A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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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.



Dancing to Opera

I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.

Courtesy Opera Australia

Courtesy Opera Australia

Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.

Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act,  the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.

Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:

Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!

It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.

So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?

Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?

The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.

Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).

The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.

So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.

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Review: SSO / Mozart at the Movies

This was written for Sydney Morning Herald but didn’t make it in due to space issues. Space. The Final Frontier. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Mozart at the Movies

City Recital Hall, February 6


3 stars

No heart attacks reported, but at least one lady in the audience jumped visibly last night when, from a whisper of a little tune the Sydney Symphony Orchestra pulled out a loud tutti bang. It was just the result Joseph Haydn had been looking for when he wrote some gimmicks into his Symphony No. 94 in G (Surprise) to get the London audiences of the 1730s talking, and just the thing to set the light-hearted tone of the first 2014 Mozart in the City concert for the year. Haydn’s real surprise in this symphony, however, is his endless capacity for invention, and the Orchestra, under the assured direction of concertmaster Dene Olding, laid out the intricacies of the score with satisfying clarity, a well-polished string sound underpinning the colourful interjections of flutes and oboes. The audience were prepared for the finale’s surprise, with grins all round at timpanist Richard Miller’s enthusiastic interjection.

There were no gimmicks in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467. Taking his lead from the finely-shaped introduction of the ensemble, Gavrylyuk brought a light touch to the conversational solo, pairing exacting precision with the give and take of a chamber musician. The limpid melody of the slow movement – yes, the Elvira Madigan theme — was blessedly free of indulgence; just a quiet moment of aching beauty, with sensitive accompaniment from strings and wind soloists. As for the finale, Olding set the orchestra off at a blistering pace, which Gavrylyuk picked up eagerly, settling comfortably into the rapid-fire scale passages like an athlete pacing himself for the final sprint. Not everyone reached the finishing line at the same time, but it was, nevertheless, an exciting race.

For an encore – the ‘mystery moment’ – Gavrylyuk threw off the restraints of the eighteenth-century galant style in favour of bare-faced showmanship with a transcription of Mozart’s Turkish March by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. It was everything a virtuoso piano solo should be: fast, furious and enormous fun. More music to make you smile.



The eyes have it.

I just did a feature on the use of visuals in classical music concerts. It’s published here.

I could have written so much more. I spoke to about six different people, and felt I was only scratching the surface. Then someone reminded me that blogs don’t have word limits. So here are some edited highlights from various interviews on the subject.

First up, Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony.

It’s a relatively new trend which started in the US with orchestras looking to ‘enhance’ the concert experience. It’s partly a reaction to the entertainment rich culture that we have now, at home as well as outside; a way of trying to provide another element to the traditional concerts. First there were close-up images of musicians projected on screen, then that moved into devising programs of live performances with projected images, in a number of different ways.

One way is through stills, one is through is moving image and the third is through multimedia works that are actually created to go with the music. There are examples in what we do of all of those. We did a project last year where we did Holst’s The Planets and we projected NASA images of all the planets while we were playing it. We sold out three concerts of that and most  people thought it was fabulous. Some closed their eyes and didn’t want the images because it got in the way of the music for them. But there’s no doubt that that additional element was extremely well received by a lot of people.

We’re doing quite a lot of work in [the area of movies]. We started with Battleship Potemkin and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which were silent movies which we then played a score to, and they were extraordinarily powerful. If I’m honest, I hadn’t expected them to be as powerful as they were. Battleship Potemkin was a score put together from Shostakovich’s music from the time, and it was amazingly powerful. Y’know, there is nothing like hearing 110 musicians on stage playing huge symphonic music. So to have that as the accompaniment to the film rather than the soundtrack was amazing.

We’re doing the second of the three Lord of the Rings movies this year. That crosses over into the area of the cinema experience. I think now with the incredibly fine home entertainment systems there is a theme of ‘is this a cinema movie, or one I can watch at home?’ In a way the presentations we’ve done with Lord of the Rings or West Side Story are almost the other end of the spectrum – these films with really incredible film scores – it’s just amazing to hear them live. Those all sell out. It is a different audience, but it’s a big audience. People love it.

The third way is to use multimedia as a way of providing and actually exploring a whole different interpretation of a piece of music. An example – Bill Viola with Philharmonia does an opera in concert, Tristan and Isolde, projecting on vast screens all around the hall. It was incredible. I think this is the real pinnacle of where technology and multimedia can add value into symphonic performances. I think you’ll see a lot more in the coming years. There are a number of other operas that that would work really well. For the large number of people who really enjoy classical music but also enjoy big spectacle that’s a hugely attractive way to go.

So is the traditional concert a dying form?

I don’t think it is. We’re doing four performances of Beethoven 9 this week and they’re all sold out. 11,000 coming to see that.  if you get concerts right, in terms of the content and the repertoire, soloists, it is still extremely attractive. We’re growing audiences.

When I go to concerts where there are giant screens I hate that. You are being guided where you should look. I think that limits the experience more than often, rather than adds to it. In the same way, I’ve been to sporting events where you trek all the way out to Homebush then watch the giant screen. Why?

I find that with concerts. If you are actually in the hall I don’t look at the screens, I close my eyes. Music speaks in a way that is beyond images. It’s your own emotional connection with the music that is so powerful.

We will continue to explore and develop it and become more bold in what we do. You take a risk with it, just because the sheer presentation of the multimedia is a very significant cost. For me, don’t go half cock and produce something mediocre. Really go for the highest quality of production you can – really great sound, big screen, powerful projector. Otherwise people will go out and say “it’s not really a cinema movie, I could’ve watched that at home.”

Next up, Tim Calnin from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

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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.

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“An absolutely brilliant boy”

The Sydney Symphony’s first Australian-born chief conductor came from the ranks. “Charlie”, as all his friends and colleagues knew him, was principal oboe and a very ambitious young man who wanted to be a conductor. Linda Vogt remembers him as a brilliant 17-year-old with red hair. “He was always agitating at the ABC to give him a chance. Charlie got up on the rostrum and chose to conduct Portsmouth Point by William Walton. He staggered us. His knowledge of the score and technique were brilliant. The orchestra was absolutely confounded.”

Sir Charles Mackerras was the first Australian Chief Conductor of Sydney Symphony. He stayed for just three years, but continued to visit regularly right up until 2007.

Vale, optimus.