Carl Vine on I Fagiolini’s Newcastle Concert

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A brilliant first performance from I Fagiolini on Saturday night in Newcastle. The group was excited and buoyant after a concert that most of them considered ‘the most taxing we’ve ever mounted’, to an enthusiastic audience who demanded at least one encore.

The program was beautifully structured and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. Most spectacular were the works featuring all eight voices: The Victoria motet at the opening, Poulenc’s Sept chansons  opening the second half, and the two contemporary works. Janequin’s wonderful La Chasse, for 7 voices, was delivered with all the spontaneity, energy, wit and wickedness that the composer originally intended almost 500 years ago. These were contrasted nicely with the smaller works, including three of Monteverdi’s most splendid madrigals, and Croce’s hilarious ‘Game of the Goose’ (a mere gosling at 420 years old).

Andrew Schultz’s new commissioned work, Le Molière imaginaire captured the internal nature of the ensemble: urbane, virtuosic, cultured, witty and naughty in equal measure, offering the only time in Musica Viva’s 70-year history that a performance has concluded with the words: ‘burning piss’.

The singing was exceptionally fine: eight highly contrasted characters blending into a single united voice. Robert Hollingworth’s cleverly scattered spoken introductions were each immensely charming, amusing, erudite and informative, offering rare personal glimpses into the composers, performance practice and the life of the ensemble. This is a grand concert experience that is bound to delight the rest of Australia as much as it did Newcastle.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

Interview with Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini

I Fagiolini

A circus artist suspended between heaven and earth on a narrow ribbon. A capella vocal music. A cathedral. What do these things have in common?

Everything, to I Fagiolini. That particular match of elements was the vision of Perth Festival director Jonathan Holloway, and it brought the British vocal ensemble to Australia for the first time in 2012. “How Like An Angel”, which brought I Fagiolini together with Brisbane-based acrobat group Circa, went on to tour UK cathedrals to thundering applause.

“I think the way we look at music is interesting,” says group director Robert Hollingworth. “As far as the brand of British renaissance music groups is concerned, we’re not a very British group. Perhaps we are closer to British theatre than we are to British renaissance vocal groups. We’re certainly very British in that we’re good at innovation, and at seeing things in an unusual way.”

Mainland Europe, says Hollingworth, is often bemused by his ensemble’s lack of conformity to their expectations of a stiff-upper-lip formality.

“I’m interested in music with a social context. I like looking at music that was written for special occasions or to amuse people, because it tells you a lot about how people listened to music and a bit about the social setting.”

Other past projects have included “The Full Monteverdi”, a dramatized madrigal evening set in a restaurant around the idea of six couples breaking up, and “Tallis in Wonderland”, a performance/sound installation that theatrically deconstructs the concept of polyphony.

For their inaugural Musica Viva tour, Hollingworth plans to dramatise two central works: Giovanni Croce’s “Il gioco dell’Occa”, or “The Game of the Goose”, and Clement Janequin’s “La Chasse” (“The Hunt”), a viscerally descriptive and somewhat scatalogical account of a deer hunt.

“The Game of the Goose is a board game which you can still buy in shops in Europe today. We’ve done a simple staging of that, with people playing the board game.

“In the Janequin, we only meet the animal at the very end. We spend most of the piece looking for him, and finding his droppings, and seeing what state they’re in. Coiled nicely, and steaming, which means he’s in a good state. It’s full of sound effects, dogs barking, horses’ hooves, so it’s quite good fun. It’s a nightmare to memorize – I think we’re the only group ever to have done that.”

I Fagiolini

For Hollingworth, the drive to present musical works in dramatic stagings comes from the urge to communicate their content more effectively.

“There’s that Thomas Beecham quote: ‘The English don’t like music; just the noise it makes.’ We try to get people to really involve themselves in the whole piece. I think a huge issue for choral groups, given that we spend a lot of time in the 16th century, is accepting the fact that most of this music was not written to be sat down and listened to. It might have been written for a social context, or for the pleasure of those singing it, which is quite a different thing, or to be performed in church. And polyphony, of its very nature, is difficult to follow. My life in the last years has been trying to work out how to present this music to an audience so that they can get inside it.”

Though perfect intonation is important to I Fagiolini, to the extent that they spend considerable amounts of time on tuning perfect intervals, the passion of the moment in a live performance counts for more, says Hollingworth, than clinical refinement. For him, polyphony is an endless journey.

“I’m very strong about singers in polyphony finding their own line from beginning to end. This is influenced by things that happen along the way. It’s like light travelling in space – the other singers are the planets which bend the light because of weight and gravity, but there’s still a beginning and an end. There has to be direction.”

Though an avid researcher into the specifics of period performance practice, Hollingworth believes that today’s performers cannot escape the pressures of context and taste. Performance venues are larger, requiring a different vocal technique, and some things we know for certain to be historically accurate, like portamento, or the act of sliding from one note to another, are rejected by today’s performers because they are considered bad taste.

“We try to kid ourselves that we can do everything as they did before, but we know that part of it is still down to taste. And I think we should just embrace that. On stage you have to make sense of the music for an audience now.”

The second half of the concert features Poulenc’s “Sept chansons” for eight solo voices – “Erotic poetry” by Paul Eluard. Sometimes it’s just like a series of blurred black and white images. But it’s so expressive. Monteverdi and Poulenc are the two composers who really draw me out.”

Hollingworth has no difficulty in finding points of reference to Musica’s four core values of quality, diversity, challenge and joy.

“You can’t excuse a lack of quality. If we’re tremendously entertaining but we sing like dogs, I’m sure we won’t be asked back.

“You need diversity in programming. When you’re singing with a vocal a capella group you need variety, and I love to put a South African piece beside a Monteverdi Madrigal beside an erotic setting by Poulenc beside a communal dog turd chanson from 1528.

“I think it’s important to keep challenging the singers – you have to keep them fresh. And I think we’re particularly good at that in I Fagiolini. That’s why I adore Monteverdi, because you never reach 100%. But it’s lovely to aim at it.

“Music-making ought to be about sharing, actually. And that leads to joy.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

On The Vine – June 2015

I Fagiolini

In most years Musica Viva’s concerts feature some form of vocal music, from outstanding soloists at one of our festivals to world-class choirs. In this special birthday year our International Concert Series celebrates with a newcomer to our concert platforms, a unique group renowned as much for the excellence of its singing as for its collaborations with circus performers and theatre companies.

I suspect that only an English ensemble like I Fagiolini, that takes its sense of whimsy as seriously as it takes its music, could refer to itself as “little beans” while consistently delivering awe-inspiring performances. Renowned for the finesse and scholarship of its performances of Renaissance music, the group is also acclaimed for its mastery of contemporary repertoire. Its hallmark ‘themed’ theatrical programs are brilliant and amusing in equal part, featuring tantalizing, yet strangely apt, titles like Tallis in Wonderland and The Full Monteverdi.

The program for the group’s concert tour in July is a more traditional compendium of single-part a capella music, weaving a circuitous path from the 16th to the 21st centuries, zigging through Italy, France and Britain with a final zag to Australia. The first half delivers some of the greatest madrigal gems of Gibbons, Monteverdi and Janequin, ceding the second half to the modern world and Poulenc’s surrealist Sept Chansons, plus a Hymn to Awe by Welsh composer Adrian Williams written expressly for the group.

The program’s world premiere will be provided by leading Australian composer Andrew Schultz, commissioned specifically for this tour by Geoff Stearn. Le Molière Imaginaire is a setting of the last scene of Molière’s play Le Malade Imaginaire, in a new translation by the composer with the help of English writer Tim Knapman. Molière hated doctors, and this witty evisceration of “money-raking quackery” is custom made for I Fagiolini in every way imaginable.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

An Interview with Steven Isserlis

Stephen Isserlis

“My words are going to be immortalised,” says Steven Isserlis.

Yet again. He must be sick of it by now.

“No, it’s attention. And I’m never sick of attention!”

Isserliss has self-parody down to a fine art.

His tour for Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary season will be his 16th trip to Australia, and his fourth Musica Viva tour. How can he bear the long flight?

“I like the flight!”

Really?!

“I do. You can watch movies, you can eat a lot, you can read books – I like it. And I LOVE Australia when I get there. I feel so at home. I just love the lifestyle, and the positive attitude to life. The audiences are open. For my last Musica Viva tour I played an all-Schumann programme, and we filled the Melbourne hall twice over. I don’t think I could do that in any other country in the world.”

This time, Isserlis brings a French-themed programme.

“Well, basically Gallic – Cesar Franck was actually Belgian. And Tom Adès’ piece has a French title. The pieces go really well together.”

Saint-Saëns, whose first cello sonata he will play, has been a personal love for some time.

“A love, yes,” Isserlis agrees. “Not with the same passion that I adore Fauré, but I think he’s wonderful, both as a composer and as a figure. He was a complete Renaissance man, and that’s one of his best chamber pieces, I think.”

The composer’s mother, whom Isserlis considers to have been something of a monster, hated Saint-Saëns’ first attempt at a last movement, which prompted him to destroy and re-write it.

“I have it to hand,” says Isserlis. “I’ll read it to you. He had told her that he was worried he might not play as well as some of the other great pianists who were performing. She replied ‘…you make me ill with your fears. You are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I’d brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play, an artist of great talent. Either you will play well, or I will have renounced you as my child.’

“Anyway, the sonata is really a wonderful piece. And perhaps she did do the piece a favour, because the original last movement was good, but the new last movement is outstanding – wonderful. A very strong, dramatic piece, a deeply-felt, beautiful, stormy piece.”

The programme moves on to Fauré’s second cello sonata.

“For me the greatest 20th century cello sonatas are the two by Fauré. I adore them. Passionately. They are completely original, and ecstatic. They are really from another world. Fauré was very frail when he wrote it, and completely deaf, and he just created this amazing world of joy. Such energy!

“I played that piece, I think, in my second recital ever. I was 15. My teacher loved Fauré. We named Gabriel, my son, after Fauré. The more you know his pieces, the more you love them. It never fails to astonish me. Fauré touches something inside me.

Stephen Isserlis

“He was not necessarily an innovator. He was writing at a time when the Second Viennese School was in full swing. Stravinsky had written The Rite of Spring long before. I suppose he was even more backward than Debussy or Ravel. But it was different. I mean, Bach was considered old-fashioned in his day.”

Thomas Adès, who is unquestionably an innovator, wrote “Lieux retrouvés” for Isserlis.

“I was very surprised when he agreed. One can’t persuade Tom to do anything. He’s got a will of iron. But then he agreed to record it, with lots of other music, and to orchestrate the piece – the first concert will be in Lucerne in 2016.”

It was Adès’ 2004 opera “The Tempest” that, as Isserlis tells it, really made him fall in love with the composer’s music.

“He’s amazing, because he takes you everywhere. He knows so much music, and he can take any language and make it his own. He has his own voice, not ignoring the past, but drawing upon it. He knows exactly what he wants.”

Isserliss tries to perform “Lieux retrouvés” as often as he can.

“Once you’ve learned it, you want to carry on. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever played in my life. If you hear it, you’ll know why. It’s monstrously hard. But it’s fun. It’s a romp. The difficulty should be incidental – the audience is supposed to enjoy it.”

Returning to familiar territory, Isserlis rounds off the concert with the cello version of César Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A major.

“I came to know Franck’s music through Fauré. Fauré loved Franck. Saint-Saëns didn’t.”

Why not?

“Oh, they just didn’t get on. At one stage they were in love with the same woman. Eventually she went for Franck.”

Isserlis has a knack of gossiping about dead composers as though they were in the next room, perhaps a partial clue towards his trick of bringing so much life to their scores.

He can segue from Augusta Holmes, the woman Franck stole from Saint-Saëns, to his pianist Connie Shih as though the two women were contemporaries.

“Yes, I first heard her when she was 17, in Vancouver, playing Saint-Saëns, actually. And I said, ‘Who is this girl? She’s AMAZING!’

“I probably work with her more than with any other musician. She’s wonderful. Very passionate playing, very warm, also very delicate. She has been likened to Martha Argerich, and although she is very different, there is something of that instinctive, natural playing. A wonderful artist.”

Isserlis’s reflections on Musica Viva’s four core values are characteristically pithy.

Quality?

“Definitely. You need that. This implies good quality, of course.”

Diversity?

“Yes. If not perversity.”

What constitutes challenge for him?

“Tom Adès. For instance.”

Joy?

“Actually in the pieces I’m playing, it’s ecstasy. Which is still about communication. The Fauré, the end of the Franck, the last movement of the Adès – they are all very joyous. I like that in music. It’s important.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Isserlis

On The Vine – May 2015

Stephen Isserlis
Musica Viva hasn’t presented Steven Isserlis since 2009, so it is especially exciting to welcome back one of our most popular recital artists ever to help celebrate our 70th birthday year. He occupies a unique position in the universe of cello players, balancing equally successful careers as a concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber music collaborator, while also being an author (part time) and Artistic Director of the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall.

Steven’s musical partner for his national concert tour in June is the Canadian pianist Connie Shih who made her orchestral debut at the age of nine playing Mendelssohn’s first Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has appeared around the world in concert and on radio, in solo recital, chamber performances and concertos, and has been performing with Steven for many years now.

The repertoire for the tour was chosen by Steven as his assemblage of the finest penned by French composers, including the work he considers one of the greatest of the 20th century. Saint-Saëns’ first sonata joins Franck’s sonata in A along with the holder of that most exalted title, Fauré’s second sonata.

But this mighty music also serves as a perfect setting for the Australian premiere of a work most dear to Steven’s heart, Lieux Retrouvés, by his friend and long-time collaborator, Thomas Adès. The finale of this finely wrought piece is the most difficult music Steven has ever tackled, but he also finds the entire work an achievement of extraordinary imagination and beauty. Lieux Retrouvés was commissioned jointly by the Aldeburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall, and its first commercial recording was made by Steven Isserlis with the composer himself at the piano.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Isserlis

On The Vine – April 2015

Goldner SQ

As Musica Viva celebrates its seventieth year in 2015 so the Goldner String Quartet, named in honour of our founder Richard Goldner, celebrates its twentieth. Few classical ensembles manage to last this long without a single change in personnel, while the Sydney-based Goldner Quartet seems to grow ever stronger. Our International Concert Season focuses on the best musicians in the world, and we are incredibly fortunate to have just such a world-class ensemble in our own backyard.

The Goldners were keen to mark this special anniversary with newly commissioned music, and Paul Stanhope’s third string quartet, “Dirrari”, was generously crowd-funded by the audience of the Huntington Estate Music Festival specifically for the occasion. As we now move well into the 21st century, the Goldners also wanted to include a masterwork of the 20th century, the first string quartet (1954) of György Ligeti.

I was keen for the Goldners to show off their brilliance at interpreting Beethoven on this tour, and there was much discussion about which of his works they would be content playing over and over again on one of our gruelling national concert tours. They decided that there is one work of which they could never grow tired, and so each concert ends with one of the greatest works ever written for string quartet, Beethoven’s 15th.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GoldnerSQ

Goldner String Quartet Celebrate 20th Anniversary with National Concert Tour

Goldner SQIn the run-up to their 20th anniversary as an ensemble, the members of the Goldner String Quartet admit to a certain confusion around the matter of time.

“We’re trying to come into the 21st century,” says violinist Dene Olding, “but sometimes I don’t know where we are. We’ve just come straight from 1780, rehearsing Haydn.”

Our conversation links Berlin to Sydney via Skype; the connection breaks down at regular intervals, as the quartet moves from one device to the next, seeking a better communication solution.

“We want to be part of the 21st century,” laughs violinist Dimity Hall. “We’re just not very good at it! We’re technologically challenged.”

The self-deprecation masks an utter assurance in today’s repertoire. It is entirely in keeping with the quartet’s character that its members elected to celebrate two decades together by performing a new quartet by Paul Stanhope.

“He doesn’t write bad works,” violist Irina Morozova says. “Everything of his that we’ve heard has been really good.”

“His music is well-crafted, approachable, but sophisticated,” says Olding.

“And always drawing aspects from other different influences or sound worlds,” adds Hall.

What do they expect from the new piece?

“A piece that we can play again,” Olding responds immediately. “And that will be well-received, and a useful addition to our repertoire.”

Also on the quartet’s birthday wish-list for the tour is Beethoven’s String Quartet no 15 in A minor, op 132.

“We love to play it,” says Morozova. “We’ve played the slow movement for a lot of people, unfortunately, who were very dear to us, who have died. It’s so profound and so beautiful.”

“It’s life-affirming,” adds Olding. “It’s all about his recovery from an illness, a song of thanks, and it means a lot to me personally, too. It’s a glimpse of something beyond what we usually understand.”

In the year 2000, the Goldner String Quartet presented a 10-concert musical retrospective of the 20th century over 12 days at the Adelaide Festival. It was for that occasion that they learned Ligeti’s first string quartet, “Métamorphoses nocturnes”.

“That project was one of the highlights of our life,” remembers Morozova.

“It nearly killed us, but it was fantastically rewarding,” agrees Hall.

Twenty years in the same line-up is a remarkable achievement for a string quartet. It is impossible to resist the urge to ask the players about the secret of their long-term relationship.

“Marriage!” they chortle in unison (the quartet is made up of two couples).

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” continues Olding. “You get less than that for murder.”

“We’ve survived because we have,” observes cellist Julian Smiles drily. “It is purely a chance thing when a string quartet is formed whether they’ll work. Ours happens to do so. I don’t think that there is a secret.”

Goldner SQ

“I think we have common ground in many areas,” hazards Hall.

“We’re all Australian,” Olding agrees. “We all have some sort of similarity in background and education. Even though I went to university in America, Dimity and I actually studied with the same teacher in Amsterdam for a while. And we all knew or studied with or were friends with Richard Goldner. That’s why we named the quartet to honour his memory.”

But it is not only the similarities which define the group.

“I’m particularly proud that within our quartet we are four distinct voices,” says Smiles. “I’ve known many quartets where one figure dominates both in personality and on the stage. But I think we have four very strong people, both as individuals and as players, and I think we maintain that while we work on playing together.”

“We can have very individual flavours if the music calls for that,” notes Hall. “But then we can immediately morph into this one organic 16-string instrument.”

Many things have changed over the quartet’s twenty years, not least the role played in everyday life by digital media. Olding immediately thinks of 1780.

“Presumably there was a concert once a week for the local aristocracy in Haydn’s time. They seemed to have a more leisurely lifestyle, and there was more time to do things. Everyone is rushing around now. Who knows what the audience of the future will look like?

“At a concert, we’re there for a reason. We’re professional musicians. But why does the audience go? What drives them to be there? I’ve had various answers over the years, but I think in a way it’s a kind of searching for a way to stop time. In a good concert, time stops for everybody. They’re absorbed in what’s happening. It’s actually a different world. And if we can make time stop for those people for those minutes or hours, then I think we’ve done a good service.”

Their tour repertoire, Smiles observes, is a faithful reflection of Musica Viva’s core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy.

“You couldn’t find four better words to describe this programme. The pieces are all well-crafted, which we will also bring to the audience with great attention to quality. There’s fantastic joy in the Beethoven, which is remarkable for a composer who was nearing the end of his life, suffering all kinds of health issues. And challenge – I’m sure the Ligeti will be challenging for the audience, but in a really great way. As for diversity – it’s this programme!”

What hopes does the quartet have for its next two decades?

“A nice view, good food…” says Hall.

“A blue drink underneath the palm tree…” adds Morozova.

“No,” counters Olding. “I think it’s to continue to find balance in life.”

“Darling,” says Morozova, “that’s too sensible.”

“When I look back over the last couple of decades, it’s been a whirl of activity,” Olding answers earnestly.

Smiles snorts. “His gravestone is going to say, ‘Still looking for balance…’ “

The four players dissolve into contrapunctal laughter.

Interview by Shirley Apthorp

The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: musicaviva.com.au/GoldnerSQ

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