A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Play it again

I have a secret, which I’m going to tell you. Only you.

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Photo: Steven Godbee

Last night, Avi Avital played the slow movement of a Vivaldi Concerto just for me. The lights went down, the hall fell silent and, although he didn’t actually meet my eyes, I’m sure he was playing to me alone. It is with much regret that I acknowledge that everyone else in the hall probably felt exactly the same way.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra don’t generally bring back artists after only two years but they’ve made an exception for Avi Avital. Frankly, I’d be quite happy to see him back every year, but I’ve a feeling the rest of the world might get jealous.

By now you’ll have gathered that this is a rave, but I’m not going to apologise for my enthusiasm. Avi Avital is a rockstar. His instrument is smaller than your average guitar hero, but the energy with which he plays powers up the performance to epic levels. The difference between his performances and, say, Jimi Hendrix’s, however, is that his sound is amplified not by electricity but by intensity. This is music under the microscope: tiny modifications to timbre, exquisitely turned phrases, and a brilliantly judged sense of timing which has you catching your breath as he places a single note, perfectly.

The other effect of Avital’s  playing is that it makes you listen. That’s partly practical: the mandolin is a quiet instrument which can only sustain notes in two ways: either by using tremolo in a sort of sonic pointillism, or by creating the space — in other words, silence — to allow a single note to ring on. It’s practical, and it’s also rewarding.

I’m happy to report some outstanding listening last night, and not just from the audience. The ensemble were brilliantly focused and responsive, taking their cue from his sound, his phrasing. Indeed, Avital was not the only one on form last night. The ensemble was sounding as good as — dare I say it, better than — I’ve ever heard them. They accompanied Avital in the two Vivaldi concertos with their customary stylishness and rose to the timbral and rhythmic challenge of Tsintsadze’s Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes, and the torrid Paisiello.

A highlight of the night, however, was a new find from artistic director Paul Dyer, by a Venetian contemporary of Vivaldi by the name of Giuseppe Valentini. His Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op. 7 No. 11 features soloistic breaks for cello and all four violins. In the opening Largo concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen drew a complex, woody timbre from the band. It felt much more freer, more characterful, from an ensemble that sometimes gets stuck on detail.  Then, in the allegro it was a classic case of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’. The first violin threw down a musical gauntlet, passed along the line to violinists Ben Dollman, Matt Bruce, Matthew Greco in ever evolving forms until it reached cellist Jamie Hey. They met Lee-Chen’s challenge with thrilling flair, confirming what we already suspected, that these guys can really play.

The combination of a charismatic and winning soloist and a concertmaster who is not afraid to take a bold stand must make this a contender for Brandenburg best concert of the year. But don’t take my word for it. Go and hear them on 28 and 29 October and 2 and 4 November at 7pm and 29 October at 2pm in Sydney, or on 5 November at 7 and 6 November at 5 in Melbourne, or at 7.30 on 8 November in Brisbane.

And if you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

 


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Drumroll please…

Are you ready?

countdown

https://unbound.com/books/sanctuary

I’m thrilled and not a little bit nervous to announce my new book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

You may have gathered from that something was in the pipeline. I’ve been spending time revisiting my alma mater, and rummaging through the cardboard boxes in my father’s study, which contain the archives of the Summer School. Let me tell you, there’s gold in there. Photos, letters, diaries, programs, dating back to the very first Summer School at Bryanston in 1948.

IMG_3426 (1)The Summer School archive is the subject of my studies for a doctorate at UTS. It will become a thesis and a collection of stories, probably using lots of long words and stuff. In the mean time, however, I’ve been looking into how to get the fascinating contents of those boxes out to a wider audience. Now, thanks to UK publisher Unbound, I am delighted to launch a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for the picture book.

https://unbound.com/books/sanctuary

Ah. Yes. Sorry. You have just been sucked into yet another crowd-funding campaign. But why do I feel the need to apologize? A book about a summer school where composers and performers and students and listeners gorged themselves on music and ideas was never going get a twentieth-century publishing deal. So I’ve gone for the eighteenth-century publishing model, with a twenty-first century spin. If Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens can fund their books by advance sales, so can I, especially with the help of Unbound!hall

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Conducting Course, 1983

Over the next year I’ll be writing words, compiling photos and working with designers to create a beautiful picture book to celebrate the Summer School’s 70th birthday. I’ll be blogging about my progress and showing you some of the goodies along the way. And if you like what you see, I hope you’ll sign up to buy a copy of the book.

You can also show your support in non-financial ways. Cups of tea, glasses of wine, a big grin or a stern word when I’m doing the ironing instead of writing, all welcome. Or if you’re not close enough to make me a cup of tea, you could help a great deal by passing this on to anyone you know who might be interested. You know the drill: reblog, retweet, email, whisper secrets, gossip salaciously, dance naked down the street shouting ‘buy Harriet’s book!’. Well maybe. Anything to get the word out.

That link again:

https://unbound.com/books/sanctuary

Go on. Click. You know you want to.

xxx


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Music and Memory

This is meant to be a review of the Jerusalem Quartet’s second Sydney concert, which I went to yesterday afternoon. It’s meant to be a well-informed, insightful response to a live performance. But it’s not going to be. You see, I particularly chose to come to this concert because of the repertoire, Haydn’s The Lark and Beethoven’s first Razumovsky. (If that makes you glaze over, leave now. This is a string-y post).

A few thousand years ago I spent four years at Edinburgh University, supposedly studying Latin but actually drinking beer and playing string quartets.

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Not sure, but this looks like the Pear Tree, scene of many an afternoon which should have been spent studying in the library.

The Patten Quartet was a motley crew — an economist, a linguist, a chemist and a medic. Our leader, Andrew, was a bit of a genius on the violin. I’m sure he worked very hard at it, but it seemed effortless. Haydn, with all his twiddly bits, was right up his street, and The Lark was a favourite. I just have to hear that dry, chippy opening and I’m already salivating at the thought of the melody about to come soaring over the top. And the final movement, the moto perpetuo… The second violin has an entry mid-bar, and it’s like jumping onto a moving train. As I listen to the Jerusalems I get flashbacks of me stamping my feet, shouting “Stop, stop, I missed it…” Needless to say, the Jerusalems don’t miss the train. They’re on it, speeding away, with a shared internal rhythm that makes four one.

We — the Pattens, I mean — picked up the Razumovksy after a successful tussle with Mozart’s Dissonance. We were eager for a new challenge but, honestly, it was like walking into a new world. I’ve still got cryptic notes scribbled in pencil on my part, from when I tried to write down my colleagues’ reactions to our first play through. (No, sorry, I can’t make sense of them…) All I remember is that it felt like a huge privilege to be playing something so, well, significant. A privilege, and a responsibility. (I also remember getting drunk and dancing maniacally to the second movement in the early hours of the morning as the sun came up over the Mound, but that’s another story). It was fascinating to read, in Jessica Duchen’s interview with the Jerusalem Quartet, that they are only now coming to this quartet for the first time. No drunken dancing and fudged notes for them. It is in good hands.

Ross Edwards’ third String Quartet, Summer Dances, was only written in 2012, so no Edinburgh flashbacks here, but a bevy of sonic images, from snapping twigs, cicada drones and bird song through to a clear but accidental Sephardic tang in the opening movement. How come I picked that up? Was it transmitted via the memories of the quartet? Memory and music make strange magic together. Which is why I can’t pretend to be reviewing yesterday’s concert because, while I heard it, I was somewhere else, listening to temps perdus. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Much gratitude, then, to the Jerusalems, to Musica Viva, and to Haydn and Beethoven.

(By the way, there’s one more concert, in Melbourne, on Tuesday, and the concert’s going to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM next Sunday. Well worth a listen.)

 

 

 

Super Sato and the Boy Wonder

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Back in Sydney, and back to the Brandenburgs last night, for a concert with violinist Shunske Sato as guest director and soloist, in a program which took the band out of their home territory and into the lush sounds of the nineteenth-century. tardis

Sort of. In fact, it was lush sounds filtered through period instruments, period sounds filtered through a romantic sensibility, and a romantic-sized orchestra making up the numbers. Take Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, a late-nineteenth century pastiche of an imagined eighteenth-century sound, played by twenty-first century artists on seventeenth-century instruments. Talk about time travelling!

In the end, this was a very personal — idiosyncratic, even — performance. With Sato directing, it turned into an exercise in boundary pushing which, for me, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Tempi were extreme. Fast movements were not just allegro vivace or con brio, but prestissimo, as fast as possible, and sometimes faster. It was exciting but the notes raced past in a blur. Slow movements were expansive, delicious, indulgent, but sometimes lingering over the lyricism to that point that they only just avoided stalling in mid-air. And that cheeky little catch of breath before a phrase return, that ‘wait for it, wait for it…’ worked brilliantly the first time, but its impact faded with repetition, like an over-worked punchline.

I’m going in hard here, and I’m aware that it’s at least partly because, for my sins, I know Grieg’s string writing back-to-front and upside-down. This was a highly original, and even risky, performance and, as I might have said before, I’m all for taking risks. So bring on the rubato, rock that voluptuous portamento, take things as far as they can go, and then maybe a little bit further. It certainly got my attention, if not my unqualified admiration.

Before the Grieg, we had Mendelssohn-the-Boy-Wonder and the third of his String Symphonies. Back in the musical time machine as a nineteenth-century twelve year old remodelled an eighteenth-century format. With Sato at the helm the Brandenburg’s string sound was distinctly different: less hard edges, more elision, minimal vibrato. He launched into the first movement at a cracking speed, and the band were up for for it, matching their rhythm and articulation with thrilling sense of ensemble. Exciting stuff.

Then Paganini.

paganiniPaganini inhabits a strange place in classical music because, as we all know, he was basically a freak. A freak, a showman, a shyster, all rolled into one big bundle of superhuman talent. Not such a bad fit, then, for the Brandenburg Orchestra, with the right frontman, and last night we had two. Sato romped through the fourth Violin Concerto, making it sound terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. Not to be outdone, Paul Dyer directed a supersize orchestra, kept up with the soloist and played the triangle. It was quite a show, and brilliantly done by all on stage. (Special mention to the trombones and trumpets). The only disappointment was that Sato declined the audience’s vociferous requests for an encore. By this time, we knew he could do anything. Anything. Maybe a wafer-thin caprice? Pretty please?

But no. In true showman style, he left us wanting more. Let’s hope he’s back soon.


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Wrong notes

It’s years since I’ve been to the Sydney Piano Competition. I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Competitive classical music is like that first lick of salted caramel ice-cream — all the goodness, with an extra tang. Not something you could adopt as a staple diet — I don’t want get tired of Elvira Madigan and Rach 2, but I would…  —  but dipping into the this year’s competition has been a pleasure.

indexLast night three competitors performed their 18th-century concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was an all-Mozart program, which evened out the field and made comparison odiously easy. I’m not going to pick winners or name names but, to summarise crudely, there was one performance which felt like you were looking through a microscope, a thousand moments of exquisite delicacy, one performance which felt like a grand edifice, grounded, constructed, a perfect whole, and one that just picked me up and rolled me in delight. (Needless to say, I’m a sucker for delight.)

Aside from the music and the fun of post-performance discussions, it also got me thinking about the whole knotty business of competitions and, in particular, wrong notes. Because in amongst all the issues, all the great, unwieldy baggage of the competition circuit, wrong notes are often considered deal-breakers for would-be finalists. After all, the judges have a hard job, and they’re only human. Like a manager sifting through 200 job applications, the judges are going to need to take some short cuts. Bad spelling sends a brilliant applicant straight to the bin. A fistful of wrong notes and, sorry, you’re out.

It’s perhaps an understandable approach in the earlier stages of the competition, when one is trying to separate a large field of competitors who are all quite brilliant in their own right. By the concerto finals, however, I’d like to suggest that wrong notes might sometimes be right. The standard of pianism in international piano competitions assumes perfect technique and bright, shiny fabulousness as a given, but we’ve reached a point where perfect is not good enough. I want more. I want personality, whimsy, risk and reward; I want to be surprised and delighted; I want danger. And if that means that some things don’t work, that’s OK.

I’m so full of admiration for those brave competitors on the international competition circuit. They play their guts out to give us our salted caramel fix, with only the faintest possibility of reward. After last night’s performances I’m looking forward to the romantic concertos with eager anticipation. I’m not on the jury, so my opinion counts for precisely nothing, but as the final six flex their knuckles in preparation, I’d just like to say I hope they have fun out there, and remember wrong can be right and losing can be winning.

 


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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?

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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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Indie wuh? #3

Following on from previous posts here and here, an interview with Tim Hollo, a founding member of Fourplay. We talked about MDWMD, the naming of things, where it comes from and where it’s all going…

It’s musicians doing what musicians do, but there is this insatiable desire of people to categorize things. It’s almost what makes us homo sapiens – we like to think of the world in categories.

When Fourplay started 18 years ago now people had no idea where to pigeonhole us and that almost held us back. When we first put our albums out, it was great for airplay because we were on ABC Classic and Triple J and all the local AM stations… We fitted everywhere but no-one could find us in record stores because people would file us under jazz or classical or rock or indie or whatever.

These days that doesn’t matter because nobody goes to record stores.

Tim cites the big music festivals as a major driver of MDWMD.

At Woodford or Port Fairy, big festivals with very diverse talent pools, people wander around and see other musicians and say hey, do you want to jam? Result: cross-fertilization. Classical Indian Bobby Singh becomes close friends with rock drummer Ben Walsh, creating something totally new. Katie Noonan was studying opera, then started hanging out with jazz musicians.

The Sydney Opera House has done a stunning job in bridging so many genres. Fourplay’s manager put the Graphic Festival to them and that’s gone twice now, very successfully.

And some musings about where it all began:

It started most obviously with Brodsky and Kronos, a few years before Fourplay started. Now you’ve got people like Owen Pallett, highly trained classical violinist with a spectacular technique, doing amazing stuff.

In a way it goes right back to Kurt Weill, a classical musician picking up on what was the pop music of his time. Weill took the concert hall to the cabaret. That was a bigstep.