In defence of slow reading

I’m doing an HDR. That’s a Higher Degree by Research to those of you not completely all over your TLAs. An MCA, to be precise, at UTS.

The idea of going back to study was not on my radar until a colleague and academic suggested, ever so gently, gently but persuasively, that it was time to stop writing 350 word reviews and 500 word previews (let alone 140 character tweets) in favour of something a bit longer, a bit more thoughtful. It was a wonderful suggestion. It still is. I am in love with the luxurious feeling of allowing my thoughts to spread, like a slowly melting ice-cream, across all areas of my consciousness, making new shapes and connections as they find new places to go.

The only fly in the ointment is that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to want to keep pace – a very slow pace — with me. Even the redoubtable University of Technology, Sydney, has been shoe-horning in the learning with brutal efficiency. Research week. Wall-to-wall seminars full of more-or-less useful study tips. Research study skills. Time management. Pre-seminar reading so we can get through all the material more quickly. OK, stop talking now, we’ve run out of discussion time, we must move on.

I’m not ready to move on. I am ready to be still. And that is why I am kicking back against my newly adopted alma mater’s helpful hints. I do not want to learn how to ‘speed read’. I’ve done enough speed reading for a lifetime. I’ve precis-ed Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for goodness sake. I have drunk knowledge from the firehose of the internet and come out gasping for air.

So now I make no apologies for any potential delays. I am a naturally fast reader. Fast and voracious. I gobble words. But for now, I am fighting my own habits and taking it slowly. I am chewing over phrases, letting words rattle around and hang in the air, until complete silence returns. (It’s a long wait for silence, and I’ve never quite managed to get there yet). I am relishing the clarity and intellectual acuity of Stefan Zweig. I am marvelling at Andrew Ford’s nail-on-the-headness. I’m savouring Janet Malcolm. I’m occasionally spitting things out. I am trying not to be overwhelmed by the need to read Everything That Has Ever Been Written before I can myself write.

I’m not sure where this will take me but I feel sure it will be interesting, if only I can hold back the forces of time. Watch this space.

New music and new audiences

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, saying that ‘audiences don’t want to see new works,‘ The context is him defending his 2015 programming choices, which have been broadly discussed elsewhere.

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable argument. Opera is expensive to mount. New opera takes more rehearsal time (e.g. more $$ out) and is seen as a box office risk (e.g. less $$ in). It doesn’t need Mr Pickwick to point out that if you are trying to balance the books a re-run of an existing production of a repertoire favourite is a safer bet.

Where it comes unstuck, however, is if you challenge is the validity of the statement itself.

“Audiences don’t want to see new works.”

Which audiences are we talking about?  All audiences? Classical music audiences? Opera audiences? Audiences who can afford premium-priced opera tickets?

I was at Sydney Opera House on Tuesday and Wednesday night this week. On Tuesday I was seeing the first night of Faust in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and jolly good fun it was. Tits and tights and Fab-ulous singing. On Wednesday I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Boulez, Debussy and the Australian premiere of Georges Lentz’s new work, Jerusalem (after Blake)

The foyer was heaving on both nights, full of sticky, sweaty Sydneysiders who had rushed from work, school, home, through the commuter traffic, to get to Bennelong Point for an evening of kul-cha. There were great crowds of humanity from right across the social spectrum – young, old, jeans and t-shirts, jewels and high heels. What’s more, there was a palpable buzz, that lovely feeling of people excited about what they were going to see.

I didn’t see the ACO crowd come out – we were in Faust for a good solid 3.5 hours. And it was a good solid show. Much enthusing amongst the black ties and sequins as we came out, plus quite a bit of running for car park / taxi / ferry / bus.

On Wednesday night I confess I was one of those people running to get to the car park before everyone else, ignoring the coincidental firework display going off like, well, fireworks over Farm Cove. But I did witness the response to the music. Warm applause after the Boulez, then whoops and cheers after the Lentz. Remember, this is an Australian premiere, 20+ minutes long and about as opaque as a moonless night, and yet it had a power about it which completely gripped me and, it would seem, the majority of the audience. There was that perfect silence at the end before a roar of approval, and an acquaintance in the row in front of me turned round after the last notes and mouthed ‘WOW!’

My point is that this was challenging, uncompromisingly new music which found a wholehearted response from an enormous crowd. OK, it was Meet the Music, so many in the audience were high-school kids who had no real choice in what they went to see. But the way they listened and responded was incredibly heartening. 16 year olds can be a tough audience, and I’ve seen and heard their likes go feral in the Concert Hall before, but not tonight.

So what kind of audience is this? Young, old, dressed-up, dressed-down, gay, straight, culturally-diverse. Some buying cheap school tickets, some spending a bit more. Open-minded, participators. Bottom line, it’s the audience of the future.

Tagged , ,

Women conductors: the story continues

More names of successful Australian conductors we should know about.

And while I mentioned them in my post script, let’s put them up in lights here: Lyn Williams, Nicolette Fraillon, Simone Young are leaders, role models and incredible musicians. (And also women, but that’s by the by.)

Keep those names coming.


Women Conductors: a postscript

Last week I spoke to Jessica Cottis, Assistant Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, in print today. As usual, there was plenty more to say than space allowed, so here’s a bit more…

First, Jessica Duchen’s survey, which I cited in the article. She wrote the post when another high profile male conductor had opened his mouth and let his belly rumble about women on the podium. Rather than huffing and puffing about what he said, she put out a call to compile a list of women who are on the podium. It quickly reached triple figures and continues to grow, but the fact remains that we are still waiting for a woman to be appointed to one of the really juicy top jobs. I know, ‘top job’, arguable, but you know what I mean. We’re still waiting for a woman to scratch out the name on Maestro Karajan or Bernstein’s dressing room door.

Meanwhile, Jessica Cottis is getting on with the job, and so are many other talented conductors who just happen to be female. I called up Kate Lidbetter, the Managing Director of Symphony Services International. In conjunction with the state professional orchestras, SSI runs some of the most comprehensive conductor training programs in Australia. According to Kate’s figures, there were 11 applications from women in 2011, out of a total of 52, and the figure has stayed much the same since: 2012 had 14 and there were 12 in 2013 and 2014 each. The success rate for women has risen, with 3 accepted in 2011 and 5 accepted in 2014, rising from a 27% to 42% success rate. Nice trend, but tiny numbers.

As Jessica Cottis observes, the pace of change is painfully slow.

There is the generation of Simone Young, Marin Alsop and Sian Edwards. They were the trailblazers, and then what happened? Nothing. Not very much. I can think of only one person between them and me, Susanna Mälkki. She went, like me, through being a musician first and then into conducting. For me that has been the biggest stumbling block – just starting in the first place.


Consciously or otherwise, we look towards role models, and when I was little, as a young pianist and a young trumpeter, I didn’t see any female conductors. It’s very rare for somebody to break out from what has gone past. For that reason I would say, certainly in my generation, that has been one of the biggest stop signs. However, I would say that now things are changing.


When I went through the Academy I was the only female doing the course and had been for ten years. But I don’t know what happened. I went through and something changed. It’s now half/half.  We’re in a period of transition and I really do think there will be more female conductors coming up because there are more female conductors coming through now the conducting courses. So it’s just a matter of time.

While we wait, Kate Lidbetter gave me a good list of Australian women who are making waves as conductors. There’s Sarah Grace Williams, who founded the Metropolitan Orchestra in Sydney; Kellie Dickerson, who is making herself very, very useful in music theatre;  conductor of Perth Symphony Orchestra Jessica Gethin; pianist and director Aura Go; Liz Scott, who does brilliant work with Sydney Philharmonia’s VOX; and Rowan Harvey-Martin, who conducts the Llewellyn Choir, Canberra Youth Orchestra and many other ensembles in the Capital Territory. It’s worth noting these are all graduates of the Symphony Australia Conductor Development program, which has an impressive record in giving opportunities and training. 

I’m sure that list is just the beginning. What about it, Australia? Have we got any more role models for our young and talented students? Do let me know.




Tagged , , ,

Timeline: how was it for you?

After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”


Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Time Traveller’s Daughter

I took my youngest to Timeline at the weekend. It’s Richard Tognetti’s latest concept show, in collaboration with his band, the ACO, and fab electronica duo The Presets. It promised 40,000 years of music all rolled up and packed into two hours, with moving pictures too. My youngest, who is 11, claims to hate classical music. She also hates sitting still. The only reasons she came were a/ she knows there’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at the OperaIMG_2001 House and b/ she didn’t have a choice.

It would be nice to report that she listened, wide-eyed and wondering, transfixed by the brilliant musicianship and came out a convert to high art, but that would be a fiction. My very down-to-earth daughter found a pragmatic solution to an unsatisfactory situation: she went to sleep around 128 BC, to the gentle lullaby of an Ancient Greek hymn, and stayed asleep, head propped on my shoulder, until rudely awoken in 1200 AD by some lusty Perotin. She then dozed through the reign of Henry VIII (1513), opening one eye to check out the rattle and hum of Rameau’s Tambourins (1739) and came to as a moon rose through the trees to bring the Nineteenth Century to a close with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht. 
The second half was  closer to her time and her taste in music and she stayed wide awake throughout Kurt Weill, Dizzy Gillespie and Xenakis. She even managed what we call ‘The Look” at me during 4’33”. “It’s art,” I said, by way of explanation. *Rolls eyes*

The ‘Megamix’  which took us through the last half century was a kind of ‘Name that tune’ game for her. Pink Floyd – “Daddy music” – Bob Marley – “Mummy music” – Dr Who theme tune – “Big sister music”. She was tickled to hear a whisper of Toxic, a fleeting splash of Gangnam Style, and was triumphant that Milkshake got an airing. On the way out she continued to listen closely. “Mummy, I just overheard someone saying, ‘They spend nearly two hours on boring classical stuff, then they run all the good bits over the top of each other…’ ”

She would not confirm or deny whether she agreed.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Kingfisher Project


Sydney Conservatorium, March 29
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong founded Halcyon in 1999 to go where other singers fear to tread, into the beautiful weirdness of exploratory new music. Now it is 2014 and, fifteen years on, time to reflect on this many-hued bird.

Halcyon is a creative powerhouse for Australian (and international) new music. In particular, the last five years have seen it champion emerging composers, through performances, commissions and mentor programs. But for its fifteenth birthday Halcyon has turned to older friends, composers who have been with them from the start, to compile an exquisite collection of twenty-one new works.

Last night’s performance featured ten of these four minute offerings. Andrew Ford’s To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship was a thoughtful scene-setter which pulled no punches in its technical demands of the singers. There was a spooky night scene from Jane Stanley, a watery blend of alto flute and voice from Dan Walker, and a flamboyant micro-drama from Graham Hair’s All About Anna. Nigel Butterley, Gordon Kerry and Andrew Schultz all demonstrated just how good they are at organizing sounds and words: Butterley’s gorgeous Nature Changes at the Speed of Life limited its palette to cello and soprano, while Kerry’s Music wove voices and instruments together in an almost orchestral mesh of textures. By contrast, Andrew Schultz’s deft prelude and fugue, Lake Moonrise, handed the main song to Duck-Chong and Morgan, with a choir of individual, instrumental voices underneath. A highlight, for me, was Gillian Whitehead’s setting of two poems from Dunedin artist and writer Claire Beynon. To create such a delicate arc of meaning, amplifying and reflecting on the words at every turn, but still hanging together as a cogent and very beautiful whole shows great skill. To do it in just four minutes is mastery.

The Kingfisher Project is an inspired and pragmatic approach to broadening the Australian repertoire for singer and chamber ensemble: 21 eminently do-able short works which, combined together, represent a major review of Australia vocal writing. It’s Halcyon’s birthday, but we get the present.

Edited version published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2014, copyright Fairfax Media. 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Dancing to Opera

I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.

Courtesy Opera Australia

Courtesy Opera Australia

Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.

Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act,  the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.

Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:

Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!

It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.

So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?

Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?

The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.

Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).

The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.

So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.

Tagged , , , , , ,

La boheme: Opera Australia

Another one killed by the Space monsters. Enjoy. I did.

La boheme
Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, January 4
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

4 stars

It’s Christmas Eve in Berlin, again. The lads are still behind with the rent, the ladies at Momus are still lovely, and Mimi is still looking for a light. As Gale Edwards’ glitzy take on La boheme rolls out for its fifth season in three years, some Opera Australia regulars might be forgiven for thinking they have déjà vu. Puccini’s music, however, never grows old, and a slew of fine performances keep the ennui at bay.

One of the delights of this production is that there are always new things to notice: a meaningful look between Schaunard and Colline as Marcello ignores Musetta, the glee of a youngster with a new toy, the maître de on the make. In spite of the vastness of the sets and the spectacle of Brian Thomson’s flashy Café Momus, this is intricate theatre, almost baroque in its detail, every individual on stage with a story to tell. At times there is so much to see, and Puccini’s score cracks on with such concentrated brevity, that it is almost a relief to see the third act quartet on a largely bare stage.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì. Photo credit Branco Gaica.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì.
Photo credit Branco Gaica.

The cast, very strong this year, are also at their best in the third act. Ji-Min Park returns to the role of Rodolfo with less physicality and more volume, his voice blooming at the top of the register, but slightly inconsistent in the middle. Giorgio Caoduro makes a winning Marcello, while Nicole Car continues to impress with her dynamic range and sheer beauty of tone. It is hard not to like her Mimi, even if she did blow out her candle and drop her key on purpose. The weakest of the four is Sharon Prero, in the role of the showgirl Musetta. Her singing and characterisation cut through the ensemble clutter but both could use a little more subtlety. Shane Lowrencev’s bottom-pinching Schaunard is equally obvious, dramatically, but rock solid musically, while Richard Anderson’s finely-turned rendition of Colline’s ‘Coat Aria’ stops the show for a lovely moment of intimate introspection.

The orchestral playing is ardent and rough-edged and occasionally overwhelms the singers, which actually serves to heighten the emotion as a surge of passion swamps clarity. The chorus work is, as ever, a multitasking masterpiece, juggling props and fancy footwork with the musical complexities of the second act finale. The greatest multitasker of them all, conductor Andrea Licata, pulls it all together with a sure hand and lifetime of experience in this repertoire, wringing a gut-wrenching play out from the strings as the story of Mimi and Rodolfo comes to its predictable end.

La boheme plays until January 21

Tagged , , , ,

Review: SSO / Mozart at the Movies

This was written for Sydney Morning Herald but didn’t make it in due to space issues. Space. The Final Frontier. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Mozart at the Movies

City Recital Hall, February 6


3 stars

No heart attacks reported, but at least one lady in the audience jumped visibly last night when, from a whisper of a little tune the Sydney Symphony Orchestra pulled out a loud tutti bang. It was just the result Joseph Haydn had been looking for when he wrote some gimmicks into his Symphony No. 94 in G (Surprise) to get the London audiences of the 1730s talking, and just the thing to set the light-hearted tone of the first 2014 Mozart in the City concert for the year. Haydn’s real surprise in this symphony, however, is his endless capacity for invention, and the Orchestra, under the assured direction of concertmaster Dene Olding, laid out the intricacies of the score with satisfying clarity, a well-polished string sound underpinning the colourful interjections of flutes and oboes. The audience were prepared for the finale’s surprise, with grins all round at timpanist Richard Miller’s enthusiastic interjection.

There were no gimmicks in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467. Taking his lead from the finely-shaped introduction of the ensemble, Gavrylyuk brought a light touch to the conversational solo, pairing exacting precision with the give and take of a chamber musician. The limpid melody of the slow movement – yes, the Elvira Madigan theme — was blessedly free of indulgence; just a quiet moment of aching beauty, with sensitive accompaniment from strings and wind soloists. As for the finale, Olding set the orchestra off at a blistering pace, which Gavrylyuk picked up eagerly, settling comfortably into the rapid-fire scale passages like an athlete pacing himself for the final sprint. Not everyone reached the finishing line at the same time, but it was, nevertheless, an exciting race.

For an encore – the ‘mystery moment’ – Gavrylyuk threw off the restraints of the eighteenth-century galant style in favour of bare-faced showmanship with a transcription of Mozart’s Turkish March by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. It was everything a virtuoso piano solo should be: fast, furious and enormous fun. More music to make you smile.


Tagged , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,292 other followers