This week Angus McPherson takes a look at some of the ever growing list of performances coming up from Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, Amy Dickson’s Solo Sessions, which see composers write new works inspired by their feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a documentary about two of avant-garde music’s great icons, pianist Margaret Leng Tan and composer George Crumb.

The Aquilina Gala Series, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Sophie Rowell
Sophie Rowell

With months of live performances crossed out in diaries, online offerings can feel incredibly transitory – performances are often announced one day and disappear shortly after, with little sense of a mapped-out cultural calendar. Melbourne Digital Concert Hall – which allows people to buy tickets to one-off online performances – has been planning further and further ahead, however, with diary dates now stretching into July (and plans to introduce small, live audiences back into the theatre from late June).

Melbourne arts patron Michael Aquilina has lent his support to the platform, ushering in the Michael Aquilina Chamber Music Series, which began with a festival this past weekend and continues with Saturday concerts, The Aquilina Gala Series, the first of which takes place on June 6 at 7:30pm AEST. Violinists Dale Barltrop, Sophie Rowell and Tair Khisambeev will join cellist Michelle Wood, pianist Stefan Cassomenos and the Quartz Quartet for a program of Haydn, Bach and Beethoven.

The Quartz Quartet will open proceedings with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 30 (Op. 33, No 2) Hob. III:38, which attracted the nickname “The Joke” for its cheeky final movement. Barltrop and Khisambeev will take the stage alongside the quartet for JS Bach’s famous Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043. After interval Sophie Rowell and Michelle Wood will join Cassomenos to bring the concert to a close with Beethoven’s own chamber arrangement of his Second Symphony.

There are also plenty of other concerts on offer across the month, from new music with Syzygy Ensemble on June 4 to a recital of Elena Kats-Chernin, Prokofiev, Glière and Rachmaninov in a Sydney Satellite Concert by soprano Eleanor Lyons and pianist Vatche Jambazian on June 10.

Amy Dickson’s Solo Sessions
Amy Dickson, Sir James MacMillan
Amy Dickson

While many classical music offerings online try to recreate the concert hall experience, or present archive footage of pre-COVID-19 concerts, the pandemic has also led to more intimate means of music making. One such project is Australian saxophonist Amy Dickson’s Solo Sessions, a series of new works performed on social media from Dickson’s home, accompanied by a short video interview with the composer.

“When this whole crisis started, I was in touch with a few of my closest composer friends – people who had written for me recently or with whom I was working on new pieces,” Dickson said in her first Solo Sessions video, a performance of the movement Dreams from a new work for soprano saxophone by American composer Chris Rogerson, the premiere of which was postponed due to the pandemic. “I just said to them, if you feel like writing something that reflects how you’re feeling at the moment, then feel free to send it over and I’ll record it. I just wanted to see where that went. Quite a few people have written amazing pieces, to it’s turned into a little project.”

Composers featured so far have included Chris Walden, John Ashton Thomas, Richard Blackford and Kenneth Fuchs, as well as Australian composers Katia Beaugeais and Matthew Hindson.

The short works are almost like artistic diary entries of the pandemic, snapshots into the lives of composers and musicians during the crisis. “All the concerts and commissions were literally on hold – as we all have been affected,” Beaugeais said of composing Re-emerging. “I wanted to write a piece that was really soothing and meditative, that represented performers and composers and what we’re experiencing.”

“Because my street is so quiet, with everyone being in lock-down, there was this chorus of birds outside my window,” she said. “So I thought, OK, I’ve got to do something with that.”

Hindson – who wrote a Soprano Saxophone Concerto for Dickson, which she premiered with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Benjamin Northey last year – wrote his piece, Heroes, for the world’s medical professionals. “I was thinking of what it must be like to be one of those medical professionals, to get up in the morning and just think, is this the day? Is this the day when I might contract the virus?” he said. “They are really giving, they are just giving of themselves to help us, to help everybody else.”

“I’m very lucky, because I’ve been in isolation, I can work from home. But how about all those other people, who are doing it so tough, who are not just doing it tough in their normal jobs but who are potentially putting their lives on the line,” he said. “When I was writing the piece, they were the people I had in mind.”

Twinkle Dammit!
Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan

For something a little bit different – and at the risk of treading on the toes of Lynden Barber’s Film and Television column – I would draw your attention to the Brooklyn Film Festival, which is running online until June 8 at 9am, AEST. Amongst the 149 films from 40 countries is Twinkle Dammit!, a documentary that explores the life of New York-based avant-garde pianist and “Queen of the Toy Piano” Margaret Leng Tan and her collaboration with composer George Crumb.

After interviewing the pianist last year (one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done) and seeing her perform at City Recital Hall’s Extended Play festival, I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to see her collaboration with Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, which premiered in Melbourne as part of Asia TOPA (receiving a five-star review from Limelight’s Ben Wilkie) and which was due to open in Sydney just as the COVID-19 closures began. “The world has gone mad. Everyone is suspect,” Tan blasted out to her mailing list in March. “I am staying home with my dogs.”

The film is directed by multi-disciplinary film director and cinematographer Chuang Xu, who describes Twinkle Dammit! as “a rare and important film because it profiles a leading figure of avant-garde music. We are able to understand the development of Leng Tan’s life, her career and her singular impact on her field through her own words, making this a truly intimate and authentic record of an artist’s life.”

“The extremely exclusive access it gains to Leng Tan’s personal archive, as well as to the creative process of musical genius George Crumb in his old age, make this a film of critical historical value to the preservation of avant-garde music in America,” he says.

Don’t miss it.