Roger Smalley: 60!
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Birthdays are fun – even more so when gifts can be shared with an auditorium crammed with concertgoers, including friends, colleagues and former students, all gathered to mark the 60th birthday of composer/pianist Roger Smalley.
Gift of the evening was a striking new work by Cathie Travers played by the Australian Piano Quartet. The Tower is a substantial piece, a delightful and engrossing revisiting of the now almost vanished palm-court style of musicmaking but with a sensuous, smouldering overlay that places it firmly in some smoky Buenos Aires bar. With its affectionate obeisance to tango meister Astor Piazzolla, The Tower is a work which, whether darkly brooding or extrovert in zany fashion, will surely be a temptation to choreographers; it cries out for dance treatment with its irresistible rhythms, glowing harmonies and a sure feel for what works in tango-like terms. If this gem doesn’t make it into the standard piano quartet repertoire, I would like to know why. It certainly deserves to be there.
The greater part of the program was devoted to Smalley’s own music and began with his performance of a minuet he’d written when he was all of nine years old. His Variations on a Theme of Chopin is music of a very different stripe. It was given a stunningly virtuoso reading by Adam Pinto who steered a sure and nimble way through this musical minefield as, at the work’s many explosive climaxes, he hurled great chunks of sound into the auditorium. As well, we heard Smalley in his Piano Pieces 1 V which have a Webernian brevity and the Barcarolle, one of his most successful keyboard works.
Another Smalley composition that is almost certain to last is his Music for an Imaginary Ballet. Written for a battery of percussion ranging from marimba, vibraphone, brake drums and glockenspiel to cymbals and bass drum, its exotic, darting arabesques and trills sounded quite magical as Paul Tanner brought extraordinary mallet-wielding skills to bear on the score. And in Smalley’s Trio for horn, violin and piano, with the composer at the keyboard in ensemble with Darryl Poulsen (horn) and Paul Wright (violin), we were taken on a journey through often bleak and grimly austere musical landscapes, leavened by impish, treble traceries on the piano, splendid call-to-attention utterances by the horn and an overall standard of excellence we’ve come to expect of violinist Wright.almost as a matter of course.
A fascinating and crowded program also included Echo II, expertly played by cellist Jon Tooby with digital delays of two and a half and 5 seconds giving an intriguing ensemble feel to the proceedings.
Six Minutes for Smalley, described as a celebratory suite of one-minute- long birthday tribute pieces by half a dozen local composers, took longer than its allotted time and included delights such as a little samba played by Paul Tanner on marimba, vibraphone and brake drums and another samba, played at the piano by composer Cathie Travers with Tanner providing rhythm accompaniment on two miniature sand shakers. Catherine Cahill did wonders on the clarinet, producing a stream of velvety smooth sound to bring Lindsay Vickery’s miniature tribute to life. As well, we heard husband and wife team Evan Kennea and Emily Green-Armytage in Kennea’s two- piano-tribute. And Darryl Poulsen directed French horn sound into an opened concert grand, with composer James Ledger demonstrating wondrous skill at depressing the piano’s damper pedal. Also in on the act were soprano Merlyn Quaife singing a haiku-type text to the accompaniment of two cellos played by Jon Tooby and composer Iain Grandage.
Throughout the evening, Smalley, who has over the years worked tirelessly to raise the profile of new music in the city, provided a linking commentary about the genesis of this work or that. It says much for the future of new music in Perth that such an enthusiastic audience turned out for this event on one of the year’s most miserably wet and gusty evenings
Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn.