With Sydney a week into a new lockdown musicians and arts organisers from Melbourne, a city that knows all about COVID-19 havoc, are giving their NSW colleagues a hand up.

Standing With Sydney

Harpist Emily Granger and guitarist Andrew Blanch. Photo Supplied.

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall are staging a series of livestreamed concerts from The Concourse Theatre Concert Hall in Chatswood, on Sydney’s North Shore, and as former Musica Viva Australia CEO Mary Jo Capps says in her introduction to the second one, MDCH’s co-directors cellist Chris Howlett and marketer Adele Schonhardt have raised $1.4 million for artists who’ve had “the rug pulled from under them”.

The first concert, on Friday, July 2, featured celebrated pianist Gerard Willems, pianist and conductor Roland Peelman, soprano Maija Kovalevska, early music ensemble The Marais Project and counter tenor Russell Harcourt.

The second of the series was, as Capps pointed out, a concert of diverse halves with the unusual pairing of Australian Andrew Blanch’s classical guitar with American Emily Granger’s harp opening with a recital which comprised arrangements of well-known works, a couple of lesser known ones and the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Tango for Harp and Guitar, composed especially for the duo.

Blanch and Granger are featured artists for Musica Viva and although they both live in Australia, they started playing together when they were working as artists in residence on a Canadian campus.

They opened their set with their own arrangements of three of Enrique Granados’ 12 Danzas Espanolas for piano – Oriental, Villanesca and Rondalla Aragonesa – Jota (this last one arranged by Blanch’s friend and fellow guitarist Richard Charlton). The arrangements worked very well, with both instruments swapping the lead melody, although even the best microphones and state of the art sound system cannot do real justice to the subtle timbres and colours of such essentially acoustic instruments.

Charlton was also responsible for the arrangement of the next work, Maurice Ravel’s much-loved and often-reworked Pavane pour une infante défunte, one of the first pieces Blanch and Granger worked on when they were in Canada.

Kats-Chernin’s new piece proved to be short and very sweet – a rather romantic and elegant stocking filler with a yearning melody.

Next, a change of programme – Gabriel Fauré’s Impromptu for harp was originally scheduled but unfortunately was dropped from the recital. Instead we got another arrangement of a Australian-composed piece, Ross Edwards’ charming Emily’s Song from Mantras and Night Flowers, a work which he originally composed to encourage his daughter to continue her piano lessons but a piece that has taken on a life of its own ever since.

The final work of the half was Argentinian composer Maximo Diego Pujol’s Suite Magica. Its four sections cover a lot of ground and it ends with a bluesy Candombe, which reminded this listener of Charles Mingus’ jazz classic Work Song. Superbly played by Blanch and Granger, this made for a neat scene setter for the second half which featured Sydney pianist Simon Tedeschi and the inimitable fiddler-vocalist George Washingmachine playing a selection of songs by George and Ira Gershwin.

Tedeschi launched the session on the Kawai grand with Rhapsody in Blue – a work which “inadvertently” has become associated with him. “I’ve played it so many times in so many arrangements and combinations. But I’ve never got tired of it.” Scintillating and sounding ever-fresh under his fingers, it made the perfect curtain-raiser to a relaxed pairing of two old friends from vastly different musical backgrounds.

Tedeschi, although one of Australia’s finest classical pianists, has always had a penchant and natural flair for in-the-moment jazz, having accompanied world-famous harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler on many tours – “he told me I was the best pianist he had ever worked with – I later found out that that was what he told all his pianists, but I was the last one!”

Multi-instrumentalist and raconteur Washingmachine then launched into a swinging version of I Got Rhythm with a fiddle solo worthy of his great hero Stephane Grappelli or Stuff Smith.

Relaxed and funny together, and seemingly unfazed by the cavernously empty concert hall, the duo joked and vamped their way through other Gershwin classics including But Not For Me, Embraceable You, They All Laugh and ended with the ubiquitous Summertime from Porgy and Bess.

“I imagine all the viewers at home in their Ugg boots in Terylene pyjamas with their cups of tea,” Washingmachine quipped at one stage.

Be that as it may, the concert was a great consolation for the temporary loss of live music in Sydney. And, of course, provides some income for the musicians who have had such a hard time of it over the past 18 months.

The third concert in the MDCH series, featuring Ensemble Offspring, Roland Peelman and Anna Fraser, will be livestreamed from Chatswood on Wednesday 14 July at 7pm. Tickets are $24.