30 July 2013

Ye olde Aussie bush

It’s quite strange to go to the Australian bush with gums appearing through the window to hear early music. Bush Baroque is an early music quartet, all viols and little organs and harpsichords and recorders. This concert was a charity performance in the music room of the home of the two leaders, Richard and Joan Milner. It’s literally a drive past the dam wall and through the eucalypts and take care for kangaroos. Nothing like the world of Guerrera and Byrd and Buxtehude and Telemann. Or of Godfrey Finger (that’s a new composer for me) or Bach, although they did perform a few songs by David Yardley, our extant local with a mediaeval musical bent. It seems strange, but the tunes I recognised, other than Well Tempered Clavier, were by David. So, it’s all a perplexing disjunction of era and geography, but beautiful music none-the-less.

The performers changed liberally for different tunes. Bush Baroque comprises Richard Milner, Joan Milner, Sylvia Shanahan and Rachel Walker, playing variously keyboards, recorders and viols. On the day they welcomed Emma Griffiths (soprano) for the songs and Owen Bingham for an additional bass viol. A trio started with a prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier and a sonata from Bellinzani, played on recorders and organ. Then Emma Griffiths with three viols for two motets by Guerrero, and four viols for fantasies by Coprario and Byrd and then Emma again with two viols for two songs from David Yardley. These may be recent (they are original lyrics put to modern music in mediaeval style by David Yardley) but they are memorable and true to form. Then the second half of a Buxtehude cantata from Emma with organ and two viols, a Finger sonata on harpsichord and two recorders and a Telemann cantata sung by Emma with harpsichord and two recorders. It’s beautiful music with passages passing canonically and courtly, witty, often pious presence and the olde tones of small organ and harpsichord and recorder and the frequent sound of tuning viols. I imagine stone halls or cathedrals, or perhaps rousing drinkers although not so much in this program. All strange for the circumstances of a house in the Aussie bush, but at least to finish, with a raffle for CDs and local wines on the deck, it felt right. But then, Canberra is a wonderful place of diverse interests and it is the bush capital, so what’s out of place? An afternoon of mediaeval viols and heavenly, embellished soprano is a thing of beauty and pleasure. Baroque in the bush is another satisfying and surprising local discovery.

Bush Baroque is Richard Milner (viols, recorders), Joan Milner (organ, harpsichord, viols), Sylvia Shanahan (recorders) and Rachel Walker (bass viol). They were joined at this concert by Emma Griffiths (soprano) and Owen Bingham (bass viol). They performed music by JS Bach, Bellinzani, Guererro, Coprario, Byrd, Yardley, Buxtehude, Finger and Telemann.

28 July 2013

Bohemia (with Viennese interlude)

We’d listened to Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 driving to Sydney in the morning and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. We were going to the Opera House to hear Bohemian adventure, a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It’s the second of our three matinee runs we’ve booked for 2013 to get to know the SSO. It was a nice day, we know an easy park, we quickly checked out the latest World Press Photos on exhibition at the State Library, and I settled into the Opera House with some trepidation.

Our Bohemian adventure was three pieces: Bartók Divertimento for strings, Mozart Piano concerto no.22 in E flat and Dvoarak Symphony no.8 in G. I’d expected to be most intrigued by the Bartók and from the first notes I was entranced by jazz harmonies and lines reminiscent of Gershwin, high range dissonance against low range consonance, restrained tempo and boxy but disjointed crochet-quaver melodies. The playing was strong, confident, outspoken. I was seriously enjoying this orchestra (if not the noisy audience). The third movement livens up, more virtuosic in style and even jokey with pizzicato contrasting with bows. I enjoyed some challenging counting. I thought one spot was 4-5-3-3, but it ended before I was sure. This was written in 1939 and thoughts of impending doom are around. It’s just strings and they can be cloying, but this was a very satisfying work. Then Mozart, lovely in its classical dignity; a big change although not unexpected. This was lighter, more even and formal and courtly with horns and brass and descending chordal movements. I thought the trumpets did an excellent job and enjoyed the swelling strings and pensive second movement (forget the audience again) and the billowing brass and flowing notes and the pretty, never-forced melody throughout. I loved the sweetness of high notes on the piano with lid removed, but wondered what the original would have sounded like. I was amused by Jonathon Biss’ sweeping physical movements and loved the endless pretty melodies. How lovely was this!

Then Dvořák and we were very pleasantly surprised. This is a good orchestra. The movement and colour and development were evident. Listening in the car, the work had just seemed undirected, undeveloped, disjointed. This orchestra was big and the sounds were abundant. The intonation seemed comfortable and the orchestra played willingly and as a whole. I felt a touch of discomfort with high strings, but this is common and has me wishing to hear some great orchestras and how they handle that. And the articulation was neat and responsive as parts moved around. I blissed on some bird-like flutes; I enjoyed dance-like sections and filmic panoramas, but the big, melliflous tones had me. This piece was much more interesting than we’d expected and I put that down to a capable orchestra made comfortable with frequent performances. We’re starting to understand the SSO and recognise faces and I’m becoming more convinced.

Conductor Antonello Manacorda was given flowers that looked all the world like a botanic coffin and it had us chuckling, but it was also the pleasure of a performance that had us leaving in such good cheer. Great gig! Antonello Manacorda (conductor) led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House. They performed Bartók Divertimento for strings, Mozart Piano concerto no.22 in E flat and Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G. Jonathan Biss (piano) performed the Mozart.

25 July 2013

Anything but not everything

I found Richard Dennis speaking at the ANU Politics in the Pub was refreshing. It was not just the free jugs of beer on the tables although they were welcomed (mmm, dark ale). This was a realistic but positive response to cool cynicism, and that’s very refreshing. I could tell the story through quotes because Richard was very quotable. About politicians, he said “if they weren’t speaking on behalf of someone, they wouldn’t be there” meaning they are representatives and if you don’t make claims on your representative you won’t have influence. About voting and the potential 1.2 million youth votes (of which 500K are not enrolled and 250K have no intention to enrol; from recent Australia Institute research) “vote for the party [you] hate the least” because “regardless of whether you vote, there will be a government and there will be a budget”. The government and the budget are the mechanisms for decision-making in Australian society. How we allocate the Commonwealth budget of $350b determines our society. We don’t have enough money to do everything, but we do have enough money to do anything. We will spend $50b for 12 subs to replace 6 subs we’ve never used and another $40b for 100 JSF fighter planes, but $2b was recently taken from universities. Australia is a rich country with low tax (the message that Australia as high taxing is not true, but that’s another story). If our tax rates were still at 2006 levels, we would be $170b better off (over the period, I guess) and the top 10% got more of these tax reductions than the other 90% combined. “Tax is the price we pay for a civilised society”. Australia is rich and it’s great to live in a rich country. Our GDP is doubling every 20 years (but still we can’t do everything). As individuals, if we do nothing, influence will win. The numbers are closer than you think. Apparently Simon Sheik (Greens candidate for the Senate for ACT for the coming election) says that at the last ACT election, the Liberals just scraped in with one quota plus 33 votes (!). For Simon and the Greens, it’s that close. Politicians are rational; they respond to voters who have power over them. “The small organised group always wins”. Pollies enter with good intentions and even maintain them, but the system of power and influence and promotions naturally corrupts good intentions. Richard suggested limited terms for pollies (take an arbitrary number, say 2 or 3 terms). Being a pollie is “a really tough job” and he admires people taking it on, but do electorates benefit from lifers? Politics should not be a career path; time spent is corrupting. He’d like to see politicians managing expectations better: “speaking frankly more often would do everyone a favour”. Australians can accept difficult changes, even tax rises, when justified and argued. We’ve just welcomed a 0.5% tax rise as the Disability levy; even Abbott is promoting increased tax for business for his paid parental leave scheme. On the other hand, removal of subsidies is difficult but “bucketloads of cash would be available”. He mentioned the coal industry. Some numbers about coal production are stunners as well as amusing. Australia mined 400m tons of coal in 2012. One year of Australia’s coal production as a 1m x 1m stream would reach to the Moon. We plan to mine double that in coming decades (the climate change implications are alarming). We gave $4.5b subsidies to coal industries in 2012. (Facts are important as well as often scary). And he got on to Superannuation, that topic of interest for baby boomers (conflict of interest alert: I’m one). We spent $35b (presumably pa, 2012) on tax concessions to Super, of which $10b went to the wealthiest 5% and none went to the bottom 10%. This is refreshing information and discussion to me. This is politics as distribution and economic choices, not just identity and the personal. I despair that the Left loses itself in identity matters while wealth is ever more unequal. I’m old fashioned, but wealth and climate change are the keys to politics for me at this time, and serious involvement, even if just at the level of being informed and voting, is both a duty and a sometimes disheartening joy for the citizen. I found this session invigourating and just a bit hopeful. Richard Dennis (Australia Institute and ANU adjunct associate professor) spoke at an ANU Politics in the Pub session in the ANU Bar.

22 July 2013

200 days and counting

The Canberra 100 Musical Offering has reached 200 days and over 300 musical events. It’s a huge success. To celebrate, die-hards attended a short concert at the Ainslie Arts Centre. And what wonderful quality this was! These were top local professionals, presumably gathered by Louise Page, active as she is in these matters. And it was a intriguingly mixed program. Firstly, Louise Page singing a castrato role from Massenet’s Manon with Meriel Owen accompanying on piano.
Louise asked us to imagine. Then He was beautiful, Stanley Myer’s popular tune. It’s a vocalisation of Cavatina, the guitar theme to the film, the Deer Hunter, so it was appropriate that Campbell Diamond followed on classical guitar, playing music of José and Scarlatti. This was sharp and beautifully enunciated and a serious presentation after Louise’s pretense. Barbara Jane Gilby and Meriel Owen followed with an Adagio movement from Bruch, all reminiscence and pure, metal-rich violin tone. Then a much softer sound as Meriel moved to solo harp to play Fauré’s Impromptu. Meriel introduced it as a standard repertoire piece at conservatoria that requires all manner of harp techniques. I enjoyed the lyre-like gentleness of it all. Then a duo of Alys and Emma Rayner (presumably sisters), Alys on violin and Emma on cello, with three duets from Gliere. The first two, Cradle song and Canzonetta, featured ostinato-like cello accompaniment; the final Scherzo granted the cello a more forward part against bouncing violin bowing and some pensive cello melody towards the end. Louise returned with Meriel and Barbara Jane to finish the program. Firstly, with Mozart’s L’amero. Louise implored us to imagine her into another part, this time of a 20-year old in Paris back a few centuries. Then a final gypsy waltz by Stolz. I especially noticed lyrics that raced to rest on a long note that stood against a rapid rising fill from violin. Ah, what pastoral romantic passion is this? A joyous, tempestuous end to a lovely little concert.

This is a great series and it will continue to the end of the year as a gift of very many musicians (5,000 congratulatory stickers are being printed, one for each performer). I know a fair bir about music in this town, but I’m continually surprised by the range and quality of music-making, and there are branches of music I don’t even touch upon. Thanks to these performers, and worthy praise to Don Aitkin and Helen Moore for bringing the Musical Offering together.

Don Aitkin and Helen Moore lead the Canberra 100 Musical Offering project. The performers at this 200th-day anniversary were Louise Page (soprano), Meriel Own (piano, harp), Campbell Diamond (guitar), Barbara Jane Gilby (violin), Alys Rayner (violin) and Emma Rayner (cello).

19 July 2013

Spelling Martinů

I have to admit I had to check the spelling of Bohuslav Martinů (and more besides). Jack Hobbs and Kimberley Steele played Martinů as the first of four tunes at St Albans. Then Brahms and Beethoven and Arvo Pärt. I’ll admit I always check the spelling for Arvo Pärt, but at least I know him well enough. What a wonderful concert this was: beyond any expectation. Kimberley started Martinů with piano arpeggios of strungth and confidence that surprised me from the start, then softened for Jack’s cello melody which was thoughtfully interpretive, quite a deep and touching take. I could imagine his teacher, David Pereira, in his playing and I thought of Pieter Wispelway’s personality and again searched for lost memories of a concert of Paul Tortellier in Florence.
The Martinů was clearly folksy, being variations on a Slovakian theme. Jack suggested we listen for bell towers and sewng machines. I heard more dancing and rural scenes and some bouncing cello that spoke of chases and some intriguing crossing polyrhythmic passages by piano at one stage. This was impressive and interesting. Brahms was slow and sentimental, lyrical, with a deep jazz-bass-like pizzicato to start, and a later higher, thinner pizz. The Beethoven was the final movement of his A major sonata. Again, sentimental and slow but giving way to exhuberance. Aparently he wrote it while acutely deaf but prolific. It’s joyful to some degree, but more energetic and bright and there’s a fabulous yearning cello that appears a few times to which the piano responds with an inviting cheerfulness. To finish, the Arvo Pärt was a beautiful meditation in 6/8 with dotted-minum melody from the cello. I found this quite a stunning concert with a range of styles and very capable playing. Looking forward to anohtr gig with this pairing. Jack Hobbs (cello) and Kimberley Steele (piano) played Martinů, Brahms, Beethoven and Pärt at St Albans.

16 July 2013

Venezia d’amore

Period or not is surrounding me at the moment. I heard Limestone Consort on Sunday and they were playing with modern instruments, other than one viola d’amore. It was a strong and vibrant sound. Very different from Aust Haydn Ensemble, live, with their period instruments, and the CD that Asanka just lent me, of John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Beethoven symphonies with a period orchestra. The difference is dramatic but I remain open to either.

Limestone Consort is a local chamber orchestra. They are part of the All Saints family and I’ve written of them here before. They are another of the hidden gems of Canberra. They are a mix of young and old, and presumably professional and not. I know that Kyle is studying for his PhD on the Double Bass but Clara’s PhD is in the Physics Department. As for the others, some young ones might be schoolkids and at least one may be retired. This concert was dubbed Vivaldi’s Venice. Apparently they were seeking a theme to broaden the repertoire a little, so there was considerable Vivaldi but also Albinoni. I was stunned by the first confident notes that rang out from Vivaldi’s Concerto for strings in D. This is ordered music, formal, structured. The bows move evenly and the dynamic changes are simple and evident. I can imagine the Doge as well as the delectable and the witty and the gloriously presentable. This is not the music of German courts, but of warmer climes and an Italian vita delectosa. I was once in Venice for Martedi Grasso, the Carnevale, and I have etched on my mind one couple, richly dressed in period costume, elegant, dignified, formal, so much Venice and not the tourist throngs. This music is of that life. Vivaldi taught girls (perhaps illegitimate children of the aristocracy) as the Red Priest, so he wrote for female voices. We had several tunes for voices, alto Maartje Sevenster and soprano Veronica Milroy. They sang together for Laudamus te from Vivaldi’s Gloria and independently for Nulla in mundo pax sincera (Veronica) and the lengthy Nisi Dominus (Maartje). I loved the interplay of voices when they sang together, but also the beauty of individual voices and the dignity of ornamentation when they sang apart. I mentioned Albinoni and he was obvious when he was played. What is it that is so obviously Albinoni? Maybe it’s his harmonies or how they move. He was introduced as providing Bach with some melodies so he was respected in his day. I’ll also mention the sound of two other instruments. Firstly, the chamber organ played by Peter Hagen. This particular organ makes a common appearance at All Saints, and it’s a delightful, small, beautiful instrument that added a lustre to this music. Also, the viola d’amore, played by Ross Mitchell. It’s a period instrument, with seven playable strings and another seven resonating strings. I expect it’s a pain to tune. I found it lighter than a modern viola and more squeaky and I strained for resonances from those extra strings but you have to admit some (imagined?) authenticity.

Limestone Consort is a wonderful local chamber orchestra with a wide repertoire: this time, Vivaldi and Albinoni; last time Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Bottesini and Holst. I enjoyed this concert immensely. Their next is not till November, with a guest leader from ACO2. It’s not a busy concert schedule, but it’s worthy and well played. A local gem.

The Limestone Consort featured guest performers Maartje Sevenster (alto), Veronica Milroy (soprano) and Peter Hagen (chamber organ). The Consort’s members were Lauren Davis (violin, leader), Toby Aan (violin), Kyle Daniel (double bass), Elysia Fisher (viola), Jack Hobbs (cello), Hannah Keese (violin), Ross Mitchell (viola, viola d’amore), Eric Shek (violin), Jacqueline Smith (violin), Mia Stanton (violin) and Clara Teniswood (cello).

14 July 2013


When he played at the Gods, Steve Barry described the three concerts in Canberra over the last week or so as a residency. The Gods was his first “residency” gig and I wrote that up. I missed the second when they played with David Jackson at the Loft. I got to the third, and thought it would be relaxing: no need to write this one up. But just a few notes.

It was a small audience, so intimate, and it showed. The trio played with an abandonment and self-satisfying purpose that was special. From the first notes, this was tight and hard playing and obviously well-practised from the tour. It felt different for this but even more for the instrumentation. The Loft has a Yamaha grand piano and that’s what Steve played. It’s stronger, more defined, less wishy-washy than a Rhodes, and I felt it made for more explicit solos and more immediate playing all round. Steve’s solos and comping were probably similar to that at the Gods. Certainly the repertoire was almost the same. Admittedly I was close, but I heard his contortions, sax-like solos, passing dissonances and substitutions with sudden clarity. I can understand his awards. Tom and Tim remained in character. Such well-formed, muscular notes and accurate and quick interval jumps from Tom. And snappy, dynamic, syncopated drums from Tim. I was amused to see his kit from head on and to realise there’s not a touch of movement, of stands, snare, almost not even of those three big cymbals. Just Tim moving over this rock-steady kit, all busy feet and snappy hands. It’s virtually all original material that they have toured, so I was just a little surprised by a beautiful Stairways to the stars to end. How incongruous. I think Tom felt that, too. Great gig.

12 July 2013

RN in the flesh

How can you not love a book launch in Canberra? This one was at Paperchain in Manuka for the book Glory daze : how a world-beating nation got so down on itself by Jim Chalmers. Laura Tingle interviewed Jim Chalmers. Jim was senior advisor to Wayne Swan during the GFC. These are major figures in the national political scene. They were not the only ones present. I was chatting to one bloke after and he turned out to be Hugh White. Someone joked about Steven Koukoulas and he was there. I’d been stunned by a blinker-shattering, fact-checking article by him that very morning. We ended up eating with a John Warhurst and Joan. I’d shared a school with John many years before. The place was teaming with staff from political offices. Their intelligence and youthful energy are obvious. That’s the environment. Radio National and Federal politics in the flesh. And you can chat.

Jim introduced the book. It’s in three parts: a proud story of Labor and the GFC; a discussion of the political system with its poisonous despite outcomes (viz, 22 years of continuous economic growth); thoughts on the way forward, aligned incentives and communication that works. His view is from inside government and he recognised a siege mentality. This was the time for emergency responses, to GFC and climate change. It’s an environment of tight-knit teams, huge work hours and deep camaraderie. He framed it in terms of Swan’s Bizarro speech, where he talked of the disconnect of Australia weathering the GFC and being the international economic darling while its people were pessimistic (more than Spain!) and angry. He gave examples of Glenn Stevens speaking on GFC success and Nobel prize-winner Steiglitz: “best designed, best deployed stimulus in the world”. He found reasons in a consistently negative opposition, shock jocks, a biased media and a small number of prominent businesses (he said 1%). He questioned whether a corner had been turned, noting that enough money will prevent reform and this reform is the reason for our recent success. He discussed PMs and personality-presidential politics. I’m still pondering his statement that PMs are now “bigger dogs on shorter leashes”. He touched on opposition that is addicted to quick hits, and that government learns what is possible. He noted governments shouldn’t overpromise and underdeliver (not just governments, of course). There was some discussion about the coming election: shock jocks will find their way (they do); the impact of personality and polls; the likelihood of a contest of ideas and how Rudd will pick them.

Much of this is interesting for the interjections and sidelines and jokes, so a write-up doesn’t do it justice. I felt some observations missed some context. Like the failure of the Mining tax had several progenitors, very obviously including Rudd’s backdown on climate change. A perfect world will have policy and no spin, but messages are important. Lots of Gillard legislation is no match for Keating’s three key issues that the public understands. Labor was running from Abbott under Gillard, but Rudd is now running rings around a meek Abbott. That’s his forte. Too bad for Gillard, who will be likely remembered as an achiever as well as our first female PM. But you’ve got to own the right seats in Parliament, so you need to win. No use being a sainted failure other than for the record books. In fact, I feel education and disability are shaping as those key, understood, accepted Keatingesque public issues and they are there now. We’ll see. This election is interesting again. I’ve started reading the book. I now understand the bigger dog reference (Our PMs are bigger dogs than US Presidents but they can be more easily rolled). As I read on, I realise the commitment of the political process, gather increasing respect for those who commit and recognise my limited, media-imposed understanding. Despite NSW Labor and Howard’s good-times handouts, I continue to respect Australia’s basically decent political process. Even if some mates find me naive.

Laura Tingle interviewed Jim Chalmers at Paperchain Bookshop for the launch of Glory daze : how a world-beating nation got so down on itself / Jim Chalmers.

10 July 2013

Not just nobility

The Trumpet Club had me thinking of fanfares. Everyone loves a fanfare. I can’t help but think of Errol Flynn and Robin Hood and jousts when I think of massed brass. It’s such a wonderfully majestic and noble sound: big and brassy and celebratory and with such pure tonality. When I process recordings of brass, I notice a clear, simple image of the sound which must indicate a relatively simple sine curve and uncomplicated harmonic structure. Remember the long, straight trumpets of the mediaeval sagas?

The Trumpet Club are just that - trumpets - although they use modern, bent, piston models. They’ve got sick of waiting and counting at rehearsals and performances, so they’ve formed a trumpet-only group to play classical, jazz, blues, originals, whatever. Members are from the CSO and jazz school and local teachers and experienced students. These are capable players and they speak with billowy low notes and clear high notes and sharp harmonies. Trumpets can be luscious with good chops behind them, and especially with a good acoustic. They were. TC started at the top of the High Court ramp, as have several other performers, with the most fanfarish piece of the repertoire, by American Eric Ewazen, but then arranged themselves downstairs to play a lively Telemann and a heart-on-sleve Percy Grainger Bonnie Doone. Then two modern pieces. Firstly, Mike D’Ambrosio’s Ice Town, all spikey and dissonant, telling the story of a town caught in a severe ice storm. Then Suite for six trumpets by Dennis Horton. This is a work in three movements with a nicely modern vibrancy: firstly news themish, then soft and golden with rich harmonies forming from moving lines, then film action or thriller. These two pieces were my favourites. The music was mostly scored, but Cam did solo on the following piece, Bourbon Street breakdown, with bass-like ostinato and chordal accompaniment from the others. Then, to finish, a bit of chop-challenging corn, Rakes of mallow, all cute melody and unrelenting accellerando. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that brass players have a good sense of humour, although maybe more in the classical scene. There’s a certain desperation in counting bars.

This was their first concert and they were building their chops (no sitting back here). It was wonderfully well received and surprisingly more quiet than I’d expected. There were some noble sounds, but also just plain vibrant. I think the Club can be bigger, but on the day Trumpet Club were Zach Raffan, Cameron Smith, Corey Booth, Kevin Knapp, Louisa Batts, Kate Walker and Greg Stenning (trumpets)

09 July 2013

Zarlardinge jazz 2

Pics and text by Neal Gowan, CJ’s foreign correspondent in Belgium

1. The stage
2. 15th century mirror balls
3. Big Band '86
4. Jos Machtel, BJO contrabassist
5. Big Band 86 trumpeter
6. Bert Joris trumpet, flugelhorn
7. Dieter Limbourg, BJO sax, flute, clarinet, and Jos Machtel, BJO contrabassist
8. Marc Godfroid, BJO trombonist, Big Band 86 leader
9. Frank Vaganee, BJO Conductor, alto & soprano saxophone, flute with Bert Joris
10. Frank Vaganee
11. Bert Joris
12. BJO trumpeters from left, Serge Plume, Nico Schepers, Jeroen van Malderen along with a Conservatory student
13. And a Mac to rule them all :)

cheers, Neal