Reviews of Passion

Jazz's Great Passion

Jazz CD of the week – five stars

The subtitle is ‘inspired by JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion’. The five composers (including himself) that director Paul Grabowsky has commissioned use thematic material from the Matthew Passion. From there on it might be better to expunge Bach from your mind. This is modern music, brilliantly written and played. Grabowsky’s piece, based on the opening of the Passion (in which Christ carries the cross against a backdrop of yells and cries), is the most fragmented, wild and dissonant. It also has some of the most calm and limpid passages. It is an engrossing series of episodes, or it becomes so after a second or third hearing.

Violinist John Rodgers's finale is also wild, metrically ingenious, and probably a bit of a test for some, but pieces by Alister Spence and Doug De Vries are instantly accessible. Somewhere between these lies drummer Niko Schauble’s contribution.

There is very little one can say in this space about such a detailed, often beautiful, sometimes exciting, occasionally jarring intergration of orchestral wirting and improvisation, except that it is a showcase of Australian musical talent which it would be very hard to equal. That aside, it is utterly absorbing listening. I can’t say that I liked the chorales that Grabowsky has written, but Christine Sullivan sings them very well. For you, they may be the high points. Apart from Rodgers, who had an outstanding classical career before he got involved in all this stuff, the soloists are among the best in Australian contemporary jazz.

- The Sydney Morning Herald (John Clare), 26 July 1997

Review of Passion

Passionate Entry to a New Home

It was quite a house-warming the Australian Art Orchestra threw in its new part-time home, the Opera House. Director, Paul Grabowsky, chose to revisit the highly ambitious, highly collaborative 1997 work, Passion, inspired by Bach’s Passion According to St Matthew.

‘Inspired’ is the operative word. Anyone expecting anything directly relating to Bach’s masterpiece would have been rather puzzled. But what the AAO did present was, on occasion, abundantly inspired.

Setting itself apart from other Australian ensembles, the AAO performs large-scale compositions which exploit the improvising talents of its jazz-based musicians. The personality of the players is as intrinsic to the end product as the compositions.

For Passion Grabowsky had five composers from within the orchestra write a movement; himself, Doug de Vries, Alister Spence, Niko Schauble and John Rodgers – and these movements were linked by short chorales of Grabowsky’s, which pulled the work together and offered respite from the complexity and density abounding elsewhere.

Originally the chorales were sung by the crystalline voice of Christine Sullivan. This time the versatile Deborah Conway stepped in bringing an emotional commitment and earthy sensuality to bear to almost compensate for the absence of Sullivan’s angelic quality.

Like the orchestra as a whole, Passion is living and evolving, with vast scope for variation from performance to performance. Movements change in content and length, such as the addition of the percussion trio at the conclusion of de Vries’s Captive, musicians change, altering texture; improvisations grow.

I missed the classical guitar of de Vries. Here all guitar parts were played on the electric instrument, though the delicate duet between this and Phil Slater’s trumpet on the second chorale was an engrossing substitute.

Highlights included Julien Wislon’s tenor saxophone on Spence’s For Love, Slater’s trumpet baying at the slow march towards the end of Schuable’s Crucified, Sandy Evans’s chilling soprano saxophone cadenza leading to the title chorale; and the raw energy of the trio of Wilson, Scott Tinkler and Elliott Dalgleish on Rodger’s fascinating Finale.

The power of the ensembles was sometimes stupendous yet the sound remained exceptional throughout (with the use of a backdrop).

Welcome to your new home, AAO.

- Sydney Morning Herald (John Shand), 2005

Review of Passion

Power of the Passion - From Very Different Corners

Passion St Matthew Passion. Melbourne Symphony. Concert Hall.
Passion. Australian Art Orchestra. Methodist Ladies College Music Auditorium.

The Bible’s blow-by-blow description of the events culminating in Christ’s crucifixion have provided composers with ample programmatic material. Whether the finished product is a glorious sacred treatment, as in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, or Lloyd Webber’s hugely successful rock musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, there’s no denying the endless musical interpretations the story affords.

And continues to afford.

Last week, just hours after the resounding final chorus of the Melbourne Symphony’s performance of the St Matthew Passion echoed in the Concert Hall, a new interpretation of the biblical events was being played out on the other side of town. Five jazz-based composers, led by Paul Grabowsky, dipped their talent into the ring and emerged with Passion, a reworking of five movements from the extensive Bach canvas, played out by Grabowsky’s Australian Art Orchestra. But if the two performances took their lead from the one work, it was there the comparisons ended.

In the traditional sacred corner was the Melbourne Symphony, conductor Christopher Bell drawing a well-defined and balanced reading from the huge vocal forces. With two choirs, supplemented at one stage by the National Boys Choir, and with the orchestra split into evenly divided units, the stereophonic nature of Bach’s composition was well in hand.

From the rock-steady continuo of John O'Donnell’s organ and David Berlin’s cello, it remained a pleasing task for Bell to flesh out the bulk of the music with Bach’s diverse accompaniment from simple wind trios to substantial choral highlights backed by the combined strengths of both orchestras. In particular, Bell’s ability to float a delicate string sound through the hall gave the performance a distinctive frailty in which to wrap its emotional strengths.

The Melbourne Chorale had a substantially successful night, its modulated response to the conductor nicely balancing the elements of anger and submission played out by the text and most noticeably in Bach’s subtle five-times reworking of the choral centrepiece head, full of blood and wounds.

James Oxley’s outstanding Evangelist, a role tinged with bitter aggression, led the soloists. His vivid treatment also afforded a warmth and a sense of leadership not easy to attain in such exposed and detailed circumstances.

In Oxley’s footsteps came some especially fine responses from Sara Macliver’s heartfelt soprano, SallyAnne Russell’s rich and even mezzo and John Heuzenroeder’s mellifluous tenor.

Across town, Grabowsky’s soloists were substantially instrumental, though guest vocalist Christine Sullivan played a linking role, singing short interpretations of some of Bach’s best-known chorales to lyrics by Grabowsky. Given that they dabbled in the ancillary elements of Bach’s original, they were important linking treatments for the five bigger movements of this modern Passion, featuring the compositions of Grabowsky, Doug de Vries, Alister Spence, Niko Schauble and John Rodgers.

Those wanting a recognisable comparison with Bach’s original would have searched long and hard through these improvised episodes to find comfort in the modern treatment.

Here was music that was substantially entertaining in its showmanship but often so overloaded with imagery it was best to enjoy it as a newcomer rather than a revisitation.

With that in mind, the pictorial elements of de Vries’s Captive, with its nod to Piazzolla and South American rhythm, Spence’s For Love, featuring a superb tenor sax solo, and Schauble’s Crucifixion, the closest the performance came to Bach’s original, came off best. Amid Grabowsky’s overloaded fugal treatment of the opening Come Daughters, and Rodgers’s pulsating and highly emotional climax of Finale, the confines of the Methodist Ladies College auditorium were somewhat stifling and I longed for the excesses of the music to breath more freely.

- The Australian (Jeremy Vincent), 31 March 1997