A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Life, the universe and everything

The troops were gathered, the weapons tuned. The general stood, ready for action, in front of the battalions. The flag went up then BOOM. Battle commenced.

david-robertson-gallery-preview-1200x650Mahler’s third Symphony is an epic battle between life and death, hope and despair, from a man who knew all these things intimately. That he could make such a fervent case for life and hope considering his life, so brutally pock-marked with tragedy, is amazing. That he could make this enormous, unwieldy, nutty chunk of musical philosophy a gripping journey of constantly unfolding wonders is nigh on miraculous.

The challenge for the combined forces of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Sydney Children’s Choir was to navigate their way through this epic work with pace and coherence, and they did. Even at the moments of chaos, through the dull, forbidding roar of low timpani, past the gibbering winds, there was an enduring sense of direction, a reaching out towards the ultimate triumph of light over dark. It took a while to get there, and things got scary at times, but there were never any thoughts of turning back. Not with artistic director and chief conductor, David Robertson, leading the charge, and Andrew Haveron, concertmaster, as valiant knight.

This really was a you-have-to-be-there performance: three pairs of cymbals clashing together is just a racket on the radio, but on stage you see six great golden plates doing their synchronised swing. Likewise, the bells-up clarinet doesn’t just sound louder; it looks loud, it looks rude and threatening, like a gun aimed squarely at you, yes, you. And seeing the serried ranks of the Sydney Children’s Choir, heads nodding as they counted their bars rest, breathing as one before firing off volleys of ‘bim, bam!’ bells was compelling.

Much to see. Much to hear. Much to understand. Whether or not one grasped Mahler’s vastness of vision, it was nicely enacted through the arrangement of the orchestra: first and second violins were arranged antiphonally, and further divided into front and back desks, so that they seemed to be isolated voices calling to each other across the expanse of the stage; the basses and cellos were on stage right, the bass drum centre back, and the  tuba and bass trombones stage left, their rusty growls surrounding the orchestra; and off in the distance was patient, loving humanity, in the guise of the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

And then there was Susan Graham. Graham was last in Sydney two years ago, singing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Now she’s here for two weeks with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, appearing in Ravel’s Sheherezade and this, Mahler’s Third. Her “O Mensch, gib Acht!” was like a revelation, focussed but never hard, brave but questioning, the still centre of the symphony.

If Graham was the still centre, Robertson was the lightning conductor, catalysing and directing the roiling, explosive energy contained in the huge array of instruments before him. It’s a massive symphony but, under his direction, it never felt chaotic: in those exquisite moments of other-worldly violins and glittery harp-pings the world suddenly, for a few fragile moments, made sense; then, in the final movement the eight horns roared, the trumpets blazed, and the final movement played out in all its majestic, radiant, wait-for-it wait-for-it, just-a-bit-more, yes, glory. Yes.

Yes.

You can catch another performance (and if you can, you should) this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will also be broadcast on Saturday 29 July at noon on ABC Classic FM, (but you’ll have to imagine the cymbals). 

 

 


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Angels and Demons

ebb94e9213bbd23d4b2e0811a7099945The relative speed of light and sound has always fascinated me. The way that, on the cricket pitch, you see the batsman swing and follow through a good second before you hear the tock of willow on leather. Or, in the concert hall, how the conductor’s baton goes down and nothing happens for a split second, then this great noise wells out from the stage, even as the stick is rebounding for the next note. That gap between sight and sound is tantalising: eyes open, the orchestra looks like it’s not playing on the conductor’s beat, but eyes closed, it sounds tight as a drum. When you also consider that the wind, brass and percussion are themselves factoring in the sound lag, playing micro-seconds ahead of the beat, which is microseconds ahead of the strings, to achieve the desired ensemble, the complexity of relationships between players, conductor and audience becomes quite mind-blowing. As the Doctor would say,   it’s “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”.

There was plenty of timey wimey stuff on Friday night. American conductor James Gaffigan did his thing, the orchestra did theirs and, as if by magic — but actually by a whole heap of skill and little bit of physics — it all came together. The lilt and swagger of the Kodaly’s Hungarian csardas, the wistful lingerings of Rachmaninov’s waltz, the unforgiving perpetual motion of the finale… The Sydney Symphony were on fine form, soloists from within the ranks shining through exhilarating tuttis.

26753-275-prom_21_bach_alina_ibragimova_chris_christodoulou_resizedBartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 dances to a different kind of time, simultaneously strange but familiar. Soloist Alina Ibragimova brought a punchy, physical toughness to the unrelenting virtuosity of the first movement, riding the orchestral tuttis like an extreme surfer. All that changed, however, in the second movement, where the solo line floated, as if without effort, across the crystal sheen of high strings and harp. The finale was fraught, taut, terrifying. Brilliant.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for inviting me to this concert, and I hope to hear Ibragimova again, soon. In the meantime, the orchestra welcomes back its chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, next week for the Big One – Mahler 3. If they play like they played on Friday, it’ll be fab.

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my book project, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now at Unbound. You can buy advance copies and pledge for a range of rewards including coming to a concert with me, music criticism workshops, or the opportunity to work with me on telling your story in music and words

 

 


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Paris, 1780s

ahe-subscriptionsThe Australian Haydn Ensemble have pulled off quite a coup in securing legendary forte pianist Melvyn Tan as soloist for their latest gig. Back in the 80s — the 1980s — Tan was at the frontier of the new territories for the keyboard, working with Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardner to refashion great swathes of the classical repertoire. That was then, and he’s moved on (as he explains in his appearance on The Music Show, well worth a listen). Nevertheless, he returns to Mozart with the same fleet, fresh touch that thrilled all those years ago.

Tan plays on a fortepiano made by Chris Maene in 2014, modelled on a Walter & Sohn instrument, prepared by Colin Van Der Lecq and loaned to the AHE by Ivan Foo. It’s a gorgeous looking instrument with a beguiling sound, but it takes a while to tune into its limited dynamic range; during the opening tuttis, Tan could be air-playing. The instrument’s sonic delicacy raises the stakes in terms of phrasing and articulation: the music is no longer defined by contrasting attack and heft, but by the speed of decay and the unweighting of notes, giving the fortepiano space to sound. When they get it right, it’s  like champagne. Not cheap fizz, mind, but serious, vintage champagne, with a lingering complexity amongst the pinpricks of effervescence. It’s an impressive and very enjoyable skip back in time.

Framing the concerto are two works, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major ‘La Reine’ and, to start, a mini-symphony from one Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St Georges. Bologne is an intriguing figure, the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner who, in spite of his skin colour, became a society figure in 18th century Paris. He was, apparently, a famous swordsman and a celebrated musician and composer. His Symphony Op. 11, No. 2 in D major, which doubles as overture to one of his many operas, L’Amant Anonyme, is perhaps not quite as interesting as the man, but a fun and nicely-done beginning.

marie_antoinette_adultBologne also made his mark as a patron, commissioning a suite of symphonies from one Joseph Haydn in 1785. Whether inspired by the generous commission, the substantial forces of the Loge Olympique Orchestra, or the glamour of Paris, Haydn’s resulting set of works were real crackers, with No. 85 supposedly a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette. And with a performance like the AHE gave it, it’s not hard to hear why. Artistic director Skye McIntosh’s choice of tempi were bold and convincing, showing off a nimble, finely-tuned string section and spectacular virtuoso playing in the horns.

The Australian Haydn Orchestra have come a long way since their first season in 2012. McIntosh has assembled a fine band of period string players and the wind section — often a weak spot in historically-informed performance —  made all the right noises. They’ve fixed their intonation across the board and found a more consistent tone; their vision and style is beginning to shine through. More, please!

 

 


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Picture perfect

pigmalion-3White gloved minions, security pass lanyards, the fey gallery director… Pinchgut Opera’s latest offering is a delicious comedy of manners set within the tight-knit, high brow world of Fine Art. Three one-act operas — two by Rameau, with a comic interlude from Leonardo Vinci — sit nicely in an upmarket gallery, alongside the precious exhibits and precious people. It’s an ingenious way to frame – literally and figuratively — the action, and a great excuse for adding a bit of quirk and fizz to the stock characters of French tragedie lyrique. Thus modern and ancient archetypes meet in a complex and fascinating play on art and artifice.

The strength of this production is in the individual characterisations: everyone on stage has a distinct role to play. Not only that, but they must sustain that role throughout the instrumental interludes, the dance sequences and set piece arias. Director Crystal Manich and movement designer Danielle Michich have done a great job. Every step, every move tells.

But this production’s strength — its busy, minutely observed human backstory which animates the lengthy da capo arias — is also what makes it one of Pinchgut’s less successful productions. There is so much to see that, for me, it ends up lacking focus and, hence, losing that intensity of emotion that the music requires. Thus, Vinci’s buffa interlude, Erighetta & Don Chilone, which plays out on and around the confines of a chaise longue, is the most dramatically compelling, in spite of its less than ambitious score. It also has the advantage of two brilliant comic actors, Richard Anderson and Taryn Fiebig, who also happen to be opera singers. This pair are, individually, the anchors for Anacreon and Pigmalion, respectively, then a slapstick double act for Erighetta & Don Chilone. It’s a tour de force.

We interrupt this review for a quick commercial break. If you haven’t already looked at my book project, SanctuaryI hope you will! It’s a history of Dartington Summer School, with words and pictures. I’m crowdfunding it with the enlightened UK publisher Unbound. Do take a look, do pledge, and do share it on social media or IRL!

One of the great things about Pinchgut Opera is its quest to share new discoveries with its audiences. One of these two works of Rameau, for example, is getting a rousing Australian premiere only 250 years after it was first written*. And there are also two exciting Australian debuts, for British tenor Samuel Boden and Australian-born soprano Lauren Zolezzi. Boden takes the role of the sculptor Pigmalion, blind-sided by love for his own creation. He combines a natural stage presence with a fine tenor, full of nuance. Zolezzi, in the role of Cupid, owns the stage with her cheeky skip and clarion tone, negotiating the coloratura of the role with nonchalant sass. Watch out for these two.

Three more memorable Pinchgut debuts: David Hidden as the gallery curator, Allegra Giagu in the role of Lycoris and Morgan Balfour in the role of Cephise. Giagu comes to Pinchgut via their partnership with Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, while Hidden is a Saul alumnus. As for Balfour, her brief but brilliant moment in the spotlight, as Pigmalion’s all-too-human lover, marks her out as another star in the making.

In an artistic climate where large arts organisations are inclined to duck the challenge of new repertoire and unknown artists, Pinchgut is showing the way.

*Thanks to Leigh Middenway on pointing out my original mistake in saying Pigmalion was an Australian premiere. From Leigh: “It was done in Adelaide in 1972 with Richard Divall conducting. I’m from Adelaide and when I posted my own reaction to the Triple Bill, an old friend wrote that he’d sung in it. He rattled off some names and even scenery and costume details.” Trust Adelaide to be first!

The last performance is tonight, Tuesday 20 June. 

 

 

 


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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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Intricate Models

The Natural Order of Things was commissioned from composer James Ledger for the Australian Chamber Orchestra by David and Sandy Libling, in honour David’s father. Simon Libling lived an extraordinary life. He was born to a wealthy family in Krakow in 1912 but, as you can imagine, they didn’t stay that way. When he finally arrived, with his wife and child, in Melbourne in 1960, Libling had lived through halfBlakusCelloMed-e1348130472704 a century of economic and social turmoil. Two wars, the Great Depression, occupation, living under a totalitarian regime… There’s a (necessarily) abridged version of a long and eventful life in the program booklet and, as Ledger says, it reads like a film script. The beauty of Ledger’s five movement work, however, is that he has resisted the temptation to use filmic techniques, emotive musical language or empty drama. This is an intensely thoughtful work, full of considered gestures and deft layering of sound. Sudden, sculpted outbursts dot the musical landscape as if at random, but clearly placed with exacting accuracy by disparate soloists within the ensemble. Designed, but not contrived, organic but not predictable. It’s like turning an intricate model over and over in your hands, discovering it from different angles. This is a fine work which would grace the repertoire of any string orchestra and a beautiful memorial to a life well-lived.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Satu Vanska, brought their habitual virtuosity to this and all the other works on the program. Indeed, the evening was like a collection of intricate models, each work with its own set of fearsome demands. I was thrilled to hear a work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (yes, mother of Peggy Seeger, stepmother of Pete Seeger, wife of Charles Seeger and, most importantly, a composer who music critic Peter Dickinson called ‘a kind of American Webern’). Her Andante for Strings, the second movement of her 1931 String Quartet, is an arresting work, beginning with tense, dissonant smears of sound which build to a brilliant, crystalline cacophony. If that sounds chaotic, let me assure you it’s not: the restraint with which she adds voices — you have to wait till nearly the end for the double bass — is fascinating. The ACO’s performance makes a powerful case for hearing the whole thing.

Another intricate model took the centre stage in the second half : a 1616 Hieronymus and Antonio Amati cello, the latest acquisition of the ACO Instrument Fund. And to show it off, a new arrangement by Jack Symonds of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello, with Tipi Valve as soloist. I don’t know the sonata well, but whatever Symonds and Valve did, it worked brilliantly. The cello line emerged, glowing, from a delicate mass of string textures.

A Vivaldi Concerto bounced off the stage with verve, but the real showpiece was Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12After the profundity of what went before this piece comes across as completely nutty: the soloist ricochets off into a series of cadenzas designed to test the limits of the instrument. In fact, it’s more impressive as a pyrotechnical display of digital dexterity than as an artistic statement. However, when you are a virtuoso violinist and you come across a concerto subtitled The Harmonic Labyrinth – Easy to enter, hard to escape, the gauntlet is well and truly thrown, on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up. Satu Vanska, who has been known to perform Paganini Caprices in clubs and on surfing retreats, is completely up for a challenge, and her heroic performance got a well-deserved standing ovation.

All that and Mendelssohn too. A night of many notes. (Not too many, though). Catch one of the last two performances if you can, tonight, Weds 17 May or Friday 19 May, both at City Recital Hall.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please feel free to rummage further around my blog, or search for other features and reviews I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, or check out my book project, Sanctuarya cultural history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. 


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Brandenbatics

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Photo (and all the rest of them too): Steven Godbee

In 2015 the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra collaborated with contemporary circus ensemble, Circa to create a pasticcio around music of the French Baroque. They’re back for more in 2017, this time with a Spanish-themed pasticcio. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has let his imagination loose on the image of the bull ring, taking inspiration from thrumbing rhythms and plangent emotions of Catalan song. ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, has spiced up his ensemble with baroque guitarist Stefano Maiorana from Rome, soprano Natasha Wilson (pictured below) and a medley of old and new arrangements.

18193405_10155227412299254_7813138481784460886_oIt’s a terrific show. The eight performers surprise and delight, impress and astonish with their repertoire of tumbling, rope-climbing, trapeze work, silks and physical theatre. Their balance, strength and grace are constantly amazing and they heighten the audiences engagement with a subtle and often funny overlay of character acting.

We interrupt this review for a quick announcement. Normally at this point I’d be asking you to visit my book project, now crowd-funding at Unbound. However, today, I would rather that you went to www.fairgofairfax.com.au to read about the cuts to editorial staff at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m still a Herald contributor, in theory, but the arts coverage has shrunk dramatically, so I rarely get a gig these days. Luckily for me, it’s not my bread-and-butter, but it’s devastating and not just to the journalists. In my neck of the woods the whole arts eco-system suffers when intelligent and in depth coverage is curtailed. Without the support of mainstream media, you’re stuck with the likes of me and the rest of the inter webs. Please let Fairfax know if you’re happy, or not, with this situation, and please let artists, arts writers, bloggers and arts companies know too! Thank you. Now read on.

The musicians — just one to a part — are ranged across the back of the stage, with Circa artists in front and singer Natasha Wilson drifting in between the two. The band plays with high energy and patchy brilliance; the improvisations don’t always click and the energy doesn’t always make it past the acrobatics, but when it does, it’s thrilling. Natasha Wilson, making her Australian debut, sings with unfettered clarity and a slightly other-worldly detachment, giving the heart-on-sleeve ballads a tantalising sense of mystery.

18278628_10155227414344254_4469351965812937694_oOn one level it’s good, old-fashioned acrobatics, with a classy backing band and bull-fighting theme. On another level, it’s an attempt to create something bigger – a synthesis of art forms which bounce off each other to create something new. Does it work? Yes and no. As a rip-roaring display of musical and physical virtuosity it is hard to beat: I challenge anyone not to gasp and grin during the performance. As a pasticcio it’s less convincing for me — if there’s a narrative in there, it comes and goes, with human drama upstaged by spectacle. There are so many moments of genius — the red wheelbarrow as bull and bull-fighter’s cape, for example, and the bull-fighters (bulls?) charging across a tabletop — that it feels like overthinking it to get stuck on genre-bashing.

Ultimately, Spanish Baroque has all the makings of a festival piece, a show which could tour anywhere in the world. Fortunately for me, it all started in Sydney.

18238473_10155227413469254_5682927937048582983_oFurther performances – Friday, Saturday 5 and 6 May, Wednesday and Friday 10 and 12 May, all at 7pm, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday 6, all in City Recital Hall, plus two performances on 12 and 14 May at Melbourne Recital Centre and one performance at QPAC in Brisbane on 16 May.