Townsville 2012: Day 2 - Getting To Know You

The Morning After: Concert Conversations & Musical Moments

The morning after the night before has a habit of leaving you wondering whether things to come will live up to memories of what has been. Festivals are no exception and after a terrific opening concert (see separate review online) the devotees turning out at 10.00am had something of a ‘match that’ look about them.  It had been a beautiful Queensland morning - shorts weather on the hotel balcony - and Concert Conversations had a slightly musty sound to it, so I was heartened to discover the secondary space at the Civic Theatre laid out rather like a church hall with tea cups and round tables at the front.  Equally appealing was being sat next to a remarkably chirpy Maggie Beer, a Festival regular and chamber music devotee, whose infectious enthusiasm was spreading like wildfire amongst the ranks of the faithful.

On the menu for this morning was Festival Director, Piers Lane in conversation with the Storioni Trio and the Grigorian brothers, followed by performances from each.  In my experience, a relaxed musician can be an entertaining talker, but ‘to the point’ isn’t necessarily in the repertoire.  We needn’t have feared this morning for we were in the capable hands of Mr Lane, who turned out to be not only an excellent raconteur (as suspected), but also a most professional and engaging interviewer.  Running a session with five guests, entirely without notes and also singularly without hesitation, deviation or repetition is quite a feat but clearly Piers is the musical equivalent of Parky on steroids.  Guests were instantly put at ease, questions were expertly judged to provide illuminating answers and digressions handled with aplomb.

First up was Bart van de Roer, the charming, rangy pianist from the Storioni Trio.  Their conversation was mostly about festivals and how they work.  In particular they talked about the Kuhmo Festival in Finland where Lane and the Storionis had met and which is the inspiration it turns out behind both the AFCM and the festival in Eindhoven that the group have curated for the past few years.  Apparently, in Finland the artists can find themselves doing five sessions a day (“since it never gets dark”, quipped the Dutchman), making our three session day a cakewalk.

Marc Vossen, the Storioni Trio’s cellist spoke next.  He and his absent brother Wouter (the one with the shoulder injury, remember) formed a trio with their mother, a keen pianist, at age ten or thereabouts.  Mother incidentally got the boot in favour of Bart around 1995.  Vossen then enlightened us with the tale of how he comes to play a c. 1700 Grancino cello from Milan.  It turns out that the instrument was owned by Guilhermina Suggia, or Madame Casals as she became, and, as Piers was quick to recognise, is the very cello that features in the famous portrait of the lady by Augustus John.

Natsuko Yoshimoto regaled us next with tales of her upbringing and early musical training.  Born in Japan, she started the violin at age three, overseen by her mother, a formidable sounding lady, who clearly outwitted Natsuko’s early attempts to wriggle out of practice.  Moving to Dubai where music lessons were non-existent, she was taken to Europe in the school holidays for private tuition until, at eleven, she went to the Menuhin school (which sounded a bit like the Hogwarts of the music world).  Menuhin himself was still a regular visitor, and was clearly a major influence, apparently able to talk about geology, yoga or Indian cuisine as easily as violin technique.  Coincidentally, it was soon after this that she first met Marc, the aforementioned Dutch cellist, during student days together at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester - it’s a small world as they say.

Finally, the Grigorians.  Leonard spoke first, focusing on his childhood and guitar lessons from the age of four.  With 13 year old Slava already playing pretty well, Leonard had a role model and one that he clearly retains today.  His fraternal respect is touching, especially given his now indisputable solo talents.  Both brothers were taught by their violinist father, a Russian emigre who, it appears, doesn’t play the guitar!  When asked if either of them had an instrument to match Marc Vossen’s 300 year old cello, Leonard was quick to dispel any illusions.  “We bash them about too much”, he quipped.  His current two month old was made for him by Jim Redgate, an Adelaide guitar maker who, we gather, would rather like his creations to last a couple of centuries, but is equally incapable of containing his excitement and contacting a Grigorian whenever he has a promising new instrument hot off the press.

Slava spoke last, warmly complimenting (and complementing) his brother.  The elder Grigorian studied in Europe for five years, returning to find that his younger sibling had grown into an excellent duet partner for a ‘lonely guitarist’.  Born in Kazakstan, Slava came to Australia in 1980 where his musical parents (father again cited as particularly influential) encouraged a classical training but developed inquiring minds that would explore improvisation and jazz.  They met Joseph and James Tawadros twelve years back and the rest, as they say, is recent Australian musical history.   They play their best-selling Band of Brothers tomorrow night, ‘under the stars’.

It seemed almost unnecessary to hear them play after all that but Leonard and Slava gave us a gentle rendition of Westlake’s lovely Songs From The Forest (a John Williams and Tim Kain special) followed by Vossen, van de Voer and Yoshimoto in Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 1.  This was first class chamber music, particularly the beautiful slow movement which seemed tailor made for Yoshimoto’s sweet, silvery tone.

By the way, during the interval, the indefatigable Mr Lane had been bustling about the audience, canvassing views on the acoustic of the new secondary performance space.  Just as the Trio were due onstage he was discreetly summoned to act as a fill in page-turner for the pianist.  What a legend!  I half expected to find him washing up the coffee cups as we waited for the bus home.

Incidentally, on the way back it became clear that Natsuko, who was off to the beach with her new found Dutch friends, is not my mystery violinist in the room next door!  The plot thickens as I returned to more pleasing sounds drifting in from the adjacent balcony...

The afternoon brought us a uniquely Australian entertainment.  William Barton and Friends took place in Townsville’s well appointed Cultural Centre and was an opportunity to hear the world’s top didgeridoo maestro in intimate surroundings.  The array of didges on stage, he explained, play in different keys and we were to think of them as bagpipes, the drone representing the tonic while the players breath gets the chanters working to produce polyphonic music.  Barton kicked off with some improvisations, flicking and tapping his instrument as his breath coaxed a medley of divergent sounds.

We then got a magnificent account of Peter Sculthorpe’s iconic Earth Cry as the Goldner Quartet joined Barton on stage.  The version for string quartet really reveals the detailed interplay of melodic lines and subtle harmonies in this most Australian of works.  The racket of youngsters charging around the Cultural Centre threatened to be a bother but they seemed to shrug it off and for the rest of us it felt entirely appropriate.  The rapport between these four players is terrific, with some particularly warm solos from viola and cello.

Barton and Piers Lane have known each other since 2001, a fact apparent in the two Kats-Chernin works that followed: the jazz flecked, post-minimalist Fast Blue Village 1 and the sparer textured The C.  The latter, less tricksy of the two pieces succeeded on the less is more principle, allowing the swelling of the didgeridoo to underpin the piano sound.  Several times I found myself thinking of Percy Grainger (of all people), and the kind of music he might have written had he lived in this century.

The session wrapped up with Barton singing a composition of his own whilst paying both guitar and didgeridoo - a sort of Australian one man band.  He was then joined by his mother, up from Sydney, singing from the heart about the Spirit of the Sea.  Her fierce soprano was then scaled down to join her son in a spine tingling rendition of My Island Home that brought a lump to many a throat.  The lady must be mighty proud.

The day was rounded off by the Governor’s Gala Concert back at the Civic Theatre.  This event was too good to skimp on so I shall write it up as a separate event review.  Watch this space.

Post concert note: by a simple process of elimination (ie. I asked her outright), the mystery violinist in the room next to mine is not Natsuko Yoshimoto.  Strains of baroque music have now caught my ear which suggests maybe one of Wednesday’s Bach soloists.  Off to sleep, puzzle still unresolved...

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Clive Paget
The thoughts and roamings of Music Critic and Limelight Deputy Editor Clive Paget.
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