30 March 2012

ACU with the Hillard Ensemble in concert, Wollongong

From time to time I take my kids to various concerts that in our household is categorised as "dad's music", because, let's face it, the stuff that I love is in minority and often causes discomfort amongst people in social settings. I do this not to torture my children, but because we (that is, me and the wife) recognise the value of a diverse education. Why should we let our children only learn about fun stuff when we weren't allowed to? No, they should be tortured just like I was when I was a boy, only I wasn't tortured with great music. Sorry, did I say torture after all? I meant, educated. There, fixed it.

So, off I took Lilje, age 8, to Wollongong and the Town Hall for a concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra featuring the Hillard Ensamble a couple of weeks ago (I had an accident of late, so some time passed before I could even write this down). Neither of these two art music groups need no real introduction; they are world class acts, and they are awesome.

Going to this concert was thinking that this was a guaranteed good time for me, and hopefully an enjoyable evening for Lilje. But as the world turns and proves itself stranger than what we can imagine at times, it turned out that something's afoot in the playpen. I didn't actually read the program before we went, and the first time I glanced at it was going into the thing, and I remember my reaction very precisely; "Huh?"

First up, the Town Hall, a dreadful hall with crap acoustics, built in depressing 70's wood-panel, all floor seating on a flat floor, meaning Lilje had to sit on my lap for most of the concert to see anything at all. And these were cheap plastic-in-a-row seats guaranteed to be a pain in the arse from beginning until end, and needless to say, that guarantee was more than fulfilled.

Ok, the program. Since the Hillard Ensemble would be present I had thought that the ACO had brought out their finest silver. First out was Elgar. Now, I'm the first to admit that Elgar bores me more than thrills me, but I thought that surely ACO couldn't go too terribly wrong here, they could choose some of Elgars really wonderful stuff, snippets from his symphonies, or the more obvious Violin Concerto, or even Introduction and Allegro for strings. But no, they had chosen the mostly pleasant but boring Serenade in E, Opus 20 (of 1892) that reeks of conformity. What was up with that? Some unwanted due diligence towards the Hillards' English heritage or something? Looking at the audience, however, confirmed my other suspicion; it was played because it's a popular piece, especially with the, ahem, older demographics. However, it was played well.

Next up, the Hillard Ensemble did "Ah, gentle Jesu", a medieval romp by Sheryngham (around 1500), and they did what the Hillard Ensemble does best; they sang like no other group could do, and it was wonderful, if not draped in some weird dullness by the rotten acoustics. Although I think David James was out of this world awesome to not let the dullness kill his amazing singing!

And then, the final piece of the first part, was the only piece in the whole concert that the ACO and the Hillard's actually did together; Raskatov's "Obikhod", a piece you don't want to take normal people to at the best of times; a great piece for those with patience, difficult to perform, impossible to master, chuck full of idiosyncrasies, discordance, flat harmonies, fuge-like patterns of non-melodic music ... it was, eh, kind of overwhelming, and I thought to myself that this wasn't perhaps the best concert to take an 8-year old to. I can't say I enjoyed this piece, but I certainly appreciated it. It was wrapped up by a lyrical repetitive but thematically interestingly "Most Holy Mother of God" by Pärt, sung by the Hillard's.

Then there was a break in which me and Lilje a) tried to get a drink, b) gave up and went to a kiosk across the street to get a drink, c) racing back because Lilje had to go to the toilet, d) race back across the street to get the drinks, e) race back to get seated again.

Second half was the Hillard's doing Gregorian and medieval French chants, strangely without the awesome David James, a section of 6 songs, with the highlight of the concert in the middle; Ross Edwards' "Veni Creator Spritus", a string octet in two movements. The first was nice and polyphonic and templetative, but the second more lively and full of interesting bounces, melodies and harmonies. But then again, it was Ross Edwards, so it couldn't really be bad. And the ACO, again, played it to what I can only assume was flawless. Wonderful stuff.

Last piece out was Arensky's "Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky", probably his most famous piece, but not all that know to people in general. And it was, well, nice and all, like a romantic more likeable Tchaikovsky, short and sweet and more to the point. Lilje recognised the Tchaikovsky patterns she plays in her own ensemble, which, I think, was for her the highlight. Hmm.

All in all, the ACO played wonderful. They have such a wonderful tone (and a little bird has whispered baroque tuning in my ear, which might explain some of it), some times so perfectly delicate that it's easy to forget that there's fallible people up there. And the Hillard's were great singers as usual. The problem was the program itself, and I also had this feeling I get when two great entities come together in a concert; "you do a bit, we do a bit, then you do a bit, then we do a bit" rather than making music together, with the difficult Raskatov an honourable exception. And the bits they had chosen weren't the best of bits, either.

At the end of the night I promised Lilje to take her to a better - or, perhaps, a more accessible - concert some other time.

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