A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Those British chaps

National identity is a funny thing. When you’re in it, you can’t necessarily see it. Which is perhaps why it takes someone from the outside to make the most insightful observations. For example, Australia’s own Paul Kildea is one of the world’s leading scholars on the music of Benjamin Britten, and it was Vladimir Ashkenazy who took it upon himself to present a festival of the music of Elgar.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that American conductor Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is the one championing a program of music from British composers. He makes a great case for them.

Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder is a mishmash of the orchestral interludes from his 1984 opera Higglety Pigglety Pop, based on the Maurice Sendak book of the same name. It’s great to see the SSO digging into this — new repertoire for them — with such commitment and energy. Knussen’s orchestration is beautifully judged, and Spano outlines the rhythmic complexities with clarity so that the orchestra can really dance.

The image of Jacqueline du Pre, head flung back as she is transported by the music, haunts Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Indeed, it’s a ghostly work, full of wisps of memories of fragments of meaning, with melodies that almost break under the weight of sustained emotion. Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh approaches its fragility with breath-catching poise, but her performance, for me, is a little too spectral, getting lost in the corporeality of the sympathetic but not unsubstantial accompaniment. Fade to grey.

krijgh_800x700__copyright_marco_borggreve-s-w1000-h750-q50-m1485833976Last on the program, the rarely performed Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s an extraordinary work, with its first movement’s series of ecstatic ephipanies, its sybaritic Romanza and eloquent Passacaglia. It’s not so much heart-on-sleeve as in-your-face. And that’s perhaps one of the challenges: to keep an eye on the overall architecture of the work without getting mired in scrunchy harmonies and lingering melodies.

Robert Spano was an excellent guide here, allowing the sound to bloom but still moving things along. And bloom it did, in glorious solos from, amongst others, Alexandre Oguey on cor anglais and Robert Johnston on horn. Above all, the strings were outstanding, resisting the temptation to over-indulge and giving VW’s intricate passage work crystalline form. The violins, in particular, under the leadership of Andrew Haveron, are sounding as good as I’ve ever heard them, and that’s very good indeed.

No space in the Sydney Morning Herald for this review, but look out for a review of Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Monday. And if you enjoy my writing, make my day by visiting Unbound to read more about my book on Dartington International Summer School, then share it, tell all your friends, and pledge. Bisous xxx


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Watch out, Nige’s about

So, Kennedy’s back in town. Back for more larking about and kicking footballs and making bad jokes. Back for more talking like a fishwife and playing like a dream.

Brix Smith, Ex-Fall guitarist and ex-wife of Nigel Kennedy describes him with affection in her memoir, The Rise, the Fall and the Rise Again, published last year.

kennedy

“He’s a magical elf,” she says. “As a friend, he’s amazing”. (She goes on to say she doesn’t recommend him as a boyfriend.)

Magical elf, mouthy oaf. Whichever way the wind is blowing, he’s worth listening to. This was what I thought of him ten years ago (which appeared originally in the Sydney Morning Herald).

Nigel Kennedy
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, March 1
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Nigel Kennedy is never going to make a career as a stand up comedian. His jokes tend to be lame, in Polish, or both. But he giggles infectiously as he tells them, and if that’s what is needed to rev him up for making some of the most beautiful sounds on earth, bring it on.

Last night’s official program was a two hour concert of concertos by J S Bach and arrangements of Duke Ellington’s big band greats. The reality was a three-and-a-half hour jam session where a cadence could be a harmonic trampoline to melodies from every corner of the musical spectrum; where ‘what if?’ meetings developed into searing musical partnerships; and where Kennedy nudged, cajoled and tickled musicians and audiences out of their comfy concert zone and into a musical lovefest.

Some highlights: Kennedy and Catherine Hewgill playing Bach Two-Part Inventions, first with great delicacy, and then with wild abandon at twice the speed; a soaring slow movement of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, with Shefali Prior; and some bonus Bartok with a fabulous young violinist Kennedy bumped into at his Basement gig. In Kennedy’s estimation Sonja Schebeck “plays classical like a motherf*#ker”. I agree.

Kennedy also brought a very classy quintet of jazz musicians from home with him, who slotted into the Bach without fuss before shining in Duke Ellington. Kennedy switches to electric violin for these numbers, giving him a whole new set of toys to play. ‘In a Jam’ was a grinding, bad boy flood of improvisation, while ‘Dusk’ revelled in floaty resonances and ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ was George Clooney charismatic.

Whether you endure or enjoy his foul mouth and anarchic stage manners, in the end it’s simple. The man plays in perfect octaves like no other, has a tone which makes concertmaster (and fellow Juilliard student) Dene Olding’s sound merely good, and triple stops his way through a jazz riff without ever sounding ugly. Unless, of course, he wants to. You can do anything when you’re King Kennedy.

Nigel Kennedy appears at Sydney Opera House on January 27 and 28, 2017, with his new reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And don’t tell anyone, but he has also been known to hop up on stage at the Basement while he’s in town…


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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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Harbour Light

The night before  Tony Abbott was elected prime minister I went to the Sydney Opera House to hear Lior and the Sydney Symphony. And the night of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, I find myself at the Opera House again, for Acacia Quartet‘s concert, entitled ‘Harbour Light’, in the Utzon Room. Music, as ever, is a consolation.

acacia_all_printThe Acacias have worked hard over the six years since they first came together, and achieved much. There have been five CDs and three ARIA nominations. More importantly, there have been any number of commissions, collaborations and deep dives into the music of here and now. This concert was no exception: a bold program of new works by Australian composers Sally Whitwell, Nick Wales and Joe Twist alongside three works by Philip Glass, George Gershwin and Bernard Herrmann.

I’ve mostly experienced Nick Wales’ music as underscore or music for dance, but on the evidence of this work, it more than fills the stage on its own. Harbour Light has a wonderful sense of pace and drama, like a brilliantly written four-hander. Wales originally wrote it for string ensemble but, at after nagging from the Acacia Quartet, adapted it here for four voices. Their instincts were good. The lush and complex string textures are still there when the music needs it, but the individual gestures shine out.

‘Face to the Sun’ is Sally Whitwell’s first string quartet, and it’s a thing of beauty. The layers of texture she adds to the lively rhythms and seductive harmonic agenda reveal a pianist-turned-composer with much more to say. The Acacias gave ‘Face to the Sun’ an energetic, glowing first performance, and I’m sure there’ll be many more.

You can’t listen to ‘Spongebob’s Romantic Adventure’ without a smile on your face. Composer Joe Twist has conjured up a wacky tale bursting with character. It’s tricky, too, but the quartet handled the rhythmic and expressive lurches from melodrama to high comedy with impressive fluency.

Works by George Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and Philip Glass completed the program. The Utzon Room, as ever, did no favours for the string sound, but the Acacia Quartet battled on, finding a rare delicacy in the Gershwin, and vivid glimpses of movies imagined and real in the Herrmann.

As the concert ended and the phones went back on reality came flooding back in but, at least, it was reality coloured by a head full of beautiful sounds. Art matters. Especially now.

If you’re in Albury this weekend you can catch the Acacia Quartet at the inaugural Albury Chamber Music Festival.

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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Opera: the opera

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

In the grand tradition of writers writing about writing and painters painting pictures of painters painting, Opera Australia presents an opera about opera. They have the perfect setting, after all: a huge stepped stage with a stunning backdrop, lit by the setting sun. They also have a terrific plot, thanks to Alan John’s and Dennis Watkins’ neatly engineered (and mostly true) narrative of Australia’s biggest home renovation. And, after five years of Handa Opera on the Harbour, they have the know-how to overcome the huge challenges of presenting opera outdoors.

Sydney Opera House: the Opera is the latest incarnation of The Eighth Wonder, Alan John’s 1995 opera tracing the history of the building, from conception in 1958 to its opening night in 1974, 15 years behind schedule and eye-wateringly over budget. The opera has been presented twice inside the Opera House, but this production, outside, with the star of the show towering over everything, is surely its ideal setting. Director David Freeman and stage magician Dan Potra has solved the staging problems with a series of moving platforms and an inflatable castle, which also serves as a screen for projections. It’s a great deal more elegant than that description sounds. It also allows the Architect’s breakthrough aria — when he works out how to construct the sails — to be delivered in front of a dynamic animation of the fascinating geometry of the roof.

Yes, you can sing about geometry. More to the point, you can sing about that moment when you reach an epiphany – a profound, life-changing clarity — and, indeed, the entire work turns on such moments. Rather than dancing to opera’s stock-in-trade tunes of sex and death, the score surges when the central characters, the Architect (admirably sung by Adam Frandsen) and Alexandra, the would-be opera singer (Stacey Alleaume) conceptualise their dreams. Their soaring final duet, where the two meet for the first time, is a love song in the sense that it is a meeting of minds. A romance of ideas.

Other reviewers have paid tribute to the admirable cast and creative crew. Yep. What they said. Stacey Alleaume is a feisty heroine with a glorious voice, Adam Frandsen makes this physically, musically and dramatically difficult role into a wonderfully cohesive whole, and the myriad supporting cast — I particularly loved Martin Buckingham as Cahill and David Parkin as Alexandra’s barbecuing father — sang and acted their socks off. Meanwhile, the orchestra, safely locked up in the Studio with conductor Anthony Legge, brought out the rich and delicate colours of John’s score with brilliant fluency.

As for the entire, outdoor experience, it had plus and minus points for me. The major plus point was the amazing backdrop. As artistic director Lyndon Terracini said, it’s hard to think of a more Sydney experience. The site logistics were also impressively managed; everyone got their headsets, the queues for the bar and bathrooms were minimal and everywhere you turned there was a nice person saying ‘can I show you to your seat’ or ‘can I help you with your headset?’

Ah yes. The headsets. I nearly got into a Facebook fight with Julian Day about a careless generalisation about amplified music when I said I preferred opera unamplified. At the risk of starting another fire, I’ve got to say I’m still have two fundamental problems with amplified opera. The first is dramatic. With the sound either coming out of speakers or being funnelled directly into your ears via cans, it’s not always obvious who is singing. You can mitigate this problem in filmed opera using close-ups or, as they did here, by clever lighting (by the fabulous Trent Suidgeest) to direct the attention. It still, however, feels like a compromise.

The second is to do with tone quality and vocal technique. We talk about traditional opera voices being unamplified, but that’s not strictly true. Opera singers use specific techniques, which people singing in a choir, or a pub, or with a ukelele or, for that matter, into a microphone, don’t. I’m not an expert — there’s some explanation here — but it involves the position of your larynx and manipulating the fundamental and resonant frequency of your voice. So when opera singers sing, naked or into a microphone, their voice is already, to a certain extent, amplified. And while you could say that a microphone just gives them a greater dynamic range – in this case, the sky’s the limit – it also makes me wonder whether it is appropriate to use traditional operatic technique when you’re wired for sound. After all, Opera Australia mainly uses ‘singing actors’ in its (fully-miked) musicals, rather than opera singers, who use their voice in a way much closer to how you or I would sing in the shower. I’m not saying, as Guy Noble naughtily suggests, that acoustic opera should be phased out. In fact, I love the intensity and intimacy of the human voice in an appropriately sized space.  But as performance practices continue to evolve and as opera companies increasingly explore extra-theatrical spaces, will we see singers setting aside techniques developed in the nineteenth century in favour of twenty-first century technology?

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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Rites and rituals

Big night for the Sydney Symphony on Friday. I’d forgotten how massive the orchestra is for The Rite of Spring. Quintuple wind. Two tubas. Eight horns, with Wagner tubas in their back pockets… And that’s before we get to the percussion. It was an all-hands-on-deck night. And since everyone’s here, why not pair The Rite with another blockbuster, Steve Reich’s Desert Music? Sure. Just need some extra pianos, bring any marimbas you got and, oh yes, a choir. With mikes.

A night, then, of orchestral largesse, two grand edifices, side-by-side. Did it work? Or did all they drown each other out, like noise-cancelling headphones?

For me, the Reich was less successful than the Stravinsky. Perhaps it was the space, the amplification, or the distance I was from the stage, up in the cheap seats. It was certainly an impressive performance, mesmerising and fascinating by turn, but it didn’t have that visceral tug that I seek from this kind of wall of sound. The tempi felt slow, but lacking in space or pace. The ensemble was fuzzy and I couldn’t tell whether it was deliberate fuzzy or just fuzzy fuzzy. I felt like I was missing something. Missing the point. Missing the edge. Strange.

With the Stravinsky it all came back into sharp focus. Right from the start, with that extraordinary bassoon solo, played like a song, by principal Todd Gibson-Cornish, through the symphony of wind, and on into the rhythmic vortex, I enjoyed the constant changing of textures, like a mobile sculpture spinning in the breeze, transforming in a second into something quite other. Of course, I know the Rite well, so I was probably also enjoying the anticipation and recognition of those crazy riffs, waiting for that piccolo scream, for the psycho cello chords, the shiver of excitement as the ritual cranks into overdrive. The brass were magnificent, the wind soloists nailed it. And we got a one-man ballet from conductor David Robertson, out the front, pulling all the moves.

Observations from the back of the house: I still find watching percussionists endlessly fascinating, and up in the circle is the best place to see them. You see the bass drum player stand, pick up the stick with its big hairy pompom end, look up to the conductor, look back at their music. You can almost see them starting to breathe in synch with the music. Then the arm goes back and – bam. Perfect. Direct hit. All those bars to count and then one chance to get it right. They did.

Also, looking around at the audience up here at the back made me feel very old, and very good. Plenty of students, plenty of hipsters and yupsters and people having a great time. Lots of faces alive with excitement. This is not elite entertainment for the chardonnay set. This is art and it’s an important part of many people’s lives.

Well done, SSO. The fourteen-year-old who I was sitting next to is determined to come back for Firebird and Petrushka.

 


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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.