MV and Me – devoted to Musica Viva

Musica Viva, the organisation that brings the best of music to  Australians in a series of annual concerts, has been giving me pleasure for more years than I can count.  For one thing, it has helped me come to grips with newer, avant garden music that stretches my musical appreciation beyond Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and thus considerably heightened my enjoyment.   For another, it encourages and shows off the talents of our greatest Australian musicians as well as bringing us the best from overseas.

So when I was recently asked to be the Musica Viva concert reviewer for Your Time magazine I was more than pleased – I was positively ecstatic!  No generalist magazine, however, can set aside the space needed to really say what a music reviewer wants to say about any particular artist, or performance.  Therefore I decided to expand my reviews on this website, for those who really want to know just that bit more about the Musica Viva concerts and its sponsored musicians – at least as they appear through my eyes.  And ears!

Thus this page blog, read as it is, along with my  linked professional website by people around the world, is my personal tribute to Musica Viva, in  thanks for all it has given me in the way of listening pleasure.  I don’t write as a musicologist – I don’t play an instrument and I don’t pretend to have the deep knowledge that only an instrumentalist can have.  I write as an ordinary music-lover for other ordinary music-lovers who share my passion.

I’ll publish further articles here as new stuff from Musica Viva comes to hand.  Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the following two pieces.

The Goldner String Quartet play Ligeti, Stanhope and Beethoven

‘It makes yer proud to be an Aussie’ is what I wrote for Your Time magazine in my review of the Goldner’s performance of Paul Stanhope’s string quartet no. 3 at the Queensland Conservatorium two nights ago (May 5, 2015).

To hear so quintessentially Australian a work played by four Australian musicians at the very top of their game is a great experience for any music-lover.  I had never heard it before and I was soon captivated and – by the time the last note of the third movement had ended – very impressed.

When I glanced at the program notes my first thought, I must admit was: “Not another composition dealing with the harsher aspects of the Australian landscape and its indigenous people!”   It’s becoming a bit trite, as a musical inspiration, as well as – dare I say it – a little condescending.  But then I got lost in the music and just found it so movingly beautiful and so honest in its evocation of the underlying narrative about a 19th century black tracker who, confounded by cultural conflict, turns renegade and dies for it.

The three movements – Tracks and Traces, Dirrari Lament and River Run –  reference the Kimberley landscape where Stanhope spent a lot of time preparing for his dramatic cantata Jandamarra: Sing for the Country which was premiered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last year.  And the quartet, too, sings for the country in a wonderfully woven musical tale that takes us from pounding dissonance  through a sad but exquisitely melodic second movement to a flowing intensity of  instrumentally-conveyed rock and river imagery. Throughout, the happy alternation of harmony with polyphony reminded me of why it is musical composition has to move in new directions to stay alive.  Once or twice, indeed, I thought to myself: “A touch of  the Sculthorpes here!” and was not surprised to learn later that the late and much lamented Peter Sculthorpe was once Stanhope’s teacher.  The influence is obvious – and beneficial.  Paul Stanhope is still a young man with a young man’s dreams and I found in his third string quartet enough melody to satisfy the traditionalists and eno ugh innovation to please those who want music to take them over the horizon.  I now intend to track down his first two quartets.

Stanhope wrote his Number Three especially for the Goldner’s twentieth anniversary and it was commissioned only recently for Musica Viva by the Huntington Estate (home of the eponymous annual music festival).  So those who attended the concert were privileged to hear this sublime synthesis of two great talents.  Well five, really, if you count the “Goldners” as four separate entities which, when you hear them play, is not easy because they really are four bows with but a single thought – so perfect in their long-practiced unity that you hear only the splendid sum of their parts.

Never is this more evident than when they are playing the Ligeti string quarter no.1 which was the first item on the May 5 program. I’ll say right up front that I’m not a lover of Ligeti and when I described this work in my Your Time review as “Bartok on steroids” I was reminded of just how little enjoyment I’ve found over the years in Bartok’s own quartets.  This probably shows my musical ignorance but they always put my nerves on edge!  Gyorgy Ligeti’s work clearly pays tribute to his fellow Hungarian but is more adventurous – the very “avantist” of avant garde in its day and still a challenge today, at least to traditionalists.  A challenge to string players too, I would think.  All those loosely linked and elaborately structured musical ideas, full of arrhythmic metre and irregular tempos spiked by weird pizzicatos.  Or so it seems to me. There is power in its very dissonance, though, and anguish.  Ligeti was one of life’s sufferers and not the least of his miseries was being repressed by the communist regime that, in the 1950s, equated “new”  musical expression with political unreliability – dissonance was tantamount to dissidence!

But if you want to understand and learn to appreciate Ligeti and composers of his ilk, there is no better way to do so than hearing their works played by the Goldener String Quartet.  The group is fearless in tackling new and difficult works, and has won its reputation in part by flawless and apparently effortless performances of pieces written by contemporary Australian and international composers.

It is, of course, equally comfortable with the more traditional repertoire and this was well exemplified in the Goldner’s quite distinctive intepretation of Beethoven’s much loved string quarter no 15 (opus 132).  This work is a favourite of mine, as it is of many other lovers of string quartets, and indeed of the four members of the Goldner.  It offers, I’m told, considerable challenge in technique, and certainly its five movements are, each in its way, revolutionary.  Yet they come together amazingly well as a whole – I didn’t used  to think this, when I was younger but now, when I hear it played as wonderfully as it was the other night, I see how perfectly related they are.  Most people know and admire the long  and lovely third movement which is choral in concept – I am playing it now, as I write!  But the other four parts all have their charms too and their very speed makes a fine contrast to the elegiac slow movement (Ludwig van B apparently didn’t intend it to be elegiac but that’s how it sounds to me – less a song of thanksgiving than a lament for his lost health and hearing and imminent death).


Dimity Hall will play at my funeral!

She doesn’t know it but Australian violin virtuoso Dimity Hall will play at my funeral.

I have already planned this, my final fanfare, to a fare-thee-well, leaving instructions to my children specifying, among other things, that only one piece of music will be played – Vaughan-Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” which best expresses all I think about life, death and the triumph of the human spirit over the exigencies of both.  And only the Dimity Hall version will do, recorded by the artiste some years ago and much played by me since that time.

I nearly met Dimity the other night, when she and her fellow members of the Goldner String Quartet peformed in Brisbane for the 2015 Musica Viva concert series.  In the end I chickened out for the hour was late and the number of other fans too large for comfortable after-show conversation.  I wanted to tell her and her fellow Goldners just what pleasure they had given me down the years and to tell this most admired of many admired violinists that she will be with me at the end!

The Goldner String Quartet is among the best playing in the world today – don’t just take my word for it, ask any musical expert!  Though their reputation is international they live and play mainly in this country and their amazingly large and versatile repertoire has introduced the works of many of Australia’s contemporary composers to audiences everywhere.

Indeed, their long and affectionate collaboration with the late Peter Sculthorpe helped make me appreciate the composer’s works in the quartet genre – and I know many other music-lovers have had the same experience.

Imagine my thrill, then, when asked to review the Goldner String Quartet’s Brisbane performance for Your Time magazine!  And oh, the joy of being able to hear (and see) them in the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre with its excellent acoustics.  They just get better and better and, despite having been playing together for 20 years, are all four still quite young so we should be able to enjoy them for many years to come.

Each one of them is an artiste of distinctive quality and my admiration for Hall’s solo recordings does not in any way diminish my appreciation of the other four.  Dene Olding matches Hall bow for bow and his solo passages the other night were of such perfection that, for a moment here and there, I forgot I was listening to a foursome and wished for a bit more of him, alone.  Julian Smiles, of course, is an internationally-acclaimed cellist who draws a rich, rounded sound from his instrument that is particularly effective in interpreting Australian compositions that celebrate the landscape. Violist Irina Morosova studied under Richard Goldner, founder of Musica Viva and the man for whom, obviously, the quartet was named.  In her sure hands the viola finds its true place as an instrument of aristocratic provenance without which a string quartet would be a poor thing indeed – and other musical genres the poorer likewise.  I dearly love a viola solo and must hunt down some of Morosova’s individual recordings.

I look forward to many more Goldner live performances, as well as the quartet’s future recordings.   And if you weren’t lucky enough to make one of this year’s Musica Viva concerts, May 5’s performance was recorded to be broadcast on 4MBS – though you’ll need to go to the station’s website to find out when.

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