A Brief History of Time – Chamber Landscapes

A Brief History of Time – Chamber LandscapesLeft – Genevieve Lacey

Chamber Landscapes is a long weekend of chamber music held yearly as part of the Adelaide Festival at Ukaria, a cultural centre with an auditorium purpose-built for chamber music, quite possibly the best in the country. It has huge windows behind the performance area, through which the audience can see the beautiful rolling countryside outside Mount Barker, hence the title Chamber Landscapes. This year the cross-section of music which gave the weekend its Hawking-esque sub-title consisted of indigenous music, mediaeval folksongs and chants in modern arrangements, Baroque music, and music written mainly by Australians in the last 60 years or so. The weekend was curated by Genevieve Lacey, one of whose central missions is to make early music accessible to modern ears. I attended the second day, which contained three concerts.

First up was a Baroque recital by Paolo Pandolfo, an Italian viola da gamba player of deep personal modesty but great distinction, ably supported by lutenist Eduardo Egüez and five Australian baroque specialists. Modern European gambists are broadly speaking from one of two lineages, that of Wieland Kuijken and that of Jordi Savall (well-known to Australian audiences) to which Pandolfo belongs.

This concert began with five pieces by Diego Ortiz, a late Renaissance gamba composer in whose work one can see the transition from Renaissance music, which is based on vocal polyphony, to Baroque music, which is instrumentally based. Ortiz’s music is set in standard Renaissance genres – passamezzo, Romanesca, ricercar etc, yet in Ortiz the viola da gamba truly establishes itself as a solo instrument. Pandolfo revelled in the music of this great experimenter – what can this instrument do? What lyrical utterances, or virtuosic flourishes, is it capable of? Sparsely accompanied by Daniel Yeadon, playing another gamba, or by pizzicato from Kirsty McCahon’s double bass, or Marshall McGuire’s baroque harp, we were led into the very special world of the viola da gamba through the portal of Ortiz by Pandolfo’s beautifully nuanced performances.

Next came two pieces by the Scotsman Tobias Hume, in the British consort music tradition. This is not music you would listen to in search of harmonic variety, and is really more fun for the players than the audience. But it was succeeded by music by the great French gamba composer Marin Marais, of whom that could certainly not be said. Marais’ music is the acme of that French preoccupation with style, and embodies precisely those inflections of speech, of attitude, of gesture, which even now we think of as French. “Ce sont les petits details qui font le style”, as I was once told in a Parisian clothes shop, and here are all those details – finely expressed ornamentation, gorgeous double suspensions arising from nowhere, and a deep understanding of the huge variety of sonorities possible on the gamba. In Variations on a Ground in G major all the supporting ensemble played, including Daniel Yeadon, and hearing him play with Pandolfo I thought the only thing better than a viola da gamba was two violas da gamba. It’s a unique richness of sound, capable in the hands of Pandolfo of a shimmering range of nuance.

Marais worked at the court of Louis XIV, who played the gamba himself, and during his reign the instrument had its last flowering in the works of St Colombe, Marais, and his successor Antoine Forqueray. One of these players is on record as saying that since the gamba is the king of instruments, it must have been played in the Garden of Eden, and since it was played by Adam and Eve it must be the king of instruments. Or some such Gallic logic. It was also said that while Marais played “comme un ange” (like an angel), Forqueray played “comme le diable” (like the devil). Pandolfo now proceeded to play “comme le diable” in five character portraits by Forqueray, all describing women of his acquaintance. Some of these must have been a force to be reckoned with! Violent, jagged staccato, chords, abrupt silences, powerful sonorities – some of these women would have given you a hard time. But then the fourth, La du Vaucel, was the epitome of tenderness.

As a coda to his recital, Pandolfo played a couple of his own pieces, which were indistinguishable in style from much of the music he’d already played. Gentle and wistful, they epitomised the understatement, the respect, and also the passion, that imbues all his playing.

The next concert was by Trio Mediaeval, who performed their arrangements of Nordic folk music and chant in a similar vein to their concert on the previous Wednesday, though without their trumpeter. I have reviewed that elsewhere in these pages, so I won’t devote space to them here.

The final concert was a potentially interesting interweaving of music by Kate Moore and by Purcell, Alfonso Ferrabosco and Louis Couperin. The supporting cast for Pandolfo’s recital earlier in the day, now expanded to nine players, become soloists, except for the Purcell pieces which involved several string instruments. Kate Moore is an Australian composer born in England and working in the Netherlands, though we were not told anything about her either in the program or verbally. Moore’s pieces were all minimalist studies, of which only the last used more than the seven notes of the diatonic scale. Each was for a solo instrument. The first, entitled Whoever you are, come forth, was for solo cello, was most eloquently played by Daniel Yeadon, and set the stage for something unusual. But the next, Stories for Ocean Shells, for double bass, was clumsily written for the instrument, which Moore treated as if it were a big cello. Many were accompanied by pre-recorded music, and I found that without exception these went on too long, especially as her minimalist style (think Philip Glass or Louis Andriessen) meant that all the pieces were pretty predictable. Some of the playing on the pre-recorded tapes was not up to the high standard of every member of the ensemble either. And there was no explanation for the titles to her works, for which I could find no parallel in the music.

The baroque pieces were all played lovingly by these great Baroque specialists, though I felt that they wondered what the connection really was between these pieces and Moore’s music. The standout piece of Moore’s was the last, Synaesthesia. This, for violin and tape, was a series of different slabs of minimalist semiquavers played with impressive virtuosity by Thomas Gould. Indeed it was a tour de force, and a fantastic end to a perhaps underwhelming concert, which was nonetheless a brave experiment on the part of the curator, Genevieve Lacey.

In other concerts from Friday evening to Monday, the musical spectrum was broadened to include Yolgnu song, and a recital by Richard Tognetti and Erin Helyard. The pleasure of hearing such a carefully thought-out and brilliantly executed series of concerts in the unique setting of Ukaria is something it is impossible to experience elsewhere in this country. Long may Chamber Landscapes continue!

2019 Adelaide Festival
A Brief History of Time – Chamber Landscapes
Day 2

Curator Genevieve Lacey

Venue: Ukaria Cultural Centre | 119 Williams Rd, Mt Barker Summit SA
Dates: 8 – 11 March 2019
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

 

 

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