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23 June 2009

Geelong Chamber Music Society - incorporating the old and the new

Geelong // VIC // 24.04.2009 and 13.06.2009

Adam Yee Image: Adam Yee  

Concert 1 (24th April)

One of the drawbacks of living in a regional city is establishing loyal audiences that are not afraid of committing to new contemporary art music. Tried and tested chamber music will ultimately dominate programming if audience entertainment or audience approval is seen as the first objective of promoters. It is usual for contemporary Australian works to make an appearance as a token gesture to locals, if not for the plain pragmatics of fulfilling arts funding criteria.

The local Chamber Music Society Concert Series in Geelong this year has seen many of these assumptions swept aside: the most interesting pieces have been those with Australian content and have been greatly appreciated by an audience that sees young teachers bringing their even younger students to these concerts. This is a heartening sight and one which will hopefully instill the necessity of encouraging not just higher performance standards in the region, but normalises the experience and expectation of hearing new music.

In the first concert, the program of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra consisted of three works classed as standard chamber orchestra repertoire with a fourth work unveiled in its world premiere season. The reception and warmth of the regional audience gladly attending an unknown work, is an active acknowledgement of the rising interest in cultural pursuits in the region. It was a somewhat unfortunate coincidence, from the point of view of reviewing, that the first concert, contained a work by Ian Munro, who is a member of my extended family. My intention of attending was initially for enjoyment, but I am also conscious of the need to speak about new music at a critical level. Little if any reviewing appears in the local mainstream press, making it an even harder venture to garner the necessary support for ongoing presentations that will hopefully include commissions for new Australian music.

Ian Munro’s Divertimento (Melodies of the Afternoon) (2009) is a string orchestra arrangement of an earlier choir work that used the poetry of Peter Porter. In this setting, rather than voices with words, Munro writes in the program notes that he views the strings as humanly exploring the esoteric language of Porter’s poetry, in this instance an unpublished set. 

The first in the suite, ‘The Fundamentals of Music’ begins with the seamless melding of viola, celli and bass, sharing dark yet faintly glimmering strings. What do we make of this? Quiet beauty, reconciled dissonances, pensive suspensions, moments of joy? The ‘Aubade’ sees the genesis of an idea over a quasi-ground bass, dark, with a dynamically blooming passion dying away for the third piece. ‘Unison for Isolde and Aida’ is a more jaunty piece beginning rather like an Irish jig, broadening into a more serious dance then returning to its home style.

The final two of the suite were by far the most interesting. ‘Secular Ode to St. Cecilia’ used a traditional English post-romantic string orchestration imbued with melancholy – but not the sorrows of modernist European desolation – giving much reflection to the unheard, imagined words of Peter Porter’s text. Unresolved dissonances are never confounding but rather consoling and comforting in their melancholia.

By far the most beautiful was the ‘Postlude as Dedication’ which revisited the previous movements. The tonality/modality and harmonic rhythm were fluid in their seamless transitions; flowing of the furrowed brow, contemplating then reconciling in the subtle lyricism an ethereal, tranquil, conclusion.

Using descriptive language for music is always somewhat anti-theoretical and anti-aesthetic but this was one case where the censorial academe could rest. William Hennessy brought great lightness, colour and appropriately paced reflective dynamics to this inspiring set of works. The lengths were perfectly balanced, as were the idiosyncrasies of individual movements. It was economical writing without ever being minimalist; and it was surely beautiful, in the way the mind can wander dark stretches – As if on a Winter’s Night – and reveal slight asides unraveling but never lost in chasms of meaningless notes.

The other works on the program have not been heard live for sometime in Geelong and warrant special mention. Beginning with Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto, this was a fine example, led by Katherine Brockman, to demonstrate the mellow colour of violas, celli and continuo section. Occasionally, some ensemble was slightly askance, but this may have been more to do with the dry acoustic on the stage area.

Munro was soloist in the Mozart Concerto KV 212 in A Major, with Hennessy directing the band with great élan and clarity of phrasing. While both piano and strings exhibited gracious and passionate playing and refused to pander to an overly polite manner of performance, the strings played with great stylistic flair, and admirably adapted some of the problems facing modern players wishing to explore the translation of earlier string styles to their instrument. Perhaps there was some dissension between piano and strings on this point, as Munro likes his Mozart fairly fast and pianistic, sometimes ignoring the slight hiatus of the rhetorical cadences for drama. The dissension was most evident in the third movement, where the orchestra and soloist tussled, amicably, to get the upper-hand on the tempo – in the end there was a fair amount of compromise which created a battle of wills. One should not overlook that essentially the soloist is in discourse with the orchestra.

The final piece was an alluring Serenade by Suk, certainly full of interesting turns and twists but slightly overlong, but nonetheless beautifully executed with every nuance exploited. As an encore, and appropriate to Anzac Day Eve, the Orchestra played Grainger’s arrangement of ‘Tune from County Derry’ and effected the most beautiful poetic pause before the applause. The performance could easily be hackneyed, but this was very passionately played, with the significance of loss never out of sight.

Concert 2 (13 June)

As a second concert in the Geelong series, this was a high quality presentation of some of the treasures of the Classical trio repertoire, interpreted by the Freshwater Trio. The contemporary presentation for the concert was a beautifully defined arrangement of Ravel’s Hebrew Songs by Adam Yee. The irony is that neither of these songs are based on Hebrew, but Aramaic and Yiddish respectively. Originally for piano and voice, Ravel later orchestrated them, and here Yee has found a middle ground which delineates melody but with the added effects of various string techniques.

Eidit Golder began the Kaddisch with serene melodic declaration, playing without any hint of sentimentality, backed by Vains and Black in a performance that marked the observation of the unheard text. L’ Énigme éternelle was thoroughly virtuosic in concept and execution and a great foil for the preceding song. Yee’s arrangement was well-judged and freely reveled in the possibilities of  piano trio sounds.

The two other works presented were substantial piano trios: Haydn’s C major, Hob XV: 27 and Schubert’s very famous E flat major, D, 929. The Haydn displayed much grace and cohesion in the stylistic realisation. Golder played with great delicacy and spaciousness, marking pauses with quasi-improvised embellishments. With these added elements, the trio demonstrated great control of the ensemble.

The final of the program was the massive Schubert trio which had audience engrossed for its long fifty minutes. I say long, because there are many notes and thrilling moments of ensemble, often at a relentless pace. The second movement, which has acquired its own mythology in film, notably Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, is always worth hearing: it is simply one of the most beautiful pieces in the Classical canon.

The next concert  (11 September) is the Hamer Quartet playing more Mozart and Schubert but with the added feature of Smith’s Alchemy by Carl Vine. The final concert in October sees a return of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, this time led by baroque specialist Rachel Beesley in a program of early music on modern instruments: I personally call this postmodernist early music performance, not historically informed performance, but that argument will have to wait for another opportunity to be explained.

Whilst this series is blooming, other series are also becoming established in Geelong demanding more incorporation of contemporary works. While there is no ready-made eclectic elite demanding new music concerts, the steps of the past two years will ensure that the more experimental will be welcomed and expected in programming.

Events details

Geelong Chamber Music Concert Series

Concert 1
Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
William Hennessy (Artistic Director), Ian Munro (piano)
24th April 2009
McAuley Hall Sacred Heart College, Newtown/Geelong, VIC

Concert 2
Freshwater Trio (Eidit Golder, piano; Zoe Black, violin; Josephine Vains, cello)
13 June 2009
McAuley Hall, Sacred Heart College, Newtown/Geelong, VIC

Further links

Geelong Chamber  Music Society (http://gcms.org.au/)
GCMS concert 3 - 11 September (AMC Calendar)


Subjects discussed by this article:

Helen O'Brien is a pianist, forte-pianist and harpsichordist and teaches in the postgraduate writing course at Swinburne University.


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