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
Even today, wandering down the narrow laneways in the old part of Cambridge city, centred around the eponymous University, it is easy to imagine being transported back to Elizabethan England, if not quite back to the time of the Plantagenets when the University first began. (King Henry III placed local scholars “under royal protection” around 1231). A glassy chrome-edged shopping centre has now burrowed into the centre of the old city, but enough of the timeworn architecture of the ancient residential colleges remains to render the atmosphere convincingly archaic.
In 1441, King Henry VI founded King’s College at the University. It was to house a choir consisting of “poor boys, of strong constitution and of honest conversation”. Except for a few years in the 1550s under Edward VI, and during the Commonwealth period in the 1650s, the Choir has been singing services at the college continuously for more than 500 years.
The criteria of social disadvantage and conversational prowess have been replaced by more demanding entry requirements, but the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is still one of the few choirs in the world that maintain the ancient English tradition of boy sopranos. Although the choir, and the college, bear their ancient heritage with pride, this is also a very pragmatic matter of providing sixteen boy choristers with a consummate musical education, unparalleled performance opportunities and a rounded general education at the Kings College School (across the river Cam from the College). Not to mention a trip to Australia every dozen or so years!
The choir’s distinctive national history is honoured in the concert program, featuring some of England’s finest choral composers such as Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Stanford, Parry and Britten. But other great music rounds out the choral adventure, including works by Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach and Fauré.
The choir is probably best known to Australians through the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, which has celebrated Christmas every year since 1918, and has been broadcast since 1928. The telecast of the service is still distributed internationally through the BBC World Service. Stephen Cleobury, the choir’s Director of Music since 1982, was responsible for starting a commission program for composers to create new carols to be premiered at the Christmas service. Three of those composers to date have been Australian, and are included on the program for this concert tour. These “Australian” carols were composed by Peter Sculthorpe, Brett Dean, and myself.
For more information on the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and to book your tickets, please visit www.musicaviva.com.au/kings or call 1800 688 482.
Since 2000 we have expanded Musica Viva’s definition of chamber music to be as broadly inclusive as possible: “music in which each independent line is performed by a different musician”. Despite this massive generality, brass instruments remain remarkably rare within the form, owing probably to their origins in the military, as well as to the pervasive historic view that they lack the subtlety, and low volume, of strings and woodwinds. But trumpets and trombones can both be given a run for their dynamic money by a concert grand piano, and like their keyboard cousin, are equally capable of both delicacy and softness.
Only once before in its 69-year history has Musica Viva presented a national concert tour by an international brass quintet. This seems even odder since, for 54 of those years, the American Brass Quintet has been around as an exemplar of the excellence of the medium.
Part of the reason for this is the rarity of brass repertoire from the heartland of chamber music – the 18th and 19th centuries – during which western composers restricted trumpets, trombones and horns to producing colour and volume in orchestral sound, and considered “Brass” inappropriate for small ensemble music.
This didn’t start to turn around until the twentieth century, and the American Brass Quintet itself has created a comprehensive catalogue of exciting new brass music through a sustained and aggressive program of commissioning America’s finest composers. Some of this music forms the backbone of this touring program, with works written expressly for the Quintet by David Sampson, Joan Tower, David Snow, and the 21-year-old wunderkind Jay Greenberg from Connecticut.
Australian music puts in an appearance in the form of William Lovelock’s brilliant Miniature Suite, which he penned in 1967 for the Laiton Brass Quintet of Brisbane, and which the American Brass Quintet adopted during its only previous visit to Australia, in 1968 – though with no help, it transpires, from Musica Viva! Lovelock probably did not take out Australian citizenship, and considered himself “an English composer who happens to live in Brisbane”, but the 25 years he spent in Queensland left a lasting impression on the musical identity of this country.
Music for brass often carries the stigma of being brash, rambunctious and altogether too loud. But it can also be a vehicle for incredible expressiveness, musicianship and sensitivity. These are the hallmarks of the American Brass Quintet.
For more information on the American Brass Quintet, and to book your tickets, please visit musicaviva.com.au/abq, or call 1800 688 482.
When most chamber groups form, their members commit the bulk of their professional life to performances by the ensemble, with just short periods, generally around summer holidays, left to pursue solo and other musical activities. The Sitkovetsky Trio inverts this paradigm, the players spending most of their time on independently successful solo careers, with concentrated but cherished periods working as a trio. This would normally be untenable, except for the extraordinary background of these three gifted musicians, who have been playing together since pre-teen childhood.
All three were granted places in the exclusive Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, England, in the late 1990s. Not only did they get to study intensively with some of the finest musicians in the world, they also learned to live and play with equally talented prodigies while developing a mutual and enduring love of chamber music. Their trio appearances are not exceptional excursions hastily prepared, but treasured returns to experiences shared at the very outset of their musical identities.
The programs that the trio presents on its national concert tour for Musica Viva (20 March to 10 April) are no less special. Smetana’s G minor piano trio, which they have now recorded for their debut CD, was one of the first pieces they played together, and is still considered the core work of their collaborative experience. Tchaikovsky’s A minor trio, alternating with Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio, are pinnacles of their arsenal which showcase individual craftsmanship perfectly alongside communal unity.
The final component of the tour program is my own first piano trio, “The Village”, which was generously commissioned for this concert tour by Julian Burnside AO QC, in honour of my sixtieth birthday. It is naturally an incredible privilege to have one’s music premiered by such gifted performers, and in composing this work I never lost sight of the auspicious talents that would be bringing it to life.
How did you become a quartet?
Barnabas Kelemen (first violin): Me and my wife Katalin along with her younger sister Dora, we started to play trios together, so actually our missing string quartet was already established maybe fourteen years ago because my wife and I were also teaching Gabor Homoki at the Franz Liszt Academy, then we realised that he is someone who also speaks the same language and that we have a lot of fun together, so we started, and soon it became clear that it could be a nice future. As me and my wife were always thinking about having a string quartet – that would be our goal in our lives. So that’s how it started.
The programmes that you’re playing on the tour…
BK: We are very excited about the Ross Edwards, which we will be playing for the first time on the tour. First we would like to experience it on stage. It will be the first time we play his music. When we study it, we will look at a wide range of his music. It will be one of the highlights of our tour.
Dora Kokas (cello): We can’t wait. It sounds very exciting.
Do you try to approach older music as if it were new music?
BK: Definitely so. One part of touching a piece like for example by Haydn is to imagine the atmosphere, the style, the time when the piece was written, but it’s also very important that we keep the inspiration of the moment on stage.
So Dora, what actually happens between you and the audience when you give a concert?
DK: When we go on stage, immediately there is an atmosphere created by the audience. And once you start to play, after a few bars, it’s so obvious how the audience reacts to the piece, how we play, how we perform the piece. And of course we have moments when we felt that – but first of all we very much like when we can see the audience, so when we perform we always ask not to switch off the lights on the audience. Because when they are in the dark and we are all lighted, it’s a terrible feeling, because I feel like I’m under a magnifying glass which makes everything bigger. I don’t like it. I need to see them, because I’m playing for them. For me it’s very important to give. And because I give, they give. And it’s an amazing reaction.
BK: The first reaction is also important. When we step on the stage, we already feel something – how they accept us.
You’re playing the Quartet in C Major, Opus 20, No. 2 by Haydn on your Australian tour. Is there anything in that quartet that you can specifically relate to his Esterhazy time?
DK: We love all of Haydn’s quartets. All of them are different, because of different reasons, and we all love them, and we are open for all his ideas.
The Bartok quartets must be very central to your repertoire.
DK: Well, absolutely, Bartok is very very close to us. And we love his music, and of course we’ve played the divertimento, not only the quartets. So because he’s Hungarian and because we know all the folk stuff behind it, it’s very close to us. And we have, I think, a close understanding to what he wanted. We love to play them, and I think Bartok is one of the quartets that we cannot be bored of playing.
How important is it to understand the folk background?
DK: I think it’s very important that most of the folk songs that he puts in his pieces we can sing. We even know the lyrics, because that’s how we were educated, since we were born. Our mother was singing them for us. Of course there are so many Hungarian folk songs – one cannot sing all of them – but they’re sometimes very similar to each other – we can say that it’s in our blood, because since we were born, we hear it.
I read one review of an American critic who had difficulty with the wildness of your approach.
BK: I don’t know. We try to find an approach through the music, and if it is rather wild, then we find that part of it, but it can be also lyrical and also deeply sad and also very emotionally passionate, but not necessarily wild. If it is wild, though, we get wild.
We are happy if audiences respond with enthusiasm.
DK: Sometimes when they come backstage, they say that it was shocking; but it’s not necessarily negative. So shocking can be very good. There are pieces where after finishing it’s so shocking that one doesn’t even want to clap, because it gave such an impression that it was shocking. It’s not necessarily bad.
Wasn’t it Hanslick who wrote of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto that it was music which had a bad smell?
BK: Exactly. And maybe that’s how we can connect our approach to music and to playing on stage – that we like to bring back that atmosphere of the premiere.
Because we hear so much from the media, all this recorded music, that’s exactly a reason why we need more and more live concerts. I’m hoping, and now I would believe, that now we are in the deepest part of the valley, and now the only way is up, for live concerts. That’s what I hope.
I also wanted a few words from you about the Beethoven and the Tchaikovsky.
DK: We always try to put together a programme in a way that it’s more colourful and more different in style. And we always try to put them together very colourfully. We feel that Bartok, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Edwards – it’s a very colourful programme, and I think it will be very exciting for us and for the audience as well.
BK: This Tchaikovsky Quartet, for example, is really close to us, although it’s really not easy, in any way – technically, musically – to play it and to listen to it, but at the end I think it gives us a very unique conclusion, because really it shows so many parts of Tchaikovsky’s life and way of composing. So you can feel yourself in a ballet, sometimes, and you can feel sometimes that you’re listening to his symphonies or any of his chamber music – everything is in there, and it’s so noble, so aristocratic. And in the same way it should also be simple, and it should talk by itself.
To what aspect of the Australian tour are you most looking forward?
BK: Diving with sharks.
As Dora has gluten allergies, she’s looking forward to the gluten-free hamburgers. And me and my wife, the sharks. We are also really looking forward to experiencing the audience. During concerts, before concerts, after concerts, and people on the street
DK: Yes, and we will give masterclasses, and we will have photo shoots, and nice evenings and receptions, and we are looking forward to get to know new people and musicians and all the fun and all the work together.
Barnabas, are you serious about diving with sharks?
BK: I am. I have the PADI license. We are actually scuba divers, my wife and I. The others would dive in a cage.
Dora, what do you think about that?
DK: I think they are crazy. But I love them. I love the idea that they are very brave. Actually I want to do that too. It sounds very exciting. And why not?
For more information on the Kelemen Quartet, and to book your tickets, please visit the website or call 1800 688 482.
Musica Viva’s first Artistic Director was Richard Goldner, whose main focus was as the driving force behind the Muscia Viva Players (as a quartet and then as quintet) with which the organisation began in 1945, and based its activities on until the early 1950’s.
After a brief recess, Musica Viva Australia emerged as a concert presenter of international and Australian musicians, none of whom were engaged permanently by Musica Viva Australia.
Artistic direction was achieved by a combination of General Managers – Donald MacDonald, Kim Williams, Phillip Henry – and committees – led by Charles Berg, Ken Tribe and local presidents, all of whom had a large say in the selection of artists and repertoire.
The separation into General Manager and Artistic Director began in the early 1990’s. There was a period of about 8 years when the role moved around, partly led by in house staff including Christopher Lawrence and Phillip Sametz, and partly with the external artistic direction of William “Bill” Lyne.
This changed in 1999 when we entered negotiations to merge with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Out of those negotiations, Musica Viva Australia emerged revitalised in its purpose, and looking for a similarly focused Artistic Director.
Enter Carl Vine – long renowned for his skills as a performer, especially of contemporary repertoire (Flederman, etc) and as a composer (Piano Sonata No. 1, Sonata for Piano Four Hands, and many, many more).
It’s been a series of amazing changes and rebirths since then, and at the end of a successful 2013 International Concerts Season, Musica Viva Festival, and on the eve of Huntington Estate Music Festival, it is something for which we can all be grateful!
Happy Anniversary Carl.
– Mary Jo Capps
This post has been adapted from a staff email Mary Jo Capps sent to the staff of the organisation and is not a comprehensive history of Musica Viva.