Total immersion

Naomi Roseth writes that she has just returned from spending eight days at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, now in its 28th year.  Here is her memoir of the week. 

I have attended the festival once before and sure hope to get there again.  For top quality music, ambiance and relaxation, I reckon this festival is hard to beat. 

Starting the day with a rock pool swim in the balmy weather of Northern Queensland, breakfast overlooking Magnetic Island and a stroll along the Strand to the morning’s first event – a conversation hour, set me nicely for the day.  The Festival’s new director, Kathryn Stott, chats every morning to a group of musicians, making their subsequent performances more relevant and alive. 

A concert follows, then a master class.  

A welcome siesta and some free time are followed by an afternoon and evening concerts.  A week of three concerts a day plus several additional ‘treats’ is rather intense.  Some choose to skip concerts here and there but I got a ‘Gold Pass’ and did not miss a note.  I love this time of total and exclusive immersion in music. 

For balance of programming the Townsville festival gets full marks.  We were exposed to an amazing array of works old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, challenging and relaxing, deeply moving and more casual.  The musicians came from all over the world; some young and some more mature.  And as for the range of instruments, there were of course plenty of strings but also others – for example a very pleasing combination of bandoneon, marimba and sheng.  

And then there were the special features:  a resident composer, Julian Yu, a cello octet – pleasing to the ear and eye alike and the splendid Goldner Quartet.  They have been playing in the Townsville festival for 25 years! 

The highlights? There were so many. 

Perhaps the concert that moved me most was the one in which we heard Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, Shostakovich’s last work – a sonata for viola and piano, and Massiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  A sad theme ran through these pieces, but it touched me to my core. 

Then to lighten things up, a theme in a subsequent evening was ‘Love’!  

Finally, one masterclass stands out.  It was conducted by the renowned British clarinettist, Julian Bliss.   I wished that the entire Choir was there.  So much of what Julian said about focus, direction, colour, breath and commitment, echoed Carlos’ words to the Choir on a Thursday evening.   

Off with his sweater!

I may be imagining it, but I reckon that it has recently been possible to gauge the state of rehearsals by the state of Carlos’ sweater.

During this cold weather, he has usually come to rehearsal in a dark sweater, very appropriate to the outside temperature.  The rehearsal starts, and we sing something reasonably well.  Then we make a mess of something.  Off comes the sweater, the specs are re-adjusted on the end of his nose, the mobile phone is checked for being turned off, and we can tell that he means business.  Then starts a determined process of de-constructing the music phrase by phrase, note by note, and then re-constructing it note by note, phrase by phrase, until it is in good shape.

I did not see Carlos arrive yesterday, but as soon as rehearsal started the sweater was nowhere to be seen.  That had to mean that we were about to embark on something tricky.  Indeed we were.  The song Son de la Loma may be short, but it is fiendish.  Why?  Maybe because it encapsulates something of all the other pieces we are singing.

For a start it is in Spanish, a language most of us do not understand, and which looks very much like Latin and Italian but is actually pronounced very differently.  It is more difficult even than the Hebrew in the Five Love Songs.

Then there is the syncopation, both within bars and across bars, not unlike some of the sections of the Little Jazz Mass.  But Son de la Loma takes the technique a stage further in the section where the upper voices sing one syncopated rhythm and the basses sing another, quite unrelated but equally syncopated rhythm, synchronized in alternate bars.

And if that were not enough, just like the otherwise straightforward music of West Side Story, the notes rush on you relentlessly, demanding your complete attention.  As we discovered last night, if you drop your concentration for just the smallest fraction of a second, you lose the plot, completely and irretrievably.

So it is indeed fitting that Son de la Loma will be the last item on the program.  And, presumably, in performance Carlos will not be wearing his sweater.

Rehearsals

I don’t know about everyone else, but at last night’s rehearsal I thought that we were finally getting to grips with the Little Jazz Mass.  It has taken some time, but it was gratifying to feel that all the hard work which we – and more noticeably Carlos – have put in over past weeks is bearing fruit.

Last night was our twelfth rehearsal for this concert, and there are five more to go.

Anne and I we musing about rehearsals last weekend whilst listening to the final of the Young Performer of the Year.  The three soloists were stunning.  They may be young in years but they all displayed great musical maturity. It is a shame that only one can win, but we felt sure that they would all make successful careers in music.

But as for rehearsals, we thought not so much about the soloists but more about the orchestra.  They had to accompany three concertos at very short notice.  One, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, is well-known, and most orchestral players will have performed it several times.  But the other two works, a Weber Clarinet Concerto and a Prokoviev Piano Concerto, are much less well-known, and the latter piece in particular is fiendish to play.  I wonder how many rehearsals they had.  Two, perhaps, or maybe three…….and maybe some individual practice time beforehand.   That they played all three pieces flawlessly is a tribute to both their hard work and their innate musical talent.

In the five rehearsals we have left for Love, Peace and all that Jazz, we have to tidy up some loose notes and then really get into the spirit of each piece.  It’s all fantastic music, and, with Carlos’ continued teaching and encouragement, I am sure that we will do justice to it.

A random walk

Writing something most weeks for the website is good fun, but sometimes I sit at the keyboard not knowing where to start.  Music from last night’s rehearsal is often a good place, and I set off not knowing where the thoughts triggered from the previous evening will lead.

It’s very much like that today.  It seems like the start of what in some academic disciplines is called a random walk.

The one musical phrase which is buzzing around in my head this morning, and has been doing all night, is the simple piano introduction to each verse of the last of the Shearing songs.  I am sure Valerie will not object to my saying that it must be the easiest thing she played all evening – just one note in each hand, no chords or anything like that right to the end.  But, maybe because we heard it so many times last night, it is there in my brain, buzzing around like a demented bee.

Which reminds me that I added a note about Valerie to the Website this week.
Click here
to read it and see a charming photo of Valerie.

Which reminds me that, from her masterful playing of piano score reductions of orchestral accompaniments and custom accompaniments such as in the current concert, it is clear that Valerie is both talented and well qualified.  Indeed I was intrigued, but not surprised, to learn that she recently gained her Fellowship of Trinity College London, one of the highest possible performance qualifications.

Which reminds me that many of us amateur musicians have taken TCL exams in the past, from Grade 1 Piano or Recorder, or perhaps Violin, progressing up through as many as  eight grades or until such time as sport or members of the opposite sex became more interesting and demanding.  Grade 8 was indeed something to aspire to, and the Fellowship is several grades beyond that.

Which reminds me of my own experiences in my 40’s of having singing lessons and being persuaded to take some TCL exams.  Before the first exam I was quaking in my boots, not having submitted myself to the ordeal of such scrutiny for over twenty years.  The exam was held in what can only be described as the parlour of an Edwardian terrace house in Winchester.  It was a small room.  The piano was on my left, a large mirrored fireplace on my right, and the examiner was sat at a desk in the bay window.  Where should I project my voice?  The examiner was far too close, yet not to address him seemed rude.  Just to his right was a large plant, which, in keeping with the room, turned out to be an aspidistra.  I sang to the aspidistra, which the examiner seemed not to mind as he was kind enough to pass my efforts on that and a number of successive occasions with merit.

From the day of that first exam and even nowadays, when practicing music I visualize the Edwardian parlour in Winchester and sing to the aspidistra.

How do you get from Collaroy Plateau to Winchester?  It’s something of a random walk.

 

And now for something else completely different

This is the second of three articles about MWC members who are active in an artistic field other than music.  This week I am delighted to feature Helen Reid, who joined the sopranos a few years ago, having previously sung with the Newcastle University Choir.

Helen’s other artistic love is painting in water colours.  When you see examples of her work, it is hard to believe that she started painting only seven years ago.  She initially sampled a variety of media, assessing their pros and cons, eventually settling on the most difficult, water colours.  She now paints with Guy Troughton, a prominent member of the Watercolour Institute of Australia who lives and exhibits locally.

Helen writes that the nature of water colour makes it very difficult to master and predict.  “The result varies with the thickness and quality of the underlying paper and the air temperature, which means quick or slow drying of adjoining areas of paint.  The difference in grain size of the pigments for different colours means that, in water, each colour runs and flows at different rates, often giving unexpected results.  Some colours push others aside quite rudely; some are soft, gentle, retreating.  Tiny variations in the amount of water can mean sharp edges to objects or quite unpredictable flows and runs on colour into one another.  As well as being a constant challenge, the medium is a constant delight as you explore its qualities and infinite variation.”

Helen most enjoys painting subjects which have some personal meaning for her.  Examples which she has kindly agreed to be included in this article are flowers from a friend’s garden, a gulley near Alice Springs she once visited and a tree across the road from her home.  She says that inspiration comes from feeling a connection with the subject, something these pictures bear out.  It goes without saying that the photographs do not do anything like full justice to the actual paintings.

What next?  An exhibition perhaps?  Helen is not that keen on botanical or zoological subjects (Guy Troughton’s speciality) but would like to tackle the challenge of portaiture.  It will be interesting to see the results!