A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Forward & Bach

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J S Bach is a poster boy for the power of limitations. A devout Protestant, his music was restrained within strict rules of counterpoint and an even stricter schedule of liturgical deadlines. But in spite of writing to order, using ancient texts, formal techniques and existing melodies, his motets unfold with a degree of invention that is, frankly, mind-blowing. Take, for example, the extraordinary Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, where Johann Cruger’s chorale is laid out, taken apart, transformed, across six verses, but never losing sight of the original melody. Or Komm, Jesu, komm, its intricate antiphonal writing equally affecting and energising, even as it conforms to its solemn statement of faith.

The Song Company’s latest tour, Forward & Bach, takes three of Bach’s Motets as pillars around which to arrange a clutch of new works commissioned from five Australian composers all starting, like Bach, from the chorale melodies of Martin Luther. The result is five works which duck and weave through the rich baggage of the liturgy, five highly individual voices which add new layers to an ongoing tradition.

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Matthew Hindson embraces the broad theme of musical limitations most overtly. His Saviour of the Heathens, dedicated to outgoing Chair of the Song Company, Penny Le Couteur, experiments with a musical algorithm as groundwork for a spare, slightly ghostly meditation. Paul Stanhope‘s De profundis is a more muscular work, carving out great chunks of vocal sound interspersed with passages using the mathematical transformations of Bach and before to create a slick and fascinating mini-drama. In Ein Feste Burg Brett McKern also references the tricks and tools of baroque counterpoint, but then, starting with a slippery basso continuo, subverts their assumed predictability, sliding into new sound worlds.

1 Ella Macens Stavi Stivi, Ozolin and Andrew Batt-Rowden’s Out of the Deep step a little further from the tree. Although they both start from Martin Luther’s “Out of the Deep I Cry to thee”, Macens adopts a new text, adapted from a Latvian folk verse. Stave Stivi, Ozolin describes a great oak tree which stands, unflinching, accepting, as a great storm threatens, arrives, then passes, leaving the tree still there. First developed at the Gondwana National Choral School earlier this year (led by Paul Stanhope), it is an exquisite, assured piece of choral writing which reveals an exciting new voice. By contrast, Andrew Batt-Rowden‘s Out of the Deep is perhaps the least assured, but that’s not to say it’s any less effective. Batt-Rowden comes to the text as an outsider, a non-believer, and a contemporary sound artist living in a relentlessly chilling modern world. As such, he strips away the comforting homophonies and predictable patterns, winding long, tense, strung out melodies and frantic cries into a strange, beautiful and deeply personal new thing.

The five new works and three motets are interpersed with works from the International Orgelbuchlein Project, organist William Whitehead’s collaborative homage to Bach’s unfinished Orgelbuchlein (Little Organ Book).

Of course, none of this could work without the performers. The Song Company, along with guests Tobias Cole, Richard Butler, Jessica O’Donoghue, Neal Peres da Costa and Daniel Yeadon, dive fearlessly into new musical realms and deal with the intricacies of Bach with commitment and intelligence. Meanwhile, Antony Pitts directs with a calm, ‘less is more’ approach to the mind-boggling complexities, exuding faith in the skill and wisdom of his extraordinary team of musicians.

You can catch the Song Company in Forward and Bach at Deakin Edge, Federation Square in Melbourne on 13 June, Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle on 15 June, the Independent Theatre, Sydney on 17 June, St James’ Church, Sydney on 22 June and the Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra on 23 June.

If you’ve enjoyed this review please take the time to look around my blog and visit my book project, Sanctuary, now crowd-funding at Unbound. Many thanks to the Song Company for supplying tickets, and please support the arts by sharing the love. You could, for example, retweet this or share it on Facebook, you could link to my Unbound page and urge your friends to check it out. Best of all, you could buy tickets to a great performance and pledge to Sanctuary. #lovethearts

 

 

 


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A sort of memoir

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Music Remembers Me by Kirsty Beilharz

The Memory of Music by Andrew Ford

We’ve all experienced time travel. It’s called memory. Not the handy, short term stuff you need to function in every day life, as you hunt for your glasses or try to recall the name of the person walking towards you. No, I’m talking about the longer term stuff, those visceral, whole body experiences where your memories are multi-dimensional, multi-sensual — the feel of the grass beneath your feet, the scent of the madeleine. The moment you experience a different time and place with such intensity that the transformation is almost total – you really are there. Almost.

I expect we’ve also all experienced how music can be the key to the time machine. Like the way Elvis Presley singing ‘Return to sender’ still sends me rocketing back the 1970s, driving down a narrow country lane on the way to Slapton Sands, wriggly with excitement as my brother and I scan the horizon, wanting to be the first to see the sea. (I’ve remarked on it here too).

It’s serendipitous, then, that two books exploring the relationship between music and memory should land on my desk at the same time.

Kirsty Beilharz is a composer, designer, and maker. She is also Director of Music Engagement at HammondCare (Learning and Research Centre) and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh U.K., applying music research in the context of dementia and palliative care. Her book, Music Remembers Me, is intended as a guide to understanding how music can be used in caring for patients suffering from dementia. It’s full of insights, some of them practical — the best headphones to use, playlists to get you started, how and when to use music — and some of them profound. The how-to text (which bears its scholarship lightly but is thoroughly referenced) is interspersed with vignettes of real life stories of how music can transform. Stories of patients like ‘Bob’, who repaired his shattered sleep patterns and broken appetite with structured listening; or Marion, whose beaming face on the cover shows her reliving her time as a singer and dancer through her headphones.

Kirsty’s descriptions of hands-on experiences alongside her research make a strong case for how music can be a powerful tool for improving quality of life in dementia care but it goes beyond being an anecdotal ‘how-to’. As she addresses the various applications of music in detail she also explores the condition of dementia, and the affects it has, not just on the patient, but on the carers, on family and friends, and on the broader community. She prescribes music not as a blanket of comforting noise to be thrown over a difficult environment, but as a precision instrument which can be tailored to an individual’s needs. In short, it can help people be, when the very act of being is difficult.

On the cover of Andrew Ford‘s latest book, The Memory of Musicis a picture of a naked music box, its workings exposed. But of course, it’s more than a music box. It’s actually a time machine, with which Andrew takes us on a journey beginning in Colwyn Bay, Liverpool, and zig-zagging across time and space via Bradford, London, Sydney and the Southern Highlands.

Ford calls his book a ‘sort of memoir’, but he tells his story without fanfare or self-congratulation. The story is, instead, a good excuse to construct a fond and fabulous play list of a life. 1960s Liverpool hums to the sound of the Beatles, while South London rocks to Beethoven, Boulez and Bowie. If you’re looking for a traditional biography, this is not it: Ford lets the music take him on a myriad of winding side roads and historical tangents. After all, not knowing where you’re going when you step into the time machine is half the fun.

However, as the story meanders on, in the comfortingly chatty but erudite manner much loved by listeners to The Music Showit’s anything but pointless. Yes, Ford revels in the offbeat, offtrack observation, but his observations are never random. They are spotted, collected, inspected and then pieced together to form a personal world view which is much more than just a collection of reminiscences. Ford investigates his memories, his music, how it makes him feel, how it makes others feel, like a questing bloodhound, piecing together exquisite details and fragile links with all the skill of an artist. Or a composer.

Music is, of course, his constant companion and, on the way, he tries to answer questions about how it works. What is music? What does it mean? Can it be political? Why do I compose? Where do ideas come from? What is authenticity in music? Why do I like this, but not that? He’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t know all the answers.

The Memory of Music is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. If Ford is at first a faintly reluctant subject of his own story, he has by the end revealed much of himself — his views on religion, on war, on politics, on family, to name but a few. But, more than anything, he has made a passionate case for listening with a generous and open-minded spirit. As he says, “If you’re open-minded, open-eared, open-hearted, if you have a little faith, the music may speak to you.”

Hear hear to that.

 


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Storytellers


Seven Stories takes its lead from writer and journalist Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The theory is that all the stories of the world, from fairytales to grand opera, can be reduced to seven basic plots, namely, the Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation.

Try it. It’s fun.

Cinderella is Rags to Riches, Harry Potter is Overcoming the DarknessGotterdammerung is Journey. And Transformation. Or maybe Quest. Or Fatal Flaw. Hmm. Trust Wagner to muddy the water. But you get the general idea. Like many literary theories, there’s as much fun to be had finding the exceptions to the ‘rules’ as there is applying them. But as stimulus for a meditation on narratives, dialogues and archetypes, it’s rich in possibility.

A catchy premise, however, is just the starting point for Ensemble Offspring‘s latest creation. Stories need storytellers. And it’s not just the seven sound composers, each paired with an ur-plot, or the word composer, Hilary Bell, whose text picks up threads from the diverse works and weaves them together, or the image composer, Sarah-Jane Woulahan, whose swirling, cloudy visual gestures dance across the screen above the stage. No. These stories need real time storytellers too, and that’s the job of the seven piece ensemble whose job it is to deliver these seven nuggets of humanity.

I’ve written before about the impressive virtuosity of Ensemble Offspring, and I think it’s worth saying again. This is a group playing at a level where they can really perform.  What they do with their sonic resources — whether a cello, or an egg-shaker, or a voicestrument — is completely at the service of the story. It’s a joy to watch such a cracking band, engaging with the music, engaging with each other, engaging with the audience.

As for the work, it’s a fascinating example of many pieces making a whole. By luck or design, there is a satisfying consistency running through the seven works. Not homogeneity, mind. Individual voices come through loud and clear, from Amanda Brown’s edgy clockwork grind in Rags to Riches, to the playful, gritty invention of Caitlin Yeo’s Quest to Kyls Burtland’s dreamy but determined step in Journey. Like the unstoppable force of Sally Whitwell’s Fatal Flaw, or the unexpected transformation of Jodi Phillis’s Overcoming the Darkness. Every work uncovers new surprises, but they all retain a strong commitment – whether through catchy rhythmic patterning or harmonic cues (gotta love a modulation) — to drawing in the audience, settling us down, telling a story. They all play with us, as they should. They all explore the tension between narrative, dialogue and pure sensation.

Two that stand out are Jane Sheldon’s Transformation and Bree Van Reyk’s Comedy of Errors. Van Reyk’s three-part invention is a delicious riff on how to be funny. Of course,  a joke explained is usually no joke, but Van Reyk, in close collaboration with her performers, somehow manages to explore the anatomy of a gag without killing it. In fact, not only does she not kill it, she demonstrates that even though you’ve already laughed at an anticipated punchline, you’ll laugh again. And again. And again. Especially when the person delivering the punchline is Jane Sheldon, armed with a pneumatic car horn and a cheeky wink. It’s all timing, in the moment and in the architecture of the piece.

Finally, Transformation by Jane Sheldon who, up till now, has stayed on the interpreting side of the line. It’s perhaps inevitable, after working so closely composers to create new work over the years, that she is now creating work of her own. And why wouldn’t you? Jane’s is one of the most demanding pieces in the evening but, coming as it does towards the end, the audience are ready, listening closely. The changes they hear are subtle, tantalising even, drawing us into a deep engagement with the sound and the idea. This is what storytelling is all about.

I haven’t mentioned the visuals in detail, and that’s partly because there was so much to process on stage. Sarah-Jane Woulahan has put together an exquisite montage but in the end it is upstaged by the real time action, the sounds and words and brilliant performances. That, and the feeling that a key element of storytelling, for me, is the audience. The performers plant the seed, but the audience provides the space for the idea to grow and play. Perhaps imagination is enough.

This was a one-off performance of Seven Stories, but I’m confident that it’s not the last we’ll hear of these works. They are all strong enough to stand on their own, and as a whole it’s compelling, not to mention highly entertaining. Want more.

Thanks for reading this. Now go and read look at this. My book on Dartington Summer School of Music is crowdfunding at Unbound and I need you to support me! 


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Gender fluid

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Ashlee Woodgate (Calisto) and Allen Qi (Jupiter)

Elsie Egerton-Till, the director of the Conservatorium Opera School’s latest production, is just entering into the spirit of things with her smart and surprising take on Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. After all, the story already has an arch-male, Jupiter, disguising himself as Diana in order to seduce Calisto. Why not mix things up even more? Why not have men dressed in chiffon as part of the bride’s party, and women in suits with the men chorus?

The result is by turns confusing, entertaining and very much of its time. By which I mean now. We can’t know whether seventeenth-century Venetians would have had such a playful and lusty approach to story-telling — although I reckon it’s likely they would — but this production probably tells us as much about Sydney in 2017 as it does about Venice in  1651. Jupiter swaggers like a media mogul’s son. Pan huffs and blows like a Rhodes scholar on a beer binge. Juno struts and tutts like a nasty woman. We recognise these characters with wry laughter.

What is frustrating about this production is that, having crashed through the binary barrier, it didn’t then move on into what, for me, is the crux of La Calisto, that elision between love and  attraction and lust, regardless of gender or sexuality. Or, put it another way, the movement from a classical stereotype into something more nuanced, or perhaps more human. Some of the climactic moments musically are when we see, for instance, Jupiter realising he is in love with Calisto, or Diana torn by her forbidden desire  for Endymion (mirrored by the Linfea and Satorino subplot). Paradoxically, while Cavalli’s music created a little moment of stillness and insight, the action on stage felt stilted, caught between realism and symbolism. Likewise, in some of the bigger set pieces, the scale of the performances – the gestures, the timing of gags, the facial expressions – did not match affect of the music.

That said, there were some terrific performances from last night’s cast. Allen Qi, as Jupiter, had a fine baritone and a good sense of comedy, while Joshua Oxley, as Pan, combined in-your-face obnoxiousness with a strong and agile tenor voice. Jia Yao Sun, as Diana, sang beautifully but lacked a certain presence. Aimee O’Neill, by contrast, was a force to be reckoned with, dramatically, but did not always manage to control her voice. It is, however clearly a powerful instrument and with great potential. Next stop, Queen of the Night?

Rebecca Hart, in the pants role of Endymion, sang with touching emotion, matching the restrained performance of Jia Yao Sun. Meanwhile, Robert Adam, in the frock role of Linfea, and his would-be lover, impishly played by Sitong Liu, stole the show with their playful negotiations and vocal clarity.

Ashlee Woodgate gave a promising and, at times, genuinely lovely performance in the demanding title role, although her mask slipped, as did her pitch, across the evening.

In the pit, the Early Music Ensemble, directed by Neal Peres Da Costa, toiled away heroically through Cavalli’s long passages of recitative, always sensitive to the needs of the stage, but making a fine sound, rich with the textures of pluck, blow and bow, in the orchestral interludes.

You can catch La Calisto on Thursday 25 May at 11.30am and Saturday 27 May at 2pm in the Music Workshop at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 


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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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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!