Chamber music, possibly more than any other form of musical expression, requires little information outside of itself for the listener to realise maximum enjoyment. At the same time, knowing some historical background about the composers, and something of the social forces prevalent in their lifetimes, can help to broaden appreciation. Similarly, chamber music performers simply have to render their material in the most honest and appropriate manner possible, but knowing a little about their social and genetic background can provide some fascinating illumination.
Like several groups we have presented recently, the Kuss Quartet (touring nationally for us in September) formed while its members were just teenagers, but it has had an even more fascinating trajectory than most. Just as it started attracting substantial attention in 1998, winning the Karl Klingler competition in Berlin, the group promptly disbanded. Despite attracting considerable critical praise, the quartet had failed to attract a permanent violist, and the players’ highly developed sense of serious purpose prevented them from capitalising on momentary fame when they felt their musical core was incomplete.
They found the perfect violist two years later, whom they credit with defining, almost from the first meeting, the intrinsic nature of the group. It is especially ironic, then, that we celebrate a quartet with a historic deficiency of violists, in a debut concert tour featuring an overabundance of them.
The career of the Principal Viola of the Berlin Philharmonic, Naoko Shimizu, runs in parallel with those of the quartet’s members, whom she has met in many guises over the years. Despite playing every day in one of the world’s great orchestras, Naoko confesses an unquenchable love of chamber music.
The Kuss Quartet credits many mentors with helping them refine the group’s identity, but above all Walter Levin (first violinist of the Le Salle Quartet) and Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Kurtag is renowned for writing works of striking originality and tangible intellectual rigour, as well as for being a radically stimulating coach for many of the world’s finest emerging chamber ensembles. The Kuss have worked with him over several extended periods, including in the preparation of one of his seminal works, ‘Officium Breve’, which appears on both programs of the group’s concert tour in September.
To accompany Kurtag’s music, the Kuss presents quartets by Mozart and Smetana. With Naoko they will be playing classic quintets by Mozart and Brahms, alongside a brand new work by Featured Composer Gordon Kerry, commissioned especially for this tour by Kim Williams AM.
The award, which is presented annually by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Friends of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, was presented to Carl on 18 February at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, as part of the MSO’s concert series. Professor Gary McPherson, Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, said Mr Vine constantly pushed the boundaries of contemporary classical music.
The Galileo Project was premiered by Tafelmusik on January 9, 2009 at The Banff Centre in Canada, where it was co-produced as part of a residency. The very next day I received an email from pianist Piers Lane, who was working at the centre at the time, to tell me that Musica Viva simply had to get the show to Australia. Over the following weeks further endorsements trickled in from friends and collaborators in the broader international Viva family, and it became clear that Piers, as usual, was right.
A few months later we secured video footage of a performance, and it was immediately obvious that this was a remarkable concert event that Australian audiences deserved to see. It took the next few years to put all of the pieces in place to make an Australian national tour of The Project possible. We are about to enjoy the fruits of all this organisation.
Tafelmusik is a remarkable ensemble by any measure. Like most world-class chamber orchestras it has, in the person of Jeanne Lamon, a tireless and endlessly inventive director who is also a phenomenal musician. Less evident at first, hidden away behind a double bass, is Alison Mackay, whose uncommon skill at combining elements of theatre, literature and history with a passionate love of Baroque music has resulted in a string of extraordinary staged musical events that have placed the ensemble in a class without peer.
Previous spectacles devised by Alison for the Toronto-based group include a multi-disciplinary festival inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a multicultural creation based on ‘The Four Seasons’, and a musical celebration of Canadian architecture.
Professor of Astronomy at the University of Toronto, Dr John Percy, is an avid fan and long-term supporter of Tafelmusik who had followed these events with interest. He wanted, in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the astronomical telescope, and wisely reasoned that this should form the basis of the group’s next theatrical presentation.
The result is an amazing concert that opens with Shakespeare, Bach and Kepler, and wends its mesmerising way through centuries of musical, philosophical and scientific evolution, led by meandering musicians, an actor, and projected images whose impact is as astronomical as their content.
It is disarmingly easy to create multidisciplinary events that falter on every one of their axes. Tafelmusik hews the infinitely harder path, not just of making every component shine, but also of having the totality far exceed the sum of its parts.
The Monthly | Arts & Letters | November 2011
Many years ago in Sydney, moments before I was due on stage, the stage manager breezily mentioned that the composer might be in the audience. I fled to the bathroom and locked the door, scanning the walls for a window through which I might escape. The composer was Carl Vine; the piece was his Piano Sonata no. 1.
Terrifyingly, Vine prefaces the sonata with a set of instructions for the performer:
Tempo markings throughout this score are not suggestions but indications of absolute speed. Rubato should only be employed when directed, and then only sparingly. Romantic interpretation of melodies, phrases and gestures should be avoided wherever possible.
Under the composer’s scrutiny, would I be able to compute the difference between 144 beats per minute and 146? And what exactly did “absolute speed” mean? Was there really no margin for error? Why couldn’t all composers have the good grace to be dead and buried and past the point of protest?
There were no windows in the bathroom, so I trudged reluctantly back to the stage. As I bowed, I scanned the audience for Vine’s distinctive presence: the large patrician head, the statesman’s bearing. Then I realised he wasn’t there after all, and sat down to play with a small disappointment.
“If performers play it wrong, I’d prefer they didn’t play it at all,” Vine tells me, in his immaculate Sydney apartment overlooking Hyde Park. At 57, he still commands any room he enters, though his chiselled features are etched into a softer stone. “My third string quartet wasn’t really played properly until eight years after it was written. The premiere was execrable. The second performance was worse. I thought, this piece is an abject failure.”
It was only when he heard the Goldner String Quartet perform it in 2007 that he recognised the work he had written. “And I burst into tears. It was just surprise, that it really was a piece of music.”
Hearing this, I feel a new sympathy for living composers, for the way they are held hostage by performers. How painful it must be to see your baby publicly executed on stage, or not to be able to recognise it as your own. Still, Vine’s fastidiousness exceeds the norm, possibly because of his own background as performer.
Born in Perth, Vine took up the piano at age ten, after falling out a tree and fracturing his spine, forcing him to abandon the trumpet. It was the piano that awakened him to a world of compositional possibilities – the discovery that “you could actually have more than one melody at a time.” An adolescent encounter with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen inspired a period as a teenage modernist: “I believed that with the transformative power of the brilliance of my mind, my music could change the world.”
After a brief dalliance with nuclear physics, while moonlighting as a concert pianist and composer, Vine moved to Sydney and founded the contemporary music ensemble Flederman with trombonist Simone de Haan. “Flederman was a very robust ensemble and we would abuse each other roundly. And we did some very fine performances of music, very accurate and very good. So that was my training ground. You get it right. You play it right.”
Vine’s music at this time was “terribly clever, terribly studied, and contained lots of good and expansive techniques”. It was only in 1985, when asked to compose a piece to commemorate a young friend who had died of AIDS, that he questioned this approach. “I realised that the way I was composing didn’t convey anything about me. And so in that piece I actually went back to a chorale and wrote a simple scale-based melody with some chunky triads beneath it. At the time I thought, this is incredibly daring. It went completely against the modernist ethos. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t written a major triad since high school.”
In the composition fraternity of the mid ’80s, this was indeed a daring move. “There was a sort of warfare going on, and I was a turncoat. One reviewer to this day cannot review my work without using the word ‘mawkish’.”
Despite the protests, Vine continued to seek a new way of writing, alongside a new rationale for writing. “I worked out over many years that I don’t relate to other people particularly well. This is a way for me to link people, to link into their minds. I don’t have to talk. I don’t have to look at them. I don’t have to work out what to do with my hands or with my feet.”
He had to find a new vocabulary. “I didn’t just want to write I–IV–V–I chord sequences. Where was I actually going with this? That’s a question I’m still answering.” Unlike a writer of prose, who can at least accept the premise of a mother tongue, a composer has to state the rules or invent them in each new piece, before getting down to the business of story. Vine’s new style, as it emerged, was as rigorous as that which preceded it, in which complex rhythms are built into rich, kinetic textures, set alongside an austere lyricism that is all the more moving for its restraint.
The first piano sonata dates back to 1990, five years after his conversion. Championed by pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, the sonata quietly colonised the competitions and conservatories of the United States. The Five Bagatelles for Piano, composed in 1994, has enjoyed a similar popularity in the United Kingdom. Vine is disparaging of the bagatelles, which he composed in just ten days, and yet they contain his style in microcosm: the motoric and jazz influences, the command of sonority and space, and those brief, heart-stopping moments of lyricism, when the cosmic textures compress to something singular, to the human voice.
Despite his international success, in 1998 Vine entered a period of burn-out. “I had been working terribly hard for 30 years, but what was it all for? I had eight commissions outstanding, and no ideas.” He paid back $40,000 for outstanding commissions and reinvented himself as a computer programmer, a pursuit he found “almost as satisfying as writing music, but even more isolating”. His planned two-year sabbatical extended to three years, and then to four, and might have lasted longer had there not been a phone call from Musica Viva, the national chamber music organisation, seeking a new artistic director.
Vine agreed to attend the interview, it seems, out of sport. “I was in my worst, most callous and offhand character role. I told them I didn’t particularly like chamber music. When they asked what I would do with Musica Viva, I said: ‘Give me a string quartet and I’ll put Kylie Minogue with it.’ I was definitely trying to be incendiary but their eyes lit up. And my response was, Hello! This is not the stately old lady I was expecting.”
Vine accepted the position but – possibly to the relief of Musica Viva audiences – never did combine Kylie Minogue with a string quartet. Instead, he devised a new science of programming, based on four tenets of “quality, diversity, challenge and joy”. He also embarked on an intensive study of chamber music, discovering that he did rather like the genre after all. “I knew Beethoven had written late quartets, but it was only by having to hear them performed by some of the greatest ensembles in the world that it dawned on me that this is miraculous.”
The new role thrust him into the role of public figure, so that he was forced to talk, and look at people, and work out where to put his hands and feet. “I still have a touch of the curmudgeon. But all of those postures are of course self-protective. And when it comes to Musica Viva I don’t need to protect myself.”
Whether it was the enforced conviviality or the miracle of late Beethoven, Vine abandoned computer code and returned to music. The last few years have been particularly prolific. Next year sees the premiere of his second piano concerto, performed by Piers Lane and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and a set of songs for soprano and strings, performed by Danielle de Niese and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Vine will be sitting in the audience, seeking to recognise his young. The performers had better get it right, but one suspects they will.
The 2011 Huntington Estate Music Festival finished on Sunday 27 November. Though the weather was not our friend – I’m reliably informed that by the weekend not a single gumboot could be purchased anywhere in Mudgee – the music, food and wine all combined once again to create a powerful feeling of fellowship through shared experience. This year’s program leaned heavily towards the adventurous, following strong leads from some of the remarkable performers. If you couldn’t attend this year, make sure to look for the broadcasts on ABC Classic FM in the early months of 2012.The festival in 2012 will again feature the rich, warm sonority of brilliant young string players from the Australian National Academy of Music, whose predecessors were such a hit in Mudgee last year. It’s great to have a full chamber orchestra back on stage, especially one so intense and energised, and to be able to expand the repertoire possibilities.
Recent analysis in the mainstream media suggests that people are currently less likely to spend their money on ‘things’, but more likely to buy ‘experiences’. Events like music festivals, or a Musica Viva concert, fit the bill perfectly. Experiences can last a lifetime and don’t require dusting, feeding, watering, storage, upgrades or replacement batteries. They are handmade by people who have spent a lifetime honing their craft, and remind us all of the incredible heights that can be reached through sheer determination and indomitable spirit. If you enjoyed any Musica Viva concerts this year, perhaps some of your friends or family might enjoy this kind of opportunity next year. (To put not too fine a point on it, Musica Viva gift vouchers make lovely presents!)
Musicians don’t really get holidays. Practice remains a daily discipline even when they take a break from performing, and composers never stop thinking about music even if they’re not actually writing any down. Although the Musica Viva staff takes a break across Christmas and New Year, it is otherwise a surprisingly busy time of year for us. Our loyal box office personnel keep making sure that our subscribers are happy, and start selling the first ‘single’ tickets for the 2012 season (the amazing Tafelmusik ‘Galileo Project’ concerts).
But ‘tis the season to be jolly, and I hope you have much to make you so. May you have a refreshing summer break and I hope to see you in concert halls around Australia next year.
When organising the photo shoots for the brochure of our upcoming 2012 International Concert Season, we asked the musicians to carry something small and red. Red is the ‘Musica Viva’ colour, so obviously it helps reinforce the brand, but it also represents warmth, confidence and vitality. (It also makes a terrifically useful, yet subtle, graphic device to tie together the wide diversity of musicians that make up the season). Red is also associated with love and hearts, which, disregarding Valentine’s Day, is not a hideous parallel to draw with high quality classical music.
2012 kicks off with Canada’s foremost Baroque ensemble. Tafelmusik splashes down in Australia for the first time ever with a streaming comet-tail of a concert: a memorable event brimming with projections of astronomers and asteroids, featuring history brought to life through the kaleidoscopic time machine of words and music.
A new constellation for the Musica Viva galaxy is Trio Dali – three dazzling young stars from France. Amarcord also make a debut appearance; a remarkable all-male ‘a cappella’ vocal group whose own stars destined them to sing together since childhood. The violinists of the Kuss Quartet likewise grew up side-by-side in music and have forged fierce intensity into their ensemble’s stellar sound. Heavenly musical twins Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar bring the concert year to a close, as a blazing Gemini violin and piano combination so perfectly matched you might wonder who, exactly, is playing what.
2012 also offers the mighty solar warmth of the Takács Quartet, four of this world’s greatest chamber musicians. ‘Mercurial’ better suits the St Lawrence String Quartet, young musicians renowned for their physical energy and vibrancy, perfectly matched in dynamism and excellence this year by one of Australia’s greatest musical treasures, oboist Diana Doherty.
You’ll be relieved to find I’ve exhausted, for now, all of the more obvious astronomical quips. But 2012 is going to be an astronomical year for Musica Viva, so I thought I could afford to put the telescope (if you’ll allow me just one more) under the microscope.
Consider Szymanowski. He came from a wealthy family and his natural musical talent could at first expand freely, helping him travel extensively through Europe in the early twentieth century. But at several times in his life personal tragedy intervened and he was unable to compose for years at a time. We will never know what masterpieces may have emerged if Mozart had lived even a few years longer, but the same reasoning applies for this less renowned, less obvious example of artistic expression at the mercy of private misfortune.
At the other end of the scale, in 1809, when three patrons banded together to provide him with an annual stipend for life, Beethoven embarked on one of his most prolific compositional periods, writing a deal of music that includes the ‘Harp’ quartet played on this tour by the Goldners.
Although Brahms dedicated his piano quintet to Princess Anna of Hesse, the real ‘patrons’ of the music are probably Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, who provided the composer with indispensable and caring guidance as he struggled to bring the work to life. Dvorák’s gorgeous piano quintet similarly owes its existence to the enthusiasm of English audiences for the composer, resulting in music that we can all enjoy, sitting today in concert halls on the other side of the world. By buying tickets to his concerts and sheet music of his compositions, the public provided Dvorák with artistic license to escape the political pressures of Middle Europe and enjoy a productive, and moderately lucrative career.
This tour also provides a fantastic opportunity to acknowledge the patrons and supporters of our own time. Ian Munro’s Piano Quintet, to be heard here for the very first time, was kindly commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC. Julian has spoken eloquently elsewhere about the vital need for effective patronage of the arts, and backs up his soundly philosophical philanthropy with direct, and greatly appreciated, action.
It is fitting that the first concert of this tour is a tribute to one of Musica Viva’s greatest supporters, the late Ken Tribe. It is hard to imagine the condition of musical life in Australia if it had been denied the advocacy, intelligent leadership and generous patronage that he gave so freely throughout his life. The entire organisation of Musica Viva is somehow infused with the values and credo that Ken espoused, and I am proud to play some small part in his legacy. This is also a fitting moment to celebrate, with much pleasure, the appointment of Tony Berg as the new official Patron of Musica Viva Australia, a title given in recognition of his own thoughtful and long-sighted generosity, advice and encouragement.
Murray Black, The Australian, July 22, 2011
“…Carl Vine describes his new violin concerto as a work of abstract music with no extra-musical explanation.
“The concerto form often lends itself to heroic, extroverted music, showing off a soloist’s virtuosity against a powerful orchestral background.
“Vine’s two-movement concerto, however, is a restrained, introspective piece. For the most part, the rhapsodic solo violin floats above a gentle orchestral accompaniment.
“Vine’s compositional springboard, he says, was ‘the curious quality often achieved by solo violin accompanied by an orchestra playing softly’.
“Hence, full orchestral tuttis are used sparingly and Vine largely treats the orchestra as an ever-changing series of chamber ensembles.
“Gently throbbing strings and fluttering woodwind figures dominate, periodically coloured by muted brass chords and tinkling washes of harp and tuned percussion.“Violinist Dene Olding gave a commanding performance. His strong sense of line and full-bodied tone allowed Vine’s expansive solo themes to take flight. The faster sections were impressively clear and sinuously phrased.
“Conductor Thomas Dausgaard and the Australian Youth Orchestra realised Vine’s inventive accompaniment with nuance and sensitivity.”
Read the full review here.
Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 22, 2011
“Carl Vine’s Violin Concerto, receiving its first performance under Dene Olding, is in two movements, each of which splits into three parts.
“The first movement showed Vine’s maturity as an orchestrator. Its structure had a classical balance. With a prominent ruminating theme from the violin at the start and end ( reminiscent, in its tentative phrase structure, of Elgar’s “Enigma” theme), the movement had the periodic shape of a set of variations and was among the best of Vine’s recent music.
“Olding played with a gloriously golden sound, deft accuracy and attention to expressive detail.”
Read the full review here.
We are now at the midpoint of Musica Viva’s 2011 International Concert Season. So we are also in the middle of Featured Composer Ian Munro’s contribution to the year’s concert enjoyment, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to reflect on what we have heard to date, and what is yet to come.
I was privileged to hear the Eggner Trio play Ian’s “Tales of Old Russia” on quite a few occasions in April. It was fascinating to hear how the work evolved over the 4-week course of the trio’s national concert tour, as those three ingenious Austrians continued to unfurl ever-finer intricacies hidden within the score.
I have yet to find out from Ian what kind of alchemy enables composers to make a series of sounds resemble a set of wooden carvings, or indeed any form of visual imagery. But that was precisely the impetus for his first string quartet, ‘From an exhibition of Australian woodcuts’.
Fortunately, my uncommon lack of visual response to musical stimulus was no impediment to enjoying the captivating sound images evoked by this music impeccably portrayed by the Brentano Quartet in May and June. Like most of Ian’s music it doesn’t confront or challenge as much as insinuate itself irresistibly into one’s field of perception. Like a beautiful butterfly flying peacefully along a path different to one’s own, but to which one’s attention is inescapably drawn.
In August and September we have the pinnacle of our Featured Composer’s year: a concert tour featuring composer as pianist. These will also be the only true premiere performances of the year, as Ian’s brand new (second) Piano Quintet is artfully assembled by Ian joined by the Goldner String Quartet. The birth of this previously unheard music will be celebrated in a lap of honour around the nation’s finest concert halls in the inescapable presence, as luck would have it, of the composer himself.
Ian’s last Musica Viva contribution for 2011 is his Clarinet Quintet, first performed at the Huntington Festival in November 2010. If you weren’t at Huntington, or you missed the later broadcast on ABC Classic FM, don’t miss the chance to hear this engaging work re-interpreted by one of the world’s great soloists. Masterful German clarinettist Sabine Meyer leapt at the chance to play some new Australian music, and together with the Paris-based Modigliani Quartet promises a quintessentially European slant on our internationally acclaimed Featured Composer.
It is easy to stupefy today’s youth. Just explain to them how, not much more than a decade ago, much of our music listening was conducted using small, flat, plastic boxes called ‘cassettes’. Each one contained two tiny reels, wrapped around which was a thin polyester tape coated in magnetic powder that inevitably got tangled in the shoebox-sized playing mechanism at some point or other, often resulting in piles of useless twisted ribbon spewing over the carpet. These ‘tapes’ couldn’t be indexed or searched, could only be copied from scratch start to finish, and if the verb ‘download’ had been invented, it would have required the use of a fork-lift truck.
You can just as easily amaze today’s music students by explaining that as recently as the 1950s, Baroque music was an arcane curiosity: the unique province of esoteric academics and private societies, and rarely heard on public concert platforms as it is now.
Concerto Copenhagen and its director Lars Ulrik Mortensen typify the return to prominence that this extraordinary period of music has enjoyed in the last few decades. The group’s landmark leap into Handel opera performed on period instruments and stylistically-informed voices has, a decade later, paid off handsomely. Today ‘CoCo’ is regarded as a leader in its field, its quality reflected in the uniformly high standard of its members’ playing.
All of the musicians involved with CoCo have at some point in their careers made a choice – which once would have been labelled foolhardy – to step away from the common pathway of music students, venturing instead into this rarefied historic speciality. Genevieve Lacey turned her back on a beckoning life as a modern oboist to specialise in Baroque recorder.
Most music-teaching institutions are streamlined to neatly convey musicians into a conventional role in a symphony orchestra or international soloist competition. Devoting one’s life to what we now call Early Music implies an acceptance of continuing research and scholarly endeavour alongside daily practice and rehearsal schedules: continuing to examine ancient manuscripts and treatises; arguing points of interpretation from historical precepts alone; and more often than not, wrestling with an instrument that hasn’t received the benefits of modern technology (like levers and plastic washers!) to make it easier to play. It’s a tough row to hoe, which helps explain the extraordinary level of dedication exhibited by its disciples.
In these concerts across Australia we hope you’ll enjoy the fruits of this tough-hoed ‘other’ row, including the now-accepted career of period instrument specialists, full of research, guesswork, experimentation, curiosity and improvisation, and not a cassette tape in sight.