Posted by: jkirkby8712 | March 22, 2011

Monday, 21st March 2011 – Shaker music, and more!!

After another slow Monday morning into the city, at least things were relatively quiet and relaxed in the office environment, basically had the place to myself for a large part of the day, with my two associates out at various meetings, etc. That would have been me a few years ago, but these days in my declining employment years, I’m generally content to ‘defend the fort’ as they say, and not have to rush off here and there every second day.  Those times have passed!

Following on from the many concerts and shows that I attended last year,  it seems a little strange that here we are almost at the end of the third month of 2011, and only my first concert outing for the year took place tonight. Part of my regular subscription to the Australian String Quartet’s [ASQ] regular series of concerts which I’ve been attending for around five years now. As I’ve probably noted previously, the ASQ was established in 1985 and is officially the Quartet-in-Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide. They have had a major impact on the musical life of Australia, touring both nationally and internationally, and along the way, commissioning many works by leading Australian composers.

I was introduced to the present makeup of the Quartet by a friend I worked with, who gave me a ticket to one of their lunchtime concerts back in 1985 I think – at that stage, Sophie, Anne, Sally and Rachel performed as the Tankstream Quartet [which they had done since 2000]  but in 2006, the combination was officially appointed as the ASQ.  So that day, I took a couple of hours off work in the middle of the day, caught the tram into the city, and was quickly rather entranced by these four beautiful and talented young ladies during their short lunch time concert – in the Collins Street Baptist Church.  For the next two years, up until the time that the Melbourne Recital Centre [where I went tonight] was constructed, the ASQ did their four concerts a year at that Church. It was a beautiful old building, but as a member of an audience sitting on those typical old church pews in a building with little in the way of air conditioning  –  well, it was simply not a comfortable environment for really enjoying classical music. I recall one extremely hot February night [I think the temperature was still in the high 30s at 10pm that night] where the conditions were extremely uncomfortable for both audience and performers.  It was not surprising that the ASQ were just as excited as were their ‘fans’ when the move to the Recital Centre became a reality.

As part of my annual subscription – which incidentally, over the past two years has seen the annual series of concerts reduced to three concerts – I receive two bonus tickets, and have so far managed to find friends who were interested in using them, generally, as was the case tonight, for their first visit to a classical music concert.  Reactions have been mixed!  Tonight’s recipients were a couple from the radio station – an interesting pair, an Australian guy, around my age, and his Thai wife. This couple spend the Australian Summers and most of Autumn here in Victoria, while for the rest of the year [May to October]  they live in Thailand with her families. Although Jack was a bit of a classical music enthusiast, it was all rather new to Orr, who nevertheless, seemed happy enough with the evening when I was talking to them during the interval. As with all other occasions, these ‘bonus tickets’ are never in the same section as my seat, so I only get to see my ‘guests’ at interval or after the show [it was a little different when we were back at the old Church –  one’s ticket allowed you to sit wherever you wished, or what was available at that time. Over the years, most of my guests have been late in arriving, for one reason or another – Jack and Orr actually arrived before I did tonight!

I received a letter from the ASQ a couple of weeks ago advising that two of the longstanding members of the Quartet would be leaving at the end of this 2011 season. Violinist Sophie Rowell and violist Sally Boud will be leaving following the ensemble’s performances at the Huntington Estate Music Festival in November, with Anne Horton (violin) and Rachel Johnston (cello) to remain ASQ members. An international search to replace the two outgoing players is underway. Rowell, one of the most sought-after violinists in Australia, made the decision to leave in order to focus on a solo career. “I have enjoyed 12 wonderful years with the quartet, five of those as the ASQ. It’s been an absolutely amazing musical journey. While I am excited by the new opportunities that are to come for me personally, I am first and foremost looking forward to a fantastic year of incredible music throughout the 2011 ASQ season”, she said of her impending departure. She has had solo engagements with all Australia’s state orchestras and in 1999 was awarded Second Prize in the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg.   It is for family commitments and to spend more time with her two-year-old son Louis that Sally Boud bids farewell to her “ASQ family”. “The difficulties in combining motherhood with touring and travel mean that my musical career is set for new directions”, she said.  I recall Sally taking a couple of months off from the ASQ’s commitments late in 2009 to have her first baby – in fact, at the concert that she missed,  it was Sophie who announced before the performance that the baby had arrived, and mother and son were doing well –  that bit of news almost got as much applause as did the music which followed!

Tonight’s program!  Well, I always extra enjoyment when the ASQ four have a guest performer. Tonight, it was Shanghai born, internationally renowned Cellist, Li-Wei, who at the age of 13, moved to Australia, and later studied in London.  He actually received the Young Australian of the Year Award in 2002. He’s established a formidable reputation on the international concert scene, has performed with many great orchestras and other musical groups, and won a vast range of prizes in music. He joined the ASQ tonight in the performance of two quintets [ 2 violins, the viola and the two cellos], and according to comments by the ASQ girls, his joining them was a real honour! They had long hoped that he could find time in his incredibly busy schedule of performances and other like commitments, to a part of their 2011 concert series.  Boccherini’s String Quintet in C major began the program, and it was beautiful to hear the two cellos in particular, playing together. As often happen at these concerts, I usually arrive a little tired, and generally find myself struggling to stay awake during the first piece of music. So despite the beauty of this particular composition, it had the same affect, especially during the third of the movements, appropriately in these circumstances entitled ‘Grave’, the emotional heart of the performance which saw focus on specific instruments, or groups thereof,  from time to time. At times, quiet and relaxing – as I suggested, sometimes too relaxing!! The music, and myself came to life in the final movement with some brighter more exuberant phases, or as one reviewer described it ‘the joyful final Rondeau contains some enjoyably grungy textures and moments of almost Haydnish wit’.

The second quintet which featured Li-Wei, was Alexander Glazunov’s String Quintet in A Major. This was the longest composition of the night, in four movements, over about 30 minutes, and was in fact the last performance for the evening. This was outstanding a piece that at times reached the highest of possible emotional highs, music that you could imagine almost taking one’s breath away – at times so spectacularly quiet like a breeze slowly floating around the interior of the Melbourne Recital Centre with just the most ‘gentle’ of ‘musical rustles’ –  I was thankful that none in the audience coughed during those moments [as had happened on numerous occasions during the evening!]. Most of that happened in the third movement, described by those more musically expert than I, as ‘a beautiful elegy, featuring at first, the second cello, and concluding with seraphic harmonics’, a sharp contrast to the first two movements which had featured sudden tempo changes and bold contrasts of musical colour. This quintet ended with a rousing and almost frenzied passage following on from a series of reflective and lyrical episodes. Then suddenly it was all over.

The two compositions which fell in-between the quintets, included Adelaide’s Graeme Koehne’s String Quartet No. 2 [the ‘Shaker Dances’], presenting a very different style of music, almost of a folk nature, to the rest of the program. I felt Jack and Orr might find this piece a little bit more familiar than the other pieces.  The Shakers were a 19th century American religious community whose life and music attracted many composed not the least of which came through Aaron Copeland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’. Graeme Koehne, composer in this instance, rote “The Shakers are remembered today for their cultural achievements; for their skill as craftsmen and designers: for the affecting directness of their poetry: and for their use of dance as a means of celebrating the union of physicality and spirituality. Music was central to their lives, melding with the directness of their poetry and the divine joyfulness of their dance. Simplicity of spirit [‘simple gifts’], life and art was the governing principle of Shaker culture. In every aspect, their culture reflects an idealism which sought to reject crass materialism, to instil dignity into human lives, and to restore harmony with nature. All in all, there is much in Shaker culture which deserves to be honoured, not just as nostalgic memory, but as a continuing spiritual and philosophical presence. My string quartet ‘Shaker Dances’ is inspired by this presence’.  I was similarly inspired, although I found this one a little too short, ending with the ‘Whistling Dance’.

Actually, my favourite piece of music tonight, was  Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Sharp. The three movements follow each other without a break, but the changes in colour and tempo could not be more pronounced. Seemed to be a lot of energy in the first movement, almost of a stuttering nature with the ‘plucking’ of the cello, and one violin, I think, from time to time. I loved the 2nd movement, the Lento, quite short, but amongst the most beautiful pieces of music one could imagine – someone described this as a ‘bleak landscape’ –  it was at times a solo violin [though I find it difficult sometimes to distinguish between the violin and the viola, so I may have my instruments mixed up there!  Whatever, there were a few moments where one felt almost as though one was floating through space heaven the destination [as the music was indeed heavenly]. Then suddenly, up in the Dress Circle above me [where Jack & Orr were sitting], an enormous sneeze shattered the mood – and yet, almost as if on cue, that was the precise moment when Shostakovich’s composition moved without a break from the second to the third movement – an explosion of sound, as all four instruments suddenly broke from the spell of ‘heaven’, and as Gordon Kerry described it “Lasting as long as the two preceding [movements], it contains music of frank violence and ironic bitterness cast in that most formal mould, the fugue, which issues in a wan little waltz that peters out into silence”.  [and took most of the audience by surprise, not sure it had finished – more cautious then scattered applause that had wrongly broken out at the end of the first movement of Glazunov’s Quintet, later in the night – a definite no-no in classical music performances  – you do not applaud until the whole composition has concluded].  However, that second movement of Shostakovich’s music was the lasting impression I would go away with tonight.

Oddly, my peaceful drive home afterwards was interrupted in the middle of the city, by some-one from the church ringing me with a question about a matter of accounting! I shouldn’t have answered it – stopped the car, but was parked illegally, and uncomfortable about being there. However, we gave the appropriate response, making it clear I had time to talk further, as the caller probably would have been happy to have an extended conversation! Meanwhile, searching on the radio for some music appropriate to finish off the night, I actually tuned into our own station, where one of our foreign language programs was on air – music from India and the sub-continent, three hours of it, though I only listened whilst I was in the car on the drive from the city. A little disturbed that during 50 minutes or so, I heard no sponsor messages, another little point to follow up later!

With tonight’s concert, I missed most of Q & A this week – although as Christine noted on Face Book, there will always be another Q & A, but not another ‘Shaker Concert’!  True enough! I noticed a group of politicians on the panel tonight in the few minutes that I saw, and at that stage, most of the discussion seemed to be involved around the carbon tax!! A subject that is becoming a little boring!! Perhaps it is a good thing I missed most of the program!

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