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31 July 2007

A Double Outing

Various // Vic // 17 + 24.06.07

Julian Yu Image: Julian Yu  

Melbourne-based composer Julian Yu has had a moment in the sun recently with two works being performed on back-to-back Sundays. Yu’s arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s third Violin Concerto represents the composer’s current interest in what could loosely be termed ‘transcription’; while the chamber music work was a revisit to a score composed in the 1980s. And it was the Yu works that have remained in my memory – sometimes for good reasons and fleetingly for negative flashbacks.

Australia Pro Arte and Yu have formed a collaboration that appears to have some creative traction. Over the last couple of years the orchestra has been looking for arrangements of large works that could be reduced to fit their modest forces. Yu started his collaboration with his quirky reinterpretation of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Not that there is a shortage of such arrangements – from memory there are at least 20, with Ravel’s being the most popular (and for good reason). Yu’s take on the arrangement was to top it off with some Chinese musical garnish, which gave the composer some ownership of his ‘re-creation’. Of course, this idea of re-ordering pre-existing music is not new. One can think of the nineteenth-century/early-twentieth-century tradition of arranging theatrical music for piano. Busoni, Liszt and Grainger were masters of re-configuration and not without injecting their own original musical trajectories into the mix. Stokowski’s arrangements of Bach’s music are overblown essays but ones that suited his orchestras and in a way his scores are the epitome of linger romanticism of the early 20th century. Moving up to the present day, Yu’s arrangement of Mussorgsky with its Chinese musical flavours demonstrates Australian multiculturalism (a term that is a bit on the nose at present, just like Stokowski’s romanticism was sixty or so years ago!) But what of the new Saint-Saëns arrangement?

In comparison, the Mussorgsky is a safer arrangement in that Yu does not stray too far away from the source. In the Saint-Saëns, however, he uses the original to go off into rather quirky territory. Perhaps that is why the violinist, whose line Yu chose not to play around with, had some difficulty in holding his performance together as the orchestral accompaniment was in a language beyond that of Saint-Saëns. The closest the two composers meet is in the area of musical transparency. Yu might have been quirky but it was never overwritten for the chamber forces of strings, harp, percussion and one each of clarinet, flute, horn and trumpet, and concurrently he still was able to maintain strong orchestral colour. Humour is also incorporated into the arrangement with ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals – doubly amusing as Saint-Saëns hated the children’s work. But does it work as an arrangement? I am afraid I have to sit on the fence here because while listening to it I oscillated between it working and not. The doubts linger around the maintenance of Saint-Saëns’s solo violin line and Yu’s rejection of the French composer’s orchestral support structures. This had the effect of concurrently pulling the work into two stylistic areas, which sometimes left the listener in no-man’s-land – stuck between tradition and innovation. One thing I am reasonably confident in saying is that it will not have the same working life as the Mussorgsky arrangement.

Yu’s earlier Sol so la re, composed in the mid-1980s, originally began as a counterpoint exercise. While it has its moments, the chamber work never really escapes from its humble beginnings. It still sounds like a voice placement exercise even though the melodies are quite strong. The MSO musicians David Thomas (clarinet), Monica Curro (violin), Gabrielle Halloran (viola), and Sarah Morse (cello) probably got the most out of the music in terms of expressivity but that is as far as the score would allow them to progress. The other Australian work on the MSO Chamber Players program was Mark Isaacs’s Three scherzi (1984), which, like Yu’s quartet, was also composed during his student days. But, unlike Yu’s work, it has a muscularity about it that flirts with high levels of chromaticism. As the title suggests, the movements are short, within which the sections contain pithy statements that the performers punched out with great élan. Even though the Australia Ensemble took it on one of their international tours in the late 1980s, the performance by Wendy Clarke (flute), David Thomas (clarinet), Monica Curro (violin), and Sarah Morse (cello) was the Australian premiere – 23 years after its creation!

Regrettably, Roger Smalley’s Nonet for the MSO Chamber Players did not see the light of day as the piece was not ready in time. No substitute plans for the piece were printed in the program.

While both the Yu works and Isaacs’s short quartet had moments of engagement, the same could not be said of Calvin Bowman’s ultra-twee I would sing a little while for soprano and string orchestra. Predictable voice writing that had its basis in 1930s English balladry, and a jumble of texts that varied greatly in quality made the work fall into the oh so boring ‘easy listening’ category. In the program notes Bowman proclaims that ‘…nine Australian poems…have been ordered chronologically to reflect the changing of times and seasons.’ But the musical language held to its conservatism to such an extent as not to support the idea of change. The poems by Penelope Alexander, David Campbell, John Shaw Neilson, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and James McAuley had enough ingredients for difference, but uniformity was the ultimate outcome. This is not to suggest that Bowman should have developed a song cycle without stylistic ballast, but rather more should have been done than alternating between lyricism and recitative with full or segmented accompaniments. If there is a short score available then one or two of the songs might be worth investigating, but as for the whole work, its time has come and gone.

Performance Details

Australia Pro Arte, Benjamin Northey (conductor), Cameron Hill (violin) and Jacqueline Porter (soprano)
Works by Calvin Bowman, Julian Yu/Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Elgar
BMW Edge, Melbourne Sunday June 24, 2007

MSO Chamber Players
Works by Julian Yu, Mark Isaacs, Mozart and Brahms
Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne Sunday June 17, 2007

Further Links

Joel Crotty is deputy head, School of Music-Conservatorium, Monash University. His research interests are Australian and Romanian music, and he was on the AMC board between 1997-2003.


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Ok. I'm sick of waiting. I'll be the first.

Is there anyone else out there who thinks Julian's stuff is a bit tight. You know what I mean?

Come on. Let's get those comments coming in now!

Are we all a bit shy or what?

Discourse? You want me to say discourse? There I've said it.

Now lets get the verbage flowing.