A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Louder. Faster. Higher: with superior instruments, highly-refined technique and an audience avid for pyrotechnics, nineteenth-century composers were liable to be sucked into an arms race of virtuosity when writing concertos. Brahms certainly did his best. Apparently Wieniawski thought it was unplayable. Joachim, the dedicatee, coped.

maxresdefaultSo did Maxim Vengerov last night. More than coped. Owned it. But, interestingly, the most ear-catching moments for me were not the flawless cascades of notes, the thrilling sprays of double stopping, but the way he found the shape and sense of the melodies. Like in the final movement, where he tuned into his inner gypsy, snatching a microsecond of air at the top of the phrase, and inspiring the orchestra to imitate him. Or riffing on a mystery where-was-that-from phrase in his first movement cadenza. Or graciously picking up the melody offered, for consideration, by the oboe in the second movement. Making the unplayable make sense.

9-sso-in-concertThe Brahms was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5; a real wham bam of a season opener. Except that it was more like w-whamba, wham, baba bam. No, that’s being cruel. But, after a month’s holiday, the orchestra did sound like it had, well, been on holiday. Nothing wrong with individual lines: the strings were sweet and lush, the wind soloists immaculate and the trombones rasped tunefully…  But put it all together and things got fuzzy at times. Robertson’s tempi – sometimes daring, but not unreasonable – often took a while to take. And about those trombones. I like a trombone as much as the next person, but their tuneful rasp just felt like it was dominating the orchestral texture.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a great concert by a great orchestra. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But in the age of louder, faster, higher we are promised earth-shattering spectacularity, night after night and, honestly, last night it wasn’t quite there.

Which is great, because I know I have much more to look forward to in their 2017 program.

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The Impossible Cor


l-r Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser, Antony Pitts

There’s not much that can defeat the Song Company. This tight knit group can sing, act and, most important, think their way around pretty much anything you can throw at them. But with Cornelius Cardew they might have met their match.

Cardew was an experimental composer and activist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1981, aged 45. His relationship with music was, like his relationship with life, art, philosophy, everything, passionate, playful and enduringly tricky. If ever there was someone who could think themselves into a corner, it was Cardew.

There’s never going to be a double CD boxed set of Cardew’s greatest hits. For a start, the whole idea of a finite word, a recording setting the sound in shiny silver, is something one feels he’d rage against. Nevertheless, the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, has dreamt up a ‘kind-of-opera’ (his description) which brings together fragments and glimpses into the musical machinations of Cardew’s iconoclastic mind. It’s designed, with input from designer and writer Adrian Self, as a chronology of  Cardew’s life, with music, some synchronymous (is that a word?) and some tangential.

The performances are, as you’d expect from the Song Company, wild and wonderful. They’re all fine singers but, more than that, they are sound artists. Something like Steve Reich’s ‘voicetruments’. Plus they occupy the stage with a highly tuned awareness of the interplay between themselves and the audience. No shy genius hiding behind a score here. It makes for a very intense experience: the music is beautiful but discombobulating, nothing is predictable, and the threat of audience participation hangs in the air.  You’re never quite sure whether you are being entertained, educated or are in fact the subject of a covert scientific experiment.

As a way of portraying this curious artist I found it superbly effective. As a way of trying to answer the question always hanging in the air — what is this new music for? — I found it confronting and, ultimately, quite sad. There wasn’t a hint of irony in the ensemble’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, and I even felt the physiological surge of joy as cross-rhythms combined with key change combined with sweet, sweet harmonies. The darkness I felt came from all that went before.


L-R Cornelius Cardew, Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw, 1956, Dartington. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, courtesy Summer School Foundation).

In Anthony Meredith’s biography of Richard Rodney Bennett he gives an account of a concert where Susan Bradshaw, English composer and fellow student of Cardew, jumped out of her seat in the audience, leapt on stage and dragged Cardew away from the piano. Anything to make it stop.

I think I know how she felt. I wasn’t driven to yell ‘stop’. It was too well-crafted, too entertaining for that. We knew we were in safe hands, safe voices, with the Song Company.

I did, however get glimpses into Cardew’s relentless questioning, his moments of High Nihilism, and it was a scary place. Scary but necessary, because asking questions is what art is all about, and that’s why the Song Company is one of the bravest ensembles around.

Accidental Plans goes to Canberra on Friday 17 Feb, then Wollongong on 18 Feb, Melbourne on 20 Feb, Newcastle on 23 Feb, back to Sydney on 25 Feb, with a final concert at Richmond School of Arts on 3 March. Details here.

(BTW if you were at the concert, yes, I admit it, I was the one who walked in late. Sorry. No exciting excuse, just life getting in the way. My apologies to performers and audience.)

The 1956 photo above is from the Dartington International Summer School of Music’s archive, which I’m currently immersed in as I do doctoral studies and prepare a book for publication sometime next year. It’s crowdfunding at Unbound so you need to go and have a look and tell all your friends about it and pledge lots of money. Thanking you in advance.



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What’s Classical: NEXT?

There’s a rumour been going around for the last – oh, let’s see — 200 years or more that Classical Music as-we-know-it is dead. Dying, at the very least. Really not well at all. It’s true, of course. Classical Music as-we-know-it is constantly dying. Especially if it’s based on old technology (sorry, record companies) or old business models.


Dammit, how am I going to get the blood out of my wedding dress? I’ll have to sing…

But look more closely and you see that it’s an awfully lively corpse. (Or a zombie, perhaps). Seriously, though, ensembles come and go. Orchestras struggle, reinvent themselves. Composers and performers and listeners change. Some drift away. Some works are forgotten. Others are rediscovered. There’s never enough money, but there’s always passion. New modes, new models, new ways of doing things and, most importantly, new audiences. If that sounds ludicrously Pollyanna-ish, look around. Just look.

Classical: NEXT is an annual gathering of the global classical music community dedicated to looking — forwards (as well as back). It welcomes members from across the community, from grass roots outfits to digital leaders to major presenters. It also presents the Classical: NEXT Innovation Award to shine a spotlight on some of the most exciting, forward-thinking, smart, savvy, sustainable ideas coming out of classical music today.

Classical: NEXT approached me a couple of months ago to nominate Australia’s entries to the Innovation award and now, finally, the cats are out of the bag. The cats being Victorian Opera and CutCommon, two organisations who are filling a gap, thinking up new ways to do business, showing ingenuity and creativity and, best of all, being bloody good at what they do.

So cross your fingers and toes for them, go buy tickets or subscribe, and keep looking. Forwards. If you don’t know where to start, try here, the full nomination list for the Innovation awards.

Coming soon: reviews of the Song Company and the Australian Brandenburg’s Messiah and Eighth Blackbird.


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Read and write

This is the first of an occasional series of interviews with fellow writers. Not necessarily about music, not necessarily about the yarts, but always about Art.

For the last two years, after more than a decade of writing reviews (350 words or less) and marketing copy (25 words is my forte) I’ve been trying to crack longform. You may well have heard about my book on Dartington Summer School – goodness knows, I’ve gone on about it! — but you probably don’t know about my fiction addiction. I’m still to crack New York Times bestseller list — you have to get published first, apparently — but I’m working  on it.

img_20160313_132359Which brings me to Shona Kinsella and her first novel, Ashael Risingwhich has just been published with Unbound. I met Shona via the Unbound Social Club, an essential online gathering space for fellow Unbounders. If you’ve ever crowd-funded anything you’ll know how agonising a process it is, but the camaraderie and idea-bouncing has been an unanticipated delight. Which is why I’m delighted to share with you a q and a with Shona about writing, getting published and, one of my all-time favourite pastimes, telling stories.

First, about you. How long have you been writing? 

I wrote short stories and (bad) poetry when I was young but I’ve only really been writing seriously since around May 2014. I did everything backwards and accidentally. I basically stumbled into it all. I’ve always wanted to write a novel; it’s been on my bucket list ever since I saw the film Bucket List when I was about 15. I didn’t actually do anything about it though. Then in May 2014, I was approved to take a career break to care for my children and my husband and I were joking about what I would do with all of my ‘free time’ and he said I could write a book. The idea stuck with me so I read a few books about writing and then sat down at my laptop one day to give it a try. Needless to say, it worked!

How did you come across Unbound? How are they different from, say, a trad publisher or, for that matter, a self-publisher?

I first learned about Unbound when Scott Pack, one of the editors, wrote a piece about them for The Guardian. I was really intrigued by their approach. The company was set up by three writers who felt that publishing was getting too closed – increasingly celebrity writers and TV tie-ins are crowding the market and trad publishers are reluctant to take a chance on new writers or even established writers trying something new. By crowd-funding the books, Unbound establishes that there is a readership for the book before it gets published. It lets them take risks that the big houses are unwilling to take.

Some people equate Unbound with self-publishing but it’s not that at all – although the author does the crowdfunding, you submit your manuscript for editorial assessment before being offered a contract, just like with a trad publisher, and Unbound’s standards are high.


Tell me a bit about Ashael Rising. Is this a story that has been in your head for a long time?

ashael-rising-coverAshael Rising is the story of an apprentice medicine woman in a hunter-gatherer society. Her people are at risk from the Zanthar – invaders from another world who extend their own lives by stealing the life-force from others. Ashael must discover who she really is to protect her people and ultimately her world.

The seed that grew into the book was an image from a dream I had many years ago, that ended with a warrior fairy flying over a desolate, war-torn land. There are no fairies in this book, but the image formed the basic idea. I’m what is sometimes referred to as a ‘discovery writer’ which means that I discover the story as I write it. I had only the vaguest notion of what it would be when I started.

Ashael has a lot of me in her but also a touch of the warrior fairy from the dream! Again, I discovered her character as I wrote, sometimes being surprised by her actions!

How did you go about building a world for her and your other characters?

This was more discovery writing. I know that some authors (especially fantasy authors) build a massive world and have maps and files and history before they even think about starting to write – I’m just about the opposite of that. It’s a bit like walking through a tunnel (the world) with a torch(the story) – I can see as much of the world as the story lights up and a little bit around the edges of that. Which is basically the long way of saying that I make it up as I go along!


What do you do when you’re not writing? And what are your favourite books?

I have three young children so when I’m not writing I’m usually doing something with them. Or laundry. They create a lot of laundry!

My favourite books are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’ve read the whole series several times and I know I’ll go back to them many more, I just love them.


Finally, what are your writing plans ongoing? Is Ashael Rising the start of an epic series? And is it officially released now? Have you had a launch party? (If not, why not!?)

I have my next three projects lined up. I’m contributing to and editing an anthology of stories by Unbound authors. All of the stories will have some connection to a library. I’m really excited to work on this. Next, I’ll be finishing a novella that I started in November, called The Longest Night. It’s about a tribe living in their equivalent to the arctic when the sun fails to rise after mid-winter. Finally, I’ll be starting on the sequel to Ashael Rising. Just now I’m planning a trilogy but because of the way that I write, it’s possible that I’ll discover more story and it’ll turn out to be a longer series!

Ashael Rising has been officially released now and can be purchased here: http://bit.ly/ashaelrising

As for a launch party, I’ve had a small family celebration with a nice meal and some Cava but not a full party – mostly because I have an 8-week-old baby so I’m too tired to party right now!

You can connect with me at:

Blog: www.shonakinsella.com

Twitter: @shona_kinsella

Instagram: shona.kinsella

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ashaelrising/

Many thanks to Shona for taking time out from writing and laundry – I am in awe of someone who can string a sentence together while having young children — and can’t wait to read more!



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Murder & Redemption

Gush alert. Not really a review. More a colourful account.


Image: Sam Amidon. Photo by Ferguson


With Richard Tognetti ‘in residence’ at the Barbican in London, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s first tour is directed by Finnish fiddle player and long time ACO collaborator Pekka Kuusisto. With him comes Sam Amidon, another fiddler, guitarist and banjolier. Actually, I’m just going to call him a musician, because all this specificity is getting me down. In the same spirit, I’m going to call last night’s concert a top gig, because it hit all the marks for me. It entertained, it wow-ed, it seduced me, it made me think and made me grin from ear to ear. And that, I reckon, is a result.


Isn’t it weird how a banjo hold is just like a rifle hold? Music not bullets.

Murder & Redemption spliced together Janacek chamber music and American blue grass, minimalism and Messiaen, with an open-hearted enthusiasm which made it seem completely natural. Vast leaps of style, tonality, philosophy even, spanned without fuss by a stage full of brilliant musicians. Amidon is a disarmingly undemonstrative spinner of songs: indeed, there’s a delicious cognitive dissonance in the way his tales of love and death unfold.

“So I drew a revolver from my side / And I shot at the poor boy’s soul”.

As you do.

Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, in Richard Tognetti’s arrangement for string ensemble, was a perfect foil to this. No words, just feverish passages breaking out from the everyday tumble of Moravia dances.

Redemption came in the second half, with an all-too-brief solo set from Kuusisto and Armidon, followed by John Adams’ Shaker Dances. It’s a rare treat to hear improvisation – verbal and musical – on the City Recital Hall stage and even rarer to hear a violinist more often at the head of an orchestra accompanying a banjo. If you haven’t got tickets to Bruce Springsteen you might want to head to the Wild Rover tonight where, rumour has it, this dynamic duo are playing another set.

img_5575Back to the orchestra, and a gripping performance of Shaker Dances, with superbly enhanced sound by ‘a hairy gentleman called Bob’, according to Pekka “I’m Finnish so I can say anything” Kuusisto. The moment where the orchestra turned into an accelerating train was mesmerising, as was the searing intensity of the final bars.

An encore was inevitable. Few would have complained if they played all night. As it was, we got two works for the road. The road to heaven, that is, with Amidon’s traditional ‘O Death’ laying us down and the last of Messiaen’s Four Symphonic Meditations ushering us skywards.

This concert is repeated on Friday 10 at 1.30pm, Saturday 11 at 7pm and Tuesday 14 at 8pm at City Recital Hall, on Sunday 12 at 2pm in the Opera House, and on Monday 13 February at 7pm in QPAC (Brisbane). Highly recommended. For details click here.  

This is A Cunning Blog, a site for reviews, features and the occasional random musing from music critic and writer Harriet Cunningham. If you follow this site you’ll get notified whenever I post a review. If you want to know more about things I do, have a look at my portfolio or skip over to the enlightened publishing house of Unbound

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Krol Roger

Opera Australia

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James Egglestone as Edrisi, Gennadi Dubinsky as Archiereios, Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Dominica Matthews as Deaconess, Lorina Gore as Roxana and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s King Roger.

Photo credit: Keith Saunders



There’s a delicious exoticism about capital city of Sicily, Palermo, a heady otherness to the Moorish architecture and Mediterranean sensuality. It’s an atmosphere that could easily intoxicate, especially if you are from the dark, icy North. Especially if  you’re searching for your identity and maybe even discovering your sexuality for the first time.

When Karol Szymanowski wrote King Roger the legacy, or lack thereof, of the twelfth century monarch who is the hero of the piece was surely irrelevant. The real point was the discovery of a place, both physical and intellectual, where he could make sense of his identity.

It is, therefore, an inspired stroke to set the action of this production (originally directed by Kasper Holten for Covent Garden and revived here by Amy Lane) around a supersized head. In act one, we are outside the head, which sits menacingly, centre stage, like a colossal graven idol. In act two, the head swivels around to reveal its interior, a confusing mess of staircases and rooms. And in act three, the head is gone, replaced by a smoking pyre. If you interpret the central character, Roger, as a projection, at least partially, of the composer himself then, for me, you are seeing an artist looking outwards, looking inwards, then trying to resolve the two. Or if you are inclined to Freud, the Super-Ego, the Id and the Ego.

It’s not really a story. It’s more a state of mind, a philosophy, dramatised. King Roger’s kingdom is peopled by sombre suits and sensible shoes. Their singing is weighty, majestic. Dour. Then in walks the Shepherd, a preacher dressed in orange silk, offering a new god, one which embraces freedom, beauty, pleasure. Unlimited pleasure. And in amongst it all, a visible invisible troupe of male bodies, winding and curling and flexing, like the ungovernable Id.

If King Roger isn’t really King Roger, and the setting isn’t really twelfth century Palermo but the inside of a large head, then what is left of Sicily, the setting which so inspired Szymanowksi? Where is the complex, multivalent, cultural mishmash of Palermo? That, for me, is in the music. It’s not a pastiche. It’s shot through with influences, but it’s not trying to dissemble, to be other than what it is. It’s more a palimpsest, layer upon layer of sounds and gestures and timbres.


To be honest, I found it hard to take it all in. Conductor Andrea Mollina did a magnificent job in teasing out the many threads, allowing delicate passages to find their way through the heft, and providing a solid superstructure on which to build the singers’ intimidating edifice. Michael Honeyman, in the title role, was commanding vocally and physically, and Lorina Gore, as Roxana, was dazzling. As for the Shepherd, I suspect Saimir Pirgu will win many followers. Rich and true, sitting evenly in the centre of the note, with the power to sing quietly as well as loud, this is not a voice you hear everyday.

Indeed, it’s not an opera you hear everyday. It’s a puzzle and a problem and a pleasure, and Opera Australia are to be congratulated for taking it on. If you haven’t seen it, you’d better be quick and get over to the Opera House because there are only three more performances. And you might never get another chance.

King Roger, Sydney Opera House, Weds 8 and 15 February at 7.30pm, Saturday 11 February at 1pm. 

If you’ve got this far, why not go further and read about my book project, Sanctuary? Extracts, video trailer and details about how to get it here.



Watch out, Nige’s about

So, Kennedy’s back in town. Back for more larking about and kicking footballs and making bad jokes. Back for more talking like a fishwife and playing like a dream.

Brix Smith, Ex-Fall guitarist and ex-wife of Nigel Kennedy describes him with affection in her memoir, The Rise, the Fall and the Rise Again, published last year.


“He’s a magical elf,” she says. “As a friend, he’s amazing”. (She goes on to say she doesn’t recommend him as a boyfriend.)

Magical elf, mouthy oaf. Whichever way the wind is blowing, he’s worth listening to. This was what I thought of him ten years ago (which appeared originally in the Sydney Morning Herald).

Nigel Kennedy
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 1
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Nigel Kennedy is never going to make a career as a stand up comedian. His jokes tend to be lame, in Polish, or both. But he giggles infectiously as he tells them, and if that’s what is needed to rev him up for making some of the most beautiful sounds on earth, bring it on.

Last night’s official program was a two hour concert of concertos by J S Bach and arrangements of Duke Ellington’s big band greats. The reality was a three-and-a-half hour jam session where a cadence could be a harmonic trampoline to melodies from every corner of the musical spectrum; where ‘what if?’ meetings developed into searing musical partnerships; and where Kennedy nudged, cajoled and tickled musicians and audiences out of their comfy concert zone and into a musical lovefest.

Some highlights: Kennedy and Catherine Hewgill playing Bach Two-Part Inventions, first with great delicacy, and then with wild abandon at twice the speed; a soaring slow movement of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, with Shefali Prior; and some bonus Bartok with a fabulous young violinist Kennedy bumped into at his Basement gig. In Kennedy’s estimation Sonja Schebeck “plays classical like a motherf*#ker”. I agree.

Kennedy also brought a very classy quintet of jazz musicians from home with him, who slotted into the Bach without fuss before shining in Duke Ellington. Kennedy switches to electric violin for these numbers, giving him a whole new set of toys to play. ‘In a Jam’ was a grinding, bad boy flood of improvisation, while ‘Dusk’ revelled in floaty resonances and ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ was George Clooney charismatic.

Whether you endure or enjoy his foul mouth and anarchic stage manners, in the end it’s simple. The man plays in perfect octaves like no other, has a tone which makes concertmaster (and fellow Juilliard student) Dene Olding’s sound merely good, and triple stops his way through a jazz riff without ever sounding ugly. Unless, of course, he wants to. You can do anything when you’re King Kennedy.

Nigel Kennedy appears at Sydney Opera House on January 27 and 28, 2017, with his new reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And don’t tell anyone, but he has also been known to hop up on stage at the Basement while he’s in town…