If a tree falls….

May 22, 2015

640px-Arnim_Brentano_Des_Knaben_Wunderhorn_1806_-_1808
Lest an unblogged concert suffer the same fate as an unheard falling tree, I’m returning to blog life with a bit of a catch up. This has turned into a bit of a marathon post.

First, concerts I went to.

1.   Australia Ensemble 14 March Raising Sparks

As usual, I went with my old friend, P. This was the Australia Ensemble’s season opener with guest artists Alice Giles, harp and Fiona Campbell, mezzo soprano. The program was:

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Introduction and Allegro (1905)

Arnold BAX (1833-1953): Harp Quintet (1919)

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924): Piano Trio in D minor Op. 120 (1922-3)

James MACMILLAN (b 1959): Raising Sparks for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, harp, piano and string quartet (1997).

David Stanhope conducted the MacMillan.

I enjoyed the Ravel the most, even though it is a shamelessly written-to-order promotional piece for a new model of harp which reflects Ravel’s compositional practice at the beginning of his career rather than where he went later. Harriet Cunningham of the SMH was less enthusiastic but she wasn’t sitting as close to the harp as I was. Sometimes luscious sound is its own reward. (It would be nice to say that conversely making a beautiful sound with crap music is also a harpist’s tragedy but I’m not sure things work like that.)

The ensuing Bax was a bit of an anticlimax, mainly because the harp was further away. The Fauré met (reasonably high) expectations, save that rather a lot of it was written in unison for cello and violin which seems odd for a trio. The MacMillan was fascinating and Fiona Campbell did a great job but towards the end it became less fascinating as it went on a bit.

If I had to start taking MacMillan’s ideas seriously I don’t think I could. It’s one thing to tolerate guff from someone long-dead such as Wagner but I am less tolerant of my own contemporaries.

2.   Sydney Symphony Orchestra 21 March

This featured Janine Jensen (violin) and her conductor husband, Daniel Blendulf, with the Brahms violin concerto in the first half and the Sibelius Fifth Symphony in the second. I think that’s a pretty solid program. A piece by Nigel Butterley marking his eightieth birthday was a bonus. Though hardly flashy (it was commissioned by the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic, a “community” orchestra) this grew on me as it went. It is too long ago for me to say anything else intelligent about the Brahms and Sibelius (which is not meant to be a self-congratulation that I have said anything intelligent about the Butterley) other than that I remember Mr Blendulf as a young man in a hurry when he got the bit between his teeth although JJ more than matched him in the Brahms finale.

3.   Louis Lortie in recital at Angel Place, 13 April

This program was entirely made up of preludes, by, in turn, Faure, Scriabin and Chopin. The Fauré were a bit of a mixed bag (the most amiable was reminiscent of Kitty-Waltz from “Dolly”), the Scriabin were a revelation and the Chopin the most familiar and probably for that reason the most enjoyable.

4.  18 April – Australia Ensemble My Twentieth Century

Again, to this with P and her music-student son, this time on some kind of special offer to Sydney Youth Orchestra members in honour of Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles having recently performed the Brahms double concerto with them. The program was:

Martin BRESNICK (b 1946): My Twentieth Century (2002)

Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014): Irkanda IV (1961) arr. by the composer for flute and string quartet

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Duo for violin and cello (1920-22)

Elliott CARTER (1908-2012): Esprit rude, esprit doux (1985)

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934): Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

The Bresnick, for string quartet, flute and piano, is one of those pieces that requires the musicians to speak portions of a text, in this case leaving their instrumental places and stepping up to the microphone to say their allotted portions of a poem reproduced here. So I was trepidatious on two counts – musicians speaking and mixture of amplified and acoustic sound. It turned out there was no need for my trepidation – none of the speaking was cringe-making and it wasn’t too loud, and the device of the speaking also provided a neat means of varying the texture as in turn a different instrument was excised from the ensemble. The music itself was a kind of mild semi-post-minimalism. I enjoyed it.

I wasn’t so sure about the Sculthorpe. Is there no limit to how often the late PS could repackage essentially the same music? Sculthorpe right now basks in a kind of post-obit afterglow but after watching some of the television manifestations of it (especially the party scene featuring a young Alan John and even younger Jonathan Mills bashing away in piano duo) I wonder how long this will endure now Sculthorpe isn’t here to be so Charming to Everyone. I know I am going out on a limb here.

In the second half the Elliott Carter was short but invigorating and the Elgar was satisfying.

5.    Sydney Symphony, Des Knaben Wunderhorn & Nutcracker Act II – 8 May

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

I was keen to get to this because DkW via Schwarzkopf & Fischer-Dieskau and Szell was my point of entry to Mahler, when in my teenage years we still thought of him as a slightly recondite but definitely groovy and for-the-cognoscenti composer. Berlioz was another in the same category and thinking back I’d say LP recordings of the 60s and 70s had a lot to do with it.

Oddly enough, DKW does not seem to get onto the SSO’s roster so often these days. The latest Sydney performance the program notes identified was not by the SSO but by the VPO on their last visit, and the 2010-11 SSO Mahler-fest did not extend to it. Natalie Shea’s program note for Symphony Australia (adapted for the this occasion and lacking any explanation of the selection of songs in the concert and explaining only by omission their sequence and assignment to particular singers) dated back to 2002. DKW seems to have been relegated to Mahler-lite and crowded out by the symphonies and the more heavy-duty orchestral songs.

For this performance, the SSO supplemented the set in its final form with “Urlicht” now better known as part of the “Resurrection” Symphony.

The songs were divvied up between Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo, and Randall Scarlata, baritone. Ms Hulcup is an Australian with a growing career in Europe. I am not quite so sure how Mr Scarlatta got the gig. He is an American lieder specialist who has studied in Austria and does not at first glance seem an obvious choice for a set of orchestral songs in German in Sydney. Both singers sang without a book. Oddly, Scarlatta sang a different version of the text from that printed in the program and he seemed to have memorized a kind of typo at one point, singing “Heid” (heath/hedge) for “Held” (hero). I confess I listen to the music more than the words when I am there in the flesh and I only picked this up when I followed the text when listening to the broadcast at home. None of this detracted from my enjoyment of his performance on the night, and as one of the songs points out, the judge with the biggest ears may well be an ass.

The “Nutcracker” was an entirely different and very lush world. It was fun but hard to take very seriously (as if one should). The final waltz could not match the “Waltz of the Flowers” for impact.

6.     Sydney Symphony “Romantic Visions” 16 May

The title for this program struck me as a bit of a misnomer. The works were:

Siegfried Idyll
Bartok Piano Concerto 3 (soloist Peter Serkin)
Brahms arr Schoenberg: Piano Quartet op 25.

The justification for the title seems to have been that the Wagner and the Bartok were both written (in different ways) for their wives, and the Brahms is a romantic piece (in a different sense).

The Wagner was upscaled to a full if small string orchestra, so both it and the Brahms/Schoenberg are arrangements and not in the symphonic mainstream and the Bartok is slightly left-of-centre. Sales were presumably slow on account of this as I was able to take advantage of an “invite a friend” offer and take D along (or rather, he took me, for reasons that will become obvious later in the song).

Clive Paget in (or rather on) Limelight has decried conductor Matthias Pintscher’s approach to the Siegfried Idyll as “somnolent.” You have to imagine you are Clara, waking (or possibly pretending to wake and be surprised) on Christmas Day (the first after you have managed to marry the father of three of your children) to music wafting up the stairs of your villa by a lake in Switzerland. Paget also called it glacial and I suppose this would not be inauthentic either if you think of the likely temperature. I can see what Paget meant but I didn’t mind it – the real question is whether it is good programming to start so gently. Even so, I felt the audience took it quite attentively in the spirit in which it was intended.

I enjoyed the Bartok – Serkin’s playing struck me as pointillist. D was less keen. He prefers his soloists younger and more romantic.

I have never entirely warmed to the Brahms/Schoenberg. It’s fun and the orchestra pulled out every stop in a cracking rendition but in the end as with people who go to a film and say “the book was better” I prefer the original quartet. I still enjoyed it – it would be stupid not to. The second and last movements were my favourites, which simply reflects my favourites in the quartet.

8.    Peter Serkin in recital at Angel Place, 18 May

This was an unusual recital. It began with an arrangement of a motet by Josquin des Prez and a run of pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, followed by some variations by Nielsen to finish the first half. The second half opened with three rarities by Max Reger, dipped into Mozart with a Rondo in A minor (the slow one, not the Alla Turca) and finished off with Beethoven Op 90.

Serkin is billed as an “intellectual” player and the wannabe intellectual in me would like to be able to get right into this, but I found I couldn’t. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t capable playing, or that there weren’t bits I enjoyed, especially the Reger pieces which were unknown to me. The Nielsen variations were unknown to me too but I find it hard to believe that they should be played with such little variation of mood or tone.

Of course everybody’s playing is mannered in one way or another but what was wearing me down was a kind of intense scrupulosity, studded with micro pauses signifying intensity and refinement – sustained pointillism, I suppose. In the Mozart Rondo these threatened to bring the music to a stop altogether.

By the time we came to the Beethoven I was actually becoming irritated by this. This is stupid because after all it is still great music and I should have been able still to get a lot about it. Maybe my problem was an irritation that others (eg) were feeling that something incredibly profound was going on that I couldn’t share.

I shall listen again to the broadcast (advertised in the program as on 22 May but now set down for 31 May) and see if I can appreciate the playing better then.

Maybe I was just having a bad Endone trip. For completeness, there was one concert I had a ticket for but didn’t make.

9.    SSO Louis Lortie, Y-P Tortelier, Mozart and Franck, 10 April

This was a concert I was very much looking forward to. Unfortunately, the day before I was diagnosed with a fractured knee I had been walking around on for a few weeks. Put in a brace and on crutches for which I had absolutely no capacity or stamina, I just couldn’t manage it. As I have since found, thanks in no small part to the helpfulness and professionalism of the front of house staff, it is not so difficult as you might think to get to a concert at the SOH when you are mobility-impaired.

P went in my place. Had I gone I would have been able to catch up with my friend and former high school music teacher, E, visiting from the far north coast for an orgy of big-city musical events. E enjoyed the concert so much that she went a second time on the Saturday afternoon instead of the Musica Viva Festival concert she was booked for, and said that the second time was even better.

Later, at home between Endone snoozes, I caught the second half of this concert on the radio, which was a consolation of sorts.

Piano minding

March 31, 2015

Twenty years ago, a friend and fellow music student (A) lent me a piano.  A was moving to share with another fellow student in a house which had a bigger and better piano, and I did not have a piano. 

The piano was a small Young Chang upright – not really an adequate piano for any serious purposes because its action was so shallow and light.  Almost a toy piano, indeed, but still adequate provided those limitations were taken into account.  I think such pianos then sold for about $1500 or maybe that was the second-hand price at the time, but it is sufficient to give an idea. 

I paid for the removalists (that was about $150), moved a bookshelf from the one available wall in my flat and its contents into my then unregistered car sitting in the carport to my flat, and kept the piano tuned.

Fifteen years ago, I moved temporarily to Perth. I decided that the Young Chang was not worth taking – even though my employer would have paid for it to be moved and eventually to be brought back. I anticipated renting something a bit better once I got to Perth, which is what I in fact did.

A had in the meantime moved and had another, more adequate, piano.  With A’s permission, I passed the piano on to my friend B, who as it would happen lived just a few metres up the street from A.  B knew it was A’s piano.

Thirteen years ago, I came back from Perth.  I bought my own piano, a Yamaha U3 imported (second-hand and reconditioned) from Japan.  That cost me $5,000.  Two years ago when I moved from Dulwich Hill to Ashfield, I paid the removalists a modest premium for moving the piano. 

I kept the piano tuned, save for a longish gap between the last tuning in Dulwich Hill and the first tuning in Ashfield at the beginning of this year.  That was because my by-then-preferred piano tuner had taken a full-time job as tuner and was no longer interested in tuning my rather crumby instrument and it took a while to track down another tuner and actually get him to come.  Just to give an idea, over this time a tune went from about $120 to (on the last occasion) $200.

I would still see A from time to time in musical contexts, though our worlds have otherwise drifted apart.  I saw B more often.  In the intervening period, B moved twice, getting the piano moved at a premium (stairs and pianos always attract a premium, usually per step) each time, although as far as I could make out B played it rarely and never had it tuned.

In the middle of January this year, I received an email from A.  As a barrister, I can always be tracked down.  It turned out the better piano I’d seen at A’s place in 2000 was not A’s own piano, but was one that A had been “minding” for someone who had been overseas.  That person now wanted their piano back.  A asked if A’s old piano might still be somewhere and retrievable.  “If it’s not, never mind, but if it is, I’d definitely be interested in getting it back.”

I asked B, who said A was welcome to the piano if A wanted it back.  I passed this message and B’s contact details on to A. I suggested to A that A might want to have a look at it first before deciding if A really wanted it.

I don’t know if A ever got to look at the piano.  Quite soon it became clear that despite B’s initial agreement to returning the piano, B was not being particularly co-operative. Yes, A could come to check the piano out, but B would not be going very far out of B’s way to make any arrangements to enable that.

And so it went on.  Removalists arrived at B’s place to pick up the piano, but at 8.30 am rather than the arranged 9.00 am. They left without the piano. According to B, they didn’t have piano straps, but whether or not this was the reason they left empty-handed, no subsequent arrangements for picking up the piano were agreed to by B before B left the country for some months a few weeks ago.

There’s probably a moral to be drawn from this tale but a snappy conclusion eludes me right now.

Seeing the quack

March 24, 2015

When I was a child, our family doctors were called Angel and Himmelhoch. It was, as my parents liked to joke, a partnership made in heaven. In a piece of slang which seems to have disappeared now even from my father’s idiolect, they also used to talk about going to see “the quack.”

In my first few years of high school I was very unhappy at school and became a bit of a malingerer, especially on days when PE was on the timetable. I was taken or sent to the doctor rather more often than I really needed to go.

These days I don’t go to the doctor often. I know most of the things which are wrong with me and the remedy largely lies in my own hands (more exercise, less eating/drinking, stop smoking – though attempts in that direction can be pharmaceutically assisted).

So generally, when the odd need for a diagnosis or a prescription or a referral arises, I go to a medical centre in the city.

I’ve found a doctor there I like. I saw his birthdate once on some paperwork on his desk (I’m good at upside-down reading) and the year was 1938 – or it might have been 1936. In his surgery he has some old photos including a graduation photo and some group shots presumably with other young doctors which by the cut of the suits corroborate this date.

I ask him why he keeps on working. He says he loves it. He comes in for 3 or 4 days a week and as far as I can gather, works for 12 hours on each of those days – from 8am to 8pm.

Maybe that’s just a bit much. Last time I was there he needed to ring up for an approval of something he was going to prescribe for me (OK, I confess: to do with another quit attempt), and there was quite a long conversation with the operator before he finally realised he had rung up the number for people with a militarily-derived entitlement rather than the ordinary Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme number for the rest of us. It was almost 8pm and I suppose he was tired. He claimed this was the first time he had ever made this mistake, which I find a bit unlikely.

The time before, I had a lengthy consultation about a shopping-list of long-deferred issues. During it I noticed a rough patch of skin on the outside of my forearm. At the heel of the hunt I mentioned this to him and he took a quick look at it. “I’ll give you a referral to the skin cancer clinic. They’re very reasonable.” By the latter he meant their fees.

That’s exactly the words he used last time he referred me to them, some years ago. There’s a lot of repetition in the work of a General Practitioner.

A few days later the area on my arm began to itch and soon after the rough patch began to come away. I decided it must have been a previously unnoticed scab from some encounter with sharp vegetation in the garden or somewhere else. I told the doctor about it last time I was there (ie the next time I returned) and he half-heartedly defended the earlier quasi-diagnosis: “It can happen [and still be something which the skin cancer clinic should look at].”

In fact I’m happy to go for another check-up for potential melanomas though it might take me a few months to get around to it. We’ll just have to pass over the bit in the referral letter which refers to the spot on my arm because it is totally gone.

If I had something seriously wrong I expect I would be referred to a specialist with up-to-the-minute expertise, but in the meantime I find it quite comforting to be able to see an old-school doctor.

I suppose that is a short-term view. The longer-term approach at my age would be to find a doctor a good deal younger than oneself.

S.

March 5, 2015

Sxq Feb 2009

This was meant to appear automatically a few days ago to mark the 3 years since my friend S/Sx/Sq decided to leave us early.

Faust

March 3, 2015

I have been sitting on a half completed post about Opera Australia’s current production of Gounod’s Faust for a while.  This is not it.

The production, originally directed by David McVicar is an often revived co-production between Covent Garden and a number of other houses. It has been brought out here by the Opera Conference and is destined to rattle around Australia – to Adelaide and Perth at least, for much of this year (with Teddy T-R as Mephistopheles on each occasion). Maybe it will get to Melbourne and Brisbane next year if it hasn’t been packed off back home by then.

The Sydney production is strongly cast. I have seen it twice and have only a few niggles:

  • When Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, is off to the war, he is concerned about leaving Marguerite home alone.  Sebald (a trousers role), who nurtures a (we know) hopeless love for Marguerite, reassures Valentin that he will look after Marguerite while Valentin is away.  This is not a lewd suggestion (we know Sebald’s love is pure and also hopeless as he is too young for Marguerite to be interested) and Valentin thanks Sebald.  Sebald responds that Valentin can count on him.  The men’s chorus echo “You can count on us too.”  That is a little more suggestive.  All the same, I don’t think that the thrusting gesture with a rolled-up newspaper by one gentleman of the chorus was called for. A little teasing might be OK but I lewdness directed towards a departing soldier’s sister seemed implausibly vulgar.
  • Likewise, in the Garden scene (when Faust seduces Marguerite), Mephistopheles disappears inside the house of Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbour (she’s a comic duenna type character) for a bit of how’s-your-father.  That’s fine and it’s clear that is what is going to happen.  But I don’t think that Mephistopheles would emerge, as he does in this production, buttoning up his trousers.  Mephistopheles is the devil but he is also a bit of a gent.
  • Musically, I was a bit surprised, both times, at the strident tone that Peter Jenkin, the principal clarinet, adopted for one of his big solos, but he must have been doing it from choice.

Otherwise, it is a strong production and accessible music.  Perfect for high-brows and non-highbrows alike, provided the latter are prepared to go along with a rather clunky story and its premiss in particular of the fallen lass who can reasonably expect to be damned (OK: she does kill her child).

Emboldened by the universally positive critical reception, Opera Australia have announced an extra performance, on Monday 9 March.  I would gladly go but the date is impossible for me.

Meanwhile I am concerned that OA may have left their run a bit late.  The production was well-booked even before opening night and it is a pity that the extra performance couldn’t have been announced earlier. It’s all very well waiting for the opening night, the reviews and the word-of-mouth, but a couple of  weeks or so is a rather short time to rustle up an audience on a Monday night at 6.30 pm with ticket prices as they are. People need to plan for these things (especially considering the price). When I looked just now there were still 839 [Revision: not 739 as I originally stated owing to a failure to carry the 1] seats out of 1431 available for sale.

I hope they can shift those seats.  It would be a pity if they went to waste.

Strange meeting

February 24, 2015

One night last week, in the early evening and after the post-work rush, I took a lift from my lofty workplace to the ground. One man, probably a bit older than I, was already in it. It was just us two.

At first he seemed to be reading something. He eyed me quizzically for a moment and then spoke.

“Did you go to Gordon West Primary?”

“No. I went to West Pymble. But my mother taught at Gordon West.”

“Librarian?”

My mother was the librarian. I probably nodded.

“Did you go to Barker?”

“No, but I did go to Artarmon.”

That might seem a bit of a non-sequitur but not, I think, to him: it was my explanation of where he might have known me – when we were both taking the bus to Gordon Station to our respective schools.

He told me his name; I told him mine; we shook hands. We talked a little more about West Pymble and West Gordon. Oddly, he was a little vague about the name of the street he lived in, but he did lay claim to living on “the poor side” of Ryde Road (that’s the east side, though I don’t think there was much in it).

My curiosity whetted, I found a picture of him on Trove in a Women’s Weekly story about Daffodil Day at Gordon West Primary in 1964.

Aided by the captions to the picture, I can recognize the man in the boy. I’m pretty amazed that he could recognize the boy in me.

First-night crowd

February 19, 2015

The scene: row C of the stalls in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the SOH just before the opening of Faust. The row is full save for two seats in the centre.

A woman enters from the right to take one of the seats. I recognize her immediately as I have previously sat next to her in those seats at one of my rare first nights. Longe blond-ish hair tops off an outfit in a style I can only generally describe as superannuated-hippy-bohemian. A woman of similar style enters from the left. Affecting surprise, she calls out: “Oh, hello, Gretel.”

Quite a good joke really: obviously they had come together but the position of their seats dictated different doors. Also quite a good entrance.

At interval, prominent Sydney defamation barrister, Clive Evatt, who sat behind me and has a propensity to unwrap his sweets just after the music starts, engaged Gretel in conversation. What about what the Telegraph (or it could have been the Herald) had published about her? Gretel said it was a very poorly researched piece, but they had since apologised. Clive demurred: apology or not, it was worth $200,000. He, too, could have been joking.

I’m not really crazy about the first-night crowd, but it was fun to see a self-declared Sydney icon keeping up appearances.

One law for the rich

February 13, 2015

Gina Rinehart has obtained an order for preliminary discovery, entitling her lawyers to preview the upcoming episode of the TV series concerning her (which is presumably coming up to the bit where she hounded Rose Porteus through the courts in a second inquest into the death of Lang Hancock – an episode rightly described by then WA Attorney-General, Jim McGinty, as “a savage waste of public resources”) in order to decide whether to seek an injunction against its publication.

Back in 2010, Wendy Hatfield, about to be defamed in an instalment of the ‘Underbelly’ franchise, did not fare so well. She was refused orders for preliminary discovery concerning that series. The judge held (and the Court of Appeal upheld) that she had to wait and see and get damages afterwards if she was defamed (which she was).

Perhaps Rinehart’s lawyers learnt from where Hatfield’s lawyers failed, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is one law for the very rich and another for the rest of us.

Which is probably a truism, if you think about it even a little bit. Even if I am affronted, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Update

Justice Garling’s reasons finally (24/3) published.  On a cursory reading, it looks like Channel 9 was hoist by its own publicity, which suggested, amongst other things, that while everyone else should stay in on Sunday night to watch the program, Mrs Rinehart might like to go out for dinner.  I don’t find his Honour’s distinguishing of the Wendy Hatfield decision quite so convincing.

Self portrait with stationery

January 26, 2015

P1090518

Patriotism does not greatly attract me. That is not to say that I am any more free than anyone else of an attachment to where I was born or where I live, but the clamour of the nation state holds less appeal.

I have observed Australia Day as it originally appeared to me at the time I was first able to notice such things: the last day before school – a kind of delayed end of the old year.

It’s just over 2 years now since I moved to my present house. I still believe the previous house was nicer, and perhaps it was.

Meanwhile, I decided today to sort through the above oddments which, as part of my last move, I gathered up from one of my desk drawers. So far (ie, since the picture was taken) I have managed to throw out the pens which didn’t work.

There is at least one object there the nature and use of which (even if ever so slight) remains a mystery to me.

Opera review

January 17, 2015

P1090515 (2)

Dr Nugent is chairing a review of the major opera companies. The Sydney public consultation session is for two hours on a Friday afternoon at the end of January.

Terms of reference here. The financial criteria are the most detailed.

Meantime, going through some boxes of old papers, I came across the above from an opera program booklet for our national flagship company from some years ago. The opening of the text has been somewhat mangled by my low-tech means of masking the year but the overall drift remains clear enough.

And pretty chastening.

For those who may not be troubled to click on the picture to view a larger and more legible version, it is that the demand for opera in Sydney currently exceeded the supply; that the company had 96% capacity houses in the last season and people would need to subscribe be sure of securing a decent seat (though this is not entirely consistent with the point that they would be able to exchange their tickets if they wished).

How did we get from there to here?


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