Drumroll please…

Are you ready?



I’m thrilled and not a little bit nervous to announce my new book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

You may have gathered from that something was in the pipeline. I’ve been spending time revisiting my alma mater, and rummaging through the cardboard boxes in my father’s study, which contain the archives of the Summer School. Let me tell you, there’s gold in there. Photos, letters, diaries, programs, dating back to the very first Summer School at Bryanston in 1948.

IMG_3426 (1)The Summer School archive is the subject of my studies for a doctorate at UTS. It will become a thesis and a collection of stories, probably using lots of long words and stuff. In the mean time, however, I’ve been looking into how to get the fascinating contents of those boxes out to a wider audience. Now, thanks to UK publisher Unbound, I am delighted to launch a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for the picture book.


Ah. Yes. Sorry. You have just been sucked into yet another crowd-funding campaign. But why do I feel the need to apologize? A book about a summer school where composers and performers and students and listeners gorged themselves on music and ideas was never going get a twentieth-century publishing deal. So I’ve gone for the eighteenth-century publishing model, with a twenty-first century spin. If Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens can fund their books by advance sales, so can I, especially with the help of Unbound!hall


Conducting Course, 1983

Over the next year I’ll be writing words, compiling photos and working with designers to create a beautiful picture book to celebrate the Summer School’s 70th birthday. I’ll be blogging about my progress and showing you some of the goodies along the way. And if you like what you see, I hope you’ll sign up to buy a copy of the book.

You can also show your support in non-financial ways. Cups of tea, glasses of wine, a big grin or a stern word when I’m doing the ironing instead of writing, all welcome. Or if you’re not close enough to make me a cup of tea, you could help a great deal by passing this on to anyone you know who might be interested. You know the drill: reblog, retweet, email, whisper secrets, gossip salaciously, dance naked down the street shouting ‘buy Harriet’s book!’. Well maybe. Anything to get the word out.

That link again:


Go on. Click. You know you want to.


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Music and Memory

This is meant to be a review of the Jerusalem Quartet’s second Sydney concert, which I went to yesterday afternoon. It’s meant to be a well-informed, insightful response to a live performance. But it’s not going to be. You see, I particularly chose to come to this concert because of the repertoire, Haydn’s The Lark and Beethoven’s first Razumovsky. (If that makes you glaze over, leave now. This is a string-y post).

A few thousand years ago I spent four years at Edinburgh University, supposedly studying Latin but actually drinking beer and playing string quartets.


Not sure, but this looks like the Pear Tree, scene of many an afternoon which should have been spent studying in the library.

The Patten Quartet was a motley crew — an economist, a linguist, a chemist and a medic. Our leader, Andrew, was a bit of a genius on the violin. I’m sure he worked very hard at it, but it seemed effortless. Haydn, with all his twiddly bits, was right up his street, and The Lark was a favourite. I just have to hear that dry, chippy opening and I’m already salivating at the thought of the melody about to come soaring over the top. And the final movement, the moto perpetuo… The second violin has an entry mid-bar, and it’s like jumping onto a moving train. As I listen to the Jerusalems I get flashbacks of me stamping my feet, shouting “Stop, stop, I missed it…” Needless to say, the Jerusalems don’t miss the train. They’re on it, speeding away, with a shared internal rhythm that makes four one.

We — the Pattens, I mean — picked up the Razumovksy after a successful tussle with Mozart’s Dissonance. We were eager for a new challenge but, honestly, it was like walking into a new world. I’ve still got cryptic notes scribbled in pencil on my part, from when I tried to write down my colleagues’ reactions to our first play through. (No, sorry, I can’t make sense of them…) All I remember is that it felt like a huge privilege to be playing something so, well, significant. A privilege, and a responsibility. (I also remember getting drunk and dancing maniacally to the second movement in the early hours of the morning as the sun came up over the Mound, but that’s another story). It was fascinating to read, in Jessica Duchen’s interview with the Jerusalem Quartet, that they are only now coming to this quartet for the first time. No drunken dancing and fudged notes for them. It is in good hands.

Ross Edwards’ third String Quartet, Summer Dances, was only written in 2012, so no Edinburgh flashbacks here, but a bevy of sonic images, from snapping twigs, cicada drones and bird song through to a clear but accidental Sephardic tang in the opening movement. How come I picked that up? Was it transmitted via the memories of the quartet? Memory and music make strange magic together. Which is why I can’t pretend to be reviewing yesterday’s concert because, while I heard it, I was somewhere else, listening to temps perdus. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Much gratitude, then, to the Jerusalems, to Musica Viva, and to Haydn and Beethoven.

(By the way, there’s one more concert, in Melbourne, on Tuesday, and the concert’s going to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM next Sunday. Well worth a listen.)




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Juggling Fish

fishA busy time in Sydney, writing, playing, listening (and, just in case you think I am an imaginary beast, washing-up, driving children around, walking the dog, going to the supermarket…) A mad Sunday which started with Battle of the Bands at Balgowlah North Public School and ended in North Sydney for beer and recriminations about dropped accidentals and runaway codas. Then, two days later, a trip to Sydney Opera House to see how the professionals do it.

Such is the kaleidoscope of musical life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For while listening to ‘Uptown Funk’ not once but four times, in various arrangements, with flexible scoring and even more flexible intonation, is not my ultimate listening experience, I find being involved in music-making at all levels — from singing in the shower to the Sydney Opera House — deeply rewarding.

Battle of the Bands is a local competition for primary school bands from around the Northern Beaches. We’re talking 8-11 year olds, playing instruments they’ve been learning for max 3 years, min 3 months. Some of the sounds coming out are approximate. Some of the kids on stage would rather be in bed or at the beach. But once the band masters get them going, it’s approaching miraculous. Just the achievement of getting 30+ year 4 students to start, stop and be still together. And when they get it together, in those moments where the drummer’s got rhythm, the tuba’s found the note, the trumpets are behaving, it is pure joy.

I had to run from Battle to Shore School for an afternoon concert with North Sydney Symphony Orchestra, playing Franck, Aratiunian and Brahms. It was a tough program, full of D flats which, as all violinists know, are the work of the devil. In a tell-tale sign of true desperation, I’ve been practising, hard. The biggest bogeyman was Le Chasseur Maudit, (The Accursed Huntsman) a tone poem by Cesar Franck about a blasphemous hunting trip which ends up in hell. Think fast, chaotic, chromatic. Think much cursing.

Steve Rosse, principal tuba player of the Sydney Symphony, played Aratiunian’s Tuba Concerto with us. Tricky for everyone, but he did the lion’s share of the work, and he did it brilliantly.

Then a swim in the Rhine with Brahms Symphony no. 3. I swear to you, playing Brahms orchestral parts is like juggling fish. The rhythm and tonality are constantly slippery, and if you try and grab on too hard they leap out of your hands faster than you can say ‘flathead’. I might not have got all the notes right but I loved the challenge. It’s like that exercise where you must not think about a polar bear: if you try to make the notes fit it doesn’t work. You just have to listen, and let them flow. (OK, and a bit of work on the semiquavers helps too…)

Nelson Freire, Sydney Symphony, Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov on Wednesday. Freire’s playing is undemonstrative, understated and desperately beautiful. I suspect he knows all about juggling fish. His compatriot, Marcelo Lehninger, also conducted the concerto with the lightest of touches. The Beethoven Coriolan Overture was less successful, for me, never quite finding a unanimity of articulation and tempo. As for the Rachmaninov, it was rich, occasionally lumpy, but ultimately warm and comforting. Fish soup.

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On Poetry and Song

Are poems ever happy to just sit on a page? Or do they wait, like a dog at the door, for someone to open the book and give their words a voice? poetry

One of my great indulgences is reading aloud. I’ve read to my children for years, and it’s as much a comfort for me as it is for them. Now, when I’m trying to slow down, to find a still centre, I read to myself.  Even better, I seek out someone to read to me, so I can savour the music of the words, the cadence of the voice. But what about words with music? Can it be as intimate, as affecting? How does poetry fare? Does it fight? Or does it dance?

Last night, the book opened and the words of six Australian poets came tumbling out to dance with music by six Australian composers in a concert presented by Halcyon. We had the sly, seductive lieder of Margaret Sutherland, setting words of Judith Wright; the arch and mischevious thought bubbles of Michael Leunig, set by Brett Dean; Katy Abbott Kvasnica’s pitch perfect settings of poems from Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s The Domestic Sublime; still, blinking wonder in the poetry of David Malouf, set by Gordon Kerry; and other worldly beauty in the pairing of composer Elliott Gyger and poet Ern Malley, plus Andrew Schultz’s Paradise, with words and music from the same imagination.

I’m fascinated by the range of voices that came across so clearly, with such individuality, in the words and the music. And I’m fascinated by how the two mediums met and entwined and embroidered each other. In Three Malouf Songs, for instance, the glassy ripples of the ensemble, or in The Domestic Sublime the ecstatic billowing of the spinnaker.

I’m loath to hold up a scorecard for each work or each performance. I will give a shout out to the instrumentalists, pianist Danny Herscovitch, cellist Geoff Gartner and violin Ewan Foster, for introducing me to Roger Smalley’s Piano Trio. And, I must also express my ongoing admiration for Halcyon — aka Jenny Duck-Chong and Alison Morgan — which never opts for the easy path when the hard path is more interesting. For example, pitching a long, line built around word-derived cyphers rather than a tonal centre must be one of the ultimate challenges for singers. Two voices singing such a line in unison, where any error will be immediately obvious, must be mind-bogglingly difficult. But Duck-Chong and Morgan came together in the final work, took the bewildering words and elusive music of Ern Malley and Elliott Gyger and made a strange and beautiful sense. I think the words were happy.

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Super Sato and the Boy Wonder

Back in Sydney, and back to the Brandenburgs last night, for a concert with violinist Shunske Sato as guest director and soloist, in a program which took the band out of their home territory and into the lush sounds of the nineteenth-century. tardis

Sort of. In fact, it was lush sounds filtered through period instruments, period sounds filtered through a romantic sensibility, and a romantic-sized orchestra making up the numbers. Take Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, a late-nineteenth century pastiche of an imagined eighteenth-century sound, played by twenty-first century artists on seventeenth-century instruments. Talk about time travelling!

In the end, this was a very personal — idiosyncratic, even — performance. With Sato directing, it turned into an exercise in boundary pushing which, for me, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Tempi were extreme. Fast movements were not just allegro vivace or con brio, but prestissimo, as fast as possible, and sometimes faster. It was exciting but the notes raced past in a blur. Slow movements were expansive, delicious, indulgent, but sometimes lingering over the lyricism to that point that they only just avoided stalling in mid-air. And that cheeky little catch of breath before a phrase return, that ‘wait for it, wait for it…’ worked brilliantly the first time, but its impact faded with repetition, like an over-worked punchline.

I’m going in hard here, and I’m aware that it’s at least partly because, for my sins, I know Grieg’s string writing back-to-front and upside-down. This was a highly original, and even risky, performance and, as I might have said before, I’m all for taking risks. So bring on the rubato, rock that voluptuous portamento, take things as far as they can go, and then maybe a little bit further. It certainly got my attention, if not my unqualified admiration.

Before the Grieg, we had Mendelssohn-the-Boy-Wonder and the third of his String Symphonies. Back in the musical time machine as a nineteenth-century twelve year old remodelled an eighteenth-century format. With Sato at the helm the Brandenburg’s string sound was distinctly different: less hard edges, more elision, minimal vibrato. He launched into the first movement at a cracking speed, and the band were up for for it, matching their rhythm and articulation with thrilling sense of ensemble. Exciting stuff.

Then Paganini.

paganiniPaganini inhabits a strange place in classical music because, as we all know, he was basically a freak. A freak, a showman, a shyster, all rolled into one big bundle of superhuman talent. Not such a bad fit, then, for the Brandenburg Orchestra, with the right frontman, and last night we had two. Sato romped through the fourth Violin Concerto, making it sound terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. Not to be outdone, Paul Dyer directed a supersize orchestra, kept up with the soloist and played the triangle. It was quite a show, and brilliantly done by all on stage. (Special mention to the trombones and trumpets). The only disappointment was that Sato declined the audience’s vociferous requests for an encore. By this time, we knew he could do anything. Anything. Maybe a wafer-thin caprice? Pretty please?

But no. In true showman style, he left us wanting more. Let’s hope he’s back soon.

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And then it’s over

hallI got the Summer School blues on Wednesday, the day when you realise the week is going faster that seems possible. Then I got the Wall on Thursday, when you give in to the temptation to skip the second half and seek enlightenment in a glass of red. Then on Friday, I got my mojo back when I got to play the Bach Double with a bunch of all-comers headed up by the Skampa Quartet. That was it. Fixed grin for the rest of the day.

Now, the other side of a six-hour meditation on the living hell that is the A303 on a Saturday in August, and I’m back in the real world, reflecting on a week well-spent with my father, doing the thing we both love so much.

The concerts at the end of the week passed by in a bit of a blur. The ‘Made for Dartington’ production of The Pirates of Penzance was a triumph – another canny piece of theatre-making by Richard Williams, adapting a work which was, at the time of writing, a cutting rejoinder to the theatre industry, into a fond, gigglesome piss-take of this whole silly business. My father retreated to the bar, fiddling with his hearing aid and muttering, “It’s not that I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s that I can’t hear the dialogue…” I laughed and bought him a beer. It’s wonderful to see G & S at Summer School, just as it’s wonderful to see a program that variously offends, irritates, delights and wows people in equal measures.

The final night concerChoirt was, as always, for the Big Choir, and a stirring performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass, with impressive top notes from the sopranos and the tenors hanging on for grim death in those fugues. Before that, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Joseph Havlat as soloist. Havlat is a rehearsal pianist and repetiteur for the conducting course, one of those unassuming but essential characters who float around at these events, like the mild-mannered janitor with hidden powers. It was great to see him transform into a superhero in this nutty, spiky, soulful work, and great to hear the Dartington Festival Orchestra’s principal trumpet out the front of the stage too.

A final observation. This week I played chamber music most days. It was a mixed bag — I’m not sure the “Adequate Quartet” is a going to work, marketing wise, as a name — but it was always fun and often thrilling. I particularly enjoyed meeting two instrumental music teachers from Bristol, string players on the frontline of music education. Their day job is giving 20 minute lessons to a room full of 10 eight-year-old beginner fiddle players. They came on a teacher bursary, which is a new scheme from the Summer School Foundation, a fully-funded busman’s holiday where they can refresh their skills and remind themselves why they do this bloody thing. It’s an inspired idea. The two teachers were completely blown away by the experience. Hearing new things, seeing great artists and great teachers in action, playing new repertoire, pushing themselves beyond anything they thought possible. They’ll take that energy with them back to the classroom and the kids they teach will be the better for it.

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From the very first prospectus, for Bryanston 1948 (courtesy Summer School Archive)

Job well done, Dartington.

G and S and DP

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.

Dorothy Parker, queen of the throwaway line, the acid rejoinder. Toast of the Algonquin. Writer, poet, lover… And, as I found out on Wednesday, also social activist. Who knew?

Dorothy takes a Trip is a one woman show created for Dartington International Summer School 2016 by director Richard Williams, in collaboration with singer, actor and all-round stage animal Sarah Gabriel.

DorothyparkerSorry. Correction. It’s not a one woman show. It’s a three-hander, but one of the characters plays the piano, and one doesn’t speak. Gabriel’s role is as a lawyer who is looking after Parker’s estate, including the disposal of her ashes, which are in an urn in the filing cabinet (presumably filed under P). Through a conversation between the lawyer and the ashes, we learn how Parker was so much more than throwaway lines.

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

If that sounds morbid and slightly weird then, good. Because, listening to Parker’s brittle poetry, you realise that morbid and slightly weird is entirely in the spirit of this brilliant mind. Gabriel has a fabulous line in dead-pan Dorothy delivery — you can just imagine the louche langour of the bright young things in 1920s New York. The music puts you there too — a deft choice of songs ranging from Noel Coward to Milton Babbitt, sung with impeccable diction and a lovely sense of period. (Veronica Shute, at the piano, is a sensitive accompanist in a difficult acoustic).

I can’t tell you the final gag, but it’s worth waiting for. I hope Gabriel and Shute get to perform this again, further afield.

Conduct becoming

First concert for the Dartington Festival Orchestra last night, with this year’s crop of student conductors. It was an all-Beethoven program, with Joanna MacGregor clocking up her third concert in as many days in the Triple Concerto, with (equally frantic) Adrian Brendel (cello) and Chloe Hanslip (violin), and a changeover on the podium for every movement.

Conducting Course, 1983

Conducting Course, 1983 (Photo: Charles Davis, Summer School Foundation Archive)

Two hours earlier, I’d been sitting on the grass exchanging memories with a couple of DFO legends. It’s 25 years since I last played in the conductors’ orchestra, back in 1989, when Diego Masson was running the course. It was bloody hard work then, as I’m sure it is now. An opera, a choir concert, a couple of orchestral concerts, and deciphering the more or less vague gestures of rookie stickhandlers. Some of them were good. Very very good. Joyously good. Others were very, very bad. Viola player Nicky Hocking (now Smith) reminded me of the nicknames we used to give those poor lambs to the slaughter. Who could forget ‘Brown Jumper’? Or ‘Branston Pickle’? Or ‘the Surrey Fascist’?

To give them their due, it’s a tough gig for the conductors too. I imagine it’s not unlike a student teacher standing in front of a class of thirteen year olds. Except that the class is made up of 55 professional musicians who may or may not have hangovers but certainly have no time for fools. The viola section, led by the legendarily foul-mouthed Peter Gumbley, backed up by the razor tongue of Nicola, were particularly intimidating. Some of the students rose to the occasion. Some we broke.

The 2016 batch mostly scrubbed up well last night. I was particularly impressed by Australian conductor of the first movement of the concerto, who beamed across the orchestra, inciting not just notes, but perhaps even joy. The band also did well, dealing with some — dare I say it — unreasonably brisk tempi in Symphony No. 7. As for the concerto, the soloists soared out from the crowded stage, with Hanslip finding a thrilling clarity to her top register.


Martynas Levickis rehearsing for Tango Nuevo with Joanna MacGregor and Adrian Brendel

Then a late night concert from Lithuanian accordion star, Martynas Levickis. The Accordion is not everyone’s go-to instrument for musical bliss but, in the hands of Levickis, it may yet become one. He’s a natural communicator and an astonishing performer who had me grinning broadly through music by Bach, Rossini and Levickis himself, and gripped by Sofia Gubaidulina’s De Profundis. 

The future has buttons and bellows.

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Words about music

I’m reading Nicholas Cook’s excellent Music: a very short introduction. It’s a great counterpoint to the mad whirl of music-making, -talking, -listening to and -not listening to that is Dartington International Summer School. In it he talks about music and words and metaphor and the ongoing debates about how and why we even try to describe music in words. Which in turn leads him to contemplate what we are actually trying to describe…

Alfred Brendel was not stressed about metaphor in his magisterial lecture on Beethoven’s late sonatas. The piano virtuoso and polymath did acknowledge options for talking about the works — in terms of physical, psychological, historical, musicological etc. — before indulging his preference, poetical.

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This is definitely Alfred Brendel at Dartington in 1970. Sadly, it’s not Adrian Brendel-ssohn who wasn’t due to be born for another six years. Photo: Charles Davis (DISS Archive)

It wasn’t all fine words (although there were plenty of those). He speculated on and dismissed the fanciful ruminations of various musicologists (to remain unnamed here…) Most interesting, though, was how he traced melody fragments through the sonatas, both in terms of melody shape and pitch. Something that, no doubt, leaps out at you after years and years of performing them. I can’t say I ‘get’ the sonatas now, but it was a treat to hear him talk with such authority and such love.


The 7.45pm concert was a festival of Tango Nuevo from the DISS16 all-stars, including Joanna MacGregor, Antonia Kesel, Adrian Brendel and accordionista fabulosa Martynas Levickis. Exuberant, splashy, sexy. Completing the line-up was Brazilian percussion guy Adriano Adewale, who not only gave us dance rhythms, but also two solo breaks, first on assorted ocarinari, and second on tambourine. Yes. A tambourine solo. It was one of those new music moments where you see what’s coming up, raise your eyebrows and suspend disbelief more because of good manners than any real expectation of enlightenment. And ten minutes later you’re sitting there, mouth open, eyes wide, ears alive with delight. Who knew a tambourine could make such a range of sounds? Brilliant.

tango2The all-stars were a hard act to follow. After some quick first-aid from the piano technician, the long-suffering Steinway was wheeled back centre stage for its third performance of the evening. Florian Mitrea gave a generous and energetic performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein, followed by Sonata No. 111, which I heard from outside, in the  velvety fug of a South Devon summer night.


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A date with eternity


William Blake gets it, two centuries before the mindfulness takes the publishing industry by storm.

I’m just posting this picture today because words about yesterday’s concert have failed me. It’s a slate plaque in Dorothy’s garden, at the end of a stone walkway which runs along the end of the Tiltyard. It’s easy to miss. If it’s cloudy the words sink back into the moss, and if it’s clear the outline gets broken up by light and shade from the sun through leaves. I can’t remember when I first discovered them — it’s not as if they’re secret, or hidden from view. You just have to look.

I normally head into the gardens at Dartington as soon as possible after I arrive but this time I got swept up into stuff, so yesterday was the first time I’d taken a stroll. The soundtrack this time was an accordion flecked with bird song. Very Il Postino.

The concert I’m not going to review: the Skampa Quartet, playing late Haydn, late Beethoven and Shostakovich. Beethoven’s Op 132.  Shostakovich Quartet No. 3. I cannot imagine a better performance. Deeply moved. No words. Just music and silence and infinity in the palm of your hand.