The Flinders Quartet season for 2012 suggests they are a brave ensemble. Not because the season includes four great works of the genre in Beethoven’s Op. 135, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, Jancek’s “Intimate Letters” and Smetana’s “From my Life”. The quartet has the maturity and musical commitment to handle these special pieces. Rather, they are brave for the way in which the concerts are conceived.
The overall theme for the year embraces communication in the aural, visual and written sense, and, in the case of their second concert, its loss. How do we communicate our feelings in written, sung or other musical forms? And what happens should we lose the ability to hear?
The first concert, “Intimate Letters” includes Janacek’s outpouring of, largely unrequited, love for a young married woman whom he had met in his sixties and with whom he remained infatuated until he died at seventy-four, the year in which this emotional and intense work was written. To balance this most personal of works, one of Australia’s most famous jazz singers, Vince Jones, will perform Elvis Costello’s “Juliet Letters” mixed in with some of his own compositions. Flinders have collaborated with cross-over artists before to good effect. Their association with Vince Jones promises to be memorable. The work was originally developed in a collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, and is based on imaginary letters to Juliet Capulet. The original song cycle, written for release on CD, ran for over one hour. This Flinders/Jones performance will be of a selection of the original songs interspersed with some originals by Jones.
The middle work of the first concert is by Calvin Bowman. Newly commissioned by the Quartet with assistance from Richard Gubbins, it is based around Michael Leunig’s “Curly Pyjama Letters”. To quote the publisher’s description of this work:
“These letters are a small fragment of the vast correspondence known to have taken place between lone voyager Vasco Pyjama and his friend and mentor Mr Curly of Curly Flat. While domestic contentment and ease with the natural world are Mr Curly’s major attributes, Vasco’s restless nature has compelled him into a great voyage of discovery. In the company of his direction-finding duck, he has wandered far and wide, risking, finding, enjoying and observing much. Theirs is a language of unique personal protocol, as is often found in conversations between creative and intelligent minds in awe of life’s complex grandeur, beauty and pathos.”
Add Bowman’s music to Vince Jones’ spoken delivery of some of these letters, and a magical world will be created.
The Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room is a suitably intimate performance space for this style of music making. Whether it will work so well in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in Melbourne’s Recital Centre remains to be seen. In any event, it promises to be an intense and moving experience.
“Silent Inspiration”, the second concert in the series, is more traditional in structure, with another Calvin Bowman work, Elegie, to begin with. Bowman himself suffers from impaired hearing, so his involvement carries a certain poignancy. Elegie will be followed by Beethoven’s Opus 135 work and then the intense and powerful “From My Life” by Smetana. Roger Fiske, writing in Alex Robertson’s “Chamber Music” for Pelican Books, suggests Beethoven wrote the Op 135 as a relaxation after the tremendous strain of committing his last great quartets to paper. The work does not plumb the depths of human experience, he suggests, and yet achieves something very near to perfection. Your correspondent likes Fiske’s idea that, like Samson, Beethoven was taking leave of music in an unobtrusive way: “calm of mind, all passion spent”. Did his deafness help in this unwinding of talent? Perhaps. There will be readings to amplify this idea.
Smetana’s grand finale, “From My Life” is, in the right hands, a powerful work. Your correspondent admits to having been moved to tears by a gut wrenching performance by the Piatti Quartet at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition earlier this year. Whether Flinders will achieve the same effect remains to be seen. Tears notwithstanding, Flinders have the ability to deliver a performance that will surely be intense and emotionally demanding. In a sense, the work is all a build up to that distressing moment when, in the final movement, a high harmonic mocks the sufferer’s impending deafness. It is a harrowing musical moment.
The third concert, under the title “Behind Closed Doors”, throws convention out the window. In a collaboration with Red Stich Actors’ Theatre, Flinders will present Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” in a cross platform experience which will surely amaze, entertain and move the audience. Can there be lessons in how the quartet members, amongst themselves, communicate different visions of the work and how it best enlightens the audience? Dynamics here may as much mean creative social interaction as loudness and texture. And having seen this interaction between the artists as they mould a great work to their creative vision of it, will it be possible to hear the work in the same way as before?
So is the programming brave? The traditional quartet audience may not approve, but then, who cares? Your correspondent reckons this 2012 season will mark Flinders Quartet as having something more to say than your traditional chamber ensemble. All power to them.
Subscriptions for the 2012 season are on sale now from Sydney Opera House Box Office Ph 02 9250 7777 and from Melbourne Recital Centre (for both Montsalvat and MRC concerts) Ph 03 9699 3333. Concert dates are:
Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House:
Sunday 18 March 5.00pm
Tuesday 29 May 7.00pm
Tuesday 2 October 7.00pm
Melbourne Recital Centre:
Monday 19 March 6.30pm
Monday 28 May 6.30pm
Monday 1 October 6.30pm
Montsalvat Barn Gallery:
Saturday 17 March 2.30pm
Saturday 2 June 2.30pm
Saturday 6 October 2.30pm