Monday, July 31, 2017

Straddie Snaps ...

A few snaps of fond or fun memories from a grand weekend... 

On the way north, we stopped off to visit Our Harry at his University digs. This photo was taken a few metres from his house ... some people choose their University with great skill

Our digs for the weekend were at the Samarinda. We've stayed there three years in a row and it is very pleasant, even if wifi and mofone are, as everywhere on the island, a bit underpowered

Also a grand spot for whale watching. Kaikoura Schmaikoura. We stood on our balcony and watched the monsters go gallivanting past, at almost any time of the day, often seemingly dangerously close to shore.

Little post-concert jaunt out to Amity Point. As soon as I pointed my camera at this chappie he caught a fish. I'm clearly more adept at 'catching' bream than whales.

And the sun sank slowly

And then he was gone

The first year I came to Straddie was a culinary disaster. Nothing to be found but soggy fish and chips. Last year they were marginally less soggy and we found a proper (if overpriced) restaurant of reasonable quality. So I marked it down for Saturday (no concert) dinner, and we duly turned up. The sign said 'open Saturday from 11am'. And it was closed. Doing a Function at the surfclub, confided a passing local. How nice for the surfclub. The Whale's Way has been eradicated from my address book. But nowhere seemed to be open. Saturday night? Festival time? Oyoy, bit amateurish, eh? But we were in luck. A newly-opened (in this venue) café-resto with the un-Australian name of Cisco's was open, so in we trooped ...  Time for a family snap. Oh no! What was wrong with my camera? By the time I'd discovered I had my thumb over the lens, the lady of the house had come to my aid and in consequence I got to be in the photo too!

The room filled up fast, Cisco's has obviously been discovered by locals as well as visitors. And our food told us why. American-diner sized plates of excellent food. I had barramundi, Michelle an enormous pulled something burger and Rod scored with the beef special ...

A little interpolation here, just to remind one that, amongst all this, there was a Music Festival going on ...

Sunday brought the Festival to a close. And it also gave us a wee foodie treat. In the little group of shops at Dunwich not far distant from a yard called with probable truth The Most Amazing Shop in the World (closed) is a veggie shop-café called the Fruit Barn. Delicious salads, fab spinach rolls and quiches .. best food on the island!

And so the music came to its end for 2017. Festival supremo and violinist Rachel Smith (Mrs de Wit), pictured here with her apprentice page-turner, can start devising the 2018 festival ..

But in the end, its the cellos who have the most apt ideas

Bye bye Straddie. Rendez-vous same time, same place, next year ...


Day three, and the second part of the Festival has decamped, traditionally, from Lookout Point to the Memorial Hall at Dunwich, 25 kilometres away. Piano had made the journey in the night. The artists had been installing themselves since dawn, and we arrived at 10am for a somewhat different kind of concert to the gourmet slices of great works which the last two days had delivered to us.

 Today we had an Entertainment, devised by Rachel Smith, aptly titled Minjerribah Miniatures. Minjerribah is the place where Dunwich is situated and the miniatures were a series of short musical pieces, plucked from all round the world – Australia, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia – illustrating various aspects of the natural world, and linked by readings of a set of brief aboriginal tales, the creation myths of the local trees.

We had beautiful morceaux of Debussy (Smith, Hankinson) and of Dvorak (de Wit, Breen), alongside pieces by Jacob Druckman and Maria Grenfell featuring the water-shining marimba (Vanessa Tomlinson), a little Sculthorpe (Emmerson), Karin Schaupp’s light-fingered guitar both solo in atmospheric pieces by Paul Stanhope, Richard Charlton, and teamed with the strings of the festival in Paul Hoghton’s In Amber, and we had a little bundle of ‘firsts’ from Paul Hankinson: a new arrangement of the Elgar ‘Sea Slumber Song’ for string quartet, plus two items from his new Schubert-inspired collection: a solo Fantaisie for piano based on the very duo we had heard the previous day, and a freewheeling ‘Spinnrad’ (Smith, de Wit, Hankinson) which brought the hour and a bit of Entertainment to another standing ovation end.

It was a joyous morning only made tricky for me by the fact in this accoustically loud (and just how loud we were soon to find out) hall the young reader failed to project her voice beyond row four. Insert here my standard rant about ‘what do they teach in drama schools these days’.

Lunch. Lunch is always an event in Dunwich. I shot up the road to the local grocery-cum-café, the Fruit Barn, because I knew very well that (bypassing a number of other eateries) everyone ‘in the know’ would be doing the same, and the queue gets enormous. So I sat in the sun, in my new hat, and devoured an excellent spinach roll and a large plate of three-salads (no lettuce) with a grand milkshake in a good old-style metal container. It seems milkshakes, REAL milkshakes are making a comeback, in Queensland, at least. Hurrah, say I.

Back to the hall for a cold chardonnay before the afternoon’s final session. Just in time! The hall, in which both bar and toilets are situated, was closing for final rehearsals. So all we oldies, with failing legs and weak bladders, not to mention a thirst, had to stand around outside for 45 minutes before, a bare eight minutes before curtain time, we surged in, sprinting for seats and the loo and grabbing a hurried glass … something organisational is perhaps to be reviewed before 2018.

And so, to the final concert.
Well, now I know what an oud is! And isn’t it a magnificent instrument? Like an overgrown lute crossed with a melon. Since Joseph the oudist is a master of his machine I was able to appreciate its intricacies as I dreamed myself back again in a smoky Tangiers bar of the 1960s… Well, almost. In Tangier the music was not amplified. I wish it hadn’t been here. The electrics made all the music sound rather unsubtly the same, and the volume, in the small hall, was somewhat overwhelming. However, when Jacob the oud was joined by the solo strings in a composition of his own (Eye of the Beholder), and tempered his instrument to blend with others, the result was truly lovely.

This weekend, this tale, has been pretty much one of undiluted enthusiasm. I suppose it needed one disaster, one full-scale failure, to bring me back into the real and too often unlovely world. We got it.

Commissioning an original work for a Festival is fraught with perils. Especially if you don’t play it safe. And this year Straddie didn’t play it safe. And they missed the target.
The four programme columns describing Yitzhak Yedid’s Chad Gadya for clarinet, violin, cello and piano spoke of a ‘playful children’s song’ which was quoted in full. The composer also spoke at length before the playing started. He refused the microphone, so I didn’t hear what he said. But it seems to have been mostly the same stuff. Why don’t composers simply let their music speak for itself? Admittedly Australia isn’t half as bad as Germany in this connection, but it’s a pernicious habit.
And then the piece. Well, I’d rather be trampled on by the unrecognisable goats than have to suffer it again. It goes down in my book on the page ‘great fiascos of my musical life’. The violinist (Smith) and the cellist (King) might as well have been miming. They were almost entirely obliterated by the young lady with the frightened hair who took the piano part. I couldn’t see from the back row seat that I had (forewarned) taken, but I’m pretty sure she was playing with her fists rather than her fingers. And, oh my heart went out to the clarinettist, who had played so gloriously and warmly in Schumann and Brahms: here he was reduced to imitating a train whistle, an eviscerated cat, a raped peacock, and other prosaic vulgarities.
Yes, undoubtedly one of the maxi-nadir moments of my 60 years of all-sorts of concert-going.

Fortunately, there was a second part to the concert. No amplification, no fisting, no factory whistles or crucified penguins, just fine music finely played. Dvorak’s piano quintet in A Major (Rowell, Smith, Henbest, King, Emmerson). Here the audience really leapt into its enthusiasms to such an extent that folk exploded into applause at the end of the first movement and I found myself following suit! And Dvorak gave us a sophisticated, musical sforzando, just to show how it can be done. It was a fine and fitting ending to a first-rate Festival, a hugely enjoyable extended weekend of music, on a sweet and sunny island amongst the most amiable of people …

Just say, I have already got my name in for a season ticket for 2108.

Oh!: The Kurt Award for my favourite musical moment of the weekend? You guessed it. The Poulenc. Run very close by a dead-heat between the Schubert duo and the opening Haydn …

Footnote: there must be thousands of Memorial Halls in Australia and New Zealand. Most, I suppose, just generally in memoriam of all the folk who died in this war or that. The population of Stradbroke Island being what it was, the walls of the Dunwich Hall seemingly hold just two plaques. The one above my seat was dedicated to infantryman Albert Joseph (‘Bert’) Tripcony (1893-1917). Bert was a Moreton Bay man. He died in action in Picardy, France, at the age of 24, one hundred years ago this year, in one of the most useless wars of last century. Requiescat in pace, Bert. Oh, although the plaque happily doesn’t mention the fact, folk of these racist days have seen fit to point out emphatically that Bert was of the aboriginal genre. Does his race matter? Never mind, Bert, to me you are just one more brave young Australian man who gave his life for … what?


Part two

Day Two on Straddie dawned bright and extremely fair. And with a whole lot of music in prospect.

At 8am, breakfast was served at the concert hall … I broke my fast on a spinach and feta (obligatory combo these days) muffin, a cheese and bacon muffin, and a nice cup of tea and a chat before we all filed into the SRO hall. The back wall of the hall is glass, so you look out past the performers on to the sunshiney sea … when there’s no breeze the glass doors can even be opened, alas, not today …

The concert was Spanish themed and we started with a mixture of Spanish poetry, familiar guitar solos by Tarregas and Albéniz (Schaupp), and six of de Falla’s characteristic Spanish songs (Suite populár Española) transcribed for piano and cello (King, Hankinson). The audience, which was already tapping its feet to the guitar dissolved into hilarity as the two artists put on a veritable high-comic double act, before launching into their music, accompanied by an obbligato from a tree full of crows.

Then came the serious stuff. The heart of the concert. Francis Poulenc’s only extant Violin Sonata. Not Spanish, Monsieur Poulenc, but the connection here with Spain is that the composer dedicated the work, goodness knows why, to the bones of the writer Garcia Lorca.
Apparently, so the programme note tells us, Poulenc disliked writing for solo string: ‘the violin prima donna over piano arpeggio ..’. Well, he certainly didn’t write like that. The violin in his sonata is a prima donna only to the piano’s primo tenore and the tenore frequently takes the front stage in a genuine partnership which, I have to agree with the musician, is vastly more satisfying than the old-fashioned way.
The work encompasses a mountain of moods, beautiful melody, excitement and, if it does not showcase the players’ technique in such an obvious way as the Szymanowksi, it has all those other human qualities that the earlier piece lacks. This is a very wonderful piece of music, it was beautifully played (Smith, Hankinson), and I shall be vastly surprised if it does not walk off with the Kurt Award for the Best Item of the Straddie Festival 2017.

But it will be no walkover. If there were an Audience Prize I have a suspicion that this morning it might have gone to the cleverly-placed last item on the programme: good old Boccherini’s quintet number 4 in D major (Rowell, Smith, Henbest, King, Schaupp). After a delightful pastorale and allegro maestoso, and a touch of assai grave, Signor B launches his players into a vigorous and lively Fandango. Ball, game, set and match. You can’t do better for a finale than can-can or a fandango. And this is a super one. It brought our audience to its combined feet, cheering and bubbling with felicity. I’ve never seen so many beaming countenances heading for the ‘Way Out’.

So, back to the digs for a wee bite and breather and then … a lavish afternoon of Teutonic tones: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms …

Well, concert number three rendered nothing to the first two in glory and enjoyment. We started off with the Schubert Fantasy in F minor for piano duo (Emmerson, Hankinson), moved on to the Schumann Märchenbilder for viola and piano (Henbest, Hankinson), and finished up with Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A Minor (Stafford, de Wit, Emmerson). All mature works, as Eric de Wit reminded us in his introduction. He also twinklingly commented on the fact that this was ‘a concert without a violin!’. Mrs de Wit is violinist and festival supremo Rachel Smith.

What can you say about three such masterpieces? Not a lot! Just that they are masterpieces and that each of them was wholly given their due. I think the audience’s favourite this time was the piano duo, which rises so effectively from its delicate and familiar little theme to great storms of passion. Mr Piano was given a through workout in all his registers. His voyage across the bay for his annual working holiday on the Island has been a ‘none shall sleep’ one.

The viola suite is full of Schumannic charm. I don’t think the ‘stories’ are meant to represent any specific fairytales which we know today, but they have a personality, each one, of its own, and – well, admission time, I have a particular affection for the viola, especially when played as it was here by Caroline Henbest. The last ‘melancolische’ one was my favourite.

 When we had the clarinet teamed with the viola on Day 2, I amused myself concocting other tasty combinations. Cello and … bassoon? Double bass and euphonium? But here we had the clarinet again, this time in tandem with that creamy baritone cello. Well, you just sat back and luxuriated … right to the end of another wholly successful concert.

For the stayers amongst us, the evening brought a performance by the Joseph Tawadros Quartet. Mr T is an outstanding performer on the oud. No, not the Oxford University Dictionary. It is an Arab instrument which … well, I’ll find out today at the last concerts at Dunwich. For, for me, it was panned barramundi and chips and a bottle of Oyster Bay at Cisco’s delightful new little café, near the hall, and – while Mr Piano had his legs removed, prior to the next leg of his tour, from Lookout Point to the second date’s hall at Dunwich, I folded myself into my comfy white bed and slept very, very soundly…

THE STRADDIE TRILOGY Or, a Festival of Music in three dreamtime days


Day One.

I’ve been to a marvellous concert …

When I quit spending half my year in less-than-welcoming Germany and Europe, with their lavishly-available supply of (state subsidised) opera and concert performances, and returned to dwell in the southern hemisphere, I had perforce to give up the rich musical life I had been leading. But each year, for the last three, I have allowed myself one treat. A visit to lovely Stradbroke Island, off the Queensland coast, for their three-day chamber music festival.

‘Straddie’ might be a small island, a small country community, but there is nothing ‘small’ about the festival. Over the ten years of its existence, under the aegis of violinist Rachel Smith, it has developed into a full-sized event with half a dozen concerts featuring an outstanding team of international soloists – almost, now, precisely the same ones each year, for everyone wants to come back to Straddie!

Sophie Rowell and Rachel Smith (violins), Caroline Henbest (viola), Eric de Wit and Louise King (cellos), Paul Hankinson (piano) were joined this year by two further pianists (Louisa Breen, Stephen Emmerson), guitarist Karin Schaupp and the young clarinettist, William Stafford. Each and every one impeccable. On the evidence of today’s concert number one, this could be the best festival yet! For not only does this event score by its participants, but also by its planning. Without going into the wilds, the programmes – eschewing the over-familiar -- feature music which … well, let’s just say, I’m moderately well musically educated, but the five pieces which made up tonight’s programme were all new to me.

We started off with Haydn’s trio no 41 in E flat minor. (Smith, de Wit, Hankinson). I do love music that is made to delight and please rather than to amaze. And this is of that genre. Melody not fireworks. Beauty not skills. Scarcely an ornament in sight. Just music. I could fondly imagine myself relaxing opulently in an C18th salon listening to this. The piece is almost a sonata for piano and violin, the cello just giving depth and emphasis, but the instruments here blended so beautifully that, at times, I couldn’t tell whether the full, warm lower notes were coming from the cello or the keyboard. Lovely stuff. Just purely lovely stuff.

 The cello (de Wit) was no ‘second fiddle’ in the next piece: three movements of Janacek’s Pohádka. I had read the programme of the piece (the programme notes here are superb) and it sounded rather glum, but no such thing! The first movement is as lively as all get out, the second equally as vibrant … Janacek really has guts and fire … it is a shame the piece sort of fades away latterly. But I really enjoyed this, mulling, as I listened, how de Wit’s cello reminded me of a baritone singer without a break in his voice: the high notes produced in the same ‘chest’ voice as the middle and lower. I liked that. I’m a sucker for a beautiful cello.

The third piece was four Schumann Märchenerzählungen. Fairy stories. A sweet selection of tunes after the Sturm und Drang of the cello piece. And, oh joy, written for piano (Emmerson), viola (Henbest) and clarinet (Stafford).Why, oh why, didn’t/don’t more folk write for this combination? The first two pieces were a melodious dancing joy, but I don’t know which fairytale no 4 was illustrating: the Jolly Green Giant in his ten league boots! Ah well, contrast is the salt and pepper of existence! And the pieces were lively and enjoyable.

After an interval, under the stars, and  a glass of chardonnay to the sound of the softly breaking waves, we returned for part two.

A little (93 bars) introductory quintet from Mozart … pretty, frilly, characteristic, dance music … and then we launched into the Big Number of the night. Szymanowski’s violin (Rowell) and piano (Breen) piece entitled Mythes. Szymanowski seems to have been following me around for a few years, and it’s probably lèse-majesté to admit that while the Gorecki I listened to in Jersey is engraved on my eardrums, I remember nothing of his compatriot’s music. I guess it’s personal preference. For this piece is the utter antithesis of the Haydn. As in the days of Paganini, de Beriot, Wieniawski et al, it is written almost entirely to show off the technique of the player(s). Which it duly does. Miss Rowell took on the dragon and slayed him with a thousand strokes of her bow. And the audience (and I) were spellbound. She and Miss Breen got the biggest applause of the night. But I say that, advisedly, the applause was, in my book, for the performance rather than the music.

The evening came to an end with more chardonnay and a huge Festival Tenth Birthday Cake under more stars, by more waves, before we all toddled home to get a good sleep before the early start tomorrow …de Falla, Albéniz, Poulenc and Boccherini with breakfast, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms after lunch … before the ambulant Mr Piano gets into his chariot to head to Dunwich for the last day’s concerts …