A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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The Impossible Cor

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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.

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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.

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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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Murder & Redemption

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

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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.

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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.

 


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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.

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“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…


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For the birds

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The last few days in Sydney have been deafening. No. Not the lawn mower, the leaf blower or the incessant whinging of Sydneysiders (myself included) about the heat. No, the space in my brain reserved for listening has been filled by the feverish hum of cicadas, revelling in high temperatures and still air with explosive vigour, while we all lie around silently panting.

So with the promise of a cool change blowing through the sweaty streets it was good to swap insect-elation for birdsong in a tribute concert to Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, (1928-2016), presented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey.

Why do animals sing? Is it singing? Or is it talking, or signalling? Is it expressive on a macro level — a chorus of approval for ideal atmospheric conditions, or a mass panic at the apprehension of danger — or, for that matter, on a micro-level — ‘Hello. It’s me. I like you.’? Idle thoughts, perhaps, but hearing Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus – Concerto for birds and orchestra, Op. 61 (1972) got me pondering. The work opens with flutes and then clarinets in a long, liquid line — love your work, SSO wind soloists — which sounds at once organic and random. Is it an emulation of natural sounds? Is it deliberately avoiding a pulse or tonal centre, dodging the instinctive patterning of human-made music? Maybe, but then the real birds join in, field recordings of bird song. At first you second guess, what you’re hearing — is that another orchestral instrument, an unexpected timbre? But no, it’s a real bird call, and it’s going to out-sing anything going on on stage. The tension between recorded and live is delicate and delicious, and beautifully realised by carefully balanced dynamics. It makes me listen anew.

Two more recent works, Isle of Bliss (1995) and Symphony No. 7 Angel of Light (1994) completed the program and completed the audience full body immersion in Rautavaara’s sound world. And it could be like swimming, like drowning, a bit overwhelming at times, but for the precision conducting by Northey. His restraint delivered intense but not messy climaxes, brass passages which still maintained their individual instrument textures and crystalline solos from concertmaster Andrew Haveron and the principal cellist. (Also, shout out to second violins for their little big moment in the Symphony). And while this could have been performed with an enormous string section, the filmic underlay of sound produced from the reduced forces was refreshingly, transparent.

Good work. Home, with renewed ears for the orchestra of sounds in the velvety night.

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Thank you to Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Festival for inviting me. And thank you to all those who have supported my book, Sanctuary, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. If you want to know more, just do the click thing. Let’s make this book happen!


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Decoding the stars

Biographica
Sydney Chamber Opera / Ensemble OffSpring
Carriageworks, 7 January 2017

constellations_stars-1280x7201The life of scholar Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) is an impossible tale. Obsession. Delusion. Murder. Betrayal. Invention. No one medium could do hope to do justice to the complexity of this Renaissance (in every sense, including temporal) man, so thank goodness for opera, thank goodness for composer Mary Finsterer and thank goodness for the many hands which came together to make this palimpsest of sights, sounds, words and music.

Gerolamo Cardano may be a fascinating forgotten genius but, be warned, he is not a nice man and he does not live in a nice world. The sixteenth century is portrayed as a series of suppurating pustules and ragged wounds against which the nascent discipline of medicine can but flail. Yes, there are a couple of violent deaths, and an ear lopping or two, but you are just as likely to be carried off by a tribe of microbes which, for Cardano, make up the intricate web of life on earth as the stars make the skies. His attempts to cure patients are haphazard, by modern standards, but his passionate desire to make sense of the universe is the saving grace of this deeply flawed character.

Finsterer, along with librettist Tom Wright, creates his life story as an episodic work, jerc3b4me_cardanflitting backwards and forwards in time, like a series of Holbein portraits, each coherent as a whole but studded with secrets. The non-linear narrative is confusing, even frustrating at times – meaning in spades, if you care to reflect and connect, but with a seductively fast-moving surface. There is a grief-stricken mother – Jane Sheldon, wracked with the pains of motherhood — and a child’s eye view of the universe, magically captured by Jessica O’Donoghue. There is an intricate mechanism to decipher, and multiple death scenes. And running through all of it, there is Finsterer’s delicately patterned music, repeating, evolving. I wanted to step back to take in the whole picture but, at the same time, I didn’t want to miss any of the detail.

Central to the work is the relationship between choral writing and the spoken monologue. Cardano is a speaking role — played with brilliant charisma by Mitchell Butel — while the chorus, playing multiple characters, sing and play percussion. There is scarcely any dialogue (and I wonder if it could be done with no dialogue at all to underline the different states).  As it is,  the combination of biographical evidence and vocal scoring makes Cardano increasingly isolated, a lone voice against a crowd which, by the power of music, can make voices heard individually and collectively.

The stage and music direction, by Janice Muller and Jack Symonds respectively, makes a tricky space work far better than should be possible. The balance between chorus, ensemble and speaking voice is cleverly done by a combination of amplification, stage positioning and orchestration — Finsterer is good at picking lines out of the morass of sound using an unusual timbre here or a high register there.  And Muller explores the space fully, using a distant stage, movable screens and furniture and, as Cardano and his young daughter contemplate the universe, one of the most dramatically effective uses of projection (which has been used and abused on the opera stage in recent years) I have seen.

Mitchell Butel is a mesmerising Cardano. The way he makes the audience part of the action, part of the bemused world he is trying to enlighten, is deliciously seductive. The vocal performances are consistently good, if not yet great, and the ensemble, at least on the first night, was exciting, but still coming together. And this is one of the reasons why this work needs many more performances — it’s demanding for all involved, including the audience, but with great rewards for those who listen. I’d be happy to see any one of the twelve scenes being performed in isolation, in concert performance, and encourage new music ensembles to check it out. The final scene, in particular, is an irresistible funereal dance, driven by drums and a ground base, and spiked with chaos.

Biographica is presented by Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring as part of Sydney Festival. It plays for another six performances, until 13 January. (And while it shouldn’t be noteworthy, it’s worth noting that Biographica is the first work for Ensemble Offspring’s 2017 program, a year  dedicated entirely to music by women.

It’s also worth noting that this is my first review for 2017, the first of many I hope. Reviewing is a labour of love for me, and although I’d like to think all you need is love, my writing is also improved by chocolate, coffee and your support. If you feel moved to help please take a look at my book project, http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, and pledge lots of money. (I accept chocolate but at this time of year it melts).