Vanity and Romanticism: The Orava Quartet at the Utzon Room.

This afternoon your correspondent attended a vanity event. Unwittingly, but nevertheless attend he did. Now, vanity publishing is common in the field of literature and by no means unknown in the visual arts, although to put on your own, one person, show in a gallery for hire is not generally the way to win the critics’ hearts and minds.

This time it was a composer. According to the notes in the program “increasingly….one of Australia’s most popular composers”. ‘His modern, romantic style……is proving to be extremely popular with audiences.” This sounds impressive, but the first half of the Utzon Room concert by the Orava String Quartet proved less than satisfying. Boring, repetitive stuff. It was well enough played, but the overwhelming question was “why play it at all?” An interval check of the Australian Music Centre website found no reference to the composer in question. Self taught, apparently, the composer is, in his other life a dentist. He is to be congratulated on composing his own music. But he should be careful what he claims for himself. And the quartet? What does it mean when you shout “Weddings, Parties, Anything”?

The Orava Quartet has been on the radar of your correspondent for some years. They are the first quartet of potential to emerge from Sydney’s less than impressive chamber music nurseries since the Tankstream Quartet. (Yes, the Greenway had some potential, but nothing came of it.) That is why, in a blinding thunderstorm, JohnofOz drove in to the city to the Utzon Room. How was Orava developing? Had they moved on since the “Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition” in 2009 when they played a fine Mendelssohn A Minor in the second round? Since that time they have been on Musica Viva’s list as young up-and-comers, have been involved in master classes at the last Musica Viva Festival and have done some touring, both in Australia and beyond.

The last performance your correspondent attended was at a Northern Beaches music club; competent but showing little to demonstrate they were moving forward. Then their names did not appear in the listings for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition this year. This, of course, was the real test of whether they were moving on. Their position? They were a bit busy what with AYO tours and the like. Ok. That is a judgement call. Perhaps the time was not right and 2015 will be the year for them. There is of course the 2013 Asia Pacific Competition. Are they perhaps preparing for that?

Here, then, is the rub of this vanity concert. It was presented by the composer. The Orava were the quartet for hire. That can, perhaps, be understood, particularly if you are an impecunious student or young professional in need of a quid. But can you, as an aspiring quartet, afford the time? There are all the Beethoven early and middle period quartets to learn, not to mention a large handful of Haydn and Mozart. There are the Romantics too to check out and work on. So many works. So little time. And what else did the Orava play this afternoon? The Mendelssohn A Minor. Same as they played in Melbourne in 2009.

The players did a good job of the Mendelssohn. Some parts were nothing short of beautiful. But others suggested a need to work on ensemble in the difficult bits: the openings, the fugal portions, the parts where precision and cohesion are key.

The questions of the day are therefore twofold: Should a young quartet have to prostitute itself by playing second rate compositions just to earn a crust? And, what do they hope to achieve as an aspiring quartet? If they do hope to win a place in the 2015 MICMC they will have to work very hard. The current impression is that they have plateaued. Only long hours and dedication will pull them to the next level. Playing vanity concerts will achieve little. Get back to the woodshed, guys. Put in the hard hours. The potential is there. Only you four can realise it.


About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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4 Responses to Vanity and Romanticism: The Orava Quartet at the Utzon Room.

  1. marcellous says:

    The publicity beforehand indicated that it was the composer who had secured the venue.

    All power to him. Sure, there is a problem then about the expectations of people who buy tickets unaware, as I guess you did.

    Vanity isn’t so different from patronage, is it? Nearly all art has a prostitutive element which our post-Romantic sacralisation of it can only try to wish away.

    • johnofoz says:

      There is indeed vanity in patronage. And where there is no patronage around it is certainly necessary for creative people to self promote. How else do they raise their profile? Indeed, as @frindly pointed out to me, we are all in the vanity publishing business: bloggers, poets, visual artists, performers and composers, putting our stuff out on the internet. So this writer pleads guilty as charged. I don’t agree that nearly all art has a “prostitutive” element.There is much sacred as well as profane. But many practitioners are faced with that elemental challenge. Had I been advising Orava I suspect I would have cautioned them to think carefully before accepting the gig. And when they decided to go ahead I would have reminded them that any performance at the Sydney Opera House may be transformational. You never know who will be there. The few words proffered by Karol Kowalic before the start of the second half just underlined the apparent lack of preparation. Had he convinced me that Paul Halley’s compositions for string quartet were in some way important to the quartet, or clarified how they saw the program hanging together, I may have come away more impressed. What I do know is that Karol needs a presentation skills lesson or two. (He is not alone amongst even more seasoned professional musicians in this regard.) So, as my blog profile makes clear, I came away railing at youth. But I do wonder at their creativity. Perhaps Halley will grow as a composer. I wish him well. I know the Orava Quartet have the potential to grow creatively. I just hope their collective ambition is sufficient to drive them to the next stage of their development. Or will we see them setting off overseas individually to further their studies? It is probably tougher being a string quartet than it is being a composer.

  2. David williams says:

    Mate, you are a fuckwit of the highest order. I was at the concert and I thought it was magnificent. People like you feel a pathological need to put new music down to feel better about your own inadequacies. Halley is a wonderful new composer who should be supported. Let’s see if you have the balls, or even the basic common decency, to publish this comment. David W

    • johnofoz says:

      Thank you for your comment. I certainly do not feel a need “to put new music down”, as you would see from my earlier blogs about ISCM’s World Music Days here in Sydney. Marcellous also disagreed with me, above. If critical comment did not elicit at least some disagreement, there would be little point in penning it.

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