tuning the audience
simon charles: erkki veltheim, astra
PRESENTED UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE ASTRA CHAMBER CHOIR, ERKKI VELTHEIM’S SOLO VIOLIN RECITAL CONTINUED ASTRA’S TRADITION OF EXPLORING THE DRAMATURGY OF MUSICAL PERFORMANCE. THE VIOLINIST APPEARED TO DISREGARD THE CONVENTIONS AND RITUALS USUALLY ASSOCIATED WITH CONCERT PERFORMANCE.
This was obvious from the outset when, in a T-shirt, Veltheim entered the 11th Hour Theatre moments before performance time, unpacked his instrument on stage and immediately began to tune. As the audience continued to chatter, Veltheim’s notes evolved into wider intervals, seemingly testing instrument and acoustic. As this process became more elaborate, Veltheim drew attention away from the conversations in the room, which inevitably petered out, to the improvisation that ensued.
Veltheim’s improvising—far from mere noodling—provoked intense interest. It not only allowed a different route into the performance, but one that bypassed arcane rituals of entrance and applause. The improvisation allowed Veltheim to establish a rapport with the audience and to carve out a space that the first piece of the program, Chaconne from Partita in D minor by JS Bach, could inhabit.
In a more typical setting, Bach’s Chaconne would be used as a means for a player and audience to become more attuned to a space and its acoustic. However, here this end had already been achieved. Continuing in the spirit of improvisation, the performance of the Bach conveyed a sense of spontaneity and exploration, executed with extreme finesse.
Chaconne was followed with more improvisations, which developed uniquely and idiosyncratically. Without restraints, moments of intensity and climax could be measured and gradually worked towards with an ever present and intense energy which delivered a succession of musical statements of remarkable strength and clarity.
Veltheim’s improvisational language is very much reflected in the two works on the program by John Rodgers, also a violinist and improviser of immense ability and a former mentor of Veltheim. Solo for Violin and 1/1/94 both demand what seems to be an unprecedented level of virtuosity and were handled in this performance (the premiere of these works by a violinist other than Rodgers) with breathtaking clarity and focus.
The deliberate avoidance of a traditional concert setting put all focus squarely on the performer, without a shred of pretence to hide behind. There was a brutal honesty in the performance presenting the music in its most essential form.
The stark reality of this performance took a more surreal turn when Veltheim was joined by members of the Astra improvising choir, situated behind the audience and around the perimeter of the room. This ensemble of six singers contributed short gestures of guttural sounds and extended vocal techniques. Having spent the first and greater part of the program listening only to the sound of a solo violin, hearing sounds travel from various locations throughout the space had a refreshing effect.
It is hard to think of any musical organisation in Australia presenting work in the way Astra does. Now in their 60th season, there is a characteristic rigour and integrity in every program, managing to integrate new and innovative work with older repertoire, rather than pandering to a particular taste.
Both Solo for Violin and 1/1/94 are on John Rodger’s excellent recording A Rose is a Rose (XLTD-007 CD 2000; http://www.xtr.com/catalog/XLTD-007).
Violin Erkki Veltheim, Astra improvising choir, Joan Pollock (artistic coordinator), Louisa Billeter, Laila Engle, Susannah Provan, Katie Richardson and Sarah Whitteron, musical director John McCaughey, 11th Hour Theatre, Melbourne, Nov 6, 2011 RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 40