Selby & Friends - Powerful Passions (audience review)

Audience Member Review
By Andrew Byrne
7 February 2015 - Chevalier College

This would have been an impressive concert at London’s Festival Hall or the Lincoln Center in New York.  Yet it was at Chevalier College school hall, a short walk from where I live on weekends in Bowral.
 
Pianist Kathryn Selby reintroduced violinist Natalie Chee and ‘cellist Clancy Newman with Aussie expat French Horn player Hector McDonald in four virtuosic chamber works for their first of five tours for 2015.  http://selbyandfriends.com.au/
 
The concert was punctuated by detailed and fascinating talks by the four soloists starting with Ms Selby herself who discussed how the group chose repertoire.  She has numerous rarely heard works in mind and then after discussions with the soloists it was usually easy to agree on pieces.  They choose from the enormously varied compositions for piano and various groupings of other instruments from early baroque to modern.  Despite this diversity there was nearly always a linking factor between the pieces.  This time by chance she found that each piece had its genesis after a recent death in the composer’s family.
 
Next Mr Newman told us some stories about his composer’s many names.  Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born in 1809 (cf. Verdi and Wagner in 1813).  His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a major German Jewish sage and reformer.  He was the first to translate the Torah into German and worked to allow German Jews to be assimilated while maintaining a strong Jewish identity.  After one of his son’s successfully compositions Mendelssohn’s father was quoted “Once I was the son of a famous father, now I am the father of a famous son”.
 
Jews often say: “From Moses to Moses there was no-one like Moses”, referring to Biblical Moses and the sage Rambam (aka Marmonides).  They could have added a later generation referring to the composer’s grandfather Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn who is often quoted in Yiddish quarters to this day.
 
In a remarkable turn of evens it was Moses Mendelssohn who changed his name from Dessau, his birthplace, to ‘Mendelssohn’ (son of Mendel) so it did not sound so Jewish.  Paradoxically, because he had become so famous in the Jewish and wider German community the name Mendelssohn was considered too Jewish-sounding hence the son’s change to Bartholdy after converting to Christianity.  Felix mostly refused to use this name out of respect for his grandfather.  Furthermore , he was instrumental in having Moses’s works published posthumously.  The composer’s mother had died just before the sonata for ‘cello and piano was written.
 
Our violinist Ms Chee then told us about the Smetana connection (his surname means sour cream in Czech!).  There was a deceased child, another tragedy put to music one might say.  He lost three out of four daughters as well as his wife, a tragedy hard to imagine surviving.  And the man had been exiled from his home town due to domination of the Hapsburg Empire, working in Sweden at the time.
 
In the second half our brass player spoke about the development of the modern French horn.  I note from Wikipedia that despite not being French at all, the name has stuck somehow, but only in English (it is known at simply ‘cor’ in French).  We were told that although the ‘modern’ horn with three valves was invented in 1815, Brahms, who played the horn himself as a young man, refused to write for it, preferring the older version.  This was far more limited in the notes that it could play, especially in the lower registers as, like the cornet, it depended upon overtones to step up to higher notes.  Other notes could be attempted by partially or fully blocking the horn with the fist.  This increased pressure in the pipes, raising the pitch of the note by a half or full tone by careful manipulation.  Yet this necessarily reduced the volume, creating a strange scale of uneven notes .. Mr McDonald demonstrated, playing a scale without using the valves on his modern instrument.  No wonder the modern instrument is preferred nowadays.  He described horn players in the time of Mozart who would have to arrive at the theatre with a ‘baby coffin filled with different sized crooks for the different keys’.  And the composer ‘usually’ left enough time to insert the right ‘crook’ for key changes between arias, choruses, etc.  It makes piano seem simple.  Brahms had also lost his mother just before writing this sonata.
 
On this summer evening concert there was a wealth of musical knowledge imparted as well as numerous humorous anecdotes, introducing each of the phenomenally virtuosic pieces .. they are all available on the internet so no need for me to describe them, even if I could do them justice.  http://selbyandfriends.com.au/
 
Ms Selby is still the genius of this enterprise.  Her keyboard playing is exemplary and she makes it look easy.   For the first time I purposely sat on the keyboard side, marvelling in each of the works her stupendous talent and professionalism.  Mr Newman’s ‘cello playing is phenomenal and his measured fingering and manipulation of his magnificent instrument was a marvel to behold as he stared out into the audience.  Likewise Ms Chee who again showed her prodigious talents to this privileged audience.  Each of the pieces was technically as difficult, if not as long, as a concerto … and there were four pieces in a row!  Some feat for the ever-present pianist!  Mr McDonald only played in the Brahms piece which occupied the second half.  Mr Newman sat with the audience to hear the horn, piano and violin trio.  One can only wonder what Brahms would have made of this piece if he had written it for the modern French horn.
 
The audience seemed delighted with both the pre-music repartee and the main features.  For me the Mendelssohn was the take-home splendour … but others will say that I am biased.

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