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Aus Ensemble: what we’ve been up to

December 18, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I called my Australia Ensemble colleagues to see how we’re all getting along, and to find out what we’ve been up to in this strangest of years. 

GEOFF

A very chipper, cheery Geoff appears on my phone screen. It’s really good to see him after so long. We agree immediately that we are both fine and well, enjoying a year without a single bout of cold or flu, a welcome but unexpected blessing. “In Adelaide, we largely escaped the restrictions that Melbourne had,” he tells me. “Masks were recommended but not enforced, and life has been fine, despite the restrictions.”

Since March, when we last came together as an ensemble in person, we have had to meet as a group via Zoom to discuss planning and contingencies for 2020 and 2021, tasks faced by individuals and organisations across Australia and, indeed, the world. Sonia and Paul have led us through the pandemic mess with what I’d call ‘realistic optimism’, a quality that Geoff has always shown in abundance.

“It’s interesting — I’ve felt quite good about being in reduced circumstances. I’ve been enjoying bush-walking, cooking, being calmer, being more self-reliant and solitary. I’ve always valued my time alone, and when I walk, I tend to choose paths away from the well-trodden ones.” It’s a sentiment that resonates for a Munro. We, too, love our time alone, although we’re never really alone when we’re joined by our imaginations. 

At Easter, on such a solitary foray into the Adelaide Hills, Geoff tells me that he exercised his talent for misadventure, another trait that I share, and tripped over a tree root. “It wasn’t the first root that did the damage; it was the way it caused me to fall onto a second, which tore into my hand.” Holding up his left palm, he shows me the eleven-stitch scar he didn’t have when I last saw him. “Blood was streaming out of it and I had to get back to my car, two hours away, and find an emergency department. I knew that Adelaide General would be full with people getting Covid tests, so I went to a private hospital, which was completely empty.” The doctor pulled back the flap of skin and cleaned out the wound of all the debris. “‘Do you want to see it?’ he asked me. I picked a spot on the wall…” It goes without saying that I’m very glad to know that the injury was relatively superficial, even though it must have hurt like billy-o.

We are chatting on Saturday 14 November. Tonight is the opening night of Richard Mills’ marvellous opera based on Ray Lawler’s ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. Geoff is excited at the prospect of getting into the newly-refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre for live performances.

“We lost a lot of performances this year, including a Beethoven symphony cycle, although we managed to put on the violin concerto with Natsuko (Yoshimoto) and the Emperor with Konstantin (Shamray). Natsuko has also curated a chamber music series, a venture that the musicians really appreciated and one that we’re keen to continue after things return to normal. A germ out of necessity, you might say.”

After a three-month hiatus, sectional orchestral rehearsals began again in socially-distanced mode, which entailed carefully-measured seating by way of 1.5m measuring sticks. “The best arrangement we found was to sit in a big circle facing each other. We’ve tried the plastic flute guards, which work well but look a bit hilarious.” Designed for outdoor flute-playing, the ingeniously simple wrap-around clear plastic thingummies prevent a strong wind either from making the flute sound of its own accord or counteracting the flutist’s breathing. “I was once playing down at the Four Winds Festival and the wind against me was so strong that I couldn’t make a noise at all.” Those of you who have ventured to Bermagui for that lovely festival will be well-acquainted with the effect of the sometimes blustery weather, and the discomfiture of the musicians as they struggle to keep music on stands, something that has been helped with the advent of the ipad.

“One of the biggest disappointments has been the unavoidable cancellation of the annual Christmas Pageant, which I remember as a boy.” An Adelaide fixture of some 87 years’ standing, its notable statistics include the 2010 world record for most carol singers. It begs the question: can 9100 carol singers really evoke a silent night? Adelaide does have its own unique style, Geoff tells me. “Where Melbourne might have at one time suffered from an inferiority complex with regard to its status, Adelaide has probably seen itself as more self-sufficient, more satisfied with having avoided some of the excesses of Australia’s larger cities. Then again, as an outsider, I see a darker mood in Melbourne, something more brooding, and that can be both a good and a bad thing.” I think Geoff has nailed something there. An astute social observer.

I ask Geoff to identify some of the highlights of the year so far. “Early on, when we had to come up with things we could do ‘virtually’, the ASO celebrated National Reconciliation Week with a new recording of Nancy Bates’ song ‘Ruby’ about Ruby Hunter, the wonderful Ngarrindjeri musician who was also Archie Roach’s life partner.” Such a stand-out contribution is typical of the ASO and, indeed, Geoff himself, showing how much can still be achieved when the chips are down. Read more about the project here:

And watch the performance with Nancy Bates, Geoff, Dean and Jackie Newcomb here:

DIMITY & JULIAN

“Two weeks ago, we performed our first Goldner Quartet live concert since the pandemic restrictions began, and it felt great,” says Julian enthusiastically. “It was a Morning Masters concert at Chatswood for Musica Viva, with two new pieces for us, a Mendelssohn quartet (op.12) and a new work by young Sydney composer Christine Pan.”

I’m struggling not to be envious, since my own recital in the same series, scheduled for June 17, was cancelled as part of the pandemic response. A relaxed and comfortable Dimity and Julian join me on Zoom, the telephone for today, and I notice that Dimity has the sniffles. “It’s not Covid,” she assures me, “it’s just a cold. Goodness knows how I got it, as I’ve been wearing a mask most of the time.” Immediately, my mask theory is shattered. Not having had a cold over the entire year, I concluded that, however effective or ineffective against Covid19 they may be, they sure work against colds.

“Otherwise, we’ve been well. I’ve been running and cycling,” says Julian, “and in the beginning, you could literally run down the middle of some of the busiest roads in Sydney, there was so little traffic. It was very nice.” I know that Julian is a keen swimmer, as we’ve either swum together in places like Townsville, during the chamber music festival, or compared notes about pools and beaches around the country. Swimmers are like that. “I’ve been swimming at the Des Renford pool lately, since it re-opened and it’s beautiful.” Pools here in Melbourne have been re-opening too, but I’ve yet to take the plunge. Not only is it not yet very warm, but the anxiety of face-to-face heavy breathing is a powerful dampener on enthusiasm. Once our 25km restriction is lifted, I’ve said to myself, I’ll be down the Peninsula and in the bay again.

“Alex is a bit of a gym junkie and got me to go to the gym with him at one point,” adds Dimity. “It was fun but didn’t last. I’ve spent a huge amount of time overseeing the renovations to our house in Mollymook. I’m not sure we would have embarked on it if we’d known what a huge undertaking it would be.” I asked why it had become such a major operation. “The walls had to be moved, for a start, and a new roof put on. Mind you, we were the ones who wanted the walls moved,” replies Julian. They paint a beguiling picture of a haven, ready for the day when the slow-down in performing begins and a more permanent move down the coast beckons. “But not yet! We’ve got a lot of playing to do before then,” they both agree.

At first, the lockdowns and cancellations were bewildering, depressing, difficult, and Dimity put down the violin altogether. “I felt a bit lost, to be honest. What was the point of practising when there was no concert to practise for? There was a certain numbness that lasted several weeks. Some time after that, I started to enjoy having the time off.” Julian never stopped practising, he tells me, “because if I don’t play for a few weeks, I’m in trouble with the callouses getting soft.” It’s a cello thing, believe me. I will never forget my cello teacher Henri Touzeau ramming the side of my left hand thumb against the C string and shoving it up and down along the finger board. ‘Thumb position’ is the basis on which all high work rests in cello playing, and the calloused thumb is the foundation on which the poor cellists hand rests. “I also felt that I had to remain in practice for my students. I haven’t had a break from teaching at all, since everything continued via Zoom lessons. Now that we’re back teaching in person, it feels as if everyone appreciates it all the more, and the younger musicians are very keen and positive about everything. It’s been great to see. They’ve been asking about competitions and opportunities, generally overjoyed to be back in the studio.” I can imagine. Those students lucky enough to have Julian as their teacher could not hope for a more dedicated, expert mentor.

Is there anything you’ve missed? “We don’t miss the travelling!” they both answer. “And the dogs have loved it. Even Woofy, who hasn’t had a great year.” Woofie, the Smiles’s 16 year-old Cavoodle, rules the roost at home and, despite multiple health issues, is one of those cheerful dogs who is pleased and happy with life if it involves a modicum of attention.

For some reason, we end the conversation with a comparison of recurring nightmares. Mine and Julian’s are quite similar, evolving from anxiety about being ready and equipped. “I find myself standing in the wings, about to go on. ‘You’re on — here’s your trombone!’ someone tells me…” Mine also involves being in the wings. I’m in a play, trying to tell them I’m not an actor. “You’ll be fine,” they say. “I haven’t read the script!” “You’ll be fine.” “I haven’t got any clothes on!” I wake up abruptly.

“I don’t really have recurring nightmares,” says Dimity. “At least, not when I’m asleep.” We agree that, when the 2020 nightmare is over, it will be lovely to meet again as an ensemble and play onstage in Clancy. I think we all have a renewed sense of how lucky we are to have each other as colleagues and how much we have gained from making music together. Roll on, 2021.

DAVE

Dave, typically, is running around doing a million things this afternoon but, also typically, creates space for me, in between setting up a Zoom meeting for daughter Nina and her friends, and rushing off for something else.

“Nina and I have spent a lot more time together this year. I mean, real time, rather than just the time we would spend driving to and from after-school activities. Every weekend we make some elaborate cake, since Nina got into baking, and I’m her assistant. Last one was a seven-layer Halloween cake with fondant and ghosts… We fought over it but came out of it still friends.”

For Dave, recently appointed Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium, teaching this year has been via Zoom, like virtually everyone else, and it has brought challenges and positives. “To tell you the truth, I’ve come to prefer it now, after not liking it at all to begin with. Apart from the basic problem of not being able to deal with tone very well, I like it a lot, now that I’m set up with good speakers and microphone, I can organise myself with scores and optimal set up at home. I’m not driving for two hours a day in and out of Melbourne, so I can actually spend more time with students, which they also like.”

Adjusting to delivering online what has traditionally been done face-to-face is a recurring theme this year. For Dave, the online environment has meant exploring relationships far and wide, engaging international teachers to give masterclasses where travel expenses previously would have been prohibitive, and being able to reciprocate with teaching into courses overseas. “I do feel for the First Years. It’s harder for them than the older students.” Why, I ask? “I’d normally spend a lot of time setting them up, correcting embouchure, refining their air. That’s much harder to do at a distance. It’s also been harder for them not mixing with other students in class, learning from being with and hearing others. We’ll definitely keep some of this when things return to normal, though.”

By now, everyone is aware that Victoria in general, and Melbourne in particular, has been hardest hit among the states, and our lockdown was harder than it has been elsewhere, and has lasted longer. Dave and I live 2km apart as the magpie flies but have not seen each other since July 31, when we gave a recital together at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series. “That first lockdown was novel — excuse the pun — and kind of exciting. Setting up online schooling for Nina, online teaching. We quickly seemed to get on top of things, came out of it in June and you and I did that concert in July, wonderful to do something like that that we took for granted before. All of a sudden, it felt like ‘Oh my God this is amazing!’ Then the second lockdown came, which felt much more severe. For me, I almost didn’t leave the house, didn’t go anywhere. Nina found school much harder.”

Family life was curtailed in some ways: two birthdays went by without guests. On the other hand, there were positives. “Svetlana and I pretty much stopped playing for a while, which felt really nice. Extra time was focused on students and family. I had more time and energy than usual, and Svetlana and I went for a run together every afternoon, talking and enjoying each other’s company. We now look forward to it, and she said to me the other day ‘This is quite nice. Can we continue to do this and not go back to the way it was before?’ There’s also been a nice feeling in Melbourne in many ways. We still have the ‘STAY SAFE’ sign Nina and a friend drew on the front fence.”

It’s true. Around the suburb, children have festooned their nature strips with Spoonvilles, staged teddy bears’ picnics and chalked hopscotch diagrams on the pavements, along with encouraging morale-boosting messages. The disappearance of tetchy school-pickup SUV drivers, honking their horns at any and every minor irritation along Elgar Road and Burwood Highway, has been a brief blessing. Swapping gym and pool for circumscribed walks throughout the suburb, noticing and sniffing the many varieties of roses, has been a nostril opener.

“It’s great to be opening up again now, to teach our first classes, albeit strictly socially distanced. I’m curating a Chamber Music Intensive for two weeks in December, so it’s a bit strange to be gearing up for that at a time when I’d normally be winding down for the year.” Dave is also gearing up for a final Ensemble Liaison concert for MDCH on Wednesday 25 November. “We’re a bit on tenterhooks. We commissioned a new work by John Novacek. It’s been coming in bits and pieces and we still haven’t seen the whole piece yet. The concert’s only ten days away…” It is indeed a concert to look forward to. Beethoven’s Trio op.11, a Liaison favourite, and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons bookend the world premiere of Novacek’s ‘Trio Marlenita’. Novacek is a concert pianist of formidable ability who loves a good rag. Listen to his charming ‘4th Street Drag’ here:

DENE & IRENA

Dene and Irena join the Zoom meeting via ipad as they make their way to the music room, taking me on a tour of the house in Newtown until we all plump down on the sofa. It’s good to see them looking so well and cheerful.

“Do you want go first or shall I?” asks Dene. Irena looks meaningful. “That means she’s going first.”

“It took a while to get over the shock of it,” says Irena huskily. “Instruments got packed away and practice abruptly stopped. It was hard to grapple with —  something you do your entire life, taken away. It took a while to get over it.” We had all last met up in March, playing the one and only Australia Ensemble concert of 2020 on Saturday 14th, just as the Covid situation was quickly getting serious and a day before UNSW shut down. 

“After that, it became quite enjoyable, almost like a sabbatical. We spent more time in the garden, doing family things. Even cleaning cupboards was pleasurable. Another thing we did was to take advantage of the extra time to connect with friends and family here and overseas. The enforced time off also meant that I was able to have a second necessary operation and not feel pressured into recovering as quickly as possible because of concerts coming up. I could recover as slowly as it took, and now it’s actually helped with playing.”

Dene is in a reflective mood. “When I look back, considering I’ve now been in the profession 43 years, when I left Juilliard I hit the ground running with my first paid gigs and haven’t stopped ever since. It felt like leaving Juilliard was the beginning of a new, crucial period of training, learning all the things we weren’t taught during the course, how to survive, manage. I was always jealous of my father, who, apart from being a fine musician, was also able to build a kitchen, fix a car. I couldn’t do those things. During this restricted year, I’ve been happy as Larry doing things around the house, painting the bedroom, learning some basic plumbing, doing stuff in the garden, trying to learn Italian. Nikolai has been at home, coping in his own way, at his own speed. I’ve been enjoying helping him with an online computer course. Suddenly I’ve had the time for all these things.”

I’m interested in whatever else Dene might have done this year that he might not have done in normal times. “Well, I had to get my motorbike license.” Had to? “Yes. We bought a purple Fonzarelli motor scooter. We call it the Flying Eggplant.” I’m tempted to enquire whether this is Dene revisiting his early years as a driver of a hot little red sports car. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Olding look in the flesh.

“Of course, we’ve felt very privileged to be in the position we are in, owning our own home and reasonably comfortable. It would be very different if we were in our thirties. It’s been tough for younger people, and music is a tough profession anyway.”

Now that things have started up again, what have you been doing? “We played for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall in the Clancy auditorium and at the Cell Block Theatre. On November 4 we played our first live concert since lockdown, a Morning Masters for Musica Viva at Chatswood. The audience numbers were greatly reduced but just hearing the murmur of real live people again was thrilling. It reminded us what a big difference there is between playing to an empty hall and the warmth of people.”

We all suspect that it will take a long time for things to return to normal, if there ever was such a thing. “Some people have told us how much they like the online concerts, appreciating avoiding the hassle of travel and perhaps the added choice of being able to listen to a concert online rather than having to make the decision either to go or to miss it. So that may be something we look at adopting long term as a way of augmenting our live offering.”

“Although,” adds Irena, “we all know what an inhibiting effect the microphone has. There’s nothing like playing live to an audience, knowing that it’s not going to be played back twenty years from now, perhaps critiqued. Being live isn’t just a thrill for an audience, it’s liberating for players too.”

We all want to play live again. We’ve missed it. We’ve missed each other and we’ve missed you too, loyal subscribers. We’re looking forward to seeing you all again as soon as we can, and we’re very thankful that UNSW has been such a champion of and supporter of our music-making for such a long time, and now at such a difficult time.

As for me, what have I been doing? Well, I played the 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven between April and June, a recital with my friend Dave in July and another solo recital of children’s music in October as a tribute to my much-missed friend Geoffrey Tozer, who loved children’s music and was quite a man-child himself. I wrote a piano sonata during the months of August and September and in October completed a commission for 3.5 seconds of music to illustrate an animated logo for a project collecting interviews of 100 year-old Australians. Like my colleagues, I’ve found much to worry about this year but at least at much for which to be thankful. I have been learning about caring for apple trees (I have a dwarf snow apple and another Cox’s Orange Pippin, coming along nicely after being savaged by the possum a while ago). I have been cooking and baking a lot and looking after mum, who fell and broke her wrist in September. Zoom, Skype, Messenger, Facetime have all been put to good use catching up with friends around the world, and tonight I spoke with my three closest school friends, all together for the first time in around twenty-five years, from Melbourne to Karlstad and Barcelona. What a strange time it’s been for us all, but such a lot to enjoy and look forward to.

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