A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Sounding Heritage

HME16_0012-cropI wangled a ticket to yesterday’s Sound Heritage Sydney symposium, presented by Sydney Living Museums at Elizabeth Bay House. Sound Heritage is a research and interpretation network of academic music historians, early music performance experts and heritage professionals founded by Jeanice Brooks (Professor of Music at the University of Southampton). In other words, people-who-know-stuff, people-who-do-stuff, and people-who-look-after-stuff getting together to bring heritage sites to life.

The beauty of this network is not just that it makes the trip with your parents to a museum on a rainy day more interesting. It’s absolutely not about sexing-up or dumbing-down culture. It’s a two way process, a multi-way process in fact, that brings value to the visitor experience and also provides insights for curators, historians and musicians.

The day was packed with stories of rifling through piano stools and personal bound copies of sheet music (which were the nineteenth-century version of Spotify lists), poring over pencil marks and annotations and bringing old instruments back to life. Amongst a goldmine of interesting stories, Professor Brooks gave an overview of experiments in interpretation at Tatton Park in Cheshire, while Dr Jennifer Gall, of ANU, talked about restoring sound to heritage sites closer to home, including Lanyon Homestead, Mugga Mugga and Calthorpes’ House. Meanwhile Nicole Forsyth and Genevieve Lacey talked about some of my pet obsessions: space, silence and listening. Forsyth is working at Rouse Hill Estate, a heritage home managed by Sydney Living Museums, exploring nearly two centuries of of one family’s music hoard. She’s been experimenting with music and story-telling in heritage sites with composers Damian Barbeler and John R Taylor.

Nicole makes the point that the current HIP practitioners (such as ABO, ARCO et al.) are still presenting their research – their performances — primarily in modern concert halls, whereas music pre-recording, so music before the early twentieth-century, was most frequently experienced as a practical, participatory and social activity, in the home or with friends.

This resonated strongly with me: sitting in an auditorium taking in the gobsmacking performance of a mighty virtuoso is only a tiny part of the spectrum of how one experiences music. And it’s a spectrum, not a hierarchy, by which I mean that playing duets with my daughter in front of friends on a makeshift stage in a minuscule second hand book shop is every bit as vital — possibly more — as hearing the SSO. Different things to different people, of course, but both vital.

Which brings me to Genevieve Lacey’s work, Pleasure Garden, a sound installation inspired by her feelings for the music of 17-century musician Jacob van Eyck. It was premiered in the grounds of Vaucluse House as part of the Sydney Festival in 2016. The space was intrinsic to the work: using multiple speakers, triggered by movement sensors, everyone experienced the work differently, at their own pace, as they explored the gardens around Vaucluse House. Genevieve incorporated field recordings from her research and also — and this is key — set the dynamic level of the music low enough that the live, environmental sounds, from birdsong to ferry horns, was audible. Thus it became not just a passive experience, but an active one, and not just because you were physically moving through the garden but because you were actively listening, distinguishing different sounds. This act of listening is, for me, so important: it can create an intimacy and connection with your surroundings which allows you to experience the world in a much more immediate, vivid way, even if only for a moment.

Congratulations to all involved in putting on the Symposium, especially the convenor Matthew Stephens of Sydney Living Museums. There was so much so say, so much to hear. We’re clearly going to have to do this again.

Before you go, can I remind you to take a look at my book project, Sanctuary, now crowd-funding at Unbound? It’s a labour of love and a fascinating dive in music in post-war Britain. I’d love you pledge to help make this book happen! Or you can help by sharing it on social media or in real life or inviting me to talk about it or write about it for your blog, newspaper, broadcast or class. Thanking you in advance…

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HIP hop

6b04a44d01596a1cc841605b41d31d88It feels eerily like things have come full circle. From Stokowski’s Bach, lush and lugubrious, to the so-called cobweb brigade, blowing the dust off old scores and treatises to let the music speak for itself. And now the HIPsters, restoring the mud of history to those pristine patterns. Vibrato, portamenti, notes inegales, pitching and rolling through the looking glass of twenty-first century scholarship.

None of which really matters, on one level. “We readily acknowledge that we will never know if we are getting it exactly ‘right’,” says Megan Lang, education manager of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO). What does matter is that this orchestra, a relatively new kid on the block, is bringing an academic rigour and intellectual curiosity to performing music which has sat so comfortably in the mainstream as to have avoided much of the endless stylistic skirmishes surrounding baroque music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wolf and, later in the season, Rossini, Schubert and Mozart: music we think we know, reframed. Works which have very much acquired a life of their own, based around score-based analysis, run through the new musicology mill to emerge not as timeless works of art, but as living history.

With their first concert for 2017 ARCO (the orchestra formerly known as orchestra seventeen88) has staked its claim as the next big thing in historically-informed performance. It’s a band stacked with international experts sitting alongside dynamic new faces, all brandishing instruments with impeccable pedigrees for those unexpected sounds. They’re intent on their aim, they’re excited and they’re good. Very good.

They’re good, but not great. Not yet. Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan opens with a fearless blast and an impressive sense of ensemble. And his 12 Contradanses, which the orchestra presents interleaved with extracts from the composer’s heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament, read by artistic director Richard Gill, skip along, in irony-laced technicolour. His Romance in F major, however, doesn’t quite find its mojo (if indeed, there is a mojo to find – I’ve never managed to make sense of the strangely awkward Romances) although Rachel Beesley plays with knowing style. Indeed, ARCO’s interpretation of Beethoven wears scholarship on its sleeve, interpolating slides and blips and gestures which yell ‘bet-you-didn’t-think-that-was-authentic’. It’s surprising, fascinating even, but it still feels a little mannered, like an actor doing a good rendition of a regional accent, but still occasionally slipping into their native vowels.

ARCO speaks Mendelssohn, however, like a native. His Symphony in A major op.90 ‘Italian’ rips off the stage with glittering urgency, and the period tang of phrasing feels so alive, so right. The rusty growl of period bassoons and basses underwrites the rich textures and the first violins in particular play with a clean but not brash fluency that could fool you into thinking all those notes are easy. Meanwhile the horns demonstrate to perfection the abilities and, more delicious, the inabilities of their instruments, walking the tightrope of wobbly overtones and harmonics without flinching.

At the end of the concert, as the applause dies down and audiences check their bus timetables, orchestral members turn to each other, smiling, shaking hands, hugging in a touching demonstration of collegiality. They know they’ve done good. And they know there’s more to come.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra perform Rossini and Schubert in May, and Spohr and Mozart in September. Highly recommended.


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Big Music

c7arydgw0aeouhtA fantastic Sydney Symphony concert this afternoon. Benjamin Northey conducted the band in Andrew Ford’s Headlong, followed by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Simon Tedeschi as soloist, and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 to finish.

You don’t hear these pieces often. The Rach is a monster to play (not that Simon Tedeschi seemed to have any problems…). The Copland is huge and complex and requires virtuoso performances from every corner of the stage. And Headlong is by an Australian composer not called Percy Grainger, which is a tough place to start. Add to that its scoring, for basically everything in the box, including celesta, harp and kitchen cabinet of percussion, and the fact that the composer, Andrew Ford, pulls no punches in terms of what he expects of the players, creating a real concerto for orchestra. The SSO more than rise to the occasion, of course, but it’s not the sort of piece you could sneak into any program on a whim.

It’s also not, in my opinion, Ford’s most successful work. Not yet, at least. In his program note he explains how it has changed since its first outing, in 2007, introducing more space and a flamboyant but intricate final bar (which instantly, and delightfully, set off my Rite of Spring sensors). There is still, however, a level of opacity to the work which doesn’t fit with my sense of Ford as a subtle and insightful arch-communicator. It feels like there’s all this stuff in the texture which wants to be heard, but isn’t.

I’d never heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 performed live before and it was a fascinating experience, not just for the eye-wateringly tricky solo, but also for the way that the music forms a seamless continuum with the rest of Rachmaninov’s work. The first movement begins in media res, as if picking up from where the previous concertos left off, and there are constant wisps of melody that seem vaguely familiar. Is it possible to generate the feeling of nostalgia, without the knowledge of what one is nostalgic for?

Out of the crashing waves of melodic energy the soloist emerged not as the triumphant hero but as someone very much at one with his surroundings — far more part of the orchestra, a fellow musician, than the flashy virtuoso. A heroic anti-hero, if you like. Tedeschi’s legato is astonishing (and achieved with minimal pedal, it looked like) – giving Rachmaninov’s music a diamond-cut clarity, sorting out the themes from the nutty mountain of notes.

58.102While the piano was being moved for the Rachmaninov conductor Ben Northey gave the audience a few insights into the final work, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. This is the one that builds up to and integrates his previous work, Fanfare for the Common Man, in its blazing last movement. Northey pointed out that this passage appears at first as a passacaglia in the flutes, rather than a declamation in the brass (and you can hear the bones of the chord progression forming in the first movement too…) The point being, that this is not intended as a bombastic work, and far less a nationalist one, even though it has been dubbed the Great American Symphony. It’s stirring, it’s noble, but we needn’t conflate high ideals with a particular nation.  Hence the concert’s subtitle, Symphony for a Common Man.

Well said, Ben. And well played, SSO. Big music for big ideas, and a huge orchestra, held together by the finest of threads, all knitted together by Northey. Many soloists deserve a shout out — Ben Jacks and Rosemary Plummer in particular were outstanding — but in truth, this was the ultimate Concerto for Orchestra.


The black and white photo above is taken by Catherine Scudamore and is part of the Summer School Archive. It shows Aaron Copland (r) and Manoug Parikian (l) in front of the steps to the Great Hall at Dartington in 1968. You can see more of the archive by pledging to buy my book, Sanctuary. Do take a look!



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Digging through an archive is a bit like piecing together a puzzle. Most of the bits are there, but they need putting together, and once you have put them together you realise that something is missing. It’s like the yarning, cryptic crosswords and QI (mixed in with a fair amount of drudgery.) But every so often things fit together in new and exciting ways.

I was intrigued to find out more about early performances of Le Marteau sans Maitre. Yes, I know, nasty modern music, but that was a big part of the Summer School. You could have your Mozart and Schubert, but you needed to listen to something written yesterday too.

Pierre Boulez’s notorious work was first performed in 1955 at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden but I was pretty sure its first UK performance was at Dartington.

To the archive!

First, a photo: 59.42

I can make out “Boulez” and Le Marteau sans maitre, but not much else. It’s a picture of Ilona Halberstadt, a film producer and scholar, who later founded “Pix” magazine. She was also involved with Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra in the 60s.

Then here’s the concert programme:IMG_5024

August 9th, 1959 it says, in my father’s handwriting. I can almost smell the roneo ink.

And then, by recent happenstance, an introduction to the fearless conductor, John Carewe, who agreed to dredge his memory for that performance. Here’s what he remembers:
“The idea of doing it was mine. William [Glock] was enthusiastic. I had been in Paris studying with Messiaen and Boulez (I think 1956/7). I guess I gave my first concert (RFH recital room, based round 2 performances of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1) in Jan 1958 and William invited us to Dartington. Of course I knew Le Marteau and loved it and its challenges, hence my desire to do it..
There was a new printed version available. We started rehearsals about 7 months before that August. We had one session together (after which we sacked the percussionist and Richard Rodney Bennett took over the part). After that I took lots of rehearsals with one, two or three players. There was no guitarist at that time who could have played it so Cornelius Cardew learnt to play guitar! All the others were young professionals intrigued by the problems. In Dartington we rehearsed from 9.00 am to late evening for 5 or 6 days before the performance. I guess we got travel, bed and food and possibly £10 each for all that work.  But we loved it!”

Here’s a (terrible) picture of them rehearsing.59.98

Now I’m hoping to find someone who remembers hearing it for the first time.

Could that be you? Do get in touch!


This is a cross post from my Unbound updates page. Unbound is the game-changing publisher which finds authors with something to say then uses crowd-funding to make it happen. There are more details of my book, Sanctuarya pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School, over there, and that’s where to go if you want to get updates on what I’m finding out and pledge your support by signing up to get a copy when it comes out next year. (Go on, you know you want to!) If you’ve already signed up, thank you thank you thank you,  and do take another look because Unbound’s just relaunched a bright and shiny (and pink) new site.


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The Dumky Three


L-R Grace Clifford, Clancy Newman, Kathryn Selby.

I’ve heard Katherine Selby play Dvorak’s Dumky Trio (Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90) so many times, in so many different incarnations. It’s a bit of a signature piece, and I thought that I had a definitive idea of the work in my head, cobbled together from years of various performances. But no. Yesterday, in the hands of Selby and her latest friends, cellist Clancy Newman and violinist Grace Clifford, I think I heard Dvorak’s quirky, lumpy, gushy, graceful trio as I’ve never heard it before. This was the real thing.

What was it that made this performance so good? Nothing obvious, and everything subtle. The balance, for one, which was brilliantly judged. Neither Clancy Newman nor Grace Clifford come across as power players. Their virtuosity is a given (Kathryn Selby has excellent taste in friends) but without the blast of egotism that can go with it. Even the opening outburst from Newman felt somehow private, as if we were being invited to listen into a very personal angst. An invitation to listen rather than a demand to be heard.

The communication between players was also a factor: fitting the fragments of song and dance together is an intricate business, and you could hear the fabric of the music stretching at times, but it came back together not with someone banging out a thumpy rhythm or an assertive entry, but by letting each gesture run its course. And the other lovely thing to hear was how one player would introduce some rubato into a phrase  and the next player would take it, and make it their own, as if, with a wink, they were acknowledging a joke and embroidering it. This wasn’t just a feature of the Dvorak. It was there in the Beethoven’s E flat major Piano Trio, Op. 1 No. 1 as well – that sense of witnessing a really thoughtful, enlightening conversation.

Saint-Saens’ first piano trio, his Op. 18, completed the program and it was a real discovery. It’s still not fashionable to like Saint-Saens, but I reckon if you played this to someone blind, without telling anyone who it was by, they’d be utterly charmed. Especially in the hands of three such persuasive musicians.

No more performances from this line-up, sadly, but much good stuff to come from Selby and Friends through the course of 2017.

Now you’ve read this pop over to take a look at the book I’m writing, which is being published by Unbound. In the great tradition of Dickens, it’s available by subscription, and I hope you’ll pledge!


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St Mary’s Passion

pic_0270In a bold collaboration the Song Company, the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral and Omega Ensemble have come together to perform Arvo Part’s Passio, his setting of the St John Passion. It’s an extended obligato, broken up by interjections from the three characters –Jesus, Pilate and the crowd — and, just as important, by silence.

Not that there is much silence to be had in St Mary’s Cathedral. In spite of the ethereal music and the other-worldly surroundings, the sound of the city seeps in to fill the gaps. A chorus of car horns does rather the spell of the evangelist quartet. So too did the collapse of one of the quartet, soprano Susannah Lawergren, half way through the performance. All is well, and she was helped off stage, leaving her colleagues to finish the work as a trio, and leaving most of the audience, who couldn’t see the performers, wondering what on earth was going on.

Notwithstanding these distractions, however, Passio is a mesmerising work and this was a mesmerising performance which felt much shorter than its 75 minute duration. The Evangelist Quartet — the Song Company’s Richard Black, Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser and Susannah Lawergren —  carried the narrative, along with the quartet of orchestral instruments and the organ. After a tentative start, they tuned in to the tintinnabuli with an impressive consistency. Nothing stuck out. Nothing jarred. It was just enduringly fascinating.

In the role of Jesus, Andrew O’Connor, the Song Company’s resident bass, had few words, but the scoring and his rich, even tone made every line count. As Pilate, Richard Butler, who is Principal Lay Clerk at St Mary’s, cut through the crowd with his crisp, acid responses. Meanwhile, the contrast between the well-drilled ranks of the Choir of St Mary’s and the blood-curdling sound they made as they yelled “Crucify” was one of the dramatic coups of the evening. That, and the quartet’s — or trio, by this time — lapse into unison after the death of Jesus.

The four members of the Omega Ensemble found their way through the labyrinthine score with unfussy style, and David Drury drew power and glory and strangeness out of the cathedral’s organ

Congratulations are due to everyone who made this happen, because it couldn’t have been easy. A late date change, co-ordinating three different ensembles and fitting into the schedule of a working place of worship, not to mention the challenge of the music, and the magical but treacherous acoustic, which amplified every hit and every miss. Congratulations in particular on the work of the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, not just in holding the performance together but also for his specialist knowledge, intricate understanding and commitment to bringing this work to Australia.

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Happy Birthday, Sam

Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty from H. Paul Moon on Vimeo.

It’s the birthday of the American composer Samuel Barber today. He’s best known for the Adagio for Strings, which is actually the second movement of his 1936 String Quartet. Whether you heard it at a concert, at a memorial service or at the movies, you’d know it instantly.

But that’s not what piqued my interest in a new documentary about Barber, Absolute Beauty, made by Film-maker H. Paul Moon. What got me interested was this interview with Moon, where he talks about making films about classical / new music.

In hindsight, I would have never started the film if I knew how hard it would be:  educational documentaries about “classical” music are increasingly treated like commercial assets (no matter the financial reality), just as the overall genre of documentaries preoccupies more than ever with cause-driven projects — and thus the arts as a subject matter suffers, at a time when outreach using new media is more important than ever, to bring audiences back into the live music experience.

It’s his distinction between recording a performance — Carmen Live on video, Barry Manilow at the London Palladium — and using the documentary format to interact with music. Engaging with a work, as he puts it, ‘beyond what just rattles air’. And that thought has sent me back to look for projects like Genevieve Lacey and Clare Sawyer’s ‘Recorder Queen’, a ‘bio-docu-mation’, which is also about going beyond the score, beyond the music, beyond the performer.

It makes me wonder what more amazing work could be done linking imaginative vision-sculptors with wild-eyed air-rattlers.

I hope to review Absolute Beauty on this site soon, and hopefully Recorder Queen too. But in the meantime, I’m gonna take another look at the trailer and wish Mr Barber a happy birthday.

A quick plug for my crowd-funding project: if you haven’t already taken a look, get thee over to www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary to view a short video about my pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music, then, pretty please,  pledge and share!