A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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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

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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.

***

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).

 


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Summer dreaming

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I’ve been taking a blogbreak over the silly season but I just received the link to the 2017 Dartington International Summer School of Music brochure and this has spurred me into action. I’ve been working closely with Dartington Arts and the Summer School Foundation in putting together Sanctuary, so I’m delighted to post the brochure here and encourage everyone — listeners, players, makers of all ages — to take a look. It’s Joanna McGregor’sjoanna-macgregor-1024 third year as artistic director, and it’s just been announced that she will continue after this year, which is great news. I’ve been to week 3 for the past two years and this year am intending to go to week 2 for a spot of Purcell. There’s also a focus on writing that week, so I’m going to take a fresh box of sharp pencils as well as my violin.

While I’m over there, I hope to also call in at Musique Cordiale 2017, run by the redoubtable Pippa Pawlik in the hilltop town of Seillans in Haute Provence, and take a side trip to visit the famous Horn Cave near Avignon. 2016-10-22-17-07-40-1024x576

Alternatively, I might end up driving kids around NSW, walking dogs, feeding chickens, slaving over advertising copy and studying. But we can dream!


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Strung Out

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Scott Hicks films Sharon Draper playing Robert Cavonogli’s work-in-progress, an unvarnished copy of an 18th century Guadagnini cello.

Just catching up with Scott Hicks documentary Highly Strung, which opened the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year. Hicks has musical form, including the 1996 portrait of David Helfgott, Shine, and the acclaimed 2007 doco on Philip Glass, A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. In Highly Strung he turns his camera on the instrument rather than the player, considering the violin (and its extended family) in terms of its sound, its history, its manufacture and its potentially immense value.

At least, that’s what he sets out to do. Using a slightly strained musical metaphor he introduces a parade of characters: violin dealers and valuers; the glitzy Carpenter family of New York, who see Stradivarius as the ultimate brand;  luthier Roberto Cavagnoli, who is tasked with making a copy of the 18th century Guadagnini cello bought by arts philanthropist Ulrike Klein for the Australian String Quartet; and members of the Quartet themselves.


Each vignette brings another aspect of the mystique of the violin to the fore. Joshua Bell talks about his Stradivarius and its every changing moods with almost mystical awe, while Cavagnoli walks up and down stacks of wood, knocking each piece to listen for the perfect resonance. Meanwhile, the Carpenters mostly shop for every more outrageous concert outfits, and the Australian String Quartet get on with being the custodians of a unique set of four matched Guadagnini instruments.

Hicks endeavours to make violins rather than humans the main protagonists of the film, but when the humans begin to unravel, so too does the focus. In a twist which no-one could have planned, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, the two violinists of the Australian String Quartet decide they no longer want to work with the viola and cellist. They give the ASQ board an ultimatum — them (viola Steven King and cellist Sharon Draper) or us. When the board chooses King and Draper to continue the ASQ brand, the Guadagnini instruments in the care of Winther and Tache are returned to the bank vault.

It’s a messy story and it turns out to be, perhaps inevitably, a messy film. One minute we’re learning about Cremona and Stradivarius and design, and the next we’re plunged into a complicated and bitter musical divorce. It’s a mess, but not a disaster — getting hijacked by real life saves a fascinating and quirky documentary from becoming worthy, and leaves us with a cliffhanger that will play out in 2017, as the ASQ launches its new line-up.

This is my blog. I watch, I listen, I write. I’m also crowd-funding a book at award-winning publishers Unbound. Do take a look!


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Another Flashback Friday

morning-afterI’m feeling a little tired and emotional. It’s the end of a long year and the morning after a night of trying to keep  my eldest’s Year 10 Formal revelries legal. So apologies for another Flashback Friday, but this one captures my somewhat punchy mood. It was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011.

Tim Minchin v. the Sydney Symphony
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 25
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

5 stars

Tim Minchin is offensive. F*#king offensive. Especially offensive if you dislike the word ‘f#*king’. Especially offensive if you dislike intelligent, articulate arguments against all forms of prejudice and hyprocrisy. And if you also dislike wild piano-playing and wicked self-parody, his offensiveness knows no bounds. Because Tim Minchin is offensively talented and his latest show is an absolute cracker.

The show opens with a irony-laden faux rock classic, complete with smoke machines and spotlights. As he says, “I got a f*#cking orchestra! I can do what I f*#cking want”. The rock god bravado, however, doesn’t last for long as he segues into the autobiographical ‘Rock’n’roll nerd’. By the time he has got the horror of a privileged liberal up-bringing in a first world country off his chest, he has also demonstrated that he can sing like Bowie on a good day, with the added bonus of a very real sense of humour.

A slew of favourites follow. ‘If I didn’t have you (I’d have someone else)’ falls slightly flat, but ‘Cont…’ goes off like a bomb, as does his gloriously offensive ‘The Pope Song’.

Minchin’s comedy is beautifully constructed: some of the biggest laughs of the night rely on the surprise reveal, delivered with the kind of casual, serendipitous timing that only comes by design. He’s also a great clown, with a mischevious leer which gets a giggle every time. But the core of his act is his fearless pursuit of taboos. Tim Minchin takes the things everyone thinks, but no-one says, and then sings them at top volume, with repeats.

The Sydney Symphony is a classy but slightly under-used backing band to start with but, as the songs become more burlesque in style, Minchin’s piano playing becomes more flamboyant and the orchestral arrangements become more inventive. Conductor Ben Northey does a great job keeping the music close to, but just short of anarchy. By the time Minchin introduces his exquisite little ballad, ‘Not Perfect’, a 55-piece orchestra feels like the perfect accompaniment.

And now that you’ve read that, do go and check out my picture book project, Sanctuary then pledge lots of money and / or share it with all your friends. Or not. Heigh ho. I think I need another cup of tea…

 


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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.