Tag Archives: Roger Smalley

Roger Smalley: 60!

Roger Smalley: 60!

Callaway Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Birthdays are fun – even more so when gifts can be shared with an auditorium crammed with concertgoers, including friends, colleagues and former students, all gathered to mark the 60th birthday of composer/pianist Roger Smalley.

Gift of the evening was a striking new work by Cathie Travers played by the Australian Piano Quartet. The Tower is a substantial piece, a delightful and engrossing revisiting of the now almost vanished palm-court style of musicmaking but with a sensuous, smouldering overlay that places it firmly in some smoky Buenos Aires bar. With its affectionate obeisance to tango meister Astor Piazzolla, The Tower is a work which, whether darkly brooding or extrovert in zany fashion, will surely be a temptation to choreographers; it cries out for dance treatment with its irresistible rhythms, glowing harmonies and a sure feel for what works in tango-like terms. If this gem doesn’t make it into the standard piano quartet repertoire, I would like to know why. It certainly deserves to be there.

The greater part of the program was devoted to Smalley’s own music and began with his performance of a minuet he’d written when he was all of nine years old. His Variations on a Theme of Chopin is music of a very different stripe. It was given a stunningly virtuoso reading by Adam Pinto who steered a sure and nimble way through this musical minefield as, at the work’s many explosive climaxes, he hurled great chunks of sound into the auditorium. As well, we heard Smalley in his Piano Pieces 1 ­ V which have a Webernian brevity ­ and the Barcarolle, one of his most successful keyboard works.

Another Smalley composition that is almost certain to last is his Music for an Imaginary Ballet. Written for a battery of percussion ranging from marimba, vibraphone, brake drums and glockenspiel to cymbals and bass drum, its exotic, darting arabesques and trills sounded quite magical as Paul Tanner brought extraordinary mallet-wielding skills to bear on the score. And in Smalley’s Trio for horn, violin and piano, with the composer at the keyboard in ensemble with Darryl Poulsen (horn) and Paul Wright (violin), we were taken on a journey through often bleak and grimly austere musical landscapes, leavened by impish, treble traceries on the piano, splendid call-to-attention utterances by the horn and an overall standard of excellence we’ve come to expect of violinist Wright.almost as a matter of course.

A fascinating and crowded program also included Echo II, expertly played by cellist Jon Tooby with digital delays of two and a half and 5 seconds giving an intriguing ensemble feel to the proceedings.

Six Minutes for Smalley, described as a celebratory suite of one-minute- long birthday tribute pieces by half a dozen local composers, took longer than its allotted time and included delights such as a little samba played by Paul Tanner on marimba, vibraphone and brake drums ­ and another samba, played at the piano by composer Cathie Travers with Tanner providing rhythm accompaniment on two miniature sand shakers. Catherine Cahill did wonders on the clarinet, producing a stream of velvety smooth sound to bring Lindsay Vickery’s miniature tribute to life. As well, we heard husband and wife team Evan Kennea and Emily Green-Armytage in Kennea’s two- piano-tribute. And Darryl Poulsen directed French horn sound into an opened concert grand, with composer James Ledger demonstrating wondrous skill at depressing the piano’s damper pedal. Also in on the act were soprano Merlyn Quaife singing a haiku-type text to the accompaniment of two cellos played by Jon Tooby and composer Iain Grandage.

Throughout the evening, Smalley, who has over the years worked tirelessly to raise the profile of new music in the city, provided a linking commentary about the genesis of this work or that. It says much for the future of new music in Perth that such an enthusiastic audience turned out for this event on one of the year’s most miserably wet and gusty evenings

Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn.

Die Winterreise (Schubert/Zender)

Die Winterreise (Schubert/Zender)

Steve Davislim (tenor)
with WASO New Music Ensemble
Roger Smalley (conductor)

Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn





It takes a good deal of courage to tinker with an established masterpiece. It’s an enterprise fraught with hazard and it seldom works well. Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work Pictures at an Exhibition is a superb exception to the rule. Hamilton Harty’s dreadful, thick-textured re-visiting of Handel’s Water Music is its antithesis – as are Stokowski’s vulgar transcriptions for orchestra of some of Bach’s organ works.

So one listened with particular interest to Hans Zender’s reworking of the piano part of that greatest of song cycles – Schubert’s Die Winterreise – for voice and orchestra.

Let it be said at once, though, that, some occasional weakenings of concentration aside when synchronisation was less than ideal, Roger Smalley and his instrumental forces brought unfailing seriousness of purpose to a tricky task, no mean achievement, given the difficulties posed by the score.

This was no small enterprise. But was the game worth the candle? With the exception of a few lieder, in which the essence of the song’s enshrined emotions was faithfully preserved, I would have to say not really. Too frequently, there was a fussiness about the arrangements, a detail-overload that tended to get in the way of the music rather than allowing its message to reach the listener untrammelled as I’d imagine Schubert might have wanted it to. In stead, the transcription reminded me of a Christmas tree, the branches of which are so festooned with baubles that they sag under the weight rather than remaining straight as they do in their natural state.

I am convinced, though, that this was no casual re-ordering of Schubert’s masterpiece; an undertaking of this complexity must surely have been a labour of love. But after the most careful attention to the performance, I am not persuaded that it is of equal worth to the original, let alone an improvement on it. Surely, the purpose of such an initiative is to provide a listening experience at least as satisfying as the original. In The Post, for instance, the orchestration lent a curious ponderousness to the music. And, earlier, in A Backward Glance, the instrumentation could not match the restless buoyancy of the piano original.

But there were meaningful moments in individual lieder, where there was evidence of imaginative inspiration. The last two lieder of the cycle are a case in point. Here, Zender’s orchestration engaged the attention in a most convincing way, underscoring, as it did, the suggestion that the traveller, exhausted as much in mind as in body, hallucinates as he looks into the sky and sees not one sun but three – and this evocation of mental disintegration was as powerful in its way as intimations of despair beyond despair in The Hurdy-Gurdy Man that brings the cycle to its close.

I admired, too, the way in which the instrumentation gave point and meaning to Dream of Spring to which tenor Steve Davislim brought an altogether fitting sense of tenderness. Throughout, in fact, Davislim sang with great expressiveness although his diction was not always clear.

Now Schubert, as is well known, had a penchant for going on too long (as do some critics). But in Winterreise, he got it right, gloriously so. In every sense – melodic invention, evocation of mood, duration – it’s an unsullied exercise in perfection.

However, by its very nature, an elaborate orchestration of this sort cannot be played with the agility and fleetness that a single accompanying keyboard instrument is capable of in the right hands – and this was much apparent in a good deal of this orchestrated version of the cycle which unfolded in so protracted a way with its added instrumental preludes here and there, that it got in the way of, rather than enhancing, listening pleasure. This was a winter’s journey that took too long. This was all the more so due to an interval midway through the cycle (could this have been due to the requirements of the ABC Classic FM which broadcast the performance live nationwide?) which noticeably diluted the atmosphere so painstakingly built up in the first half of the work.

A program note mentions the conventional presentation of the cycle – wo gents in tuxedos and a Steinway grand. At more than few points during the performance, I longed for just that. Having instrumentalists walking around the auditorium or walking OUT of the auditorium – and then tracing their steps back to the platform mid-performance – was at first surprising, then unsettling and ultimately exasperating.

Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn