Review: Contra Schubert (Contra Concerts & Southern Cross Soloists)

Jonathan Henderson, Vatche Jambazian, Shikara Ringdahl, and Hyung Suk Bae perform Contra Schubert, photographed by Stephen Henry

With a programme including Schubert, Sculthorpe, and Ravel, Contra Schubert was an intimate and evocative chamber concert that allowed each piece to be drawn out and savoured.

Presented in association with Southern Cross Soloists, Contra Concerts have been performed across three cities – Brisbane, Toowoomba, and Stanthorpe – in the past few months, and promise “nocturnal art song in exotic settings”. The Contra Schubert programme was curated by flautist Jonathan Henderson, who welcomed the audience to the space and spoke briefly about the choices he had made. The concert was intercut by brief explanations and information, primarily from Henderson, whose personal passion for the project was evident.

Henderson mentioned that a number of the pieces were programmed from his personal “wish list”, including Schubert’s Variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’ for Piano and Flute. Henderson added that he saw the linking threads of the Contra Schubert programme as being the emotional crises being experienced by the composers at the time of writing the pieces; the humbling grandeur and power of nature; and themes of the night and the nocturnal world.

Jonathan Henderson and Vatche Jambazian, photographed by Stephen Henry

Following this brief introduction, the concert began with the aforementioned variations by prolific Austrian composer Franz Schubert, performed by Henderson on flute and pianist Vatche Jambazian. Trockne Blumen (Dried Flowers) is the eighteenth song featured in Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maiden of the Mill), in which a young man sings miserably of being unable to live if he cannot marry his one true love, the miller’s daughter, who has married another man. The selection of nine poetic, programmatic variations showcased both musicians’ virtuosity, and it was a pleasure to be able to observe their artistry so closely in the chamber setting; to appreciate the sharp, skilful precision of their fingers on the instruments and the ways in which the piano and flute were in conversation with each other.

Prior to Contra Schubert I hadn’t heard of 20th Century Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, but his works stood out to me in the concert for their sparse grandiosity and the way they conjured the Australian landscape. Henderson suggested that the audiences would feel the tectonic plates shifting in Vatche’s performance of Mountains, a work inspired by the Isle of Mountains in Tasmania, and this was hardly an exaggeration. Vatche let every vibrating bass note linger in this piece, capturing the enormity and majesty of these monoliths, and the emotional impact and perspective that being in their presence can bring.

Mezzo-soprano Shikara Ringdahl joined Henderson and Jambazian onstage for Ravel’s Deux Mélodies Hébraïques (Two Hebrew Melodies), and the clarity and strength of her voice filled the hall. Following this, cellist Hyung Suk Bae completed the quartet of artists to perform Sculthorpe’s beautifully existential The Stars Turn. Continuing with Sculthorpe, Henderson read aloud the Japanese haiku poem that inspired Night Pieces for solo piano, which Jambazian then performed, bringing to mind twinkling stars and the vast promise of the night.

Vatche Jambazian and Shikara Ringdahl perform Sculthorpe’s The Stars Turn for Contra Schubert, photographed by Stephen Henry

All four artists then returned to the stage and the concert concluded with Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses (Madagascan Songs), a trio of art songs written to a poetry collection of the same name by French poet Évariste de Parny: Nahandove, an anticipatory song for a lover; the startlingly intense warning song Aoua!; and the languid Il est doux (It Is Sweet), evoking the drowsy warmth of lying beneath a tree on a hot day.

The Contra Schubert programme encouraged patrons to “…switch off, recharge, and disconnect from deadline mode.” The pacing of the concert was pleasantly unhurried, and in the close setting it was easy to become lost in the music. There was also the sense that the musicians were enjoying the exchange equally with the audience, and after the hour-long concert I felt genuinely transported and refreshed.

A series of tall silver panels served as a simple but striking backdrop, framed by the high, arching ceilings of the Holy Trinity Church Hall, and brought the musicians even closer to the audience for this intimate chamber music concert.

Contra Schubert was everything you could ask of a concert – moving, evocative, and surprising. Delightfully transportive, it drew together four talented artists and a programme of pieces inspired by emotion, nature, and the night, allowing each to be showcased and savoured individually and collectively.

Contra Schubert was performed at the Holy Trinity Church Hall in Fortitude Valley, on 7 October 2022

For ticketing and further information for the full concert series, visit the Contra Concerts website

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