A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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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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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

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For the birds

The last few days in Sydney have been deafening. No. Not the lawn mower, the leaf blower or the incessant whinging of Sydneysiders (myself included) about the heat. No, the space in my brain reserved for listening has been filled by the feverish hum of cicadas, revelling in high temperatures and still air with explosive vigour, while we all lie around silently panting.

So with the promise of a cool change blowing through the sweaty streets it was good to swap insect-elation for birdsong in a tribute concert to Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, (1928-2016), presented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey.

Why do animals sing? Is it singing? Or is it talking, or signalling? Is it expressive on a macro level — a chorus of approval for ideal atmospheric conditions, or a mass panic at the apprehension of danger — or, for that matter, on a micro-level — ‘Hello. It’s me. I like you.’? Idle thoughts, perhaps, but hearing Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus – Concerto for birds and orchestra, Op. 61 (1972) got me pondering. The work opens with flutes and then clarinets in a long, liquid line — love your work, SSO wind soloists — which sounds at once organic and random. Is it an emulation of natural sounds? Is it deliberately avoiding a pulse or tonal centre, dodging the instinctive patterning of human-made music? Maybe, but then the real birds join in, field recordings of bird song. At first you second guess, what you’re hearing — is that another orchestral instrument, an unexpected timbre? But no, it’s a real bird call, and it’s going to out-sing anything going on on stage. The tension between recorded and live is delicate and delicious, and beautifully realised by carefully balanced dynamics. It makes me listen anew.

Two more recent works, Isle of Bliss (1995) and Symphony No. 7 Angel of Light (1994) completed the program and completed the audience full body immersion in Rautavaara’s sound world. And it could be like swimming, like drowning, a bit overwhelming at times, but for the precision conducting by Northey. His restraint delivered intense but not messy climaxes, brass passages which still maintained their individual instrument textures and crystalline solos from concertmaster Andrew Haveron and the principal cellist. (Also, shout out to second violins for their little big moment in the Symphony). And while this could have been performed with an enormous string section, the filmic underlay of sound produced from the reduced forces was refreshingly, transparent.

Good work. Home, with renewed ears for the orchestra of sounds in the velvety night.


Thank you to Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Festival for inviting me. And thank you to all those who have supported my book, Sanctuary, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. If you want to know more, just do the click thing. Let’s make this book happen!

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Voices of artists

Christmas. Carols. Joyful singing. Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid it. So I go with loving it, especially when the joyful singing is courtesy of Gondwana Choirs.

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Last night they gave their end-of-year concert, Voices of Angels, at City Recital Hall. It was everything an end-of-year concert should be: slickly directed, ably compered, with a quirky but seasonally satisfying mix of repertoire and, most importantly, fabulous performances.

Two days before I’d had the privilege of attending a carol service at my daughter’s school. Again, fabulous performances (under the direction of a truly inspiring music master) and lumps-in-throat a-plenty. But there was a key difference. There, the singing came across as a glorious expression of community, voices raised in song bringing us all closer together. But at Voices of Angels, while it was certainly a celebration of a vibrant community, there was an added element: artistry.

Lyn Williams, the artistic director of Gondwana Choirs, has long appreciated the power of the child chorister. As she says (in a podcast interview with Andrew Leigh last month), “A children’s choir is quite a different instrument, as a violin is to a cello, and it has its own special qualities. To me the children’s choir instrument has a great purity, a great power to communicate with integrity and honesty… It also gives children the opportunity to perform at a professional level.”

A different instrument. A professional level. So their voices have an unique quality which is simply not available to adult choirs. And the senior choir is not just jolly good for their age. They’re real musicians who can hold their own against the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Opera Australia, with whom they regularly perform.

Seeing the different levels of Sydney Children’s Choir singing in Voices of Angels laid this all out. We met the Senior Training Choirs, on either side of the stage, singing diligently but with the telltale drift of eyes, the restless wriggle of the under-tens. There were the Junior Performing Choirs, a fiercely attentive army of choristers singing independent parts with confidence. Then there were the members of the Senior Performing Choirs, the Young Men’s Choir and the Gondwana National Choirs, all on stage, all singing with a steely sense of focus, the music they wanted the audience to hear almost written across their faces. I looked at pretty much every face over the course of the evening. They were all so individual in the way that they were experiencing and communicating the music. So individual in their expression, yet blending into a seamless sonic whole. Finally, there were creators, the artists who dreamt up the tunes the choirs sang, and these included Samuel Feitelberg, a member of the Young Men’s Choir, whose impressive composition The Stars Around the Lovely Moon had its world premiere.

From fidgeting, to focus, to having something to say, to saying it.

I’m not going to break down the evening into works but I have to mention Lyn Williams’ eerie A Flock of Stars, Owen Elsley’s lively arrangements of ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’, and a tantalising whisper of a new commission from Andy Ford, a choral opera based on Peter Pan. And Sally Whitwell’s luscious ‘Lux Aeterna’, and Joseph Twist’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ and the magical beginning with Eriks Esenvalds Stars, complete with glass harmonics and penlights. And… And… All so good.

There’s no rest for the wicked, nor yet for Gondwana Choirs after tonight’s final performance. A quick Christmas break and then it’s on, on towards a grand choral jamboree at the end of January, their first Festival of Summer Voices. I won’t be able to go – my family break – but I hope can, because this is not just an expression of community nor yet a chance to see happy smiling faces on cute kids. It’s something very special. This is art.

Thank you to Gondwana Choirs for inviting me to Voices of Angels. If you like what I write here on this blog, do please check out my book, Sanctuary, which is crowd-funding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. I’d love your support, either financially or by sharing the news of my book on your favourite networks, social, media or other. Merry Christmas!





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.

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Review: SSO / Mozart at the Movies

This was written for Sydney Morning Herald but didn’t make it in due to space issues. Space. The Final Frontier. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Mozart at the Movies

City Recital Hall, February 6


3 stars

No heart attacks reported, but at least one lady in the audience jumped visibly last night when, from a whisper of a little tune the Sydney Symphony Orchestra pulled out a loud tutti bang. It was just the result Joseph Haydn had been looking for when he wrote some gimmicks into his Symphony No. 94 in G (Surprise) to get the London audiences of the 1730s talking, and just the thing to set the light-hearted tone of the first 2014 Mozart in the City concert for the year. Haydn’s real surprise in this symphony, however, is his endless capacity for invention, and the Orchestra, under the assured direction of concertmaster Dene Olding, laid out the intricacies of the score with satisfying clarity, a well-polished string sound underpinning the colourful interjections of flutes and oboes. The audience were prepared for the finale’s surprise, with grins all round at timpanist Richard Miller’s enthusiastic interjection.

There were no gimmicks in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467. Taking his lead from the finely-shaped introduction of the ensemble, Gavrylyuk brought a light touch to the conversational solo, pairing exacting precision with the give and take of a chamber musician. The limpid melody of the slow movement – yes, the Elvira Madigan theme — was blessedly free of indulgence; just a quiet moment of aching beauty, with sensitive accompaniment from strings and wind soloists. As for the finale, Olding set the orchestra off at a blistering pace, which Gavrylyuk picked up eagerly, settling comfortably into the rapid-fire scale passages like an athlete pacing himself for the final sprint. Not everyone reached the finishing line at the same time, but it was, nevertheless, an exciting race.

For an encore – the ‘mystery moment’ – Gavrylyuk threw off the restraints of the eighteenth-century galant style in favour of bare-faced showmanship with a transcription of Mozart’s Turkish March by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. It was everything a virtuoso piano solo should be: fast, furious and enormous fun. More music to make you smile.