Sunday, July 26, 2015

Going for Stradbroke ... the story of a Piano and his friends


Saturday morning on ‘Straddie’ dawned bright and fair, as we tucked up our sleeves ready for some serious Festivalling. Four concerts in two days. Well, there were actually five, but Bach with Birdsong and Breakfast from 8am was a little matinal for me …

Yesterday, I thought, was going to be a hard act to follow. Oh, yes?

The Point Lookout Hall is even better in the sunshine. With the doors flung open, the sun glittering on the sea through the coastal mangrove trees, behind the piano, the scene made a fairytale atmosphere for music. And the first half of the programme was chosen, I am sure, in function. Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Songs of Sea and Sky’ is a clarinet and piano piece, in six sections, which takes the Torres Strait Island of Saibai – somewhere out there beyond the waves -- for its inspiration. A fair reference to the ‘Straddie’ situation, where the aboriginal people make up an important part of the population. But was this 1987 piece, written for an academic situation, going to be pretentious? approachable? enjoyable? Easy answer: it is not at all pretentious. It is totally approachable, and, as played by Irit Silver (‘I am the token wind-player’) and Liam Viney, with a lovely little obbligato by an unscheduled, passing kookaburra, I found it wholly enjoyable. And thanks to the combination of subject and situation, a perfect choice for a sunny afternoon concert in the ocean.

Before part two, we had a kind of entr’acte. The grand piano for the Festival has to be brought on the ferry, like us, from the mainland. But the concerts are held in three different venues, so he has to be ever so carefully moved by the expert team of Nigel Bland and wife, from hall to hall. Now, his contribution finished for the morning, it was time for him to go. So our interval entertainment was ‘how to strip and carry away a grand piano’. Much applause.

Part 2 of our concert was the ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet of Schubert. It’s thus called because it uses a portion of the composer’s famous song in its second movement. This one I had heard before. Well, I know its mostly in minor keys, with death and madness references (I read the programme note) but it is in no way morbid or depressing. It is simply quite, quite beautiful. And as played, in the undeathly sunshine by the outstanding quartet of players (Rowell/Smith/Henbest/de Wit), with the wonderful Sophie Rowell’s violin soaring, whispering, fairy-stepping along on top, it was a truly a moving experience. Grand. Fullstop.

Time to grab something to eat – alas, the islands eateries are, it seems, mostly of the fish ‘n’ chips and burger styles – feet up for thirty, and then off to our 5.30 date at the Point Lookout Surf Club. Tonight, we were in for something altogether different. A tango concert. Yes, an entire evening of tango. Why? I thought. The answer was soon obvious. The hall was packed to the rafters, with a waiting list-queue for returns, there were people sitting on the bar staircase. And huge enthusiasm was the keynote of the evening. The other reason was the star of the evening. Cyril Garac, the violinist who had made such a success in the Chausson, is a tango specialist.

Mons Garac is a host in himself. Tall, dark and sparkling, with a great stage presence and a perfect Maurice Chevalier accent, he would make a great television host. A violin-playing Sascha Distel. He rolled the evening along deliciously, to the audience’s delight, from one tango to another, ably assisted by Sydney’s Maggie Ferguson on the bandoneon, a grown-up kind of concertina which is really at the base of the ‘true’ tango.
And with the superb soloists of the morning music as a kind of ‘backing group’! A very democratic Festival, this!

I am going to have to grouch about something soon, so I’ll make it now. There was too much talk. Either we have a concert, with minimal talking and lots of music, or we have a musically-illustrated lecture. I would have liked the latter (I began to get rather tired of tango rhythms by the second half), but I think most of the audience would have preferred the former. I’m pretty well musically educated, but the rain of unfamiliar (foreign) writers’ names, and the apparently non-linear chronology of the programme quite lost me. Experts sometimes forget that we are quite ignorant of the subject of their expertise. Please give us basics not specialist details. Or put it in the programme and shut up and play.

My favourite bits of music were the grungy bits. Bandoneon absolutely necessary. The bits that sounded like backstreet Buenos Aires and not Hollywood soundtrack. Like real ‘rock’ compared to today’s smoothed-down stuff. I’m afraid the popular Finnish tango (no bandoneon) left me cold. But the whole was so joyously presented and played, and the large audience so openly revelled in it … who am I to grouch just a little?

Anyway I went home with a new-found enthusiasm for the bandoneon, and an admiration for the performance of Mons Garac, which was definitely shared by the swooning ladies around me. And by the big, ageing Aussie bloke in front of me in the bar queue, who turned to his wife and said ‘gosh isn’t he sexxxxy!’.

The final day was an early start and, blow me down, Mr Piano had moved again! Across to the larger Dunwich Public Hall. Conveniently, right next to the ferry. Another good venue, but without the magic of Point Lookout. The morning concert had Haydn and Dvorák scheduled. OK. Fine. Both pieces new to me, but I wasn’t expecting any surprises. I mean, I know Haydn and Dvorák … Once again, wrong. I’m going to have to stop ‘expecting’.
The Haydn was the Piano Trio in E Flat (nice key) which, as the composer noted, is really a piano sonata with accompaniment by violin and cello (Hankinson/Smith/De Wit). This is chamber music. I was seated in the front row, and I could make believe that I was in the Graf Esterházy’s drawing room, listening his court musician’s latest composition (new one tomorrow, your Highness). It is delightful intimate, personal music, that makes you want to get up and dance … which of course, I can’t … if you had told me that a ‘simple’ (it’s not) Haydn trio would be one my favourite items of the Festival, I would have been amazed. But I was enchanted.
And the Dvorák, too was a treat. A string quintet, with the addition of a double bass (Marian Heckenburg) the end of whose bow flirted with my right knee. So I felt right ‘in’ the performance! But the feeling of being ‘in’ is wonderful. I much prefer my chamber music like this, rather than in a theatre or concert-house sitting in a stall. The piece is as tuneful and dancing as can be, and the use of the double-bass as well as the cello adds so much depth to the music. I went off to lunch in a very happy frame of mind. Since we found the Island Fruit Barn, with excellent food (yayy!), I also came back in a very happy frame of mind for the final concert of the Festival. It was subtitled Contrasts, and it certainly did have.

We opened with Prokofiev’s sextet Overture on Hebrew Themes (Silver/Garac/Smith/Henbest/King/Viney), which was immediately added to my ‘favourites’ basket. Another piece of smashing programming. Then two Spanish cello pieces (King) and Ravel and Stravinsky takes on gipsy music and the tango for the violin (Garac), then a rather rebarbative Bartok work which seemed to be built around train whistles, and it was time for the pièce maîtresse of the day. An original work, for piano and string quartet, commissioned for the Festival, played here for the first time by the composer, Paul Hankinson, by Cyril Garac, Rachel Smith, Caroline Henbest, and Eric de Wit.

The programme of the piece was certainly relevant. The hero was Mr Piano, whom we had seen floated across the water, hefted from hall to hall and, in between, make some magnificent music. The piece followed him in his travels across the bay, his meeting with the musicians and their making of music together, ending with his return voyage, full of happy memories, over the calm waters of Moreton Bay, broken only by Migaloo, a passing whale.

It was an enchantment. I was mesmerised in the opening measures, as the waters shimmered, by the pianist’s hands inside the piano, plucking the strings like a harpist, mirrored in the lid of the piano, as our Hero made his way to the island. Then he was there, and the music breaks into a lively, warm and ringing dance as He makes his island tour. And then, in perhaps the loveliest part of the work, we have his return … back inside the piano, a long drawn out B, produced by a swatch of horsehair on the string, leads Him to the end of his adventure.

The piece ended, I shot to my feet (without my walking stick) in applause. Then I turned round … the entire audience was on its feet clapping and cheering. And they wouldn’t stop! Finally the players came out and played, not the whole thing again (as someone shoutedly suggested) but at least the festival movement. And, once again, those that hadn’t had to rush for the 4pm ferry, burst with applause. We waited for the 5 o’clock ferry. Sometimes, on a ‘first night’ the aftermath is part of the triumph.

But this ‘first night’ was also the last night of the festival, and we (with Mr Piano, who had been taking off his wooden legs as we sipped a farewell wine, not far behind us) headed across the waters to the mainland. 

The putting together of Festivals of this kind is not only a vast amount of work but requires a mind of a kind of genius at the helm. Because the choice of artists and of pieces to be played is the heart of the affair. Volinist Rachel Smith is the ‘artistic director’ heroine of this particular affair. The programming and the players were both perfect. Even the one or two pieces I didn’t really appreciate were interesting, and the huge majority were a total joy. And the players … well …

Stradbroke Island, the Quandamooka Festival and Redland County can be very, very proud of their festival. And me? I’ve just had a whale of a time, been swimming in the best of chamber music in a lovely place, and I hope very much that I will return soon.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bridge over untroubled waters


Where am I this week? Why, I’m on Stradbroke Island, Queensland. Four hours’ drive north from Grafton, and a comfortable 45-minute ferry ride across rippleless waters …

Why? Because the Stradbroke Island Chamber Music Festival is taking place. And my pal, Paul, is taking part.

The support team is comfortably holed up in the Samarinda Holiday Apartments, we have dined on superior fish and chips, and have just returned from the first concert. And what a delightful concert! My chamber music concert-going, in recent years, has been largely centred on Berlin. Big, important city full of international artists. And I’ve seen some lovely stuff, and some, I must admit, not so lovely. And stayed away from quite a lot because of unimaginative programming.

So, Stradbroke Island, Qd? I knew it was going to be A.O.K the moment I saw the list of pieces to be played … and so it proved, tonight. We had Bridge and Bloch, we had Chausson and a Polish-Russian by the name of Weinberg of whom I had never heard, we had an 18th century Dutch dilettante and we had a surprise too.

And for artists? Well, they came from far and yon, from Scotland and Germany to France and various parts of Australia: 3 violins, 2 cellos, 1 viola, 2 pianos … this little corner of the country was treated to some really superlative playing.

The concert tonight had a real ’village hall’ feel to it, which was normal because it was held at the Lookout Point Community Hall. Which just happens to have the most amazing accoustics. And which has glass walls which open up, so that the artists are virtually playing in the open air. And the audience doesn’t stifle, as in too many German venues. Great place for a concert.

But the music. About which there was no ‘village hall’ at all. Every piece was fascinating. Of course, we all have different tastes, but for me the triumph of the night was the Frank Bridge piano quintet (Rachel Smith, Sophie Rowell, Caroline Henbest, Louise King, Liam Viney). I know Bridge only from a couple of his songs, which I used to sing half a century ago: I didn’t know he wrote such lovely, lush, Frenchy music … this piece was a treat. The Chausson, too, was delicious: a poème for solo violin (Cyril Garac) and piano quartet. It soared and ran the gamut … great, sensual, stirring stuff. Then, in contrast, there was the sternly sombre and deeply characteristic From Jewish Life of Ernest Bloch, for cello (Eric de Wit) and piano (Paul Hankinson). Bloch uses the deepest tones of the cello in this work … as a (former) bass singer, I immediately felt affinity with those gloriously unhurried low notes. And there is something grand about overtly Jewish music.

The Weinberg I found rather wispy and wandering, rather striving for effects, which didn’t make it any the less interesting and the cute cello duets by the Dutch dilettante perhaps sat a bit uneasily in the middle of a concert of 20th century music, but it was all intriguing, and made for a splendid night at the ‘music house’.

And the surprise? Well, it was a real surprise. A piece by the Australian composer Paul Stanhope had been scheduled, but it was canned in favour of a piece by a bundle of much younger little Australians. As part of the Festival, the artists visit the local school and work with the 7-12 year old pupils. This year, Paul decided to get them to write a school song, incorporating the sounds and sentiments of their lives on the Island. The result was a superb surprise, and the children’s performance, accompanied by every instrument that everyone could (just) play, a great success. So the organisers decided to put the piece on the first night’s programme, where, performed by the 16 youngsters who were able to come out at night (alas, without their drums and trombones), it went down a treat. The audience cheered them to the hilt. And the children are so proud of ‘their’ song.

So, the festival is launched. The braver amongst us (not I) will get up tomorrow for breakfast and Bach. I’ll be on board at 2pm for Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Songs for Sea and Sky’ and the Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’, and after time off for recovery, an evening concert of tango music … Sunday, we have Haydn and Dvorak for morning tea and at 2 o’clock .. I’ll be there for them all. A Festival feast of music…

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Cup! (with no carts)

‘Cup Day’ means different things to different folks. When I lived full-time in England, it of course meant the FA Cup. Doubtless it still does. In France, it’s the same thing. Football has claimed ‘la Coupe’ as its own. In New Zealand, however, The Cup is indubitably the NZ Trotting Cup, even though it has become rather degraded from the formidable annual feature it used to be. Australia, of course, is a federation, so they have several cups: most famously the Melbourne and Caulfield varieties. Gallopers, not trotters.

Well, one of the several is the $150,000 Grafton Cup. And I’m staying, at the moment, in … Grafton. Just a short walk from the racecourse. So, Paul and I went. Yayyy! Not for the whole day, but to take in a few races, notably, of course, The Cup. Well, the whole town was there. Paulie’s pa, Rod, was there, operating the Sky TV camera in the straight, brother-in-law Joe was there, trying so hard to pick a winner, 

eldest sons Darby and Harry were there looking ever so dapper, younger son Eli was in his sporting element, and daughter Rachel had transformed from the girl on the golf-course into a glamorous, leggy model.

The whole town was having enormous fun. I have never seen so many teens dressed up and loving racing! Why doesn’t this happen in New Zealand? It did my heart good to see it.

We watched the two races before the Cup … hmm fast track and favourites … and, well, I don’t bet, but this was our Melbourne Cup day, so I thought … let’s have a wee punt. Eli picked no5, Paul no6, and I fancied the name of no13. What I didn’t realise, with my experienced harness-not-gallops horseman’s head off, is that this was not, in spite of appearances, a ‘country meeting’. For $150,000 the big boys and girl (Gai Smith no less) come up from town. And that Prime Minister with the big ears whom most of Australia seems to dislike was there.

Well, Gai Smith (these days, Waterhouse) duly obliged with an all-the-way win by the topweight. Eli was 6th, Paul was 7th, I was 8th … and ruddy Darby got the trifecta!

A fun day! We followed up the horses with a little visit to the crowded first-night of a new wine-and-tapas bar. I felt for the owners! Everything seemed to have gone wrong for them, and they weren’t able to show their new venture off as they might have. 

But we supped their (expensive) wine and nibbled (finally) the odd tapas, and just enjoyed the company: lovely (Paul’s) sister Renée and husband Joe, and our Harry whom we hadn’t seen at the races, as while we were slumming it he was up in the posh places! Look, and ask why… The casting director in me rattled!

So another day in ‘quiet, country’ Grafton … and another ‘Cup’ to add to my collection!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Day One of Doing Nothing?

Grafton. Ahhhhhh.

Each time I go back to Berlin, I say: now, here, I am going to have a really relaxed time. Sit in the warm sunshine and write to my heart’s content. But, somehow, that doesn’t ever happen. There are always things to see and hear, and people to catch up with, and anyway this year there was no sun to sit in ... so I say, when I go back to New Zealand I will ditto ditto ditto. And the result is different, but the same … But this year, it will be all right. I’m in Grafton, NSW. It’s sunny, to start with. In the middle of winter. And yesterday was Day One of doing nothing.

Oh yes?

After I’d jet-laggedly slept much of the morning away, I remembered to reach for the computer. Gerolstein-bred Douchelette (Duchesse de l’amour) was racing at Timaru, New Zealand; better listen and cheer her on. Well, little Miss Temperamental behaved perfectly in the race (after putting on a rodeo show beforehand), zipped to the lead and ran them ragged in a decidedly quick time. Geoff and Jude Knight, her new trainers, have well and truly got her tricks under control and her ability is getting a chance to show. This will not be her last win, by a long chalk.

A quick duck into town, to re-purchase all the things they won’t let you carry in an airplane cabin, and then … a golfing date! It was nephew Eli’s birthday, and he had chosen golf for the day. Now, I don’t golf. I did once try. I started fairly and got steadily worse over the weeks and months before I gave up. Now, of course, I have a hand that doesn’t work properly and an arm and a shoulder which aren’t a lot better, so I can’t even swing a club. But I enjoy walking around while others hit the ball, which I would miss, anyway.

We had grand fun. Joe does things like pars and birdies, ever so consistent, and he put one ball in the cup from down the fairway, but all the others pulled out some grand shots in between the airshots and bloopers. To my surprise, Paul turned out to be a dab hand at chips and at wielding a five-iron. I had a wee go. You don’t need a backswing to putt. And there! I holed a one-metre one at second try. So I got adventurous and I tried a real shot. Four times. Two airshots, and two toe-shots. I resigned. 

But Rod persuaded me to try again, and blow me down I connected! Down the fairway the thing skittered – straight! – could I do it again? Two airshots later, I did! And there was the ball sitting on the edge of the green .. Well, I’m beginning to think that with ten or twenty years’ practice, and half a back-swing, I might even be able to do this!

Dark loomed as we came down the last fairway, and we headed for home. On the way, we stopped at the Grand Hotel. No not for a drink. For the view over the river. It certainly was delightful …

But out day was not yet over. A quick wash-and-brushup and off to Eli’s birthday celebration, at Joe and Renee’s house, with nearly all the Grafton-based family … a slap-up pasta and crumble dinner, with wine for the grown-ups …

Not even the Tour de France and Wimbledon rolled into one could keep me up when we arrived home. A splendid day. But scarcely a laze in the sun, and I hadn’t written a word. Oh, well, Eli doesn’t have a fourteenth birthday every day … on the other hand, it’s the local races Wednesday and Thursday, and Thursday evening Renee is taking us to a vernissage …

But today, all is quiet. The sun is shining, I’m at my desk, the sounds of Haydn resound in the underground where Paul is practising for his forthcoming concerts … Veronica has served us up the most scrumptious chicken soup … 2pm? Little nap, maybe … that bed looks sooo nice ... well, jet-lag, you know …