A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Leave a comment

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. 

Leave a comment

Those British chaps

National identity is a funny thing. When you’re in it, you can’t necessarily see it. Which is perhaps why it takes someone from the outside to make the most insightful observations. For example, Australia’s own Paul Kildea is one of the world’s leading scholars on the music of Benjamin Britten, and it was Vladimir Ashkenazy who took it upon himself to present a festival of the music of Elgar.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that American conductor Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is the one championing a program of music from British composers. He makes a great case for them.

Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder is a mishmash of the orchestral interludes from his 1984 opera Higglety Pigglety Pop, based on the Maurice Sendak book of the same name. It’s great to see the SSO digging into this — new repertoire for them — with such commitment and energy. Knussen’s orchestration is beautifully judged, and Spano outlines the rhythmic complexities with clarity so that the orchestra can really dance.

The image of Jacqueline du Pre, head flung back as she is transported by the music, haunts Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Indeed, it’s a ghostly work, full of wisps of memories of fragments of meaning, with melodies that almost break under the weight of sustained emotion. Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh approaches its fragility with breath-catching poise, but her performance, for me, is a little too spectral, getting lost in the corporeality of the sympathetic but not unsubstantial accompaniment. Fade to grey.

krijgh_800x700__copyright_marco_borggreve-s-w1000-h750-q50-m1485833976Last on the program, the rarely performed Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s an extraordinary work, with its first movement’s series of ecstatic ephipanies, its sybaritic Romanza and eloquent Passacaglia. It’s not so much heart-on-sleeve as in-your-face. And that’s perhaps one of the challenges: to keep an eye on the overall architecture of the work without getting mired in scrunchy harmonies and lingering melodies.

Robert Spano was an excellent guide here, allowing the sound to bloom but still moving things along. And bloom it did, in glorious solos from, amongst others, Alexandre Oguey on cor anglais and Robert Johnston on horn. Above all, the strings were outstanding, resisting the temptation to over-indulge and giving VW’s intricate passage work crystalline form. The violins, in particular, under the leadership of Andrew Haveron, are sounding as good as I’ve ever heard them, and that’s very good indeed.

No space in the Sydney Morning Herald for this review, but look out for a review of Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Monday. And if you enjoy my writing, make my day by visiting Unbound to read more about my book on Dartington International Summer School, then share it, tell all your friends, and pledge. Bisous xxx

1 Comment

The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.


All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.


Leave a comment

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.




1 Comment

Bach to basics

Before reading this post, please take a few minutes to go and book tickets to one of the remaining four performances if there’s any way you can get there. You won’t regret it.

Done? Now read on.

Bach has a central place in the repertoire of violin players. You cut your teeth on the A minor concerto. Playing the Bach Double with your teacher for the first time blows your mind. You grow up with the Solo Partitas. So when you hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Bach Violin Concertos you can expect the music to be in their bones, the rhythms in their blood, the slow movements like one great sigh, from the heart. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how good this concert would be.

If ever a gig illustrated a killer strategy for making classical music sell, this one did. The strategy? It’s simple: be bloody good. You don’t need gimmicks when you play this well. You don’t even overt scholarship or extreme tempi or bells and whistles. You just do what you do. If you want details, there’s a formal review from me in the Sydney Morning Herald, but don’t go looking for incisive analysis because it’s a shameless gush, to be honest.

Not all performances can be this good. In fact, not all performances should be this good. Music-making doesn’t have to be a competitive event, and it certainly doesn’t have to be perfect. Every so often, however, it’s a treat to bask in the sheer bloody-goodness of JSB with ACO.

Further performances are on April 9 at 2pm, April 11 at 8pm and April 12 at 7pm, in Brisbane’s QPAC on April 10. Do go if you can. If not, It’s being livestreamed on ABC Classic FM at 2pm today, April 9, and then on demand at the ABC Classic FM website.

I promise I’ll sharpen my tongue next time…





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!

Leave a comment

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.