Monday, February 02, 2009

From the inside out: Melbourne Recital Centre

The Hamer Quartet under the MRC's tapestry

First performances in new theatres and concert halls are very special occasions. This time last week I could have counted the number I'd been at on my fingers... with a whole hand to spare.

The official openings of The Sydney Theatre (who dreamed that name up? Bloody useless!) and Iwaki Auditorium were real occasions, for one reason or another. (The presence of Paul John Keating made for some excitement at the latter.) The the two Malthouse spaces -- the Beckett and Merlyn -- in 1990, of course. But, before that? [scratches head]

I wasn't at the opening of the Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall) in Melbourne but, thanks to my father [hereafter "TAB"], a "Red Series" MSO subscriber, I was at the second or third public concert there in the autumn of 1982. I was a little bit more leisurely in catching up with the three spaces in the theatres building (see here) when it opened in 1984.

Refurbishings and major restorations of disused, derelict and/or just plain dowdy theatres have been significant in Melbourne. I'm sure I've still got my Federici badge (somewhere) issued for the first performance at the re-opened Princess Theatre. The Regent was another stunner. Even The Maj scraped up well.

I hope the opening of the MTC's home base (and the Sumner Theatre) proves to be as important for the company as the Malthouse redevelopment was for Playbox. But I rather doubt that this latest milestone will be all that crucial to the state of the arts in Melbourne let alone "of significance" to the rest of the world.

On Wednesday night, I was delighted to be part of first "first night" at the Sumner Theatre -- at the premiere of Matt Cameron's "play with songs" Poor Boy. But, by interval, I was even happier to be off duty. I could be gracious... sit back and enjoy the way Tim Finn was grooving along to his songs as sung by Guy Pearce, Sara Gleeson, Matt Dyktynski, Abi Tucker et al. (Finn and his dad were in the seats next to me.)

Sure enough, when I cleared my messages at half time, there were a couple from my "other self". My Herald Sun colleague and music theatre reviewer "K8" couldn't get a park in the increasingly crowded Arts Precinct. So, I was on duty after all. (Much gnashing of teeth.)

The venue itself? Comfortable, modern, state-of-the-art... A good size for the company. (It really needed a 500-seater like this.) I'm not all that impressed by the rowdy, undampened, sharp-edged foyers and the strangely-fitted nautical-antique dunnies. Meh.

As I'm sure I've protested on many prior occasions, I tend to love buildings from the inside out. I didn't much care for Fed Square until I saw the vision of ACMI and the NGV-A. And saw the way the masses took to it in a way they never took to the so-called city square.

So, I was always going to be more excited about the Melbourne Recital Centre (in the same development as the Sumner -- I keep typing Slumber!! Stupid Freudian Fingers!!) than the MTC's new home. Take a look at the line-up for the opening three months. At last... the 20th century (musically speaking) is stopping off in Melbourne. All those "illegal harmonies" I've never heard played live before. Pieces by Nono, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Ligeti, Scelsi, Birtwistle, Xenakis... The word 'stoked' doesn't even begin to capture my excitement. And things really kick off with a new work by Peter Sculthorpe.

But the main space -- the 1000-seat Elisabeth Murdoch Hall -- is, in itself, equally thrilling. As great a fan as I am of Sydney's Angel Place, as envious as I've been that they've had a concert hall where the musicians don't have to play to fill a cavern built for 2,500 or more, I've always found the acoustic too severe. Pornographically severe.

If only there was a way to combine the lush sound of, say, the Adelaide Town Hall with a chamber-sized auditorium. Well, the MRC does that. And more. It's as live -- and as "stick your head between the monitors" loud -- as Angel Place, but the sound is not at all prickly or severe. Hell, at Angel Place, listening to a cellist plucking an open C string reminded me of Angry Anderson talking about his ears bleeding!

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
(Photograph: Chris Boyd, click to enlarge)

On the strength of this afternoon's debut performance (of Mozart's K 581 Clarinet Quintet) in front of a seriously heavyweight invited audience... plus your just plain overweight correspondent -- it's clear that the Recital Centre's acoustic is, indeed, "uncompromised." (Premier John Brumby's word, quoting the original brief.)

The sound is remarkably even across the chamber music spectrum. It's especially sympathetic to cello and clarinet. It's not, I hasten to add, weighted to the lower sounds and harmonics, it's just that it is rare to hear that particular register given equal ranking to the mid-to-top end of things.

The hall demands excellent musicianship. Nothing is hidden here. Let me rephrase that. All is revealed here. I heard interplays in the K 581 that I've never detected before. And it's a piece I've heard literally dozens of times.

This is a serious hall for serious music. And serious music lovers. It will be a mecca for musicians -- trust me they will flock to it and return as often as they can, it's that good -- and will draw new audiences as well as capitalising on the sophisticated tastes developed by organisations like Musica Viva.

Though I have repeatedly compared the Recital Centre to Angel Place, there are some fundamental differences in management styles. Though the MRC has no fewer than 18 "presenting partners", there is a bold curatorial style that is more akin to Wigmore Hall than anything we have locally. It's entirely feasible -- even probable -- that the MRC will have the same kind of impact on contemporary chamber music in the 21st century that Wigmore had on it in the 20th.

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