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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Big Music

c7arydgw0aeouhtA fantastic Sydney Symphony concert this afternoon. Benjamin Northey conducted the band in Andrew Ford’s Headlong, followed by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Simon Tedeschi as soloist, and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 to finish.

You don’t hear these pieces often. The Rach is a monster to play (not that Simon Tedeschi seemed to have any problems…). The Copland is huge and complex and requires virtuoso performances from every corner of the stage. And Headlong is by an Australian composer not called Percy Grainger, which is a tough place to start. Add to that its scoring, for basically everything in the box, including celesta, harp and kitchen cabinet of percussion, and the fact that the composer, Andrew Ford, pulls no punches in terms of what he expects of the players, creating a real concerto for orchestra. The SSO more than rise to the occasion, of course, but it’s not the sort of piece you could sneak into any program on a whim.

It’s also not, in my opinion, Ford’s most successful work. Not yet, at least. In his program note he explains how it has changed since its first outing, in 2007, introducing more space and a flamboyant but intricate final bar (which instantly, and delightfully, set off my Rite of Spring sensors). There is still, however, a level of opacity to the work which doesn’t fit with my sense of Ford as a subtle and insightful arch-communicator. It feels like there’s all this stuff in the texture which wants to be heard, but isn’t.

I’d never heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 performed live before and it was a fascinating experience, not just for the eye-wateringly tricky solo, but also for the way that the music forms a seamless continuum with the rest of Rachmaninov’s work. The first movement begins in media res, as if picking up from where the previous concertos left off, and there are constant wisps of melody that seem vaguely familiar. Is it possible to generate the feeling of nostalgia, without the knowledge of what one is nostalgic for?

Out of the crashing waves of melodic energy the soloist emerged not as the triumphant hero but as someone very much at one with his surroundings — far more part of the orchestra, a fellow musician, than the flashy virtuoso. A heroic anti-hero, if you like. Tedeschi’s legato is astonishing (and achieved with minimal pedal, it looked like) – giving Rachmaninov’s music a diamond-cut clarity, sorting out the themes from the nutty mountain of notes.

58.102While the piano was being moved for the Rachmaninov conductor Ben Northey gave the audience a few insights into the final work, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. This is the one that builds up to and integrates his previous work, Fanfare for the Common Man, in its blazing last movement. Northey pointed out that this passage appears at first as a passacaglia in the flutes, rather than a declamation in the brass (and you can hear the bones of the chord progression forming in the first movement too…) The point being, that this is not intended as a bombastic work, and far less a nationalist one, even though it has been dubbed the Great American Symphony. It’s stirring, it’s noble, but we needn’t conflate high ideals with a particular nation.  Hence the concert’s subtitle, Symphony for a Common Man.

Well said, Ben. And well played, SSO. Big music for big ideas, and a huge orchestra, held together by the finest of threads, all knitted together by Northey. Many soloists deserve a shout out — Ben Jacks and Rosemary Plummer in particular were outstanding — but in truth, this was the ultimate Concerto for Orchestra.

 

The black and white photo above is taken by Catherine Scudamore and is part of the Summer School Archive. It shows Aaron Copland (r) and Manoug Parikian (l) in front of the steps to the Great Hall at Dartington in 1968. You can see more of the archive by pledging to buy my book, Sanctuary. Do take a look!

 

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Jolly good fellows

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-lotrSydney Symphony Orchestra has just announced the fifteen young musicians who make up this year’s Fellowship. Over the next twelve months violinists Gemma Lee and Bridget O’Donnell, violists Martin Alexander and Joseph Cohen, cellists Nils Hobiger and Ruben Palma, bassist Alanna Jones, flutist Kim Falconer, oboist Joshua Oates, clarinettist David McGregor, bassoonist Christopher Haycroft, French horn player Alice Yang, trumpeter
Jenna Smith, trombonist Amanda Tillett, and percussionist Samuel Butler will take part in concerts, regional tours, masterclasses, lessons, workshops and pretty much anything else the orchestral life chooses to throw at them.

On Tuesday night they gave their first official performance, a concert on the stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in front of an intimate audience of supporters and special friends. The musicians, who are all in their twenties, were put on the spot. Just a week into the program, they presented a program of solos and chamber music, culminating in a tutti rendition of three Hungarian Dances by Brahms.

As you’d expect, they were pretty bloody good. But not as good as they will be, says Head of Philanthropy Rosemary Swift, in twelve months time.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is rightly proud of their Fellowship program. Most orchestras run various variations on talent development schemes, but the SSO’s is the most comprehensive in Australia and, according to an independent report by BYP group, it gets great results, in terms of training players for an orchestral career.

What interests me, though, is the SSO’s interpretation of what an orchestral career can be. Lots of Beethoven and a good dose of Brahms? Perhaps. But also performing in country halls, playing alongside school-age kids in the Playerlink program, and even presenting workshops in a high security prison. Not as lower-price-point stand-ins, making up the numbers for the main players, but as an integral part of a community.

Alex Ross describes a similar model in Listen to Thiswhere he writes about the L.A. Phil., and their legendary manager, Ernest Fleischmann. It was Fleischmann who really grappled with how orchestras could stay relevant in the modern world – how they could become more than just replicators of museum pieces, protectors of the flame of tradition. He conceived of the orchestra as a ‘community of musicians’. In the same way that universities become communities for knowledge, the orchestra becomes a community for music, which engages with many different kinds of audiences, with many different interests, from movie soundtracks to Beethoven to Boulez and beyond.

The SSO Fellowship certainly offers wonderful opportunities to its chosen few: lessons, mentors, experience on stage. But one of the most exciting things, for me, is how the breadth of experience the program offers is preparing musicians for a future.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for letting me tag along at the Fellows first concert. And if you like reading about music, please support my book, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now with Unbound. 


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For the birds

704607653-goose-flock-of-birds-dawn-arctic
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.

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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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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.

sso2016-a-feat-porgy-and-bess

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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Flashback Friday

Busy studying this week so no reviews until Sunday, when I’m seeing this. Instead, I’m posting a piece I wrote back in 2011 to celebrate this month’s guest visit from Sydney Symphony’s former chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, along with a photo from the Dartington Summer School archive from 1964.

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A young Vladimir Ashkenazy and son at Dartington International Summer School in 1964. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, with thanks to the Summer School Foundation).

It is twenty-eight minutes past three on a cool Tuesday afternoon in Sydney. The stage of the Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House is packed: 77 musicians sitting patiently, flicking through their music, adjusting their instruments; black clad stage managers in head sets darting from one door to another. Vladimir Ashkenazy appears on stage unannounced, dressed down in comfy slacks and a white t-shirt printed with a black and white portrait of composer Edward Elgar. He squeezes nimbly between the first and second violins, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging a few words with individuals as he goes, then hops onto the podium. More smiles, a glance at the score. ‘No. 19, please’. Then the baton goes down and the music begins.

The musicians of Sydney Symphony are rehearsing their season opener, a performance of Grieg’s incidental music for the Ibsen play, Peer Gynt. The music is interspersed with extracts from the play, read by actor John de Lancie, and this is a technical rehearsal, finalising the lighting and sound, and making sure the orchestral and non-orchestral elements run together seamlessly.

As such, the orchestra and its conductor, Ashkenazy, are just following orders. At the request of the stage manager, they skip to the night scene, where de Lancie must speak over the orchestra, recitative style. There is a moment of confusion as de Lancie pauses unexpectedly.

“What do you want us to do there?” Ashkenazy shrugs, not quite impatiently. “I don’t mind.” The stage manager negotiates a minor change to the script and the music continues.

In spite of the stop-start nature of the rehearsal, no one is fidgeting, and no-one is holding back: the music is never less than beautiful, the notes are all there, the phrases are turned with infinite care. Ashkenazy is small in stature but he bristles with energy on the podium, shaping phrases and cueing entries with a look, a gesture, a slight stiffening of the shoulders.

Ashkenazy in person is much the same as Ashkenazy on the podium. Soft spoken, economical with his words, and utterly engaged by the music. Asked whether he ever shouts or throws his weight around in rehearsals, he smiles.

“No. I’m not the type. I don’t find any reason to yell. Not with anybody. Especially not with Sydney Symphony. But I don’t think I ever yelled. It’s not my nature. If something goes wrong I just wait, and get it right. Yelling won’t help.

“You do not need so many words. The musicians do not like it. They just like to play music, to play beautifully.”

(First published in Limelight Magazine, 2011).

I suggest you hurry along to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s website to check out what’s on tonight, tomorrow and next week. It will be a treat.

Since the reduction in arts coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald there is almost no prospect of a preview, feature or review for most music ensembles in Sydney. I am, therefore, supporting 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.