any case, she lives interstate. I therefore enrolled in a course at the Sydney Conservatorium.

I never had the enthusiasm for Miss Bayley that I have for my current lecturer, a woman in her fortish with undisciplined hair, a variety of interesting boots and a ready laugh. I don’t even mind having to share her with a class of others striving to understand the endless intricacies of musical notation. Her classes are as joyful as they are instructive. Last week we tackled the 12 bar blues, as a musical idiom. This, with variations, is the backbone of many songs about trouble, probably because it came from the imported black cotton slaves of early America. Our homework was to write a 12 bar blues song based on a certain chord progression. The lyrics of my song were, roughly, “While I was having my leg amputated after a cotton machine accident my woman ran off with my best friend who lives next door, leaving me with seven kids – all girls.” The lecturer said that many blues songs were about people who might return or have just left, often with mutually saved family funds. I must say that when I’d written my music and played it over a few times there was no doubt: it was terrible. I won’t be entering it for Eurovision.

One of our main subjects is rhythm, indicated by the key signature and the length of the written notes. My imagination immediately jumped to the conclusion that rhythm would play a significant role in the sex lives of dedicated musicians. Instead of whispered words of love they would communicate with seductive time signature and note value suggestions, plus terms like prestissimo for when things are hotting up or largo for lying back later. The couple would start out with a few minum feelers, a heavy chord or two, some predictable crotchets which would turn into semiquavers as the pace quickened, and finish with a rushing upscale of hemi demisemiquavers. Then descending arpeggios, and soft, big minor semibreve chords as they go off to sleep. Quite a few composers have written musical intercourse. If you listen to Liszt’s famous ‘Liebestraum’ you’ll hear what I mean. This is as close Franz got to porm, I think.