Monday, 23 April 2012

Missed Opportunity

I was so excited about this concert but it felt like one big missed opportunity. Beethoven's last three piano sonatas are mindblowing but you have to know the story and the history to get just how incredible they are. Without that the music is reduced.

Eri Nakagawa
Music Auditorium, WA Academy of Performing Arts

Of Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas the last three, composed between 1820 and 1822, were especially personal. Sonatas No 31 and 32 were dedicated to Mrs Antonie Brentano, considered by some to be the “Immortal Beloved” addressed in his love letters, and Sonata No 30 to her daughter Maximiliane. The sonatas also have mind-blowing structural and harmonic innovations.

None of this contextual information was explained during a recital by Thai pianist Eri Nakagawa. The concert was titled Immortal Beloved but the lack of program notes meant it was up to Nakagawa to musically convey the emotional riches and technical innovations.

Nakagawa played with bright tone and strong ideas and her insights into the tender sweetness and fierce energy of Beethoven’s music went a long way to redeem some flaws in her playing. Melodic sections were clearly declamed and abrupt contrasts emphasised, as in the moody Six Bagatelles Op 126 which opened the program. A tendency to smudge finger work and miss the occasional note became evident in Sonata No 30. But the variations in the final movement were impressive, including a particularly tender restatement of the original theme.

Nakagawa’s light, fluid scale passages were a highlight of Sonata No 31. The piece becomes increasingly dark and the third movement had a tangible heaviness. Nakagawa came unstuck in the knotty fugue but maintained momentum for a gargantuan ending. More slips marred the Sonata No 32 although the swinging jazz rhythms of the finale were joyously delivered. No wonder they call Beethoven a composing god; this is boogie-woogie one hundred years ahead of its time! Again references to this in the program would have been enlightening.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Music to My Ears

Hackett Hall Gallery
copyright The West Australian April 2012

The way John Cage explores sound has a playful thoughtfulness about it. It reminds me of my fourteen month old son who covers his ears with his sticky hands and listens to the suction as he takes them off. The musical potential of everyday sounds was the focus of the second Cage tribute concert in Tura’s Scale Variable series and involved performances by local and international artists.

Berlin-based duo Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricoli presented Cage’s Williams Mix, an eight channel tape piece which in 1952 was the first of its kind. Snippets of sound were relayed through eight surround-sound speakers in rapid succession, sounding blurred as though heard underwater. Cage’s six sound categories were city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produces sounds, wind produced sounds and small sounds. Dafeldecker and Tricoli used the same categories to create Williams Mix Extended, drawing on no less than 5000 sounds and extending the four minute piece to 32 minutes. Their sounds were crisper and more industrial and the higher quality audio production made the skin prickle and floor vibrate. But after twenty minutes the sounds began to feel monotonous.

Cage’s popular 4’33” was a surround sound experience featuring the ambient noise of the performance space ‘performed’ by Perth percussionist Callum Moncrieff who stood behind a snare drum without touching it. Moncrieff also performed Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum where chance was used to determine all aspects of the performance. Story from Living Room Music had an obvious beat and sounds were layered to create something more traditionally recognisable as music. Not forgetting the source material for the entire piece was the phrase “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” Moncrieff’s skilful delivery made the nonsense words melodic and mesmerising; my 14 month old would have loved it.

The final Scale Variable concert is on Tuesday and features the Etica ensemble performing works by Smalley, Ligeti and MacMillan.


Monday, 16 April 2012

Immortal Beloved

I'm having a Beethoven moment.
For a while it was Mendelssohn and Mozart who were my obsessions but now it is Beethoven. The highlight of WASO's concert on the weekend was the performance of Beethoven's Fifth, which I thought I'd be sick of by now. But no, it was thrilling.

On Friday I'm heading to WAAPA for a concert of Beethoven's last three Piano Sonatas performed by Eri Nakagawa, can't wait.

Below is my review from the WASO concert.

WA Symphony Orchestra
Perth Concert Hall
Review: Rosalind Appleby
copyright The West Australian April 2012

“It is like going to a concert and then going out clubbing afterwards,” said Principal Conductor Paul Daniel. He was describing the dance-like intensity of Thomas Ades’ violin concerto Concentric Paths which WASO were about to perform in the opening concert of the Classics series.

The concerto was composed in 2005 and stretches the definition of a ‘classic’ but the orchestra with American violinist Kurt Nikkanen gave a persuasive performance. Voice-breakingly high violin darted above an orchestral accompaniment heavy with low brass and bass drum. In the grim middle movement the violin line was punctuated by orchestral explosions and overlapped by strings and brass, concluding with a series of long descending phrases. In the last movement the beat alternated between groupings of two and three, giving the effect of a dancer tripping over at regular intervals, or perhaps, as Daniels hinted, classical musicians at a nightclub!

The 21st century classic was bracketed with repertoire representing three centuries of music. Handel’s 18th century Music for the Royal Fireworks was conducted with flourish by Daniel. Mark Fitzpatrick led the brass section with bright dexterity suitable to the Baroque era, although the density of the string sound gave a more 19th century lushness.

The fireworks theme continued with an orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s early 20th century piano piece Feux d’artifice. Arranger Colin Matthews transported the fluidity of Debussy’s music into an orchestral fantasy world. Shimmering strings and whirling woodwind evoked the glitter of fireworks, while harp glissandi added a touch of stardust.

The 19th century was represented with an undisputed classic of the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Daniel brought an uncharacteristic sternness to this compact, intense symphony. The opening movement was fast and angular which was effective but caused disarray; each section of the orchestra had a different speed for the famous ‘fate knocking at the door’ motif. Daniel’s careful contouring of the reflective second movement allowed for space and silence, contrasting with the vigorous fugue of the third movement. Daniel gave the orchestra full reign for the glorious finale, which was delivered with blazing conviction.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Happy Birthday John

John Cage (1912-1992) turns 100 this year and Decibel ensemble are joining in the worldwide circus with their own birthday party. Their Perth performance of Cage's complete Variations spun heads with its impressive technology and persuasive improvising. Cage's scores were projected on screens so audience could watch in delight as random collections of circles and squiggles were interpreted by improvising artists - those in the building and those around the world who were connected via skype.

Tomorrow (Saturday) Decibel are doing a repeat performance in Brisbane, and you can guarantee that nothing will be the same. The maverick may be dead but his music is reborn every time it is performed.

Here is my review from the Perth concert:


Decibel Ensemble
Hackett Gallery, WA Museum
Review: Rosalind Appleby
First published theWest Australian  March 2012

Decibel ensemble has compiled John Cage’s series of eight Variations (1958-1967) into one program – the first time this has been done. The group have recently returned from touring the program through Europe and their performance on Wednesday night showcased the group’s affinity for Cage’s playfully provocative music.

The ensemble made good use of the old Hackett Gallery library with musicians and audience spread around the hall. In Variations I and II bass clarinet, violin, alto flute and cello sounds floated from the balcony. Thanks to modern technology it was possible to follow on screens the various permutations of Cage’s graphic scores. The score of Variation III was a series of overlapping circles, interpreted with delicate detail by Stuart James on drum kit.

In Variation IV the score was superimposed onto a floor plan of the concert venue and directed the performers where (but not what) to play. The members of Decibel disappeared through various doors and the result was a distant, surround-sound experience of whistling, radio noise and thuds.  Cage’s pointed comment on the need for improvising artists to draw from within but also get out of the way is just as pertinent today.

Decibel used proximity antennas and light sensitive devices (technical wizardry Cage would have loved) to aurally trace the movements of four dancers in Variation Five. The ensemble also added their own stamp to Variation VI which featured guitars leaning against amps which were manipulated and controlled through effects pedals. In Variation VII electronic communication tools including laptops and iphones created a chaotic buzz of noise. Variation VIII gave satisfying closure with a ‘performance’ by the room itself, using a feedback system that listened to the resonant frequency of the room. The drones and humming resonated peacefully through the space and tuned our ears to the world of sound around us. This was a thoughtful, stimulating and polished tribute to Cage on the 100th anniversary of his birth.