Saturday, 24 September 2011

eighth blackbird in Sydney


When I travelled to Bexhill-on-Sea in May to see eighth blackbird perform I didn't know they were going to alight much closer to home.  On 22 September they gave a concert in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House.  
I have been thinking about how much of the enjoyment of music is confined to the performance itself.  When I hear new music, or music that is new to me, I am unable to take as much of it as I would like away.  If I hear something I like, I want to hear it again but this is not always possible; and there is so much to hear       ( and such little time ) that music that which makes a bad impression, or none, on a first hearing is lost forever.  And when I hear something I like it is sometimes difficult to find a CD or other recording and again the memory fades.  I found an echo of this thought in Wallace Stevens' fifth blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Since I encountered them at the seaside, eighth blackbird has made the second change in its membership since it was founded in 1916: Yvonne Lam has replaced Matt Albert on violin and viola.
Their Sydney program included two of the pieces I heard them play earlier and four which were new to me. 

Swedish composer Fabian Svensson,  who was born in 1980, wrote his  Two Sides for piccolo, bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, cello in 2007 for the Italian ensemble Sentieri selvaggi.  It was to be played at a concert with the theme “the right to dissent”.  He says:

 Deeming it impossible to write a piece about as abstract a concept as that of the right to something, I decided instead to portray the actual concept of dissent. This was done by dividing the ensemble into two halves, one playing only in the high register, and the other only in the low register. These two groups are pitted against each other in an antagonistic and confrontational manner.

As performed by eighth blackbird, this involved the two groups of players entering from opposite sides of the room and facing each other as they played.  At the end the players left one by one as they finished their parts leaving only two for the final confrontation.  This was a lively and enjoyable piece.  An excerpt from it,played by Sentieri selvaggi, is available on the composer's website.

Next came Mayke Nas: DiGiT #2  (written in 2002 ) for piano four hands, or so the program said.  Much of it was for four forearms with the addition of rhythmic clapping.  You might describe it as the obverse of John Cage's 4' 33".  The avant guard is still around.

Mayke Nas was born in the Netherlands in 1972.   Her works include: I Delayed People's Flights By Walking Slowly In Narrow Hallways ( 2005 ) and Anyone can do it (2006)  for six completely unprepaired players, not necessarily gifted with any musical talent".  The avant guard is still around.
It's easy to be dismissive about self consciously modern performance works,  and I won't miss not having a CD of  DiGiT #2 ; but it was worth hearing and seeing it played with amazing musical and balletic skill by Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall.

Dan Visconti, who was born in 1982, composed  Fractured Jams (2006) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.   The quartet is in four movements.  Some parts of it are written to simulate a performance by players not necessarily gifted with any musical talent, though in this case talent is certainly required.  At one point the pianist drinks from a pitcher and blows across its top to make sounds.  Again, while fun to watch and hear, I think this kind of music is for the moment and not repeated listening.   The last movement is a burst of ragtime a sample of which can be heard here.   This extract is not representative of the whole piece;  it's quite traditionally musical when compared with some of the spare and aggressive sounds in the earlier movements.

Phillip Glass wrote In Similar Motion in 1969, and it's one of the pieces I heard eighth blackbird play in May.   Then I was impressed by the repetitions and other minimalist gestures in this music from the beginning of his career.  This time I heard a lot more warmth and colour in the music.  I wondered if the change in the venue was part of the reason.  I think both the hall and the performance space were smaller in Sydney and there was a much larger audience in that space.
Timothy Andres, the youngest composer represented in the program,  was born in  1985 in California.   We heard his Crashing Through Fences (2009) written for piccolo, glockenspiel and  two kickdrums.  (The kickdrums are attached to the piccolo and glockenspiel players.)  The composer says:

I was interested in creating a contrast between these innately unfeasible timbres and a long melody, unspooling over a sweet harmonic sequence .It’s an almost uncomfortably intimate sort of piece—the two instruments interact hesitantly at first, then with increasing boldness. And at opportune moments, they savagely kick each other.

I'm not sure what he means by "innately unfeasible", as the two instruments make a unique and very beautiful sound.  The explosive interruptions by the kickdrums are arresting,  but  the thought crossed my mind that it would have been nice to hear the piece without the savage kicks.  Fortunately a recording of  Crashing       ( played by Ian Rosenbaum, glockenspiel & kickdrum; Mindy Heinsohn, piccolo & kickdrum ) can be heard on the composers website.

 Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, (2007) concluded the program.  I was fascinated by this music when I first heard it at Bexhill in May and excited to be able to hear it again.  As far as I know, it's not available on CD, though many of Stephen Hartke's music is, and I hope to explore it.  I previously mentioned that the members of eighth blackbird play this piece from memory and that it has been choreographed, so that they move about the space and form groups temporary ensembles as they play.  As with the piece by Philip Glass, the performance didn't match my recollection of the earlier one.  Everything seemed closer together in The Studio; and the sound more cohesive.  Or was it my memory?

eighth blackbird at The Studio Sydney Opera House 22 September 2011.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

La finta giardiniera


Con Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music provides a chance to hear some infrequently performed operas and some excellent singing from the students there.  Last year I saw Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Otto Nicolai, whose overture at least is well known, and the Les malheurs d'Orphée of  Darius Milhaud, an appealing work in three very short acts, which is so obscure that the only recordings of it are very difficult to obtain.
This year Con Opera is performing La Finta Giardiniera  an early Mozart opera.   It was written in 1774, when Mozart was 18 years of age, for performance in Munich.  Alfred Einstein wrote that it " was simply a local event in Munich without consequences ".    But Mozart was anxious to write operas;  and it is delightful to catch his enthusiasm in a letter written to his mother:

GOD be praised! My opera was given yesterday, the 13th, and proved so successful that I cannot possibly describe all the tumult. In the first place, the whole theatre was so crammed that many people were obliged to go away. After each aria there was invariably a tremendous uproar and clapping of hands, and cries of Viva Maestro! Her Serene Highness the Electress and the Dowager (who were opposite me) also called out Bravo! When the opera was over, during the interval when all is usually quiet till the ballet begins, the applause and shouts of Bravo! were renewed; sometimes there was a lull, but only to recommence afresh ...

The plot is not very convincing.  Most critics blame the lack of interest in,and performances of, the opera on the feeble libretto.   It is also lengthy: an unedited performance would take almost three and a half hours.  Professor Imre Palló,  the Musical Director of this production had prepared a performance version of the opera which takes about two hours.  He says that he "particularly worked on the recitatives, compressing them as much as possible without losing the story line".  I think he was right to do this.  While it would be interesting to hear all of Mozart's score, there isn't enough dramatic interest in the libretto to sustain a long evening in the theatre.   And I imagine it would be difficult for the singers and musicians to prepare and perform the piece in full.  In fact, we know from Mozart's letters that the first performance was postponed twice to allow the singers time to learn their parts.
The music is well worth hearing for its own sake and for the uncanny pre echoes of Mozart's better known and more popular operas.   He didn't conjure up Figaro and Don Giovanni from nothing - and while this might make them less super human achievements in themselves,  it's no less incredible that some of their musical ideas were formed when Mozart was so young.  The orchestration is wonderfully varied with some arias including parts for individual woodwinds which weave in and out of the accompaniment in a most effective way.  The members of the Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra played these with great effect.  The small size and excellent acoustics of the Music Workshop enhanced the clarity of their playing.
La Finta Giardiniera is described as an opera buffa, part of an established comic tradition.  However, it seemed to me on listening to some of the arias that they derived from the more formal tradition of the opera seria.  (This impression was confirmed by an article on the Mozart Project website.)  The varied styles of the music gave the performance a somewhat muddled and episodic feeing.  Though I can't be certain,  the cuts in the performing version we heard may have contributed to this as originally one aria may not have led on to the next so abruptly. 
It's also a reminder that while Handel's operas have enjoyed a recent period of great popularity and operas by other eighteenth century composers are regularly heard, there is a huge number of works leading up to Mozart which are known only to musicologists.  So La Finta Giardineira may give an idea of how the early opera buffa sounded, and can be heard as a precursor  to Mozart's mature Italian operas in more ways than one.
The jagged musical trajectory of this piece, jumping from broad comedy to angst ridden monologues, must make it a nightmare for a director.   John Milson's production, using a single set, is fluent and gives ample scope to the singers.  Con Opera performs the work with alternate casts.  The singers I heard on 17 September were excellent.