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 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.

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RYAN BONDY, A.J. HOLMES AND COMPANY (Photo: Jeff Busby)

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.

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RYAN BONDY, ZAHRA NEWMAN, A.J. HOLMES AND COMPANY (Photo: Jeff Busby)

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.

**Oops.

***You have to see it.

 

 


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Paris, 1780s

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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Favourite Things

Musica Viva Australia has just launched Sessionsa series of brief, one-off gigs in unusual places. The first featured violone and bass player Kirsty McCahon and percussionist Kerryn Joyce, performing in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens of NSW.

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Plants and music. Two of my favourite things. And with a glass of wine thrown in (or, in my case, thrown over – apologies to the various people I splattered) what’s not to like? While not everything worked  — there’s more than one reason why the Herbarium is a herbarium and not a regular concert venue — it was an auspicious beginning.

Challenging the traditional concert format also seems to be a favourite strategy for the mainstream music presenters. Early starts, late nights, short concerts, marathons, lights, cameras… We’ve seen music and image in the ACO’s thrilling Mountainthe SSO’s matey Playlist and Branden-backflippery, all in the name of art and audience development. And there’s ongoing play with interesting venues, ranging from Government House to Kings Cross carpark.

Sessions is a bit more artist focussed. Notwithstanding the intriguing venue and generous refreshments the real hook, for me, was hearing two musicians playing their favourites, and especially works which don’t get out much. Luciano Berio’s Psy (Forte barocco), a solo for double bass featuring ear-bending quarter tones, is unlikely to appear on a Classic 100 compilation, but it’s a work which seems deeply embedded in McCahon’s psyche. She plays it like she means it. She means it very well.

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Likewise Dedication by Ian Cleworth (who is the artistic director of Taikoz and has introduced a generation of Australians to the wonders of Japanese drumming), specially arranged for this solo performance. Joyce’s electrifying performance clearly demonstrated how much it means it to her. Her own composition, Recollection, was a great opener, introducing us to the bass violine’s range of timbres, and Robert Davison’s Melody for Julia was a winning display of good humour and collegial virtuosity. The artists’ introductions and lively repartee only increased the sense of being witness to something a little bit special. Not all the repertoire hit the mark, but with such dedicated performers    it was impossible not to get drawn in.

Other aspects of the new format might be fine-tuned: you don’t really need an interval when the program only lasts 60 minutes. You probably don’t even need another free drink, especially when access to the improvised bar is difficult. And while it’s great to be up close and personal, some instruments work better than others in an intimate setting, especially when they are either very loud or very soft. Finally, there’s the age-old problem of how to get people to leave the party when they’re having a good time. We were invited to stroll on out through moonlit gardens, which was persuasive, but not enough to make us want to cut short those fabulous post-concert conversations which are the icing on the cake of a good show.

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After the performance McCahon mused a little on the role of the double bass, so often pushed to the side or the back of the hall. She’s determined to reclaim centre stage, and to introduce audiences to the deliciously complex range of sounds this awkward instrument has. This was a near ideal format for the start of her campaign.

Musica Viva has not announced the next Sessions but watch out, because rumour has it the next one is being planned for early August.

 


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Picture perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last performance is tonight, Tuesday 20 June. 

 

 

 


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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

Con Opera La Calisto-8938

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.