A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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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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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!


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Jolly good fellows

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-lotrSydney Symphony Orchestra has just announced the fifteen young musicians who make up this year’s Fellowship. Over the next twelve months violinists Gemma Lee and Bridget O’Donnell, violists Martin Alexander and Joseph Cohen, cellists Nils Hobiger and Ruben Palma, bassist Alanna Jones, flutist Kim Falconer, oboist Joshua Oates, clarinettist David McGregor, bassoonist Christopher Haycroft, French horn player Alice Yang, trumpeter
Jenna Smith, trombonist Amanda Tillett, and percussionist Samuel Butler will take part in concerts, regional tours, masterclasses, lessons, workshops and pretty much anything else the orchestral life chooses to throw at them.

On Tuesday night they gave their first official performance, a concert on the stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in front of an intimate audience of supporters and special friends. The musicians, who are all in their twenties, were put on the spot. Just a week into the program, they presented a program of solos and chamber music, culminating in a tutti rendition of three Hungarian Dances by Brahms.

As you’d expect, they were pretty bloody good. But not as good as they will be, says Head of Philanthropy Rosemary Swift, in twelve months time.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is rightly proud of their Fellowship program. Most orchestras run various variations on talent development schemes, but the SSO’s is the most comprehensive in Australia and, according to an independent report by BYP group, it gets great results, in terms of training players for an orchestral career.

What interests me, though, is the SSO’s interpretation of what an orchestral career can be. Lots of Beethoven and a good dose of Brahms? Perhaps. But also performing in country halls, playing alongside school-age kids in the Playerlink program, and even presenting workshops in a high security prison. Not as lower-price-point stand-ins, making up the numbers for the main players, but as an integral part of a community.

Alex Ross describes a similar model in Listen to Thiswhere he writes about the L.A. Phil., and their legendary manager, Ernest Fleischmann. It was Fleischmann who really grappled with how orchestras could stay relevant in the modern world – how they could become more than just replicators of museum pieces, protectors of the flame of tradition. He conceived of the orchestra as a ‘community of musicians’. In the same way that universities become communities for knowledge, the orchestra becomes a community for music, which engages with many different kinds of audiences, with many different interests, from movie soundtracks to Beethoven to Boulez and beyond.

The SSO Fellowship certainly offers wonderful opportunities to its chosen few: lessons, mentors, experience on stage. But one of the most exciting things, for me, is how the breadth of experience the program offers is preparing musicians for a future.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for letting me tag along at the Fellows first concert. And if you like reading about music, please support my book, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now with Unbound. 


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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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For the birds

704607653-goose-flock-of-birds-dawn-arctic
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).