There’s a distinct sense of entente cordiale about the Trio Dali. The British violinist Jack Liebeck joined the French cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca and pianist Amandine Savary as the group’s new violinist in 2013, and plenty of good-natured jibing goes on while the players consider their meeting of minds. “We’re still a French group, in a way,” La Marca insists, prompting a mock-outraged “What?” from Liebeck.
Something much more important is behind this, though. “I’ve always found that cultural differences disappear when you play music,” says Liebeck. “When I’ve played with other people and there has been a language barrier, the amazing thing is that music bridges those gaps.
“Meeting ‘Crispy’ and Amandine has brought new things to my playing life, and I think my joining the trio has brought new things to them,” he adds. “It’s different voices, different ideas and ways of working. We’re all pedantic about different things. But I don’t think there is a cultural difference in terms of music.”
The original Trio Dali formed in 2006 and rapidly gained a string of prestigious prizes across three continents. Their teachers read like a Who’s Who of chamber music – Augustin Dumay, Maria João Pires, Gabor Takács-Nagy, to name but a few – and their first two recordings were showered with accolades.
Their name is only partially a reference to the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. “We met in Spain; we were looking for a name and we of course thought about the painter,” says La Marca, “but at the same we won the Osaka Competition in Japan and we wanted to relate the painter’s name to something Asian.
“Finally we found a symbolic possibility. There are some amazing marbles in the city of Dali in China – three pagodas in this city are very famous. So it’s symbolic of taking the music from the notes and creating art.” Liebeck adds: “You take the marble, you polish it and you make something beautiful.”
The trio is bringing two programmes to Musica Viva; both include the 1991 Piano Trio by the Australian composer Roger Smalley, a piece that Liebeck says he especially advocated. “I pushed for it because when I played another piece of his recently I thought it was incredibly effective and very well written for the instruments.”
“If you speak with composers, they all tell you that to write a piano trio is one of the most difficult exercises there is,” says La Marca. “It’s much more difficult than writing a symphony or a string quartet, because there is always a balance to find. And that’s a real challenge for composers. It seems that Smalley combines all the right qualities in his piece.”
Each concert is topped and tailed with masterpieces of the trio repertoire: one programme opens with Beethoven’s first published work, the E flat major Trio Op.1 No.1, and ends with the substantial Trio by Ernest Chausson; the other starts with Mendelssohn’s Trio No.2 in C minor and concludes with Schubert’s B flat major Trio No.1.
“It’s an incredible work,” says Liebeck of the Mendelssohn. “Dramatic and troubled and dark, but at the same time very romantic. The perfect piano trio, really!” Not that the Schubert is less perfect: “I always feel that Mozart and Beethoven are the greatest composers, but they’re earthy – whereas with Schubert, it’s as if he’s from space. The colours he creates are not earthbound for me; they’re up in the sky.”
“I think the Chausson is a masterpiece of the French repertoire,” says La Marca. “We are playing it for the first time this season and it’s a real challenge. We want to continue our tradition of playing French repertoire; one of the first pieces we worked on was the Fauré Trio and our first recording was an all-Ravel disc. I feel we started something very special with the sound. Amandine is absolutely extraordinary in this repertoire. So we already did the Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, but we’ve never actually played the Chausson.”
“It’s really nice for me to be able to play a piece with them that’s wonderful and French and that they love, but that they haven’t done before,” says Liebeck. “Here we can start from the beginning.” La Marca agrees: “Everyone is at the same level. And we try to shape the music together.”
Trinity College Cambridge is an extraordinary institution, the alumni of which constitute a potted history of European civilisation. Science features high on the list with names like Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Lord Rayleigh and Charles Babbage, and since 1900 no fewer than 32 members of the college have received Nobel Prizes. But it’s hard to overlook other graduates like Francis Bacon, Bertrand Russell, Rajiv Gandhi, Wittgenstein, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, A.A. Milne and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few. It is fair to say that places at Trinity are keenly sought by the brightest students in the world.
From this heady mist of history and achievement emerges an extraordinary choir led by one of the great choral directors of our time, Stephen Layton, who chooses choristers on the basis of their passion and intelligence as much as for the qualities of their voice. The result is striking, marked by an overwhelming sense of musical intelligence that can almost be touched, with all of the requisite sensitivity and finesse to complete the picture.
This sensational group tours Australia for Musica Viva in July and August. In the spirit of capturing everything imaginable in the realm of choral music, Stephen has chosen for the tour a program spanning four centuries, from the immaculate marvels of Tallis and Byrd through to the modern Europeans, Rautavaara and Ešenvalds, we are granted an elite journey through the director’s musical universe. One path leads to “Wings of the Wind” composed by the college’s own organ scholar, Owain Park, who is rapidly emerging as a significant force in modern choral music.
The highest path on our expedition leads to the newest music on the program – the world premiere of a new work by Australian composer Joe Twist, “Hymn of Ancient Lands”, commissioned by Mary Pollard and family expressly for this concert tour.
Carl Vine AO
Touring Australia 17 July – 4 August. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/trinity
In Zen Buddhism, an ensō is a hand-drawn circle expressing the moment when the mind is free to let the body create. This is the challenging paradigm chosen by an extraordinary American ensemble to exemplify its performances.
We first invited the Ensō String Quartet to visit Australia in 2012 to attend the Huntington Estate Music Festival. Its festival performances were so exhilarating that we immediately asked the quartet to return for its debut national concert tour, which runs from 30 May through to mid July.
The Ensō Quartet received its first Grammy Award nomination for an album of music by Alberto Ginastera, so it seemed appropriate to include that fine composer’s second string quartet in the first tour program, forming a little Hispanic enclave alongside Turina’s Serenata for String Quartet op 87. The second program features Ravel’s peerless String Quartet of 1903, introduced by a Renaissance medley arranged by the group’s first violinist, Maureen Nelson.
The first half of both programs concludes with Beethoven’s masterful and optimistic ‘Harp’ Quartet Op 74, which the group’s cellist Richard Belcher calls “the most stunning, inspirational piece, with an epic quality to it”. The centrepiece of this tour for me, however, is the work that opens every concert – new music by celebrated Australian composer Brenton Broadstock written expressly for this purpose.
‘Safe Haven’ is a reflection on the true story of a child refugee fleeing wartime Hungary to seek sanctuary in Australia. It is a set of variations on a popular Hungarian nursery song, set in three sections – Escape, Through A Child’s Eyes and Safe Haven. The end of at least this one particular refugee story is a happy one.
Carl Vine AO
Ensō String Quartet tour Australia 30 May – 18 June. Book your tickets here: www.musicaviva.com.au/enso
British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough undertakes his third national concert tour for Musica Viva in April and May. His recitals are invariably distinguished by a surprising blend of the cerebral and the visceral – music that engages the heart as well as the mind, and that is delivered with precise yet entirely organic artistry.
On this concert tour Stephen’s program focuses on a trinity of his favourite composers, Schubert, Franck and Liszt. Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784 is in three movements, as is Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and these two works form for Hough a linked musical journey from darkness to light.
It is easy to forget the seminal influence that Liszt’s music had on the evolution of compositional technique in the 19th century. Like Hough, Liszt was a remarkable pianist as well as an extraordinary composer, and his music has inspired Stephen as a committed advocate of its performance, as well as by the craftsmanship of its structure.
The glue of the program is Stephen’s own Third Piano Sonata ‘Trinitas’, inspired by the importance of the number three within his Catholic faith, and how ‘trinity’ in the church might also possibly relate to 12-tone serialism in music. As one should always expect with this surprising musician, matters of the intellect are bound to resonate with the emotional and the personal in his perpetual search for the transcendental.
Carl Vine AO
Stephen Hough tours Australia 14 April – 2 May 2016. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/hough
Stephen Hough is a familiar visitor to Australia’s concert halls – and this much-loved British pianist has a fascinating story to tell about his own Antipodean roots. But then, everything about Hough is fascinating. He explores a vast range of repertoire, records prolifically for the Hyperion label and enjoys lively chamber music relationships with such artists as the cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom he has toured twice for Musica Viva. His artistic activities extend to composition, painting and writing – he has been named one of ‘20 Living Polymaths’ by The Economist – and he is now working on a novel. Indeed, he has evolved almost accidentally into the modern-day equivalent of the great “golden age” composer-pianists of the past.
Far from finding his intense travel schedule as a performer a hindrance to creativity, Hough seems to thrive on it. “I find being on the road is actually more creative than being at home,” he says. “I might get musical ideas while warming up backstage. And often there is more time on tour: for instance, with American orchestras if I have three concerts in a week, the second and third nights I have nothing to do until the evening concert except practise. If I have a piece to write I assemble sketches throughout the year, all the time; finally comes the moment when I sit down and put it all together.”
Hough’s programme for his Musica Viva tour includes his own latest piano work, the Sonata No.3, ‘Trinitas’ – which follows in his output hot on the heels of two other sonatas, the first of which was co-commissioned by Musica Viva, the Wigmore Hall in London and the Louvre in Paris.
Initially, he says, he had not been eager to write music to perform himself – but gradually this outlook has altered. “What’s funny is that I hadn’t been planning to do that,” he says. “But the commission of the Sonata No.1 started me off, and I think I got over that point.” He enjoys the fact that other pianists are playing his works now, but he also likes “having control over the performance myself”.
The Sonata No.3 qualifies as an Australian piece, he half-jokes, because he has an Australian passport. He grew up in Cheshire in the north of England and discovered his Australian connection relatively late. “My father was born in Australia,” he explains. “His parents were married in India, where they were involved in the steel business in India; they then went to Newcastle, New South Wales, where the Australian steel industry was based. My father was born in 1926, and then my grandmother took him back to India after a few months. He never saw his father again. His father tried to correspond with him, but his mother intercepted the letters and they did not make contact until much later.
“I found that I was already Australian by law, because if someone was born there before 1947, it made their children automatically Australian. Getting an Australian passport seemed a nice way to tie together the loose ends of a slightly tragic story.”
In the new sonata, commissioned jointly by the Catholic magazine The Tablet and the Barbican Centre, Hough – whose Catholic faith is a driving force in his creativity – has been inspired by the symbolism of the number three and what he sees as the parallel dogmas of the Trinity in the church and of 12-tone serialism in music.
It forms part of a programme that begins with Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784, one of the composer’s most concentrated and tragic piano works. “The whole first half is a progression from darkness to light,” Hough says. “In the Schubert there almost isn’t any light at all. Even when it goes into the major, it’s more heart-breaking than it is in the minor. Then the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is an incredible, deep-suffering piece that, at the end, has an amazing opening-out: you really do come out of the darkness.
“There’s a triptych idea behind this as well: the three-movement Schubert, the Franck in three parts, and my sonata being the ‘Trinitas’. Then there is Liszt: I feel a very strong connection myself with Liszt because I play so much of his music, but also between Liszt and Schubert because Liszt’s transcriptions brought Schubert’s song literature to a wider audience.”
And so the programme comes full circle – rather like Hough’s Australian connection. “I love going to Australia,” he remarks. “I love the quality of the light and the space – not just geographical, but also artistic. The traditions there are much less lengthy and ‘stuck’. There’s room to feel that you can bring this music and it’s fresh and new.”
Stephen Hough tours Australia for Musica Viva 14 April – 2 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/hough
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