Music in the Round – Abbotsford Convent

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Published: 27th September, 2017

It’s Sunday in September, Spring is in the air, and Melbourne weather is predictably unpredictable. What better way to while away a day than within the walls of the picturesque and historic Abbotsford Convent? Since launching in 1972 at Montsalvat under the auspices of the Australian Musicians Guild, Music in the Round also took place at Werribee Mansion before moving to Abbotsford in 1977, where it delighted audiences for 9 years before disappearing. Music in the Round returned in 2014, marking the 10th birthday of the Abbotsford Convent Foundation.

So what is Music in the Round? It’s an all-day feast of very generous proportions, and with the very best of intentions, it is impossible to sample all the delights. On Sunday, we had three beautiful venues – the superb Chapel, the more intimate Mural Hall, and the grand Rosina Function Space each offering 45 minute concerts simultaneously, mostly repeating the programs in the afternoon, so that you could take in a possible six of the whole ten different programs. There were more events outside too! In such a relaxed environment, it was clear that while some patrons did attempt the whole six programs, others did leave some time for reflection, and just chose a few for the day.

I feasted on 5 magnificent concerts. Selecting the Rosina Space first, it was wonderful to have seats arranged in a semicircle around the piano, so that everyone was close enough to see Stefan Cassomenos a fine piano soloist, chamber musician, composer and champion of new music, perform Franz Liszt’s stunning arrangement for solo piano of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A Major, Op.92.

Piano reductions can be a great way to get to know orchestral works, as I have found when attempting some of the Beethoven Symphonies in piano four hands duet versions. The piano gives a good range of pitches, from the highest to the lowest, and having four hands helps enormously to fill in the chords. Playing the piece helps you to notice when one motif you know is from a flute part now appears in the bassoon. Although we would never have performed these versions with our approximations of some of the trickier bits, it was certainly an informative process.

This Liszt arrangement is something else! He has managed to get the symphony completely into the solo piano, requiring the performer to use the entire range of the keyboard, often simultaneously, and frequently playing octaves in contrary motion, emulating furious string passages. Cassomenos’ performance was exhilarating! Considering that pianos can only hit the strings with hammers, he managed somehow to create many orchestral techniques and sounds, giving us soaring melodies or fragments, heard as though on different instruments, percussive repeated chords, brightness at the top, and the dull heaviness of thudding basses. As the Poco Sostenuto section of the opening movement came to an end with a series of repeated notes, and repeated silences, and the familiar Vivace theme was about to appear, Cassomenos used every ounce of a conductor’s theatricality to delay the moment, the audience joining him in anticipation of what was to come next.

A particularly magic moment at the beginning of the second movement’s sombre, low repeated chords reminded us of our leafy surroundings. The birds outside were singing very sweetly in the highest register, with their own contribution to the day’s music-making.

This massive work and such a commanding performance had the audience spellbound throughout, and Cassomenos was fêted with a standing ovation.

With my head still spinning from the Beethoven, I stayed on in the Rosina Function Space for the next offering there – Festival Director and cellist Chris Howlett, and pianist Rhodri Clarke. Their performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Piano and Cello gave us another substantial work but a different colour palette, for which I was grateful.

Howlett is a wonderful cellist, specialising in chamber music, though he also performs concertos and solo recitals when not directing festivals or producing concerts. Rhodri Clarke is highly credentialed pianist, who counts among his many credits accompanying Bryn Terfel at Carnegie Hall, and performing as a duo-pianist with David Helfgott in concerts around the world.

Introducing the Rachmaninov Sonata, Chris Howlett reminded us of the composer’s symphonic failure, which led to a break from composition. After three years of hypnotherapy he returned to write this Sonata for Piano and Cello and the piano concerto, both successful.

The Sonata is a beautiful work, and from the opening unaccompanied semitone, Howlett’s musicality shone. Many of the themes are introduced by the piano, and Clarke was similarly convincing, the new material then echoed and sometimes embellished by the cello. Their acute sense of ensemble was never in doubt, whether in the most passionate climax in the third movement, or the stunningly beautiful long cello melody leading to a perfect close. The very beautiful Vocalise by the same composer was also well-received by an enthusiastic audience.

Anna Goldsworthy, piano soloist, chamber musician, writer, lecturer and festival curator, was the next performer to sit at the hardworking Kawai piano in the Rosina Space. In fact, after its very taxing workout the tuner was touching it up moments before Goldsworthy entered the packed room for her program, a very intelligently selected group of works for this sort of event.

Beginning with two less-often performed Bach Preludes and Fugues from Book 1, performed as a sort of blessing (in the same way that cellist Pablo Casals began every day sitting at the piano), it continued with 3 Schubert Impromptus, some charming short Prokofiev pieces, and Liszt’s Paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

I loved hearing Prokofiev’s Five Sarcasms – short pieces providing a microcosm of his style – often grotesque and dissonant, but also strongly melodic and rhythmically interesting, and the Rigoletto tribute, mainly referencing the famous quartet. But the absolute highlight was Goldsworthy’s stunning performance of three of the Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90. She mentioned briefly beforehand that Schubert often participated in informal gatherings of musicians, wealthy friends and aficionados, and that he might have played these at such occasions. In this “salon” environment, hearing the music from close quarters, we were at a “Schubertiade”. Goldsworthy’s performance was breathtakingly even of touch, with melody lines allowed to sing, with long accompanying figures and scale passages taking on an improvisatory quality.

Anna Goldsworthy’s stunning performance was greeted with another standing ovation from a very enthusiastic audience.

Some wise attendees had organised boxed lunches while others spent a long time in the coffee queue, finding some sunshine, avoiding the wind, or just enjoying the beautiful surroundings. The Abbotsford Convent has recently become the 111th building in Australia to be added to the National Heritage List, and currently some of the buildings are undergoing renovation. But there is still plenty to explore in other buildings and the extensive grounds.

Moving to the beautifully appointed Chapel in the afternoon, I heard the fabulous Arcadia Winds. This fine wind quintet – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and french horn – came together at ANAM where they committed to “energetic, joyful and spontaneous performances, Australian music played by Australian musicians, and making music accessible to all.” Like all good young ensembles, their website is a useful resource, and has plans to have a portal of performances of the many new Australian works that are now available.

Samuel Barber’s beautiful Summer Music uses the five instruments in different ways to evoke the sounds of summer. Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Echoes and Lines uses a single rhythmic motif as the unifying idea for 9 short movements, exploiting the ensemble’s sound colour potentials in a variety of ways. The final work, Carl Neilsen’s Wind Quintet was written for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, with the differing characters of the members being expressed in a particularly wonderful last movement theme and variations. Arcadia Winds certainly lived up to their ideals with a joyful and energetic concert, and beautiful solo and ensemble playing from each of their number.

Ian Munro and Sara Macliver joined forces to present a charming program of Lieder and Chansons, also in the Chapel. Macliver is a versatile soprano, well-known for her Baroque concert repertoire, as well as opera, concert and festival performances, and recordings.
Munro has won International prizes, performed and recorded numerous concerti as a pianist, and is now an established composer.

In this recital, coming only hours after a performance of Brahms Requiem in Perth on Saturday night, Macliver demonstrated her refreshingly bell-like purity of tone, capable of a tasteful range of vocal colours. The program of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Hahn and Duparc kept to “safe” repertoire, with Mozart highlights being a beautifully characterised Das Veilchen, giving great personality to the voice of the violet, and Ridente la calma with very tasteful classical ornamentation in both voice and piano. Mendelssohn’s Nachtlied was superb, and an audible “aaah” of appreciation took over from the silence at the song’s end. Hahn’s A Chloris with its expansive lines was my pick of the French chansons, and as a bonus, the audience enjoyed a couple of William Bolcom’s more adventurous Cabaret Songs. Munro’s accompanying was always full of character, and thoroughly sympathetic.

In a big day, I inevitably missed several performances, including William Hennessy’s Melbourne Chamber Orchestra with Louisa Breen, Sophie Rowell (solo violin), Julian Smiles (solo cello), and the MITR Young Performers, Caleb Wong (cello) and Jackie Wong (violin).

By all accounts patrons had enjoyed a wonderful day, with their own highlights being discussed by several parties on my bus trip back to the city.