This story was going to be about Musica Viva coffee concerts, but has widened to a celebration of the choice available at a reasonable price to Melbourne’s music lovers. Recent examples include concerts by the Benaud Trio, Frank Pam and the Melbourne Musicians, and pianist Hoang Pham and fellow artists but, fine musicians as they all are, they are representative of many others. In Melbourne you can find fine music, with performances all year round, morning, afternoon and evening, with worthy affordable alternatives to the big names.
The Benauds (as the group named in honour of the cricket legend are sometimes affectionately called) presented an interesting program for a recent Musica Viva coffee concert, comprising a favourite work of theirs with two contemporary works. These were well received by the audience which included, as well as the expected seasoned concertgoers, a good number of school students. (Musica Viva supports this audience development as part of its in-school programs).
First was Smetana’s first (and only) piano trio, completed just months after the death of his four-year old daughter. As one might expect from a work born out of grief, the music that was beautiful, and tinged with sadness. Brothers violinist Lachlan and cellist Ewen Bramble have an empathy from their long association and so the violin was sweet, the cello mellow, with the piano the link between them. Amir Farid is to be applauded for never taking advantage of having the largest and potentially loudest instrument on the stage. His well-judged pianissimo was as noteworthy as a contrasting dramatic violin passage and the strings’ furious bowing before the perfect ending to the first movement, all three in admirable sync.
There was more of the same in the next movements with the lyricism matched by a furious and brilliant energy to end the work. Vintage Benaud. Some of this style was put to good use in the next two works, beginning with Nicole Murphy’s Spinning Top, a new work in 2016 and commissioned for Musica Viva Australia by Andrea and Malcolm Hall-Brown to encourage greater support of the arts.
Once over the slightly awkward beginning, the spinning top was suggested by the light fast pace with some syncopated rhythm. The melody in turn was led by the piano and the cello, and all three players delivered a subtly cheeky piece which was a good choice for the audience. As this was a Coffee Concert, Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music was even more appropriate, and introduced by Lachlan Bramble as “highly caffeinated”.
It should be noted that the audience had had their coffee fix at 10am in the ambience of the Melbourne recitals Centre foyer, and so were perhaps well prepared for the coffee house atmosphere that the music conjured up!
A couple of weeks later, and having just last year celebrated their own 40th anniversary, the Melbourne Musicians went one further in celebration of their founder and director Frank Pam’s 80th birthday, offering birthday cake to pleased patrons. The concert program, titled “Ah, Vienna”, was equally sweet, delivering popular classics exemplified by Vienna Bonbons by Johann Strauss ll. A similar audience to that of the Benaud concert showed their appreciation for every work presented to them, after the interval including George Dreyfus’s work, Love your Animal.
One of the strengths of Pam’s orchestra is its long-term support of local musicians, presenting fine soloists in a variety of programs. The performance of Massenet’s famous Meditation from Thais was particularly well received when played by soloist Ksenia Belenko. The young violinist played with passion and variety in dynamics, and inspired the orchestra to do the same. A lovely moment, which summed up the audience’s reaction, was hearing a young child give a heartfelt “Aaaah” of appreciation at the end of a beautiful performance of this work.
Melbourne audiences are also very well served by pianists, for instance one that the city has taken to its heart, not least because he was the ABC’s Young Performer winner in 2013. Hoang Pham recently gave a concert entitled Encore, appropriately as he has quite a punishing schedule, as a soloist, ensemble member and mentor for younger musicians. But his great strength is in his performances of the romantic repertoire for the piano, and so it was a delight to be offered one more concert to round off a very successful year for Hoang and others in his piano Trio, violinist Rebecca Chan and cellist Mee Na Lojewski. Also performing was young violinist William Nguyen, who nearly stole the show with his performance of Vivaldi. This concert, like many at other venues throughout the year, offered student discounts, starting at a very reasonable $19.
Not every concert that Melbournians are offered is a stunning success from a polished performer or ensemble. Christmas is a good time to reflect on the diversity of musical offerings within our city, with much to love, from neighbourhood carols to great oratorios. While the better performances may be given by professionals, there is a strong “second tier” that should not be dismissed as inferior to the better-known (and advertised) names.
There is undoubtedly plenty of choice for audiences throughout the year, particularly with daytime concerts, usually at lower costs. This is very fortunate as it allows people to enjoy the pleasure of live music, and encourages a culture of performance with music from contemporary composers as well as the classical favourites. Given the number of choirs and music students in our city there is also reason to believe that these concerts encourage and inspire participation in music-making.
Most ensembles and performers have published their 2017 schedules with tickets for individual concerts starting to become available. Please consider, in addition to the series offered by the larger organisations, treating yourself or someone else to an exploration of Melbourne’s lesser-known classical music concerts next year. What may seem to be just an inexpensive choice may prove to be one of the most memorable concerts you will reflect on in 12 months time!