Richard Mills, the Artistic Director of Victorian Opera, called me in January 2013 to see if there was a way our two companies could work together. Victorian Opera had developed an enviable reputation for mounting unusual but very successful new opera productions, but had no experience in touring interstate. Musica Viva has 70 years’ experience in touring performers around the country, but no infrastructure to create performances with a heavy theatrical element. A mountain of synergy was waiting at the juncture of these two companies, and three years later we can finally enjoy the result.
It took many months to fasten on the idea of a Baroque pasticcio opera – an original operatic scenario using carefully chosen pre-existing Baroque music to plump out its drama. This way we could keep the size of the touring party to a known, manageable level and ensure the highest quality of source music while still presenting a production with exciting new characteristics. More months rushed by as we sought a team of writer and director who had the requisite time available, could work together well and would be utterly committed to the project. After a few false starts, but to our great good fortune, the team arose in just one person: the incredibly talented playwright and director Michael Gow.
Form the outset Michael was enthusiastic about the pasticcio, had a great love of Baroque opera in general and considerable personal knowledge of the field. Even at our very first program meeting he mentioned an interest in using “moon” imagery in some way during the production, and that he was looking at a passage from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic 16th century poem Orlando Furioso. This notion matured into a fully-fledged original theatrical treatment that, through a series of workshops with the wonderful cast we’d assembled, became custom tailored for the personality and talent of each singer.
Welcome to the first production of 2016 by both Victorian Opera and Musica Viva. It is a great thrill for all of us to be working together and to find ourselves in virgin territory, on our way to the moon.
Carl Vine AO
Voyage to the Moon tours nationally 15 February – 12 March 2016. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit:www.musicaviva.com.au/voyage
Voyage to the Moon may be opera as you’ve never heard it before – but its guiding principle would not have been unfamiliar in the 18th century. Baroque “pasticcio” (pastiche) operas consisted of music by several different composers, selected and brought together to suit a story and its performers. Such creations have long been out of fashion, but today the tide is turning and their potential for appealing to modern audiences is being explored by various companies, not least the Melbourne-based Victorian Opera and national arts organisation Musica Viva.
“Pasticcio suits us, as it did the entrepreneurs of the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Phoebe Briggs, Victorian Opera’s head of music. “It gives us a new piece suited to touring and co-production, and it offers flexibility in that the music can be chosen from a variety of composers. While the style is essentially the same throughout, each individual musical item will bring something special and slightly different to the piece.”
The brand-new pasticcio opera Voyage to the Moon therefore unites arias by Handel, Vivaldi and many more in an off-the-wall tale of madness, marvels, magic and healing. Its libretto is by the Australian playwright and director Michael Gow and the score was largely compiled by the musicologist Alan Curtis, one of the towering figures behind the revival of Handel’s operas in recent decades. Alan was appointed to create the score by Professor Jane Davidson who leads the Performance Program of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; a partner for Voyage to the Moon.
Tragedy intervened. Alan Curtis died suddenly in July 2015 while still hard at work on the piece. He had completed the lion’s share; the last stages have been completed by the Australian musicologist Calvin Bowman. The present writer was lucky enough to be in touch with Curtis only days before he passed away; with no hint of malady, he offered a spirited, fascinating interview overflowing with enthusiasm.
“I grew up equating ‘pasticcio’ with ‘hodge-podge’ and treating both terms as derogatory,” Curtis related. “Perhaps it was a memorable dish of ‘pasticcio di lasagna’ in a fine restaurant in Venice back in the 1960s that first suggested to me another point of view. But more seriously, it was Reinhard Strohm’s fine chapter on Handel’s pasticci in his book on 18th-century opera that first strongly aroused my interest.”
Voyage to the Moon, he added, was “the first pasticcio I have ever composed – though my half-century and more of conducting Baroque opera often led me to deal with many of the same problems: finding arias and ensembles to suit a particular situation and composing, in various styles, any parts that might be missing.”
The process resembled a game of musical ping-pong, batting words and music back and forth. “Michael Gow sends me words, though usually not yet the final ones,” Curtis said. “They often almost at once give me ideas which I then try to put down on paper. The recitatives and ariosi are mine; the arias, duets and trios are all by mid-18th-century composers: Handel and Vivaldi, of course, but also Telemann and various Italians, especially Neapolitans such as ‘Ciccio’ de Majo. I send suggestions to Michael and if he agrees that the aria is appropriate we both set about fitting his text to the existing music, sometimes by altering the music a bit, sometimes by changing the text.”
But why not simply perform an existing baroque opera? Curtis picked out several areas in which “pasticcio” might even have the edge over traditional baroque opera for 21st-century audiences. “Certainly the possibility of making the plot easier to understand, or more relevant, is worth considering,” he said, “but there is also the freedom to revive what, although often abused, was not in itself such a bad idea: the possibility to choose arias that particularly suit the available singers.
“An even more important advantage, to my mind, is the possibility of reducing the recitative to a minimum. Even the best baroque operas often come with acres of arid recitative that can be boring. This remains a major obstacle to the successful revival of most baroque opera.”
Curtis is sorely missed. Michael Gow pays warm tribute to his work. “Alan was incredibly generous with his knowledge and experience and staggering in his familiarity with the music of this period,” he says. “We hit it off straight away and the emails that flew between here and [his home in] Florence were full of great ideas, insights, wonderful asides into history and life.” Phoebe Briggs joins the appreciation: “Alan was absolutely delightful to work with,” she says. “He had so much to offer, and such a vast knowledge of the repertoire; it was a joy to see him so excited about the project.”
Finally, Gow encourages you to come and hear Voyage to the Moon, even if you’ve never seen anything like it before. “You will hear some great music you’ve never heard before, sometimes by composers you’ve never heard of, performed by three wonderful singers who are also very good actors,” he smiles. “It’s the best of both worlds: theatre and music.”
Voyage to the Moon tours nationally 15 February – 12 March 2016. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/voyage
Australia has played a special part in the life of the Eggner Trio. Ever since its 2003 victory at the Melbourne International Chamber Music competition, the trio has made regular journeys Down Under.
“This was a fantastic miracle for us, that it worked out in Melbourne, and that there is a continuation,” says Christoph Eggner, the trio’s pianist. “This will be our fourth tour for Musica Viva; and each time it feels like coming home.”
On almost every trip, Australian repertoire has played a central role in the group’s repertoire. For 2015, the brothers have chosen Dulcie Holland’s 1944 trio.
“We played Ian Munro’s trio last time, and he said that we should check out Dulcie Holland. We listened to many different composers, and finally we were so fond of Dulcie Holland, because it’s a really good composition. It’s one big impressionistic crescendo.
“The musical language comes from the late Romantic period. It’s very meditative, but at the same time, the development through the movements is constant; and the end is one fantastic climax.”
The idea of one woman composer lead to thoughts of another; Clara Schumann’s 1877 piano trio seemed an obvious companion piece.
“Clara Schumann was 26 years old when she composed that piano trio,” says Eggner. “The situation between Robert and Clara was, from today’s point of view, really pretty hard. Clara was pregnant almost all the time; it must have been tough for her. On the other hand she was an extremely famous pianist. Her father was absolutely against Robert, so it was a long fight, and she was caught between them – emotionally it must have been a horrible disaster. They were often moving apartments. Then Robert became really sick, so it was chaos. And then you have this lovely trio, full of humour – it just puts everything into perspective. Of course the first movement is pretty dramatic, but then you have music that is like balsam for the soul. The slow movement is the highlight of the whole trio.”
Eggner does not subscribe to the theory that women write a different kind of music from that written by men.
“I never have the feeling that there is anything typically male about music written by men. I think Clara was writing at a turning-point in musical history – it was the beginning of some sort of emancipation, a social self-awareness for women and their role.”
For their tour programmes, the trio has paired Clara Schumann’s calm music with the tortured score of Robert Schumann’s 1851 third piano trio, a work composed when the author was depressive and syphilitic.
“It’s an unruly piece, not easy,” says Eggner. “I don’t think he suffered from bipolar disorder. I think he was just a normal, busy man, and later, when his illness emerged more and more, he started to change.
“The madness is not easy to follow. It’s a sort of organised chaos. Sometimes he demands impossible things – like one piano piece where he writes, ‘play as fast as you can,’ and then a few bars later he writes, ‘faster.’ He is constantly working on the edge of what is possible.
“There are of course lovely moments in this trio, but there is always this swing from one extreme to the other, and the grey zones in between. And the later you go with Schumann, the more grey you find.
“We really want to show the audience that there are pieces that might not be easy to listen to, but are absolutely worth hearing.”
“Schumann’s music invites you to go right to the edge. And when you are in front of an audience, you can push even further. You want to make music with 150%, which means that there is a high danger that something can go wrong. We want to communicate the composer’s message, and we enjoy taking risks.”
Risk entails an inevitability of failure, at least occasionally.
“It’s more important to convey the message than it is to play perfectly,” says Eggner. “I think the idea of playing perfectly is a 20th-century notion. I think people used to be more focussed on the message.
“Of course taking risks does not mean that you will always make mistakes. Even if we are jet-lagged or unwell, our minimum standard should always be as high as possible, and our failures are usually so small that most of the audience will not hear them.
“In the end, I don’t care about mistakes. They happen so quickly that the best thing you can do is to let them go. The music goes on, and you need to concentrate on what is coming next.”
After the concert, Eggner notes, the situation is different; the trio will go back over the evening’s events in minute detail, analyse the slips, and work hard on the passages to reduce the chance of a repeated mishap.
Quality, one of Musica Viva’s four core values, is central to the trio’s work.
“We understand quality to mean high-level music-making. Our quality lies in the cleanliness and precision of our playing, and of how we transport the message of the music to the audience. We want people to be able to recognise what the composer meant because of the way we play it.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
The Eggner Trio tour Australia 7 November – 21 November. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetEggner
Ask the members of a string quartet one by one to describe each other, and the results are bound to range from touching to riotous.
After eleven years on the international stage as a professional string quartet, the young members of the Modigliani Quartet know each other intimately. Each of them finds a parallel to one of Musica Viva’s four core values in describing the nature of the others.
Violist Laurent Marfaing sees the value of quality as an expression of the way his ensemble’s members work with each other.
“I guess our quality lies in the pleasure we have in playing together – because that’s what we decided to do eleven years ago.”
Cellist François Kieffer, he says, plays a similar role in real life to that of his musical line in most string quartets.
“He’s really organised, and he draws the line – you just have to follow it.”
First violinist Philippe Bernhard, he says, also lives as he plays.
“He’s really passionate and sometimes eccentric, and really youthful, with lots of life. He will always surprise you with things – he likes to take risks.”
That, says Marfaing, is well balanced by the reliability of second violinist Loïc Rio: “He is a truly wise person. You can count on him, always, because he will always be there.”
Kieffer, from his place as cellist, has similar yet subtly different views of his colleagues.
“Philippe is the first violin, and I’m very touched by his playing. He’s very instinctive and talented, and I like the way he manages the music. Loïc is very intellectual, and always tries to inspire the others. He brings an interesting view of each score. And Laurent, for me, is an untroubled man – very calm. I like his sound. And it’s very important to have a solid man in the quartet.”
Diversity, to Kieffer, is the value his quartet best reflects.
“We are in the same quartet, but we are not the same. We have different lives – and that makes the group very rich.”
For second violinist Rio, it is the value of challenge that sparks a flame of recognition.
“A string quartet is a unique kind of organisation in today’s world. We don’t have a boss, and we work the same way that people worked 200 years ago. The challenge for us is to be able to continue this way together for as long as we can – to continue the adventure, and keep the career alive together.”
As if to demonstrate his point, he chooses descriptions of his colleagues that vary substantially from those of his peers.
“As first violinist, Philippe is sensitive, and quite emotional, and somewhat obsessive, but that’s great. He’s the first thing people hear, the voice of the quartet, in a way. A complex, interesting person.
“On the other side of the quartet, our cellist François is very intense, and takes his job extremely seriously. And Laurant is the caring one. I think he cares a lot about the family group of the quartet. He looks after the small things that require attention, everywhere, all the time, in the quartet’s life. When we play, you can see it in the way he looks at us.”
The quartet’s leader, Bernhard, sees a different side to violist Marfaing.
“Laurant is the relaxed one. He brings peace to the group. François is the clever one, the ambitious one. He wants us to go far. And I would say that Loïc is the culture of the quartet. Very cultivated. He is the real lover of the string quartet repertoire, and the one who dreams about it. He always thinks about repertoire, and what wonderful pieces we could play.”
Which makes him think about Musica Viva’s fourth core value, that of joy.
“We have a lot of joy together, you know? That’s the nice thing about a string quartet – you share everything. Of course you share the hard things as well, but we have so many extremely joyful moments together, and that’s a value that’s constantly here for us. We are like brothers. So we fight like brothers too, of course, but we experience a lot of joy when we play pieces we love together.”
All the players are unconditionally enthusiastic at the prospect of returning to Australia to tour for Musica Viva four years after their first tour with clarinettist Sabine Meyer.
“It was one of the most beautiful tours we ever made,” says Bernhard.
“To come back, for us, is very important,” adds Rio.
The Haydn and Schubert on the quartet’s tour programmes are pieces that lie well within the quartet’s core repertoire.
“We love Haydn,” says Bernhard. “He is one of the first composers on whom we actually worked deeply as a quartet, while we were creating our personality, our sound signature. He’s very inventive, with a lot of humour – that’s why we were drawn to him.
“Haydn left a huge repertoire of masterpieces, so we won’t have enough lifetime to play all the beautiful quartets we’d like to. Instead, we have to make choices, and that’s always exciting.”
The Schubert works, says Rio, provide a contrast.
“They’re very intense, and constantly changing moods and colours. You never know if you are happy or sad. But it’s so beautiful.”
Beethoven, by contrast, has not yet featured prominently in the Modigliani Quartet’s concerts.
“We are still building up our repertoire. The Beethoven quartets are a big challenge for a quartet, but our approach is to start with the early works, and some of the middle period. Then we try to extend the repertoire.”
With Ernst von Dohnanyi’s third string quartet, the group makes a geographical diversion to the United States, where the Hungarian composer wrote the piece.
“The music is very dynamic,” says Marfaing. “It’s not as modern as Bartok – he didn’t re-invent musical language – but it’s very eloquent. We love this quartet.”
Nigel Westlake’s second string quartet will be the quartet’s second venture into Australian repertoire.
“It’s a really, really good piece,” says Marfaing. “I think he was inspired by Bartok – it’s interesting to compare.”
“There are only advantages when you can work with living composers,” adds Kieffer. “Haydn, Beethoven, Bach – they all worked very closely with musicians, which influenced their way of writing. Composers all know that the life has a certain life of its own when it comes into the hands of the musicians. And that’s a wonderful moment.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
Modigliani Quartet tour Australia 5 October – 17 October. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetModigliani
Choosing musicians for the International Concert Season is always a judicious balance between artists who are well known and much loved, and those new to Australian audiences but who deserve the chance to be heard. When we first presented the Modigliani Quartet on national tour in 2011 they were completely unknown here, and appeared as part of a musical marriage that we had engineered with the impeccable German clarinettist Sabine Meyer.
To the great good fortune of everyone involved they got on incredibly well and made some magical music together. Since then the group’s international stature and musical prowess have continued to evolve, and we welcome back an even more confident and mature ensemble to conduct their first tour unaccompanied this October.
The group is presenting two diverse programs that revolve around a remarkable Australian composition – Nigel Westlake’s masterful Second String Quartet, commissioned by Kenneth Tribe AC in 2005. Each starts with a Haydn quartet (nos 36 and 42 respectively) and includes a Schubert Quartet (nos 10 and 12). The closing works are vastly different – Beethoven’s Eleventh Quartet (op 95) and Dohnányi’s Third.
Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet precedes by a decade the famous collection of ‘Late Quartets’ that form such a compelling compendium of the great man’s last few years of creation. It is, even so, a radical work that the composer himself considered too experimental for general consumption, though now it sounds not only convincing but also deeply satisfying. Dohnányi wrote only three quartets, which are rarely performed, and it is gratifying to see the finest and last of these championed by a group as talented as the Modigliani Quartet.
Carl Vine AO
Modigliani Quartet tour Australia 5 October – 17 October. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Modigliani
We speak the day after Maxim Vengerov’s 40th birthday, which he celebrated in Geneva by giving a recital in which the Yehudi Menhuin String Academy joined him for an encore.
“It feels as if the middle part of my life has begun,” says Vengerov, who is the father of two daughters under the age of three. Concert tours, he admits, are also a way to catch up on sleep lost at home.
Though he has been to Australia to perform with orchestras in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, this will be his first tour for Musica Viva, and his first recital tour of Australia.
“Recitals are something special, because of this direct communication with the audience through music,” he says.
“In general, fewer and fewer people are going to recitals, but I’m giving a lot of recitals this season. You have to decide what you stand for. I’m a passionate recitalist, and I try to put together programmes that are full of variety. The idea is to give the audience a full spectrum of emotions.”
Does this mean that he strives for maximum emotional expression when he plays?
“No. I strive for quality of information. That is the most important thing for a musician. Because sound is like a finger-print of your body. Sound is a picture of your soul, of what is inside. Your genetic code. The information and the knowledge you’ve acquired during your life, all the things you’ve gone through – your love and passion, your experiences. The sound cannot lie. You can be technically perfect, but if something is missing for your life, then you might not understand why, but this music will not touch us.”
Two Paganini works will conclude a programme that is as high on virtuosic fireworks as it is on sentiment. Paganini’s music, once a synonym for unplayability, is today tossed off by thousands of wunderkinder around the world.
“Technical progress should and will happen,” Vengerov says. “This is a natural development. But we should never cut ourselves off from the source, from the tradition, from our predecessors. Today we have many people who can play Paganini technically well and in tune. But is it staggering? There are still only a few people who can deliver great music that is above all technical detail. There is an incredible energy in the music, and it is very challenging to perform.”
Technical excellence, though in Vengerov’s view indispensable, will always be of secondary importance.
“What is a perfect performer? For me personally it’s the person who lets the music speak for itself through the musician’s body, so that it goes directly to the hearts and minds of the listeners. Then people will open themselves up to the emotions. And that’s when the biochemical process starts. And possibly also the healing. In ancient Greece, music was prescribed by doctors as a form of medicine.”
In honour of his 40th birthday, Vengerov has given up his mobile phone.
“Fifteen years ago, when I had to memorise a telephone number, I would just hear it as a composition in my head, and then I would know it. Today I don’t even know my own numbers. Memory suffers, because life requires us to think less, to make less effort for greater results. As an artist, these are the qualities that I have to really fight for.
“Today everything has changed. Everybody likes to multi-task. We fly on aeroplanes, we listen to music on the way, we do business, there is music in the background, we take the elevator and again music is there.
“Shostakovich said, rightly, that great music deserves to be listened to with special attention. I think it also deserves to be separated from any visual effects. In other words the mission of the greatest music is to stimulate our hearing.
“We like to say that we are what we eat. We like organic vegetables and we know that we need to eat well. It’s the same thing with music. We have to be selective, and make educated choices.
“This is why we make music. It’s a form of exile from the rush.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
Maxim Vengerov performs in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney from 28 November – 10 December. Tickets go on Sale 1 October 2015. For more information, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/vengerov
There are many things to be found in Paul Lewis’s programme of Beethoven and Brahms for his current Musica Viva tour, but hilarity is not one of them. Lewis agrees with wry amusement; the same was the case for his last Musica Viva tour.
“In the last three Beethoven sonatas, there’s not a trace of humour, really. I mean, I do play humourous music, but it just seems that I don’t play it when I go on Musica Viva tours.
“There are certainly no jokes in this programme, but the combination of Brahms and Beethoven seems to work very well. There’s a sort of story-telling, especially in the Ballades. It deals with the big stuff. I find the combination quite attractive, despite the fact that it’s not exactly light.”
Lewis points to the first of Brahms’ four Ballades, which tells the story of a son who kills his father.
“It’s astonishing. The point at which the act is committed is very obvious. I can’t think of many instances in music where murder is translated as clearly as it is in this piece.”
The journey to Brahms has been a long one for him, says Lewis.
“I have a strange relationship with Brahms. I played the D minor concerto for the first time last year; and I’ve never been that enthusiastic about the B flat concerto. But there’s something about Brahms which becomes more attractive with time. I hear the nuts and bolts of the structure – the workings of the craft – and not so much the music. But maybe I’m getting older, because I’ve had less of a problem with that recently.
“The Ballades are more experimental, more radical than he was later. They’re just wonderful pieces. And the Three Intermezzi – the first piece is almost Schubertian in its intimacy; and there’s a sense of opennness about them that I don’t yet feel with a lot of Brahms. So there is a lot of contrast in the programme.”
Lewis sees a strong link between the music of the Brahms Ballades and Beethoven’s Op 111 piano sonata.
“Both the last of the Ballades and the Arietta of the 111 are very introspective and timeless music. The Arietta for me is one of those state-of-mind pieces – it really does feel as if time stops in some way.”
The last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, written when he was almost completely deaf, the 32nd piano Sonata, Op 111, is for Lewis an exception within an exceptional oeuvre.
“I get the feeling that this is the invention of somebody who has not been influenced by outside sound, music, noise, whatever, for quite some time. There are theories that when he writes, as he does in the arietta, both very very low down on the keyboard and very high up at the same time, he’s striving to hear what he’s writing. I think it’s something else. The feeling of distance – it’s like striding out and wanting to push the boundaries of the keyboard and of music itself.
“In many of his pieces you get this sense of struggle that somehow resolves – he answers his own questions, if you like. Whereas in 111, there’s no obvious resolution. There’s just a coming-to-terms with something. Leaving the ship behind and rising above – it’s that kind of feeling.”
Musica Viva audiences, Lewis says, listen with exceptional attentiveness. He has no difficulty finding Musica Viva’s four core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy – within his own world.
“In terms of my own diversity with repertoire, I try to touch all corners of it as often as I can. I don’t play all of it in public. I play what I feel I have more chance of conveying.
“Anything that’s worth experiencing is a challenge. The easier it is the more disposable it is. Something that requires effort and investment is something that will enrich our lives – I strongly believe that. Then you feel that you’re adding something, that you’re learning something. In order to experience that, a certain amount of quality is necessary. You have to be dealing with great music.
“The joy is in the experience, in the process of enrichment. The outcome is of relief, of getting to another place, reaching another state. There’s a joy in that. It’s not an obvious kind of joy. But it’s joy.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
Paul Lewis tours Australia 27 August – 12 September. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetLewis