A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Another Flashback Friday

morning-afterI’m feeling a little tired and emotional. It’s the end of a long year and the morning after a night of trying to keep  my eldest’s Year 10 Formal revelries legal. So apologies for another Flashback Friday, but this one captures my somewhat punchy mood. It was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011.

Tim Minchin v. the Sydney Symphony
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 25
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

5 stars

Tim Minchin is offensive. F*#king offensive. Especially offensive if you dislike the word ‘f#*king’. Especially offensive if you dislike intelligent, articulate arguments against all forms of prejudice and hyprocrisy. And if you also dislike wild piano-playing and wicked self-parody, his offensiveness knows no bounds. Because Tim Minchin is offensively talented and his latest show is an absolute cracker.

The show opens with a irony-laden faux rock classic, complete with smoke machines and spotlights. As he says, “I got a f*#cking orchestra! I can do what I f*#cking want”. The rock god bravado, however, doesn’t last for long as he segues into the autobiographical ‘Rock’n’roll nerd’. By the time he has got the horror of a privileged liberal up-bringing in a first world country off his chest, he has also demonstrated that he can sing like Bowie on a good day, with the added bonus of a very real sense of humour.

A slew of favourites follow. ‘If I didn’t have you (I’d have someone else)’ falls slightly flat, but ‘Cont…’ goes off like a bomb, as does his gloriously offensive ‘The Pope Song’.

Minchin’s comedy is beautifully constructed: some of the biggest laughs of the night rely on the surprise reveal, delivered with the kind of casual, serendipitous timing that only comes by design. He’s also a great clown, with a mischevious leer which gets a giggle every time. But the core of his act is his fearless pursuit of taboos. Tim Minchin takes the things everyone thinks, but no-one says, and then sings them at top volume, with repeats.

The Sydney Symphony is a classy but slightly under-used backing band to start with but, as the songs become more burlesque in style, Minchin’s piano playing becomes more flamboyant and the orchestral arrangements become more inventive. Conductor Ben Northey does a great job keeping the music close to, but just short of anarchy. By the time Minchin introduces his exquisite little ballad, ‘Not Perfect’, a 55-piece orchestra feels like the perfect accompaniment.

And now that you’ve read that, do go and check out my picture book project, Sanctuary then pledge lots of money and / or share it with all your friends. Or not. Heigh ho. I think I need another cup of tea…


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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.


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.

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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Yesterday and Tomorrow

After my devil’s advocacy earlier this week, I found myself surrounded by HIPsters* yesterday. The Australian Haydn Ensemble, playing Beethoven, in chamber arrangements, in Sydney Opera House, on original instruments. In 2016.

The AHE have been going for five years now, and they’re beginning to build momentum. Their chosen niche is late Baroque and early Classical repertoire, and they wear their scholarship with pride. Performance as research. Research as performance. Performative research. The question I have to ask is whether this approach is limiting, in terms of artistic expression and communication with the audience. Are we, the audience, being set free from preconceptions? Or are we getting tied up in HIPknots?


Yesterday’s performance suggests the former. In a packed Utzon Room, playing against panoramic views of a sunny day on Sydney harbour, the ensemble performed Beethoven in a way that reframed not just the sound but the rhythmic and textural structure of the works. It was, in a word, discovery.

Central to the performance was the triple-strung, wooden-framed fortepiano, a replica of an early nineteenth-century instrument by Conrad Graf. As guest soloist Neal Peres da Costa explained before they began, the instrument’s four pedals meant he could realise the composer’s markings in a way not possible on a modern piano. In particular, the una corda marking, which shifts the hammer mechanism so that it only strikes one string, produces a distinctly ethereal tone, bringing an other-worldly character to the second movement. Then the return of the una corda marking in the final movement was like a ghost from the past. Peres Da Costa was imaginative and bold in his phrasing, flirting with the inegale, and finding a fascinating range of tone colours. Forget the heroic, domineering piano virtuoso: this felt like the tentative steps at the start of a new relationship. Occasionally klutz-y but very exciting.

A quick reshuffle for a fine reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. In this period arrangement for string sextet, flute and fortepiano continuo, some of the work’s signature gestures were missing – violas are not horns, and a period bow cannot sustain a note in the same way as a wind player can — but other, more intricate details emerged from the textures, which made up for the loss of that big orchestral sound. I sat there trying to imagine how I would listen to this, if I didn’t know it as a symphony but as a chamber work. Did it sound like the early string quartets? Would Beethoven have written it like this if he only had six voices? I’m not sure that he would have, but I found myself completely involved nevertheless.

Yesterday and tomorrow? That’s when the performances are. Go hear for yourself.

A few words about the Utzon Room. It has so much going for it: the kudos of being under the roof of the Opera House, and the support of the Opera House’s marketing efforts, a drop dead gorgeous view of the harbour and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and a perfect size for chamber music. It is always a pleasure to go there – it feels special. The downside, however, is the acoustic and sightlines. It wasn’t designed as a performance space, and it shows. We sat at the end furthest from the public entrance, on keyboard side but, after advice from another listener, I’ll try the other end, where the curve of the roofshell seems to give the sound a little more resonance. Indeed, it would be interesting to experiment with putting performers in that position, under the roof arch, to see if it throws the sound out into the room. Inconvenient for entering, perhaps, but if it improves the acoustic, worth a try.

*HIPsters – collective noun for practioners of Historically-Informed Performance.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a review for most small to medium music ensembles in Sydney. I am doing my best to support artists in the best way I know how – by going to concerts, listening hard, and writing about what I hear. If you like what I’m doing, please follow my blog, like my Facebook page and support my writing by making a pledge to my forthcoming book, Sanctuary.


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.


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.)




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Words about music

I’m reading Nicholas Cook’s excellent Music: a very short introduction. It’s a great counterpoint to the mad whirl of music-making, -talking, -listening to and -not listening to that is Dartington International Summer School. In it he talks about music and words and metaphor and the ongoing debates about how and why we even try to describe music in words. Which in turn leads him to contemplate what we are actually trying to describe…

Alfred Brendel was not stressed about metaphor in his magisterial lecture on Beethoven’s late sonatas. The piano virtuoso and polymath did acknowledge options for talking about the works — in terms of physical, psychological, historical, musicological etc. — before indulging his preference, poetical.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 9.35.02 pm

This is definitely Alfred Brendel at Dartington in 1970. Sadly, it’s not Adrian Brendel-ssohn who wasn’t due to be born for another six years. Photo: Charles Davis (DISS Archive)

It wasn’t all fine words (although there were plenty of those). He speculated on and dismissed the fanciful ruminations of various musicologists (to remain unnamed here…) Most interesting, though, was how he traced melody fragments through the sonatas, both in terms of melody shape and pitch. Something that, no doubt, leaps out at you after years and years of performing them. I can’t say I ‘get’ the sonatas now, but it was a treat to hear him talk with such authority and such love.


The 7.45pm concert was a festival of Tango Nuevo from the DISS16 all-stars, including Joanna MacGregor, Antonia Kesel, Adrian Brendel and accordionista fabulosa Martynas Levickis. Exuberant, splashy, sexy. Completing the line-up was Brazilian percussion guy Adriano Adewale, who not only gave us dance rhythms, but also two solo breaks, first on assorted ocarinari, and second on tambourine. Yes. A tambourine solo. It was one of those new music moments where you see what’s coming up, raise your eyebrows and suspend disbelief more because of good manners than any real expectation of enlightenment. And ten minutes later you’re sitting there, mouth open, eyes wide, ears alive with delight. Who knew a tambourine could make such a range of sounds? Brilliant.

tango2The all-stars were a hard act to follow. After some quick first-aid from the piano technician, the long-suffering Steinway was wheeled back centre stage for its third performance of the evening. Florian Mitrea gave a generous and energetic performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein, followed by Sonata No. 111, which I heard from outside, in the  velvety fug of a South Devon summer night.


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Make it new

World Premiere!
Debut performance!
Never before heard/seen/smelt/felt….


Plus ca change.Whether it’s the 1700s or the 2000s, we’re all suckers for novelty. The overseas star, the new commission, the next big thing. Even in the sometimes fusty arena of classical music, ensembles entice us to their concerts with tantalizing promises of something a bit different.16ABO BlazingBaroque SYD opening-46

So when the Australian Brandenburg offers up a concert with no headline star, no gimmick, not even program details, just a promise of ‘blazing baroque’, it’s curiously unsettling. The music starts, soloists stroll on stage, in the middle of the music, we’ve never heard of half the composers, we clap at all the wrong moments… Is this deliberate obfuscation, to shake us out of our comfort zone?

Whatever the intention, it has the effect of bringing a fresh mind to the music. The racy clatter of a Sammartini (Giovanni or Guiseppe? Not sure) overture, the juicy textures and crunchy harmonies of a Vivaldi Concerto (which one — oh, y’know, just one of ’em), the pomp and thunder of Fasch (who he?), the poly-stylistic Telemann… Two hours of random baroquerie from those eighteenth-century workhorses who wrote music by the metre, day in, day out, for a pre-Spotify audience. And we’re there with them, listening avidly.

There is plenty to hear.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for several instruments in F major, RV 569, for instance, puts the spotlight on multiple soloists, all drawn from within the regular ensemble, including ludicrously difficult breaks for pairs of oboes and horns, for solo cello and bassoon, all led by a solo violin. Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E minor, (TWV42:e1) is exquisitely beautiful — those liquid lines entwining around each other — but it is also peculiarly fascinating, because of the closeness in timbre of the two solo instruments. Same but not quite same. Worth listening to really closely. And of all the works on this program, the final movement of this one delivers the biggest surprise, as the ensemble overcome the lead weight of a rustic drone, using it as a springboard into dance.IMG_4916

Two other highlights: Telemann’s Grand Concerto in D major (TWV deest), featuring a pair of baroque trumpets, played with thrilling edge and clarity; and, throughout, the leadership of the Brandenburg’s new concertmaster, Shaun Lee-Chen. Just his presence on stage seemed to amp up the energy of the ensemble. As for his solos, they were something else. Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin in D major ‘Grosso mogul’ (RV 208) is weird and wonderful, with a notated cadenza in the first movement which would make Paganini’s eyes water. Lee-Chen delivered it with mesmerizing pace, like a spontaneous flood of invincible virtuosity. Then, in the recitativo, he stepped it back, lingering over awkward suspensions, taking dangerous liberties with the line, to deliver something strange and beautiful.

The Brandenburg’s usual practice of building programs around visiting soloists is sound: it brings inspiring new voices and ideas to Australia. However, from the evidence of this concert, there is plenty of inspiration to be heard from within this fine ensemble. Leave your expectations and the door and just enjoy.







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.”



The Code: a guide to concert dressing, part 2

Barbara Bonney (left) and Fiona Campbell (right) in Seoul in 2010. Of all four outfits (white tail coat, bias cut oyster satin, black so-tight-can't-sit-down sheath and red satin, this got the most votes)

I had to review the Australian Brandenburg concert for SMH last Friday. It was, as expected, a great concert. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell and have been ever since I saw her in Pinchgut’s Juditha Triumphans. This was my first opportunity to hear her on the concert platform, and it was terrific.

Come review writing time, however, I hit a knotty problem. Campbell is a very theatrical singer, and she was performing operatic arias. To heighten the drama, she had four costume changes during the evening. Would it be frivolous to review the dresses as well as the music?

A bit of a different look for baroque divo and diva

In the end, this is all that 350 words could fit.

But it got me thinking about onstage concert gear. For the diva, a wardrobe full of glitzy evening gowns is de rigeur. For most orchestral musicians, however, the choice is black tie, white tie, or, more often than not, just common-or-garden ‘concert blacks’. These days, as classical ensembles react to the flight-to-hipness, more and more ensembles are getting trendy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra have had Akira Isogawa designing their outfits for nearly a decade now, and Carla Zampatti designs the ladies outfits for the Australian Brandenburg. The Goldner Quartet stick to own choice blacks, while the Australian String Quartet, currently all ladies, go for own choice evening gowns.

Does it matter? Do we like frocking up? And any suggestions for who young artists about town might get to design their costumes?

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Review: Divine Dances

Written for SMH but the Arts Page ran out of space again. (Pesky artists! If only they wouldn’t perform so much…)

Sydney Symphony, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, August 11

Alexander Scriabin was a synaesthete: his brain’s perception of pitch somehow overlapped with his perception of colour, leading him to associate certain keys with specific colours. In his third symphony, The Divine Poem, therefore, the first movement is a red C minor, while the second is a whitish-blue E major. According to Scriabin’s lover, the symphony also embodies a pantheistic program of self discovery, leading from conflict to sensual intoxication to ecstatic freedom. In this performance, however, the massive gestures and dense-patterned passages swept away a need for structural and harmonic explanations. The music just happened.

Sydney Symphony powered through the fifty-minute work with impressive stamina and virtuosity. Much credit for this must go to conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who seems to anticipate every twist and turn of the score with a tiny gesture here, or an encouraging glance there. With this little power pack at the heart of the ensemble, every musician was on song. The horns were a mighty force, the trumpets soared valiantly and concertmaster Michael Dauth gaves a mesmerising solo, rising clear and fresh up out of the melee.

Writing music must seem like a thankless task at times: you invest all your creativity into a work, hear it once then, in most cases, see it sink without trace. The music of Ross Edwards, however, bucks this trend. His violin concerto Maninyas was written back in 1988, and has become a signature work. To hear the dedicatee, Dene Olding, playing it with the original orchestra, Sydney Symphony, twenty years on, is a real treat. Edwards’ writing for the violin is satisfyingly idiomatic, and Olding played with a flamboyant ease which made it sound almost like he was inventing it on the spot. The orchestra handled the elusive, tricky rhythms with assurance in this fine performance.

The concert opened with a high-energy orchestral rumpus, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. In spite of the festive atmosphere of the music, this was a tightly controlled and largely impeccable reading, with piccolo and percussion highlighting the frantic rush of notes.