As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com
The eyes gave him away.
They’re hidden on the back wall of the hall, in amongst the cartographic wood panelling of which the warm, red lighting makes you feel like you’re an ember in the cosy heart of a fireplace.
But I found them. His grotesque lips and the many folds of his water-filled chins appeared soon after, my brain rapidly making connections in the unhindered way it does when seeing what it wants to see. And now, every time I sit in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I’ll be staring at him.
Go on and google it, I’ll wait for you. I had to, even though – like most who went to primary school in Australia – I learnt about Tiddalik while I was sitting on a classroom floor as the teacher read from a picture book, my mouth open lazily in fly-catching mode. As his frog face revealed itself to me, I could remember everything about him except his name. Do google him, it is a great story from the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The narrative details of Tiddalik aren’t relevant to today’s article: as far as I’m concerned, all you need to know is that I saw a giant frog face on the back wall of a concert hall, while in front of it, the Jerusalem Quartet played Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No.13.
I know, I know, you’re right in thinking: ‘This is a concert review?? Who sends you to these things?’. Good questions, both. It is a review, but think of it as being like one of those plastic wishing wells that charities place in supermarkets and shopping centres. Remember those? Like a big, squashed funnel. If not, this is what happens: you send a coin racing down a chute at gravity’s insistence, it hits the flat plastic and slowly spirals around the rim for a while, each revolution drawing the coin nearer to the hole in the centre, the sloped walls getting steeper and steeper as the coin gets faster and faster, becoming a blur of spinning metal before dropping into the catchment below with a …….chiiiing. Yep, this review is just like that. You’ll see.
And who sent me to see this concert on September 17? Well, this time it was Musica Viva, which has been championing chamber music in Australia for so long and so successfully that you’d assume judgement would be a strong trait. Have you seen its program for 2017? It’s so good that I’m clutching the hope that MV will like this review and want this relationship to be ongoing. But then, that’s probably the motivation behind all of my writing. If I would just get a dog and instantly sate my needs for adoration, perhaps I’d lose all desire to put my voice in your head.
That might be good for you too, if having my voice in your head is anything like having it in mine. It’s quite like the wild West Coast of Tasmania in here, sometimes; wrangling an idea into comprehensible sentences is like chasing a plastic bag on a beach in a wintery gale. Happily, though, while researching the Beethoven/Ross Edwards/Dvorák program of this concert, I came across a quote of Dvorák’s that was somewhat comforting:
To have a fine idea is nothing special. The idea comes of itself, and if it is fine and great, then that is not because of the person who has it. But to develop the idea well and make something great of it, that is the hardest part – that is art!
I do enjoy quotes like these: the passive-aggressive ways they pass through you. At first, you feel the warm glow of ‘ahhh that’s nice to know, this genius had struggles just like mine!’. But then it turns in your mind a few times, you compare the quality of your ‘fine’ ideas to their fine ideas, feel silly, blush at the modesty of their sentiment and before you know it, the warm glow you’d initially felt crumbles in your mouth like a junkie’s tooth. A bit like after a performance when someone says to you: ‘Bravo! That piece is really hard. You did so well’. That’ll make you grind a tooth or two, too.*
That being said, the Quartet No.13 in G major by Dvorák is really hard, and the Jerusalem Quartet – of course, and obviously, for an ensemble that has had a successful worldwide career for 20 years – nailed it. It nailed the Beethoven as well, Op.18 No.6; a work that jumped out of the musicians’ instruments with much more expressive conviction than the Edwards. One passage was particularly memorable, with the cello, viola and second violin – in unison and without vibrato – creating a colour of such creeping dread that if the next phrase had consisted of Psycho-esque shower stabs, I would have been grateful for the chance to draw breath.
If the Beethoven fit them like a glove, the Quartet No.3 Summer Dances by Ross Edwards was more like hiking in high heels. They still bounded over rock and bushel with energy and poise, but you suspect they’d have been much more comfortable in a familiar, broken-in pair of boots. The playing was precise and virtuosic but I sensed a degree of expressive unease, not quite a lack of conviction about the music, but…almost. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own ambivalence towards Edwards’ music onto them, hearing or not hearing things in the music in accordance with what rests on the ragged shoreline of my subconscious.
Perhaps the Edwards’ many dance rhythms simply suffered in the articulation-swallowing hall (winkwink, Tiddalik googlers). The hall was an obstacle to crystalline detail that affected the Dvorák as well, with much of the rhythmic turbulence that prevails throughout gobbled up by the space. Crucially though, it wasn’t thirsty enough to devour the train-like chugging rhythms that abound, specifically in the second movement, and once I was aboard, the music fed me with such fertile nourishment that I felt like a hero from a Tarantino movie, collecting bounties along a rail journey through snow-covered Bohemia.
See, I told you; it’s like the West Coast of Tasmania in here, my imagination as unpredictable and barely-tethered as a comb-over in a windstorm. To the gusts of Dvorák, anyway. My evening’s companion was not so moved; furthermore, she found the central Nocturne of the Edwards to be evocative and captivating, when I had not; and, disappointingly, she hadn’t seen Tiddalik either.
Now I think of him, I understand why. The back wall of the concert hall is just a pattern of lines, like the contours of a map; according to the website, it’s supposed to look like the back of an instrument, adorned with the shapely curves and eyes of wood grain. If you look at the vertical centre of the wall, it’s easy to discern the symmetry, the pattern flipped and repeated, rippling out on both sides like waves behind a speedboat. Actually it’s just like a Rorschach test; those inkblots used to examine personality characteristics and emotional functioning that all look a bit like a butterfly or a bit like a bat or a bit like an *insert inappropriate sexual allusion*, depending on your particular brand of madness.
Speaking of which, I’ve talked of Tiddalik and wishing wells and crumbling teeth and comb-overs and please-like-me motivations. A particular brand of mad, to be sure, and I don’t know if I passed or failed the aural Rorschach test of this particular Dvorák text but I was swept away on his train rhythms and his fragments of heroic melody and I loved it so much I saw the fat face of a water-filled frog and snippets of childhood and classroom carpet and being told to close my mouth and I thought of loves I’ve played Dvorák with and loves I never played with and loves I haven’t met and Dvorák I haven’t played and just lots about love for Dvorák and then I thought about places I want to travel to and trains through the snow and Christoph Waltz and tobacco and bounties I need to collect and I didn’t want the journey to end or the playing to stop I just wanted it to go on and on and onandonandonandndndndndnd………..
*In loving memory of Richie Benaud