BY CAMPBELL BANKS
This concert has me stumped.
My fingers have been poised on the keyboard for ages now, stuck like a sprinter with stage fright, waiting to transcribe any thought that could pass as coherent. It shouldn’t be this hard. I’ve had enough coffee to wake the dead and enough food to kill them again, so it’s not an issue of fuel. Come brain on, please coherence, yes. Wait, here comes something, a thought churns, and I evacuate: it’s quite soothing to rub those little bumps on the F and J keys…Hmm. Who thought of them? Clever. Hmm.
The details of the concert are easy enough to relate: March 30 at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, with a chamber-size Melbourne Symphony Orchestra joined by the Australian String Quartet, all led by MSO concertmaster and ASQ first violinist Dale Barltrop. The program is also willing to come easily, by way of this simple shortcut:
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat, Dumbarton Oaks
Matthew Hindson: The Rave and the Nightingale, for String Quartet and String Orchestra
Franz Schubert: String Quartet no.14 in D minor, Death and the Maiden (arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler)
It was the first time I’ve heard the ASQ since its most recent reshuffling of members (now a major motion picture!), and there have been so many over the last 15 years that the name ‘Australian String Quartet’ connotes ‘organisation’ rather than ‘ensemble’, which is, oddly enough, the truth. The ASQ is an organisation, much like the MSO, but unlike an orchestra, individual changes of personnel represent major upheaval in a quartet. Years of rehearsing, debate and refinement go out the window in an instant, and each new formation has to start from scratch. A nightmare process for the musicians and a disengaging one for audiences, because who wants to hear a quartet in its infancy every few years? Hopefully the current band stays together for many years.
The ASQ is not the reason why I’m struggling to untangle my response to this concert, though. I expected them to play well, to wring silken tones out of their set of Guadagnini instruments, and they did. I expected the MSO to chatter along in the Stravinsky, Barltrop to lead with subtle assurance and the Schubert to have moments of serene beauty, and that all happened as well. There were unexpected joys too, like the infectious smile of ASQ violist Stephen King that infused much of his playing in the Hindson; or the way the MSO’s viola section, joined by King in the Schubert, stole all of their scenes with playing of exceptional quality. The double basses boomed magnificently, and in amongst the all-black attire (can it be so every concert, MSO?) I saw the most tremendous pair of high heels I’ve yet witnessed on a classical concert stage.
I could go on, but perhaps, reader, you shouldn’t. You now know what was played, when, where, and to what quality (very high). It might get a bit dark later on. Fair warning.
But first, a summary: I had expectations, they were met, and the unexpected was pleasurable. So, why am I stumped? There must be an important issue at the heart of why this concert wasn’t all that I’d hoped it to be.
All that I’d hoped it to be.
That’s actually it, the heart of the issue. Beyond mere expectations, I had hopes for this concert, hopes for what it would do or could be for me, and their failure now represents the bulk of my experience and is affecting my ability to write or think clearly about it. It’s a shame, but at least it does highlight a point I’ve made before: that an audience member contributes as much to their experience of a concert as the performers. It’s unavoidable, and part of the reason why I write these gonzo-style reviews, full of self-reference and overly personal details, is to make this obvious. A traditional review may appear to have a measure of objectivity, but that’s an illusion. Every writer brings their own layers of meaning and experience to the concert hall, and it’s only fair to performers to acknowledge that.
Still, it’s also fair and relevant to ask why my particular hopes did fail, even if only for my own enlightenment.
The first dashed hope concerns Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale, composed in 2001. The program notes told me that Hindson quotes the opening section of Schubert’s final quartet, No. 15 in G Major, before engaging the string orchestra to bound off into the world of 21st Century rave music (‘DJ Franz’) while channelling Schubert’s melodic spirit (the ‘Nightingale’). It’s a concept that excited me when I read about it, but its realisation left me with a thought that was quite absurd in the context of a classical concert: this music has aged terribly.
I had hoped for electronics, or at least for a bold attempt to render Schubert into the milieu that the title declares, but this was hard to find. Listening to its rhythmic gestures and its various gimmicks, like the side-strumming and stomping en masse, it seems that Hindson hadn’t sent DJ Franz to a rave, but to a hoe-down. I was tremendously disappointed, my hopes crushed under all those shoe heels.
That’s how it was for me, but not for the rest of the audience, who clapped rapturously; not for my neighbour, who liked it the most of all the night’s works; and not for the lady behind me who yelped in gleeful shock when Barltrop said the word “thrusts” in his introduction to the piece. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if it had no title or program notes whatsoever, thus preventing my 2017, live-electronics-are-everywhere ears from establishing those misplaced expectations. I remain confused, though; I’m sure Hindson knows it sounds nothing like house or trance or any other genre of electronic music, leaving me to wonder if the title is a deliberate misdirect. Maybe it’s all an in-joke that has gone over my head. If so, he got me good.
Nevertheless, I still had Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to look forward to in the second half, a classic of the string quartet repertoire and one of the most beloved pieces of chamber music that we have. I had never heard a live performance of Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra, and I was concerned it would affect my enjoyment of the piece, the multiplied forces diminishing the intimacy of the music, smudging the textures and obscuring Schubert’s tender voice.
This is precisely what happened. There was no way it couldn’t happen, to be honest. Within his arrangement, Mahler included several extended passages where a string quartet plays alone and each time this occurred I longed for it to remain so. Here was the unadulterated source, sublime in the hands of Barltrop and his fellow principals, and it made so much more sense to me.
Again, I know that I am the problem. If I’d never heard it as a quartet – many, many times – I would have enjoyed it immensely; it’s still the same music, after all. If I’d never read Schubert’s letter to his friend Kupelwieser, dated around the same time as the completion of the quartet and in which he writes: ‘…for every night when I go to sleep, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews the grief of yesterday’, I would never have been searching in the music for his voice, searching for the expression of those dark and dangerous sentiments that we all know about and which are no fun to admit. I wanted to hear him render that darkness beautiful; to lance the mundane struggles of being human with the incision of his melodies, and when I heard him through the mode of his intention, the string quartet, his blade was hot and direct.
Then the orchestra would return to the procedure and – as if suddenly aware of uninvited strangers eavesdropping on a private conversation – I shut down, cork shoved back into the bottleneck in a rush. I could appreciate the playing and the emotional commitment that the orchestra offered me, but I couldn’t meet them halfway to take it. Not all of them. I hate crowds.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Hoping for a private catharsis in the midst of hundreds, and then blaming its failure to materialise on a lack of intimacy. It seems incoherent, and perhaps it is, but is has soothed me before and I will keep seeking it out.
Until then, well, those bumps on the F and J will have to do.
Image supplied. Credit: Daniel Aulsebrook.