29 January 2012

Rhythm methods

Gossips played at gig last Friday night with singer / blues harpist DJ Gosper sitting in for Gossipist Leanne. It was a great gig. I noticed first off during our take on Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon. It’s a common enough tune and I’ve played it many times, but this felt sharp and tight with that lucid melody over the top of choppy clavinet-style keys from Mike and crisscrossing rhythms from Brenton and me. Great fun. Then some unusual takes from DJ and Goss on any number of well known songs. DJ comes from the blues traditions. She sings with a strong, impassioned voice; she performs with a sense of steady structure and solo form; she solos with blues harp and blues scales. It’s a fascinatingly different take on tunes and I, for one, heard them anew. Great fun.

This was Goulburn and Megan and I took the opportunity to duck down to see friends in Sydney. On the way back, we stopped at a winery for coffee expecting country calm and a Euro-chic cellar door experience. Certainly the surroundings, the gardens and flowers suggested it. But we got something else. We’d happened on a 4-day (!) Taikoz Taiko drumming workshop. This is earthy and elemental Japanese drumming and very far from the synopated Afro-Cuban stuff of jazz. It's simple, heavy, meditative and can be terrifyingly loud. I enjoyed it and other visitors joked of it but, at least indoors, it was too much for these ears. A very different rhythm method.

Gossips played with DJ Gosper at the Tattersalls Pub in Goulburn. The Taikoz Taiko workshop was held over the Australia Day long-weekend at the Elling Forest Winery.

25 January 2012

This year’s overkill

I thought I’d sit back, relax and listen to the last orchestral concert of the Australian Youth Orchestra Music Camp for 2012. I had as many pics as I needed and perhaps I’d attended more than my fill over the last 8 days: 8 concerts over eight days; 4 concerts over the last 2 days alone. Just how good was this orchestra! My comparisons are admittedly limited. They have youthful energy and commitment, the best professional guidance and a few weeks of musical immersion behind them. On the other side, they are still young and I assume they are not yet professional, even if they are amongst best for age. I don’t judge here (not for nothing that I call these posts "reports" not "reviews") but I felt very comfortable with their performances throughout. I was very seldom discomforted by intonation, the feels were apt, the tempos were steady, the interpretations were nicely mature and sensitive, and the ensemble playing was comfortable. I was disappointed by the last concert, but from the music not the performance. The tunes just didn’t entertain me on the night. I may have been in a minority of one: not just Megan and Sally enjoyed it, but the applause was explosive and I was surrounded by standing ovations. So how did this sourpuss find it?

First up was Nelson Cooke Chamber Orchestra with Janacek’s Suite for string orchestra (1877). I heard imploring strings, flowing, liquid lines, searching decays and dynamics, massed strings and high violins and some attempt at Beethoven passion in the last movement. But it felt overly earnest and the emotions seemed unexplored to me: too much heart on too big and obvious a shoulder. Next was Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s apprentice (1897) from the Alexander Orchestra. After Janacek and a missed dinner because the restaurant couldn’t handle the numbers between concerts, I guess I wasn’t in a mood for more light-hearted amusement. This just seemed like so much energy expended for so little purpose. All very clever and entertaining but I just wished for the naughty broom to return to its bloody cupboard. It would have saved so much effort and anguish. Finally Sibelius’ Symphony no.2 (1902) by the Bishop Orchestra. This was introduced as written in response to the warmth and light of Italy. Now, I know Italy. My guess is Sibelius encountered a labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy while in Italy rather than spending time frolicking in sun-drenched Umbrian meadows. This was lots of swelling tones and dynamics and turgid emotions. Competently constructed but with instrumentation that felt too simple and uncomplicated. It all seemed too obvious for the emotions being presented. None of the passion of Beethoven, the wit of Mozart, the intellectual clarity of Bach or the elaboration of Shostakovich. But I’m just me: everyone else seemed to love it.

Of course, the Llewellyn Hall exploded at the end. The excitement and release at the end of the music camp must have been overwhelming for the three hundred or so people involved. The tension released at the end of a live broadcast to ABC FM just added to it all. There were standing ovations, cheering, whoops and hollers, smiles and hugs. And my week had been quite stunning. Eight concerts ranging widely in style. At the end, I understand better what I like and wish to explore, as well as what I’m happy to pass over. The AYO is a wonderful gathering of talented people and the institution is fabulous and seemingly of international status. Congratulations to all involved, and I’ve already set aside a week in 2014 for another session of overkill.

24 January 2012


We’ve reached the last day for this year’s Australian Youth Orchestra Music Camp. For the students, the mood must be lively and tinged with just a touch of sadness at parting, but there are still a full afternoon of concerts, from three orchestras, all recorded and one broadcast live to ABC FM. Farewells and tears can wait. I feel the mood of the music is getting lighter and more accessible. It’s not a change that I prefer, but so be it. More on that for the later concert. The afternoon, though, is interesting and varied.

The Nelson Cooke Chamber Orchestra played the first two pieces. First was resident composition tutor Iain Grandage’s Wild geese (2011). It’s an evocation of the Catalpa Rescue, the 1876 escape of six Irish Fenian prisoners from the then British penal colony in Western Australia. It’s quite short and unsettling piece, starting pregnant with expectation and proceeding through massed attacks and imploring strings. Then to Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia no.4 in C minor (1821). What a prodigy he must have been. This work was written at aged 12 as a compositional exercise and only published in 1959. This is a mix of baroque and classicism: contrapuntal lines ending in long unison segments; a pensive and aristocratic middle movement, and a final movement with some fabulous deep lines of bass and cello, then to finish with the whole ensemble playing ornamented lines in unison. Enlivening for musicians and audience.

The Bishop Orchestra followed with an unconducted performance of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni (1787). This work moves between D minor and D major to convey the story of the seducer Don G. I heard it as argumentative and enticing in various parts, which fits the story of lust and retribution. One description was the “terrors of the sinner’s life” although there was quite a deal of pleasure mingled in there, too, and this remains a light an enticing piece and certainly not in the realms of the Russians. The orchestra ended with smiles and a certain confidence, so obviously they enjoyed the performance. The Bishop then welcomed William Conway to conduct Bartok’s Hungarian Pictures (1931). This is the Hungarian folk tradition entered into the classical repertoire. Interesting for its use of alternative tonalities, like the whole tone scale and pentatonics which each appear here. There are butterflies and pastoral scenes; there is busy-ness and the unsettled harmony of the whole tone scale; there are huge crescendos and bustling strings; there is lushness and bouncing rhythms and bows; there are dances and transcribed folk melodies. Modernism through reversion to arcadia.

After the interval, we retired to the Llewellyn dress circle. You’ll see the different views in the pics here. I’ve seldom seen it much used, but it was the haunt of the musicians at the AYO events. The experience is hugely different from the front rows. In the front rows you share the experience with the performers: everything’s intense and local; the sound surrounds you and changes directions with different instruments; you see some musos and miss others. The dress circle is the experience of the critic and recording engineer. The sound is more unified and gathered, less intense and immediate, quieter but perhaps purer. The view is all encompassing, so you see the back rows of the strings and the brass and woodwinds and they all become identifiable and more part of the experience rather than just tones emanating from out back somewhere.

So this is how we heard the Alexander Orchestra for the second Mozart overture of this concert, this time to the Marriage of Figaro. This is well known music, of course: easy to comprehend, eminently lyrical and masterfully structured. But bigger was Schubert’s Symphony no.8 in B minor, his Unfinished symphony. The first two movements were completed, but the third, scherzo, movement was left unfinished. I remember it especially for the sorrowful bass theme starts the work and recurs in basses and other instrument. The Alexander finished the night with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks. It’s a jovial and light-hearted series of settings - jumpy, tricky, whimsical and somewhat naughty – that resolve (almost) at the end with Till’s death by hanging. Mmm … folk tales can be anguished.

So ended the penultimate concert of the AYO music camp series. The Nelson Cooke Chamber Orchestra was led by concertmaster Mats Zetterqvist and performed Iain Grandage’s Wild geese and Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia no.4 in C minor. The Bishop Orchestra performed Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni under concertmaster Elena Phatak and Bartok’s Hungarian Pictures under conductor William Conway. The Alexander Orchestra performed Mozarts’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro under concertmaster Glenn Christensen and Schubert’s Symphony no.8 in B minor (“Unfinished”) and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks under conductor Christopher Seaman.

23 January 2012


Brassy says it all: glorious, rich, rounded, sonorous. One of the tutors for the Brass ensemble at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Music camp, I think it was Nick Byrne, said they were seeking to develop an ensemble sensibility on and off stage. This sounds about right. Thinking back, I remember some playing that stunned me, some rapid fire lines from a tuba, but it was the rich sonority of the collected brass that floored me. They didn’t need more. Just to luxuriate in this rotundity is blissful. The concert started with a fanfare (how could it not?) and I just sat back in wonder as the simple majesty of it all. This was all the ensemble, both tutors and students (30 brass players, with occasional supplementation by 4 percussionists), on for the first and last tunes. It was big and beautiful and bountiful. But there was also a range of smaller ensembles, with that sine-curve clarity of trumpet, billowing depth of tuba, the earthier tones of horns and the trombones somewhere in between.

The opening fanfare was Dukas’ Fanfare from La Peri. Quite short, but powerful and full. Then Elena Kats-Chernin’s Stabat Mater for Brass. Starting with a steady stream of quavers then into a fog-horn deep tuba accompanied by percussion. Bell like tones accompanied by real bells. I heard mostly a descending 4-chord, 4-bar accompaniment with intuitive and unforced melody. K-C is wonderfully accessible and her popularity is easy to understand. Then Gabrielli’s take on sacred music, the Sonata pian e forte. This is mediaeval sacred music taking me back to a region I know well. It was written for the famed cathedral of San Marco in Venice, with its “substantial echo and delay”, originally with two brass choirs located on two balconies. It’s an antiphonal, which means responsive singing from two choirs, here, choirs of brass. Interestingly, this was one of the first pieces written with notated dynamics. I heard it as perfectly formed classical brass tone; two choirs (one of four trombones; one of three trumpets and one trombone) responding to eachother with segments of a few bars; steady crochets and quavers that were absolutely square in time; occasionally revelling in a fanfare. Next was Grieg’s Death of Åse transposed to a more brass-friendly key. This was a wonderfully tremulous and deeply tragic funeral march. It’s a famous melody and richly evocative in this instrumentation. Then selections from JS Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no.1 arranged by Melbournite Ben Mansted and kept in the original brass-challenging key. What’s not to love in these flowing, perfectly balanced, contrapuntal lines that glow with dignity. I learned a new instrument here - the rotary valve piccolo trumpet. There were two of them and they played a major role in the Brandenburg with their piercing high pitched snippets of melody. Lovely! Most of the works were fairly short, but the Bach and the following modern piece, Rautavaara’s Requiem for our times, were longer. Einojuhani Rautavaara is a living Finnish composer who won competitions under Sibelius and studied in the US with the likes of Aaron Copland. His Requiem was in four movements. There was early fanfare with considerable dissonance; busy trumpet and trombone tonguing with percussion accompaniment; belligerent horns against trumpets and synchronised hits by deep brass and percussion; distant trumpets and graphic, filmic melody. Then to end, a euphonium melody over trumpets. Suffice to say it was rich in techniques and tonalities; sometimes smooth and sometimes powerful and outspoken. But for me, not such a favourite. Item 7 was a strangely modern, illustrative piece, Daugherty’s Motown metal. I had expected this to refer to Motown, the music label, but this was obviously a paean to Detroit, motor city. Now this was very different again! It started with the sounds of an accelerating manual car from several trombones, then a fast rising arpeggio that moved through the band as it was echoed by different instruments. This was brash industrial Americana, celebrating the rise and recent decay of this notable city. I found it fascinating and adventurous music that was widely informed outside the classical repertoire. (On a personal note, the comparison of Rautavaara’s Scandinavian rumination with Daugherty’s American bluster just confirms my musical preferences.) The end was another all-in brass masterwork, Richard Strauss’ Feierlicher Einzug. It’s another fanfare, a solemn procession that was originally written for 17 trumpets: huge, slow, loud, mournful but dignified. Dignified: as brass can so successfully be.

So, a wonderful outing of inspired and blissfully sonorous music and one that I look forward fondly to revisiting. Various combinations of brass players from the Australian Youth Orchestra performed Dukas’ Fanfare from La Peri, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Stabat Mater, Gabrielli’s Sonata pian e forte, Grieg’s Death of Åse, selections from JS Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no.1, Rautavaara’s Requiem for our times, Daugherty’s Motown metal and Richard Strauss’ Feierlicher Einzug.

This is CJBlog post no. 750.

22 January 2012


The New Sounds in Composition concert at the Australian Youth Orchestra Music camp felt like an intimate event to which you are privileged to have been invited. The audience was not large - mostly AYO students and initiates, I guess. The performers are presumably tutors or senior students and they saunter informally on stage and are nonchalant in presence and dress. But the music making is serious and the student composers are putting their work on the line and these works are self-revelatory. So being there was a generous gift. These are four premiere performances for these works by these students. There were 4 student composers, all under the tutoring of Iain Grandage and under his baton as conductor. He’s positive and supportive and must have been a great pleasure to work with. The music shows it. These were four short but impressive works that I felt had considerable substance.

David John Lang’s Litany was sparse and fragmented, attractive but minimal and remorseful. And that’s quite proper as it was speaking of war and resposponding to the song, Abide by me, and the looming presence of the magisterial Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He spoke of restructuring the piece after arriving in Canberra and that this led to its fragmentary nature, but the feeling of loss and devastation that followed WW1 must have been incoherent.

It was when I reached the second composition, Rebecca Erin Smith’s Impulsion & Opiate, that I realised the instrumentation was unchanged. The students were obviously required to write for this ensemble, although there were two sets of players each performing a pair of pieces. Rebecca’s piece was in two movements and was informed by Bill Bryson’s Short history of everything. She described the movements as Shattered and brought together, and Dawn. I was not so sure of dawn, but the picture of atoms shattering and restructuring and of hydrogen atoms existing sparsely in the vacuum of space was marvellous. This was dramatic music, with different instruments featured in rapid succession, billowing crescendos and quiet, settled notes picturing space and time. I loved this and the visual dynamics and rich colours and vibrant life of this piece.

Lisa Cheney volunteered that Turbulence was a personal musical challenge. She normally writes with steady harmony, but this compostion used serial techniques and tone rows. This was contrasting colours, ambiguiguous in harmony and movement, rich intrumental palettes, mobile lines and strong dynamics. I found it intriguing and the moving harmony enlivening even if I know and understand the style too poorly. This work borrowed from the essence of 20th Century music and remains fresh even as we take a more lyrical turn.

Last was Jared Yapp’s Cyclic. Jared is from Perth and I felt he introduced the piece with considerable maturity. It’s a study of cycles, macro and micro, and specifically personal emotional cycles. When asked if he heard that in it, he answered no, he was too close. When asked if he expects an audience to hear this, he was respectfully non-committal, they will hear what they will. An impressive assurance, I thought. The tunes were all to be under 10 minutes, but I wondered if this was longer, or perhaps the others shorter. Again, dynamics, rich instrumental interplays of short lines, percussion and especially timpani, and just occasional longer, pensive trumpet or violin melodies, and rhythmic piano and strangely a country theme (Bonanza-like) towards the end.

All this is most impressive and I respond with some awe, but also with thanks for admittance to this most intimate of concerts. Four original compositions were presented as premieres and performed by tutors and students are the Australian Youth Orchestra: David John Lang’s Litany, Rebecca Erin Smith’s Impulsion & Opiate, Lisa Cheney’s Turbulence and Jared Yapp’s Cyclic.