Watching streamed music concerts is a bit like listening to the radio; it’s a very intimate affair. Just as a radio listener feels the presenter is talking only to them, a streamed music concert is as though some of the world’s top music performers are right there in the living room, playing just for … me. It’s especially so with chamber music, for that’s how it was intended back in the day. Often, it was written to be played in the drawing room by, with and for family and a few friends.
In these times of quarantine and physical distancing, the proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has become front and centre in the thinking of many, from business owners, to school teachers, to artists. It has been the most challenging for artists, perhaps, but look what they are achieving.
In Selby & Friends’ 2020 season, their Tour 2 concert, Let’s Get Personal was, if not prophetic, apt in nomenclature, as well as innovative in its approach. The concert was filmed and then given a limited streaming season, with access by purchased ticketing. But it was more than a concert, for there also was a 45-minute pre-concert talk.
Kathryn Selby with Andrew Haveron and Umberto Clerici. Photograph supplied
Pre-concert talks are always interesting, but they usually focus on the history, the circumstances of the moment in the composer’s life, etc. Given by Kathryn Selby (playing the “black, shiny thing”, as she called her grand piano), cellist Umberto Clerici and violinist Andrew Haveron, this pre-concert talk was fascinating and completely engaging.
They talked about the pieces from the musicians’ viewpoints. They provided a remarkable insight to their interpretive approach: how they compared the printed editions with the original manuscripts (there can be many differences, even between editions), how they play them with the power and dynamic range of a modern piano mixed with period violin and cello (both were made before any of the three works were written), especially when the pieces were written for fortepiano (for the two earlier works anyway), an instrument with less power and narrower pitch and dynamic ranges.
They spoke about how the piano trio is one of the most difficult genres for which to compose music. They wondered why Beethoven’s Op. 1 No 1 was a piano trio. They mused on the development of the trio from the times pre-Mozart, when the trio instruments were largely independent, to when, under Mozart’s hand, they became more interdependent, and how these impact on interpretation.
And then on to the performance – an hour and 30 minutes of music. There was Mozart’s Piano Trio No 3 in B-flat, K.502 (1786); Beethoven’s Piano Trio No 1 in E-flat, Op. 1 No 1 (1795), and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No 4 in E-minor, Op. 90 ‘Dumky’ (1891).
This was their first effort at presenting a concert this way and there were a few problems with sound. There was inconsistent sound quality across the speakers in the pre-concert talk. Selby was fine, but Haveron and Clerici sounded like they were “off mic”. And there were some sound problems in the performance, occasionally with balance, but primarily in clarity, especially in the piano, which sounded distant. Perhaps they were trying to recreate a concert hall resonance, but this was not captured to the full advantage. There can be little doubt these are just teething problems, which will be overcome if the future continues to prevent live performances in front of audiences.
But the many fans of Selby & Friends would have “looked” straight past those problems to the music and the quality of the playing, which was exactly as they would have expected. There was perfection in timing, incredible dynamics, emotional fluidity and uncommon empathy with the music and the musicians’ reading of what was in the composers’ heads.
The Mozart was light as a feather, prancing and dancing effortlessly in the outer movements, with an achingly introspective, almost sad, slow movement. While the Beethoven echoed much of Mozart’s style, it may well have, as Clerici described it, “shocked” audiences who probably still were lamenting Mozart’s death, barely three years earlier. With these three players transitioning so brilliantly from the Mozart to the albeit very early Beethoven, still influenced by Mozart, one can understand why those audiences’ jaws might have dropped.
The Dvořák is vastly different to the other two, eschewing the traditional form, but quite familiar to and loved by Selby audiences. As Haveron remarked, it unashamedly reflects Czech dumky folk songs. Selby and her friends took their living room friends with them on as emotionally charged dance, with sudden mood changes from brooding darkness to leaping happiness to soulful sadness. Selby noted Dvořák wanted to express that traditional Slavic story-telling language musically and bring the village band, with its traditional instruments into the classical trio genre, even with instruments, save the violin, quite foreign to that environment. Selby & Friends brought that ambition to life.
Clerici recalled the importance of live audiences in music concerts and how there is an exchange of energy between the two. He wondered whether live filmed streaming works when the audience is remote and unseen. From this remote, unseen audience member’s belvedere, it does.