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Exciting time ahead for the Australia Ensemble

December 19, 2013

Two weeks ago, a dinner was held at the University of NSW to celebrate the enormous contribution made by Emeritus Professor Roger Covell AM, outgoing Artistic Chair of the Australia Ensemble. Music was played, including Roger’s own Fanfare, a choral serenade from the Burgundian Consort led by Sonia Maddock, and a movement from a Haydn Symphony from the Australia Ensemble. Old friends were reuinted, wine and food were enjoyed and speeches were made, not least the speech made by the guest of honour, in the form of “a few brief words”, in Roger’s inimitable style.

Having joined the ensemble in 2000 after a year’s exchange with the previous pianist David Bollard in 1998, I am still a relative newcomer at a mere fifteen years of service, or fourteen if you insist they be consecutive. Such a period pales in comparison with Roger’s 47 years of service to the university and, listening to his speech, which covered aspects of his career at UNSW from the beginnings of the music department, through the years of UNSW Opera, to the formation of the Aus Ensemble and beyond, I was struck by how much I hadn’t known. Among the tales, generously and humorously embellished by Roger, was the tribute paid to former Chancellor of UNSW Gordon Samuels, also a former Governor of NSW, between whose sassy and delightful wife and daughter I was fortuitously seated at dinner. Much has always been made of the role of Roger and Murray Khouri, founding clarinettist of the ensemble, who conceived the notion of a resident musical group and advocated for its inception, but Roger was explicit in his praise for the role of Gordon, who worked the university ropes to ensure that it happened, for which we can all be grateful. So often, valuable ventures in the arts and other fields can grow or wither, depending on the efforts of one or two gifted, insightful people of energy and integrity. That this happened in 1980, and was subsequently supported and nurtured, can be largely attributable to Roger and Gordon, although there are many other people to thank for their generosity over the years. The fundraising efforts of the UCommittee were extraordinarily generous, as were the contributions of members of our now defunct advisory committee, who gave of their time and expertise without exception, freely and enthusiastically.

When Roger dropped his bombshell earlier this year, we were both surprised and unsurprised. Such a long time with us has left an indelible mark, and I will miss the gravelly, considered tones at meetings as we were gently advised, chided, congratulated, questioned, prodded and, from time to time, bemused. A hard act to follow, that one. So, we do not intend for it to be followed, exactly, and have split Roger’s former role into two: Publications Specialist, who will produce all of our programmes and supporting literature; and Artistic Chair, who will take responsibility for chairing the artistic processes, including programming and artistic review, among other things.

Change is good, but we are all nervous of it until it doesn’t feel so much like change any more.

Happy Christmas, all .

New projects

December 9, 2013

A bit of a flurry of activity lately, what with Australia Council grants to be applied for and a 2014 diary to fill. It’s been a while since I did anything about getting my Arthur Benjamin series with Tall Poppies going again, so I’m pleased to say that we have put together a programme and gathered a gang of magnificent colleagues to record a new disc next year. Grant outcomes are notoriously difficult to predict, so it’s possible that, should we not be successful, I will be looking to setting up a Pozible fundraiser. Somehow, the thing will happen: to that end, I am determined.

For those who haven’t been subjected to my enthusiasm for Arthur Benjamin (1893—1960), let me give the background, in brief. ‘Benjy’, as he was known to his friends, was a Sydney-born, Brisbane-educated pianist and composer, who left for London in 1911 and, after fighting in the First World War, made a career first as a distinguished pianist and teacher, and gradually established himself as a composer. During the 1930s, he worked alongside his former piano pupil Muir Matheson at Gaumont, producing a substantial body of film music. Scores from this period include both ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ films, along with Hitchcock’s first version of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much.’ For an extensive biography, I will upload the one I wrote for my defunct website.

In previous projects, I recorded most of his piano music, with the exception of an early ‘Novelette’ and the late ‘Etudes Improvisées’, both of which I will be recording for the current project. The second disc was devoted to chamber music with piano, featuring the sonatinas for cello and violin, the viola sonata and other works.

For this third CD, we collect the songs (to be sung by the bewitching Sara MacLiver), remaining piano pieces and two early chamber works, held by the British Library in manuscript. Benjamin’s earliest surviving major work is the ‘Clarinet Quintett in C minor’ [sic], dating from 1914. The manuscript shows evidence of having been used in performance, although I have no details of the event, but the piece has not been performed, in any case, for great many years, and remains unrecorded. In typesetting it, as I am doing right now, for a performance by Cathy McCorkill and strings in our Australia Ensemble series next year, I am loving its Brahmsian ardour, its more ethereal Elgar-like touches, and enjoying getting to know a younger and developing Benjy, having become used to his more refined and slightly more taut and wizened later style. Cathy will record it with a quartet comprising four of my favourite players: Natsuko Yoshimoto and Wilma Smith (violins), Imants Larsens (viola) and David Pereira (cello).

Finally, an intriguing Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, a work he wrote while interned in Karlsruhe camp during the final year of the war. After repatriation, he returned to Australia in 1919 and 1920, before settling back in London for almost the rest of his life (he spent most of WWII in Vancouver). It was then that he performed the sonata in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, to at least one admiring review. 2014 will be a bumper year for the sonata, which has not been heard for almost one hundred years. A performance on May 11 at next years Canberra Festival, although not qualifying as the Australian premiere it is claiming to be, will be a very welcome addition to an imaginative programme of music written during the time of war.

The other project? Oh yes… My three piano trios. Each will be recorded by the ensemble for whom it was written. Having recently premiered my second trio ‘A Book of Lullabies’ at the Huntington Festival, I’m glad to confirm that my colleagues Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles have agreed to record it next May. It was commissioned, along with my third trio ‘Ein Altdeutsches Liederbuch’, by the lovely John and Jo Strutt, who were at Huntington for the premiere and who are a pleased as punch that my friends Helena Rathbone (of the Australian Chamber Orchestra) and Howard Penny (of ANAM) will join me to premiere and record it in 2014. The series was set in motion back in 2007 by Chris Marshall in Christchurch, who commissioned my first trio ‘Tales of Old Russia’, which was extensively toured by the Eggner Trio in 2011.

Roll on 2014!

Roger Smalley

July 30, 2013

An article about Roger’s Variations on a theme of Chopin for the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate magazine.

Asia Pacific Music Competition 2013

July 9, 2013

The Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition has just begun here in Melbourne, and I’m looking forward to listening to the first session in just under an hour’s time. Last night, after the hubbub of drinks, nibbles, introductions, shoulder-rubbing, speeches and gossip, we were treated to a performance by the energetic T’ang Quartet from Singapore, playing music by Bright Sheng, Peter Sculthorpe, Hu Xiao-Ou and Frangiz Ale Zadeh. Of these, I knew only the 8th string quartet by Sculthorpe, a powerful and fascinating work. I’d certainly be interested to delve into more of Sheng’s chamber music on the strength of his 3rd quartet, whose most appealing aspects were its capacity expansively to mould time and its elegaic and rather haunting conclusion, despite the torso of the work being a bit long and meandering, to my ears.

My felow jurors, chaired by the exquisite Wilma Smith, are an accomplished and pleasant bunch of fine human beings, representing our cousins over the water (Euan Murdoch, New Zealand), our Adelaide friends (Natsuko Yoshimoto), our brilliant expats (Li-Wei Qin) and a new friend from Shanghai, Professor Jensen Horn-Sin Lam. 

Better get my tie straightened and head for where the action is. May the show commence!

All session details here

clarinet quintet

June 7, 2013

My clarinet quintet Songs from the Bush was given a beautiful performance in Kangaroo Valley at the ‘Valley Dreaming’ concert on May 5. I must thank clarinettist David Rowden for his care and attention in getting to know what I was attempting to do with this piece, especially as it is far from being an extrovert virtuoso vehicle for the soloist. He was sensitively supported, framed, chorused by four esteemed and wonderful colleagues, every one of them an exceptional soloist in their own right. My sincere thanks to Natsuko Yoshimoto and her husband Imants Larsens (violins), Roger Benedict (viola) and my old friend David Pereira (cello) for making me very happy, as well as reassured. You never quite believe that your music is any good until someone comes along and seems to believe in it more than you do.

Congratulations, too, to Belinda Webster and the team for another remarkable festival unlike any other.


reviewing the review

November 15, 2011

2011 has been a fantastic year. I’ve heard more of my own music than ever before, and have had a great time, being flown around the country, meeting so many music lovers, making so many musical friends and enjoying the company of such talented colleagues. This is not in any way meant to be a carping blog but there is something curious about the coverage in one quarter that has puzzled me for some time and I think it is all right to share my thoughts, because it is an area that affects many artists and is very difficult to address without either becoming frustrated at one’s powerlessness or overreacting. Simply explaining it and inviting reflections from others seems a valid thing to do.

By 2008, I had noticed that a prominent reviewer in the Age newspaper in Melbourne seemed to have begun to ignore my performances. If I took part in a concert, my contribution would not be mentioned; if I gave a solo concert, it would be overlooked. I assumed I was simply being oversensitive. Anyway, arts reviews are hanging onto their place in our media by their fingernails, so it might well have been the result of quite reasonable sub editing. Then, by June 2009, I noticed that my compositions were receiving the same treatment, for reasons that remain unclear. Even when a concert including one of my works was reviewed, all works except mine would be addressed. Since my piece Black is the Night was played by the ACO in June that year, no mention of my work has been made. I noted this in my blog entry and included a link to the review by Clive O’Connell at the time. I did wonder what it meant, and began to be curious about how my year’s contribution to Musica Viva’s national programme in 2011 would be reported.

As it happens, it has been widely reported and I’m more than delighted by the opportunity, the wonderful performances, the chance to meet so many people, and of course just to hear so much of my music for the first time. The press coverage has been extensive, almost overwhelming, and generally very positive. In light of this, the continuing boycott by O’Connell is, I suppose, a minor thing, but it is still a mystery. The latest review is a good example. In May, the Brentano String Quartet played my first string quartet. This is what O’Connell had to say.

It has now been three years since I was mentioned in this particular column, and I have been involved in something like twenty Melbourne concerts during that time. Elsewhere, the coverage has been pretty much as one would expect. Melbourne is my home town. It’s a great city and a lot of superb art events happen there, supported by a music-loving, art-mad cultured community, who not only want to enjoy their art to the full, but are proud of their local artists and expect them at least to be given a look-in and critiqued by those in the local media who are paid to do that.

People are starting to ask me about it and I cannot tell them anything, except just to keep coming to the concerts and to enjoy them! The rest is beyond our control but we can, at least, remark on it, can’t we?

how to write a piano quintet

July 8, 2011

Relief. Quintet finished. I sip tea and reflect on notes and meaning.

It’s a haiku. Well not really, because there should be something about nature in it and also it’s laughably boring and solipsistic. But we are a musician after all, and self-reference is a big part of our daily ritual.

It is true: relief, the quintet is complete, in draft, and has been despatched to players for perusal and comment. Did I mention relief already?

Almost every questionnaire and interview I have entertained over the last year has posed a question about writers’ block, and I suppose it is the converse of that perennial fascination we have for ‘where artists get their ideas’. Where do the ideas go when artists are not getting them? Neither is easy to answer. Nor is the question, “What do composers do when it happens?” which, I suspect, is where the real interest lies. This year, although it might appear that the idea fairy has been kind to me, it is actually very much not the case. I don’t blame the fairy. I blame me. However embellished or romanticised the histories are, it is undeniable that Mozart and Beethoven, and a host of others, would simply not have written all they did if they waited until they were happy and well, and most great artists have a great talent for one thing before all others: hard work. Not sure my talent in this area is even in the ball park, but we shuffle along, don’t we? I have to say, this year has been helped along by some wonderful friends, and I am very grateful to them.

Elsewhere, I have said something about my first piano quintet, written in 2005 for my friends in the Flinders Quartet. It was intended for a tour we were to do together but a serious road accident in May 2006 put paid to that plan, and the lovely Caroline Almonte replaced me, on that and several other occasions. The work is a little unusual in its sequence of eight relatively brief movements, ordered so as to follow a day in the life of Erik Satie, from his waking and eating breakfast in the form of an egg and preparing for bed with a final cigar… In a way, I was thinking along the lines of a Graham Greene ‘entertainment’, like Travels with my Aunt: composers often like to write in serious and less serious modes.

The second quintet is a little less flippant. Well, not flippant at all. The piece has been formed from two earlier works, reworked and rearranged. The first movement is based on Dreams, my single-movement piano concerto from 2003, which featured at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. The second is more loosely built on Drought and Night Rain, a tone poem I wrote for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Both works, in their different ways, allude to Judith Wright, fast becoming my main musical inspiration, and ironic too, considering her well-known antipathy towards musical settings of her poetry. In Dreams, though, it is really more of a personal response to her poetic world than any ‘setting’ of particular poems, and the opening theme, which pervades the piece in various transformations, was actually suggested years ago when I first began sketches in London. My wife Helen was busy at the time, working as a repetiteur on the Royal Opera House’s ‘Garden Venture’, a scheme to promote newly composed miniature operas, and our friend Jeannie Marsh was staying with us, cramming for a performance of a striking example by the (then) young British composer Luke Stoneham. His interesting use of long melismas and false relations set me thinking, and in some ways, Dreams was what came of it.

Some years passed between the first sketches for Dreams and its premiere in Brussels, and a whole period of my life in Tasmania came and went in the interim. So, looking back, it constitutes quite a journey for me, and I learned much along the way. When I came to write Drought and Night Rain, I had mapped it out as part of a projected symphony, just as Dreams is intended, still, as the first movement of a piano concerto. Anthony Peluso, then AA at the TSO, invited me for a three-year residency and I leapt at the opportunity to wrote a great big symphony. Silly boy. Australian composers do not write symphonies! They write little overture-y bits and 13-minute Australia Council-funded first-half fillers. Obviously, some symphonies do get written, but very few, and if I sound sarcastic, I apologise. It matters not: when the fairy returns, I will try to finish both the concerto and the symphony, which exist in scattered sketches all over the house.

There are some questions about this quintet that will be answered in performance, I imagine. Dreams  was such a breakthrough for me, in its language and its structure, that I consciously borrowed both aspects in writing Drought, not imagining that they would ever meet. Are they too alike, then? I don’t think so. They both begin and end quietly, with rocking, harmonically ambiguous figures and build to crisis-like climaxes. Not only that, but some of the orchestral sonorities, like the appearance of the frogs and crickets right at the end, are difficult to emulate with the restricted resources of a piano quintet, even with the application of frog guiros and a rainstick or two. We shall see. In other ways, there might be advantages. No matter how much I clarified the original score, and how careful the conductor Gilbert Varga was with dynamics, the piano solo part of Dreams does get almost completely swallowed up towards the end of the nightmarish toccata. To my satisfaction, I should add! Somehow, it stands as an emblem of the solo pianist’s role: heroically battling the tide; in the 19th century, conquering; in the 20th, something else.

Who will win in the quintet? Come along and find out.

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