I’d been led to be curious about the new UNSW/Australia Ensemble piano. And last night at the first subs concert for the year we were told that it had arrived in Sydney from Hamburg on Friday. And there it was, sitting on the stage.
I was extremely surprised. I have a memory of a visiting pianist not being allowed to use a newly arrived Steinway on account of its not having been in the new climate long enough, not having settled from its journey and not having undergone the necessary progression of voicing and tuning required for a new instrument. And yet here was a Steinway, barely 36 hours in the country and already pressed into duty on the concert platform. Admittedly this was for one chamber piece not a full virtuoso recital, and therein lies a considerable difference in demands. There may have been other factors I wasn’t aware of in the scenario I’m recalling. All the same, it did make me wonder whether what we were seeing and listening to was in fact the borrowed instrument identified in the program book, while the new piano sat quietly in the wings, waiting for a real debut in April.
Of course, I couldn’t really entertain that speculation for more than a few minutes without realising that, by implication, I would be accusing the presenters of a certain amount of disingenuousness in their excitement. And I don’t feel comfortable about that, not least because it makes me so very cross (and frustrated) when my own organisation is accused of less than noble motivations based on superficial or partially informed observations. So I’ll dispense with the cynical thought; it’s the only thing to do. The piano was a fresh Hamburger and I remain surprised.
As I’ve mentioned before, the sheer variety of the Australia Ensemble programming is hugely appealing to me. The Ensemble’s non-standard line-up is no doubt a challenge or even a constraint at times, but the response is unfailingly imaginative. This is all really interesting chamber music in programs that you’d never hear from a presenter that traffics in touring ensembles. That said, Winter Songs left me cold in a way that I suspect it wasn’t intended to and which I hadn’t expected from the composer. The wind playing was very fine, so I suspect my disappointment was brought on by the discrepancy between the piece’s conception and my expectations of any work that features a singer and includes words. But as was pointed out to me, nowhere does the composer or the program annotator refer to this work as a “song cycle”; measuring it in those terms was my own projection. The music’s origins in a commission from a wind quintet holds the clue: this is music for wind ensemble in which one of the “players” is using his voice. (Actually more than one player uses his voice, the other being a very fine male alto, although he was only whispering in this instance.) Perhaps it’s old-fashioned, but I do bring certain expectations to vocal music, or music with voice, and this was not a piece that moved me through the delivery of its texts.
As an aside, it was very difficult to follow the texts in the semi-darkness – a fact made all the more frustrating when the light level was raised to a good level for the second (purely instrumental) half.
I won’t add much more except to say that I could listen to the aforesaid male alto playing horn forever. Beautiful.