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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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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…




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Murder & Redemption

Gush alert. Not really a review. More a colourful account.


Image: Sam Amidon. Photo by Ferguson


With Richard Tognetti ‘in residence’ at the Barbican in London, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s first tour is directed by Finnish fiddle player and long time ACO collaborator Pekka Kuusisto. With him comes Sam Amidon, another fiddler, guitarist and banjolier. Actually, I’m just going to call him a musician, because all this specificity is getting me down. In the same spirit, I’m going to call last night’s concert a top gig, because it hit all the marks for me. It entertained, it wow-ed, it seduced me, it made me think and made me grin from ear to ear. And that, I reckon, is a result.


Isn’t it weird how a banjo hold is just like a rifle hold? Music not bullets.

Murder & Redemption spliced together Janacek chamber music and American blue grass, minimalism and Messiaen, with an open-hearted enthusiasm which made it seem completely natural. Vast leaps of style, tonality, philosophy even, spanned without fuss by a stage full of brilliant musicians. Amidon is a disarmingly undemonstrative spinner of songs: indeed, there’s a delicious cognitive dissonance in the way his tales of love and death unfold.

“So I drew a revolver from my side / And I shot at the poor boy’s soul”.

As you do.

Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, in Richard Tognetti’s arrangement for string ensemble, was a perfect foil to this. No words, just feverish passages breaking out from the everyday tumble of Moravia dances.

Redemption came in the second half, with an all-too-brief solo set from Kuusisto and Armidon, followed by John Adams’ Shaker Dances. It’s a rare treat to hear improvisation – verbal and musical – on the City Recital Hall stage and even rarer to hear a violinist more often at the head of an orchestra accompanying a banjo. If you haven’t got tickets to Bruce Springsteen you might want to head to the Wild Rover tonight where, rumour has it, this dynamic duo are playing another set.

img_5575Back to the orchestra, and a gripping performance of Shaker Dances, with superbly enhanced sound by ‘a hairy gentleman called Bob’, according to Pekka “I’m Finnish so I can say anything” Kuusisto. The moment where the orchestra turned into an accelerating train was mesmerising, as was the searing intensity of the final bars.

An encore was inevitable. Few would have complained if they played all night. As it was, we got two works for the road. The road to heaven, that is, with Amidon’s traditional ‘O Death’ laying us down and the last of Messiaen’s Four Symphonic Meditations ushering us skywards.

This concert is repeated on Friday 10 at 1.30pm, Saturday 11 at 7pm and Tuesday 14 at 8pm at City Recital Hall, on Sunday 12 at 2pm in the Opera House, and on Monday 13 February at 7pm in QPAC (Brisbane). Highly recommended. For details click here.  

This is A Cunning Blog, a site for reviews, features and the occasional random musing from music critic and writer Harriet Cunningham. If you follow this site you’ll get notified whenever I post a review. If you want to know more about things I do, have a look at my portfolio or skip over to the enlightened publishing house of Unbound


mirabile dictu

mouseplayLast week I interviewed Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and co-founder of Spira Mirabilis. Yesterday I heard her play. It was a bit good*.

Borrani is in Australia as guest leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, filling in for artistic director Richard Tognetti, who is resident at the Barbican Centre in London this month. With them she does a national tour of “Beethoven’s Favourite”, a program including his String Quartet in C-Sharp minor, Op. 131 in a string ensemble arrangement.

The program opened with Borrani as soloist in Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1968). Schnittke, who at the time of writing was a member of the Union of Composers in the former Soviet Union, wrote this work in the state-required serial idiom. Theoretically. Apparently the tone rows are there if you want to do a structural analysis, but they are completely upstaged by the kaleidoscope of lush chords, soulful lines, spiky rhythms, fascinating timbres and, above all, a sense of serious play. A great match, then, for this questing soloist and her willing band. Notwithstanding the fact that her shoulder rest fell off just before the final cadenza, Borrani borranigave it a gripping performance** — the kind of performance where you forget she’s playing the violin or, for that matter, that you are listening to the ACO, and just get lost in listening.

The Beethoven is the culmination of the ACO’s year long exploration of his late quartets. A long and strange journey which has brought them to a very special place. From the opening phrase — on one violin, then many, then on viola, cello, and bass… — they projected an intense and coherent vision. I’m not just talking about well-matched articulation and phrasing, or tight ensemble. And I’m also not talking about playing as one: the sound was rich and full of complexity, a collection of individuals. What impressed me was the singularity of the vision: a feeling that they shared a deep understanding of this expansive piece of thinking. That, and the sustained nature of this vision: in a 40 minute work you expect an orchestra to let the reins loose every so often, and it’s not as if the work doesn’t invite this at times — it’s by no means all angst and counterpoint. But even in the lyrical second movement, or the playful finale, they maintained an almost palpable tension. Like holding your breath for 40 minutes. Very special. I hope they recorded it.

Between Schnittke and Beethoven they played a set of Schubert Minuets and Trios. Just a few little dances. Vienna in eight bar phrases. Extra Ordinary Schubert. Extraordinary Schubert. Seriously, though, what could have been an unassuming little filler was one of the night’s big revelations. In this collection of five minuets and six trios Schubert somehow manages to explore an amazing range of timbres and emotions, and all within the tight confines of a dance structure. The D minor trio, for example, where the first violins sounded like liquid gold; or the Minuet in C, bursting with character one moment, then disappearing into a passage so quiet that you wondered if you were imagining it. The band played like a dream, like the music was being invented spontaneously, fresh and new. I liked it.***

There’s one more performance in Sydney plus four more in Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne over the next four days. Richard Tognetti’s back for the ACO’s final tour for the year but in the meantime, the mice are playing magnificently.

*understatement #1

**understatement #2

***understatement #3

There’s more to read and explore at my author’s page at Unbound, where I’m crowdfunding a book on Dartington International Summer School. Do go and see! Do pledge! There are lots of rewards for supporters, not least the book, but also concert tickets, music criticism workshops and goodies from the archive.


Yesterday and today

160919-lezhneva-690x387I went to hear the ACO and Julia Lezhneva last night. It was quite something. The performers left the stage after the fourth encore. Fair enough. They probably wanted to get home, or have a drink. The audience would happily have stayed to listen all night. I could gush about phrasing and timbre and poise and fiddly-fast notes but my post concert tweet says pretty much all I want to say. screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-4-08-56-pm

I was however interested in a note in the program.

For these performances, the Orchestra will play on gut strings. We like the rawness, roughness and soft hue of the sound these strings produce. And the wind players will perform on copies of instruments from the time.

The pitch is compromised at 415 vibrations per second, which may have been used by some performers in the 18th century. We have little to no idea what the composers intended their music to sound like, so hereby offer you one notion of how it could sound today.

Roughly translated, “Don’t you dare pull the historically-informed-performance card on us. If you do, we won’t hesitate to ask to see your time machine”.

It’s an interesting point. Australian Chamber Orchestra has never staked its reputation on authenticity, whatever that might be, and Richard Tognetti has never claimed to be making scholarly editions when he arranges late Beethoven quartets for string ensemble.  Or Janacek, or Grieg, or Alice in Chains for that matter.

This is in sharp contrast to many other ensembles touting for business these days, where historically informed performance is a key part of the brand. Paris in the 1780s. Vienna in the 1830s. London in the 1690s. You name it, the niches are endless.

None of which I, personally, have a problem with, until it becomes a battleground. When musicians start waving baroque bows threateningly, and start muttering about someone else’s misplaced vibrato or pitch, it starts to get silly. The whole point of the HIPster movement is, surely, to seek meaning, and meaning comes in many flavours, whether it’s how a musician might have played a particular phrase in 1816, as compared to 2016, or what they might have been thinking about at the time. Frankly, if it finds some meaning which I can use in the here and now, I’m pretty happy. As the program writer of the ACO says, the main thing is ‘how it could sound today.’ Because until we get that tardis working, today’s all we got.

(And seriously, do go and hear this one if you can. There’s another performance in Melbourne on Saturday 15 October and the last night in Sydney next Tuesday. Details here.)





Timeline: how was it for you?

After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”


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A Night at the Circus

In a busy week in the South of England I managed to miss the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the Cadogan Hall, but I wasn’t too surprised to see that they got a rave review. Dead good band.

What I did get to was The Saturday Book, the 2012 show from Giffords Circus. It was a gorgeous summer’s evening on the common just above the ridiculously picturesque town of Marlborough, and there were little girls and boys running around with the sun in their hair and dusty bare feet. I suspect it was just the kind of scene Nell Gifford was thinking of when she dreamt up her traditional country circus.

We were ushered in by ladies in feathered head-dresses and Folies Bergeresque corsets. The big top was cosy, with a circus ring policed by an antique PC Plod complete with moustache and truncheon. The band dress code continued the cabaret theme, with an eccentric mix of stockings, garters and striped corsetry for the women, and hats for the men.

Clowning around on horses

Clowning around on horses

The show was an equally eccentric mix – music, song and dance, some well-worn pratfalls and a couple of excellent acrobat routines. There was a miniature talking pony (who couldn’t speak on the night I was there because he was – wait for it, wait for it – a little hoarse…) Ponymad Alex adored the big cob horses with backs like coffee tables, who cantered neatly around the tiny ring while people vaulted and bounced and balanced. Jester the dog joined in with ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’ (WOOF WOOF…) and Brian the Goose made a brief but memorable appearance.

Some acts were beyond eccentric. Nancy Trotter, the Pre-Raphaelite Girl, and her troupe of doves (Jupiter, Sybilla, Marie Anne, Antioch, Ray of Star, Greg, Moona, Pooch, Petroch and Peter) was quite, quite potty, a sort of emo-Edwardian interpretative dancer who also sang the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann (in duet with the trumpet player) in a low moan. Meanwhile the Godfathers, a four man acrobatic act from the Ukraine, were a highly satisfactory mixture of strong and agile and easy on the eye. Pat Bradford’s tap dancing – on hands and feet – was joyous and Tweedy the Clown did pretty much everything, including make us laugh.

Best of all, for me, was the band. Everyone seemed to play at least three instruments, and sing, and dance (and tightrope walk, and ride horses…) It was lovely to see loopy Nancy playing the French horn, and the French tightrope walker tucking into the trombone, while the usherettes also pulled out violins on occasion. And, I was assured, come nightfall they’d all be donning hard hats and high-viz vests to pull the whole shebang down, to get on the road to Devizes.

Many a young kid dreams of running away to join the circus. Nell Gifford really did. Now she’s made her own dream circus which brings together those very English traditions of music hall, panto and fairground curiosities. For the adults, the air feels heady with nostalgia for some fantastical past where Enid Blyton and Jane Austen wave to Sherlock Holmes in the street. For the kids, it’s strange and wonderful.

I’m so glad we went.


The eyes have it #3

Part 3 of my follow up to ‘Music to the Eyes’ in Spectrum at the weekend.

I’ve quoted Tim Calnin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra talking about the use of big screens to visually amplify an intimate performance in a large hall. But that is just one element of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s interest in Music + visuals style concerts. Like Rory Jeffes, he’s interested in an emerging genre of performance pieces which integrate music and vision to commentate, amplify, enhance the work, either as an add on (a la Bill Viola’s Tristan and Isolde) or from word go.

The ACO have been moving towards this with their Musica Surfica series. I have been known to suggest that this is the jammiest gig of all times – getting paid to surf and play music, two things which Richard Tognetti loves beyond all else. However, he has a serious aesthetic purpose, which is becoming more evident as the years go by. Over to Tim Calnin:

In the past we’ve done Luminous – the project Richard developed with Bill Henson – was a musical commentary on the photographic images. Similarly, with The Glide, it was a musical response to the images. What we’re doing this year is commissioning music and film  at the same time for The Reef. The work is taking place in May and June. Richard and Iain Grandage and a group of musicians and cinematographer, film director, camera crew, surfers are all going up to the Northern Coast of Western Australia. It’s going to be more like feature film length with a substantial amount of original music in there, augmented by some existing music from the ACO repertoire. That to me is a good way of trying to take the concept a bit further.

Calnin cites an example outside of ACO’s work which has caught his imagination.

Michael van der Aa is a relatively young Dutch composer who has integrated visuals into his scores. They’re properly integrated, so it’s not an add on. It’s not dressing up a purely musical experience. This is a visual dimension to the whole concept of the piece. I found it quite striking, in the sense of opening up this genre in a way I hadn’t previously imagined or thought about. There’s a fully produced film, the whole piece is about 30’ long. There’s a live performance with a solo cellist and a film that runs simultaneously.  I spoke to Richard about it because it is something that would be very interesting to look at doing, but also to be inspired by the development of this kind of form.

Final instalment, I promise, tomorrow…

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The eyes have it #2

Following on from my SMH article here and my previous post, here’s Tim Calnin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra talking about music and vision in classical concerts. First, there’s the use of the big screen to magnify a small stage presence, in the same way as you might do at a sports event. Look out, back desk of violas, you’re in close-up!

That’s something we’re doing with one program in particular at the Sydney Opera House. We tried it out last year. It was our smallest program – the Trout Quintet. At Angel Place that program will be absolutely wonderful, perfect environment. But at Sydney Opera House, a 2700 seater hall, the experience for someone sitting way up at the back of the balcony is going to be quite compromised by the scale of the venue. We wanted to see whether it would work, and what the reaction from the public was. So we tried it for the Schubert concert last August and surveyed the audience and we got a really positive response.

Peter knows what he’s doing. He can follow a musical thread from one instrument to the next, really making sense of it. It was intelligently directed content. And because it went down well with subscribers we are going to do it again for our smallest program in the Opera Hosue this year. In a way that’s a quirk of programming chamber music in a large hall.

The Peter he is talking about is Peter Butler, who is one of the gurus of music video directing. He has directed a zillion productions, including many of the Opera Australia DVDs. He directed the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert at the Sydney Opera House.

Film can help people hear structurally what is going on. What’s making that interesting noise? You open ears by showing people things. What’s more, unlike a rock concert, it is not personality driven. I don’t think anything on TV is as good as being there. Sport, ballet, opera, concerts – there’s a different vibe, it’s a different experience. But I do believe it should be hand in hand.

Peter is not a big fan of the montage concert – a music soundtrack with gorgeous photos as a backdrop.

I don’t think adding visuals to concerts is very successful. It turns the music into a soundtrack. Everyone has different imaginations. Even if it is really beautiful and well done, I resist.

So he’s obviously not going to be a big fan of this, a US photographer who has created packages of images and proposed programs, with all the hardware provided in one simple hire. James Westwater has even come up with a title for this genre: symphonic photochoreography.

Symphonic photochoreography is an innovative art form that engages audiences worldwide with evocative, multi-image photographic essays choreographed and performed live to selected works of classical music.

I particularly like the community-sourced photo presentation idea – quite, quite brilliant as a concept, although I agree with Peter Butler that I doubt it would serve the music. Danger, danger, heart strings will be tugged.

Next up, more from Tim Calnin and a look at the next step – fully integrated music/video compositions.