Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith

The Firm Concert Archive: Reviews 2007 - 2010

Concert 1: May 31st 2010

Step on musical stairway to heaven

THE musical symbiosis between soprano Greta Bradman and pianist Leigh Harrold took another step up the ladder of excellence with a recital of unremitting demands on their technique (formidable), their tone (beautiful) and their instinctive appreciation of their composers' intentions.

They opened with three songs in Polish by Chopin, chosen by The Firm to celebrate its 200th anniversary. First to charm was Spring, ending with a skylark soaring joyously into the sky, then a flirty Handsome lad. Next, the desperately sad Leaves are falling - Poland at war and its desolate aftermath, with only the faintest hope of recovery.

In a batch of recent Australian works, Romanticism with a Gothic twist from Firm founders Raymond Chapman Smith (im Grase) and Quentin Grant (In the Park) was capped by intricately woven vocal and piano lines of the mysterious Christina's Lullaby, by Ross Edwards. Singer and pianist were at their finest in the passionate, rhapsodic Vier letzte Lieder, by Richard Strauss, poetry packed to bursting with images of love for all living things, music to match, eloquently expressed with maturity way beyond their years.

The soprano floating on untrammelled wings was so lovely that it hurt. The clarity of Harrold's piano dispelled any reservations about the loss of Strauss's opulent orchestration.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

For their first concert of the year The Firm presented soprano, Greta Bradman, and pianist, Leigh Harrold, accompanying her in an evening of vocal works. These are two multi-award winning and critically acclaimed performers and so it was no surprise that this was a concert of extremely high standard.

Although he wrote mainly for solo piano, Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849) did write a number of songs during his life and these were grouped together posthumously as Op. 74. The 17 Polish Songs, written between 1829 and 1847, were not collected in chronological order and another two were added later. The concert opened with three of these, No. 2 Spring (Wiosna) (1838) in G minor, text by Stefan Witwicki, No. 8 Handsome lad (Śliczny chłopiec) (1841) in D Major, text by Bohdan Zaleski, and No. 17 Leaves are Falling, Hymn from the Tomb (Śpiew z mogiłki) (1836) in E flat minor, text by Wincenty Pol.

From a gentle ¾ to a more robust ¾ and finally generating a sombre feel to the third song there is a great deal of contrast between these three songs, with each having an atmosphere that perfectly complements the subject matter. It seems a shame that Chopin left so few songs. The duo explore the nuances of these three pieces in a most moving performance and a hope that we hear more of these rarely performed works in future concerts.

Next came Raymond Chapman Smith’s neo-Romantic composition, Im Grase/In the Long Grass (2003), to a text by Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, which he wrote especially for Emma Horwood, who was artist in residence for The Firm in 2005. Its flowing lines and light, airy feel evoke clearly the impression of a gentle breeze running across a meadow, rippling the grass, like waves on an ocean. One can almost smell the fragrances of flowers and wild herbs, hear the stream trickling past and the birds twittering overhead. Bradman’s crystal clear voice is well-suited to this piece and Harrold’s sensitive accompaniment gives an extra delicate feel to the work.

This was followed by Quentin Grant’s In the Park, a collection of five songs: The Park, Dusk, Someone, Raindrop and Warm Arms, based on texts by Moira Morris (1925-1962). Grant often uses small rhythmic/melodic motifs as the basis for creating several of these pieces, a device that he sometimes uses in his work, and he also pushes the vocal line into the soprano’s lower register in two of the songs for greater variation. This presents challenges for both performers and adds interest for the listener. Bradman and Harrold bring out the sadness, longing and loneliness in these works with remarkable insight.

Christina’s Lullaby by Australian composer, Ross Edwards (1943-), closed the first part of the concert. Originally written for orchestra and soprano (1983) he recently arranged it for piano and voice (2009) as an art song especially for Greta Bradman. This very accessible lullaby has something of a folk music feel to it and is a nice contrast to the previous work, with its depth and complexity. The duo gave the lullaby a feeling of loving and great care.

The second half of the concert was taken up with Vier Latze Lieder/Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss (1864-1949): No. 1. Spring, No. 2. September, No. 3. While Going to Sleep and No. 4. At Evening, the first three with texts by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and the last by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857). Written shortly before his death they are seen as his reflections on that approaching moment. There are reminiscences, new understanding and acceptance in evidence as death grows quickly closer. Bradman immerses herself in the lyrics in a striking performance, with Harrold providing a strongly emotional accompaniment.

This was a wonderful start to The Firm’s season for this year with two magnificent young performers working together as one in a concert full of emotion, passion and poignancy.

- Barry Lenny, Glam Adelaide

Wolf Lieder Recital: Jun 2nd 2010

The Firm and the Accompanists Guild of SA

ANTHONY Legge, Musician in Residence for the Accompanists Guild, is not only an expert accompanist, he is also a gifted story-teller.

By grouping into threes and fours the 46 songs of Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Leiderbuch and succinctly introducing them, he revealed the rarely smooth path running through the complex conceits of Paul Heyse's always romantic, occasionally bizarre, lyrics about a pair of young lovers.

Legge's playing was authoritative, supportive, sympathetic and as aware of the texts as though he, too, was singing them.

The beneficiaries of this expert in his art, soprano Rosalind Martin and tenor Robert Macfarlane, took turns at the music stand beautifully.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 2: Jul 12th 2010

Music - Mark Kruger

THE Firm's spotlight this year is on Chopin and its second subscription concert comprised his complete Etudes Opus 12 and 25.

Each of the 24 shortish works is a masterpiece, brimful of technical challenges and creative surprises, and every one is imbued with Chopin's poetry and brilliantly coloured sonorities.

Any pianist who plays them all in one concert needs, of course, immense stamina, emotional depth and a genuine love of Chopin's idiosyncratic style that permeates every note.

That pianist will also be brave enough to know that most of his listeners have an affectionate relationship with most of the music.

Mark Kruger is clearly such an artist. His familiarity with everything he played goes without saying and his abilities as a concert pianist are considerable.

It was, therefore, a disappointment that only the final seven or eight Etudes started to make a significant impact although there were many individual moments of beauty earlier.

In particular, there was real pathos in Opus 25 No 7 in C# minor, charm aplenty in The Butterfly and intense drama in The Winter Wind.

For the remainder, this talented player too often led his audience into a maelstrom of blurred harmonies and up tempo speeds that left them in a state of some incomprehension and the composer out in the cold.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 3: Aug 9th 2010

New visions of Chopin

ALTHOUGH the cello is the most melodic of instruments, Chopin wrote precious little for it. However, that didn't stop members of Adelaide's composers' collective, The Firm, producing their own visions of Chopin's greatest public successes, his Nocturnes, by entwining the cello and the piano together in original music with a nocturnal Chopinesque flavour.

Firm composers Luke Altmann and Quentin Grant were fortunate to have at their disposal cellist David Sharp, a musician of great sensitivity and golden tone with pianist Marianna Grynchuk, mature beyond her years with a technique to match.

These two engaging artists ensured Altmann's Nocturne No. 3 and Grant's Nocturne in E flat minor were heard to advantage and provided the principal supporting pillars of this rather unusual program.

Altmann's Nocturne inhabits that twilight world between sleep and wakefulness, using gentle piano ostinati with long cello cantilenas to create a most persuasive and decidedly soporific melange.

In contrast, Grant's Nocturne uses dialogue between cello and piano to build considerable anguish at times over a developmental canvas that certainly explores the drama of the night.

Raymond Chapman Smith's Dichtungen, in essence 12 small poems for piano, contributed complete contrast with its expertly conceived, charming Schubertian gemutlichkeit.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 4: Sep 6th 2010

The Firm

LOCAL composers Quentin Grant, Raymond Chapman Smith and Luke Altmann should be thankful a pianist of Leigh Harrold's stature is able and willing to spend time preparing and performing new works.

Grant's Scenes drawn from life, for Michaela comprised nine short pieces, which may or may not be pictures of specific incidents, including a family fight, or may be a general interacting reflection of the diversity of daily doings.

Thirteen brief entries in Chapman Smith's Notenbuchlein also were labelled with tempo and touch directions, as were Three Pieces by Altmann, the last, Andante Misterioso, confined to about 10 bars. Brevity, he apparently believes, is the soul of wit.

In all, 25 vignettes, many conveying a distinct impression of improvisation, all treated with the utmost respect by Harrold, to ensure maximum clarity and impact, despite his having his nose uncharacteristically stuck in the score.

Four Mazurkas op 17 by the great composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin, the Firm's choice to honour in 2010, opened the concert. Harrold was on home territory. His delicate touch held the ear to the last echo of the third, and the fourth left an aura of regret it was over. For his finale, freed from the score, thoroughly immersed in the music, Harrold was in top form for Chopin's fantastical Fantaisie op 49. Gliding through the many dynamic transformations, he revealed the links but preserved the overall spontaneity, as though he was making it up himself, and matching his own technical prowess to that of the composer.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Oct 11th 2010

Chong's poetic energy with Chopin

The Firm's fifth subscription concert, courtesy Melbourne pianist Kristian Chong, featured composer-guru Frederick Chopin and cast a very long shadow indeed.

In fact, the entire second half comprised Chopin Preludes, those elegant aphorisms beloved of audiences and pianists the world over for their melodic and harmonic invention that encapsulates the essence of Chopin's manner without garrulous discourse.

Chong performed them as if one work and they do form a very listenable, sonata-length statement when treated thus.

He adopted a gentle, often reminiscent approach and avoided grand gestures with attendant histrionics.

Occasionally enthusiasm got the better of him with some of the more dramatic numbers blown out to Lisztian proportions, but there was much to admire in the poetic, persuasively intimate colourations with which he tinted these miniatures.

Roger Smalley's fiercely dissonant, plangent and often fragmented Variations on a theme of Chopin opened the concert in challenging style and Chong met its relentless demands head on with admirably disciplined energy and commitment. The sonic felicities of Raymond Chapman Smith's beautifully composed little Fantasien received the enticing treatment they deserved.

Angelina Zucco's Neither Toil nor Spin contained, fleetingly, some sterner stuff but certainly proved she can write in an easy, relaxed manner to good effect.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Nov 8th 2010

For the singer of German Lieder, Schubert's song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) is Mount Everest.

Physically, emotionally and musically it is supremely demanding. Young Adelaide tenor Robert Macfarlane proved his mettle in a performance that was gripping and moving from beginning to end.

Wiithout being patronising, it was a young man's performance. It was at times a bit impetuous, occasionally maybe over-wrought, but absolutely honest and completely compelling. It's worth remembering that Schubert was only a few years older than Robert Macfarlane when he composed the music, as was the poet Wilhelm Muller. In that sense it is a young man's work, although we rarely hear it performed by a singer quite as young as this. But then Robert Macfarlane is an unusual phenomenon, with a remarkable capacity for mastering works that would daunt most singers. And of course he has a very fine, expressive voice capable of the many nuances and colours that are essential for a good Lieder singer.

Macfarlane was rarely stretched vocally by the music. He was very ably assisted throughout by Leigh Harrold, whose carefully considered accompaniment was a vital ingredient in the success this recital. It's impossible to nominate highlights in performance that was all of a piece really. The emotional arc of the performance was sustained without flagging for a moment. After the stunning climax of Die Nebensonnen came the numbing, haunting conclusion of Der Leiermann. It was a memorable performance that left the audience and the performers emotionally drained.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Morning in the Mountains, Caspar Friedrich

Concert 1: Jun 22nd 2009

Firm beginning to series

Greta Bradman and her partner The Langbein String Quartet soared through an unfailingly engaging program to set a high bar for the opening of The Firm's 2009 series.

Ranging from Australia to Austria to the Argentine, they also covered several centuries. At the root of everything was the string quartet's founding father, Joseph Haydn. In his honour, Langbein played the very last of the 83 authenticated in his name.

Langbein proved his invention and organisation were in full flight with a graceful Andante and an unusually spikey Menuetto.

Peter Sculthorpe, this year's featured composer, just turned 80 and still dotting the manuscripts, based Island Dreaming (1996) on ideas gathered in Torres Strait.

Bradman extended her lofty range down the scale into chest territory, producing a near-authentic, Aboriginal nasal twang for the winds, the waves and the seagulls crying, floating and wheeling like them in a long, meditative vocalize.

Switch to the luck and the pluck of the Irish for Quentin O'Grant's settings of poems by Yeats, MacNeice et al - tunes, or very nearly, sung without artifice, woven around with decorative, dancing strings.

Bradman (in Spanish, the very tongue of melancholy) and the Langbeins painted many hues, from pale gold through myriad shades of grey to the blackness of death. Her thrilling high C flew to the moon and beyond.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 2: Jul 30th 2009

Dignified recital deftly delivered

Chamber music is not only created but promoted by The Firm, whose 2009 subscription series continued with an excellent - mainly vocal - recital by soprano Greta Bradman and pianist Leigh Harrold.

In his 80th year, Peter Sculthorpe is this year's featured composer.

Harrold's performance of Mountains (1981) conjured up more effectively than most the rugged terrain for which the piece is named. It contrasted well with Anne Cawrse's song cycle This Too Shall Pass, a very worthy piece, four laments given aptly thoughtful treatment and shot through with "French" lightness.

The first, D.H. Lawrence's Elegy, is a magnificent piece with Bradman's gorgeous voice soaring rapturously. A Goethe text ("Speak, ye stones", incorrectly given as Roman Elegies II, which it isn't) followed: A fine setting of a first-class rant.

Webern's Five Songs (1909) was written when he was still perfecting his atonal craft – and it shows - but Bradman's performance, especially of the final song, Kahl reckt der Baum, was superb.

Grahame Dudley's Three Pieces for Piano are well-crafted if a little aimless, whereas Firm supremos Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant were utterly focused in their contributions.

Chapman Smith's Hymns to the Night is a Viennese homage and Grant's Rilke Songs are quite distinctive - especially the second, Pathways, with its bell-like instrumental and vocal upper work.

Schubert's harrowing Mignon Lieder, exquisitely sung, brought proceedings to a deeply impressive close.

- Peter Burden, The Advertiser

Concert 3: Aug 17th 2009

Pianist's music has own voice

Pianist Antony Gray, Australian born, now London resident, is just the sort of challenging performer for Adelaide's in-house composers group The Firm.

His program cleverly mixed older with new and local with international in a wide-ranging survey of music written since 1950, while neatly bypassing the most confronting brutalist music of the period and concentrating on works with recognisable form and thematic material.

Two widely differing pieces by distinguished Australian composer Andrew Schultz book-ended the first half. His characteristically opulent style permeated Barcarole and Sleepers Wake (2003) amidst rich textured and languorous lyricism, while the slightly quirky Four Inventions (from The Children's Bach), a sort of latter day take on Schumann's Kinderscenen, revelled in decoration and felicitous irony.

South African Michael Blake's A Fractured Landscape, in its first performance, underscored the tight, taut control this influential composer has previously shown.

Angular, pulsing with energy and noisily exuberant at times, this challenging piece was approached by Gray in the cool, calm, objective manner that characterised all his performances, letting the music speak for itself and ensuring its voice was clear and unambiguous.

He handled the large-scale rhapsodic, improvisatory, visionary Angels (2003) by Quentin Grant with equal aplomb and purpose, while the intrinsic beauty of Raymond Chapman Smith's Nach der Natur (2008) with its Viennese appropriations was on clear view without affectation.

Mainstream works by Malcolm Williamson and Peter Sculthorpe rounded out this fulsome and thought-provoking recital.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

The Firm, run by those two hard working composers, Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant, presented the third of the six concerts for this year. This superb concert featured the highly acclaimed London based Australian pianist Antony Gray, who has recorded vast quantities of music for the ABC.

The concert opened with Barcarole and Sleepers Wake, two delicate pieces by Andrew Schultz derived from his cantata, Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The first movement was open and light in texture, yet featured heavily, internally dampened low bass notes, giving an unusual percussive pedal note effect below the gentle melodic line.

Raymond Chapman Smith's Nach der Natur (After Nature), a three movement piece inspired by the poem by W. G. Sebald, has flowing, lyrical melodic lines running through it over rich harmonies. This is a fine piece of writing with so much inventiveness contained in a relatively short work and Gray clearly relished the chance to play it.

A Fractured Landscape (In Memoriam Edward Said) by South African Michael Blake, influenced by Brahms, was written especially for Gray's 2009 Australian performances. This was a complete contrast to the first two pieces, with intense chords and sudden rhythmic and dynamic changes. Where the first two works allowed us to see Gray's sensitive and thoughtful approach to his playing, this was a showcase for his virtuosity.

Four Inventions by Andrew Schultz is music taken from his opera A Children's Bach and the four contrasting sections gave an opportunity for Gray to exhibit more of his technical skill and considered interpretation.

The second half of the concert began with the Sonata No, 1 in F Major by Malcolm Williamson, Gray lamenting the fact that so few composers now write piano sonatas, although he pointed out that two of the works in the first half could be considered as sonatas, even though not specifically labelled as such. There was plenty of fire and passion in this piece.

The Sonatina by Peter Sculthorpe, by contrast, opens with sparse writing moving to alternating fast and slow passages with varying harmonic density, cramming numerous ideas into a surprisingly brief piece of music.

Quentin Grant's Angels was inspired by Duino Elegies, written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was also represented in the last concert. This is a highly imaginative work with a wealth of variation. Appropriately, this piece had a wonderfully meditative quality and Gray did it full justice with a reverent and subtle interpretation.

Malcolm Williamson's frenetic Toccata Americana closed the concert. This was the first performance of this very brief, unfinished work, discovered amongst his ex-wife's papers. Gray's humorous introduction, with tongue in cheek reference to the works' subtitle, Daniel Hurrying to the Lion's Den, set the scene for this fast and furious piece that served almost as an encore.

Antony Gray combines enormous technique, sensitivity, deep understanding of the music and a sense of humour. These attributes made this a memorable and most enjoyable concert. Visit the ABC shop soon for recordings by this fine performer.

- Michael Blake, kagablog

Concert 4: Sep 28th 2009

Stirring, then tears of joy

On the page, the 20 songs of Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin look relatively simple. No runs, no trills, no spectacular show-off leaps.

Tenor Robert Macfarlane and pianist Leigh Harrold, however, teased out the stories inside Wilhelm Muller's gently worded pictures of a young miller lad and his adoration of a beautiful miller lass, against the background of the mill brook, showing them to be loaded with emotion.

Macfarlane's rapidly maturing, strongly focused voice and Harrold's extra-sensory-perceptive partnership led through the lad's wonderment at his own delight, his curiosity to know if his love is returned (such longing in his legato), his impatience, expressed at a tempo most pianists would baulk at, his triumph "Mine!" he shouts after an innocent tryst.

Alas. A horn-blowing, hooting hunter wins her favour. She is lost to him and perhaps his life is, too.

Always present, thanks to Harrold's magical transformations of a percussive piano into smoothly rippling water, the brook asserts itself as a character, musing with the miller on love and death.

Macfarlane turned away. Fully prepared, composed, he faced us again to sing, with all his heart and mind, Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook's Lullaby) the most perfect song written. There were many tears.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Nov 2nd 2009

Kristian Chong, presented by The Firm

Celebrated pianist, Kristian Chong, presented a selection of works for The Firm's penultimate concert for 2009, the first half being comprised of three pieces by contemporary Australian composers, two from Adelaide including Raymond Chapman Smith of the Firm and, in the second half, a popular piece by Schumann. The concert began with the short work, A Sort of Introduction, by Luke Altmann, referencing the novel, The Man Without Qualities, by author Robert Musil, a gently flowing, almost ponderous piece where brief motifs surface and sink again in the bass answering in the middle range or treble of the piano, as though conversing with one another. Dynamics shift subtly throughout the work and Chong maintains a carefully considered control over the performance, nicely balancing the thematic fragments as they interweave around each other.

Next came Traktat vom Licht II by Raymond Chapman Smith, thirteen short movements inspired by the cycle of poems of the same title by German Romantic writer, Novalis, the nom de plume of Friedrich Philip, Freiherr von Hardenberg. This work had a very strong neo-Romantic atmosphere and Chong provided a richly varied approach to the numerous movements giving each an individuality, in keeping with that Romantic feel yet with a contemporary undertone.

Closing the first half was Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe, five movements related by the theme of the relationships between Snow and the Moon and Flowers and how, visually, they share similarities of form, the last two movements being Night and Stars continuing to extrapolate that relationship further. This followed on in the same vein, perpetuating the soft, gentle feel of the first two pieces in this concert. Again, Chong showed his ability to infuse a piece with imagination and bring out its inner meaning.

After a short interval the mood changed considerably with the larger work, Fantasie in C Major Op. 17 by Robert Schumann providing a few fireworks to contrast with the more even flow of the first half. Schumann was one of the most important composers of the 19th Century Romantic period in Germany. This work is highly inventive, hugely varied and filled with intense emotion born of his enforced estrangement from Clara Wieck, who was later to become his wife. Chong discovers all of that emotional depth and combines it with a formidable technique to create a most rewarding experience for the listener.

This was yet another very successful concert for The Firm, local composers Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant and a rare opportunity to experience the playing of this superb pianist. Kristian Chong has a long list of awards to his name and an impressive list of past concerts and recordings. If you missed this concert it would be worthwhile looking for his recordings to add to your collection.

There is only one more concert in this year's series, at 8PM in Pilgrim Church on Monday 30th November, featuring The Langbein String Quartet with Leigh Harrold, piano, and Harley Gray, double bass. Don't miss it.

** All secondary and tertiary music students receive complimentary season tickets, available at the door. Concert patrons receive complimentary programs and post-concert drinks and may sample authentic European tortes by Gabriele.

- Barry Lenny, GLAM Adelaide

Concert 6: Nov 30th 2009

In memory of Meale

THE Firm's final concert for 2009 was dedicated to the memory of Richard Meale.

Founders Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant, Meale's students in Adelaide in the '80s and ardent supporters ever since, included brief written tributes to him in the program and put their own music up as testimony to his lasting influence.

Chapman Smith's Divertimento (2003), cast as a homage to Haydn and played with great respect by the Langbein String Quartet, saluted the form and courtly content of the great classicist, with a final foray into rustic bonhomie. Grant added Leigh Harrold (piano) and Harley Gray (double bass) to the Langbeins for his Twilight Dances (2009), an uncharacteristically introspective meditation on Hermann Broch's poem, Parable.

Meale's colleague Peter Sculthorpe also drew on words for his String Quartet No. 16 (2005) - anguished letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. Padma Newsome's Longifolia Sextet (2009) looks to the acacia longifolia for its inspiration. So it goes, as Meale might have said.

Music cannot draw pictures, but this totally engaging piece evoked all sorts of images of patches of the brilliant golden wattle and its greygreen foliage. Harrold's lengthy, grandiose piano flourish laid out the materials for a series of investigative sketches, most of them not finishing, just stopping. A pause, then on to the next. Gradually, as though moving into the distance, the colours became more muted.

The final section rounded off to a serene conclusion. It took the whole piece to work out the ideas and moods of the drama-filled piano prelude. The timing, the placement, the impression of the whole being revealed in its many parts had the touch of a creator in control.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

The Langbein String Quartet with Leigh Harrold and Harley Gray, presented by The Firm

For the sixth and final concert in their 2009 series The Firm, composers Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant, presented The Langbein String Quartet, who were joined by Leigh Harrold, piano, and Harley Gray, double bass, for two of the pieces played during the evening. The members of the Langbein String Quartet are Michael Milton and Lachlan Bramble, violins, Rosie McGowran, viola, and David Sharp, cello. This concert was dedicated to the memory of the late Richard Meale.

Peter Sculthorpe‘s String Quartet No. 16 (2005), commissioned by Julian Burnside and first played by the Tokyo String Quartet, opened the evening, Sculthorpe being the featured composer this year as he is celebrating his 80th birthday. This five movement work was inspired by the book From Nothing to Zero, a collection of extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres.

The movements are entitled Loneliness, Anger, Yearning, Trauma and Freedom, reflecting the states of mind through which detainees might go. Once again, Sculthorpe has reached into his bag of tricks and drawn out a number of oft used sound effects. We have the cry of birds from the cello and the pulsing of a didgeridoo, beneath a loose reference to a Central Afghani love song as well as such technical devices as playing near the bridge for that glassy, thin sound. This performance was, thankfully, without the optional didgeridoo. As might be expected, this work is filled with angst and anguish, the quartet bringing out all of the emotional depth of the work in a fine display of their interpretive skills.

Padma Newsome’s new work, Longifolia Sextet, is named for the wattle acacia longifolia and is effectively a tone poem to that plant. With Harrold and Gray added to the Quartet a wide range of timbres is made possible and Newsome explores these in a dense orchestration that gives the sextet great scope for their musical imaginations.

Raymond Chapman Smith’s Divertimento (2003) opened the second half of the concert. Another of his wonderfully lyrical pieces, it is written in five movements, reflecting the model of Joseph Haydn’s early string quartets, a tribute to the composer on the 200th anniversary of his death. The writing is so well thought out that there are times when the Quartet almost sounded like a full chamber orchestra. The Quartet gave a polished performance of this piece.

Quentin Grant’s new piece, Twilight Dances, a reworking of an earlier piece, was the last full work of the evening and brought Harrold and Gray back to rejoin the Quartet. Harmonically rich as well as melodically interesting this piece seems to weave the instruments together into an ever evolving fabric of sound, subtly building and extending the musical ideas until a contemplative final section brings the work to close. The Sextet achieved a fine balance between the parts as the emphasis shifted to and fro amongst them.

Ending the concert was the beautifully atmospheric Largo movement from Richard Meale’s String Quartet No. 3 (1995), played to mark his death a week ago, on Monday 23rd November. Meale was one of, if not the greatest of Australian contemporary composers. Something about the performance, in spite of the short time they had to rehearse and the complexity of the piece was that it had a feeling of great commitment to its performance by the Quartet. Hauntingly intense, yet gentle, almost meditative, it seemed to inspire the Quartet as they gave a superb rendition that left the audience breathless.

All in all, yet another most enjoyable concert provided by The Firm, and a very good reason to make sure you get to all of their concerts in 2010.

Watch for the announcement of the Firm’s 2010 season for more great concerts. To be kept up to date with all the details as they are confirmed contact info@firmmusic.com.au or telephone 8332 1208 and ask to join the mailing list.

Tickets are only $12, or $7 concession, and all secondary and tertiary music students receive complimentary season tickets, available at the door. Concert patrons receive complimentary programs, post-concert drinks and may sample authentic European tortes by Gabriele whilst mingling with the composers, musicians and other patrons. It would be hard to find better value for money than that.

- Barry Lenny, Glam Adelaide

Landscape with Rainbow, Caspar Friedrich

Sunday Spectrum Concert: Jan 20th 2008

in association with the Adelaide Festival Centre

Trump card

APPARENTLY this is the final run of the successful Spectrum concerts. Let's hope for a return later, because the series has thrown up some truly excellent programs - and this one must certainly rank with the best.

A joint venture with Adelaide's well-known composer's group The Firm, it combined quality works by Firm members with the considerable talents of soprano Greta Bradman and pianist Leigh Harrold who are no strangers to contemporary compositions, particularly those of The Firm.

Bradman and Harrold are exceedingly intelligent and perceptive musicians who use the widest range within their technical command to musical ends.

Each is unassuming and totally dedicated to the task, subsuming their individualities within the musical canvas. Thus the Slavic melancholy and glacial Prokoviev-like harmonies of Quentin Grant's Six Russian Songs made a potent impact in their hands, while Raymond Chapman Smith's movingly elegiac Hymns to the Night came across as one of the strongest statements he has made so far in his familiar Schubertian style.

The dry humour and deft colourations of Grahame Dudley's Three Morgenstern Songs provided a welcome balm from such seriousness, with Harrold eloquent inside the piano and out.

But perhaps Bradman's sense of timing and balance showed to best advantage in her exquisitely poised pianissimi during four Schubert Lieder, including a daringly slow Du bist die Ruh.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 1: Jun 30th 2008

Fantasyland of an ageing great

Schumann is the featured composer for the Firm’s 2008 six-concert series and the first program included his Fantasiestucke Op 88 piano trio and Raymond Chapman Smith’s piano solo Nach der Natur, which contained more than a passing reference to the great man’s style.

However, even the collective musical experience of violinist Michael Milton, cellist Cameron Waters and pianist Leigh Harrold, who make up the Settembrini, couldn’t mask the weaknesses of the Fantasiestucke.

The hallmarks of driving energy and arching melodic contours that characterised Schumann’s youthful manner were starting to sound contrived and garrulous as he approached middle age.

The inevitable pastiche qualities Chapman Smith’s tribute works have shown over the years were less in evidence in his three-movement piano solo Nach der Natur, which benefited, of course, from Harrold’s stylish, sensitive handling.

The work proved to be a keenly felt melange of mid-19th century German Romanticism as well as Schumann, with some intriguing twists, even if it overdosed on sugary 10ths too often for comfort.

Luke Altmann’s pretty little post romantic Nocturne No 3 for cello and piano lacked Chapman Smith’s objectivity and came perilously close to sounding as if he actually liked Rachmaninov’s purple musical prose.

By contrast, the vaguely minimalist 12 Journeys of Quentin Grant contained euphonious sweetness aplenty but avoided sentimentality by never losing its balance and equanimity.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 2: Aug 4th 2008

At the heart of the matter

THE FIRM'S second program celebrating Robert Schumann, one of the least consistent of the great masters, went full circle backwards.

The best was last. Soprano Greta Bradman and tenor Robert Macfarlane, two of Adelaide's finest young voices, matched and mingled with pianist Stefan Ammer, going straight to the heart of Vier Duette Op 34, written when the composer was 30 and bursting with love. Then a bonus - Herbstlied Op 43, included as a gift for Ammer's wife, Angela.

All Schumann at his peak of inspiration and technique. And giving even more poignancy in retrospect to the opener Gesange der Fruhe Op 133, his last complete piano work, written days before his descent into derangement at 44.

Between the Schumann bookends, two European jewels: Schonberg's Vier Lieder Op 2, settings of elegant poetry sung alternately with equal grace and fluency, and Quattro Liriche by Luigi Dallapiccola, with Bradman confidently spectacular in conquering every twister of notes and moods. Home-grown products included Raymond Chapman Smith's translucent Nachtlandler, underlined by his predilections for German music and poetry; Luke Altman's Song 1, sung by Bradman to her own text taking the mickey out of clinical psychology, and Winter Songs by Quentin Grant.

Grahame Dudley crowned himself as our king of comedy with his entirely dotty and delightful Four Morgenstern Duets on dada texts. Bradman and Macfarlane had as much fun singing them as he did writing them and we did listening.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 4: Oct 13th 2008

Poet of the piano

Leigh Harrold enhanced his reputation as a poet of the piano with a program of homage to definitive Romantic composer Robert Schumann. The Firm’s founding fathers, Adelaide composers Raymond Chapman Smith and Quentin Grant, saluted the German from two vastly different angles.

The former’s Traktat vom Licht Teil II, was a baker’s dozen of pieces that borrowed freely from Schumann’s characteristics – placid chord patterns, melody and accompaniment, occasionally an actual echo.

Grant’s genesis for his mysterious ephemeral Angels (2003) was in the poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, rich with images and ideas not taken literally in the music. Through these, and also a set of Landler by the distinguished German composer Wolfgang Rihm, Harrold maintained a sense of direction, progress and arrival, however devious the way.

Finally, as though in summary, was Schumann’s own Davidsbundlertanze op 6 (1837). Imagine, as he did, a brotherhood of musicians banding together to fight the anti-art Philistines and the shallowness of contemporary culture.

Written in the balmy days of winning the hand of his beloved Clara, these 18 short, pithy pieces reflect both his own pianistic prowess and his gift for making every note count.

Harrold switched deftly from fast to slow, funny (with chuckles) to sentimental, to frisky, to far away and back again, to wild und lustig, ending in a low, left-hand sigh of contentment. No wonder Balanchine made a New York City ballet on it.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Nov 10th 2008

Fusing all the elements

CRITICAL reserve is probably a better strategy than gushing enthusiasm when writing about talented young musicians. "A star is born" all too easily turns into "a star is torn".

Nonetheless, this recital by young tenor Robert Macfarlane could hardly fail to arouse the admiration of anyone lucky enough to hear it. He tackled two of the greatest collections of German lieder in one evening, both by Robert Schumann - the song cycle to poems of Eichendorff, and Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love).

This refined art form requires the singer to do more than make beautiful sounds. It demands empathy and understanding of the poetry as well as the music and an ability to fuse these elements vividly but without histrionics.

The minimum standard for good lieder singing is that the singing does not get in the way of appreciating the music. Contrary to those who say that "it's the singer, not the song", the opposite applies here.

Macfarlane cleared that hurdle easily. By the time he had finished the first song - the haunting Forest Loneliness (Waldeinsamkeit) - it was apparent that his focus was very much upon the music. Performing the entire evening from memory, Macfarlane immersed himself in the imaginative world of these wonderful songs and drew his audience into it as well.

Macfarlane's voice is already showing a lovely, burnished quality unusual in one of his age. Only at the extremes of his range did he occasionally sound pushed.

Dichterliebe, set to the marvellous poetry of Heine, is the more demanding of the two cycles, requiring the singer to come to grips with the bitter irony of the poems.

- Stephen Whittington, The Advertiser

Concert 6: Dec 1st 2008

Making ethereal magic

THERE was a reflective, autumnal feel about The Firm's final concert of this season, partly flowing from the excellent artists on stage. Pianist Misa Yamamoto and clarinettist Geoffrey Bourgault de Coudray are each capable of the most sensitive pianissimos as well as producing interpretations of exceptional depth and feeling.

Yamamoto's splendid account of Luigi Dallapiccola's 1951 solo piano explorations Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera, while never boxing the listener's ears, was quietly insistent, capturing the kaleidoscopic and often delicate sonic oscillations with masterly control. Likewise Bourgault de Coudray's light and gentle approach to Schumann's Fantasiestucke showed a high level of empathetic rapport with Yamamoto as they interpreted these familiar pieces as real chamber music should be treated, with a distinct but intimate sound.

Joined by violist Sally Boud, the butterfly-wing delicacy of Schumann's Marchenerzahlungen trio ended their program with moments of ethereal magic. Earlier, Bourgault de Coudray and Yamamoto had explored the gentle, bell-like, reminiscent textures of Quentin Grant's Nocturne in C sharp minor (2008) with affection and warmth, and Yamamoto had followed with Raymond Chapman-Smith's Fantasien (2008) for solo piano, revelling in its lush harmonies and ruminative chains of harmonic and melodic sequences.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser

Concert 1: May 29th 2007

While Gyorgy Kurtag is widely regarded in Europe as one of today's foremost new music composers, he is strangely little known in Australia. Only very occasionally does one encounter his music here, and yet this Rumanian-born composer, now 81, is the living embodiment of a tradition that links directly back to Bartok.

Kurtag is not an easy composer to grapple with. In his music there is a similar uncompromising austerity of the later serialists, but there is also the vivacity of Messiaen and even a folk flavour too that emanates from his homeland.

Astutely, The Firm have chosen to make him their featured composer this year, and an opportunity in their first concert to hear a collection of his solo and duet pieces for violin and piano was like - one imagines - coming face to face with the composer. Sometimes aloof and hidden, these pieces also jumped out with a strident, spontaneous ebullience that almost grabbed one by the collar.

Violinist James Cuddeford, who studied composition with Kurtag over two years, understands expertly the parlando character of his melodic line. In the knotty, at times highly virtuosic Signs, Games and Messages his playing was intimately communicative and thoroughly gorgeous in refinement. Pianist Leigh Harrold was just as compelling in Homage to Kadosa and in the concluding Tre Pezzi duets: both players work together to the kind of standard that could go straight to CD.

- Graham Strahle, The Adelaide Review

Concert 4: Sep 3rd 2007

ADD to the already recognised and admired talents of soprano Greta Bradman and pianist Leigh Harrold courage well above and beyond the call of duty.

Fearless in the face of heavy demands, including a song consisting of soundless fish faces, they entertained, amused and fascinated the audience with a program of five locally composed premieres and two imports by The Firm's 2007 selected composer, Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag.

Apart from Harrold's single solo, Jatekok for solo piano honouring Kurtag, 12 spot-the-connection homages to other composers (loved Schubert, hated Tchaikovsky), he partnered the singer, from outside and inside the piano, with the utmost sensibility.

Bradman calmly preserved her beautiful quality from somewhere over the rainbow down to ground level, whether brushing butterfly kisses with the accompaniment (Raymond Chapman Smith's Augenlied), tuning like an echo to Harrold's strings (James Cuddeford's Homage to Kurtag), spitting out the Kafka-esque mockery of bureaucracy (Graham Dudley's Three Morgernstern Songs) or grieving with Kurtag over a dead flower. And, of course, don't forget the fish.

Among the many special moments there was none more telling than the woman who lost her "small one" to a bomb in Leningrad, from a set of Russian Songs by Quentin Grant.

So much innovative material, all performed with complete mastery, and all for just one concert - The Firm's finest hour yet.

- Elizabeth Silsbury, The Advertiser

Concert 5: Oct 1st 2007

Strings stand firm

THE final concert of this season provided some big challenges. Georgy Kurtag's Officium breve, threw an inescapable pall of fragmented melancholy over the proceedings, reinforced by Luke Altmann's new String Quartet No 5 and Quentin Grant's String Quartet No 3.

In stark contrast and from left field, David Kotlowy's Choshoku no Odorhnas, another new piece, was thrown in, its minimalist repetitions lifting the temperature momentarily.

And the challenges continued with a program that lacked conventional notes but contained substantial portions of Kafka.

There was much to appreciate in each work individually. The insistent, hauntingly plangent qualities often encountered in Grant's music were much in evidence, and Kotlowy's high-spirited rhythms crisscrossed with kaleidoscopic brilliance.

The Langbein String Quartet, with Graeme Norris guesting for leader Michael Milton, came into its own in the Kurtag. The players negotiated its dramatic twists and turns with considerable depth of feeling.

- Rodney Smith, The Advertiser