Confusion was the first thing I felt as we settled in to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at Melbourne's Recital Centre for an evening with Penguin Cafe (re-invented Penguin Cafe Orchestra). From the start the music – though lush with cinematic strings – was considerably more downbeat than I was expecting. On top of this, I didn't understand why PC's frontman was speaking in an Australian accent. It was almost at intermission before the penny dropped; this was not Penguin Cafe at all. And unfortunately due to an apparent lack of program, I still have no idea who this outfit was, so if anyone has any info please post it below.
When the real Penguin Cafe took to the stage, all was as I had been expecting. There was more buzz in the air as soon as this 10 piece ensemble of highly individual and amazingly multi-talented musicians took their places, and from the outset it was clear that this audience was in for a treat.
The clutter of instruments on stage included piano, ukuleles, cellos, violins, a couple of cuartros, a variety of percussion instruments, a washboard, pipes, a resonant piece of architectural glass and – of course – a harmonium. It's an amazing spectacle to watch so much diversity come together to create the single, idiosyncratic sound that is the music of Penguin Cafe.
The group's classics written by founder Simon Jeffes all made an appearance, trundling wonkily and charmingly along like old, almost forgotten friends. Getting reacquainted with such gorgeous pieces as Air a Danser, Telephone and Rubber Band, Yodel 1, Number 1 – 4 was enough to get everyone smiling and doing a bit of chair-dancing. As was expected, Music For A Found Harmonium had the audience flinging their undies onto the stage... okay, maybe not. But it did get a justifiably excited response.
Then there was the new music from Simon's son Arthur, and these fitted in seamlessly as though written by the same wonderfully gifted human mind. Particularly lovely and moving was Harry Piers, a piano solo which the son wrote for and performed at the the father's memorial service. Clearly it still means a lot to Arthur, and it was impossible not to feel a little of that emotion; even it is built with that signature blend of melancholic joy. It's a superb piece of music and a very cool dedication that Simon would love.
If the music wasn't enough, one of the highlights of the performance was Arthur Jeffe's himself with his behind the scenes stories of how different pieces came to life, written in the back of a taxi, or indeed written for a harmonium found on the streets of Kyoto, or simply building a whole piece around the sound of an engaged telephone and pairing it with the twang of a rubber band. Simon Jeffes was clearly a bower bird of of found sounds, and Arthur appreciates this and finds it in his own nature to do the same.
And the delivery of these strange little stories of eccentricity was much like the music itself – a little shy, a little twitchy, a bit unexpected, full of wonder and surprise, kinda quirky and always endearing.
Time to dig out my old Penguin Cafe Orchestra CDs and purchase some new Penguin Cafe ones. I might even check out David Parker and Nadia Tass' '86 movie, Malcolm, which I believe was the first in a long line of movies to recognise the cinematic strength of the Penguins' music.
And if Penguin Cafe visits your part of the world again, do not miss; it's hard to imagine a more fun and uplifting musical experience.
Melbourne Recital Centre by arrangement with Arts Projects Australia presents
Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Date: Monday 5 March 2012 @ 7:30 pm