A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Flashback Friday

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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.

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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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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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