A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Life, the universe and everything

The troops were gathered, the weapons tuned. The general stood, ready for action, in front of the battalions. The flag went up then BOOM. Battle commenced.

david-robertson-gallery-preview-1200x650Mahler’s third Symphony is an epic battle between life and death, hope and despair, from a man who knew all these things intimately. That he could make such a fervent case for life and hope considering his life, so brutally pock-marked with tragedy, is amazing. That he could make this enormous, unwieldy, nutty chunk of musical philosophy a gripping journey of constantly unfolding wonders is nigh on miraculous.

The challenge for the combined forces of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Sydney Children’s Choir was to navigate their way through this epic work with pace and coherence, and they did. Even at the moments of chaos, through the dull, forbidding roar of low timpani, past the gibbering winds, there was an enduring sense of direction, a reaching out towards the ultimate triumph of light over dark. It took a while to get there, and things got scary at times, but there were never any thoughts of turning back. Not with artistic director and chief conductor, David Robertson, leading the charge, and Andrew Haveron, concertmaster, as valiant knight.

This really was a you-have-to-be-there performance: three pairs of cymbals clashing together is just a racket on the radio, but on stage you see six great golden plates doing their synchronised swing. Likewise, the bells-up clarinet doesn’t just sound louder; it looks loud, it looks rude and threatening, like a gun aimed squarely at you, yes, you. And seeing the serried ranks of the Sydney Children’s Choir, heads nodding as they counted their bars rest, breathing as one before firing off volleys of ‘bim, bam!’ bells was compelling.

Much to see. Much to hear. Much to understand. Whether or not one grasped Mahler’s vastness of vision, it was nicely enacted through the arrangement of the orchestra: first and second violins were arranged antiphonally, and further divided into front and back desks, so that they seemed to be isolated voices calling to each other across the expanse of the stage; the basses and cellos were on stage right, the bass drum centre back, and the  tuba and bass trombones stage left, their rusty growls surrounding the orchestra; and off in the distance was patient, loving humanity, in the guise of the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

And then there was Susan Graham. Graham was last in Sydney two years ago, singing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Now she’s here for two weeks with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, appearing in Ravel’s Sheherezade and this, Mahler’s Third. Her “O Mensch, gib Acht!” was like a revelation, focussed but never hard, brave but questioning, the still centre of the symphony.

If Graham was the still centre, Robertson was the lightning conductor, catalysing and directing the roiling, explosive energy contained in the huge array of instruments before him. It’s a massive symphony but, under his direction, it never felt chaotic: in those exquisite moments of other-worldly violins and glittery harp-pings the world suddenly, for a few fragile moments, made sense; then, in the final movement the eight horns roared, the trumpets blazed, and the final movement played out in all its majestic, radiant, wait-for-it wait-for-it, just-a-bit-more, yes, glory. Yes.

Yes.

You can catch another performance (and if you can, you should) this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will also be broadcast on Saturday 29 July at noon on ABC Classic FM, (but you’ll have to imagine the cymbals). 

 

 


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Porgy and Bess

crowded-houseIt was a crowded house last night. Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, an all-star cast and a packed Concert Hall within. And without, all of Bennelong Point swarming with people either inside the enclosure, on the steps, or outside, straining to see over / under / through the barriers cutting out the view.

I don’t know how the Crowded House concert was, but Porgy and Bess was great. David Robertson, Sydney Symphony’s chief conductor and artistic director, set the orchestra bowling down Catfish Row at a terrific lick, and the energy just kept coming.

It was billed as ‘semi-staged’, which can mean anything from soloists waving a prop here and there to full on fight scenes. This production, directed by Mitchell Butel, made space for the action and the music with a generous apron stage built out into the stalls but, apart from this infrastructure, mainly let the cast do their job. What a cast. What a job.

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Alfred Walker

The cast was as close to ideal as it is feasible to expect: a tight knit ensemble of artists with serious vocal chops, winning stage presence and some nifty dance moves. Alfred Walker is a seasoned Porgy (with a side-line in Wotan, Bluebeard and Erik), and Nicole Cabell is a supremely classy Bess, with a creamy upper register which can take on an intense edge when required. Eric Greene is a genuinely scary Crown and Leon Williams catches the youthful vigour of Jake with bittersweet charm. Karen Slack and Gwendolyn Brown, as Serena and Maria, own the stage in their numbers. As Clara, Julia Bullock wins all hearts with her opening Summertime, switching up the octave at the end with sybaritic ease. Finally, Jermaine Smith must be of the world’s great Sporting Lifes. Oozing with charm, it’s hard to take your eyes or ears off him when he is on stage, and in ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ he has the entire choir – no – the entire auditorium – eating out of his hand. (Can he sing Loge to Alfred Walker’s Wotan, pretty please?)

Of course, being a semi-staged production, there was also plenty to see behind the main action. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra glittered and whumped and muddled a bit but generally kept in and out of the way as required under the deft direction of Robertson. Behind them, off into the distance, was the 100-strong chorus provided by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. For such a large group of choristers they were impressively responsive – right time, right dynamic, right pitch, for every entry, with none of the rhythmic or dynamic lag you can get with a large choir. They also appeared to be having a really good time, responding to Sporting Life’s increasingly outrageous challenges with enthusiasm.

All in all, a grand night at the house, hearing a work which doesn’t get out to play nearly as often as it deserves. The only quibble was the decision to pass up on surtitles: the quality of the (amplified) voices was magnificent, so big thumbs up to the sound designer, but even where I was sitting, in the stalls, the words were only partially audible and I suspect further back they would have been lost in the glorious welter of sound. The music made up for a lack of clarity, but the story-telling suffered.

There are three more performances of Porgy and Bess, on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday 1, 2 and 3 December. Go.

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