A bit over a week ago to the SOH for Christoph von D’s second concert with the SSO.
You can tell his visit has got the orchestra excited because the box office was crowded with orchestra members picking up tickets for their friends or (if off duty) themselves.
First was Lutosławski’s Musique funebre in memoriam for Bela Bartok. I’m afraid I have a bit of a resistance to string orchestra pieces, but even I finally was drawn in by the wall-of-string-sound shriek of the climactic Apogee movement – which reminded me of Penderecki’s (rather opportunistically-titled) Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima of about the same time.
Second up was Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs. The concert was billed as Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling’s Australian debut, which can’t be quite correct (she’s been in Melbourne twice before). She is an engaging singer though for me the fascination was more in the orchestral details. This is an early work by Berg, more a summation of his precursors (and in the case of his teacher, Schoenberg, of Schoenberg’s own summatory style) than in his mature style, and as with many ‘prentice works, Berg really threw the kitchen sink at the orchestration. I hope to listen again to it assuming it will be streamed on the web (until about 21 May it should be here).
I did catch just now the balance of the concert as broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM, being the Brahms Second Symphony. It stood up well to my recollection of the concert, without quite making as strong an impact as the Bruckner.
The experiment with the new seating was continued. To my regret, the horns were brought in from the back corner to the middle of the orchestra and the woodwinds consequently relegated back down to their customary height. I should have known that the flutes’ liberating elevation was too good to last.
Last night to see the SSO conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, making at the age of 86 what was rather cutely described as his “Australian debut.”
I suppose the title of this post is a bit unfair to Carolin Widmann, the violin soloist in the Berg concerto and herself a member of a prominent musical family (you could think of her and her brother as like Australia’s Dean brothers in reverse), but we haven’t had to wait so long to see her.
Once again, the concerto crept up on me unaware (that’s me unaware rather than the concerto), owing in part to a sudden and sad trip to Canberra this week.
The concerto is a kind of musical riddle which works itself out at the end when Bach’s chorale Es ist genug emerges and joins with the Ländler-ish Carinthian song which is its other not-s0-twelve-tonish ingredient.
After the final chords, gleaming like the notes of a glass harmonica, I was moved to tears. I just wanted to hear it all again.
After interval, the Bruckner 4. Dohnanyi conducted this without a score.
The concert was marked by what Peter McCallum neatly described in his review as “the trial of circular tiered platforms which created clarity, acoustic focus, immediacy and tangible acoustic improvement.”
We will have to wait until a less extraordinary conductor is in front of the orchestra before we can see how much of this was down to the platforms and how much of it was down to Dohnanyi and the orchestra rising to meet him. It’s a mystery how this configuration would cope if, for example, there were a piano soloist or a larger orchestra with orchestral piano and celeste, but it is a very promising development which I wouldn’t wish abandoned on that count. Undeniably there was an improved acoustic focus and it was probably even more marked in the middle third of the stalls (where McCallum sits) than in the back quarter where I sit.
Pizzicato bass sounds had a wonderful warmth and the detail of wind playing came through more clearly than usual. I especially enjoyed the playing of guest principal clarinet, Dean Newcomb, from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and the flutes came through much more clearly than usually. The violas in the second movement played/sounded as well if not better than I have ever heard them. Their back desks are usually a bit of an orchestral backwater and it was fun to see them lifted into the limelight.
It goes without saying that the brass had a good night. (OK: almost without saying, because it was Bruckner.) I particularly liked how Dohnanyi kept them in check with a solid rather than a brash sound – when the trumpets were unleashed (even then bright rather than simply loud) in the Scherzo they really knocked me back in my seat.
Of course a performance is more than the sum of such parts and when we come to balance and interpretation the fanciest set of tiers in the world are not what really does the job.
At the risk of simplifying, I sensed more of the Schubert side of Bruckner than the Wagner side (and, incidentally, quite a lot of Mahler in the first three sections of the Berg).
I listened again today. The Berg improved on greater familiarity (and a bit of help for me from Wikipedia). I’m the sort of person who likes to leaf ahead to see the ending of a novel in advance and so the riddle was more pleasurable when I already knew the answer. The Bruckner survived very well the inevitable scrutiny that a recorded performance permits. An example of the violas in fine form is at 1:19:38.
Gone, obviously, since why else would I be asking?
To the SOH on Saturday to hear the SSO. More of that, possibly, later.
I neglected to mention that on my last trip to the opera, a bar code on my ticket was electronically scanned. I don’t like it. It is Orwellian, uncivil and vulgar. Now the regime of scanning tickets with hand-held devices has spread to the Concert Hall.
It’s all been downhill at the Opera House since 2003 and the “No War” protest. Elaborate fences went up to prevent a repetition. Along the way, the cheerful pleasure of sliding down the angled panels has been proscribed. More tiresomely, the agreeable possibility when at the Concert Hall of checking out the show next door from the foyer monitors is no more. No longer can one approach either of the two main halls by their front entrances from the upper level of the podium. So much for the Aztec temple conceit.
Past the scanners and up the stairs I discovered the catering concession for the foyers has changed hands. It’s a bit of a wrench – if only because at a stroke I have lost my status as known customer, acquired over many years. Had I known the old management were leaving, I would certainly have said goodbye and thank-you.
With a new concessionaire come new staff. I suppose it is just bad luck for the old ones, some of whom have been there for years. That’s the human cost of “disruption” (as the buzz word now is).
Another human cost for me is that the new management obviously has a different taste in bar staff.
And a different taste in sandwiches.
These have undergone some changes over the years, but the basic pattern – vegetarian or not, and if not, ham and cheese, beef, chicken and smoked salmon – seemed almost timeless, until it wasn’t.
Had I known these were going off the menu I would also have eaten my last set of (non-vegetarian) sandwiches with more ceremony.
Last night I went to the clothes hoist in the small hours of the morning to retrieve some coat hangers to hang out some washing.
I reached up, without looking particularly, and got a most tremendous shock as a large bird took off from the corner of the hoist just near where I had been reaching.
As he/it flapped off towards the bigger trees at the back of the yard, I recognized it.
We haven’t heard the tawny frogmouth calling from the tree in the park opposite since mid-January. I thought that meant he had left us but now I guess it was just the end of the nesting season and he has been around all along.
D, inside, had heard my cry of alarm. I told him what I had seen.
“He will be back,” said D, and sure enough, when we went out again about 10 minutes later there the bird was.
D keeps fish. He dug a pond out of an elevated garden bed when we moved in. A visiting kookaburra perching in a tree near the fishpond delighted D until one day D saw it on the fence with one of his fish in its beak.
After that, protective wiring was installed. This seems to have done the trick.
In preparation for our impending vacation of the premises, the pond has been filled in. The fish are waiting (less a couple who made fatal bids for freedom) in a kind of trough made of old doors and lined with plastic. The clothes hoist offered a good vantage point. It was obvious what the frogmouth was interested in.
I doubt that if the bird could have caught the fish through the protective wiring, but D was taking no chances against the stupidity of fish. D rushed to install further barriers. The frogmouth remained undeterred for about another 5 minutes just a metre or so from us before he finally flew away.
At home I still have a landline.
This exposes me, and D, to a multitude of unsolicited canvassing calls. Apart from these, comparatively a few people – overseas callers and people who only have a landline themselves – ring us on the home number. – Or people who want a good long chat.
It got to the point where D, who is home at the relevant hours (daytime, early evening) more than I am, would not answer the phone unless I rang twice or without an accompanying attempt on his mobile to show it was somebody who really knew him.
I’m too stingy to pay for caller ID.
Since then, D and I have twigged that most of these calls are placed by machines and that a person does not come on at the calling end unless somebody speaks at the answering end. So now we just wait for the caller to speak. We figure that a genuine non-canvassing caller could be baffled by that, but would probably call again.
This doesn’t save us the trouble of answering the phone, but it does save the struggle of dealing with unwanted calls, especially the (I confess) losing struggle of maintaining civility whilst doing so.
My aunt, 86 and living on her own, is also plagued by such phone calls. She rang Telstra and they arranged to block her phone to international calls (I didn’t even know that this was possible) but the problem has persisted.
I told my aunt about D’s and my new practice of keeping stumm. Now she does likewise, but it is the effort of getting up to answer the unwelcome call that really annoys her.
On Saturday, my aunt told me that she had finally got through to the section of Telstra which deals with nuisance calls and that they would be monitoring her calls for the next 30 days. “That’s the maximum period. I hope ASIO won’t get involved.”
I said to her that I thought that was for nuisance calls in the traditional sense – heavy breathers and the like. “You’re always opposing me!” she replied. “Anyway, they’re a nuisance to me.”
I think the bit about ASIO was a joke.
On Sunday, she rang me again. She knew I was visiting my father in Canberra, but we were out. Then she rang D at home. “Tell [M] to phone me straight away. It’s very important. And he must speak first. It’s very important. He will know why.” She insisted D write her message down verbatim. He humoured her….over the telephone.
Not long after she rang Canberra again and after speaking to my father (not her brother: she is my maternal aunt) got through to me.
“I neglected to emphasise enough yesterday that when you ring me you must speak first. Otherwise, if you ring up and do not speak, I shall write down the time and then report the call to Telstra. So you must speak first or there could be trouble for you.”
I told D.
“Is that a threat?” he asked.
Down in Canberra visiting my father for Easter, we took a drive to Binalong and Boorowa on a Good Friday which started overcast and then came good.
On Saturday to the first Australia Ensemble concert for the year. It’s good to be back.
The program was:
Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949): Circulo Op.91 (1942)
Don BANKS (1923-1980): Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two (1968)
Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975): Piccola musica notturna (1954)
Ravi SHANKAR (1920-2012): L’Aube Enchantée (The Enchanted Dawn) (1976)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Notturno D897 in E flat Op.148 (c.1827)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (Transfigured Night) (1899)
The Turina was effectively a short piano trio in three (titled) movements. A few little quirks aside it could have been written in Paris in about 1900 rather than in Madrid in 1942.
I’d never heard of Turina. The program notes said he was persecuted by the Republicans during the civil war. I’m not saying that never to anyone (far from it) but these days it is a rare distinction to be claimed on behalf of anyone.
The piece was quite unknown to me: a bit of internet burrowing suggests that it may have come to the Australia Ensemble via a performance given by Julian Smiles as one of Katherine Selby’s “friends” (as opposed to former members of the Macquarie Trio, who presumably are not) in 2013. The first movement was particularly lush.
I would like to have got more out of the the Dallapicola than I did. The Ravi Shankar struck me as verging on musical blackface: harp and flute pretending to be Indian instruments. It was fun at first but perhaps it was my ignorance that led me to feel by the end that it was going on a bit, whatever admiration I had for the virtuosity of the players and particularly Geoffrey Collins. Too many notes! I was beginning to think – and certainly there were a lot. Still, I always enjoy a good dose of harp and despite early exposure to the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto it must be said that flute and harp make a good combination. The Banks was enjoyable without I think even professing to be profound.
Before the concert, P, my A-E-going companion, said that she was looking forward to hearing the Schubert Notturno as she hadn’t heard it before. It is actually an orphan piano trio slow movement. Once we had heard it she agreed that she probably had heard it: I was sure I had. I enjoyed it. How can one not enjoy a Schubert slow movement? There is one slightly idiosyncratic passage when the strings break out rather unexpectedly into pizzicato to accompany the theme, sustained by the piano:
This still sounded odd when it returned. I wonder if that moment has something to do with the movement’s failure to find parents.
The Schoenberg, after which the concert and this year’s series were named, was the undeniable highlight. The core quartet was joined by Umberto Clerici and Justin Williams from the SSO. We don’t get to hear string sextets that often but when we do I am struck at how rich yet intimate they can be.
It’s hard to avoid clichés like “absorbing” and “compelling” so what the hell, I haven’t avoided them. I loved the bit which corresponds to when in the eponymous poem the man tells the woman who has just told him she bears another’s child that his love for her is unassailed, even deepened. Julian Smiles came in with a big bright sound that blazed out transfiguration. The final section with its night twitters, was spellbinding. I doubt if the orchestral version could ever match this.
The search for a new home proceeds. We found one place which we liked, even allowing for the 1.6km, 20 minute (I go more slowly since my knee disaster last year) walk to the station. We put in an application, were told it had been sent to the owner, only to be told the next Monday that the owner had engaged two agents and let the property through the other.
Meanwhile, I have managed to fit in a few musical experiences. D does not approve, says I should be focussing on the search, but man does not live by renting a house alone. No need to be more miserable than necessary.
In any event, the two Messiaen concerts I went to the weekend before last were booked long before as part of my SSO subscriptions.
On the Saturday, From the Canyons to the Stars. This was coupled with video projections. This is a new trap for unwary players, as I discovered last year at Tristan. If you are just in front of the computer operating the projections you will have to endure the whirring of the computer’s heat-exhaust fan. At least Tristan had an interval so I could move. Canyons to Stars had none: bad luck this time for Anton Enus and Jane Mathews.
There was a pre-concert talk in the hall with the orchestra present. Despite misgivings, I went to it. I can’t say I learnt much I didn’t know already but perhaps some people did. For my money, it would have been better with more examples and less talking: it seemed profligate to have the orchestra sit idle for so much of the time.
There was an amusing little bit where Mr Robertson, accompanied by the pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, demonstrated the whole-tone scale version of “Doe/[Doh], a deer:”
[as tweeted by the SSO]: someone has an elegant manuscript hand!]
It would be ungracious to put the boot in and confirm DR’s joke against himself that he had better keep his day job. That’s obvious. What is maybe less obvious is that it was the A sharp which was the most challenging to sing. I am sure that would be the same if I were to try it: I’m doing my best to say it’s something to do with the scale rather than DR’s singing. My guess is because (to use the pitches in this example) C-D-E and then E-F#G# can be approached as the first three notes of two major scales stacked on top of each other, but once you get to A#, working up from the E that’s the TRITONE!
The piano part was actually more interesting than the singing because it entailed harmonic implications of a transmogrified scale.
One point Robertson made was that in Messiaen’s scales still yield euphonic/concordant chords. (By then DR cannot have been thinking of the whole-tone scale, but rather one of Messiaen’s other modes.) That was a helpful way of explaining how Messian’s music moves between these more concordant sounds and more complicated “scrunchy” harmonies.
When I go to Wylie’s Baths, a special pleasure when the sea is up or the tide coming in is to swim close to the seaward edge. Then the relatively warm pool water is intermittently infused with a fresh dose of cooler water from the sea. Messiaen’s kaleidophonic harmony has something of that bracing effect.
The screened images, by Deborah O’Grady, were variable. That’s probably inevitable and trivially true given the unlikelihood that they could all be of the same standard, however assessed. When they were too distracting or imposed an unwelcome program, I simply closed my eyes or looked more down than up. Wisely, relatively static images were chosen for the solo movements. The images for Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange (“Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks”) did the most for me – especially the final panning shot.
I still have mixed feelings about such visual supplements. In my youth we were scornful of the nineteenth century fetish for foisting programs on music regardless of the licence given by the composer. What has changed, exactly? It’s all a bit like that old chestnut of film adaptations of books. They can be good, but I’m not keen on then festooning the book cover with pictures from the film. Let us imagine for ourselves!
Last time the SSO did this piece, in the Verbrugghen Hall with Michael Kieran-Harvey on piano and conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, Robert Johnson played the horn solo movement from right in front of the piano which in turn had the sustain pedal down to create a kind of ad-hoc sound-board/echo box. I rather liked that, and was sorry it was not repeated.
Les ressucités et le chant de l’étoile Aldebaran (“The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran“) was, to me, the most beautiful bit. I just wanted to lean into the sound and hear more of it.
There were some walk-outs. That didn’t either worry or overly distract me. It’s easy for people to find they have bitten off more than they can chew, particularly if, as this time, there is no interval. I’d rather they felt able to leave than remain squirming in their seats or glancing distractingly at their watches.
On Monday night, to Angel Place for more Messiaen played by Aimard as part of the SSO’s piano series – the Vingt Regards . I have played just one of these myself (an easier and slower one). I can’t remember when I have heard them live – possibly Joanne McGregor a few years back, though I can remember having heard them. In fact, I was surprised how many of the more famous bits I actually remembered.
These got an attentive hearing. I enjoyed them.
There were detailed program notes. They could have been improved by some of the themes notated as Messiaen himself identifies them in his preface.
In between, I made a last-minute decision on Sunday sfternoon to take my chances for a ticket at Carriageworks for the first of the SSOs new contemporary music concerts here. There are to be two this year, curated by Brett Dean, billed as the SSO’s first “artist in residence.” That’s a bit cute: there have been composers in residence in the past so it’s only really the title which is new. Dean couldn’t be there. David Robertson presided.
I needed to take my chances because by the time I tried to get a ticket on Thursday or Friday the SSO had stopped selling them and Ticketmaster’s computer booking system engaged from home earlier on Sunday refused me at the final step. When I fronted the box office I was told that was because there were just two seats left and Ticketmaster will not accept a single booking which breaks a pair. So I can say I got the second-last ticket. Avoiding Ticketmaster’s booking fee was an added thrill.
I hate booking fees.
The program was:
Pierre Boulez: Derive 1
Brett Dean: Pastoral Symphony
Lisa Illean: Land’s End
Gerard Grisey: Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold
This was definitely a bargain at $35, especially as, with the (understandable, commemorative) addition of the Boulez, the originally-envisaged 70-minute concert had blown out to a concert with interval of close-to-normal length. I’d say this inaugural series must be a bit of a loss-leader.
A bit of the gloss of Carriageworks’ funkiness came off when it came to the single-entrance general admission. Luckily, I joined the enormous queue early and secured a good spot.
It was an exciting concert. The Boulez, built on trills, was apt and did not outstay its interest. The Dean was fun if a bit obvious.
Lisa Illean’s piece conversely a bit obscure. Partly that sprang from the blurry liminality which was its professed theme. For me the music sometimes threatened to slip into the kind of contemporary music that I am less keen on, where sound events are distributed through a time which only seems to be divided into beats for the purpose of co-ordination in performance – but it didn’t quite. For one thing, unlike much such music which if it has a metre at all is ostensibly in 2 or 4, there were sections of recognizable triple time.
A subgroup within the ensemble was microtonally subtuned a little below the general A442 (Robertson’s number). The effect was intriguing: not so much out of tune (for one thing, they were in tune with each other) as a bit distant and muted.
The big piece was the Grisey. Soprano, Jessica Aszodi was terrific. The slightly comic effect as she repeatedly banged her head with a tuning fork to get the pitches for her entries did not detract from this.
I am having a modern music weekend.
Last night to the SOH for an evening with the crypto-Petainist and mad Catholic – France’s musical answer to TS Eliot in some ways – [the late] Olivier Messiaen and his From the Canyons to the Stars.
This afternoon to the SSO’s sortie to Carriageworks in a well attended and received concert of which, as with the Messiaen, maybe more later.
But what is it with Darlington and toilets?
I’ve always thought that the Seymour Centre had some of the grooviest toilets amongst Sydney performing venues. They are a period piece. They may not rival the serried porcelain of the Barbican Centre main urinal. but they do speak of their time.
Carriageworks almost surpass them.
Sure they’re new or newish. I guess time will tell whether they can stand up to the Seymour Centre’s. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of those so you’ll have to take my word for it. Meanwhile, another shot with my trusty mobile phone (or, as it is Chinese, Shouji 手机 – which more accurately corresponds to the Continental “Handy.”)
Tomorrow, Vingt Regards at Angel Place. They are to be performed with an interval, though the facilities, possibly Sydney’s pokiest, scarcely call for one.