A Cunning Blog

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Ten years on the critical beat

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Jessica Duchen’s Review of the Noughties, which was inspired by Tom Service’s own review in the Guardian, has in turn inspired me to cast a critical glance over the musical landscape in Sydney over the last ten years. Whether we want to call this decade officially ended this year or next is, of course, a moot point, but as I wrote my first review for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on ten years of Moozick in the Emerald City.

It’s not by any means a complete picture: I’ve ended up mostly writing about performances which made it into the Herald which, as we all know, is only the tip of the iceberg.  And forgive me, other capitals, but I’m counting on my fellow bloggeurs to provide viewpoints from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and beyond. That’s a challenge, by the way.

But on with the show.

Sydney’s Noughty Decade started with a little sporting event. The Olympics was a double-edged sword: there is no doubt that it put Sydney on the world map in a way it had not been before. The city was beautiful; there was huge investment in infrastructure; everyone but everyone came to visit; and, much to everyone’s relief (and faint surprise), it all worked rather well. But it did set a daunting standard. Would the Noughties be a continuation of the euphoria, or one long hangover for classical music?

The big end of town

Sydney Symphony was ready for the Olympics, and for the decade ahead. After years of reviews and political machinations, divestment from the ABC and the tragic death of their charismatic artistic director, Stuart Challendar, they marched into the noughties with everything to play for. Artistic Director Edo de Waart signed up for another term, a new funding model was in place.

Renowned as a hard taskmaster, there is no doubt that the orchestra was playing much, much better when he left than when he arrived. But there was palpable a sense of relief — belts loosened, tempi relaxed — when the very Italian Gianluigi Gelmetti took over in 2004.

The anticipation was electrifying, the honeymoon was a lovefest, but the marriage didn’t last. Gelmetti’s indulgent style didn’t suit everyone, and his bonhomie did not make up for a limited repertoire – please, not Bolero again! In the last year of his tenure the orchestra could barely conceal its glee, not really because he was leaving, but more because his successor would be Vladimir Ashkenazy. And so the next chapter begins for Sydney Symphony, with Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and lots and lots of Mahler.

Opera Australia waltzed into the noughties with sore head and a dodgy balance sheet incurred by the ‘merge’ (also known as ‘takeover’ if you’re in Melbourne) with the Victorian State Opera. Furthermore, artistic director Simone Young made no secret of her opinion (shared by many) that the Opera House orchestra pit was woefully inadequate, vowing that there would be none of her beloved Strauss and Wagner there during her tenure. For both Elektra (2000) and Meistersingers (2003) the company relocated to the Capitol which, considering their main venue is one of the most famous opera houses in the world, was a crying shame.

Ultimately, Simone Young’s vision could not be realised: she moved on to greater things, leaving the usual squabble between OA-haters and -lovers, a vacuum in the top job and no progress on the pit problems. After a year’s interregnum Richard Hickox was appointed and got stuck in amidst much optimism. He couldn’t move the political mountain to get the Opera House pit rebuilt, or a dramatic increase in funding, but he was a great pragmatist, programming to suit the company’s ensemble, moving instruments around in the pit to get a better balanced sound, and investing in the emerging generation of singers. His approach didn’t please everyone – cue more squabbling, brought to an abrupt close by his sudden death, in Swansea, of a heart attack. Lyndon Terracini, singer, director and arts impresario, has just taken the hot seat for the next chapter of this operatic tale.

To be continued…

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

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