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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Angels and Demons

ebb94e9213bbd23d4b2e0811a7099945The relative speed of light and sound has always fascinated me. The way that, on the cricket pitch, you see the batsman swing and follow through a good second before you hear the tock of willow on leather. Or, in the concert hall, how the conductor’s baton goes down and nothing happens for a split second, then this great noise wells out from the stage, even as the stick is rebounding for the next note. That gap between sight and sound is tantalising: eyes open, the orchestra looks like it’s not playing on the conductor’s beat, but eyes closed, it sounds tight as a drum. When you also consider that the wind, brass and percussion are themselves factoring in the sound lag, playing micro-seconds ahead of the beat, which is microseconds ahead of the strings, to achieve the desired ensemble, the complexity of relationships between players, conductor and audience becomes quite mind-blowing. As the Doctor would say,   it’s “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”.

There was plenty of timey wimey stuff on Friday night. American conductor James Gaffigan did his thing, the orchestra did theirs and, as if by magic — but actually by a whole heap of skill and little bit of physics — it all came together. The lilt and swagger of the Kodaly’s Hungarian csardas, the wistful lingerings of Rachmaninov’s waltz, the unforgiving perpetual motion of the finale… The Sydney Symphony were on fine form, soloists from within the ranks shining through exhilarating tuttis.

26753-275-prom_21_bach_alina_ibragimova_chris_christodoulou_resizedBartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 dances to a different kind of time, simultaneously strange but familiar. Soloist Alina Ibragimova brought a punchy, physical toughness to the unrelenting virtuosity of the first movement, riding the orchestral tuttis like an extreme surfer. All that changed, however, in the second movement, where the solo line floated, as if without effort, across the crystal sheen of high strings and harp. The finale was fraught, taut, terrifying. Brilliant.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for inviting me to this concert, and I hope to hear Ibragimova again, soon. In the meantime, the orchestra welcomes back its chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, next week for the Big One – Mahler 3. If they play like they played on Friday, it’ll be fab.

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my book project, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now at Unbound. You can buy advance copies and pledge for a range of rewards including coming to a concert with me, music criticism workshops, or the opportunity to work with me on telling your story in music and words

 

 


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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…