The first time I heard Ray Chen play violin live was at the Huntington Estate Music Festival in 2010, where he brought the house down more than once, including an impossibly assured performance of Ysaÿe’s fiendishly difficult Sonata for Two Violins alongside Dene Olding. He also treated us to a stellar version of Bach’s Chaconne (from Partita no 2), Chausson’s “Concert” (accompanied by piano quintet) and Schubert’s luscious Rondo for Violin and Strings with the Chamber Orchestra of the Australian National Academy of Music. He played quite a lot of other music as well, but I now find it hard to believe that he was able to present so much incredible repertoire in just four days!
Since then Ray has become a true global phenomenon, having given major performances alongside the great artists of the world in concert halls at every corner of it. It is a great thrill to have him undertaking his first Australian concert tour with Musica Viva this month, culminating in his long anticipated return to the Huntington Festival, once again in the company of the ANAM Chamber Orchestra.
I endorse Bartók’s proposition that competitions are better suited to horses than artists, but it might have taken the world a lot longer to discover Ray Chen’s prodigious talent if he hadn’t won both the Yehudi Menuhin (2008) and Queen Elisabeth (2009) Competitions by the age of 20. The first of these musical races also put him in touch with one particular jury member, the incredible violin virtuoso, and Ray’s childhood idol, Maxim Vengerov. Although Ray would certainly have risen to prominence sooner or later, Vengerov’s support and mentorship helped ensure that this happened a lot sooner than later.
The program for Ray’s November concert tour closes with archetypal pyrotechnics in a set of showpieces by Sarasate, including the iconic Zigeunerweisen. These grow from a decidedly serious ground, however, being preceded by Bach’s incredible E major Partita for unaccompanied violin. The first half of the program helps display other sides of Ray’s musical personality, moving from the classical elegance of Mozart’s A major Sonata (K305 ) to Prokofiev’s alternately beautiful, haunting and sparkling second Violin Sonata.
Ray’s first commercial CD was recorded in Australia, accompanied by outstanding Melbourne pianist Timothy Young. In a town that seems to have an inexhaustible supply of excellent pianists, Timothy stands out for the breadth of his expertise and his impressive combination of virtuosity and sensitivity. This concert tour unites the two for the first time since that recording.
Carl Vine AO
For more information on Ray Chen with Timothy Young, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/chen
I was recently asked to try to describe our 2015 International Concert Season to someone who knew little or nothing about Musica Viva. Here is my attempt:
Musica Viva’s founder, Richard Goldner, an inventor and viola player, fled Austria for Australia in 1939 in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Vienna. Distressed to discover chamber music was non-existent in Sydney, he formed a performing ensemble in honour of his teacher who had perished in a Nazi concentration camp. The first concert was presented in Sydney on 8th December 1945.
Over the years Musica Viva evolved into a concert presenter, focussed on importing the world’s finest chamber musicians. It is now the world’s largest entrepreneur of chamber music.
Our 2015 season starts with a great jolt of invention with the Canadian period chamber orchestra Tafelmusik, and their new staged multimedia extravaganza, House of Dreams. As a special birthday treat we’ve saved up our most popular performers of the past decade: Steven Isserlis and Paul Lewis from Britain, the Modigliani Quartet from France, and the Eggner Trio from Austria. Sydney’s own Goldner Quartet has a special national concert tour to mark its own anniversary of 20 years. Just one group appears for us for the very first time – the brilliant UK vocal ensemble I Fagiolini.
The season comprises seven ensembles that tour the whole country, presenting two concerts each in Sydney and Melbourne. It is constructed around the chamber music pillars of two string quartets plus one piano trio. To those I add a recitalist (or two as is the case in 2015), a larger or outside-the-square event (Tafelmusik) and some sort of vocal component (I Fagiolini). Each tour must contain repertoire of the highest quality representing contrasting musical styles or periods, and they are spaced throughout the year to maximise contrast.
No special education or experience is needed to enjoy chamber music. Some of our most dedicated patrons are folk who have discovered it by accident, and been captivated by the extraordinary beauty of witnessing at first hand the intimate musical interaction of virtuosi playing the music that they most adore. Nothing is needed but good ears and an open mind.
Beethoven was often employed by the aristocracy, but his music became famous through outdoor “promenade” concerts for the general public. There is nothing innately highbrow about classical music – it is simply fine music best enjoyed while giving it your undivided attention.
Musica Viva has a national education program that reaches more than 270,000 students each year, plus hundreds of outreach events including Masterclasses for young musicians and training events, concerts in regional centres, festivals and other presentations. This is all part of Musica Viva’s broader philanthropic purpose as a not-for-profit organisation – we do whatever we can to improve the quality and appreciation of music in Australia. The idea is simple enough: music makes the world a better place.
Carl Vine AO
For more information on Musica Viva’s 2015 International Concert Season, the Musica Viva Festival, and the 70th Anniversary, please visit;www.musicaviva.com.au/2015
What am I looking forward to in Musica Viva’s 2015 season? In these kinds of articles one is generally discouraged from saying “everything,” which makes my life difficult, as I’m genuinely looking forward to all that next year has to offer.
If I am to choose some highlights, then I cannot help but start with our 70th anniversary gala program featuring violinist Maxim Vengerov. To me the program reads like a roll-call of violinists’ favourite works, but here’s the catch – I’ve heard very few of these works performed live at the highest level. Bach and Kreisler are staples of the student violinist repertoire, and such glorious fun to play, so how much more exciting to hear them performed by a real live professional!
In our International Concert Season Tafelmusik promises a special start to the year, with their beautifully programmed and presented House of Dreams. Having heard them on two previous occasions I also can’t wait to welcome back the Eggner Trio, who always look so joyful on stage, and are impeccably charming off it. Speaking of charm, I distinctly remember the Modigliani Quartet’s stylish and elegant performance of the Debussy Quartet on their last tour, so it will be interesting to see what they bring to Westlake’s String Quartet no 2 on this tour. And we can’t go past string quartets without mentioning the Goldner Quartet, whose playing I have long admired, celebrating their 20th anniversary next year, performing a new work by Paul Stanhope no less!
In the Musica Viva Festival the obvious drawcard for many will be cellist Mischa Maisky; and I’m certainly looking forward to hearing him perform some of the Bach Cello Suites. But I’m also eager to hear Alexandar Madžar again, having delighted in his playing, and his company, at the 2012 Huntington Estate Music Festival. And there are plenty of performers I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time, including Bella Hristova, Nicolas Altstaedt, and the Doric String Quartet.
These are just some of the things I’m looking forward to, but no doubt there will be many new discoveries along the way. I think we can safely say 2015 will be a happy birthday for Musica Viva.
Subscription packages for Musica Viva’s 2015 International Concert Season and Musica Viva Festival are on sale now. Subscribe today at; www.musicaviva.com.au/2015
Chamber music lover and Musica Viva volunteer, Tomas Drevikovsky, discusses the repertoire English pianist, Imogen Cooper, will perform on her upcoming Australian tour. Most of the repertoire focuses on the extrodinary musical and emotional kinship between Clara and Robert Schumann and their friend and protégé Johannes Brahms – and in particular on Clara, another ground-breaking female pianist.
SCHUMANN Novellette in D major, op 21 no 2
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze op 6
BRAHMS Theme and Variations in D minor (arr. from String Sextet op 18)
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata no 21 in B flat major, D960
For more information on Imogen Cooper, and to book your tickets to see this repertoire performed live in concert, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/cooper
The start of the 19th century was an extraordinarily prolific period in Western music. Beethoven was reaching his productive peak while, in the background, Schubert was discovering ever deeper substance within the language of diatonic harmony. Schumann and Brahms quickly followed Schubert’s path, leading to the primacy of the Romantic impulse in European music.
This epoch resonates profoundly with celebrated British pianist Imogen Cooper, who has compiled a brilliant program exploring these compositional connections for this, her first, recital tour of Australia. Although widely acclaimed as a concerto soloist and chamber musician, she is probably most renowned for her recordings of solo piano music by Schubert and Schumann, making this tour an opportunity, unique in this country, to see this singularly talented performer in her favourite guise.
Schumann’s charming Novellette (op 21 no 2) joins his brilliant Davidsbündlertänze as an intense homage to that composer filling the first half. The second half opens with a musical oddity: Brahms’ arrangement for solo piano of the Theme and Variations from his own first string sextet. Brahms created this especially for the masterful pianist Clara Schumann, who was deeply enamoured of the sextet, so filling out the circle that joins these three composers in historical unity. Schubert’s massive B flat major sonata brings the concert to a fitting close.
For more information on Imogen Cooper, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/cooper
Clara Schumann was so fond of Brahms’ string sextet that he made her a piano arrangement. Imogen Cooper had to battle her own sense of trepidation before she decided it would be permissible to tackle the piano transcription.
“Because I adore the string sextet, I was in two minds about taking it up,” she explains. “But the piece is so beautiful that it the end I couldn’t resist.”
And there the trepidation ended. Cooper compared Brahms’ piano reduction with his sextet and made a few improvements of her own.
“Strangely, Brahms simplified one or two things; he took out some absolutely salient harmonies or chord spacings. I can’t believe it was to protect Clara in any way, because she was a fabulous pianist. Maybe he just did it in a hurry. Anyway, I put them back; I hope he doesn’t mind. I think my version sounds better, if I may say so.”
Still, Cooper retained enough anxiety about her right to perform the piece that she was flooded with relief when a member of the Belcea Quartet voiced his approval.
“He said he didn’t miss the strings at all. I thought that was the greatest possible compliment!”
Schubert’s final piano sonata presents a different set of challenges.
“The piece stands out for its sheer lyricism,” says Cooper. “What’s interesting is that he wrote it at exactly the same time as his C minor sonata, which is so full of terror. But I don’t think the music of that time was valedictory at all. I don’t think he could have known that he was going to die.”
Though the composer had syphilis, says Cooper, it was still in its second stage; it was typhoid fever which did for him. His brother Ferdinand, in a misguided attempt to help him, offered him a place in his unfinished Vienna house, which was damp and close to canal which carried the city’s effluent.
“There is a touching story that when his brother visited him, he said, ‘Brother, what is wrong with me?’ He really didn’t know. And ten days later, he was dead.”
Not that death in Vienna, then or ever, seems quite as bad as death in most places.
“Death was not seen in the same unspeakable way as we see it now,” Cooper agrees. “I guess the whole idea of it was much more integrated into the everyday than it is now. And in Vienna, it was almost like a friend who comes and takes your hand. Still, it can’t have been the nicest way to die. Poor old Schubert.”
Also on Cooper’s Australian tour programme is Schumann’s “Davidsbünder”, a set of 18 pieces in which his two alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius (respectively the extrovert and the introvert) are represented in turn. The two characters, whom Schumann also used in correspondence to explain his changing moods, are sometimes cited as evidence that the composer suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression.
“Schumann? Bipolar?” Cooper responds. “I wouldn’t like to put my hand in the fire on that one. He was definitely syphilitic, and he did get to the tertiary stages of the disease, which would have contributed to his madness at the end. But like Schubert, he had the seeds not only of darkness but also of tremendous swings. I think he was cyclothymic – he generally felt better in summer than he did in winter.
“I think a lot of it was tied up, also, with his composition. He would be completely miles away when he was composing. And then he would be full of righteous indignation, thinking that the world was against him and that he would never be a success; but you know, most artists have a bit of that, frankly.”
Surprisingly, this will be Cooper’s first tour for Musica Viva, though she is a familiar figure on Australian stages because of the many performances with and for Australian orchestras. Asked just how often she has been Down Under, Cooper responds with perplexity.
“I’m a woman. I don’t think that way. Men think this way. It’s a perfectly fair question, but I don’t know the answer.”
Chickens, apparently, cannot count further than one; their mathematical capacities allow them to perceive either one or more than one.
“Oh no, how nice! Right, I’m a chicken. Yes, it’s a little bit like that.”
The lifestyle of a touring pianist, she says, is brutal in the extreme; her current coping tactic is to retire to a stone garden in the French countryside for several working weeks at a stretch.
“It’s a completely dysfunctional life. It’s monstrous. It eats up all your time unless you find a way to get around it.
“My workload has actually increased over the past 13 or 14 years. And you reach an age where you have to find a strategy.” An Oxford professorship and additional writing obligations have further added to her commitments.
“You’ve got to live life. I mean, playing music is about life. It’s about expressing all the emotions that one can possibly live. How can you do that if you’re living in a tunnel, running for a plane the moment you’re off the platform? That’s not a life. You need space and reflection and dream time. You need to be able to stop and be still, to read and really listen. Sometimes the best way to hear a score is just to sit in your garden or on a beach somewhere.”
For Cooper, a nine-concert tour of Australia is both a novelty and a challenge.
“I’m very excited about it, I must say. The older I get the more I want to try new experiences, things that I haven’t done before. In this profession you have to form your own parameters, but you also have to be prepared to change them sometimes.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp
“Music is for all, and everybody has the ability to access the music no matter what it is, when it was written, or in what context, and I think it should be like that.”
Melbourne composer, Andrew Aronowicz, features in the new episode of Chamber Music & Me Season Two. Andrew was introduced to classical music at the age of ten, and has enjoyed listening and performing it ever since. When we spoke to Andrew, he was rehearing to perform Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”, a piece of music for which he has a great affection.
For more information on Chamber Music & Me, and to watch all the episodes, please visit; musicaviva.com.au/chambermusicandme