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A testing night for some, bliss for others


Sydney Opera House concert 9 March 2016


Olivier loved a good scarf

The SSO went out on a limb presenting a single work by a contemporary composer for the usually predictable ATP Master Series concert last night. 

After a mini-season of Beethoven, Olivier Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars bordered on shock treatment. This French composer creates quite a divide among music lovers, and even in the ranks of those who profess love for his music there are the genuine and the pretenders. The night revealed the two distinct camps. The genuine and pretenders cheered and stamped their feet at the end while the haters snuck out between movements, hunched over like escaping convicts.

Not only was the music challenging, but the way the opera house had been set up was offbeat as well. Seats in the boxes above the stage and the choir stalls had been cordoned off and the people who would have sat there were placed in the body of the house, giving the impression of a substantial turnout. The reason for the move was to accommodate a giant screen to show images that the music was also conveying. It was quite an effective device. Without the visuals, the music alone would, for many people, have been hard to tolerate.

The changes of surroundings didn’t stop there. The house lights, strongly favouring blue, came up and down during the performance while floor level stage lighting faded in and out through a range of colours to fit the location and mood of the movement.

Fine art photographer, Deborah O’Grady, had provided the screen images of the Utah canyons, which varied between movie and still photography, often cross-fading to produce some mysterious and beautiful effects. She and conductor, David Robertson, gave a myth busting pre-concert talk, which I’d recommend to upcoming concertgoers. Robertson, who speaks as well as he conducts, told how he’d spent some boyhood time in the Utah canyons which had inspired Messiaen’s twelve movement, hour and a half work. Robertson’s love for the piece was obvious and I’d guess it had been burning a hole in his back pocket for quite a while.

Messiaen, who lived between 1908 and 1992, is regarded as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. His composition style was based on a system of invented modes, meaning that it seldom strays into generally accepted tonal harmony. There are occasional sublime passages, such as those found in the eighth movement (The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran), but for the most part a war rages between the members of the unusually constituted orchestra. If I suggested that much of this piece could be seen as a series of highly inventive sound effects produced by an orchestra, I’d be put in the village stocks and pelted with ripe tomatoes. But I think there is some truth in it, especially as Messiaen clearly states that he set out to imitate several birdcalls in the music.

In many ways the piece is a piano concerto. The piano, lidless, sits at the front of the orchestra and is heard continually and often dominantly throughout the work. The piano score is incredibly difficult to play and French pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard handled it superbly. Two of the 12 movements are for solo piano – at which time David Robertson left his podium to become Aimard’s page-turner. I felt great affection for him doing that.

Aimard locks horns with more Messiaen next week for his solo recital at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.

The make-up of the orchestra was light on strings (only one bull-fiddle) but strong on brass and woodwind. As part of a substantial percussion section it boasted a xylorimba and glockenspiel (cousins of the xylophone) and an eoliphone – in lay terms a wind machine – which Vaughn Williams used to great effect in Symphonia Antarctica.

 I admit to being happy in my musical comfort zone and I resist being confronted by the likes of Messiaen, but I know the stretch is good for the mind and the soul. I used to jeer at the music of Charles Ives but now I love it. One day I may say the same for Messiaen.




A night at the pictures

Sydney Recital Hall 15 February 2016

Pictures are what American pianist imgresOhlsson had in mind for his recital last night, the first of the International pianists in Recital concerts for 2016 in the Sydney City Recital Hall.

His program comprised two long works about paintings. The first was Goyescas by Granados, not heard as often as the second, Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. But before we got started on the big double bill, Ohlsson warmed up with a short, unremarkable piece by Granados, Oriental from 12 Danzas espanolas. This set the Spanish idiom and enabled Ohlsson to befriend the piano, which was to take quite a pounding by the time he took his final bow.

Granados (1867-1916) was inspired to write Goyescas by fellow Spaniard Goya’s paintings. Some of the six pieces in the set directly refer to a particular painting while others are more general impressions. With their lightening modulations, bursts of complex harmony and suggested guitar rhythms, they are unmistakeably Spanish, joining the style genre of Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla. And they are extremely difficult to bring off.

Although Ohlsson is much admired for his Chopin, as evidenced by two of his encores being waltzes, he is equally at home with Spanish music. He took tricky mordents in his stride and heightened the romantic excitement with beautifully executed pauses. Goyescas is a big ask for any pianist because it calls for maintaining rhythmic control while dealing with fistfuls of intervening notes and also bringing out a melody. In Ohlsson’s case, his technique was not only up to the task, but he managed to produce multiple voices through the turmoil. In doing so, he never seemed hurried or harassed.

The best-known piece of the Goyescas set is The Maiden and the Nightingale, which is often played as a stand-alone solo. Ohlsson made it his own with certainly the best live, and possibly the best-recorded performance I’ve heard. The rest of the set was in the same class: an absolute delight.

Pictures at an Exhibition came after intermission and signalled a change to Russian romanticism. Mussorgsky’s inspiration came from the work of

Russian painter, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky’s evocations of the paintings are direct references, separated in most cases by a promenade theme which appears in various guises as we are walked though the exhibition.

Oddly, the orchestration by Ravel in 1920 put the piece on the map and only after that did pianists include the original piano version in their repertories. Now the orchestral and piano versions are both popular.

Each of the group of eleven pictures is vivid in it’s own way and gives the performer opportunities to explore different styles. After a triumphant Goyescas, I anticipated that Ohlsson would emphatically nail the Mussorgsky but it didn’t quite work out that way. The opening promenade went off at a pace that was more a mechanical trot than an art exhibition stroll. While there were passages of brilliance among the evocations, it left an uneven impression.

Gnome revealed Ohlsson’s technical power but when we moved to The Old Castle we got just notes. Children Quarrelling at Play was pleasingly accurate and lively, as was the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. There were stirring moments in Limoges Market too, but Ohlsson tackled Oxen with such ferocity I thought the piano might collapse. Garrick is a big fella whose volume has earthquake potential, but it has to be handled with care. Having said that, I loved him laying into the Great Gate of Kiev to bring Exhibition to a shattering close.

At sixty seven Ohlsson is showing no sign of slowing down and is popular among Australian audiences who like too be entertained as well as educated. When he sits at the piano, only his arms and hands move. There is no gymnastic display that is often the case with his contemporaries. And on this occasion he drew a good crowd for the Recital Hall venue that pianists find virtually impossible to fill. Among its number was his long time friend and colleague, Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is in town Beethoven-bound, and came along to applaud a talent he obviously admires.

Thus spake Edo de Waart


SSO Opera House concert 25 November 2015

Edo de Waart, who was chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra between 1992 and 2003, returned to the Opera House to conduct the final concert in the APT Master Series last night. I found it inspiring, writes Fraser Beath McEwing

Two preludes from Wagner’s Lohengrin were bookends for a substantial organic middle featuring visiting Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry.

I could imagine the SSO program meeting when somebody said “Look, if we’re going to power up the organ for Strauss’s Zarathustra, and make poor Olivier climb the stairs to play it, we ought to throw in something else while he’s up there.”

Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the result. Unlike Thus Spake Zarathustra, where the organ does little more than shudder the Opera House foundations to start the symphonic poem, Jongen’s work promotes the organ to that of a busy concerto soloist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The concert opened with Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1, announcing itself with exquisite, barely audible strings and then building passion, layer by layer. Almost immediately, I joined de Waart’s fan club as he continually extracted unhurried richness, texture and colour from the orchestra.

To me, Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the highlight of the concert. It is rarely performed, little known, and by a Belgian organist/composer who few people (me included) have experienced. It deserves better recognition, although Jongen, (1873 – 1953) was his own worst enemy. He withdrew many of his works because he didn’t think they were good enough. The Symphonie Concertante has survived as his best-known composition, but there are more than 200 others that probably have some gems among them.

Falling midway between a symphony and a concerto, it runs for about 35 minutes over four movements. Beautifully orchestrated, and giving the organ the opportunity to hit its straps, often solo, there are stylistic reminders of Franck, Ravel, Holst and Vaughn Williams without plagiarising any of them. Moving between driving rhythmic figures and mysterious whispers, the music is never tedious. There was a remarkable moment in the third movement (molto lento misterioso) when flautist Janet Webb blew the longest note I’ve ever heard in one breath from the instrument and didn’t fall off her chair. And if you like an air-punching, explosive finish you won’t hear better than the end of the final movement. It even had the usually mini-movement de Waart stirring invisible ponds and scooping up handfuls of air as he flew down the straight.

The second half of the concert was like a mirror image of the first. Richard Strauss’s Nietzsche inspired Thus Spake Zarathustra is a great favourite of concert audiences, especially after Stanley Kubrick bit off the beginning for his famous movie. Zarathustra also takes advantage of organic power, but leaves the organist seated and largely unemployed for all but the beginning of the piece. I think the program would have worked better with the two organ/orchestra pieces played in reverse order, so that we got more organ as we went along, rather than less.

Although a few musicians came and went throughout the four pieces, the orchestra was at full strength for most of the time. Eight bull fiddles can vibrate the backbone to say nothing of the atom-smashing effect of two well blown tubas. There were some grand sounds on offer.

To end the concert, and as a farewell to the APT Master Series for the year, the orchestra belted out the three minute long Lohengrin Prelude to Act III by Wagner. Taken out of its operatic context this becomes a crowd-pleasing bonbon. It sent everybody home with a spring in the step, and a feeling that this had been an uplifting and satisfying evening.