William Barton. Pic: Keith Saunders

Festivals, Reviews

Perth Festival Postcard 3: Chamber Music Weekend, Garrick Ohlsson, Kate Tempest

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Alongside his commitment to working with Indigenous artists, Festival Director Iain Grandage’s passion for music has been driving force behind some of the highlights of this year’s programming. His prodigious gifts as a musician, composer and music director as well as a festival director have also been on display in the form of personal artistic contributions to numerous events.

As well as curating Chamber Music Weekend (in which he also featured as a composer-arranger and lecturer-performer) he’s also appeared as a conductor, co-composer and occasional piano accompanist with Meow Meow as part of the Kabarett Haus season at Perth Concert Hall (curated by no less than Meow Meow herself). 

Onstage and offstage, Grandage’s seeming omnipresence and generous spirit have helped make this Festival uniquely his own. I’m reminded of Barrie Kosky’s sense of showmanship and infectious enthusiasm as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival back in 1996, as well as at the piano accompanying many of the theatre shows he’s directed. One can only hope that Grandage will somehow manage to keep this up over the next three years.

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Chamber Music Weekend was held at the University of WA, in the magnificent Spanish Mission-style architecture of Winthrop Hall, and in the picturesque surrounding gardens and shady groves. Multiple concerts inside the hall featured Australian and international composers and musicians, classical and contemporary, European and First Nations.

There were also free outdoor events, including roving performances by various artists on the program, croquet on the lawn, and the complete slow movements from Beethoven’s piano sonatas played in ‘Beethoven’s Grotto’ at hourly intervals over both days by students from the Conservatorium of Music (with varying degrees of finesse – though I did almost miss a ticketed concert after being lured into the Grotto by a mesmerising rendition of the adagio sostenuto from the Hammerklavier).

They were played on a well-used Steinway allegedly borrowed from The Ellington Jazz Club and gaily festooned with leafy branches peeping out from under the lid; and accompanied by random outbursts of birdsong, in a manner that Beethoven would have thoroughly approved of.

Grandage himself gave a characteristically engaging performance-lecture in the Grotto at lunchtime on the Saturday, deploying the Steinway to dazzling effect. Movingly alluding to the partial deafness he shares with Beethoven, he discussed and illustrated the composer’s stylistic evolution, as well as his own use of functional harmony in his collaborations with Indigenous composers and songwriters.

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The weekend was effectively launched on the Friday evening by Ancient Voices, an eclectic but consistently enthralling two-hour recital of choral music at Winthrop Hall by The Gesualdo Six with various local collaborators.

The all-male British vocal consort consists of director and bass Owain Parke (who is also a composer), second bass Samuel Mitchell, baritone Michael Craddock, tenors Joseph Wicks and John Coutner, and counter-tenor Guy James. Their voices are very much in the English tradition of clarity and purity, but are more individually differentiated and have more textual grain than, for example, the more seamlessly blended and unearthly sound of an ensemble like the Tallis Scholars.

The Gesualdo Six. Pic: Ash Mills

The program consisted of a selection of favourites from the group’s repertoire, ranging from English Renaissance masters like Tallis and Byrd (as well as the Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert) to more modern and contemporary works by Britten, Poulenc and Reger, as well as less familiar names like Alison Willis, David Bednell, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Gred Blok-Wilson.

These included a newly commissioned piece by Perth-based composer Car Zydor Fesjian entitled Ode to Joy and inspired by the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Fesjian’s piece (and several others) also involved local Perth ensembles The Giovanni Consort and Voyces – most spectacularly in Tallis’s famous 40-part motet Spem in alium. The latter was given a rousing performance, although somewhat surprisingly all three choirs were clustered around the central dais rather than being spread out more widely around the audience, which might have made more sense visually as well as sonically.

Standouts for me in the first half of the concert were Park’s own composition Phos hilaron, which featured a gleaming counter-tenor solo by James; and The Wind’s Warning, a haunting setting by Alison Willis of fellow British poet and composer Ivor Gurney’s last poem ‘The Wind’. The poem itself was written in hospital, as Gurney suffered from mental illness throughout his life, particularly after being gassed and shell-shocked in World War I. Willis’s setting eerily registers the sound of the wind through atonal vocalisations and whispers; and this was most effectively realised by placing the collaborating choirs at a distance from the dais along the outer edges of the hall.

The final work in the program was the most powerful: Queensland didgeridoo virtuoso and singer William Barton’s Kalkadunga Yurdu (in a choral arrangement by Gordon Hamilton). The work celebrates the composer’s Kalkadunga heritage and commemorates that nation’s war of resistance against European invaders, which ended when they were slaughtered by a paramilitary force of settlers and police mounted on horseback and armed with rifles at Battle Mountain in 1884.

The performance began with a spine-tingling vocal solo from Barton himself, who entered carrying the didgeridoo and singing from the back of the hall, and concluded with a long and wide-ranging cadenza on the didgeridoo from the central dais, surrounded by a buzzing cloud of voices from all three choirs.

I was overwhelmed by the impact of this encounter between ancient and contemporary, Indigenous and European traditions. Barton himself has described his work as being at the intersection of “two dreamtimes, between two cultures, and the birthing of time, sound and pulse” – powerful testimony to the creative and healing possibilities of intercultural collaboration, especially when an Indigenous artist leads the way.

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The rest of the weekend saw another recital on Saturday by the Gesualdo Six entitled English Motets and featuring their core repertoire, with notably moving renditions of two works in English (the rest being Catholic or pre-Reformation works in Latin), Tallis’ beautifully clear and simple If Ye Love Me and Thomas Tomkins’s grief-filled When David Heard, which recounts King David’s reaction to the death of his son Absolom.

Saturday also saw a scintillating recital by virtuoso guitar duo Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, ranging from classical to jazz and contemporary compositions. Here the standout for me was a fascinating arrangement by their father Edward of one of Handel’s marvellous keyboard suites.

Spread across Saturday and Sunday was the centrepiece of the weekend: Quartet and Country, four concerts featuring the Australian String Quartet playing all six of Beethoven’s first set of string quartets Op 18, alongside works written and co-performed by four Indigenous composers: William Barton; singer-songwriter Lou Bennett; Broome country musician Stephen Pigram (who was also musical director for the original production of Bran Nue Dae); and Noongar elder Roma Winmar (who was also language editor and consultant on Hecate).

The Australian String Quartet. Pic: Jacqui Way

Once again Barton’s mysterious, spiritually inspired work for string quartet and didgeridoo Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand was the most profound of these collaborations. I was also deeply moved by Bennett’s Dirt Song (sung in Yorta Yorta)and Pigram’s heartfelt elegy for his grandmother Mimi (sung in Yawuru and English), both featuring Grandage’s richly textured and harmonised arrangements for string quartet.

As for the Beethoven quartets: the ASQ in their latest (and youthfully winsome) line-up are unquestionably a polished ensemble, with incisive and characterful leadership from violinist Dale Barltrop. However I found the rest of the ensemble slightly lacking in fully developed individual personalities or (as yet) a distinctively realised collective sound.

The Opus 18 quartets are ‘early period’ Beethoven, but they are by no means immature works. The composer had already established his own unique voice and idiom, and the quartets are full of Sturm und Drang, as well as Beethoven’s typical bursts of ebullient energy in the opening and closing allegros and prestos, rambunctious slapstick in the scherzos and trios, and heartfelt prayers punctuated by dramatic utterances in the slow movements – not to mention the exquisitely strange and delicate adagio introduction to the last movement (subtitled ‘La Malincolia’) of Quartet No. 6.

Indeed when he wrote them the composer was already grappling with the onset of deafness, and his concomitant feelings of despair and alienation: the anguished Heiligenstadt Testament was written only a year after these quartets were published, and one senses a foreshadowing of this inner turmoil in some of their more uncompromising outbursts and innovations.

The readings offered by the ASQ seemed just a little glib in this regard. After the more overtly emotional and spiritual content of the Indigenous works that opened each concert, the lack of a sense of deeper engagement with the Beethoven quartets gave the slightly disconcerting impression of having segued to works from an entirely different world of 18th Century European classical style without apparent substance, rather than from Beethoven’s soul. Perhaps it would have made more sense to play the Beethoven quartets first, followed by the Indigenous works; either way, the former needed to be invested with more boldness and passion.

These qualities were delivered in spades in the performance on Sunday afternoon by the Seraphim Trio of the Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, preceded by contemporary Australian composer Richard Mills’s Portraits and Memories for Piano Trio.

Anna Goldsworthy (piano), Helen Ayres (violin) and Tim Nankervis (cello) are all established players with big personalities and probing musical intelligences, and have been playing together and developing a collective sound for over twenty years. The contrast with the ASQ could not be more telling, especially when it came to Beethoven. Admittedly the Archduke is a late-middle-period masterpiece, and thus a much richer and more complex work than the Op 18 quartets; but even early Beethoven requires performers who are prepared to meet him half-way, to take risks and to play for high stakes.

The concert began with Portraits and Memories, whichwas commissioned for the Trio in 2018, and is a sequence of musical vignettes. More precisely, an ‘Intrada’ is followed by three ‘Portraits’, which are interspersed with three ‘Memories’ and two ‘Promenades’, and followed by a Postlude. The identity behind each portrait remains enigmatic. Goldsworthy reported in her brief introduction that Mills declined to divulge them, but as she pithily observed, all art is to some extent a self-portrait of the artist themselves.

The work has more than a little in common with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and broadly shares a programmatic quality with Romantic and Impressionist sets of miniatures (typically for the piano) by the likes of Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Grieg, Debussy and Ravel. Indeed Mills’ own musical idiom (at least in this work) recalls French Impressionism in its lavish use of colour, its wayward harmonies, its rhythmic skittishness, and its languid sensuality.

Beethoven’s Archduke is altogether on another scale in terms of musical form and emotional content. Goldsworthy described it in her introduction as being like scaling Mount Everest. Possibly it was like that for the players, but for us, it felt more like flying – whether soaring, plunging, turning somersaults or at times seeming to crash and explode.

The Seraphim have been playing this work for many years now, and can truly be said to own it, in the sense of having found their own unique interpretation. Despite the challenging acoustics of Winthrop Hall in terms of clarity and balance between the piano and strings, it was a panoramic and detailed journey, from the great long singing melody of the opening allegro, to the drunken dance and fugue of the scherzo, the andante cantabile’s marvellous set of variations on a heart-rending hymn of longing, and the stumbling homeward gallop of the final allegro and presto.

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On the Sunday evening at the end of Chamber Music Weekend, there was more music further east along the Swan River at Perth Concert Hall. The venue has its own brand of early 1970s Brutalist splendour to rival the Spanish Mission-style tranquillity of Winthrop Hall, and is also renowned for its superb acoustic. It’s been transformed for the duration of the Festival into the City of Lights, an indoor and outdoor hub for food, drink and music – classical, cabaret and contemporary – both inside the main auditorium itself and outside on the massive temporary outdoor stage at Chevron Lighthouse.

Sunday evening saw a recital by North American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, co-presented by Perth Festival and Musica Viva. Ohlsson was last at the Perth Concert Hall in 2015 for a mighty performance of Brahms’s titanic Piano Concertos as part of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms cycle conducted by Asher Fisch; this was a more intimate recital of work by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Chopin (with whose music the pianist has a particular affinity).

North American pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Pic: Kacper Pempel

Ohlsson studied under Claudio Arrau, and has something of the great Chilean pianist’s profound thoughtfulness and sonic mastery in his approach to Beethoven and Chopin. The Beethoven Sonata No. 11 Op 22 is a relatively ‘classical’ early work and was given a measured and considered performance, revealing many jewels in the allegro and adagio, but I found my attention wandering in the menuetto and the concluding rondo.

Similarly, Prokofiev’s brittle and combustible Piano Sonata No. 6 (the first of the famous ‘Wartime Sonatas’) was flawlessly rendered, but lacked the sarcasm and sheer brutality that for me are essential ingredients in any performance of Prokofiev’s work.

After interval though it was another story, with a traversal of works by Chopin demonstrating Ohlsson’s powerful grasp of the composer’s unique sound-world and sense of musical structure. Like his mentor Arrau, Ohlsson takes Chopin seriously rather than treating it as salon music, deploying his own astonishingly command of colour as well as a classical sense of structure to generate a level of excitement that had been lacking for me in the first half of the concert.

After lending an improvisatory immediacy to the Impromptu No. 2 in F-sharp major Op 36, effortlessly negotiating the fiendish technical demands of some of the Études Op 25, and conjuring up the dreamy delicacy of the Berceuse Op 57, the pièce de résistance was a thrilling rendition of the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor Op 39.

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The evening ended with a very different but equally thrilling experience: British writer, performance poet and rapper Kate Tempest, who delivered a powerhouse set on the open-air stage at the Chevron Lighthouse to a rapt crowd. I was riveted by Tempest’s compelling and visionary writing and her totally engaged but refreshingly unpretentious stage persona. She was in visceral rapport with her creative partner Clare Uchima, who provided an evocatively sparse and brooding electronic backing score.

The duo delivered a seamless selection of numbers from Tempest’s 2016 multi-character story-cycle album Let Them Eat Chaos and her more recent and personal The Book of Traps and Lessons. I’m not all that familiar with her work, so was encountering it mostly for the first time, and picking up much of the language and the vibe as I went along. Nevertheless I felt the undeniable and cumulative force of her lyrical and prophetic observations, celebrations, exhortations and denunciations of life and love in the atomised world of global capitalism, greed, racism and environmental catastrophe, in couplets like “No track of love in the hunt for the bigger buck/Here in the land where nobody gives a fuck”, or the ominously ever-rising refrain: “7.2 billion humans…7.3 billion humans…”

However there were also sensual love songs like Firesmoke, a seductive paean to a female lover, as well as moments of collective tenderness; another refrain reached out to the crowd with the simple acknowledgement of “So much love in people’s faces.” I left the gig feeling exhilarated, depressed and hopeful at the same time. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, as Gramsci put it. Or as another great female contemporary vocal artist, Kate Bush, once sang: “Don’t give up…”

In his next Postcard, Humphrey will cover Meow Meow and Rufus Wainwright at Kabarett Haus.

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