A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Gender fluid

Con Opera La Calisto-8938

Ashlee Woodgate (Calisto) and Allen Qi (Jupiter)

Elsie Egerton-Till, the director of the Conservatorium Opera School’s latest production, is just entering into the spirit of things with her smart and surprising take on Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. After all, the story already has an arch-male, Jupiter, disguising himself as Diana in order to seduce Calisto. Why not mix things up even more? Why not have men dressed in chiffon as part of the bride’s party, and women in suits with the men chorus?

The result is by turns confusing, entertaining and very much of its time. By which I mean now. We can’t know whether seventeenth-century Venetians would have had such a playful and lusty approach to story-telling — although I reckon it’s likely they would — but this production probably tells us as much about Sydney in 2017 as it does about Venice in  1651. Jupiter swaggers like a media mogul’s son. Pan huffs and blows like a Rhodes scholar on a beer binge. Juno struts and tutts like a nasty woman. We recognise these characters with wry laughter.

What is frustrating about this production is that, having crashed through the binary barrier, it didn’t then move on into what, for me, is the crux of La Calisto, that elision between love and  attraction and lust, regardless of gender or sexuality. Or, put it another way, the movement from a classical stereotype into something more nuanced, or perhaps more human. Some of the climactic moments musically are when we see, for instance, Jupiter realising he is in love with Calisto, or Diana torn by her forbidden desire  for Endymion (mirrored by the Linfea and Satorino subplot). Paradoxically, while Cavalli’s music created a little moment of stillness and insight, the action on stage felt stilted, caught between realism and symbolism. Likewise, in some of the bigger set pieces, the scale of the performances – the gestures, the timing of gags, the facial expressions – did not match affect of the music.

That said, there were some terrific performances from last night’s cast. Allen Qi, as Jupiter, had a fine baritone and a good sense of comedy, while Joshua Oxley, as Pan, combined in-your-face obnoxiousness with a strong and agile tenor voice. Jia Yao Sun, as Diana, sang beautifully but lacked a certain presence. Aimee O’Neill, by contrast, was a force to be reckoned with, dramatically, but did not always manage to control her voice. It is, however clearly a powerful instrument and with great potential. Next stop, Queen of the Night?

Rebecca Hart, in the pants role of Endymion, sang with touching emotion, matching the restrained performance of Jia Yao Sun. Meanwhile, Robert Adam, in the frock role of Linfea, and his would-be lover, impishly played by Sitong Liu, stole the show with their playful negotiations and vocal clarity.

Ashlee Woodgate gave a promising and, at times, genuinely lovely performance in the demanding title role, although her mask slipped, as did her pitch, across the evening.

In the pit, the Early Music Ensemble, directed by Neal Peres Da Costa, toiled away heroically through Cavalli’s long passages of recitative, always sensitive to the needs of the stage, but making a fine sound, rich with the textures of pluck, blow and bow, in the orchestral interludes.

You can catch La Calisto on Thursday 25 May at 11.30am and Saturday 27 May at 2pm in the Music Workshop at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 


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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.

 

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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 

 

 


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The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.

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All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.

 


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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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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).

 


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Po marie, po aroha

16abo-noel-sydney-196There’s no better antidote to the nuttiness of the end-of-year, end-of-term, end-of-everything scramble than 90 minutes of music from the Australian Brandenburg team. Their annual Noel Noel concert has become a permanent fixture in so many people’s calendars that this year the number of times they perform this show is into double figures. And, as ever, the unquenchable energy of their artistic director Paul Dyer infuses the evening with a freshness and almost childlike sense of wonder. Humbugs and Grinches have no place here, and glitter and tat and dad jokes and glorious singing are all part of the joy.

Singing is, of course, central to Noel Noel, and with it the Brandenburg Choir, an occasional but long-standing band of hand-picked singers directed and driven and cajoled and coralled by Dyer. Their opening salvo, ‘Wachet auf!’, in lusty unison, would stir even a school-shy teenager from his or her doona lair, and they skip through the traditional carols with crisp, bouncy rhythm. Meanwhile, there are some superior vocal chops on display, in works like Ola Gjeilo’s ‘The Spheres’ from his 2007 work, Sunrise Mass. Smudgy note clusters, bruised chords, textures which fade in and out like a tapestry woven of different yarns. Rather lovely.

madison_nonoa-69-photo-steven-godbeePaul Dyer has an impressive track record for his choice of soloist at Noel Noel (including Taryn Fiebig, Sara Macliver and Max Riebl.) This year’s is another doozy. Madison Nonoa is a soprano of Samoan-New Zealand and European descent, and a recent graduate of the University of Auckland. Her performances, to date, have all been in her home country, New Zealand, but that is surely about to change with this, her Australian debut. Nonoa’s voice promises many different colours: she sings ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with a tight, choirboy clarity and a slightly feverish vibrato; in her ‘Ave Maria’ (the Vladimir Vavilov aka Caccini one) her voice opened up, with the long, lyrical lines sounding blissfully easy (although I’m sure they were anything but). In Eriks Esenvalds ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ the bright sheen of her voice contrasted with a solo chorister, singing in duet. And in ‘Amazing Grace’ we got a hint of a richer, deeper quality to her tone, a clue as to where this still very young voice might be heading.

Accompanying the choir and Nonoa was a select ensemble of strings, brass, keyboards and percussion. In fact, it was not so much an orchestra as a collection of soloists, most of whom had their featured moment in the limelight as Dyer explored the full palette of tone colours on stage. So a baroque trumpet (Leanne Sullivan) had the prized first verse solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ while the generous array of sackbuts — early slide trombones — came to the fore in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and Rittler’s Ciaccona a 7 slid deliciously in and out of improvisation over a simple ground bass.

Beyond the singing and playing, a quick mention for the unsung heros of Noel Noel: the arrangers. Some of them we already know: David Willcocks, for example, with his unforgettable descant countermelody for ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, or Felix Gruber, who arranged his own tune, originally for two voices and guitar, to become the choral version of ‘Silent Night’ so beloved by all. Others try to slip by unnoticed: Tristan Coelho, award-winning Sydney composer, who put together a spicy, wistful version of sixteenth century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez’s ‘Con que la lavare’; British composer and arranger Jim Clements, who has worked with Ben Folds to create a scrunchy, delicate a capella version of ‘The Luckiest’ which the Brandenburg choir delivered with touching intimacy; and film/tv composer and music director Alex Palmer, who fashioned stylish, fresh and beautiful new arrangements of traditional and more recent compositions. His handling of close harmonies in the Vavilov sent tingles down the spine and his take on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ was an inventive instrumental break which, surely, must have melted even the most determined Scrooge.

Noel Noel has five more performances: at City Recital Hall on Saturday 17 December at 5pm and 7pm, at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral tonight, 15 December at 7pm, at St Patricks in Parramatta next Monday at 7.30pm, and at Newtown’s St Stephen’s Anglican Church on Tuesday. Highly recommended.

And a quick plug for my stuff: I’m writing a book on the Dartington International Summer School of Music. It’s called Sanctuary, and it’s due to be published by Unbound in 2018. If you enjoy my writing I urge you to visit my author page, take a look at the short video and pledge to buy the book! Many thanks, and best wishes for Christmas and New Year.

 

 


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Romans and Christians

I have a confession to make. Yesterday, at the first night of Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora, I did something I frequently do at concerts, but not at operas. I didn’t intend to, but I couldn’t resist. Yes, I admit it. I closed my eyes.

Pinchgut Opera presents Theoroda

Theodora in rehearsal. Andrew Collis, as president of Antioch, lays down the law. (Photographer: Robert Catto)

It wasn’t that there was nothing to see on stage. Handel’s Theodora is actually an oratorio, rather than an opera, but there is plenty of drama and character to work with, and director Lindy Hume is a genius at choreographing singing actors. She picked just the right scale and weight of movement for the moment, whether it was a collective hand up to the heavens, or an individual drunken shimmy. Likewise, Dan Potra’s design matched in size and simplicity the big, archetypal questions being asked by the story, and his costumes were an elegant response to the drama of duality. (Actually, the coloured hands were a bit spooky, but very clever…). The main challenge for staging was that this is a show where all the real action is in the music.

The story of Theodora and Didymus is adapted from Robert Boyle’s novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus of 1687. It’s set in Antioch in the 4th Century AD and, as Lindy Hume comments in her director’s notes, it’s a classic clash of civilizations moment. The Roman president decrees that everyone must pay homage to Juno. The Christians don’t want to, so they have to die. Sorry if that gives the ending away, but this is not a drama fuelled by suspense, nor yet by the hope of a happy ending.

The real driver of this work is the extraordinary writing for solos, duets and chorus, and that’s my excuse for closing my eyes. Because, once it became clear that Theodora and Didymus were doomed, I couldn’t resist turning my attention to Handel’s music. There was so much to hear. The orchestral scoring, for a start. Pinchgut is rightly proud of its specially commissioned instruments, funded by an enlightened bunch of supporters, and we got to hear many of them last night. The chamber organ, for example, and the latest addition to the stable, the mighty contrabassoon. The underpinning of the orchestral textures with the low, farty rasp of this colossal instrument made me grin every time I heard it. And the bass line wasn’t the only star. I was completely transfixed by Mikaela Oberg’s wraithlike flute solo, stripped of vibrato, even of tapering, just raw sound.

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Valda Wilson

As for the singers, the standard was as impressive as ever. In the title role was Valda Wilson, making a spectacular debut with Pinchgut in a fiendishly challenging role, not because of the vocal fireworks, but because of the rich, centred delivery, a perfect match for her characterisation. Her female foil, Caitlin Hulcup, as leader of the Christians, radiated compassion. Andrew Collis was a suitably hateful Valens, whipping up the crowd into an orgy of drunken hate. Ed Lyon returned (after his Pinchgut debut in the comedy L’Amant Jaloux last year) as the unwilling executioner. Lyons voice sounds like it might have two gears at the moment — a lyric tenor and something more helden-like. This sometimes made for an unstable sound as he transitioned through the register, but also suggests exciting potential for future roles. Finally, counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey played Didymus, the Christian convert who sacrifices himself to save Theodora. To be honest, I blame Lowrey for the whole eye-shutting thing. His aria, ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’, was so arresting, in terms of its sound, that I couldn’t help myself. That opening phrase, the long held note on ‘raptur’d’ was so complex, so easy and yet pained, and revealing more with every ritornello. All the suspense, in just one note.

I can’t finish without throwing a few more bouquets. Erin Helyard, the able spider weaving all the threads together from his position in the heart of the orchestra; the chorus, who deserve a review all of their own; and Liz Nielsen, founding Chair of the Board, whose vision, energy and extraordinary generosity has brought Pinchgut to where it is today. You have made something beautiful, Liz. Thank you.

Theodora runs till December 6 at City Recital Hall in Sydney. It’s being broadcast ‘almost live’ on Sunday December 4 on ABC Classic FM.

This blog is a labour of love. If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.