Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith

The Firm Concert Archive: Reviews 2003 - 2006

Concert 1: May 22nd 2006

Firm start

PERSISTENCE does pay off, it seems. On a very average Monday evening, the first of The Firm's 2006 series drew a comfortably large audience comprising a broad age range to a concert of Mozart, Spinner, Chapman Smith and Kurtag. Not, one might surmise, your average musical program.

But the word must be spreading that there is food for thought at these events, as well as delicious Viennese tortes afterwards.

Music was provided by musicians about- town pianist Leigh Harrold, violist Anna Webb and clarinettist Stephanie Wake-Dyster, who disarmingly ended the program with Mozart's melodious, good-natured Kegelstatt Trio, after which their group is named.

Leopold Spinner isn't a name to conjure with yet, but The Firm believes it should be. His Suite for Clarinet and Piano encapsulates much of the Viennese grace and polish - one might not go as far as to add charm - of his mentor, Anton Webern, and it provided Wake- Dyster and Harrold with a splendid vehicle to demonstrate that they know just how to make this style speak eloquently.

Raymond Chapman Smith continues his Viennese odyssey with his latest trio in which references, overt and hidden, to Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are ingeniously woven into the fabric. This time, the charm was real in both the music and the Kegelstatt's performance.

Gyorgy Kurtag's gritty Homage a Robert Schumann added spice to the occasion and its visceral, turbulent outbursts end with an extended peroration of real stature. Just the thing to ensure we didn't overdose on gemutlichkeit.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Finding voice in the old and new

Vigorous in their different ways, The Firm and Syntony have cemented their places as two of Adelaide's most successful newer music organisations. Formed in 1996, The Firm began as one of those quaintly post hoc hippie-type of outfits, a composer collective that shared resources to present concerts of its members' own works, but steadily over the years it has transformed into something subtly different.

Composers Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant have made it an intriguing vehicle for their neo-conservative new music agenda, one that spurns modernism and seeks to revive a 19th century chamber music aesthetic. And as they are demonstrating again this year, they are doing this by way of example of their own works. Chapman Smith's Trio, performed by the newly formed Kegelstatt Trio (violist Anna Webb, clarinettist Stephanie Wake- Dyster and pianist Leigh Harrold), was even more provocatively ersatz early-Romantic than his previous works. His skill at entering the sound world of Schubert and Beethoven is remarkable and now so accomplished that several times the result almost passes for the real thing. His expression is glowingly nostalgic yet parenthetical, like a little prayer to the past.

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review

Concert 2: Jun 26th 2006

Stylish Venetian mirrors and inversions

THE Firm was in fine form. The combined talents of violinists Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford, with pianist Leigh Harrold, guaranteed performances of high calibre.

The customary quirky programming was evident in the inclusion of a Mozart sonata at the end of a concert of otherwise modern or recent music. It sat somewhat uneasily there, and was not favoured by the acoustics, which rendered the piano part muddy and unclear.

Cuddeford showed his mettle as a composer in his brittle, icy trio Winter Song, and the restless and unsettling duo, Concealed Waves. David Kotlowy returned to his roots in a sparse and beautiful work for two violins and piano.

In Sonatina for violin and piano, Raymond Chapman Smith took his stylistic reference point about 100 years further than much of his recent work, to the Vienna of Webern instead of Schubert. Obsessively concerned with mirrors and inversions, it was impressively crafted and did not outstay its welcome. While Chapman Smith approaches the present, Quentin Grant appears to be travelling backwards in time. His Shadows contained passages that could be mistaken for Brahms. It was carried off with elan by the performers.

The old master, Arnold Schoenberg, contributed his compelling Fantasie.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Concert 3: Jul 24th 2006

Firm grasp of Mozart

Mozart’s lifelong love of the voice and instruments that could give a fair imitation of it, resulted in him writing some pretty second-rate material for the newly emerging fortepiano, which most definitely could not sound voice-like.

In addition, most venues today do not have the luxury of a fortepiano and performing on a 20th century concert grand is a further drawback.

It is pleasing to report that The Firm’s performer in residence, Leigh Harrold, hit more than he missed in this recital of highs and lows.

King hit of the evening was undoubtedly Harrold’s boots and all, effervescent account of Mozart’s vapid, flashy, quirky and often downright funny Sonata in D, K. 284. Its 12-variation last movement was an especial delight.

By contrast, nothing could save the Sonata in F, K. 533 from sounding dutiful and dull.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Sep 25th 2006


The accent was on solo piano in this Firm concert with resident pianist Leigh Harrold at the helm, playing works by four South Australian composers.

Quentin Grant’s Eight Bagatelles, in which he elaborates on materials from Beethoven’s Sonata Op 109, showed Grant’s remarkable grasp of Beethoven’s pianistic manner without compromising his own musical language.

Raymond Chapman Smith’s Variations on a Minuet by Mozart effortlessly donned the mantle of Schubert as he explored a wide range of the piano’s palette.

It was good to hear a new composition by Graham Dudley, albeit a portion of a work in progress. His ability to encapsulate ideas in a warm, engaging exterior was evident in his Three Pieces.

Particularly impressive was Luke Altmann’s two movement Piano Sonata, redolent with French impressionist sonorities, full of originality and spark.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Nov 20th 2006

A different ethos in chamber music

….offering performances of unforced, combinative strength, in which each detail is enunciated with equal clarity across the ensemble, and in interpretations not superimposed but grow selflessly and directly out of the music.

Not at all dissimilar is the pianism of one of Adelaide's most gifted musicians, Leigh Harrold. For some years now, many observers have been exasperated at how little attention he has received. It was only until he moved to the National Academy of Music in Melbourne that this started to change. Fittingly, The Firm this year made him artist-in-residence, performing new works and a series of works by Mozart. For the latter, few have as magical touch as Harrold, and it was a joy to hear him perform in a chamber version of Mozart's A major Piano Concerto, K414: every phrase glowed with radiance and a thoughtful, imaginative intensity that has become Harrold's hallmark. Let's hear more of him.

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review

Concert 1: Apr 4th 2005

As always, in fine form

VOX Angelica! Readers will probably know soprano Emma Horwood from performances with the Adelaide Chamber Singers or Eve or Syntony, as the singer with the voice that soars effortlessly round the rafters with angelic purity.

Well, The Firm's April concert placed her in a very different light, in darkest Freudian fin-de-siecle Vienna in fact, as she probed the deepest recesses of the mind through music by, or inspired by, Alban Berg and his co-conspirator Anton Webern, with the shadow of a moody Franz Schubert hanging over them all.

Chapman-Smith's Im Grase (2003), a melange of Beethovenian structure, with the harmonies of Mahler and early Berg furiously changing key every few bars, was expressly written for Horwood and challenged her, or any singer's, ability to remain rapt and focused while negotiating the modulations.

Equal intensity was demanded in his Hymnen an die Nacht, although this time there were Schubertian overtones. Horwood, ably accompanied by pianist Jamie Cock, emerged triumphantly from both tests, with as sublime an account as one could wish for.

Perhaps the voice itself will extend its tonal palette with a little more maturity, but Horwood's innate musicianship and ability to communicate were very impressive. She seized more chances to expand in mood and characterisation throughout Quentin Grant's wildly expressionist, sometime quite gritty Trakl Songs, with their cleverly integrated images inspired by Berg and friends but viewed through frosted glass. Horwood was captivating, both in this and in Berg's own Four Songs op 2 which were, unsurprisingly, the evening's musical centrepiece.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Garden Terrace, Caspar Friedrich

Concert 2: May 23rd 2005

Fresh taste of Vienna

THE Firm's love affair with Viennese composers continued into its second concert this season, given by talented pianist Leigh Harrold. Works by Firm founding members Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith, together with newer recruits for the occasion, Luke Altmann and James Cuddeford, were given with the greatest commitment and a most luminous range of colours by Harrold, whose pianism has blossomed.

Alban Berg's iconic Sonata Op 1, which finished the program, sounded as full of fiery verve as if it had been played first, and Harrold's view was fresh, ebullient and completely concordant with Berg's youthful outpourings.

Equally effective as keyboard music were Three Piano Pieces, by Altmann, coming as a pleasant surprise after Berg's rather sugary Twelve Variations on an Original Theme which opened the concert. Although early works, apparently, Altmann's control of his material was impressive and the explosive, driven quality of the outer pieces was neatly contrasted with the quiet, crystalline middle movement.

Charm returned with Chapman Smith's delicately crafted 12 Landler, in the manner of Schubert and others, while Quentin Grant's darkly intense Schubert Variations was a penetrating and all-encompassing work.

And there was drama aplenty of a different kind in James Cuddeford's Nomura Garden 1. With its glacially paced mid-section contrasting with a climactic finish and general air of polished abstraction, it stood out as a work of controlled passion, with Harrold neatly manoeuvring its textured surfaces to great effect.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 3: Jun 27th 2005

Homely feel

THERE could hardly be anything more Adelaidean than a concert by the Firm. Indifference to musical fashion, conservatism and originality going hand in hand, stubborn insularity and surprising openness - these are some of the paradoxes that define the cultural life of this provincial city.

There is a story by Borges in which a crackpot author is rewriting Don Quixote - not adapting but literally writing it again, by entering totally into the mind of Cervantes. That is what Raymond Chapman Smith appears to be doing in his latest piano work with the waltzes of Brahms. Whether he is entirely serious or playing the role of tongue-in-cheek agent provocateur, his music was bathed in the golden glow of Brahms's nostalgic romanticism by pianist Leigh Harrold. Quentin Grant's Eleven Broken Dances were jagged aphoristic statements in which the dance element was sometimes barely recognisable. Michael Milton, Stephanie Wake-Dyster and Leigh Harrold gave a convincing performance of these troubled and troubling pieces.

In contrast, David Kotlowy's new work has a calm, untroubled surface. The middle movement enters foot-tapping territory , while the outer movements invite meditation with their calm beauty. An engaging work by Austrian Ernst Leitner, who writes in a kind of neoconservative idiom that only a central European could consider revolutionary, and two works by the great Alban Berg all were expertly interpreted.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Oct 10th 2005

Highly Strung

THOSE who prefer their music from the high end of the contemporary spectrum, with more than a touch of Viennese influence, unfailingly found a surprising variety in The Firm's Monday concert promotions at Pilgrim Church.

Led by Michael Milton, the Langbein String Quartet provided safe hands in which this eclectic program rested. From 16th century-style Ricercars to 21st century postromanticism, there was something for everybody.

Predictably, major Austrian works bookended the program's first and second halves. The final movement of Alban Berg's 1926 Lyric Suite, featuring 1970s-discovered additional words by Baudelaire sung by soprano Emma Horwood, hit the mark before interval. Horwood is developing into a fully fledged dramatic soprano with considerable presence, and her mature richness of sound powerfully projected the angst this part demanded.

Post-war Austrian organist composer Ernst Ludwig Leitner's Alles ist nur ein Sang for string quartet, clarinet and soprano, provided a memorable finale, with Horwood, Geoffrey Bourgault de Coudray and the Langbeins all on song.

Refreshingly, Leitner's brand of middle-European neo-romanticism is far from the cloying American variety and boldly affirms intense expression without sentimentality.

There was polished eloquence in The Heavens Shine and Tre Ricercari respectively by established Adelaide composers Quentin S.D. Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith, and some taut musical argument in String Quartet No 3 and Decomposition for Strings by emerging composers Luke Altmann and Fiona Hill.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Schubert Lieder Recital: Oct 23rd 2005

A separate promotion from The Firm's regular series, this outreach concert underscored the determination of this composers' group to demonstrate the importance of Schubert in their current work. Comprising Schubert Lieder throughout, they entrusted its commission principally to soprano Emma Horwood and pianist Jamie Cock. Both proved their mettle in a program of iconic works.

From the gossamer figuration of Die Forelle to the drama and passion of Gretchen am Spinnrade, Cock unfailingly hit the mark, imbuing Schubert's piano writing with all the telling and illuminating ambience it requires.

As she morphs into a dramatic soprano, Horwood has retained her appealing ability to vocally float heavenward, and there were memorable moments in her slow, rapt rendition of Du Bist die Ruh and Nacht und Traume where you could hear a pin drop.

Clarinettist Geoffrey Bourgault du Coudray completed the trio of performers for the final item, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Nov 7th 2005

Atmospheric altruism

THE Firm's aim in their sixth subscription concert this season was to promote the music of up-and-coming composers, younger and less established than themselves, and their altruism extended to ensuring the music got a good hearing by engaging the safe hands of the Zephyr String Quartet (pictured) to play it.

No higher compliment can be paid the Zephyrs than to say they remained so consistently competent and completely absorbed in their work throughout the evening that one could concentrate on the music to hand without the least distraction.

Even with emerging composers, experience tells, and there was little doubt that the program's most accomplished and meaningful composition was the evocative and distinctive A Woman's Song by Anne Cawrse.

Written for Emma Horwood and the Zephyrs, Cawrse has set poems by Purnette du Guillet, Amy Levy and Emily Bronte in a splendidly lyrical, romantic fashion, exploring a rich variety of modes and colours to create a strong sense of atmosphere and place. The evening's other major work, graduation phases, by Stephanie Kabanyana, made its impact as much with light and movement as with sound.

Nevertheless, the elaborate phasing of the strings' glassy harmonics as they moved around the darkened church nicely complemented the points of light from strategically placed candles in this gently ruminative piece of music theatre.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

MUSIC CD review : Night Dreams

TWO YOUNG SOUTH Australian artists have joined together to produce this winner of a CD. Soprano Emma Horwood is in her early twenties and already a leading light in the Adelaide Chamber Singers; pianist Jamie Cock, trained in Europe as well as in Adelaide, is already making waves locally. No bones about it , Horwood has a lovely voice, pure and exceptionally well focused. Listen to the pair in Schubert's little song about the wild rose (Heidenroselein) and you'll instantly want the whole CD. Produced by the Adelaide new music group, The Firm, it includes eminently good listening songs by Raymond Chapman-Smith and Quintin SD Grant. And in addition to some ravishing sounds in the Schubert, you also get a tranch of songs by Hugo Wolf, the "other" great song writer of the 19th century. (CD available from John Davis records, The Muses, Borders, Blue Note and Dillons at Norwood and Burnside)

- Roger Knight, The Adelaide Review

The Uncharted Hour,
the Firm in association with Brink Productions

Space, Adelaide Festival Theatre

Sound musical footings

AS part of the iNSPACE program, this new Brink Productions project is a work in progress. Director Chris Drummond likens it to the foundations of a house - anything may grow from this first point.

It is an interesting concept - a theatre work inspired by and based upon music from Raymond Chapman-Smith and Quentin Grant of The Firm. At this early stage, the project is more music than theatre.

Brink has devised a vision of common life to be played out against the soothing strains of the Narrenturm Ensemble and the crystal beauty of Emma Horwood's soprano voice.

With the musicians as backdrop, the actors perform upon a square of fragrant, fresh grass adorned only by some garden furniture, a ladder, a bucket and some candles. The actors - William Allert, David Mealor, Rory Walker, Michaela Cantwell and Elena Carapetis - are representing two generations in the same phase of their lives, pretty much the ages of the actors, as it happens. One generation jogs and stresses. The other slogs and depresses. More or less.

Scripts in hand, they tend more to speeches than dialogue, which is a pity, since it is the dialogue that brings the stage to life. But the solemn readings showcase the writing, which is by Fin Kruckenmeyer and soars at many points to the high lyric.

He has a lovely way with words and they shine. However, they are yet to gel into a cohesive plot, if such is the intention. Rather, the action leans towards cameos and tableaux - and sometimes there is no action at all, just the lulling pleasantness of the music, and one feels that one is at a rather unusual concert - the Barossa Music Festival, perhaps. The formality of the text, with shades of Under Milk Wood, is restrictive for the actors and they are at their best when given chance for emotional release. Then, they deliver some poignant moments.

This phase-one presentation is a very tentative Uncharted Hour long and, while it touches upon the big themes of love and death, birth and parenthood, it is still looking for sound dramatic footings.

Thus far it is more of a literary musical event which, one hopes, as the process evolves, will find a balance in which the thespians will seem less awed by the music.

And it is vital that it shapes into a credible theatre work - for Brink, with a motherlode of stage talent, is the State's well-funded second-tier professional company and it must deliver the goods.

Samela Harris, The Advertiser, August 22, 2005

Concert 1: May 31st 2004

Odyssey a brave strike

Bracketing the virtually unknown Josef Matthias Hauer with Beethoven as this year’s “posthumous composer in residence”, The Firm continues its tradition of bravely striking out into new regions for its 2004 season.

Hauer, the self-styled “inventor” of 12-note music, proved rather more of a pussy cat than his formidable rival for the title, Arnold Schoenberg, as the slightly sugary harmonies of his Zwolftonspiel (January, 1957) proved on this occasion.

More assertive and original by a country mile, the extensive six-movement canvass of John Polglase’s String Quartet No 4 manages to remain within the developmental and formal boundaries of Western tradition while maintaining plenty of originality and a recognisable voice.

Members of the Langbein Quartet responded with abundant empathy and energy, the high-flying strings of Michael Milton and Minas Berberyan balanced by some golden viola and cello tones from Rosie McGowran and David Sharp.

While David Kotlowy’s shadowy, contemplative musings on Beethoven fragments left a plethora of unanswered questions, there was plenty to intrigue and tease the grey cells in Raymond Chapman Smith’s brief, often enigmatic but always polished settings of eight Rilke poems Chateau de Muzot.

This was tailor-made to highlight soprano Emma Horwood’s silver strains, which sat atop string writing of considerable craftsmanship in a work that indicates yet further development in Chapman Smith’s compositional odyssey.

Quentin SD Grant’s Irish Songs were a delight. His guileless handling of what might otherwise have appeared kitsch Celtic folk-revival disarmed criticism and added an intriguing dimension to what is often tiresomely ordinary these days.

- The Advertiser

Two Men by the Sea, Caspar Friedrich

Concert 3: Jul 19th 2004

Delicious contrasts

Getting things into perspective is not always easy in music. Most of The Firm’s concerts have been admirably up to date but on this occasion they facilitated works belonging back over the horizon in the ‘70s to ‘90s, giving a chance to reassess the era’s European Modernist style.

No pianist could have handled the task better than Stefan Ammer, steeped in the European traditions which spawned such music. It was notoriously difficult on the ear at the time and distance doers not, it seems, lend enchantment.

But what became much more readily apparent on this occasion was the almost classical formal balance and schematic beauty of each work.

Ammer can encapsulate such beauty in his playing. He caught the delicious contours and contrasts of Jon Polglase’s Eight Bagatelles, from the 1980s. He never lost sight of the expansive canvas on which much intricate detail is set in Tristram Cary’s Strange Places, from the 1990s. And Richard Meale’s Coruscations, a 1970s icon, was given the sort of panache its commissioner, Roger Woodward, might have used at the time – now much more understandable thanks to today’s and Ammer’s sense of perspective.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 4: Aug 23rd 2004

Making sense of Beethoven

The Firm’s composer of juxtapositional choice for 2004 is Beethoven, one of the greatest and therefore a fitting model for study, if not emulation.

Not everything he wrote was great. He had bad-note days, when inspiration and money were short and commission deadlines loomed. Pianists labour to make sense of outbursts such as the mad scramble early in the late Sonata in E major, Op. 109.

Finding himself tonally miles away from where he wants to be, he dashes wildly across four lanes of traffic to wind up in the outrageous key of D sharp, then fidgets around in side streets until he gets to the next point.

Pianist David Lockett let the passion erupt, however impetuous, through cascades of scales and broken chords in the first movement. In the second, marked Prestissimo, the agitation was all the more effective for being disciplined, but burst through again in 23 bars of rumbling trills in the final variation before a calmly resolved coda.

This uneven sonata rounded off a program prepared with unusual care and intelligence. Setting off a train of thought that lasted throughout the concert, Lockett began with his own selection of five little pieces written by Beethoven around the same time as the sonata.

Little in length, but rich in substance, suggesting fragments that might come in handy for longer tasks, they were simple and in the main somewhat bland, but a sudden huge crescendo in the Allegretto in B minor warned that storm clouds were impending.

The Firm composers on show took the best of Beethoven as their lead.

Raymond Chapman Smith returned to his earlier, sparse and spartan style with a new work, Sonata II (2004), not so much composed as distilled from a tone row, and offered for our appraisal with plenty of time for contemplation.

In Quentin Grant’s Eight Bagatelles, his humble tribute to the master, the two hands were often used as opposing forces, creating lively, sometimes provocative tension between them, and Grant’s particular gift for a good finish (as in gymnastics) left a nice aftertaste every time.

Well away from Beethoven and The Firm, but linking the two, were two pieces by Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), who claimed to have beaten Schoenberg to the invention of serialism, and wrote about 1000 Zwolftonspiele (roughly twelve-tone games) to prove it. The second of these (New Year, 1947) opened with double open octaves declaiming his thematic row, and proceeded to deconstruct it with engaging clarity.

Adelaide’s composers are greatly blessed that artists of the calibre of David Lockett are willing and able to collaborate in giving a voice to their music and philosophies.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Oct 25th 2004

Business as usual

WHILE some of the world's greatest composers spent their lives endeavouring to escape from Beethoven's shadow, The Firm's members have bravely featured his works in every concert this season. They have sought to emulate if not surpass aspects of his genius in works performed.

Small wonder, then, that youthful Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse encountered writer's block when endeavouring to fulfil The Firm's commission for a piece inspired by the great man's final piano sonata.

Sensibly, she eventually used only a few of Beethoven's techniques while distancing herself from the work's content and her Introduction, Theme and Variations bears scant relationship to Opus 111. But it is nevertheless a fine piano piece in its own right, replete with expansive romantic gestures, powerful rhetoric and richly decorated, lush harmonies which engender pastoral if not mountainous imagery.

Fine, capable solo pianist Leigh Harrold was in his element with all this, as he was with the pithy, improvisatory colourful Four Pieces for Piano by Grahame Dudley, another very welcome honorary member of The Firm's extended family for the evening.

Core Firm members John Polglase and Raymond Chapman Smith provided the meat in the program's sandwich with two very non-Beethovenian works cued from opposite sides of the musical fence. Both contained depths of passion expressed in what are now becoming recognisably personal styles, with Polglase's Three Laments railing against injustice and aggression in gritty resonances from Bartok to the blues, while Chapman Smith's Sonata No IV employed elegantly proportioned Webernesque gestures with lethal emotional accuracy.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 7: Nov 15th 2004

Trio plays in provocative style

SUPERBLY played throughout by the Settembrini Piano Trio - Leigh Harrold (piano), Michael Milton (violin) and Cameron Waters (cello) - this concert was at times provocative but not in the way contemporary music concerts used to be. Raymond Chapman Smith's Serenade is a probably humorous, possibly ironic, undeniably perverse embrace of the Viennese idiom from Beethoven through Schubert to Brahms.

It is a piece both of extraordinary erudition and wilful disavowal of anything obviously contemporary, from a composer who used to be a contentious modernist. Quentin Grant's Piano Trio is an engaging work with memorable and appealing ideas and characteristically original touches.

So, too, was the final work, by L. van Beethoven, again played delectably by the Settembrini Trio.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Concert 8: Nov 30th 2004

Performer warms to her task

THE uneventful opening of this program, given by splendid pianist Anna Goldsworthy, belied what was to follow. Jill Lowe's Meditations for Piano Nos 2 and 5 and Fiona Hill's Signwaves were two ruminative, impressionist works comprising rather slight ideas which somewhat overstayed their welcome.

These were followed by Raymond Chapman Smith's more substantial Sonata III, yet another introspective piece which nevertheless developed with a real sense of purpose and cohesion.

Although hardly a dramatic work, the sophisticated, urbane discourse of its outer movements, replete with Webernesque flickering images and mirror reflections, provided constant interest and there were, indeed, occasional lightning bolts in the middle Allegro movement. Quentin Grant's Seven Bagatelles took Beethoven's Sonata Op 110 as their point of departure, commenting on the great man's counterpoint, widely spaced left and right-hand parts, and weighty utterances with style and, at times, affectionate good humour.

As with Beethoven's own works of that name, these proved to be no mere bagatelles and the final pages were as confronting and dynamic as anything Beethoven himself wrote.

All the Firm's concerts this season have topped off their programs with a Beethoven masterpiece and Anna Goldsworthy's insightful account of the Sonata Op 110 was meticulous in its presentation and increasingly at one with the composer's visionary incantations as she warmed to the task of meeting its seemingly impossible demands for symphonic breadth from a simple grand piano.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 9: Dec 13th 2004

It all adds up to quirky tribute

IN their ninth and final promotion this season, the Firm constructed a strange and unique musical offering to Beethoven's greatness, centred around their string quartet, the Langbein, which consists of talented ASO players Michael Milton, Hilary Bruer, Rosie McGowran and David Sharp.

The slightly quirky program comprised a patchwork quilt of shortish pieces by Firm members inspired by Ludwig Van, interspersed with small, unpretentious and rarely played canons dashed off for fun by the great man in his last years.

The result illustrated the axiom of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, as the look-alike compositions and the canons provided continuing variations on a theme.

Chief among the look-alikes was Raymond Chapman Smith's Divertimento No. 2, in which the composer's affectionate and reminiscent musings on Beethoven's compositional traits took the form of short movements in triple time.

Flanked by Beethoven canons, arranged for strings by Chapman Smith himself, the similarities between these works were close enough for them to form a seamless whole, as if the canonic trifles were designed to prelude and postlude the Divertimento.

Quentin Grant's evocative and often languorous A greeting through the stars - and dances was somewhat further removed from its Beethovenian antecedents but was nevertheless still recognisably from the same stable.

Its cleverly contrasted pitch and rhythmic references formed a cogent commentary on Beethoven's language and gesture while evoking contemporary universal truths as well.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

PERHAPS appropriately, the city of churches is where some of the most conservative developments yet seen in new PERHAPS appropriately, the city of churches is where some of the most conservative developments yet seen in new music are occurring.

The Firm, Adelaide's composer collective led by Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith, is setting a radically different direction in new music by turning its back on all forms of experimentalism, including electronic music; it is entirely devoted instead to classical mediums such as the string quartet, piano trio and sonata.

Grant and Chapman Smith profess a love for the chamber music of the Viennese classics, from Haydn to Schubert, and contend that modernism has committed a great wrong in repudiating this tradition. But they recoil from being labelled retro or anti-modernist, preferring to describe their approach as "audience oriented" in building on what is familiar, tested and durable.

This year their inspiration has been Beethoven, whom they've affectionately dubbed their composer in residence. Alongside works from his third period, each composer has presented new compositions that in one way or another adopt aspects of his music.

The Firm's works are above all highly listenable. With its classically formed melodies, Chapman Smith's Divertimento No. 2 had Schubert and Mendelssohn stamped all over it, even down to the simple binary and ternary forms in each of its five movements. Yet this piece, slow moving and steeped with a gentle melancholia, was at the same time unmistakably modern in its aesthetic.

Less reliant on classical models is Grant. His main influence this year has likewise been Beethoven, although he has proven to be at his most inspired when he looks more widely and responds to extra-musical, especially literary, stimuli. This was the case of his string quartet, A Greeting Through Stars - With Dances. Based on lines from a burned notebook by Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova, this distantly Scriabin-sounding work was outstanding. Superb in its economy and clarity, it conveyed the deep sense of mourning Akhmatova felt over the execution of her husband by the Bolsheviks for his anti-revolutionary activities.

David Kotlowy's Fourteen brought together two unlikely sources: Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 131 and a lifelong interest in Indian and Southeast Asian music. But it did so remarkably well by suspending fragments of classical harmonic progressions among moments of silence, creating a mood of profound serenity. Such was its utter simplicity that each note was a thing of rare beauty.

The Langbein String Quartet, made up of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra players, performed with keen skill and sensitivity.

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review

Drifting Clouds, Caspar Friedrich

Concert 1: May 19th 2003

Quirky start to season

The Firm’s 2003 season lurched into motion with little advance notice. On a wintry evening, those who stayed tucked in bed missed a rare performance of Janacek's Concertino for piano and chamber ensemble.

This astounding piece is one of the great chamber works of the past century, but its quirky instrumentation has prevented it from becoming better known.

The Langbein String Quartet, with a team of guest woodwinds and Anthony Hunt at the piano, gave a stirring account of this terse, passionate utterance. Haig Burnell (clarinet) and Malcolm Stewart (horn) contributed notable solos, but it was Hunt's vigorous and dramatic performance that brought it all together.

The sheer intensity of Janacek is likely to make most other things pale by comparison. Two other minor piano works of his had little to add, while the inclusion of Pavel Haas, a pupil of the great man, was intriguing. In Notturno, Raymond Chapman Smith has taken elements of the Viennese classical style and put them through the mincer, reassembling them according to a logic all his own. That might suggest Michael Nyman, but the result is altogether different and truer in spirit to its source.

David Kotlowy's piece for clarinet and string quartet was off in a quiet space of its own, with tiny fragments of melody occasionally peeping through to soften the prevailing asceticism.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Concert 3: Jul 14th 2003

Gray lets light shine through

PROGRAMS of contemporary music concerts often have nothing in common except the fact that most of the pieces are new or newish. Not this time.

The Firm had the good fortune to secure the services of expat pianist Antony Gray. His powerful pianism, fuelled by rare sensitivity and empathy for the vagaries of 20th century compositions, linked the six items like separate chapters of one story.

A passionate and extremely well-informed advocate of Malcolm Williamson - who died earlier this year - Gray opened with the first Australian performance of his Piano Sonata No 4 (1964). The piece is marked by strong ideas that quickly imprint themselves on the aural memory.

Four living Australians then had their material treated with the same unfailing respect. Andrew Schultz's cantata, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, based on the lives of father Carl and son Theo Strehlow, had its premiere in Sydney this year and he pianised two extracts, Sleepers Awake and Karalananga, expressly for Gray.

Then it was the turn of the locals. Meditations and Essays, by Quentin Grant, comprises six short but pithy investigations of the nexus between agitation and resignation, progressing to complete - but still uneasy - calm. Gray's total absorption held us also rapt for several seconds after the final notes had decayed to nothing.

Raymond Chapman Smith's fascination with the seductive power of single notes pervaded his autumnally soporific In den Nachmittag Geflustert (Whispered in the Afternoon) after a poem by Georg Trakl. He could not have wished for a more intense exponent than Gray.

More silence - to be brutally dismissed by a furious, quadruple fortissimo full-keyboard glissando announcing Matthew Hindson's AK47, wielded perhaps by children spraying death and damnation with total lack of discrimination. The precious four pieces of Janacek's In the Mists have their own tensions, but are always each resolved with reassuring concords. Gray's penetrating intelligence lifted the fog just enough to let light shine through, ending the most satisfying contemporary concert this critic has known.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Sep 22nd 2003

Firm feel for diversity

It was a tribute to their fine musicianship and sense of occasion that the considerable talents of violinists Michael Milton and Minas Berberyan, violist Rosi McGowran and cellist David Sharp, were placed without histrionics and unnecessary display at the service of the new music they were performing, leaving listeners free to concentrate on the music.

In the fifth of the season’s concerts promoted by Adelaide composers’ group The Firm, had the four members represented been asked to deliberately contrast their works, the result could not have been more disparate.

The depths of Raymond Chapman Smith’s love affair with Schubert and the Viennese classics appears to be reinforced in his five-movement Divertimento, the elegance and delicate beauty of which serves for him as an unspoken criticism of much brutishness in contemporary society.

On the other hand, there was overt passion and undisguised declamation in the three movements of Quentin S.D. Grant’s dense, brooding, dissonantly elevated String Quartet No 3, with its references to the desert and World War II internment camps.

David Kotlowy’s Untitled can trace its roots to Mark Rothko’s marvellously absolute artworks of the 1940s and, although a severe test of endurance for performers and listeners alike, its sincere and unaffected exploration of limited pitch parameters was impressive.

Finally, the Toccata from John Polglase’s String Quartet No 4, with its intricately constructed filigree and bold melodic motifs matching the best in traditional 20th century practice. Its restless, pent-up energy sent the sparks flying in a fitting finale.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Oct 27th 2003

Gifted with Firm control

THE quartet of composers linked as "The Firm " chose Janacek as their Posthumous Composer-in-Residence for 2003 on a whim. His ghost hovered over their homages, and eventually walked, through a substantial and satisfying program in Pilgrim Church on Monday. The medium was Anna Goldsworthy, blessed with both supreme pianistic competence and a rare gift for revealing the roses among the thickets of contemporary music.

She opened with Preludes and Sonatas, 1-3 by John Polglase. His introductions were both whimsical and portentous, his main speeches structured, modelled on Scarlatti, in two repeated halves. His material, often punctuated with signposts - a rhythmic figure, an insistent repeated internal anchor - melded with Janacek references, notably in his affectionately moulded cadences, whose effect was realised with equal eloquence in the playing.

Raymond Chapman Smith's Nach(t)schriften Part One comprised 13 short dances of varying tempo and moods tracking a scale sequence through major and minor thirds and maintaining a thoughtful thread of Schubert-shaded tonality.

Quentin Grant openly followed his Czech leader with five short, pithy recollections of his idyllic multi-brothered Tasmanian childhood, The Misty Hill. Nostalgia predominated in this lament for a lost paradise, but was leavened by the bouncing romps of five small boys up to no good.

Grant eased into Janacek himself with Goldsworthy's penetrating account of his miniature tone poems, On an Overgrown Path, Book One. Especially effective was her sensitive application of rubato, making clear points of climax, contrast and the score's tantalising implied cadences.

Finding that they had too much to say about Janacek to fit into one concert, The Firm opted for two. Leigh Harrold will play the second half of each of the above works on Monday, November 17.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 7: Nov 17th 2003

A growing gift

THE composers of The Firm are to be congratulated on engaging a pianist of such broad tastes as Leigh Harrold to take on a complete recital of contemporary and 20th century music.

Any danger of monotony was avoided through the wonderfully disparate nature of The Firm's composing membership and the colourful musicianship of Leigh Harrold. Indeed, it is a shame Adelaide's concert-going public won't wake up to the fact that contemporary music is not the fearsome beast it used to be and rally behind the dedicated band of supporters who currently patronise events such as this.

John Polglase's Preludes and Sonatas 4, 5 and 6 occupied a central position either side of interval and promise to become a major addition to his oeuvre and Australian piano music.

The delicate, contemplative, romantically inclined Preludes act as a foil to the driving, insistent and often gritty Sonatas which build excitingly over an array of pedals and other devices to a fury of typically Polglasian fireworks. At the opposite end of the sonic scale, David Kotlowy's Final Fragments out-feldmanned Morton Feldman in its fleeting, ethereal wisps of sound.

The bells of Quincy S.D. Grant's Angels, for all their Paart-like tintinnabulation, conjured moments of original, exquisite, if episodic, beauty while Raymond Chapman Smith's Nach(t)schriften demonstrated a fascination with Schubert and a growing gift in crafting new subtleties in this old genre.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser