30 May 2013

Berlin comes to Canberra

Berlin didn’t come for the C100 celebrations. This was just a home-coming gig for Reuben after a year in Berlin. He was one of a considerable Canberra and Australian contingent over there over recent times. It’s quite a centre of experimental and jazz music these days. Reuben’s in town for a few months before heading off to Melbourne. He was a significant figure in his time in Canberra, and the attendance at this concert is just a confirmation. This was a great concert. I was surprised how comfortably the band settled back in, and also that Reuben hadn’t played with Evan before. You wouldn’t have known. This was wonderful music.

They started with a piece of Berlin art: a 30 minute free improvisation. It’s a demanding form for player and listener but this was easy. The time passed almost without thought. Fluttering trumpet and various noises with or without mouthpiece; ardent drumming with a consistent kick that was so loosely tuned; chordal or single notes from guitar; even or bouncing bow and tonal-centre-free bass walks and clear bass tones. I felt there was a touch of unreadiness to end when due, but this was a masterful display.

Then an interval and doing the rounds for Reuben and the others, then a set of more approachable tunes, from earlier CDs, mostly written by Simon, but also two by Reuben and one from Tomasz Stanko. These were all very well presented and soloed over and they were a very mixed bag stylistically: reggae and jazz and Moroccan and even country touches. Improvised and malleable in interpretation but always with the strongest of grooves. The mix of popular approachability with the jazz skills opens the music to many ears and maintains the substance, even if some of the jokey presentation may disown it. I was floored by the simple beauty of several of Matt’s guitar solos, using chords and single notes, clearly formed and unsustained notes with an edge of distortion, that spelt out inevitable melody that would grace a country lament. Reuben would play with tone and noise then drop into similar lyricism. The rhythms were churning underneath, spelt out by bass and drums, but also by offset chords from guitar. The groove was absolutely steady but implied and richly embellished although sometimes Simon would drop back on a repeating pattern or atonal walk. He only took a few solos, but they, too, would sit relaxed, exploring the highest notes or dropping in a scalar line. Intelligent and tasteful playing all round. Miro sat in for a few tunes, too, so we got his fast exploratory work contrasting against Reuben’s flugelhorn phrasing.

How good was this? Both entertaining with the reggae and the rest and roiling grooves and relaxed but exploratory soloing. Berlin has done good for Reuben, but Canberra seems to have done good for the others, too. Great gig! Reuben Lewis (trumpet, flugelhorn) led a trio with Simon Milman (bass) and Evan Dorrian (drums) then a quartet adding Matt Lustri (guitar) and a quintet with Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet).

29 May 2013

Sydney comes to Canberra

The SSO were in town for C100. Or to put it without acronyms, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were on a regional tour and visited Canberra for our 100th birthday celebration. Apparently this was their first visit for 10 years. They played at the Llewellyn Hall. I was interested to hear this outfit. James spoke highly of the musicians. I’d only heard the SSO in the Opera House, and that’s big and impersonal and not renowned for its acoustics, but I know Llewellyn and I’ve been hearing the CSO and other orchestras recently, so my ears are more attuned. Also, they were playing another Beethoven symphony and I’m still (in my classical innocence) marking them off.

James was right. These guys are very, very good and I’m not at all surprised: they are full time professionals in a standing orchestra; they are performing every few days; Australian musicians are capable and well trained. I sat in three spots for three pieces: two in the dress circle and one in the stalls under the dress circle. I was surprised by how differently it sounded. The orchestra wasn’t large so I thought this was why they sounded tame and thin upstairs, but they were suddenly full and satisfying and comfortably loud under the arch. I also heard the sound as quite unbalanced when I was upstairs: heavy on bass and lacking on higher strings. They played Stravinsky, Brahms and Beethoven. My favourite was Stravinsky’s lively highlights from Pucinella: more modern with more complex and choppy rhythms and a comical segment of bass and trombone. Then Brahm’s Violin concerto Op.77 in D. This was complex, perhaps turgid, quite difficult to follow (not just my observation). I listened for the violin solo that has become the written standard. It’s a strange habit of classical music, that improvisations have become written parts. I was disappointed that I often lost the solo violin when the orchestra entered. I wondered if this was violin volume or a function of the upstairs acoustics. I was just a little uncomfortable with this piece. Then interval and a return with Beethoven’s (Pastoral) Symphony no.6, Op.86 in F major. I was seated downstairs and right from the first notes I could hear comfort and confidence with its simple melodies and evident variations. Not that it was my favourite, but it was beautifully played and an unforced composition. The idyll of the countryside was a favourite theme at that time, all birds and pastures and and thunderstorms. It seemed a pretty easy piece to perform although there were some devastating bass lines in the thunderstorm sequence. Maybe the orchestra just made it look easy. The orchestra (and two extra horns) played on with an encore on Handel's Water music. Who can help but love a fusillade of brass?

So, the program wasn’t immensely challenging but I was mightily impressed by the orchestra. They sounded beautifully together and from the right vantage point they were full sounding and well balanced and their phrases passed easily between players and melded into a lovely whole. I was thinking of how I would express their character, though. They played beautifully and accurately together, but perhaps clinically. Maybe it’s professional musos who play daily and are performing a pretty mainstream program. Maybe it’s the nature of a modern concert hall compared to the ornamented box-like concert halls of Europe. Maybe it’s an Australian take on music with a German character: shared professionalism and skills but different culture. It seemed clinical and correct to my ears but I don’t mean that as a value judgement. I was mightily impressed by the SSO and very glad I attended this concert.

Jessica Cottis (conductor) led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with members of Sydney Sinfonia. Katerina Nazarova (violin) played the Brahms concerto. The pieces were Stravinsky Pucinella suite, Brahms Violin concerto and Beethoven Symphony no.6 in F Op.69 (Pastoral).

28 May 2013


This Canberra International Music Festival was a blast for Megan and me. It’s a different experience to be so involved: more work, more time consuming, a busy house, but also more satisfying and more informed. We billeted James Eccles (viola) for the full festival and Graeme Jennings (violin) for the last weekend. We chatted music and heard strings at breakfast and were close to practising habits. We drove Graeme and Clare Tunney (cello) and others so chatted more. We knew of rehearsals and attended a few and these were interesting in a very different way from the performances. We heard tell of people and challenges and the inevitable minor foibles. We never tasted the soup. The density of contact and concerts taught us of composers and styles and musical history.

I blogged and attended more than I’d ever expected to, so the Festival took on shape and the creativity of Chris Latham’s (Artistic Director) event became more evident: Canberra the city, its role in democracy, its design and designers, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, who appeared in a delightful and informative conceit. All this in the year of Canberra’s 100th anniversary and the C100 festivities. The gathering of professional players for the Canberra Camerata Chamber Orchestra and the Song Company and Roland Peelman and the New Zealand and choral and ANU and other local connections. The internationals that thrill with their presence but also mingle and share learning back and forth: Pieter Wispelway (cello) and Paul Dresher (composer, US/California) and his Double Duo and Gavin Bryars (composer, UK). The interleaving of works from the baroque and Bach to minimalism and the modern. The setting of history (Great War, fin de siecle) that was influential at the time of Canberra’s founding. It’s a rich tapestry and this festival explored it with considerable musical and historical intellect. Being a part and attending more than a few concerts lets you appreciate all these themes. Of course, this takes time and maybe that’s why so many attendees were obviously retired.

Looking back, I found little that was disappointing and this actually surprises me. Perhaps worst was the Canberra Times coverage which was almost derisory. For such a high quality and intelligent event, I expected more coverage. Chris Latham had claimed Jesus’ Blood as perhaps the most important composition of the century (he’s always enthusiastic) yet I don’t remember a review. The Sculthorpe premiere got a very limited space as part of one article reviewing 3 concerts. It may not be run with the budget and renown of more famous festivals, but it is clearly run with intelligence and creativity that I reckon would vie with the best. CIMF2013 was a hugely successful event and Chris and the others who were involved can be duly proud. So should be Canberra and Australia.

27 May 2013

And now to party

After the period-piece Albert Hall, the final CIMF concert at Llewellyn seemed so big. It was. It was also a big social event. It’s the end of a fabulously successful and challenging festival. Volunteers and attendees and musos were tired but elated. Everyone was invited back for drinks after, but I imagine it’s the musos who are colleagues at a distance who particularly enjoy the knees up. They have done 10 days of many performances with limited rehearsals. It’s a hard slog, but a worthy one.

The final event visited UK and US and linked their democratic institutions to the nascent Canberra. Marion appeared again. Walter appeared to read the words of Lincoln later in the night. We were reminded of Britain’s parliamentary traditions and the US’s federation and written constitution, and how both are represented in our Washminster mix. Perhaps we could say that Australia is an early postmodern democracy, being as mixed as it is.

First music was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to music, written mid-Century. This was an orchestra with numerous voices singing an ode to music but with the common sadness of the period of post Great War and Depression and end of Empire and the intellectual Communist challenge and incipient fascism and the rest. Some great singing here, although only snippets. The comparison of ~10 singers as solo voices was interesting, even if each singer just got a phrase of two. Then Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Pieter Wispelway returned with Roland Peelman conducting. There was some impressive playing here: virtuoso solo cello passages leading to explosive responses by the full orchestra, then back to the quieter solo instrument. Wispelway is all passion and character. There’s obvious huge technique but to my ears he privileged expression. So he should. Quite wonderful.

The second half, the US half, was my preference. First was Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with our fantasy Walter Burley Griffin reading quotes from Lincoln. Everyone knows some of these; I didn’t know all. They were embedded with introductory lines about his place of birth and similar. What a glorious piece of clear democratic rhapsody. “Fellow, citizens, we cannot escape history” or “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish for the Earth”. Lofty thinking. I was wondering how comfortable he would be with the modern US. As they say of history, this is a different world. To finish, John Adams’ Dharma at Big Sur. It’s quite the antithesis to the romanticism of Elgar. This is mysterious and environmental and rambling with the cello like a character in the bush as night. All expressive virtuoso playing against clicks and squeals and pizzicato and swells and occasional dissonance. Pieter seemed to lighten up after this, speaking to the audience, and replaying the 2nd movement. He admitted being uncomfortable with the first take (although impressive). This second take was much stronger and was a pleasing end to the concert and the festival.

Then a few speeches to finish it all off, and all that’s left is to party.

26 May 2013

Marion’s very many children

The theme of this year’s Canberra International Music Festival is Canberra, in its 100th birthday year, and the renowned Walter Burley Griffin and wife and partner is planning, Marion Mahoney Griffin. Marion, or her dramatic alter-ego, introduced he concert, Marion’s child by explaining that, although she had no children, she’s proud of their creation, Canberra, and she thinks of all its inhabitants as her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren… I’ve now seen Walter once and Marion twice, and it’s obviously fabulous (as in fables) but also a delightful pretense. For today, there were very many of her great,great grandchildren on stage doing a wonderful job of singing the song of Canberra, for virtually all the compositions had a Canberra theme.

Firstly, Sally Greenaway’s Auróra Musis Amica: fanfare for Canberra. It’s hard for a fanfare not to stir the emotions and the senses and this one did it with aplomb. I was smiling at the beauty of the dawn soundscape to start then lifted by the fanfare and let down gently by the final bars of colour. A wonderful, short piece of considerable success performed by the Combined Grammar Schools Orchestra. Next was Earth song by Frank Ticheli performed by the choirs of Canberra combined Grammar schools and Burgmann School. These are young voices: not powerful but sweet and pure and high, with just the start of male depth. Lovely sounds. Then Canberra by Stephen Leek sung by the Woden Valley Youth Choir (all girls) accompanied by piano. This comprised two pieces: Where to build a city and Canberra Anthem. This was story-telling in music. Amusing chatter led to discussion of Where to build the city (this was an issue just over 100 years back). They ended with the decision “Canberra / the meeting place of ancient times / Where, where where, where / There”. An effective piece of story telling. Then another by Stephen Leek called Landmarks. This sang of Murrumbidgee flows, Lake Ginninderra and The Brindabellas in three movements that was ancient and expansive and spoke to Aboriginal awareness with glockenspiel providing structure, bass drums providing thunder, congas providing rhythm interspersed with harmonised vocal lines in eight note melodies.

Then the big forces were arrayed for two works by Karl Jenkins. I’d arrived earlier to find many schoolkids in uniform on Sunday, mostly eating sausage sandwiches, not expecting a massed kids performance. This is a wonderful little music hall with a large stage and it was packed. About 200 players, including Canberra Camerata and Song Company for the professional guidance, and a raft of school choirs and orchestral players. Chris Latham introduced Karl Jenkins as a Mozart of music for youth”. I could only concur. These were not massively difficult pieces, but they were serious and interesting. Chris had also added words about Canberra in place of most of the nonsense phonemes of the original, so ti was also historically educative. I wondered what the Sydney-siders of the Song Company thought as they sang of Canberra as the Shimmering City, and I felt uncomfortable with the “great city” reference later, but these were very satisfying and even engrossing works done with surprising maturity. The first was The Shimmering city, a major work in 100-or-so movements including the fabulous voices of Susannah Lawergren, Anna Fraser (sopranos) and Tobias Cole (counter-tenor) with Riley Lee (Shakuhachi) and Ji Won Kim (solo violin) with Woden Valley Youth Choir, Canberra Girls Grammar and Canberra Grammar School Combined Choirs and Orchestra and Radford College Choir and Orchestra, and Burgmann College Choir conducted by Chris Latham. The second was shorter, the Song of the Limestone Plains, with introductory voices then claps for the birthday of Canberra the choir then shakuhachi and brass and more, all against what seemed to me to be a cut-time outback groove. Very nice stuff.

25 May 2013

In the wings

Wagner was on that evening, but we were booked for dinner, so we dropped in on the rehearsal in the afternoon at the Llewellyn. We’d expected to sit in the stalls, but the security guard pointed to the stage door, so, well, so be it. We took seats next to Steinways, listened to four blaring horns that were pointing directly at us, struggled to hear some vocals, watching occasional performers slink in when late, or sneak out to the toilets. It was an amusing hour or so, and interesting for the involvement and odd balance and immersion that is the experience of someone amongst an orchestra. We heard the orchestra practising Good Friday and the Grail music from Parsifal. Just a few pics.