A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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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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Director; Barrie Kosky,
Saul; Christopher Purves,
David; Iestyn Davies,
Merab; Lucy Crowe,
Michal; Sophie Bevan,
Jonathan; Paul Appleby,
High Priest; Benjamin Hulett,
Witch of Endor; John Graham_Hall,Barry Kosky calls himself the extravagant minimalist.

Love it.

His approach is writ large on the main stage of the Adelaide Festival Centre in an exuberant production of Handel’s first oratorio, Saul. The staging is minimal — little more than a raked stage, large tables and a generous layer of topsoil — but this blank canvas is splattered with colour and movement. Costumes, gestures, lights, exploding on the senses. Wigs a-plenty. Wicked dance moves. A smattering of severed heads. And that’s before you take Handel’s music into account.

SAUL_Glyndebourne,Director; Barrie Kosky,
Saul; Christopher Purves,
David; Iestyn Davies,
Merab; Lucy Crowe,
Michal; Sophie Bevan,
Jonathan; Paul Appleby,
High Priest; Benjamin Hulett,
Witch of Endor; John Graham_Hall,

Christopher Purves as Saul

This production was created for the 2015 Glyndebourne Opera Festival. It comes to the Adelaide Festival with its creatives, its dancers and its original Saul, the spectacular Christopher Purves. The rest of the cast is a classy mix of English and Australian singers, including Christopher Lowrey (Didymus in Pinchgut’s Theodora), Taryn Fiebig and Kanen Breen from here, Mary Bevan and Stuart Jackson from the UK plus Adrian Strooper, a new face for me, a graduate of Canberra School of Music and in the ensemble of Komische Oper Berlin and very impressive as Jonathan. The rest of the ensemble is locally sourced – a band made up of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra members, the State Opera Chorus, and Pinchgut Opera artistic director Erin Helyard running the show from the harpsichord. I’m not intending to critique individual performances, not least because it’s not fair to review a working dress rehearsal which was put on sale two days ago. But if you have got a ticket to the real thing – and if you haven’t, sorry, it’s completely sold out, has been for months – then rest assured, you need have no concerns. They’re all fab.

What I can talk about is Handel’s music, Kosky’s production and the whole knotty question of oratorio. Because after the Australian Brandenburg’s semi-staged, semi-successful take on Messiah last week, the challenges of this odd genre are on my mind.

In an interview with Glyndebourne dramaturg Cori Ellison, printed in the program, Kosky cuts off any thoughts of discussing the pros and cons of staging oratorio at the pass.

Get real! Opera is not about rules and regulations. Handel’s oratorios are sometimes more dramatic than his operas. We know that because we can hear it.

For what it’s worth, I agree. It all depends on the work. Messiah is a series of meditations on texts, with little interplay of characters. But cast your eye over the plot summary of Saul and it’s clearly a torrid psychological drama about five strong characters. In other words, eminently stageable. And the music begs for movement, especially when you have a six-piece dance troupe on hand, not to mention a chorus who rarely sit still. In other words, I don’t mind whether it recreates or reinterprets, as long as the production engages with the music, the words and the context in a meaningful way.

The real challenge, in my view, is presenting Handel and eighteenth-century drama at all in a twenty-first century theatre. It’s such an alien world. What do you do with the heroic aria and the contrapuntal chorus, the march, the lament, and the obligato organ cadenza?

You use your imagination and embrace the weird, that’s what. There’s plenty of weird and quite a bit of wonderful in the three and a half hour show, but Kosky masterfully sustains the attention, the drama, with cunning coups de theatre and crowd scenes so packed with detail that you don’t know where to look. The choreography — both the dancers and the chorus — is dynamic and surprising and the feel good highlight of the show. But perhaps even more compelling is the final act, where corpses twitch and moan as the last man standing claims his prize. In a show so packed with colour and movement, a chorus dressed in black, standing stock still, suddenly acquires a rare power.

I’m not a Handel scholar. I don’t know the ins and outs of his orchestration — Helyard’s version certainly involved unexpected tone colours which heightened the drama. There will be much in here for experts to argue about.

Let them. It’s a great show. SAUL_Glyndebourne,
Director; Barrie Kosky,
Saul; Christopher Purves,
David; Iestyn Davies,
Merab; Lucy Crowe,
Michal; Sophie Bevan,
Jonathan; Paul Appleby,
High Priest; Benjamin Hulett,
Witch of Endor; John Graham_Hall,

Saul opens the Adelaide Festival on Friday 3 March 2017. All four performances are sold out.

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Jolly good fellows, part 2

John Garran sent this to me as a comment but it’s too good a review to slip past as merely a comment. Especially as he has put into words pretty much exactly what I thought after the (same program) concert on Tuesday. In particular, who would have thought a four minute piece for side drum could be so utterly compelling, and who would have thought a double bass could make a melody sound so effortless?

Here it is:

Having followed the Fellows for a few years I wondered about the sense of expanding the program to include (OMG) brass and (my God) percussion. But while I was sort of convinced last year, this initial concert was quite extraordinary. The opening Stravinsky Fanfare joined Fellow Jenna Smith with SSO Principal Trumpet David Elton. It was a brief meeting of equals. Then the winds played some Francaix. Perhaps there were a few rough edges, but hell, they’d only been playing together a short while. It was musically sound and great fun. Then Sami Butler blew us all away with a fantastic display of virtuosity on the snare drum (and a few bits of wood besides). If this guy turned up at the door of the Australian String Quartet looking for a job they would surely have had to do some serious thinking about incorporating him into the team. Brilliant. The strings then got to showcase in Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. Sure, we’ve all had a crack at these, amateur and professional alike, but this was a bit better than most. Bridget O’Donnell took the lead with an assured and folksy style that set the scene beautifully. but this was perhaps to be expected: she has form, first with AYO, then last year with both the SSO Fellows and the Verbrugghen Ensemble. But this work gave both Martin Alexander the opportunity to display a wonderful round tone in his viola interventions, and some great work by Alanna Jones high on the fingerboard of her double bass. It was a pity the two cellos didn’t have a chance to display their wares. Their parts were pretty ho hum for the whole event. Lets hope they get an opportunity to show off later in the year.
After some competent brass and a solo Marimba work, everybody came together in a wonderful arrangement of two Brahms Hungarian Dances. While it would have been better in a dingy Hungarian dive, over a bottle of Egri Bikaver, the whole crew delivered a truly gypsy style that could only entrance. Bridget O’Donnell again shone through as Zigeunerboss, carefully adjusting the breathing spaces to suit, while of all the rest Kim Falconer on flute produced some memorable elements. Kim is this year’s AYO Principal Flute.

Can’t mention them all, but these guys are excellent and inspiring musicians. We should all watch out for their concert through the year.

What he said.

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Louder. Faster. Higher: with superior instruments, highly-refined technique and an audience avid for pyrotechnics, nineteenth-century composers were liable to be sucked into an arms race of virtuosity when writing concertos. Brahms certainly did his best. Apparently Wieniawski thought it was unplayable. Joachim, the dedicatee, coped.

maxresdefaultSo did Maxim Vengerov last night. More than coped. Owned it. But, interestingly, the most ear-catching moments for me were not the flawless cascades of notes, the thrilling sprays of double stopping, but the way he found the shape and sense of the melodies. Like in the final movement, where he tuned into his inner gypsy, snatching a microsecond of air at the top of the phrase, and inspiring the orchestra to imitate him. Or riffing on a mystery where-was-that-from phrase in his first movement cadenza. Or graciously picking up the melody offered, for consideration, by the oboe in the second movement. Making the unplayable make sense.

9-sso-in-concertThe Brahms was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5; a real wham bam of a season opener. Except that it was more like w-whamba, wham, baba bam. No, that’s being cruel. But, after a month’s holiday, the orchestra did sound like it had, well, been on holiday. Nothing wrong with individual lines: the strings were sweet and lush, the wind soloists immaculate and the trombones rasped tunefully…  But put it all together and things got fuzzy at times. Robertson’s tempi – sometimes daring, but not unreasonable – often took a while to take. And about those trombones. I like a trombone as much as the next person, but their tuneful rasp just felt like it was dominating the orchestral texture.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a great concert by a great orchestra. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But in the age of louder, faster, higher we are promised earth-shattering spectacularity, night after night and, honestly, last night it wasn’t quite there.

Which is great, because I know I have much more to look forward to in their 2017 program.

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Read and write

This is the first of an occasional series of interviews with fellow writers. Not necessarily about music, not necessarily about the yarts, but always about Art.

For the last two years, after more than a decade of writing reviews (350 words or less) and marketing copy (25 words is my forte) I’ve been trying to crack longform. You may well have heard about my book on Dartington Summer School – goodness knows, I’ve gone on about it! — but you probably don’t know about my fiction addiction. I’m still to crack New York Times bestseller list — you have to get published first, apparently — but I’m working  on it.

img_20160313_132359Which brings me to Shona Kinsella and her first novel, Ashael Risingwhich has just been published with Unbound. I met Shona via the Unbound Social Club, an essential online gathering space for fellow Unbounders. If you’ve ever crowd-funded anything you’ll know how agonising a process it is, but the camaraderie and idea-bouncing has been an unanticipated delight. Which is why I’m delighted to share with you a q and a with Shona about writing, getting published and, one of my all-time favourite pastimes, telling stories.

First, about you. How long have you been writing? 

I wrote short stories and (bad) poetry when I was young but I’ve only really been writing seriously since around May 2014. I did everything backwards and accidentally. I basically stumbled into it all. I’ve always wanted to write a novel; it’s been on my bucket list ever since I saw the film Bucket List when I was about 15. I didn’t actually do anything about it though. Then in May 2014, I was approved to take a career break to care for my children and my husband and I were joking about what I would do with all of my ‘free time’ and he said I could write a book. The idea stuck with me so I read a few books about writing and then sat down at my laptop one day to give it a try. Needless to say, it worked!

How did you come across Unbound? How are they different from, say, a trad publisher or, for that matter, a self-publisher?

I first learned about Unbound when Scott Pack, one of the editors, wrote a piece about them for The Guardian. I was really intrigued by their approach. The company was set up by three writers who felt that publishing was getting too closed – increasingly celebrity writers and TV tie-ins are crowding the market and trad publishers are reluctant to take a chance on new writers or even established writers trying something new. By crowd-funding the books, Unbound establishes that there is a readership for the book before it gets published. It lets them take risks that the big houses are unwilling to take.

Some people equate Unbound with self-publishing but it’s not that at all – although the author does the crowdfunding, you submit your manuscript for editorial assessment before being offered a contract, just like with a trad publisher, and Unbound’s standards are high.


Tell me a bit about Ashael Rising. Is this a story that has been in your head for a long time?

ashael-rising-coverAshael Rising is the story of an apprentice medicine woman in a hunter-gatherer society. Her people are at risk from the Zanthar – invaders from another world who extend their own lives by stealing the life-force from others. Ashael must discover who she really is to protect her people and ultimately her world.

The seed that grew into the book was an image from a dream I had many years ago, that ended with a warrior fairy flying over a desolate, war-torn land. There are no fairies in this book, but the image formed the basic idea. I’m what is sometimes referred to as a ‘discovery writer’ which means that I discover the story as I write it. I had only the vaguest notion of what it would be when I started.

Ashael has a lot of me in her but also a touch of the warrior fairy from the dream! Again, I discovered her character as I wrote, sometimes being surprised by her actions!

How did you go about building a world for her and your other characters?

This was more discovery writing. I know that some authors (especially fantasy authors) build a massive world and have maps and files and history before they even think about starting to write – I’m just about the opposite of that. It’s a bit like walking through a tunnel (the world) with a torch(the story) – I can see as much of the world as the story lights up and a little bit around the edges of that. Which is basically the long way of saying that I make it up as I go along!


What do you do when you’re not writing? And what are your favourite books?

I have three young children so when I’m not writing I’m usually doing something with them. Or laundry. They create a lot of laundry!

My favourite books are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’ve read the whole series several times and I know I’ll go back to them many more, I just love them.


Finally, what are your writing plans ongoing? Is Ashael Rising the start of an epic series? And is it officially released now? Have you had a launch party? (If not, why not!?)

I have my next three projects lined up. I’m contributing to and editing an anthology of stories by Unbound authors. All of the stories will have some connection to a library. I’m really excited to work on this. Next, I’ll be finishing a novella that I started in November, called The Longest Night. It’s about a tribe living in their equivalent to the arctic when the sun fails to rise after mid-winter. Finally, I’ll be starting on the sequel to Ashael Rising. Just now I’m planning a trilogy but because of the way that I write, it’s possible that I’ll discover more story and it’ll turn out to be a longer series!

Ashael Rising has been officially released now and can be purchased here: http://bit.ly/ashaelrising

As for a launch party, I’ve had a small family celebration with a nice meal and some Cava but not a full party – mostly because I have an 8-week-old baby so I’m too tired to party right now!

You can connect with me at:

Blog: www.shonakinsella.com

Twitter: @shona_kinsella

Instagram: shona.kinsella

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ashaelrising/

Many thanks to Shona for taking time out from writing and laundry – I am in awe of someone who can string a sentence together while having young children — and can’t wait to read more!



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Flashback Friday

Here’s another feature in my occasional flashback series, from ten years ago, when the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presented Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. 

It was the perfect disguise. Discreetly homosexual, an animal-loving pacifist and, doubtless, on first name terms with the vicar, England’s most famous composer inhabited a world of tweed jackets and tennis, cucumber sandwiches and cream teas. But, says Australian conductor and Britten scholar Paul Kildea, he believes Benjamin Britten to be one of the most subversive artists of the twentieth-century.


Benjamin Britten (l) and Peter Pears at Dartington in 1959 (photo: Catherine Scudamore, Summer School Archive)

“It was almost as though he was an undercover agent,” says Kildea. “He wasn’t a spy. But in effect he was an agent for left-wing thinking, an agent for anti-war. He did all these things behind the most perfect disguise, one of those middle-class English gentlemen who has tea with the Queen. He pulled it off amazingly. That’s where I think his radicalism is.”

Britten’s profound radicalism will fill the Sydney Opera House when Kildea conducts the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Australian Youth Orchestra and Gondwana Voices in his epic choral work, the War Requiem.

The War Requiem was commissioned to celebrate the consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry (UK) in 1962, the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the construction of the Berlin Wall. The new cathedral was built to replace a fourteenth-century church destroyed by German firebombs during the Battle of Britain.

Britten’s Requiem, like Mozart’s and Verdi’s before, follows the Catholic mass for the dead, and even echoes their stirring choruses, but Britten, who was a pacifist from boyhood and conscientious objector during the Second World War, intersperses the Latin text with poems by Wilfred Owen, writing from the battlefields of the First World War. Therein, says Kildea, lies the key to the work, and to Britten’s attitude to war.

“He lures us in by using the great nineteenth-century traditional requiem with God in the clouds, an all-powerful man with a beard,” says Kildea, “and then, once people are there he brings in these deeply, deeply nihilistic poems that criticise a Christian society that can allow war to happen, that can send young soldiers off to their death…”


A young Simon Rattle conducting the War Requiem at Dartington in 1976 (Photo: Charles Davis, Summer School Archive)

Kildea hopes to add another edge to the pathos by his choice of performers. The work is sometimes considered the territory of the ‘grand old men’ of English music, but Canberra-born Kildea, who spent several years as head of music at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, plans to take it to a new generation. Sydney Philharmonia’s performance will feature the acclaimed Irish soprano Orla Boylan, tenor Allan Clayton and baritone Ronan Collett, soloists who are all more or less the age that Wilfred Owen was at the time he was writing his poetry. The men will stand before the Australian Youth Orchestra like the two soldiers, one German and one English, in Owen’s Strange Meeting, to sing:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now…”

It is a moment almost guaranteed to send shivers up and down the spine.


But can art change things?

“It has to, and ultimately I think it does,” says Kildea. “But only because it prompts people to think. Everytime I’ve done [the War Requiem] there’s been this extraordinary stunned silence. It would be far better if no-one applauded, if everyone just crept out with their own thoughts. Conventions dictate that people must applaud, but that minute of silence before anyone makes a noise or moves seems to indicate that people are left with their own thoughts about love and war and destruction.”

The photos I’ve used here will be part of a book I’m currently working on called ‘Sanctuary’. It’s crowdfunding right now at Unbound, and I’d love you to take a look. 




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Haydn Seek

Sorry. I couldn’t resist it. Silly Season. It’s just that every time I go to see an Australian Haydn Ensemble concert — and it’s getting more regular as I get more hooked on their particular brand of bounce — my husband comes up with a new ‘Haydn/hiding’ dad joke. There. I’ve done it now. Out of my system.

Anyway, back to the Utzon Room and the last concert of the year for the afore-mentioned AHE, with guest director and soloist Erin Helyard. A big turn out, and a (relatively) big orchestra taking on the Sturm und Drang of the late eighteenth-century. Helyard describes the sturmunddrangers as the angry young men of their time, artists intent on shaking things up, scaring the horses.

440px-cpeb_by_lc3b6hrLooking at his stolid, white-wigged portrait, it’s hard to imagine CPE Bach as a renegade, but listening to his Harpsichord Concerto in F major, written in 1772, you get a whole new view. Especially when it’s played with the raw energy and punchy attitude of this ensemble. That’s not to say it’s at all lacking in polish: AHE have pulled their intonation and sound quality together dramatically over the last 18 months. Yesterday was the best I’ve heard them. The rawness was all deliberate, all in the performance. Led by Helyard at the keyboard, the ensemble gave us CPE’s concerto in all its edgy, obstinate difference. No, let’s not finish that phrase, even though a hundred years of harmony is begging for it. Yes, let’s hang onto that note for a bit longer. Even longer. Even though it’s sticking out like a sore thumb. As anyone who’s tried to un-learn a habit can confirm, it’s quite hard to play in a deliberately angular manner, without phrasing off, without vibrato to give that note a final polish. To do it consistently, and as an ensemble, is even harder, but the ensemble brought out all the delicious oddness. Meanwhile, Helyard added lashings of spidery virtuosity at a fearless but never rushed pace.

Before that, CPE’s Flute concert Wq. 22 in D minor, an earlier work, and less torrid but, in the hands of soloist Melissa Farrow, no less compelling. Farrow has a way of making the end of her phrases hang in the air, ready to connect with the next idea, ready to build into one splendid arc, like a brilliantly written novel that you can’t put down. It also helps that  the sound coming from ‘Blondie’, her natural boxwood flute, a Martin Wenner copy of an August Grenser original, is unfailingly lovely.

Book-ending the concert, two ‘sinfonia’, one from CPE and one from Papa Haydn.  La passione, as Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 is known, brought everything good about the performance so far together: the sustained, mind-spanning phrases, the mercurial mood swings and the impressively consistent quality of sound. Even through the intensity of the first movement there was a wiry tension, a momentum and once they hit the allegro spirituoso the motor rhythm powered on through with an invigorating vitality. One of those moments when you think 2016’s not all bad.

Many thanks to the Australian Haydn Ensemble for inviting me. If you like my blog, please support my book, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary! A pledge would be wonderful. I also accept social media shares, spreading the news by word-of-mouth, best wishes and chocolate.