A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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On the shoulders of giants

I’m about to head off to Europe for a few weeks. Come with me! I’ll be blogging from Musique Cordiale in Seillans and from Dartington International Summer School. Of course, I’ll also be missing fabulous stuff in Sydney, but will just be back in time for Imogen Cooper playing with the SSO. Here she is in her student days…

Prizes for naming other characters in this little blast from the past (with thanks to camera man Charles Davis and archivist Jeremy Wilson, who transferred all the Super 8s onto DVD…)

You can read more about the Dartington archive and what I’m doing with it over at www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary. While you’re there, I hope you’ll make a pledge and tell everyone about it!


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A love letter

 

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I have a confession to make.

*whispers*

I don’t get ballet. I get pretty dresses and the elegant curve of the human body and the heroic athleticism, but the whole package — body stockings, funny walks, buns — has never quite captivated me. That is, until now.

Last night I took my eldest daughter to see the Australian Ballet’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the Story of Clara. It reimagines Tchaikovsky’s Christmas pageant, The Nutcracker, as a biography of Clara, born in pre-Revolutionary Russia, who becomes prima ballerina of the Imperial Ballet before becoming caught up in the chaotic whirl of war. Clara falls in love, loses her lover, becomes a star, travels the world, and ends her journey, surrounded by friends and memories, in suburban Melbourne.

Murphy, who came up with the concept in collaboration with the brilliant set and costume designer Kristian Fredrickson, has spoken about the problems he perceives in Tchaikovsky’s original. “Nutcracker is a sort of no-story,” he says in discussion with music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon. “There isn’t a real development of character. It’s quite abstract.”

He makes no apologies for rethinking a much-loved classic and, although some traditionalists might disagree, I don’t think he needs to. For what he has created (or what the team has created, for Murphy is a collaborative choreographer, working with his creative associate Janet Vernon and the dancers themselves) is, to me, a love letter to ballet. If there was ever a show to convince a non-believer of the power of ballet, this is it.

From the opening scene, where the elderly friends of Clara, who come in all shapes and sizes, to the ballet academy scene, where a studio full of petites leotardinas go through their paces, to the triumphant world tour, you see the expressive range of ballet. Clara’s friends, a little tiddly, a little stiff, are so full of joy and elegance as they dance up a storm. The children’s class is unsentimental and unexpectedly moving. The final curtain call is all that ballet should be — the lights, the sequins, the magnificent leaps and spins — but, in a brilliant coup de theatre, performed facing the back of the stage, a dancer’s view, as it were. Yes. A dancer’s view. This is a production which makes an overwhelmingly powerful case for the art form. OK ballet. You got me.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara plays at the Sydney Opera House until 20 May, then at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, from 2-10 June. 

A quick reminder to visit my book project, Sanctuary, a pictorial history of the Dartington International Summer School of Music, and pledge your support. Together we can make this book happen!

 

 


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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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The Dumky Three

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L-R Grace Clifford, Clancy Newman, Kathryn Selby.

I’ve heard Katherine Selby play Dvorak’s Dumky Trio (Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90) so many times, in so many different incarnations. It’s a bit of a signature piece, and I thought that I had a definitive idea of the work in my head, cobbled together from years of various performances. But no. Yesterday, in the hands of Selby and her latest friends, cellist Clancy Newman and violinist Grace Clifford, I think I heard Dvorak’s quirky, lumpy, gushy, graceful trio as I’ve never heard it before. This was the real thing.

What was it that made this performance so good? Nothing obvious, and everything subtle. The balance, for one, which was brilliantly judged. Neither Clancy Newman nor Grace Clifford come across as power players. Their virtuosity is a given (Kathryn Selby has excellent taste in friends) but without the blast of egotism that can go with it. Even the opening outburst from Newman felt somehow private, as if we were being invited to listen into a very personal angst. An invitation to listen rather than a demand to be heard.

The communication between players was also a factor: fitting the fragments of song and dance together is an intricate business, and you could hear the fabric of the music stretching at times, but it came back together not with someone banging out a thumpy rhythm or an assertive entry, but by letting each gesture run its course. And the other lovely thing to hear was how one player would introduce some rubato into a phrase  and the next player would take it, and make it their own, as if, with a wink, they were acknowledging a joke and embroidering it. This wasn’t just a feature of the Dvorak. It was there in the Beethoven’s E flat major Piano Trio, Op. 1 No. 1 as well – that sense of witnessing a really thoughtful, enlightening conversation.

Saint-Saens’ first piano trio, his Op. 18, completed the program and it was a real discovery. It’s still not fashionable to like Saint-Saens, but I reckon if you played this to someone blind, without telling anyone who it was by, they’d be utterly charmed. Especially in the hands of three such persuasive musicians.

No more performances from this line-up, sadly, but much good stuff to come from Selby and Friends through the course of 2017.

Now you’ve read this pop over to take a look at the book I’m writing, which is being published by Unbound. In the great tradition of Dickens, it’s available by subscription, and I hope you’ll pledge!

 


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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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Flashback Friday

Busy studying this week so no reviews until Sunday, when I’m seeing this. Instead, I’m posting a piece I wrote back in 2011 to celebrate this month’s guest visit from Sydney Symphony’s former chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, along with a photo from the Dartington Summer School archive from 1964.

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A young Vladimir Ashkenazy and son at Dartington International Summer School in 1964. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, with thanks to the Summer School Foundation).

It is twenty-eight minutes past three on a cool Tuesday afternoon in Sydney. The stage of the Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House is packed: 77 musicians sitting patiently, flicking through their music, adjusting their instruments; black clad stage managers in head sets darting from one door to another. Vladimir Ashkenazy appears on stage unannounced, dressed down in comfy slacks and a white t-shirt printed with a black and white portrait of composer Edward Elgar. He squeezes nimbly between the first and second violins, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging a few words with individuals as he goes, then hops onto the podium. More smiles, a glance at the score. ‘No. 19, please’. Then the baton goes down and the music begins.

The musicians of Sydney Symphony are rehearsing their season opener, a performance of Grieg’s incidental music for the Ibsen play, Peer Gynt. The music is interspersed with extracts from the play, read by actor John de Lancie, and this is a technical rehearsal, finalising the lighting and sound, and making sure the orchestral and non-orchestral elements run together seamlessly.

As such, the orchestra and its conductor, Ashkenazy, are just following orders. At the request of the stage manager, they skip to the night scene, where de Lancie must speak over the orchestra, recitative style. There is a moment of confusion as de Lancie pauses unexpectedly.

“What do you want us to do there?” Ashkenazy shrugs, not quite impatiently. “I don’t mind.” The stage manager negotiates a minor change to the script and the music continues.

In spite of the stop-start nature of the rehearsal, no one is fidgeting, and no-one is holding back: the music is never less than beautiful, the notes are all there, the phrases are turned with infinite care. Ashkenazy is small in stature but he bristles with energy on the podium, shaping phrases and cueing entries with a look, a gesture, a slight stiffening of the shoulders.

Ashkenazy in person is much the same as Ashkenazy on the podium. Soft spoken, economical with his words, and utterly engaged by the music. Asked whether he ever shouts or throws his weight around in rehearsals, he smiles.

“No. I’m not the type. I don’t find any reason to yell. Not with anybody. Especially not with Sydney Symphony. But I don’t think I ever yelled. It’s not my nature. If something goes wrong I just wait, and get it right. Yelling won’t help.

“You do not need so many words. The musicians do not like it. They just like to play music, to play beautifully.”

(First published in Limelight Magazine, 2011).

I suggest you hurry along to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s website to check out what’s on tonight, tomorrow and next week. It will be a treat.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a preview, feature or review for most music ensembles in Sydney. I am, therefore, supporting artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.


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Yesterday and Tomorrow

After my devil’s advocacy earlier this week, I found myself surrounded by HIPsters* yesterday. The Australian Haydn Ensemble, playing Beethoven, in chamber arrangements, in Sydney Opera House, on original instruments. In 2016.

The AHE have been going for five years now, and they’re beginning to build momentum. Their chosen niche is late Baroque and early Classical repertoire, and they wear their scholarship with pride. Performance as research. Research as performance. Performative research. The question I have to ask is whether this approach is limiting, in terms of artistic expression and communication with the audience. Are we, the audience, being set free from preconceptions? Or are we getting tied up in HIPknots?

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Yesterday’s performance suggests the former. In a packed Utzon Room, playing against panoramic views of a sunny day on Sydney harbour, the ensemble performed Beethoven in a way that reframed not just the sound but the rhythmic and textural structure of the works. It was, in a word, discovery.

Central to the performance was the triple-strung, wooden-framed fortepiano, a replica of an early nineteenth-century instrument by Conrad Graf. As guest soloist Neal Peres da Costa explained before they began, the instrument’s four pedals meant he could realise the composer’s markings in a way not possible on a modern piano. In particular, the una corda marking, which shifts the hammer mechanism so that it only strikes one string, produces a distinctly ethereal tone, bringing an other-worldly character to the second movement. Then the return of the una corda marking in the final movement was like a ghost from the past. Peres Da Costa was imaginative and bold in his phrasing, flirting with the inegale, and finding a fascinating range of tone colours. Forget the heroic, domineering piano virtuoso: this felt like the tentative steps at the start of a new relationship. Occasionally klutz-y but very exciting.

A quick reshuffle for a fine reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. In this period arrangement for string sextet, flute and fortepiano continuo, some of the work’s signature gestures were missing – violas are not horns, and a period bow cannot sustain a note in the same way as a wind player can — but other, more intricate details emerged from the textures, which made up for the loss of that big orchestral sound. I sat there trying to imagine how I would listen to this, if I didn’t know it as a symphony but as a chamber work. Did it sound like the early string quartets? Would Beethoven have written it like this if he only had six voices? I’m not sure that he would have, but I found myself completely involved nevertheless.

Yesterday and tomorrow? That’s when the performances are. Go hear for yourself.

A few words about the Utzon Room. It has so much going for it: the kudos of being under the roof of the Opera House, and the support of the Opera House’s marketing efforts, a drop dead gorgeous view of the harbour and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and a perfect size for chamber music. It is always a pleasure to go there – it feels special. The downside, however, is the acoustic and sightlines. It wasn’t designed as a performance space, and it shows. We sat at the end furthest from the public entrance, on keyboard side but, after advice from another listener, I’ll try the other end, where the curve of the roofshell seems to give the sound a little more resonance. Indeed, it would be interesting to experiment with putting performers in that position, under the roof arch, to see if it throws the sound out into the room. Inconvenient for entering, perhaps, but if it improves the acoustic, worth a try.

*HIPsters – collective noun for practioners of Historically-Informed Performance.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a review for most small to medium music ensembles in Sydney. I am doing my best to support artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.