A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Play it again

I have a secret, which I’m going to tell you. Only you.


Photo: Steven Godbee

Last night, Avi Avital played the slow movement of a Vivaldi Concerto just for me. The lights went down, the hall fell silent and, although he didn’t actually meet my eyes, I’m sure he was playing to me alone. It is with much regret that I acknowledge that everyone else in the hall probably felt exactly the same way.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra don’t generally bring back artists after only two years but they’ve made an exception for Avi Avital. Frankly, I’d be quite happy to see him back every year, but I’ve a feeling the rest of the world might get jealous.

By now you’ll have gathered that this is a rave, but I’m not going to apologise for my enthusiasm. Avi Avital is a rockstar. His instrument is smaller than your average guitar hero, but the energy with which he plays powers up the performance to epic levels. The difference between his performances and, say, Jimi Hendrix’s, however, is that his sound is amplified not by electricity but by intensity. This is music under the microscope: tiny modifications to timbre, exquisitely turned phrases, and a brilliantly judged sense of timing which has you catching your breath as he places a single note, perfectly.

The other effect of Avital’s  playing is that it makes you listen. That’s partly practical: the mandolin is a quiet instrument which can only sustain notes in two ways: either by using tremolo in a sort of sonic pointillism, or by creating the space — in other words, silence — to allow a single note to ring on. It’s practical, and it’s also rewarding.

I’m happy to report some outstanding listening last night, and not just from the audience. The ensemble were brilliantly focused and responsive, taking their cue from his sound, his phrasing. Indeed, Avital was not the only one on form last night. The ensemble was sounding as good as — dare I say it, better than — I’ve ever heard them. They accompanied Avital in the two Vivaldi concertos with their customary stylishness and rose to the timbral and rhythmic challenge of Tsintsadze’s Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes, and the torrid Paisiello.

A highlight of the night, however, was a new find from artistic director Paul Dyer, by a Venetian contemporary of Vivaldi by the name of Giuseppe Valentini. His Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op. 7 No. 11 features soloistic breaks for cello and all four violins. In the opening Largo concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen drew a complex, woody timbre from the band. It felt much more freer, more characterful, from an ensemble that sometimes gets stuck on detail.  Then, in the allegro it was a classic case of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’. The first violin threw down a musical gauntlet, passed along the line to violinists Ben Dollman, Matt Bruce, Matthew Greco in ever evolving forms until it reached cellist Jamie Hey. They met Lee-Chen’s challenge with thrilling flair, confirming what we already suspected, that these guys can really play.

The combination of a charismatic and winning soloist and a concertmaster who is not afraid to take a bold stand must make this a contender for Brandenburg best concert of the year. But don’t take my word for it. Go and hear them on 28 and 29 October and 2 and 4 November at 7pm and 29 October at 2pm in Sydney, or on 5 November at 7 and 6 November at 5 in Melbourne, or at 7.30 on 8 November in Brisbane.

And if you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.


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Flowers of War

I first encountered the music of Frederic Septimus Kelly (29 May 1881 – 13 Nov 1916) a few years ago, when writing some copy for an orchestra putting on one of the many Anzac-flavoured concerts in 2014. I was very struck by the mixture of nostalgia and new imaginings in his famous  — his only famous — work, Elegy – in Memoriam Rupert Brookes. I listened to it over and over, hearing layers and layers of tradition and identity and innovation and raw emotion in the music. Then I finished writing the copy, sent in the invoice and thought no more about it.

Fast forward two years and I’m heading to a concert at St James featuring multiple works by Kelly, alongside the music of two of his contemporaries, Claude Duboscq (1897-1938) and Botho Sigwart zu Eulenburg (1884 – 1915). It’s being presented by Chris Latham’s The Flowers of War, a four year program in which Latham seeks to rediscover some of the cultural losses of the Great War. It’s an ambitious and impressive endeavour: Latham has trekked all over Europe and coralled the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia, the Musée de l’Armée and Bibliotheque National de France into pooling resources. He’s dug up manuscripts and rustled up funding and booked concerts in Sydney, Paris and London. It all culminates in a new work, The Diggers Requiem, commissioned for performance in 2018.


F S Kelly, who was also an Olympic gold medallist.


But back to 2016. Latham has assembled a cracking team to perform these works. In the generous acoustic of St James’ Church Tamara-Anna Cislowska drew a radiant haze from piano, while singers Louise Page and Christina Wilson, sensitively accompanied by Alan Hicks, combined pinpoint accuracy and consistent beauty of tone with a range of emotions from awe to fragility.

And what about the music? I confess, it’s difficult to write about with any critical distance. It’s not unlike parsing the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brookes. Chris’s concert was a feast of discoveries — more than ten Australian premieres — and when listening to something new I’m often listening for context, connections, comparisons — the brain trying to tame a new experience by categorising it alongside something it already feels comfortable with. But the strange thing about all of these works is that they already feel comfortable. They all have an immediacy, a heart-on-sleeve glow, a nobility of expression which clashes awkwardly with the environment in which these works were conceived, to the point that they could be considered nostalgic. Sentimental, even. And for a world which still lauds modernism that’s getting close to dismissive.

The strange thing is that in amongst Kelly’s yearning, eloquent melodies, there are strange harmonies and weird scraps of something other, but they don’t stick out. In fact, that — the unspoken, unspeakable, within the familiar — seems to me the point. The prevailing impression is of intense beauty and elegaic melancholy. It’s a bit like Owen’s neologisms and startling turns of phrase, hinting at the gulf between the language he knows so well and its complete inadequacy to express the alien world around him.

Who knows what FS Kelly might have done if his life had not been cut short on the Somme. He could have gone on to train Olympic rowing athletes. He could have become, as Latham proposes, one of Australia’s greatest composers, comparable to England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams. But with the images of war blazing silently in my mind as I try to listen it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the moment. Perhaps modish Modernism (in music and art and poetry) is for those outside the crisis, looking on. When you’re in it, living the unimaginable, your art is your best defense.

ABC Classics has just released a double CD of the music of F S Kelly, featuring Chris Latham and colleagues involved in the https://player.vimeo.com/video/174986191“>Flowers of War project. It’s worth a listen.

And if you have enjoyed reading this, I’d love you to let me know by following my blog, liking my Facebook page and supporting my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.


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Flashback Friday

Busy studying this week so no reviews until Sunday, when I’m seeing this. Instead, I’m posting a piece I wrote back in 2011 to celebrate this month’s guest visit from Sydney Symphony’s former chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, along with a photo from the Dartington Summer School archive from 1964.


A young Vladimir Ashkenazy and son at Dartington International Summer School in 1964. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, with thanks to the Summer School Foundation).

It is twenty-eight minutes past three on a cool Tuesday afternoon in Sydney. The stage of the Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House is packed: 77 musicians sitting patiently, flicking through their music, adjusting their instruments; black clad stage managers in head sets darting from one door to another. Vladimir Ashkenazy appears on stage unannounced, dressed down in comfy slacks and a white t-shirt printed with a black and white portrait of composer Edward Elgar. He squeezes nimbly between the first and second violins, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging a few words with individuals as he goes, then hops onto the podium. More smiles, a glance at the score. ‘No. 19, please’. Then the baton goes down and the music begins.

The musicians of Sydney Symphony are rehearsing their season opener, a performance of Grieg’s incidental music for the Ibsen play, Peer Gynt. The music is interspersed with extracts from the play, read by actor John de Lancie, and this is a technical rehearsal, finalising the lighting and sound, and making sure the orchestral and non-orchestral elements run together seamlessly.

As such, the orchestra and its conductor, Ashkenazy, are just following orders. At the request of the stage manager, they skip to the night scene, where de Lancie must speak over the orchestra, recitative style. There is a moment of confusion as de Lancie pauses unexpectedly.

“What do you want us to do there?” Ashkenazy shrugs, not quite impatiently. “I don’t mind.” The stage manager negotiates a minor change to the script and the music continues.

In spite of the stop-start nature of the rehearsal, no one is fidgeting, and no-one is holding back: the music is never less than beautiful, the notes are all there, the phrases are turned with infinite care. Ashkenazy is small in stature but he bristles with energy on the podium, shaping phrases and cueing entries with a look, a gesture, a slight stiffening of the shoulders.

Ashkenazy in person is much the same as Ashkenazy on the podium. Soft spoken, economical with his words, and utterly engaged by the music. Asked whether he ever shouts or throws his weight around in rehearsals, he smiles.

“No. I’m not the type. I don’t find any reason to yell. Not with anybody. Especially not with Sydney Symphony. But I don’t think I ever yelled. It’s not my nature. If something goes wrong I just wait, and get it right. Yelling won’t help.

“You do not need so many words. The musicians do not like it. They just like to play music, to play beautifully.”

(First published in Limelight Magazine, 2011).

I suggest you hurry along to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s website to check out what’s on tonight, tomorrow and next week. It will be a treat.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a preview, feature or review for most music ensembles in Sydney. I am, therefore, supporting artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.

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Yesterday and Tomorrow

After my devil’s advocacy earlier this week, I found myself surrounded by HIPsters* yesterday. The Australian Haydn Ensemble, playing Beethoven, in chamber arrangements, in Sydney Opera House, on original instruments. In 2016.

The AHE have been going for five years now, and they’re beginning to build momentum. Their chosen niche is late Baroque and early Classical repertoire, and they wear their scholarship with pride. Performance as research. Research as performance. Performative research. The question I have to ask is whether this approach is limiting, in terms of artistic expression and communication with the audience. Are we, the audience, being set free from preconceptions? Or are we getting tied up in HIPknots?


Yesterday’s performance suggests the former. In a packed Utzon Room, playing against panoramic views of a sunny day on Sydney harbour, the ensemble performed Beethoven in a way that reframed not just the sound but the rhythmic and textural structure of the works. It was, in a word, discovery.

Central to the performance was the triple-strung, wooden-framed fortepiano, a replica of an early nineteenth-century instrument by Conrad Graf. As guest soloist Neal Peres da Costa explained before they began, the instrument’s four pedals meant he could realise the composer’s markings in a way not possible on a modern piano. In particular, the una corda marking, which shifts the hammer mechanism so that it only strikes one string, produces a distinctly ethereal tone, bringing an other-worldly character to the second movement. Then the return of the una corda marking in the final movement was like a ghost from the past. Peres Da Costa was imaginative and bold in his phrasing, flirting with the inegale, and finding a fascinating range of tone colours. Forget the heroic, domineering piano virtuoso: this felt like the tentative steps at the start of a new relationship. Occasionally klutz-y but very exciting.

A quick reshuffle for a fine reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. In this period arrangement for string sextet, flute and fortepiano continuo, some of the work’s signature gestures were missing – violas are not horns, and a period bow cannot sustain a note in the same way as a wind player can — but other, more intricate details emerged from the textures, which made up for the loss of that big orchestral sound. I sat there trying to imagine how I would listen to this, if I didn’t know it as a symphony but as a chamber work. Did it sound like the early string quartets? Would Beethoven have written it like this if he only had six voices? I’m not sure that he would have, but I found myself completely involved nevertheless.

Yesterday and tomorrow? That’s when the performances are. Go hear for yourself.

A few words about the Utzon Room. It has so much going for it: the kudos of being under the roof of the Opera House, and the support of the Opera House’s marketing efforts, a drop dead gorgeous view of the harbour and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and a perfect size for chamber music. It is always a pleasure to go there – it feels special. The downside, however, is the acoustic and sightlines. It wasn’t designed as a performance space, and it shows. We sat at the end furthest from the public entrance, on keyboard side but, after advice from another listener, I’ll try the other end, where the curve of the roofshell seems to give the sound a little more resonance. Indeed, it would be interesting to experiment with putting performers in that position, under the roof arch, to see if it throws the sound out into the room. Inconvenient for entering, perhaps, but if it improves the acoustic, worth a try.

*HIPsters – collective noun for practioners of Historically-Informed Performance.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a review for most small to medium music ensembles in Sydney. I am doing my best to support artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.


Yesterday and today

160919-lezhneva-690x387I went to hear the ACO and Julia Lezhneva last night. It was quite something. The performers left the stage after the fourth encore. Fair enough. They probably wanted to get home, or have a drink. The audience would happily have stayed to listen all night. I could gush about phrasing and timbre and poise and fiddly-fast notes but my post concert tweet says pretty much all I want to say. screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-08-56-pm

I was however interested in a note in the program.

For these performances, the Orchestra will play on gut strings. We like the rawness, roughness and soft hue of the sound these strings produce. And the wind players will perform on copies of instruments from the time.

The pitch is compromised at 415 vibrations per second, which may have been used by some performers in the 18th century. We have little to no idea what the composers intended their music to sound like, so hereby offer you one notion of how it could sound today.

Roughly translated, “Don’t you dare pull the historically-informed-performance card on us. If you do, we won’t hesitate to ask to see your time machine”.

It’s an interesting point. Australian Chamber Orchestra has never staked its reputation on authenticity, whatever that might be, and Richard Tognetti has never claimed to be making scholarly editions when he arranges late Beethoven quartets for string ensemble.  Or Janacek, or Grieg, or Alice in Chains for that matter.

This is in sharp contrast to many other ensembles touting for business these days, where historically informed performance is a key part of the brand. Paris in the 1780s. Vienna in the 1830s. London in the 1690s. You name it, the niches are endless.

None of which I, personally, have a problem with, until it becomes a battleground. When musicians start waving baroque bows threateningly, and start muttering about someone else’s misplaced vibrato or pitch, it starts to get silly. The whole point of the HIPster movement is, surely, to seek meaning, and meaning comes in many flavours, whether it’s how a musician might have played a particular phrase in 1816, as compared to 2016, or what they might have been thinking about at the time. Frankly, if it finds some meaning which I can use in the here and now, I’m pretty happy. As the program writer of the ACO says, the main thing is ‘how it could sound today.’ Because until we get that tardis working, today’s all we got.

(And seriously, do go and hear this one if you can. There’s another performance in Melbourne on Saturday 15 October and the last night in Sydney next Tuesday. Details here.)




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Everyone’s doing it

Cosi fan tutte, Sydney Conservatorium School of Music Opera School, 8 October


Oh Mr Mozart. Signor Da Ponte. You are so wicked, mixing your weasel words and  melting harmonies into the outrageous confection that is Cosi! You set declarations of love, hope, faith and tenderness to some of the most beautiful music in the repertoire, then you put in the mouths of dissemblers, tricksters and fools.

Is a love song still a love song, if the person singing it isn’t in love?

The Conservatorium’s Opera School has put together a production of Cosi which, in the spirit of Mozart and Da Ponte, is simultaneously straight, musically, and thoroughly crooked, dramatically — the ultimate anti-rom-com. On a simple set (with several handy hidey holes) the cast camp it up to generate lots of laughs.  Director Narelle Yeo uses a wide repertoire of theatrical tricks and pratfalls to keep the action engaging, so that there is always something to see. Indeed, there are so many visual gags that one sometimes finds oneself watching the action on the margins — a chorus member clipping hedges, Despina pigging out on chocolate, and a scene-stealing nurse who seems to have got lost on the way to a fancy dress party in Darlinghurst. But while it is distracting at times, it’s so well choreographed and so downright entertaining that it seems churlish to criticise.

The six-hander cast all pull their weight, vocally and dramatically. Tristan Entwistle cuts a fine figure as Guglielmo, the alpha male, and sings like a dream, finding the solid centre of every note. Chris Berg’s Ferrando is more fragile: when he sings well — which is most of the time — his sound is achingly seductive, but there are moments in this treacherous role where the voice sounds unsupported.

Deepka Ratra is a scarily effective Despina. She handles the vocal challenges without drama, her voice fine-tuned and agile, but what is most impressive is her ability to maintain a character, a melodic line, an intricate part in a sextet while in a basket, or handling complicated props, or dressed in a fat suit, wearing a false nose. Michael Halliwell – who is associate professor in the vocal and opera studies unit – is a pitch perfect Don Alfonso, with a fine bass which provides a great anchor for the ensembles.

As Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Sarah Kemeny and Jessie Wilson are a well-matched duo who cope with awkward costumes — the fabulous inventions of Brendan Hay — intricate stage business and the work’s prevailing subtext misogyny with dignity and style. Indeed, through their solo arias they build characters with more integrity and emotion than any of the other characters. Yes, they’re being played, but they lose with honour. Wilson nails both her big arias and her blazing ‘Per Pieta’ is a moving portrayal of a someone genuinely trying to be a good human being.

Cosi is often cited as an ideal opera for young artists, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The standard of singing here was consistently high. So too was the orchestral playing, which music director Stephen Mould drove at a cracking pace. And if things threatened to come apart on occasion, it all came good in the end.

Cosi is on for another three performances, on Tuesday 11th and Thursday 13th at 6.30pm and on Saturday 15th at 2pm, all in the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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The Madness of King George

When I go mad, I want to go mad like King George. Specifically, like Peter Maxwell Davies’ King George. More specifically, like Simon Lobelson’s Peter Maxwell Davies’ King George. I want to find the music in the howls, the poetry in the pain. I want to smash violins.

madgeorgeOh alright, maybe not that last bit, but it is good to see how shocking it still is to watch someone whack a violin into the stage so hard that it cracks and splinters into pieces. It’s the culmination of Eight Songs for a Mad King, the moment where the King kills a bird, kills a song, kills part of himself. I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock. My neighbour had no idea, and hearing her sharp intake of breath, momentary disbelief, then horror, was everything you could wish for. This is not a gratuitous gesture. It is a key moment for the audience, the players and the central figure, a moment where art and artistry completely loses it. A glimpse into the abyss.

Simon Lobelson is a magnificent King George in this fine performance by the Verbrugghen Ensemble. He makes the role his own (as, indeed, everyone who attempts this crazy work must) with an endlessly inventive repertoire of noises. What I found most impressive, and most affecting, was the way his performance seemed so organic, so frighteningly natural, whether he was matching his voice with birdsong or bowdlerizing Handel or howling. And how the ensemble was gradually lured into being an extension of the king’s byzantine mind, brilliant and brutal and beautiful at the same time. It was deeply moving.

Before that, some sybaritic Villa-Lobos —  seamless lines from flute, saxophone and oboe, over gritty textures from harp and guitar — and a world premiere, Matthew Hindson‘s This Year’s Apocalypse. Cue sirens.

In his program note, Hindson hopes that the effect will be ‘suitably terrifying’, and it is. He opens with relentless barrage which reminds me not so much of the abyss as of that feeling of lost panic when your alarm clock goes off in the middle of a deep, deep sleep. You know why it’s there, you get what it’s doing, but you still want it to go away. It’s loud and, I suspect, a little more rhythmically chaotic than intended in this first performance. The horn solo, however, magnificently played by David Thompson, cuts through the chaos with virtuosic eloquence, a voice of reason in a messy world. And from this, threads of sense start to shine dimly through the hectic texture of the closing bars. A good performance of a promising work from this terrific ensemble. Can’t wait to hear what they’ve put together for next year.