A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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I’ve moved!

Where next?

The powers that be have decided that this blog needs to shift to another web address. No major changes in content, just from now on all new posts to this blog will be found at www.acunningplan.com. If you’ve got my blog bookmarked, I hope you’ll update the address. (The easiest way is probably to click on the new address then put your email address in the ‘subscribe’ form on the right hand side of the screen, under the Twitter feed. I promise it will only be used to notify you of new blogposts here.)

As with all moves, things might be a bit topsy-turvy for a while. Please bear with me while I go over the links making sure everything still works, and do let me know if there are glitches by emailing me at harry at acunningplan dot com, or messaging me in Twitter @harryfiddler or carrier pigeon or whatever.

Best wishes


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A Day in the Life

It’s the last night at Dartington Summer School week 2, and I’m typing this as I listen to the sounds of the Ceilidh in the Great Hall. (Ceilidh. Brilliant solution to all those middle-aged “I don’t disco” loonies who still like to shake their wobbly bits.) Given that I’m heading for the real world tomorrow, thought I’d jot down a day in the Dartington Summer School life…

6.30am Alarm goes off. Yes off. (Why was it ever on?)

7.55am Bugger. Fell asleep. Time to get up.

8.00am Tai Chi with Joe on the lawn. Spend ten minutes thinking ‘Why am I waving my arms pretending to fly like a pigeon?’ and another 20 minutes thinking, ‘Wow, this is so relaxing, I have found the secret of life, the universe and everything…’

8.30am Breakfast. The smell of floor polish and burnt toast is like Proust’s madeleine to me. Vow to eat more fruit and less bacon tomorrow.


Writing colleagues waiting for the key to the Playhouse. An idyllic writing retreat if ever there was one…

9.00am Gather stuff for first class of the day, Crime Writing with James Runcie. Not your average Summer School class, it has to be said. There’s six of us in the Playhouse, discussing the finer points of character and motive. Actually, to be honest, mostly talking about how interesting people are, how strange we are, and how it could be a great story…

10.45am Coffee

11am  Hike to Aller Park with violin. I swear it was about 2 miles when I was younger. It’s now about 2 metres. The biggest obstacle is the gate into the field, which is not big enough to get through if you have a viola and a backpack. (It’s OK. We rescued her eventually.)

IMG_3482Chamber music at the Summer School can be hit and miss, but that’s part of the fun. You might be the best, you might be the worst, you might end up playing obscure piano trios by little-known-for-good-reason composers. Happily for me, this week’s group has been outstanding: we all share the keep-going-at-all-costs ethos, and we all play in tune. Dochnanyi, Shostakovich, Elgar – it’s a feast!

12.45 Lunch.

2pm. Naptime.


2.05pm  Recorder ensembles begin. Naptime ends. A walk in the garden, a few words written.

5.15pm The early concert – sometimes a student group, more often a brief showcase from teachers or visiting artists. I sneak into the private garden and listen from outside.


6pm Dinner

7.30pm Time to bag a seat for the main concert. Tonight it was the end of week jamboree, the Big Choir and Baroque Orchestra performing Handel’s Samson. It’s a choir of allcomers but the director, Laurence Cummings has whipped them into shape for a genuinely gripping performance.IMG_0851

10.30pm Drinks at the White Hart. Hugging and passionate farewelling begins.

11pm Ceilidh in the Great Hall. 100 revellers creating the closest thing to tropical heat you can get in Devon in summer.

12 midnight Retire wounded. Consider setting an alarm. Fall asleep.


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Musique Cordiale

seillans-back-dropTrains, planes, automobiles and 48 hours of travelling, but I’m finally on the other side of the world. At least, my body is here. I think my brain is still trying to catch up. I’m here for what is becoming an annual trip to see family, do some research and, hopefully, recharge a little. This week’s recharging is brought to you by Musique Cordiale, a two week festival based in Seillans in Provence.

It’s a busman’s holiday for most of the performers, who range from principals from UK and European orchestras to young artists and an academie of students, studying with Leon Chilingirian, of the Chilingirian String Quartet. It’s a busman’s holiday for me too — I’m playing in the orchestra and writing words about music. Warning — it’ll probably be a bit impressionistic, not to say indulgent. I mean, it’s the South of France, and I’m on holiday. But I’m also thrilled to get to hear (and play with) some new voices. Just today, there was Isabel Pfefferkorn, a young mezzo-soprano who is singing Berlioz’s Nuits d’Ete, and Jonathan Martindale who, besides leading the orchestra, plays Ravel’s Tzigane and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. 


Hope I don’t bugger it all up.

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A Tale of Two Musicals

Three years ago today I sat down to write a review of Opera Australia’s The King and I. The achingly beautiful production, starring ‘Australia’s Sweetheart’ Lisa McCune and ‘Barihunk’ Teddy Tahu-Rhodes, was the centrepiece of the 2014 Winter Season, an exquisitely detailed, sumptuously costumed reconstruction of the 1991 Broadway production, itself an homage to the 1956 movie – you know, the one with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. In fact, if you’ve seen the movie, you’re halfway there. Just update it to Sydney Opera House, 2014, with stunning live performances by, um, Australians dressed up as Siamese. Doing a 1991 show. Inspired by a 1956 movie. Set in nineteenth-century Colonial Siam. Yup. You see the problem? It was practically historically-informed performance.



Fast forward three years and I’m at The Book of Mormon, a curiously comparable musical which tells the tale of a nineteenth-century fellow “named Joe, living in the holy land of Rochester, New York…”  Yes, they’re talking about Joseph Smith, American religious leader and founder of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, aka Mormonism. We get to hear his version of history, including re-enactments of battles between Hebrew tribes who look like they’ve got lost on the way to the set of the 1959 film of Ben Hur. Unlike The King and I, however, we also get to meet some thoroughly contemporary characters, including an eager team of Mormon elders on an evangelical mission to darkest Uganda, and the AIDS-ravaged inhabitants who live in fear of the local warlord. The clash between the wide-eyed Disney “Hello” of the would-be missionaries and the lusty “Hasa Diga Eebowai”* of the Ugandan villagers sets up a series of delicious dichotomies which fuel the entire show.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow: you can read about the show here and here and here.  I loved the simplicity of the idea behind the opening number – the ring of a doorbell – and the all-out over-the-topness of the hell scene. “Turn it Off” is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and the climactic show-within-a-show, where the Ugandans put on a performance for the visiting Mormon executive, is so wrong it’s right. (Don’t fuck the baby, Joseph!**) Although Elder Price and Elder Cunningham frequently steal the show with their power songs, it’s an ensemble piece, the many doublings and quick changes fooling you into thinking it’s a much larger cast. Likewise, the staging is endlessly inventive, making much of little. No gasp-inducing special effects or high-tech set pieces here. Ultimately, the whole thing revels in the power of make-believe. Whether you classify religion, or dreaming or, for that matter, theatre as make-believe is for you to take home and think about.



The Book of Mormon is a show which not only hijacks and pays homage to the musical genre, but also takes it into new territories. Unlike the so-right-it’s-wrong glitter of The King and I, Mormon addresses the past but also asks the difficult questions which, in the twenty-first century, a thinking audience has to ask.  It’s not achingly beautiful, or exquisitely-detailed or sumptuously-costumed (although the painted backdrops look like they’re filched from 1950s Hollywood and the outfits in Creepy Mormon Hell are dazzling.) What it is is exuberant and iconoclastic and humane and touching and depressing and inspiring and screamingly funny, often all at the same time.

In other words, it’s all the things I go to the theatre for: to laugh and cry, feel and think. It’s… It’s a metaphor.***

*Google it. This is a family blog.


***You have to see it.



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Men in Hats


You don’t need to wear a hat to sing, but it clearly helps. Most of the time.

Well, some of the time.


Most of the time.

And the hats are great. The hats, and the beards.

But I know the hats aren’t the whole secret because they come off occasionally – sometimes on purpose, sometimes involuntarily — and it doesn’t affect the singing. (The beards stay on. Except for those who don’t have beards. They lose the hats, but their beards don’t stay on, because they don’t have beards.)

I could go on… But I won’t, because I’m not male, I don’t have a beard and I’m just not as, well, spooky as the Spooky Men’s Chorale. And even if I was, if I did, if I were, I wouldn’t be as good at being spooky as this sixteen piece male a cappella choir.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale, under the direction of Stephen ‘spookmeister’ Taberner, is a vocal ensemble with a strong sense of pitch and an equally strong sense of the absurd. Taberner’s humour derives from the dead-pan school of comedy, mining the comic potential of a cognitive mismatch between what you say and how you react. Touching, acute observations are his forte — like his riff on the glum-looking man in row 17, who is fundamentally happy, but forgot to tell his face — as are wandering digressions (see above). But the funny – and fascinating –  thing is that how this approach plays out both in words and in music.

The opening number, for example, which starts as a soundscape of random noises. A tongue click. A sudden ‘oy’. A ripple of ‘huh?’s. There’s no hidden meaning, no grand plan or, at least, if there is it’s irrelevant. All you need to do is watch and listen, and in doing so you get gradually drawn into the spooky world. In anyone else’s hands it could be irritating or pretentious or twee. Here it’s just watching and listening. Which, it turns out, is a very fine occupation indeed.

Or the meta-drama of ‘Welcome to the Second Half’, built on poetry from the School-of-the-bleeding-obvious. Except that during the song, something shifts, and we move from a silly song about silly singing to a contemplation of before, after and now.

Woah! How did we get from absurdity to existentialism in one easy, a cappella leap?

By being spooky, that’s how.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale embark on their first Australia-wide tour this month, to be followed in short order by a UK-wide tour. Previously a badly-kept secret of folk and fringe festivals, this time they’re playing mainstream venues more used to hosting chamber ensembles — Angel Place, Melbourne Recital Centre, London’s Kings Place and many more. Does their strange silliness stand up in a more formal concert situation? Speaking from last night’s experience, YES. It takes a while to get the audience at Angel Place going, but by the end they are literally dancing in the aisles. So when the posters go up at venue near you don’t delay. Chuff along and get your tickets for admission in the spooky brotherhood. Beards preferred but not compulsory.

And after you’ve done that, chuff along to see my book page, http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, where I’m crowd-funding a pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music and see if you feel moved to pledge, share, or tell all your friends about this worthy project. I’ll be eternally grateful. 

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Of space and time

philharmonia-choir-fb-panel-2048-x-791-01-bachSt Matthew Passion — #mattpash to friends — is a rare treat, so it was great to hear Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presenting the work at the Sydney Opera House yesterday. There’s a formal review going in the Sydney Morning Herald, and here are the leftover ramblings.

** But first a newsflash ** As of today I’m starting the big push to get my book, Sanctuary, now crowd-funding at Unbound, over the line by September. Please take a look, please share, please pledge! And please follow me on the social meejas to get news of random giveaways and bribes coming over the next few weeks. ** Thanking you in advance, now read on!**

Ramble the first: what exactly is this thing? It’s so comforting to think of music in terms of a grand Canon of Greatness, with Themes and Genres and Forms and other capital notions. It’s messy but much more interesting to me to consider the Great Composers as just composers, making it up as they go along. Hence this profound and multifaceted work which takes a pinch of opera, a dash of oratorio and a good dose of old-fashioned folk music to tell an old, old story anew. We are often taught to consider Bach an arch traditionalist and devout Lutheran, but this music is full of unexpected juxtapositions, magpie diamonds and dangerous questions. Can a Baroque composer be a postmodernist? For me it comes over like a docudrama, with our trusty reporter narrating while the cameras pan out wide to take in the crowd then zoom in to a close-up  of an individual – you can almost imagine their eyes filling with tears as they ask the very human, very dangerous question — Why?

Ramble the second: the program notes tell me that this might have been performed, Venetian-style, with choirs on either side of the church, and I wonder whether SydPhil experimented with putting choir/orchestra one and choir/orchestra two facing each other (with perhaps the treble choir in the middle). I’m assuming the arrangement they used was the most practical in the yawning space of the Opera House Concert Hall. As it was, Brett Weymark was already dividing his attention around a 270 degree span (bravo). I didn’t get any real antiphonal effect. In fact, the choral fantasies sounded wonderfully blended, with individual parts — the chorales, the fugatos — coming in and out of focus. That pomo camera work again…

Ramble the third: I’ve mentioned the soloists individually in the Herald review, and I ran out of space to lavish praise on the choirs but, suffice to say, they were clear, warm and prepared to the n-th degree. Their interjections — Who? What? Why? — were brilliantly crisp and their ‘Barrabas’ was chilling.

Most of all, though, I was charmed and hugely encouraged by the rainbow of sound coming from the orchestra. The HIP-sters are here, and the Sydney Conservatorium’s Historical Performance unit is clearly bearing fruit, with well-respected scholar-performers now joined by their all-grown-up students. The cast of singers was expanded by an eloquent cast of solo instrumentalists, including  traverso flutes, (Sally Walker et al.), duetting oboists Alexandre Oguey and Matthew Bubb, and sterling work from the ace continuo team. All those new names — it reassures me that a new generation of musicians will continue to ask questions and make old new.

Ramble ramble blah blah. No more words. Thank you, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.





The New Critic: part 1

Caeli-Smith-Bach-e1473271016398Back in 2009 Musica Viva Australia asked me to take part in a music writing program called So you think you can write. They challenged audience members to write a review, and I had to give the entrants feedback and pick a winner. We structured it around a standard print newspaper format, so 350 words with 24 hours turnaround.

How things have changed! I’m still writing for the Sydney Morning Herald but the physical space – real, dead tree paper, I mean — allocated to classical music reviews has shrunk right down. There is one slot per week, on a Saturday, to cover the gamut of classical music in any given week in Sydney.

It’s not ideal. Light years from ideal. But since the New World Order came in, about twelve months ago, I’ve radically changed my review routine and, in some ways, it’s for the better. I now try and get to two performances a week, sometimes more, sometimes less, and to get something online on this blog within twelve hours. I don’t get paid, and I don’t get the readership of, say, the Sydney Morning Herald, but I do get some delightful responses and, more to the point, I get to listen to some of the great music-making going on in this city and to sit down afterwards, think about what I heard, and put my thoughts into words. I don’t limit myself to 350 words, and the writing can become a little loose, blackboardself-indulgent or tangential. Nevertheless, it’s a work in progress and It’s become an important part of my creative practise as I adapt to the rapidly changing media world.

You’ll see a few less reviews here over the next month, and a few more at the Herald, because my esteemed colleague is having a well-earned break. But in the meantime, I thought I’d re-post the ‘how to review’ guide I wrote for Musica Viva, back in 2009, as a prequel to writing an updated version for the social media age.

So You Think You Can Write: the top 10 tips on writing music reviews

There have been many, many words written about music criticism by lofty figures in literature, and I’ve put some links to ones I find useful at the end of this. But, for what it is worth, here are my top ten tips for writing reviews.


Listen to the music. Really listen. Anyone can let the music waft over them – indeed, it’s one of life’s great joys — but if you are going to write about a performance you need to practise active listening. It takes concentration but the great thing about active listening is that it is so rewarding, both for the audience, and for the performers. You can feel it when an audience is really, really listening, and it can be a terrifically exciting moment. Of course, if the music sends you to sleep, that might also say something about the performance!

Listen to yourself. It’s amazing how many people say, “I couldn’t review: I don’t know anything about music.” And yet, these same people will go to a concert and talk with animation and great insight about how a performance made them feel. A review takes this reaction a step further by asking what it was about that particular performance that produced that particular feeling. It doesn’t have to be scientific; just articulate, considered and your own.

Tell a story A review is not a scorecard, nor yet a blow-by-blow account of what happened. Like any good story, a review will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It might mention every piece, but not necessarily. It might mention the hall, or the program, or the performers. It might even mention the audience. The trick is to use these elements to build a succinct and interesting account of your reaction to the concert.

Beware of adjectives This doesn’t just apply to reviews! Adjectives can be a writer’s best friend, but they can turn into their worst enemy. Piling on the purple prose might make you feel like you are getting closer to the heart of the music, but it slows down the story. There are many ways to describe – through verbs, similes, or even the rhythm of the prose.

Be accurate. If this is too obvious, I apologize, but nothing is more dispiriting to a performer, and nothing more delightful to a picky reader, than spotting a factual error in a review. Check the program (which is usually online), check the spelling of the artists’ names, call the presenter, phone a friend, but don’t publish something – and posting online counts as publishing — if you’re not 100% sure of your facts.


Be mean. Writing a review puts you in an unusual position – you are passing judgement on a performance you could almost certainly not do yourself. It is not about pulling your punches, but do always respect the skill of the artists and the long journey they have taken to get where they are. Most importantly, if their performance disappoints, try to analyse why. It might not necessarily be wrong notes or poor ensemble. What was missing?

Be obscure For the purposes of this exercise, let us assume you are writing for a general audience. Your readers may have been at the concert but it is much more likely they were not. They may follow classical music avidly, or just be interested in the arts. No need to dumb down, but a discussion of the finer points of Sonata Form is for a program note or musicological essay, not a review.

Be trivial ‘Write about the band, not missing your train home,’ says Alex Petridis of The Guardian. He’s spot on. Your evening might be coloured by the terrible traffic on the bridge, but that’s the kind of detail which sits best in a personal diary or facebook page. We want to know about the performance.

Worry. Don’t worry about your musical knowledge or lack thereof. Don’t feel you need research your subject to the n-th degree. If you were there, you listened and you had a reaction, you have the basic ingredients for a review. Now tell the story.

Be late I’m not talking about being late for the concert, although struggling to get your breath back through the first movement or, worse, having to wait outside the door is never fun. I am referring to your deadline. A music critic can be insightful as they like, but if they do not deliver their story on time (and to the correct length), it won’t get published. The So-You-Think-You-Can-Write brief is up to 350 words, 48 hours from the start time of the concert. Good luck.

Further reading:

Every would-be writer – in fact, every writer full stop — should read George Orwell’s rules on writing good English at least once a year.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

From ‘On Politics and Language’ by George Orwell, in its entirety here.

Closer to home, Yvonne Frindley, who writes about music for Sydney Symphony and many others, has much sound advice and reflection on good writing about music in her blog, Thomasina’s Last Waltz. Start here.

Finally, there’s nothing like reading good writing. You will have your own favourites, but Alex Ross (author of The Rest is Noise and critic of the New Yorker) has lists many music critics in the US. Seek inspiration here.

And if you’ve made it this far, one more link: http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary. It’s Sanctuary, my book on Dartington International Summer School, and it’s going to be fab, if it gets off the ground. You see, in keeping with this Brave New World of media and publishing, Sanctuary is being published by Unbound, an amazing bunch of booknuts who have developed a new publishing house model. Take a look. It’s quite cool. And if you’ve found my top ten tips helpful, please return the favour by sharing my project on social media or in real life, and pledging to help make this book reality!

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The Chancellor’s Garden


0806129166-sculpture-in-the-parkThe Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra raised the roof of the Verbrugghen Hall last night at their first concert of the year, the Chancellor’s Concert. Under the baton of Maestro Eduardo Diazmunoz they performed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Gordon Jacob’s Flute Concerto (with soloist Breeanna Moore), alongside the world premiere of Olive Pink’s Garden by Anne Boyd AM.

Olive Pink’s Garden is scored for large orchestra and a concertante trio of alto flute, marimba and harp, so a huge range of tone colours to play with. Boyd also makes the canny decision to limit her harmonic material to a tower of fourths. I say ‘limit’ but, as she explains in her program note, the tower is tall enough to encompass the 12 pitches in the chromatic scale, and she uses them all, sometimes even in the form of a 12-tone row. Plenty of dissonance, then, plenty of harmonic scrunch, but judiciously orchestrated – the marimba and harp are crucial here, and the alto flute provides the horizontal line – so as never to slump into a muddy welter of sound. And this dissonance is balanced by a regular return to the aural comfort zone of the pentatonic scale, which somehow immediately evokes big landscapes and ancient refrains. It walks a tightrope between designed chaos and instinctive patterning. Like a garden in the desert.

Olive-Pink-PhotoSandwiched between the Boyd’s brand new work and Stravinsky’s brand old work, Gordon I’m-no-modernist Jacob’s Concerto for Flute sounded almost absurdly anodyne. Not that it was bad. Breeanna Moore was a fluent and occasionally brilliant soloist, and the Con’s string ensemble accompanied her with stylish delicacy. Compared to its punchy neighbours, however, the work seemed polite and pale.

The Rite of Spring is best heard live, and played by a top orchestra under a great conductor – the AWO and Zubin Mehta, for example. But failing that, your next best option is a youth orchestra. In fact, in some ways, the Con orchestra’s performance had a significant edge on the pro version as the young musicians experienced the jolts and rifts, the panic and disorientation, the bone-shaking layers of sound for the first time. They played as if their lives depended on it, fortissimos crowding off the stage like an angry mob, rhythmic passages electric with concentration, and consistently fine individual solos. A gripping crack at Stravinsky’s wild stomp.

An afterthought – listening to Olive Pink’s Garden, I was struck by how assured and coherent Boyd’s writing for orchestra is, and found myself wondering why I haven’t noticed before. The answer is, of course, that I’ve never heard any other orchestral works by her. After the performance I asked her about her other orchestral work and she gave that me I’m-trying-not-to-roll-my-eyes look before saying that there wasn’t much to hear, because very few women, and even fewer Australian women, enjoyed regular commissions. Black Sun, composed in 1989, remains her best-known work for orchestra.

It’s a shame and, more importantly, a missed opportunity, because the ways Boyd works with these thick slices of sound, the ways she organises her harmonic and melodic material, and the ideas she plays with are profoundly eloquent.

Another afterthought – if you’ve read this far, you could do me an immense favour by clicking here and reading about my book, Sanctuary, a pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. Yes, it’s another bloody crowd-funding project, but it’s also a fascinating story and a labour of love. If you click, I feel good. If you share the link on your preferred flavour of social media, with words of encouragement, I feel really good. If you pledge, you make me feel extra super very good, and you get to be part of making this book happen. Thanking you in advance.

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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.