To Vince words, it’s a Curly one

Author: Robin Usher

MICHAEL Leunig’s cartoon character Curly Pyjama and the rock singer Elvis Costello are unusual contributors to classical music but both feature in the latest concerts by one of the pioneers of Melbourne’s chamber music boom, the Flinders Quartet.

Jazzman Vince Jones and Melbourne’s chamber music pioneers, the Flinders Quartet. Photo: Rodger Cummins

The group’s cellist, Zoe Knighton, says the impetus for the program is one of the 20th century’s great quartets, Janacek’s Intimate Letters, the Czech composer’s last completed work.

”It has been missing from our repertoire, and that is a notable gap,” she says.

”But Janacek is still not well-known for his chamber works, unlike his operas. So we wanted to put Intimate Letters in some sort of context.”

Janacek’s masterpiece is based on letters to a young married woman who acted as his muse in the last decade of his life.

”She inspired quite a number of works without ever reciprocating his feelings,” she says.

”It is an amazing piece of music that doesn’t sound like anything else. \

”Music always tells a story, but when the story is so vivid the result is even more startling because of the raw human emotion.”

To provide a context for the work, the group approached the jazz singer Vince Jones to perform a selection of The Juliet Letters , created by rock singer Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet in 1993, as well as asking the Canberra composer Calvin Bowman to suggest a new work.

Bowman had completed a song cycle last year using Leunig poems, and he suggested The Curly Pyjama Letters.

”I think everyone can identify with Leunig’s characters,” he says. ”They speak directly to the heart in very spare language.”

He describes the music as funny and poignant, a response to the illustrator’s ”warm and engaging personality”. Bowman says he is excited by an offer from Leunig to write more poetry for a new work.

He has also been commissioned by Victorian Opera to write a new work based on Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding for next year, with a libretto by Anna Goldsworthy.

In the concerts today and on Monday, the letters will be narrated by Vince Jones.

The singer is pleased that he will perform some of his own songs as well as a selection of the Costello/Brodsky compositions, which he describes as passionate love letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet (from Romeo and Juliet).

”My songs could be interpreted as letters, but they are not all about love,” he says.

Rainbow Cake, for example, was inspired by his great aunt and uncle, whom he always assumed were married when he was a child, only to discover that they were siblings.

”They began living together after he returned from World War I with shell-shock and she decided to look after him. It is a plea for peace.”

Jones acknowledges that performing alone with a string quartet is taking him outside his comfort zone but he is impressed by the quality of The Juliet Letters.

He describes them as borderline show songs, with strong classical influences.

Knighton agrees it is ”music of substance” but says it defies categorisation.

”It is neither jazz nor crossover,” she says.

The concerts are also a new idea for the Flinders Quartet, which was formed 12 years ago and was the first Melbourne chamber group to introduce a subscription series.

The Flinders Quartet will present Janacek’s second string quartet with Calvin Bowman’s The Curly Pyjama Letters and Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters at Montsalvat, Eltham, at 2.30pm today and at 6.30pm at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday.

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