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Reviews/Music

Musica Viva – planning perfection launches music season

22 February 2022

The first Musica Viva concert for the year takes Penny Shaw on an emotional rollercoaster, spanning centuries as well as continents, from fun and frivolity to the depths of depression.

‘Jonathan Paget and Darlington Quartet’, Musica Viva ·
Perth Concert Hall, 20 February 2021 ·

It seems rare these days for a plan to come together; that a concert should go ahead with the original performers, program, time and venue with no restrictions except for the masks we are now all getting used to. 

And what a joy it was. 

Musica Viva, in association with Perth Festival, presented a stunning chamber music concert at the Perth Concert Hall featuring local guitar virtuoso Jonathan Paget beautifully supported by the Darlington Quartet: Semra Lee-Smith and Zak Rowntree (violins), Sally Boud (viola) and Jonathan Tooby. The delightfully varied program kept us on our toes with offerings from a First Nations composer, a local living composer and a female composer alongside the usual complement of – albeit superbly talented – dead white men.

Performing chamber music in such a large venue holds its challenges, but the positioning of flats just behind the musicians enhanced the sound and made the space feel more intimate. Paget’s guitar, flanked by the strings, was subtly amplified and the ensemble and tone of the instruments collectively was delicious. 

The concert opened firmly in the classical period with The Petit Concerto de Société, written in 1820 by Ferdinando Carulli, an Italian guitarist who emigrated to France. This one movement concerto was effortlessly performed with exceptional virtuosity; a glass of champagne and some chandeliers and we would have been fully transported to a salon in Paris. 

The antithesis of the 19th century European musical experience is perhaps Christopher Sainsbury’s 2002 North Country Sketches. A local take on Delius’ early 20th century piece of the same name, Sainsbury (a descendent of the Dharug/Eora people), uses solo guitar to illustrate the landscape of the Northern Territory, evoking the distances and the sparse landscape using bi-tones and multiphonics. It was an evocative and well executed piece.

The lush, cinematic sound of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet Op. 143, took us to the 1950’s, with solo moments allowing each of the excellent string players to shine. It was so exciting that a smattering of “illegal” applause even snuck out after the first spectacular Allegro. The highlight for me was the Andante, something akin to Bernstein’s Somewhere which was rounded off by a furious Scherzo and fiery Allegro. 

Iain Grandage’s 2008 work Black Dogs, a musical exploration of depression, begins softly with muted chords held by the strings broken by arpeggios from the guitar, glissandi from the cello and peppered with the fluttering of the violin. The Prelude blends seamlessly into the Piu Mosso, which, with the combination of increased tempo, volume and repetitive chords painfully illustrates the anguish of a fractured mind. Just when it feels like the music will resolve at the end of the Andante the frantic  rhythm reawakens, eliciting ferociously committed playing from all concerned. It was astonishing everyone’s strings survived the onslaught, although cellist John Tooby’s bow looked somewhat the worse for wear. It is a powerful composition that leaves a lasting impression. 

After this tour de force Paget left the stage, (presumably to lie down in a dark room with a cold flannel on his brow), and the quartet returned alone to play something of a new discovery, Imogen Holst’s Phantasy Quartet, written in 1928 when she was just 20 years old. The circling of the violins is so akin to Vaughan-Williams’s The Lark Ascending that you wonder if it had been a university assignment to write something in that vein? Not to take anything away from the composition, which was extremely beautiful and once again allowed the Darlington Quartet to demonstrate their superb solo and ensemble skills. 

Two movements from Luigi Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 4 provided a lively end to the night. Chock-full of the flavours of Southern Europe, the highlight was cellist Tooby swapping his cello for some castanets; one almost expected him to throw caution to the wind, get up and dance the fandango. Perhaps next time. 

All in all a deeply satisfying evening from Musica Viva, proving once again that we need not rely on importing our talent from interstate and overseas; something perhaps to bear in mind as we open to the rest of the world. 

Musica Viva’s next Perth concert is ‘Van Diemen’s Band’ on 26 April 2022.

Pictured top: Jonathan Paget is flanked by the four musicians of the Darlington Quartet. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Penny Shaw

Penny is an opera singer/cabaret artist/MC/podcaster/writer/director, in fact a self-confessed 'slashie' with a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University. As a child she loved the the heady terror of a fast roundabout, as a mother of four children she hates swings.

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