A fine city is a city of villages. And villages are communities who, at least in some villages, have performance spaces. Last week your correspondent had cause to visit three communities of very different styles and sizes, all in the cause of the search for fine classical music performance. He, therefore, found himself in three incredibly different performance spaces, listening to much the same program each night by the same players, his good friends, the Flinders Quartet.
Even the casual reviewer must sometimes feel in a bind. Does a close personal relationship preclude an objective review? Is it sufficient to just declare an interest? And if so, how much of the glowing praise (if any) can the reader believe? And what of critical comment and its possible effect on the personal relationship? Taking all this into account, your correspondent has decided to mix the quotation of a review by others with observations on the halls and their effect on the performances. The quotations no doubt risk offending the copyright police. (First you pay to view the article, then News Corp wants money to let you use the material). Surely the offence is hardly egregious, since author and source are quoted. In any event, like most superannuants, your correspondent’s asset base is rapidly diminishing and hence would be poor lawyer fodder.
But you opened with a paragraph suggesting something about performance spaces, you ask? They are important here because of the way in which individual hall acoustics can have a dramatic effect on how a performance is perceived.
The subject concerts were part of the Flinders Quartet’s Utzon Room subscription series, repeated at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Surrey Hills and then for the Mozart Society at the Gillian Moore Centre for Performing Arts at PLC Pymble. The works played, in slightly modified selections were Haydn’s String Quartet Op 77 No 1, the Shostakovich String Quartet No 7, Mozart’s two duos for violin and viola, and Beethoven’s great Opus 132 quartet. Of this program, omitting the Shostakovich, Peter Donnelly of the Hobart Mercury had this to say, first of the Beethoven:
“…… in the special atmosphere and intimate acoustic of Epsom House, and in front of an attentive capacity audience, it was a very special experience that will live on in the memory. The Flinders Quartet produced playing of concentration and intensity, particularly in that amazing third movement. This is music that still provokes awe in its modernity and spiritual depth.
The remainder of the program allowed the Flinders Quartet to demonstrate its qualities in more traditionally classical fare. There was a fine interplay between the performers in Mozart’s attractive and contrasted String Duos, one in G major (K 423), the other in B flat major (K 424).
The program opened with one of Haydn’s superb late quartets composed in 1799. The String Quartet in G major Op 77, No 1 was presented with energy, wit and charm.”
The first Sydney performance took place in the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room, without the Mozart Duos, including instead the Shostakovich 7th Quartet. This is an emotionally unsettled work, shifting between many moods. The emotional variations were starkly portrayed with a fine intensity in the fugue of the third movement and well articulated fluency in the more refined moments.
The acoustics of the Utzon Room are not to everyone’s taste. Your correspondent finds them responsive enough for a variety of chamber music. Some have referred to them as “brittle”. This is a term apparently often used to describe New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, with one reviewer suggesting once the New York Philharmonic sometimes sounds like “a brass band in search of a bar-room brawl”. Indeed if you are so unwise as to overplay in the Utzon Room, this may well be the effect. But the Flinders could certainly not be accused of overplaying, and hence the Haydn came across with appropriate delicacy and some delightfully nuanced phrasing and dynamic contrast. Mr Donnelly’s view of the Beethoven could well also have described the Utzon room performance. Perhaps “brittle” acoustics lend themselves to Beethoven played with skill. The first movement of this quartet is, however, an incredibly complex piece of music which, on reflection, perhaps still needs some work on Flinders’ part to achieve a close proximity to perfection in what one writer called “a veritable devotional act of music”.
The acoustic of the Ray Hughes Gallery, Surrey Hills, could not be more different. The selected and intimate space for the performance was ideal for the purpose. Chamber Music as it should be heard, in a room with fine artworks on the wall and hard surfaces to provide lively body to the music. For Shostakovich the sound was superb. So would it have been for Brahms and Schubert. For Haydn, however, the result was a very big sound which detracted from the lightness and precision the players were working hard to deliver. There could be good argument for more robust performance of Haydn’s later quartets, as compared, say, to his earlier works. They do contain some wonderful melodies and incorporate some of the dynamic subtleties (and not so subtleties) later refined by Beethoven. In the event the performance was romantic rather than classical, but nonetheless entrancing for all that.
The third concert, in the Gillian Moore Performing Arts Centre, Pymble presented, acoustically, greater challenges. Built as a multi-purpose venue for school use, the hall has not been designed with a chamber acoustic at the forefront of the design brief: its shape is wrong, the stage is deep, its seating is heavily padded and plush, and it is steeply raked. A poorly integrated screen has been erected to project the sound forward. The first problem the audience has is where to sit. The sound varies greatly. Although some characterize the acoustic as warm, a better description might be “dead”. In the hall’s defence your correspondent did sit too close to the front in the first half. The Haydn, while sounding like a different work if compared with the Ray Hughes Gallery performance, none the less came across as a more historically informed performance where the dynamic shifts were somehow able to work around the deadness and come across as precision and lightness of touch. For the second half, from a balcony seat, it was clear the preferred seating in this hall should be to the rear. The higher the better. The Beethoven sounded fine up in “the gods”, even if some of the intensity was lost through sound absorption.
The two Mozart violin and viola duos were beautifully played, particularly the second for which violinist Erica Kennedy and violist Helen Ireland had had the opportunity to read the hall with its full complement of audience. While perhaps not “vintage Mozart”, the works would be a lovely addition to any classical program. They could, of course be enhanced if played in your drawing room. You wish.
By way, almost, of postscript, if you do not know the story behind the writing of the two Mozart Duos, seek it out. It is a tale of great generosity of spirit and consideration (Michael Haydn the beneficiary) as well as a touch of self effacement to confuse and mislead the intended recipient, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. A delightful story.