Gerard Mortier has died. Imagine someone with the ruthless drive of a Gordon Ramsay, masked by neat attire, remarkable intelligence and the adventurous taste and exquisite sensibilities of a Medici. Put them in charge of a few significant festivals and opera houses and let the fun begin.
Others will better list and explain Mortier’s significance to the culture of our time. I’ve only had a glimpse of his greatness, and the sides of him that infuriated or devastated people as often as he inspired others. I travelled to a conference for artist managers (agents) and presenters in Europe in 2006, as a convenient way to meet many of the people I usually work with only via email. There were a couple of revelations there: one such, that northern hemisphere swans – being white – blend in really well with floating ice. When I exclaimed about this I had a moment of cultural reversal, a glimpse of the impact it made on explorers, as I had to explain to a surprised German colleague that our Australian swans are black, the better to hide in leafy shadows I suppose.
But the other ‘take-aways’ were from speeches. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talked about the human need for classical music, and theorised as to why some people only come to it later in life. When serious grown-up things begin to happen to you, and you go looking for an emotional reflection of them, sometimes a three-minute pop song just doesn’t cut it any more. Art music can fill that need, but only if you know it’s there. Classical music education is a social justice issue.
And Gerard Mortier told a story, of how he annoyed the cleaning ladies at the Opéra National de Paris because he always arrived too early while they were still working on his office and would get in their way. So he would sometimes chat while they finished their work. The cleaners were all black women. One day while talking to the head cleaner, he discovered they had never been to a performance in this very building they worked in. A travesty! He arranged ten tickets for a forthcoming concert, which he thought would be a nice first experience: Sweet Honey in the Rock, a wonderful black female choir from America. All was agreed.
The concert came, and Mortier was infuriated to see all the A reserve seats he had carefully put aside for the cleaners stayed empty. Next morning he arrived early, bristling with fury at the ingratitude. He described how he thundered at the head cleaner, ‘Where were you? Those were very expensive seats! Why didn’t you come?’ And she looked very embarrassed and confused, and said ‘I’m so sorry. We did come…We got as far as the stairs.’
So of course his anger died in a moment and he asked more questions of her.
And then he asked us, a room full of arts managers, to consider how daunting are the very buildings we work in, their temple-like grandeur, their sense of ‘specialness’; and to consider the impact that has on people who may consider such buildings are not for them; that the art which goes on inside them, is not for them, has no connection to their lives.
It’s a small anecdote, but it has stayed in my mind. Why should classical performing arts be something only the wealthy know how to enjoy? Is it at all right and just, that some children grow up knowing how to go to a concert and others don’t? How can we accept that the arts, a potential source of joy and consolation, is simply not available to many people around us?
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts
I was fortunate enough to hear the Kelemen Quartet’s performance of Ross Edwards’ String Quartet no 3 in Newcastle. On meeting Ross Edwards, the group reportedly thanked him for writing them ‘great rhythms to play and beautiful lines to sing’. This got me thinking about some of my own formative experiences with Australian music.
Sadly I’ve not played much chamber music by Australian composers, but the first piece I ever played in an orchestra was Graeme Koehne’s Powerhouse. It was on a music camp and the rehearsal venue was a large hall at a sport and recreation camp. It was not designed for music at all – the floors were carpeted but everything else was hard, reflective surfaces. As we launched into this work the feeling was overwhelming. It was loud, like nothing I’d experienced before; it was fast, rhythmically challenging, but melodically catchy. It was an exciting introduction to orchestral playing and left me wanting more.
A year later I found myself with the same orchestra on stage at the Sydney Opera House, preparing to premiere a new work for choir and orchestra by Matthew Hindson. At the time I had no idea who Hindson was, but if the funky rhythms and harmonies weren’t enough to interest a teenaged ensemble, the lyrics based on graffiti from a toilet wall certainly grabbed our attention! To this day, if I mention Velvet Dreams to a certain group of friends, they will launch into a rousing rendition of the opening verse!
I’ve had some fantastic experiences with Australian music, many of which helped open up my mind and ears to new sound worlds, new techniques, and new possibilities. There was the powerful sense of foreboding created playing the opening to Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica suite in a darkened Sydney Entertainment Centre; or the moment during a performance of Gerard Brophy’s Colour Red… Your Mouth… Heart where, for the first time, I could hear and feel the compositional processes unfolding around me; or one of my first encounters with extended techniques when, studying the score of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Variations in a Serious Black Dress my high school music teach pointed out the instructions for the pianist to play cluster chords first with their fists, and later with their entire forearm; and I can still recall conductor Richard Gill vocalising the very particular way he wanted the oboes to growl in a passage of Koehne’s Tivoli Dances.
We are so lucky to have so many fabulous and inventive composers in Australia and I can only hope that many more people will continue to have transformative experiences with the music they write.
The award-winning Sitkovetsky Trio is conquering the globe with its unusual blend of dazzling virtuosity and heartfelt, thoughtful artistry. Their delight in playing together reaches out across the footlights to touch audiences in music by Smetana, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and a new work by Carl Vine.
We sat down with Qian, Sasha, and Leonard to discuss their upcoming our for Musica Viva Australia.
Tell us how this tour came about.
Qian: because we have colleagues who have been on Musica Viva tour’s previously, we heard about how great this is, and we were just very thrilled when our manager got us this possibility. As a trio it’s our first tour.
How do the three of you divide your time between your solo work and your ensemble work.
Q: We all live in London, so we are not like other chamber groups or quartets that just say, oh, for these two months we are going to play and rehearse. It’s harder for us to say exactly how much time we spend specifically just for the trio, because we also are all very good friends since we were 12, 13 years old from school.
It sounds as if you have a sense of family together.
Q: Well, yeah, we’ve known each other for 16 years now.
What made you decide to become a trio?
Q: It was funny. It was 6 years ago. There was a completely different project that brought us together. We were chosen to do something, but the project didn’t work out, that was the first time the three of us had played together in this combination the audience reaction was always very good, so then we thought, well, maybe we should stick together and actually give it a go seriously. And that’s how it all started.
Qian, tell me about the other two players.
Q: Of course they both are wonderful. I think for me both Sasha and Leonard are extremely talented musical players. They are both always looking for colours and warmth. They’re all great, in every way, but if I had to pick it’s probably the passion, the warmth and the colour in their playing.
Can you tell me from your point of view what made you decide to invest in becoming a trio?
Sasha: It wasn’t really something that we had planned in advance. But there was this kind of circumstance, and it brought us together to play something, and we just honestly really enjoyed it and then we started looking for more concerts and more things to do, and then we entered a competition in Germany that was our kind of first big thing, and we did very well in that, we got first prize there, and things just went from there, and here we are, six years later.
How do you pick your repertoire?
S: Together. We always talk about things together, very often one of us will come and say, listen, I heard this piece, I really love it – can we learn it? Any decision we make, we always make together. That is, I think, the right way, and we are very democratic in that way.
What does it give you as a player to be involved in a project where music is a means for social development?
Leonard: I don’t see it primarily as a means for social development. I see it as a moment in time where music is breaking into new parts of the world, and new parts of society. It’s more about allowing people who have such a love and desire for music to experience that and to live that. Because we spent a lot of time in the so-called developed world going to schools and playing to kids before concerts especially to get young people to appreciate music. And then you come to a place where there’s no money and there’s no classical background and there are no music schools and there are no orchestras and there’s no cultural subsidy.
Tell me about the repertoire choices.
S: We did want to have at least one work with us that we are releasing on our first disc. It will hopefully be out in time for the tour. In this case it’s the Smetana – on the disc it’s Smetana, Dvorak and also a small piece by Suk, but the Dvorak had been played there recently. It so happens that the Smetana was one of the first pieces that we played, and it’s one that’s not played very much. And we discovered it through playing it together and felt that it suits us and we enjoy playing it; it’s one that we agree on very much, so it’s easy for us The Smetana and then also the Dvorak which became one of our main pieces in the last 2 years.
Q: And we also have this Carl Vine piece, which is celebrating his 60th birthday, so that’ll be quite interesting to learn.
Is that the first piece that has been written for you?
S: Well we had a small piece written for us some years ago, but this will be the first by a really important composer and important organization – this is our first big commission.
Have you encountered Carl Vine’s music before?
Q: I know some of his piano works, because they are very popular, and a lot of pianists play them, so I’ve heard a lot of piano solo works.
S: I knew of Vine more as a piano composer, but when they asked us when we would accept a commission – of course we would, but then I got more interested in listening to more of his things, like his piano concerto, and some orchestral pieces, and got to know his music a little better.
And then you’ve got the Archduke and Tchaikovsky.
Q: Yes. The Tchiakovsky also has a lot to do for the strings – different variations – requires different instruments – but it’s a huge piece, yes. I think we felt Tchaikovsky is a piece where it can also show individually the craftsmanship and as a musician and an instrumentalists
S: I think both pieces are very well-known. They are both very different, but they are both the absolute peak of the repertoire. I honestly cannot imagine two better pieces of music, for very different reasons
I wanted to ask all three of you about the fact that as a trio it’s unusual to have all three members having begun their careers so young. There was a strong piece by Mitsuku Ushida in the papers recently complaining about young people being pushed too hard, too soon, and I wanted to ask all three of you if you see that as an asset, if there were challenges involved?
L: Sasha was only eight when he joined (Yehudi Menhuin School), and I was 11 and Quian was nearly 12. Everything about our life was devoted to music, and we did start performing at a very early age I don’t think either of us were pushed into a sort of a performance career where prematurely maybe you’re asked to play big concerts and you’re forced to reduce your repertoire to a very limited number of concertos because you’re young, but you need to be out there all the time
Q: For me it was so different because I had never been outside of China, you can imagine how different China was back then. Yes, it’s very difficult .Surely one of my dear teachers, Irena Seilsach, who unfortunately passed away while I was still studying there — I think I gained a lot from her. And then of course the whole western musical education was introduced to me in a western way, rather than in China where you are told what it might be like I’m very grateful that I came quite at a young age and to be exposed to Western musical culture.
S: It was the only school that I ever went to. I left Russia when I was seven, I stayed at the Menhuin School from the age of 8 to 16, and then at 16 I left and went straight to the Royal Academy of Music. So I don’t know what other schools are like. I don’t know what a day school is like; I don’t know what a non-musical school is like. It was mostly string quartets at the Menhuin School. I think that if you want to be a good musician, you cannot box yourself into any single discipline.
The Sitkovetsky Trio tour Australia for Musica Viva in March and April. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/sitkovetsky
Ákos Takács will replace the injured Dóra Kokas on cello for the remaining Kelemen Quartet Australian tour.
Takács has enjoyed a long and illustrious career which includes winning First Prize at the National Cello Competition, studying at Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, playing with the Budapest Strings Chamber Orchestra for two years before joining the Auer Quartet, with who he has also received many awards and accolades. The Auer Quartet toured to Australia in 2000 as part of Musica Viva’s International Concert Season.
The Kelemen Quartet will perform with Takács this evening at the Conservatorium Theatre in Brisbane. For more information, and to book tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/kelemen
When most chamber groups form, their members commit the bulk of their professional life to performances by the ensemble, with just short periods, generally around summer holidays, left to pursue solo and other musical activities. The Sitkovetsky Trio inverts this paradigm, the players spending most of their time on independently successful solo careers, with concentrated but cherished periods working as a trio. This would normally be untenable, except for the extraordinary background of these three gifted musicians, who have been playing together since pre-teen childhood.
All three were granted places in the exclusive Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, England, in the late 1990s. Not only did they get to study intensively with some of the finest musicians in the world, they also learned to live and play with equally talented prodigies while developing a mutual and enduring love of chamber music. Their trio appearances are not exceptional excursions hastily prepared, but treasured returns to experiences shared at the very outset of their musical identities.
The programs that the trio presents on its national concert tour for Musica Viva (20 March to 10 April) are no less special. Smetana’s G minor piano trio, which they have now recorded for their debut CD, was one of the first pieces they played together, and is still considered the core work of their collaborative experience. Tchaikovsky’s A minor trio, alternating with Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio, are pinnacles of their arsenal which showcase individual craftsmanship perfectly alongside communal unity.
The final component of the tour program is my own first piano trio, “The Village”, which was generously commissioned for this concert tour by Julian Burnside AO QC, in honour of my sixtieth birthday. It is naturally an incredible privilege to have one’s music premiered by such gifted performers, and in composing this work I never lost sight of the auspicious talents that would be bringing it to life.
One man down but the heroic Hungarian’s don’t let that stop them.
City Recital Hall, Sydney
February 24, 2014
“Hungary is a landlocked country”. Thus spake Carl Vine in a concert preamble to explain the likely reason for the Kelemen Quartet heading straight for Manly Beach on arrival in Sydney – a trip that saw their cellist Dóra Kokas fracture her wrist as a result of a collision with a passing surfer. So, one man down at the start of their debut Australian tour but were the heroic Hungarians going to let that stop them? Not a bit of it, as this hastily devised program (or “celebration” as Vine put it) of solos, duos and trios for violins and viola proved.
The evening began with one of Mozart’s two duos, written to help out his friend Michael Haydn with an onerous commission (and long thought to actually be by him). It’s a charming, sunny work in B Flat Major for violin and viola and well worth the hearing, especially as played here by Barnabás Kelemen and his wife Katalin Kokas. Relishing the invention and the way Mozart throws the focus from one instrument to the other, the pair were elegance personified, capturing every ounce of the jaunty variety on offer. Classical delicacy was what was called for here and classical delicacy was what we got in the opening adagio. The tone was fuller for the lovely andante, befitting its more romantic leanings. The perky gavotte-like finale with variations was as light-footed as a Viennese dancing class.
It’s a brave violinist who steps up on spec to play Bartók’s solo sonata, but Kelemen won a Gramophone Award a few years back for his interpretation on disc so he has form. One of the most taxing works in the repertoire, it’s not always the easiest of rides for the audience either – I have to confess to having struggled with it on disc in the past. Bestriding the stage like a Mephistophelian colossus in his black smock, Kelemen proceeded to win us over with a logically controlled yet zesty account, tossing off its fiendish chromatics with enormous verve and passion, and using his body language to help him tell Bartók’s complex musical story. This is clearly a piece to watch as well as hear – a potent advocate for live music-making if ever there was one.
Tapping into his wild Hungarian roots, the barbaric fugue was handled with a tremendous sense of inner-pulse. The wistful third movement was a lonely, haunting experience in Kelemen’s hands with some ravishing high pianissimo passages. The finale, where Bartók prefigures Ligeti, has a distinct whiff of the Flight-of-the-bumble-bee before launching into a robust dance complete with some tricky left-hand pizzicati. Kelemen’s was a virtuoso performance of the highest order and worth the ticket price alone.
The second half began with a delicious bouche amuse in the form of a Leclair sonata for two violins – all French froth and frippery with a dollop of rustic charm in the middle courtesy of one of those irresistible ‘musette’ movements. We were to have been treated to Ross Edwards’ latest String Quartet No 3 (intriguingly called Summer Dances) but alas, ‘twas no to be. Instead we got the two violin arrangement of Ecstatic Dances played by Kelemen and Gábor Homoki. Considering the score, strung out precariously across two music stands, had only arrived the previous day, this was far from a seat-of-the-pants performance.
The ad hoc evening was rounded off with a rare work outside of Hungary – Kodály’s Serenade for two violins and viola. This joyful work, all Eastern European bravado with that tang of folk-like authenticity that Kodály and his friend Bartók brought to such music, is underpinned with that oh-so-special hint of Hungarian melancholy. It’s a meaty work, and well worth getting to know with a timbre akin to a fully-fledged string quartet. The nocturnal rustlings of the second movement were eerily portrayed by the Kelemens, with musical imitations of flies, frogs and crickets. The dancing finale with its pungent harmonies and hazy sunshine is a reminder that we don’t hear enough Kodály in this country – in fact, we don’t hear enough Kodály, period.
The Kelemen Quartet are on national tour with Musica Viva and their program will change once Ákos Takács, who is flying out from Hungary, joins them as substitute cellist. But those of us present last night had no need to feel short-changed as these three plucky players pulled a delightfully Hungarian cat out of the bag.
By Clive Paget
This review first appeared at http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/373257,concert-review-kelemen-quartet-musica-viva.aspx on Feb 25, 2014
The program for Sydney’s concert on Monday 24 February, 7pm featuring the Kelemen Quartet has been changed due to injury.
Dóra Kokas, the Quartet’s cellist, has fractured her wrist and while she is expected to make a full recovery, will be unable to perform in the remaining concerts.
The show must go on! The Quartet’s Barnabás Kelemen, Katalin Kokas and Gábor Homoki have selected a program of their favourite duos for violin and viola for the Sydney concert at City Recital Hall Angel Place tonight and the Melbourne concert at Melbourne Recital Centre tomorrow. If it’s anything like the performance Barnabás and Katalin presented on Saturday you will be in for a treat! Despite pulling together a new program with just hours’ notice Barnabás and Katalin’s performance was met with standing ovations from the audience.
We are in the process of selecting a new cellist to replace Dora for the remaining concerts in Melbourne (Saturday only), Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. If you have any questions regarding your tickets you can call Musica Viva on 1800 688 482. We are happy to discuss refunds and exchanges.
On behalf of everyone at Musica Viva and the Quartet we apologise for the inconvenience this may cause you and we hope to see you this evening.
We wish Dóra a full recovery.