via NAB blues!
For all my adult life one of the treats at Christmas has been to watch, and of course listen to the carols from King’s – the choir of King’s College, Cambridge doing what in my opinion it does better than any other choir in the world. I also love this choir playing its part in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, even though I am a non-theist who scorns all religions – because this is pure theatre. And though the choristers change from year to year the lovely music does not.
Part of this is nostalgia is because I was once a girl treble and for me the magic of Christmas is intrinsically linked to the singing of carols – in the traditional way and not the ghastly mess that American pop singers make when putting out the obligatory album of Christmas music!
Yet in all my years of admiring this choir I had never had the chance to see/hear it live until MusicaViva kindly brought the King’s touring ensemble to Australia once again in 2019 – and this time, a few weeks back, I got the chance I’d so long been waiting for.
The Queensland performance was held in Brisbane’s QPAC concert hall where the mighty organ, bathed in light, seems to hang over the stage like the very voice of some awe-inspiring deity. The King’s choristers are a youthful group, blending the voices of young adult tenors and baritones with the sublime pipe of the boy trebles and on this trip Australian audiences had the pleasure of meeting the new and comparatively youthful conductor, Daniel Hyde, musical academic and acclaimed organist, who has replaced much-loved King’s veteran Sir Stephen Cledbury who had held the position since 1982.
The program was the usual nice blend of mostly old with a spice of new – in this case the new being the premier of Australian composer Ross Edwards’ Singing the Love, written especially for the choristers of King’s. The composer has described it as a celebration of the whole of life and it was commissioned by West Australian businesswoman and MusicaViva subscriber Jennifer Seabrook for her husband Ray Turner’s 75th birthday. What a present! And what a performance! It’s a tricky piece in parts, especially for the trebles, referencing the King James version of Psalm 100 among its sources of inspiration and sounding both playful and reflective.
Other works were more traditional, beginning with four short pieces by Purcell, a lovely rendition of Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, followed in turn by Wesley’s The Wilderness, Stanford’s For Lo, I Rise Up (it is almost obligatory to include Charles Villiers Stanford in such recitals because Cambridge University music owes so much to him), Lennox Berkeley’s version of The Lord is my Shepherd with a fine young soloist and, finally, Parry’s splendid I was Glad.
The two accompanying organists, Henry Websdale and Donal McCann program also performed two fine solo pieces, J.S. Bach’s Kyrie, Gott heilinger Geist (Websdale) and Mendelssohn’s Sonata in A major (McCann).
The Choir of King’s College features 16 choristers, 14 choral scholars and two organ scholars and dates its origins to the reign of Henry V1 in the 15 century. The boy choristers are auditioned between the ages of six and nine and are educated at the Kings College School, close to the college. Some of them become choral scholars in the choir when older. The choir remains firmly English in stance, dress and style and this blend of respected tradition and high musical standards developed over several centuries is what makes it unique.
Having said that, it was interesting to notice the number of people of obviously Asian origin in the audience – obviously English traditional music has a wide appeal. And, considering the time of performance, on a week day, there was a notable number of young children there too, all very quiet and well-behaved.
I don’t know when MusicaViva plans to bring my favourite sacred music choir to Australia again. I hope it’s soon. And I hope those of my readers who can, will go to one of the performances. It’s in some ways just so much more exciting than just seeing them on TV!
I can’t think of a better way to spend a wet June evening in Brisbane than with the Doric String Quartet, brought to us by Musica Viva as part of the 2019 season.
This world-acclaimed foursome – Alex Redington and Ying Xue (violins). Helene Clement (viola) and John Myerscough (cello) – exudes youth both in appearance and in the freshness with which they tackled each of the pieces selected for the Australian tour. I can only assume that these four do not comprise the original quartet, formed in 1998, because they all look far too young to have been playing together for 21 years! The Doric has won many international awards and performs in all of Europe’s great concert halls so we are lucky to be able to enjoy them in Australia. And they were so full of verve and obvious joy in their music – strings can begin to sound a little weary at the end of a gruelling tour but not this bunch!
In fact I haven’t had so much fun since Musica Viva brought the Goldner Quartet and my favourite violinist Dimity Hall to Brisbane some years back.
The enthusiastic Brisbane audience in the Queensland Conservatorium on June 26 was entertained (and enlightened) by three very different work; Haydn’s B-flat major op. 33 no. 4, former Brisbane hometown boy Brett Dean’s five-movement Hidden Agendas and the Big B of string quartets, Beethoven’s no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. A treat indeed for chamber music fans!
All three works offer very different challenges which this quartet raised its bows to meet with an unfussed technique and elegance of tone. Haydn’s not-so-well-known number 4 of the six opus 33 string quartets can be a tough way to begin a concert because it frisks into life without preamble and tends to take the listener by surprise; it’s a light hearted piece altogether, albeit with a heartbreakingly lovely largo, then ends with a touch of typically Haydenesque quirky wit. The Doric captured it all. And it’s wonderful to see a viola that was once played by Benjamin Britten in the slender hands of Helene Clement. I have a personal fondness for this work and have not often had the chance to hear it performed live.
Brett Dean, who now lives and works mostly in Europe, composed his third piece for string quartets to celebrate his relationship with the Doric and the 2019 Musica Viva touring season has been its premiere. It is inspired by today’s socio-political events and we are told in the program notes that while the quartet was very excited by this five-movement work, members were at first a bit “scared” by it. No surprises there – it’s full of sound and fury and shocking contrasts and in one movement the musicians even have to wipe the rosin from their bows to create a “whispery” sound that comes close to silence.
Hidden Agendas challenged the audience almost as much as it did the players – but it’s a mark of Brisbane’s increasing sophistication that this composition was greeted by warm applause. In truth this is not a string quartet which I would buy and listen to at home. In younger years I determinedly embraced all things new in the arts – from the novels of James Joyce to cubism to Philip Glass’ minimalist melodic pulses. Today I need music to charm, soothe, stimulate, excite, exalt – with melody and harmony. I ask myself why it is that pretty well all serious music since early in the last century has to make a socio-political statement. And, when it does, why it can’t do so as beautifully as Beethoven did it! Of course I understand that music must move on and change, or we’d be stuck with Monteverdi forever! And I would not deny the right of any composer to take us to new places – just as I would not deny myself the privilege of not having to go there if they don’t appeal! So many of today’s composers use their talents to vent their anger and show us how ugly the world is – the antithesis of what music means to me, and to many others. Which is why La Traviata packs houses today and the Australian bicentennial opera Voss does not, despite its undoubted musical virtues. And why Mozart sonatas are as popular today as they ever were and will remain so for the next couple of hundred years – and longer. Assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then! (Small wonder, now I come to think of it, that today’s composers seem so angry. Those of yesteryear lived through far tougher times but they were free to seek inspiration from a natural world that seemed eternal; not faced with its exponential destruction as we are today!).
Anyway, back to Hidden Agendas and an admission that when I read those words in the program I inwardly groaned! Oh, one of THOSE titles, I thought! However – and this is admission number two – on stage, live, Brett Dean’s five-movement string quartet was certainly an experience I wouldn’t have missed. At times, an exciting one, though if the charming cellist John Myerscough hadn’t told us what it was all about I doubt many of us would have known just from the music! Visually, it held interest because of the physical demands it made of the performers…the two women have long hair, one dark, one very blond and I found myself mesmerised by all those flying tresses! And the four bows, likewise flying and flowing from the highest shriek to the merest whisper. I thought of the horses’ tails from which hanks of hair were carefully selected to become the vital touchpoint between stick and string. Thought of those horses galloping in the wind, tails streaming. This is not what I was supposed to be thinking about while Brett Dean’s earnest and disturbing work was in progress but perhaps he wouldn’t mind because though his music appeared to stretch all that compacted horsehair to its limit it did, I believe, show a wonderful confidence that the Doric four would be able to take what he had heard in his head, and written into his score, and bring all its edgy extremes to dynamic life. As indeed they did! And the audience loved it!
Finally for the night came the Beethoven which has posed a very different sort of challenge to string players since 1826, because of its revolutionary seven movements without a break between. It’s a mighty work with much delightful musical conversation between individual instruments. And so “modern” in parts that you can scarcely believe it was written nearly 200 years ago. It takes, I believe, four very mature and assured musicians, fully confident in one another’s skills, to perform this well. Somebody compared it to a tapestry but it makes ME think of the beautiful hand-loomed carpets crated by a friend of mine, rich with texture and colours that ought to clash and yet don’t because they are so skilfully woven together. There is one little bit that I especially like, where the cello and viola exchange a bit of dialogue that is like the warm exchange between two friends who are surprised and pleased to see each other after a long time apart.
Altogether a wonderful evening of chamber music with four splendid performers able to give us something new in their interpretation of familiar works while also helping us come to grips with something new.