My literary week (11), in the theatre

I thought I’d join the world of fake news – why not? – and make my post title a lie, a double lie in fact. It’s not really “literary” (though it has its moments) and it’s not about a week (spanning, in fact, May 24 to June 13). However, the lies end here, as this post is number 11 in my “literary week” series, and it is all about theatre – of all sorts, the concert hall, the movie theatre, the dance theatre, and the drama theatre. Here goes …

Tafelmusik (Llewellyn Hall)

JS Bach, Leipzig

In May, we saw our third concert by the exciting Canadian baroque or early music ensemble, Tafelmusik. They are exciting, because their performances tend to be multimedia – comprising images and/or props, and, often, narration – because, uncommon for ensembles, they play from memory. That’s impressive on its own. The also play on period instruments.

This latest concert was titled Bach and his world and so, not surprisingly, was devoted to the music of JS Bach. But – and here comes a literary bit – it was tied together with a narration, presented by Blair Williams, telling the story of Leipzig and Bach’s time there. The narration started by introducing us to the patron gods of Leipzig, Apollo (the god of music) and Achilles (the god of trade and invention). From here we learnt about the invention of early musical instruments – and about those who made them – and about the making of the paper and pens needed to write the music. And so on … Given Bach was a church musician, we were intrigued by the focus on Greek Gods – but the reason was valid, and it was certainly illuminating.

It was a delightful and engaging concert – perhaps particularly so for us because we visited Leipzig and Bach’s St Thomas Church in 2013, but the buzz throughout the audience suggested we were not the only ones who enjoyed the concert.

The Merry Widow (Canberra Theatre)

A few days later and we were out again, this time to see the Australian Ballet’s latest performance, The Merry Widow, which was created for them in 1975. It’s a delightfully light ballet – a nice change from the dramas of Giselle (one of my favourites) and Swan Lake – and it was performed with a lovely sense of fun. The widow was danced by Dimity Azoury, who hails from neighbouring Queanbeyan.

One of the highlights for us, was seeing, in character roles, two older dancers we loved seeing in our earlier ballet-going days, David McAllister (now the Ballet’s artistic director) and Steven Heathcote. A delight.

We stayed for the post-show Q&A – good for avoiding the post-show car-park jam, as well as for learning something about the ballet. Four company members turned up – David McAllister, Dimity Azoury, another dancer, and the orchestra’s conductor. I got to ask my question about adapting to different stages, and we learnt about how much dancers eat, despite their slim appearance. It’s all that dancing you see!

Sense and sensibility (The Playhouse)

Then, two days after the ballet, it was back to the theatre to see a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility. What a surprise that was. Adapted by New York playwright, Kate Hamill, and performed by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, it started off with a bang, and never let up until the end. (Check out this promo for the play’s Canberra season.) We lost a few audience members at interval, but most of us got into the style quickly and enjoyed Hamill’s take, which was …

… subversive in terms of the traditional Regency look, with its use of kazoos, roller skates, tricycles, and the like, and highly comic in tone. The unusual props effectively managed time and space, but also captured Austen’s cheeky humour. Best thing though was that all the fun and silliness didn’t detract from the core of the original. I loved how close the production stayed to Austen’s main themes – the havoc that can be wrought on people’s lives (both men and women) by lack of economic independence, the need to balance sense with sensibility, and the challenge of staying moral and true to self in a world where money is used to wield power over others. It was a hoot from beginning to end – but a throughtful, provocative hoot, for all that.

Tea with the Dames (Hoyts, Woden)

And then, phew, I had a break of nearly a week, until this week when I went to see the documentary, Tea with the Dames, not once, but twice – first with a friend, and then with Ma Gums. It was just as good second time around.

The Dames are four doyens of the British theatre – Dame Joan Plowright (b. 1929), Dame Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), and Dame Eileen Atkins (b. 1934). They are filmed at Joan Plowright’s country home, talking to each other, and answering questions from the crew (off camera). There’s a lot of joyful, knowing laughter indicating long professional and personal friendship between the women; much sharing of stories and experiences; and, occasionally, wariness or even reluctance to talk about certain subjects (like ageing!) The documentary feels natural (even where they admit to feeling unnatural), but that’s not to say there’s no art here. It takes work to make something look natural.

In addition to providing insight into the acting life, the film is particularly delightful for the way it exposes the women’s individual personalities: the calm, philosophical Joan (you can tell why she appealed to Laurence Olivier after the dramas of his life with poor manic-depressive Vivien Leigh); the forthright, sometimes acerbic, but also occasionally vulnerable Maggie; the cheeky, light-hearted but also reflective Judi; and the quietly observant, precise Eileen.

Their conversations are interspersed with some wonderful, albeit often poor quality, archival footage, including of early film and stage performances, and more personal images such the women with their children.

The end result is a picture of four women who have lived long, who have survived a tough business, and who continue to engage actively with the world and each other – and who plan to do so until they shuffle off their mortal coils!

The beginning of nature (Premiere @ Canberra Theatre)

Finally, we attended the premiere of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s work, The beginning of nature. What a powerful, enthralling experience. We love modern dance, and this was mesmerising. We’d happily see it again – partly to draw more meaning out of it, though perhaps “meaning” is not the right word. It’s about, the program says, the “rhythms of nature”, rhythms that “permeate all aspects of the material universe.”

And so the 80-minute performance involved the nine dancers creating beautiful forms – sometimes using props like stones, sticks, plants, a conch shell – waving, flowing, leaping, crawling, forming one shape and then breaking apart to form another, and so on. Some of the movements/forms were so beautiful that I didn’t want them to end. The value in seeing the work again would be to rise above the spectacle to better “see” the nature, if that makes sense.

Garry Stewart, Australian Dance TheatreThe dancers wore gorgeous, dark teal-green androgynous costumes; the strong but not intrusive music, composed by Brendan Woithe, was played at the back of the stage by the Zephyr Quartet; and vocalists Karen Cummings and Heru Pinkasova, also at the back, sang in Kaurna (pronounced “garna”), the language of the people of the Adelaide Plains. Apparently, Kaurna was extinct until the local people started reconstructing it from the 2000 words documented in diaries by two German missionaries. (Another wonderful example of a project to recover indigenous language.) We were addressed by the company’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the end, and he paid tribute to their indigenous consultant, Jack Buckskin.

Stewart writes in the program that from the beginning he wanted to include human voices, and that “it made much more sense to work with the Kaurna language in a dance work that explores the patterns of nature, than English” because “indigenous languages have been spoken on the Australian continent for some 60,000 years, whereas English for only 230 years.” Fair point, and clearly the local indigenous people were on board with the collaboration. I should say here there’s no sense that the work aims to replicate or represent indigenous dance, but I would also say that in representing nature’s rhythms, it incorporates a sort of universal dance language that we can also see in indigenous dance.

And that, folks, is it for now.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

And so another great Musica Viva year ends

Musica Viva has done it again: it has produced another year of splendiferous, inspiring concerts. Mr Gums and I have been subscribing to Musica Viva (or its predecessor here in Canberra, the Canberra Chamber Music Society*) for nearly four decades – albeit with a gap in the middle for child-rearing and overseas posting. We love it, which of course is not surprising given we subscribe year after year!

I don’t know how Musica Viva runs in other cities, but we have a vibrant community here, fostered by an enthusiastic committee (and no, I’m not a member) and a small but creative office led by Michael Sollis (he of the Griffyn Ensemble). All of this is underpinned by the intelligent programming of Australian composer and Musica Viva artistic director Carl Vine.

Before I talk a little about the concerts I want to say something about timing. Canberra’s concerts have commenced at 7pm for over a decade now. I loved it when I was working. Of course, it may have helped that the concert hall was across the road from my workplace, though it wasn’t for Mr Gums. He’d drive over to me, we’d have a light meal on the ANU campus, go to the concert and be home by around 9.30pm. Perfect for a work night. Now we are retired, we are perfectly happy to do the European thing – eat our main meal in the middle of the day, then have a light snack before the concert, and perhaps a dessert afterwards. Works well for us.

Now to the concert experience. Over his years as office manager, Michael Sollis (who only turned 30 this year!) has worked hard to add value to the Musica Viva experience. We have pre- and post-concert events, and interval performances. To give you an example, this year’s pre-conference events have included a courtyard performance by local early music specialist Ian Blake before Renaissance group Tafelmusik, a tour of the Canberra School of Music’s historical piano collection before piano soloist Paul Lewis, a pop-up choir before a cappella group I Fagiolini, and even a wine tasting by Musica Viva’s local wine sponsor, Eden Road Wines. That of course could go before any concert!

During Interval, we can hear a performance on the School of Music’s café floor by young music students, usually mirroring the main act. So, for example, our last concert was the Eggner Trio, and the interval recital was by a young student trio. We enjoy checking out the next generation, and hopefully they enjoy performing for an appreciative audience.

The post-concert event is usually a Q&A with the performers or a CD signing. For the final concert of the year, Sollis and the committee tried something different. The Q&A was held in one of Canberra’s oldest brewpubs, the Wig & Pen, which is located in the School of Music’s ground floor. An inspired idea. At least Eggner Trio, comprising three brothers aged from their late 20s to mid 30s, seemed to think it was! And I think we audience members who joined in found it a fun, relaxed end to our Musica Viva year.

I don’t know what you think about all this, whether it would appeal to you, but I love the commitment to engaging and inspiring the community that lies behind all this.

Beethoven statue, Bonn

Beethoven statue, Bonn (his birthplace)

So, you are probably wondering, who (or what) did we actually hear in 2015. In Canberra, we get 6 of the year’s 7 touring performers. Our numbers don’t, apparently, quite support receiving all 7 yet. A goal for the future! This year, we had:

  • Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra from Canada which presented a staged/choreographed multimedia show called House of Dreams, in which the musicians took us through the art, architecture and music of Europe through works by Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell, Telemann, Bach and Marais. It was an exciting show though perhaps not quite as coherent as their Galileo Project which we saw a few years ago.
  • Goldner String Quartet, from Australia and comprising two married couples, played Ligetti, Beethoven and a new crowd-funded piece by Australian composer Paul Stanhope. Lovely music – and I can never say no to Beethoven who, if I were forced to choose, would be my favourite composer.
  • Cellist Steven Isserlis with pianist Connie Shih. We always love Steven Isserlis (with his wild curly hair) – but Shih more than held her own in what was a Gallic-inspired program.
  • I Fagiolini is an English a cappella group which specialises in “Renaissance and 20th-century vocal repertoire”. They were impressive and very entertaining, particularly in their staging of Janequin’s “La Chasse” which they performed from memory. It’s “a nightmare to memorise” says their leader Robert Hollingworth. They also performed a new work by Australian composer Andrew Schultz titled “Le Molière imaginaire; Or, Keep Your Enemas Closer”. You had to be there really. (I hope you didn’t think chamber music is all toffee-nosed seriousness!) Their concert ended on a more respectfully serious note, though, with another 20th-century piece, Adrian Williams’ “Hymn to Awe”.
  • Paul Lewis is an English solo pianist. In the spirit of gender equality, I’m going to talk about male appearance. I do like a male musician with curly hair, so I’m automatically partial to Steven Isserlis and Paul Lewis! Luckily they are excellent musicians too. Lewis, as I recollect, played his whole program – all Beethoven and Brahms – from memory, something we discussed with him at the post-concert Q&A.
  • Eggner Trio, comprising three young brothers from Austria, closed out the 2015 season with a beautiful program featuring Robert Schumann, Australian composer Dulcie Holland (her trio composed in 1944 but not performed until 1991!), and Dvorak.

Musica Viva’s four core values are “quality, diversity, challenge and joy”. We certainly had all that 2015. A huge thanks to all the paid staff, volunteers and performers who made it happen.

* The Canberra Chamber Music Society was founded in 1956 and for more than two decades presented chamber concerts in Canberra, in association with Musica Viva Australia which was established in 1945.

Performers and the audience

Have you ever been to a show – a concert, a play, a ballet, for example – and wondered about the performers? How do they relate to each other? What do they do in their spare time? Well, quite coincidentally, two shows I went to last week looked at this question from different angles.

First, Musica Viva. We in Canberra were the last concert in the tour by young London-based trio, the Sitkovetsky Trio which comprises Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano), and Leonard Eischenbroich (cello). They are all in their twenties and have been good friends since they met as young children – preteen – at the Yehudi Menuhin School. We decided to attend the after concert Q&A. While some of the questions related to their artistic practice and influences, some addressed those questions that clearly I’m not the only one to ponder, such as whether they remember their first meetings with each other, and how their current extra-curricular interests might influence their playing.

In the program, Chinese pianist Wu Qian talked about her fascination with English literature and how she read all the Jane Austen novels after arriving in England. She was 13 years old, I believe, when she started at the school. Most interesting though was Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky’s answer at the Q&A. He arrived at the school when he was around 8 years old and, being so young, apparently lost all facility with his language. He returned to Russia for the first time when he was 17 years old and was embarrassed by his lack of skill in his own language. He couldn’t even read billboards he said. And so he set about rectifying that. It’s so wonderful, he said, to be able to read Tolstoy and Pushkin in the original language. As a reader, I totally understood that. German cellist Leonard Eischenbroich, on the other had, spoke of the importance of recognising the moment when you are independent of teachers and influences – not in the sense that you stop learning from others but in terms of being confident in the sort of musician you are and able to assess external input on your own terms.

And then, the next night we attended the Sydney Dance Company’s show, Interplay. It comprised three dances, “2 in D Minor” (by Rafael Bonachela), “Raw Models” (by Jacopo Godani), and “L’Chaim” (Gideon Obarzanek). They were three wonderful and very different performances, but the one I want to talk about here is the last, “L’Chaim”, which, you might know, means “To life” in Hebrew/Yiddish. It is a dance that directly addresses both the audience’s curiosity about the artists as well as what an audience member might seek from attending a performance. It’s a clever, entertaining and provocative piece.

“L’Chaim” is a work that combines dance (choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek) and text (written by David Woods). It commences with the dancers on stage in – hmm – play clothes, dancing or, perhaps, rehearsing a dance. They dance, stop and talk, and dance again. But, while this is going on, they are being asked questions from the audience. Often the questions are directed to individual dancers – “the German-looking one”, “the youngest”, “you with the spiky hair” – and so a microphone is passed around from dancer to dancer who attempts to answer questions while continuing to dance. And the questions are those we might like to ask: “Who is the youngest?”, “Are you grumpy”, “Does it take a lot of strength to do that?”, “Say your cat died yesterday and you had to bury it – would you be sad when you were dancing? What would it look like?”, and “Do you know what we want?”. The dancer’s answer to the latter was “to be entertained”. She went on to suggest that the audience doesn’t want to be made to feel sad”. The interrogation ends only when the questioner admits to being sad and is invited onto the stage.

The writer of the text, David Wood, writes in the program that we audience members fear being asked “What did you think”? (I know that feeling!). He says that “it isn’t easy to put into words the event that we have just been a part of”. And so, he says:

In “L’Chaim” we have attempted to dive into this murky zone … some of the questions are shallow and some downright disrespectful but our voice needs to wade through this initial trivia to get to the heart of its dilemma – to articulate something beyond the literal.

After the intensity of “2 in D Minor” and the confronting power of “Raw Models”, “L’Chaim” brought us back to reality, to thinking about what it is that we seek in dance, or, indeed, in any performance we attend. It didn’t provide an answer, of course, because there isn’t a simple one, but it gave us freedom to explore our reactions on multiple levels – the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. It’s an unusual piece, and may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I laughed when I recognised myself in the superficial questions and I appreciated its acknowledgement of my uncertainty about articulating the meaning of what I’ve experienced.

What do you ponder when attending live performances?

The Shows:

  • Musica Viva, The Sitkovetsky Trio, performed Lewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, April 14, 2014
  • Sydney Dance Company, Interplay, performed Canberra Theatre Centre, April 10-12, 2014

What do Anna Funder and Amarcord have in common?

Leipzig! It’s funny isn’t it how some person, place, idea (or whatever) that you hadn’t come across in who knows how long suddenly makes its presence felt more than once in a short amount of time. This is what happened to me this week when I attended, on Sunday, a conversation at the National Library of Australia with Miles Franklin award-winning author, Anna Funder, and then two nights later a Musica Viva concert by all-male a cappella group, Amarcord. For those of you who know these people, the Leipzig connection is pretty obvious, but for those who don’t, I’ll explain. Anna Funder’s first book was the non-fiction work Stasiland which explores the impact of the Stasi on those affected by it. And Amarcord was founded in Leipzig from members of the St Thomas’ Boys Choir (which was established in 1212!).

The connection, though, is a little more complex than a purely physical one. In talking about Leipzig and her book promotion tour there, Funder commented on the paradox of being in the building* in Leipzig that the Stasi operated from and that had also been used by some of the world’s greatest musicians such as Bach (who is buried in St Thomas’ Church) and Mendelssohn. Amarcord, during the concert, talked of Leipzig’s musical heritage – of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Bach – but in the programme they also referred to the time under the Stasi:

Living in East Germany required conditioning. You needed to know whom you could trust. I really had to be careful what I said to whom. And then we had the privilege of a choir that was an island of relative freedom of speech and thought. That of course attracted children from families who needed that freedom of speech. Even as a child I felt that atmosphere strongly. In the choir, I could breathe again. (Daniel Knauft, bass)

I won’t say much more about Amarcord except that the concert was magnificent. The program, themed “The Singing Club – Four  Centuries of Song”, comprised music mostly from the Renaissance and Romantic eras, but concluded with a small selection of folk songs from around the world, including Korea and Ghana. It was a beautifully varied program, each of the singers addressed us during the performance to explain the pieces being sung, and the singing was glorious. I love performers that are serious about their music, but don’t take themselves too seriously. That was Amarcord, and if they come again, I’ll be lining up at the door.

But now to Anna Funder. She was a very thoughtful considered interviewee, which is not surprising I guess from someone who took 5-6 years to write her last novel, All that I am. She talked, for example, about how Stasiland had started as a novel but that she’d decided “it didn’t seem right” to use other people’s lives for a fictional purpose. She also talked about the challenge of believability. In All that I am she said she modified the facts because in fiction authors ask readers to jump into a world they create, but she felt there were things about the “real” story behind All that I am that are “unbelievable”, that no-one would believe in a novel! As one who doesn’t find it too hard to suspend disbelief, I was intrigued by the care she takes to make sure her fiction is believable – and she is probably sensible to do so!

While her main concerns, she said, are social justice and what it means to be human, her aim in writing fiction is not “to make an argument” but “to make a beautiful piece of work, a literary artefact”. Every nation, she said, has something in their history that is “disenchanting” (don’t we Aussies know it) but the function of literature is to “enchant us”. I must say I was enchanted by the way she juggled these two conceptual balls, by her clear fundamental commitment to her art and to her moral-ethical world view.

Louise Maher, the host of the conversation, asked her about awards and prizes, and referred to Funder’s letter to Premier Campbell Newman regarding his cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in which she described his action as “a step towards the unscrutinised exercise of power”. She told us that given the book she’d just written – about a totalitarian state – she had to write what she did. Funder clearly supports prizes – and has won a goodly many. She sees them as a “signpost to quality” and said that while they don’t make writing easier, they improve the likelihood of having your next work published.

I did enjoy my little forays into Leipzig this week – and the places they took me.

* Probably the “Round Corner” house, though I don’t recollect her actually naming the building.

Tafelmusik anyone?


Galileo (Courtesy: tonynetone, using CC-BY 2.0, via flickr)

Tafelmusik = table (or banquet) music, and has been used since the mid-16th century for music played at feasts and banquets.


Tafelmusik = a Canadian Baroque orchestra specialising in early music, performed on period instruments.


197856 Tafelmusik = an asteroid discovered in 2004 and named for the orchestra.

You learn something new every day, don’t you? But why am I sharing this particular learning of mine? Well, because this week we attended our first Musica Viva subscription concert of the year and it happened to be The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, created and performed by Tafelmusik. It’s been some time since I wrote about a music concert. As I’ve said before, I love music but am no expert. This concert, though, was one-of-a-kind and I can’t resist sharing it with you, Whispering Gums style.

Baroque music was my first “classical*” music love – and so I was predisposed to enjoy this concert but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it quite as much as I did. The concert was a musical performance something like we’ve seen before with groups like The Song Company (and their Venetian Carnival). The Galileo Project was performed by 17 musicians and an actor. It incorporated music (of course), visual images, narration and movement. And, unusually for ensembles, the whole program was performed from memory. If there were any hiccoughs I didn’t hear them.

So, why Galileo? Through the program and post-concert Q&A, we learnt that The Galileo Project was Tafelmusik’s contribution to the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, which was the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the astronomical telescope. We were told that Canadian astronomers had a goal for 2009: that every Canadian would get to look at the stars through a telescope! I don’t think they quite achieved that, but it never hurts to aim high.

Anyhow, the program. It was divided into sections:

  • The Harmony of the Spheres I (Vivaldi)
  • Music from Phaeton (Lully)
  • Music from the Time of Galileo (Monteverdi, Merula, Galilei, Marini)
  • Henry Purcell
  • The Dresden Festival of the Planets (Rameau, Handel, Telemann, Zelenka, Lully, Weiss)
  • The Harmony of the Spheres II (Bach)

The music was linked by a narration drawn from contemporary writings (by Shakespeare, astronomers/scientists – who also included Newton and Kepler – and musicians) exploring the relationship between science, mathematics and music. Galileo’s father, Vicenzo Galilei, was a lutenist. One of his interests was testing lute strings to find “the mathematical formulas that express the relationships among length, tension and musical pitch” (program notes). Galileo, himself, was also a lute player, as well as a mathematics teacher and astronomer.

The concert program contains extensive notes on how astronomy and music intersected during the period, including:

  • the 1719 Festival of the Planets, which was a month-long event comprising operas, balls, outdoor events and special concerts designed to commemorate each of the known planets of the time – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn**. Handel, Telemann and other musicians were involved in the Festival.
  • Johannes Kepler‘s Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World) in which he outlined his theory regarding harmonies (musical intervals and short melodies) that can be derived from planetary motion using mathematical formulae. The orchestra played some of these tunes from the planets.

All this was fascinating, but if you want to know more, here is a link to a Teacher Resource Guide which will give you more info than I ever could.

Meanwhile, I’ll just dot point my highlights of the concert:

  • the engaging rapport between the members of the ensemble. They clearly know each other well and enjoy playing together. That, or they are good actors!
  • the gorgeous sound. Llewellyn Hall should have good acoustics but I have never noticed quite how beautiful the sound is until this concert. It was warm and lush but also oh-so clear.
  • perfection that wasn’t cold and technical. They played from memory, they “orbited” or otherwise moved around the stage – and the hall – as they played their violins and oboes (which was impressive in itself but also enhanced our experience of the sound), and they made it feel spontaneous.
  • the sensitive incorporation into the narration of an indigenous Australian story about tracking Venus, from the Yolngu people.
  • beautiful, varied pieces of music played on authentic instruments.

We were told last year that if we only came to one Musica Viva concert in 2012, this should be it. We have, as usual, subscribed for the year, and we plan to attend them all, but this was a concert to remember. We hope Tafelmusik comes back.

* Using “classical” in its generic, not specific, meaning.
** Did you know that Uranus was discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel who was an oboist, organist, composer and amateur astronomer?

Musica Viva: The Harp Consort do Carolan’s Harp

Turlough O'Carolan

Carolan (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Can you pronounce this? Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhallaín? Perhaps you’d prefer the English transliteration: Turlough O’Carolan. O’Carolan was a blind Irish harper* who lived from 1670 to 1738, and, according to Wikipedia, is believed by some to be Ireland’s national composer. He was also the composer and subject of this week’s Musica Viva concert.

Carolan’s music, the program notes said, “spans the divide between high art and popular styles and is a mixture of fashionable French Baroque dance forms, including minuets and jigs, combined with ancient Gaelic forms including laments and planxties**”. The Consort’s director, Lawrence-King added, during the concert, that he also incorporated Italian music that was being played in Ireland at the time. A true cosmopolitan it seems.

We’ve seen and enjoyed The Harp Consort before (around 2006), and so I was looking forward to this week’s performance. I was not disappointed. It was, by turns, wistful, humorous, lilting and lively – and thoroughly engaging. Mr Gums did hear one member in the audience suggest that they might as well have been at the Folk Festival! I can think of worse places to be – but this was, really, of a somewhat different ilk, albeit covering some similar ground. Anyhow, if you click on this link, you will hear some music emanating from their website. Go on, do it! If you are disappointed, I won’t expect you back here!

The performers at tonight’s concert were:

Celtic harp

Celtic Harp (Courtesy: OCAL via

Before you read on, remember that I am not musically trained and would in no way call myself qualified to comment on technical skill and interpretation. However, this was the perfect performance for one such as me, who loves literature, dance and music, because it incorporated all three. Not only were there songs – with the words (fortunately with translation) printed in the program – but Andrew Lawrence-King told us Carolan’s story throughout the evening’s performance. I particularly enjoy concerts in which the musicians engage directly like this with the audience.

Then there was the dancing. If the other performers hadn’t been so engaging themselves, Steven Player would have stolen the show. He has a wonderful ability – as all good dancers do of course – to inhabit the character of each dance. The dancing style seemed to combine elements of Irish stepdancing and Scottish highland dancing – which probably makes sense since presumably these dance forms have all had some similar roots and influences. Anyhow, whatever it was, Player performed with grace and feeling – and gave his all.

And finally, the music. I have a soft spot for early music – for the lovely melodies and the gorgeous (in looks and sound) instruments. You can see from the performer list above that there was a wide range of instruments played. The music, including several songs performed with a lovely sweet voice by O’Leary, was appealingly diverse, ranging from laments to jigs, from love songs to comic ones.

It’s hard to pick a highlight from such a concert, but, I often find myself drawn to percussion. Metzler was fascinating to watch. He played numerous percussion instruments, including some unfamiliar to me, and a couple of novelty instruments (one to emulate birdsong, another the wind). And he, too, fully engaged with the character of the music he was performing, acting out parts when appropriate.

Overall, what I liked about the concert was the sensitivity with which the Harp Consort played the music, and the energy and exuberance they invested in the performance. It was, as they say, the total package.

Late in the concert came the comic drinking song, “Bumper Squire Jones”. It seems appropriate to end with some lines from it:

Ye clergy so wise

Come here without failing
And leave off your railing
‘Gainst bishops providing for dull stupid drones;
Says the text so divine,
“What is life without wine”
Then, away with the claret –  a bumper, Squire Jones.

None of us needed a claret that night. We were high enough without it.

*Harper: You learn something new everyday. According to Wikipedia, “harper” is used in the folk tradition, and “harpist” in the classical. The Musica Viva program used both, indicating perhaps that this was a bit of a cross-over concert!

**Planxty may, say the notes, have been coined by Carolan. It signifies popular, animated pieces in jig rhythm.

Musica Viva, the Internet and Borodin

Tonight was the opening of our Musica Viva 2010 International Concert Season. The performers were the Borodin Quartet, and they performed two quartets by Shostakovich and one by their namesake, Borodin. I’m not going to review this concert in detail because, as I’ve said before, I have no musical training and so can’t comment in any detail on the structure of the music or the technical skill of the musicians. There are things though that I can talk about.

The first thing is the Internet. Like many of us, I like to keep an eye on how organisations and businesses use the Internet to enhance their services. A few years ago Musica Viva started making their concert programs available online before the concert. Not only did this mean you didn’t have to pay for a printed program at the venue but you could read up on the pieces beforehand. In addition to this aid to audience education, they have, for some years, offered free pre-concert talks. We never managed to get to those which is a shame as I’m sure they would have further enhanced our appreciation of the concerts but, well, you just can’t fit in everything. This year, though, they have replaced this with a new feature: online concert talks – which they say they will make available around 2 weeks before the concert. You can check out the talks offered for tonight’s Borodin concert here. What a great way to use the Internet to help audience members get the most out of the concerts. As the athletes at the Winter Olympics say, I’m stoked!

The next thing is a little more esoteric. I may not be trained in music, but I am a trained librarian/archivist. I was therefore rather chuffed to read that Borodin, an industrial chemist as well as composer, invented “a chemical compound – a special type of gelatine coating – that enabled him to preserve his [hand-written] musical work for posterity” (from the concert program). How great is that?


Cello (Courtesy: Clker, by OCAL)

And now for the concert. Three pieces were played:

  • Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet no. 4 in D major, op. 83 (1949)
  • Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet no. 13 in B flat minor, op. 138 (1960-70)
  • Alexander Borodin String Quartet no. 2 in D major (1881)

It was a lovely concert. The two Shostakovich pieces were a little more demanding for those in the audience who like something more traditional, but I thought both were beautiful. The end of his 4th quartet, with a slowly sustained fading line from the cello supported by light (not bright) pizzicato from the other instruments, was played sensitively and left us with a wistful melancholy. According to the program, Shostakovich said that music should always have “two layers” and that Jewish folk music with its ability to “be happy while it is tragic” is close to his vision of music. Both these quartets reflected, I think, this goal though in the mostly sombre 13th it was much harder to find! My concert neighbour (not Mr Gums, but on my other side) and I agreed that this was not music to listen to at home on the radio or a CD, but to hear live, in the concert hall.

The Borodin is a different kettle of fish – romantic, with all the richness and lyricism you associate with that period. The third movement, the Notturno (or Nocturne), is famous. I recognised it immediately but if you had asked me before the concert who wrote it I would have “guessed” Beethoven. Well, it is Romantic! But, hearing it tonight, I realised that it does sound a little more “modern” than Beethoven, and that’s about as technical as I’ll get!

All in all, a lovely concert – interesting music well played – to start this year’s season. Next up The Harp Consort. You never know, I may be inspired to tell you about that one too.

Musica Viva concert: Steven Isserlis & Dénes Várjon

Cello (Photo by Jamilsoni, used under Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No-derivative Works 2.0)

Cello (Photo by Jamilsoni, used under Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No-derivative Works 2.0)

I haven’t written about all the Musica Viva concerts I’ve attended this year because I don’t really have any music review skills. However, I can’t resist writing a little about this one. This is the third time we’ve seen the cellist Steven Isserlis, each time accompanied by a different pianist, and we’ve never been disappointed. He is one of those expressive performers who actively communicates with the audience through his playing.

Tonight’s program was all Schumann – played by two Schumaniacs (as Isserlis described themselves when introducing their encore – another piece by Schumann!). This despite the fact that Schumann, while apparently liking the cello having played it as a child, wrote little for it. Only one of the six programmed pieces was written for cello; the rest were written for instruments as varied as violin, oboe, clarinet and piano. Whatever they were originally written for, the arrangements for cello and piano that we heard tonight were delightful and could, to my ears anyhow, have always been intended that way. The program was:

  • Fantasiestücke, op 73
  • Märchenbilder, op 113 (arranged Alfredo Piatti)
  • Violin Sonata no 3 in A minor (1853) (arranged Steven Isserlis)
  • Three Romances, op 94
  • Adagio and Allegro, op 70
  • Fünf Stücke im Volkston, op 102 (the one originally for cello and piano)

Schumann is a Romantic composer, and his pieces clearly reflect that period – they are variously sweet, melancholic, dramatic, humorous even, but never discordant or jarring.  The playing was lovely. That said, some of my companions felt that the piano often overwhelmed the cello. Others of us, though, almost forgot the piano (gorgeous as it was) existed, so focused were we on Steven. He is hard not to focus on with his somewhat wild curly locks and animated playing. He is also unflappable: just as he finished a movement of one piece a baby in the audience squawked. Isserlis pulled a humorous face and commented that while a couple of notes might have been out of tune, it wasn’t that bad, and then muttered something about “critics”! What a charmer!

I guess my only criticism, if you could call it that, is that the program was all Schumann. Schumann is lovely and the program had some colour to it, but I would probably have enjoyed a little wider variety – a little discordance perhaps to counterpoint all the lyricism. This is but a petty point to make about a lovely evening’s music played by delightful performers. And who could be more delightful than a performer whose voicemail apparently goes like this:

Please leave me a nice uplifting message to make my day, make my life worthwhile. (Musica Viva Concert Program)

What more can I say!

PS If you are interested, here is a YouTube of Isserlis and Várjon playing Schumann’s Arbendlied Op 85 No 12, which was the encore at our concert.

Musica Viva concert: Katia Skanavi

I have been attending classical (to use the popular definition of the term) concerts since the mid- 1970s, but I am not musically trained and so cannot comment with any expertise on technique, interpretation,  etc. However, I do know what I like – and one of the things I like is a concert that mixes old composers/pieces with new. It is satisfying to hear music you know or, if you don’t know the actual music, at least a familiar style. But, it is also great to be challenged by new compositions from contemporary composers.

Musica Viva’s recent subscription concerts – we returned to subscribing about 8 years ago after a bit of a hiatus – achieve an appealing balance in this regard. Under the artistic directorship of Australian composer Carl Vine, we have seen (and heard) a wide range of performers from the tried and true, like the Jerusalem and Tokyo Quartets, to the unusual (for the chamber music scene anyhow) like TaikOz and The Song Company. And, each year, there is a featured composer – a contemporary Australian. In recent years we have had Matthew Hindson, Richard Mills, Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe and, this year, Carl Vine himself. This means that pretty well every concert in the series will include at least one piece by that composer. A painless – indeed usually a joyful – way of being introduced to contemporary repertoire.

And this brings me to last night’s inspiring concert by the young (well, born in 1971) Russian pianist, Katia Skanavi. We rarely have solo piano concerts at Musica Viva, so we were expecting a real treat, and were not disappointed. The program included Schubert, Carl Vine and two pieces by Chopin. It was beautiful – to watch and to listen to. I won’t describe the concert in detail. True music reviewers will do that much better than I, but I will say that Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (2007) was a delight. It comprises 4 movements played without the usual breaks between them. It was both lyrical and dramatic. This may sound silly but I particularly loved the left hand which played some gorgeous quiet lyrical parts and then joined the right in strong dramatic sections. In fact, Katia confirmed once again what a physical thing playing the piano is – her soft notes were barely there but you could hear them all; her loud notes were clear and strong. She seemed to me to combine technical excellence with great expression. After playing for around 80 minutes – with an intermission – she played an encore.  Unlike many performers today who tell us what their encore is, she just sat down and played. I think it might have been another Chopin but I’m probably wrong. I will have to wait for the reviews to find out.

Meanwhile, if you want to hear and see her, albeit much younger, self try this YouTube recording.

Addendum: There was finally a review of the concert BUT, bum, the reviewer did not identify the encore. I bet he didn’t know it either! Anyhow, he agreed that the concert was great. He wrote that “Her playing is deceptively simple. Everything seemed effortless, with even the most complex and technically demanding passages played with a delightful rhythmic definition and precise  phrasing and articulation.” (Graham McDonald, “Simply Splendid Skanavi”, Times2, The Canberra Times, 26 May 2009)

Addendum 2: Here is a lovely review from a Melbourne Blogger of the Melbourne concert. They had two encores, and one was Chopin. I reckon ours was too! Anyhow, now I wish we’d clapped more…