18 November 2017

Like the Berliners

From the first phrase I knew this was fabulous. It was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing for Musica Viva in Llewellyn Hall. I don't usually attend Musica Viva although I know they are very good, but this was OAE and they are renowned and it's something I do. And some great seats were surprisingly reasonable for a renowned group of 20 touring from London. But back to that first phrase. It just sat so nicely and its internal movements were just so unified. That's dynamics and playing together, as well as all the obvious things like intonation and chops. It was like the whole just breathed; not that they breathed together but the group breathed as one. In the end, I decided it was relaxation and quiet. They relaxed, so the group could sit then attack together, or wait for a lead, so the conversation was open and obvious. I just once felt one instrument anticipate. Lesser mortals do it all the time - it's a nasty habit to speed up when you're less comfortable. And they played the quiets, so pps had you in your seat, and p was common and mf augured and ff blasted and Llewellyn was full with no excessive volume. As for the chops, they were just assumed. The quavers doubled to semiquavers in a wink with no hint of hesitation; the intonation just sat, sweetly. The leadership was often subtle, often just obvious, tips and bows and smiles and frowns. Rachel Podger was director and soloist for two Mozart concerti (vln conc no.1 Bbmaj K207; von conc no.5 Amaj K219), most obviously wearing white to the others' black. She stood centrally to others' sitting for the concerti, but stood as concertmaster with the others for the symphonies (Haydn symph no.26 Dmin; JCBach symph Gmin op.6 no.6). And she was playful. Nodding and smiling, looking openly to the audience and often glancing or prompting or swinging with the others. They had music on stands, but they were reasonably free from it. The horns were baroque and they had hooks on music stands for different insert tuning tubes. The celli, bass and bassoon sat throughout. The bass was 4-string and the cellos were pegless. The oboes and bassoon were baroque and the strings were gut and the bows were period. What else? There was a joy in milking notes and phrases, with delightful intent. There was an odd dissonance somewhere in mvt.3 Mozart K219 (I'm sure it was written) and what only seemed like slap bass bow (?!?) also in that movement. The horns could be luscious; I hardly noticed the bassoon except when I listened for it; I was amused to see one baroque oboe player looking to the gods with a reed in his mouth. Just fabulous. Going out after was just confirmation. Fellow musos claiming it's the best or unbelievable. I just thought back to Berlin Phil and how it seemed not so much great as just so right. This is the other time I've experienced that. Music that flowed with feeling and joy and purpose and had you leaning in your seat for more, for detail, for joy and conversation. Not Berlin this time, but London, here in Canberra sadly for just one night. Just fabulous.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed at Llewellyn Hall for Musica Viva. The OAE was led by Rachel Podger (violin) with Daniel Bates, Leo Duarte (oboes), Sally Jackson (bassoon), Roger Montgomery, Martin Lawrence (horns), Rodolfo Richter, Iona Davies, Roy Mowatt, Claire Holden, Daniel Edgar, Alice Evans, Kinga Ujszaszi, Stephen Rouse (violins), Max Mandel, Nicholas Logie, Martin Kelly (violas), Sarah McMahon, Catherine Rimer (cellos), Cecilia Bruggemeyer (bass).

17 November 2017

Exploring our eon

Canberrans consider the South Coast their backyard, so I guess I can at least jot this down here. Megan and I have just returned from three days at the coast to visit rocks and fossils: a geological field trip from Ulladulla to Bermagui. Geophysicist Doug and Carol led a group of 30-or-so to the various rocky, storm-eroded beachside outcrops that expose the underlying geology. And incredibly, over that short distance, we saw three exposed layers of rocks: the southern tip of the Sydney basin (~250mya, sedimentary, rich in fossils) through the Batemans Bay Melange (~500mya, metamorphic) to igneous (~50mya, basalts, cherts, pillow lavas, etc) at the southern end. We'd walked over much of this before, but it's different with some knowledge. Our mate Nancy is interested in Aboriginal women's matters so we got a parallel course in stone tools, fish traps, middens and the like. What a great combination of social, physical and educational: clambering over rocks, chatting any manner of things, learning of rocks and fossils, photographing too much, getting an early dose of Vitamin D and tan for summer, meeting for coffees or dinner. Memorable. Just some of very many pics.

16 November 2017

Warring the sexes

How incorrect can you get? It's massively out of era, but I loved it. It was Guys and Dolls, the musical from 1950, performed by the Queanbeyan Players. Amateurs, perhaps, but with some seriously good singing, some decent dancing, a capable band, huge commitment and lots and lots of performers. It's not something you'll see with the profs these days because they can't pay for it and keep the ticket prices reasonable, but the amateurs can have 40 performers on stage, plus a band of 25 musicians, also on stage, and everyone's loving it. This was the final performance of the season, so the preparation was evident and the enjoyment was rife. And the music and book, all great. I'd listened to the sound track before and it didn't particularly click, but with the story and characters presented live, it all worked. G&D was released in 1950 and would have won the 1951 Pulitzer prize for drama but for writer Abe Burrows having troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee and Columbia University vetoing the selection. In the end, there was no Pulitzer for Drama for that year. G&D is the story of Nathan Detroit, local Craps promoter, and his lover of 14-years, always soon-to-be-married, Miss Adelaide, bar singer. And in parallel, Sarah Brown, Broadway Salvation Army sergeant and her to-be beau, Sky Masterton, superior gambler. It's a story of its time with dark shades to feminism, but it's got essential truths amongst the period romanticism. The music is great; the characters and the story work. Perhaps except that it ends so suddenly and strangely unsatisfactorily, when Sky, in a totally unlikely, sudden and unexplained twist, joins the church. But there's a certain humanity here and that's important. I loved it. The players performed with gusto and plenty of serious capability. And it's not a lightweight outing: including interval, it lasted 3 hours. A fabulous outing that I'll remember. Just another example of the very capable and productive local non-professional theatre around here in Canberra.

Guys and Dolls was presented by the Queanbeyan Players at TheQ. Key performers were Kitty McGarry (Sarah Brown), Tina Robinson (Miss Adelaide), Steve Galenic (Sky Masterton) and Anthony Swadling (Nathan Detroit). The Production team included Jude Colquhoun (director) and Jenna Hinton (musical director).

  • The main pic is my photo of a publicity pic on show in the foyer. I guess that's kosher for copyright purposes.
  • 14 November 2017

    Jazzy youf

    Jazz meets classics. It's not the first time this year for the Canberra Youth Orchestra. There's much to say about this outing. It's the last concert of their 50th year season and the orchestra was big, partly from ~20 CYO alumni who were sitting in. So the bass section was 6 not 5 and the orchestra was seriously big. The audience was also generous: Llewellyn Hall was virtually full. And the featured guests, James Morrison and his quartet, were a blast. So what to make of all this? The orchestra introduced each set with a piece. First set, this was Gershwin American in Paris; second set was Copland Appalachian Spring concert suite. All well performed but I had a clear preference. The Gershwin was a busy, street-wise piece, challenging and alive; the Copland is well-recognised and features some recognisable themes, but seemed relatively tame. Obviously, I preferred the Gershwin. Then, Morrison came on for a few tunes each set. James Morrison is a superb instrumentalist, fabulously adept at multiple instruments, clearly world-class in his field. And he's an entertainer, jokey and personable, as you need to be to make a living in this business. And he has a great little band with him: two sons, on guitar and bass, and a drummer. I'd seen most of the band (without papa) at Smiths and been mightily impressed by their dynamics, their cleverness and chops, their melodicism and the rest. They are seriously good players and papa is world-class. No doubt. And he's an entertainer, so those non-jazzy types were putty in his hands. We got a powerful blast of post-swing jazz and we knew it was good. JM does it throughout the world; that mix of hot jazz and luscious orchestration. He did it for us here, too, and I loved it. It sells, it's popular, it's supremely capable and very inviting entertainment. Local Zach Raffan came on too, to jam with the master. He did well, although James was obviously being gentle. JM is seriously a master of very many instruments. His ease of melodicism, his embellishments, his beauteous tone, especially on the various brass instruments, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, were a thing to admire. His flugelhorn was the strangest look, vertical with rotary valves, but had the sweetest tone I've heard. His trombone came with polyphonics (perhaps courtesy of his chops??). His piano was impressive. His chatter was polished. They played All blues, Enchanted (an original by JM), Round midnight, Caravan, Mood indigo, Love is a many splendoured thing, My funny valentine, El gato (Ellington) and a blues encore. All hot as or emotional as. I could only dream of playing like this. Dynamics, melodies, ease. Not too much challenge but always right and richly inventive within its world. Not the current state of the art, but hugely capable and I loved it. And the added orchestral richness was a huge pleasure.

    The Canberra Youth Orchestra performed at Llewellyn Hall with the James Morrison Quartet comprising James Morrison (trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano sax, trombone, piano), William Morrison (guitar), Harry Morrison (bass) and Patrick Danao (drums).

    12 November 2017

    Thoughts on bass

    The minutes leading up to Hayley Manning's graduation recital had me perplexed. There were a string of bassists and a tabla setup. Ben and Kyle on each side of the stage with a tabla player between. Geoff and Brendan were down the back on bass, something I only realised later. At the starting time, Hayley arrived upfront to play a freeform melody by Francois Rabbath against a low-E drone from the other basses. They left and Hayley introduced the next works as more conventional. Misek Sonata no.1 Amaj and Koussevitsky Concerto F#maj, both played with piano accompaniment. These are not trivial works and F# is not a trivial key. I was in awe of Hayley's thumb positions, harmonics, long scales and the like. Technical challenges abounded and she did them justice. Then the final work, Anderson Capriccio no.2, a contemporary bass work played solo, with a "flurry of rhythms notes that display the full raw power and potential of the double bass as a solo instrument" (from the program notes). How apt: this one worked for me as a bass solo piece. It got me thinking of the role of bass. The Rabbath was effective, where the bass was being itself. The Misek and Koussevitsky were impressive, but I kept feeling the piano just said more and more interestingly with its handfulls of notes as chords and arpeggios and that easy dexterity, so why the solo bass? But the Anderson was my favourite, toying with the low pitch, the upper reaches, the grandiosity with clumsiness that is the string bass. In parallel, it reminds me of my readings in Bass Player mag, where they continually rile against overplaying, perhaps clumsily, by repeating that the bass is there to make others sound good (!). I guess they mean that its role is essentially accompaniment, especially by spelling rhythm or groove. The Anderson took a prime role for the low end and made it interesting, not least by using rhythm, but mostly this observation is right in my book. Play less, play neater, play with awareness of others. It's harder than it sounds and it's not an impediment or limitation. Nothing makes drive like a bass line, in funk or in classics. With instruments, it's horses for courses. So congratulations and thanks to Hayley for her graduation and her thought provoking recital.

    Hayley Manning (bass) played Rabbath, Misek, Koussevitsky and Anderson for her graduation recital in the Larry Sitsky room at ANU. Support was from Kylie Loveland (piano accompanist), Kyle Ramsay-Daniel, Brendan Keller-Tuberg, Ben Drury and Geoff Prime (basses) and Yash Vyas (tabla)

    11 November 2017


    I found the latest CSO concert hugely satisfying. First up, Glinka Ruslan and Lyudmila overture. It a lively thing and joyous thing with plenty of fast runs and the five basses handled it with ease, as did the other parts. I've played it, but it couldn't have been so fast. The next up was the feature, soloist Harry Bennetts playing Tchaikovsky Violin concerto Dmaj Op.35. HB is ridiculously young, early 20s, but scholarship material at the Berlin Philharmonic Academy, so no slouch. This was fiery with huge technical demands, harmonics into the stratosphere and the rest. It was a hugely impressive outing by a very young but capable player. I've played that, too, with John Gould as soloist in Maruki. Apparently Maruki had done the other, too, although I haven't. Sibelius Symphony no.2 D maj. It's a sprawling work with beastly timing for all, some stunning long, fast walks in the cellos, rich and vibrant and emotive, pastoral and melancholic and stirring. I loved this one not least for its exhilaration and the orchestra did it proud. So a hugely pleasurable evening.

    The Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius under Nicholas Milton (conductor). The soloist was Harry Bennett (violin).

    9 November 2017


    Barbara Jane Gilby introduced the Mozart by saying we should ignore the images and pre-conceptions of Mozart, formed by film, TV and the rest, and listen to his music. That's how we'll best know him. They were about to play Mozart String Quartet no.4 Gmin K.516. It was written late in his life. Things weren't going well and his mood was sombre. Barbara's notes observe that the introduction to the fourth and final movement summarises his melancholy, but that the listener is finally sent away in a happy frame of mind. Also to note was Mozart's contrariness, so this work was written in five voices as in the Baroque, despite most German writing of the time being in 4 voices. Whatever, this was a strong concert out of the CSO and some younger performers, not least Sarah, just 15 , in her first performances on her second instrument. And mozart is always so pleasurable that you can sink into his comforting melodies and just indulge and so I did.

    The Canberra Strings Ensemble performed Mozart String Quintet in Gmin K.516 at Wesley. Performers were Barbara Jane Gilby and Pip Thompson (violins), Lucy Carrigy-Ryan and Sarah Zhu (violas) and Samuel Payne (cello).

    6 November 2017

    Mannheim comes to Goulburn

    Someone asked me recently if any of my bands toured. Only Musica da Camera, which pairs Canberra concerts on a Saturday with Sunday concerts in a local town. This weekend we played the music of Mannheim, ie, early classical, under Christian Renggli and with viola soloist Justin Julian in Cook then in Goulburn's Catholic Cathedral with its presence and acoustics and it was especially satisfying. It was a magical performance (excuse me if I say it myself). The dynamics just melded together, the pace was relaxed so those difficult passages didn't race away as they can do, the intonation was shared and sweet, the various parts became more evident and the whole just sat. A great pleasure and obviously what this art aims for, but which can be elusive. From the program, "the Mannheim School refers to both the orchestra techniques pioneered by the court orchestra of Mannheim in the latter half of the 18th century and the group of composers of the early classical period who composed for the orchestra". Thus we learnt of the Mannheim crescendo, the Mannheim rocket and roller and sigh and the Grand Pause. And for the second performance, especially, they took on real life. Christian had gathered the program: two sinfonias (Gmaj and Ebmaj) from father of the Mannheim School, Johann Stamitz, a viola concerto (Dmaj) and an orchestral quartet by his (real) son Carl Stamitz, and a sinfonia (Gmaj) by FX Richter and sinfonia (overtura, no.1) by Franz Ignaz Beck. Justin Julian of the AYO and Sydney Con and more played a compelling performance on the concerto as well as sitting in for the viola section in the second half. It just all settled to a level of expected comfort so the pps were seriously quiet so the audience sat forward and those long crescendos didn't run out of puff. We felt chuffed and I wasn't uncomfortable that we got a standing ovation. This time, I felt the playing deserved it. So, something to watch and listen on my recordings over Christmas, but plenty more performances to come, in various orchestras and with Tilt. This is fun.

    Musica da Camera played J Stamitz, C Stamitz, Beck and Richter at Cook and reprised at Goulburn's St Peter & Paul Catholic Cathedral. Christian Renggli (conductor), Justin Julian (viola soloist) and Rosemary Mcphail (concertmaster) featured.