Spring in Sydney

October 22, 2016

This year, Spring sprang right on time: 1 September was distinctly balmy.

After that, I went away – to Albany, WA, where my maternal aunt had died suddenly.  Only a few blossoms were braving it there against a generally wet and windy outlook.  Seasonally speaking and indeed in other respects it felt like a trip back in time.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed the following seasonal harbingers around our place:

  1. The channel-billed cuckoo – websites say they are supposed to reach Sydney in mid-September, but this year I first heard them in early October;
  2. Koels – this year, the CBC beat them here;
  3. Star-jasmine – hedges in neighbouring houses were pregnant with buds, then all of a sudden, they all burst forth. The common jasmine is sweeter but the nutmeg-like star jasmine (actually a jasminoid) is intoxicating;
  4. JACARANDA! – I’d had my head down last weekend and this week for a trial; on Friday I looked out of the train window on the way into town and realised that they’d snuck up on me.

I’ve always liked seasonal returns.  As I experience more of them, they have a cumulative reminiscent affect. Now I’m beginning to sense a glass-half-full-half-empty tipping point: how many more of these have I to go?

I suppose it’s partly the passing of my father and my aunt this year which fuels such thoughts.  Then on Friday morning I read a surprisingly upbeat final letter (a note, really) which had been admitted to probate as the informal will of its author, aged 35.

Australia Ensemble 2016.6

October 21, 2016


Last Saturday night to hear the last concert for the year by the Australia Ensemble.  I’m somewhere there in the above picture.

The program was:

Guillaume CONNESSON Techno-Parade (2002) [flute, clarinet, piano]
Roger SMALLEY Piano Quintet (2003)
[the following 4 with the Sydney Children’s Choir]
Lyn WILLIAMS A Flock of Stars (2009)
Claude DEBUSSY Christmas carol for homeless children (1915)
Joseph TWIST Jubilate Deo (2009)
Paul STANHOPE Songs of Innocence and Joy (2004)
Johannes BRAHMS String Sextet in G op. 36 (1864-5)

The Connesson was short and swift, and totally exciting.

I enjoyed the Smalley more than I expected to.  It is possibly the last of a series of works by him which “reference” Chopin – in this case, a fragment from a Mazurka and also, in the final Chaconne and variations, a whole lot of the genres in which Chopin wrote.  I think I liked most the second movement, a brief Intermezzo, but that is probably because I am such a lover of muted strings.

This concert was the closest up I have ever got to the Sydney Children’s Choir.  As you might expect, there are quite a lot more girls than boys in the group.  More surprising to me (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised) was how few non-whiteys were in the group.  Maybe the Chinese kids are all off at Chinese school or learning the violin?

The choir processed on with bar chimes (I’m sure there is a better technical term for what they were playing: a bit like single xylophone bars encased in a box with a beater on a spring which was activated by shaking the contraption).  “A Flock of stars” by their conductor Lyn Williams also featured these instruments as well as an improvised part by David Griffiths on clarinet.  It was very atmospheric and just a bit reminiscent of Ceremony of Carols with a bit of Jan Garbarek thrown in.

The Debussy was a fascinating bit of history – a song of children made homeless by WWI wishing vengeance on behalf of France and other victims of the Germans – so a bit or propaganda really, however heartfelt.

Apparently Joseph Twist, once a member of the choir at S James King Street, has now gone to the USA to work in the film business.  I couldn’t help feeling his Jubilate had a touch of the Morricones.

The Stanhope songs matched Leunig’s rather cute lyrics quite well – they were written when he was a composer in residence at MLC School (back in the now ended “Mrs Carey” era).

It was nice to have the Children’s Choir there and they sang well.  Nevertheless, with the Brahms Sextet in the second half I was happy to be back in Australia Ensemble core territory.  This was a very satisfying performance of a beautiful work.  I hope the choir, who stayed for the second half, also enjoyed it.

And to cap it all off, contrary to my earlier fears, we still had the traditional drinks and delicious chocolates to celebrate the end of the season.

When I first wrote this post, the concert was due to be broadcast on ABC FM at 8pm on Tuesday 18 October.  Unfortunately this was on the eve of a trial and I’m sorry to say I missed it.  I’d like to say it was there for a while to listen again to but that does not seem to be the case.


October 15, 2016

On Wednesday I was waiting for the train home a bit before 9pm at St James Station when I saw a mysterious message on my phone:

“You will love Bp4”

I’ve still not copied all the numbers from my old phone since I got my present phone late last year, so I had to ring back to discover it was my former student and still friend, Db, calling at interval from the SOH where he had just heard Jayson Gillham with the SSO playing Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

Db and I don’t get to see each other often because, owing to family commitments and his enthusiasm for bushwalking, Db always goes to concerts on weekdays, whilst I mostly go on the weekends. In addition, he is often away criss-crossing the globe for his work administering the Australian limb of an international co-operative scientific project.

It was nice to hear from him.

I went on Friday.

I was sitting a bit close (row Q of the stalls) because it wasn’t my ordinary night owing to a clash with the Australia Ensemble on Saturday. In row Q my ears are at about the same level as the floor of the stage, and you get a bit of the sound from the bottom of the piano rather than the top, but as compensation there was the rare luxury in a concertante work of, if anything, too much piano.

No 4 is the “poetic” concerto and Gillham was definitely poetic.  He’s come a long way since I last noticed him on this blog in 2007.

There were lots of felicities which I’m looking forward to hearing again when this concert is broadcast on November 4. Yes there were a few blemishes, my preference is for a slightly less points-of-fingers playing style (though there were some moments where this was definitely an asset), and there were a few orchestral pickups which didn’t quite line up (Ashkenazy’s fault rather than Gillham’s, I felt), but none of these detracted from my enjoyment.

On the Wednesday, Gillham had played as an encore the fugue from a Bach Toccata. On Friday he gave us Rachmaninov’s transcription for piano of the Preludio from Bach’s violin partita BWV 1006.  This was exhilarating.

I’m looking forward to his recital on Monday week.

Second half was the Eroica. I’d already read Clive Paget’s blistering attack on Ashkenazy’s interpretation of the third and fourth movements in Limelight Magazine. I didn’t think it was as bad as Paget made out (maybe the performances differed), and nor, judging from the applause, did the audience.

In her program notes, Yvonne Frindle riffs on the scratched-out dedication to Napoleon:

The hero is not Napoleon – he had shown himself to be nothing but an ordinary man – or any other individual, and no identifiable nations are party to the struggle (that must wait for Napoleon’s downfall in Wellington’s Victory).

It’s a neat little segue but I feel there is a bit of a mix-up either between Bonapartes or battles.

Speaking of mixups, in recent days, George Brandis has been very much in the news and perhaps was a little too much in my mind because, for a moment at least, I fancied I spotted him on stage:


Apologies to AH.

Brown study

October 12, 2016


It’s a while now since this came out, but I continue to be very taken by this cover for the LRB.  Quite a change from Peter Campbell‘s rather whimsical water colours which prevailed for many years.

Power from on high

October 9, 2016



Of course, the church has to be a Uniting Church and it has to be in Canberra.


Note iconic Canberra bus shelter in the foreground.

It is O’Connor Uniting Church:


Dying of the light

September 25, 2016

A small observation based on a small sample.

Old people’s homes are full of illuminated magnifying devices.

Australia Ensemble

September 20, 2016

I have been going to the AE @ UNSW for about 10 years now.  I was a late starter because for many years, as I lacked a car, the schlepp out to Kensington was too much trouble.  Once I started going, I had a car, but the subscription habit crystallised because my friend and former piano teacher, P, also went and I was conveniently (for me) not far out of her way there.

This year has not been a good year for me and the AE.  I have only been to 3 out of 5 concerts so far.

The first concert I missed, in August, was a failure of organisation on my part in resolving a clash with my set series seat for Così fan tutte.  Then my aunt was taken ill in Albany, WA and I missed the September concert.

In the meantime, at the beginning of September, the Ensemble’s season for 2017 was launched at a function for donors and sponsors.

In past years, next year’s series has been announced at the final concert, rounded off by a kind of party where free drinks and particularly delicious chocolates were dispensed.  I fear we won’t be getting those this year.  I expect the presence of a children’s choir as guest artists at the final concert might have seemed incompatible with such largesse.  If so, that will be a break from tradition which I shall regret.

2017 will be, I think, the second season for which Paul Stanhope is responsible as artistic director.  He has taken over after a long incumbency by Roger Covell, and predictably this has been accompanied by the usual motions to re-invent and freshen things up.

Innovation and breaks from tradition are flip sides of the same coin.

It’s true that in recent years there have been a few attempts to shake things up a bit – with dance, multi-media and the like.  Mostly I’ve found these just a bit naff.  What’s wrong with the repertoire for various ensembles drawn from the Ensemble’s make-up plus some supplementary artists?  If variety is needed, there is plenty of scope for that including by featuring more “cutting edge” works.

So yes, I find myself a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

Two aspects of next year’s season are, at least in prospect, less enticing than I would hope.

First, we are to have a program The Sound of Pictures, “hosted” by “Radio National’s The Music Show host, Andrew Ford” which will offer “an exploration of music written by composers for film as well as concert music that makes use of the moving image as part of its presentation.”

My general rule is the less talking at a concert, the better, even if by Andrew Ford, who I’ll freely concede is a great communicator.  And I’m not really a fan (as indicated above) of the craze for “film music” concerts.  I also squirm just a bit at the implications of the “Radio National” reference.  To me this is redolent of Opera Australia’s penchant for casting personalities in musicals, of which the (ultimately aborted) casting of Alan Jounes in “Anything Goes” was but the latest example.

Secondly, there is a usual format for AE concerts and an established ecology of an AE season.  The first half of a concert will usually have a number of shorter works, including, often, the novelty and more modern works; the second half usually has the “big work” – most often a stalwart of the mainstream chamber music repertoire – which mostly means nineteenth century big works or well known (and hence crowd-pleasing) C20 works – eg, in September, the Quartet for the End of Time.  As to the ecology, over a season the big works will usually make up a mix of standard-format ensembles (string quartet, piano trio, quartet, quintet) and larger ensembles drawing on guest artists.

Next year, the “big works” are:

  • March – Borodin, String Quartet No 2
  • April – Mozart, Clarinet Quintet
  • May – Adams, Gnarly Buttons, with Dvořák’s “American” string quartet as a kind of backup.
  • August – Schubert Octet
  • September – unclear, this is the “film” music concert;
  • October – Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence (for string sextet).

What’s missing?  Well, to me, and I expect also to P, what’s missing (apart from the Arensky Trio which is a welcome inclusion in the March concert) is any “big work” for an ensemble including Ian Munro, a pianist we both admire.

What’s going on?  It would be pointless to speculate.  I can only hope this is a temporary aberration.



August 29, 2016


On Saturday to the Sydney Town Hall for the SSO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, conducted by David Robertson.  That’s my blurry mobile-phone snap taken on the way in.

First comparison: a picture from the SSO’s archives which I first thought was of the occasion of their first performance of the symphony in 1950 under the baton of Otto Klemperer but which (see comment) is in fact of a 1953 performance of the Messiah (which explains the smaller orchestra and four vocal soloists):


Judging from the elevation, that picture was taken from the East Gallery.

Second comparison: the view from my seat when the bows were being taken. It’s fairly representative of my view of the orchestra throughout the performance.


In the event that the SSO returns to the Sydney Town Hall, as well it might in a couple of years when the SOH Concert Hall is to be renovated, there’s an obvious lesson to be learnt.

Meanwhile, the 19503 picture confirms my recollection that when the SSO played at the Town Hall it occupied at least some of the risers to the back of the stage. That would have given the groundlings in the stalls a slightly better view, and also increased the seating capacity in comparison to Saturday, when the front row was row M.

I’m also pretty sure that in days of yore you were able to leave at the end of the concert by the side porticos as well as the George Street front one. That’s definitely a tradition worth reviving.

Opera Australia 2017

August 25, 2016

Opera Australia has announced its 2017 season.  That link foolishly describes OA as “unperturbed” by the closure for 7 months of the Opera House opera theatre, which is clearly not the case.

It’s a pretty devastating announcement, so far as Sydney opera-goers are concerned.  In place of the closed Opera Theatre, OA has only managed to secure the 400-seat Playhouse, in which it will stage a pasticcio operetta, the Concert Hall (for three concert performances of Parsifal with big-name tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and the Capitol Theatre in October-November for an 11-performance run of the venerable Oxenbould production of Madama Butterfly (last seen here in 2015). The only other conceivable alternative venues, such as the Lyric Theatre at the casino or the Theatre Royal (which would really be a squeeze) are themselves affected by closures for renovations next year.

There are also a few other one-off events including a concert performance at the Town Hall of Massenet’s Thaïs.

Apart from the pasticcio, OA is staging no new productions of its own. Two new productions are brought/bought in from Covent Garden. One is a bold gesture: Szymanowski’s King Roger; the other, Cav & Pag. Otherwise, Boheme, Tosca and Traviata are all very recent returns.  The Handa opera-on-the-harbour is a repeat of Carmen.

Things aren’t much better in Melbourne with a run of The Merry Widow making up their summer season, though it is a new production with a homecoming Young Talent Time winner.

It’s obviously a belt-tightening year for OA. Will there be commensurate cuts for the upper management’s salaries? Don’t hold your breath.  I wonder whether the engagement of Kaufmann for Parsifal (one can only guess at the cost of this) is judicious as opposed to a defiant gesture.  Terracini says that people will pay to hear quality voices but even so he expects to lose money on this.  Personally I’d prefer that the money were spread a bit more evenly on employing local artists.  Even an expatriate would be more fitting and probably a bit cheaper whilst still being of interest to many even if not such a headline for the non-opera-going public.

No set subscriptions are being offered next year.  You have to make up your own series. When I tried to do that on the website my seats were assigned to me (never satisfactory) [Postcscipt: a commenter has not had that problem so it seems this was just me] which is odd because once I reached the minimum of 3 different productions to make up a subscription I was able choose your own seats off the seating plan. [I then rang up – it cannot have been an easy day manning the OA phones.]

As for my subscription, I’m keen to see King Roger and prepared to see Cav&Pag on account of the new production.  I’m making up the minimum 3 with a point seat for La Traviata which enables me to bag a couple more point seats for King Roger as well as extra seats for D for KR and C&P.  It will all be over by about the middle of Feb.  That’s a big retrenchment (and saving).

OA boldly suggests that subscribers make up the shortfall of available shows with a donation to their usual level of expenditure.  I suppose they can always ask.  The bigger risk is that people will break the subscribing habit altogether.  With any luck Terracini will then be free of that opera “club” for which he has expressed so much disdain.



Canberra Symphony Orchestra

August 22, 2016

For the past few years I have made numerous trips to Canberra to see my father and stepmother.  These trips were mostly on a lengthened weekend.  They became more regular last year after my stepmother died and my father was on his own.

A lot of Canberra’s big concerts are on week nights – perhaps because historically so many Canberrans leave on the weekends for either the coast or, if in search of Kultur, a bigger city such as Sydney.  As a result, despite my best intentions, excursions with my father in our last year together were mostly confined to rural drives or to the cinema.  We enjoyed these, but I regretted not being able to get him to any live performances.

Last week, in town for the week with my sisters to deal with my father’s effects, I went on Thursday to hear the CSO conducted by Nicholas Milton at the Llewellyn Hall in what I still think of as the Canberra School of Music.  Now part of the ANU, it is a ghost of its former self. A forlorn display of historic instruments in the foyer could stand as a memorial to that.

The other memorial is the presence in the CSO of players who made the historical emigration from ABC orchestras to Canberra in the mid-to-late late 70s when the School of Music was staffed on a basis that made taking a teaching appointment an attractive proposition.

The program was:

Weber – Der Freischütz overture;
Brahms – Double concerto – soloists Indira Koch and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt ;
Dvořák – Symphony No 7.

Unwisely I allowed the Ticketek staff to whom the CSO has outsourced its box-office function to oversell me a ticket in the middle of row T of the stalls, which turned out to be beneath the overhang of the gallery.  I should have stuck to my earlier resolve to take a cheap seat upstairs on the side where (contrary to the Ticketek staff’s advice) sight-lines would have been perfectly satisfactory and the sound could hardly have failed to have been better than in row T.

The other problem was that, as for most orchestras where the numbers of string players are a bit low for the repertoire, you need to be able to make a kind of psychological adjustment for the proportionate changes in the sound.  The veteran players of the CSO are mostly evident in the winds and principals of the brass. They were good and indeed, in the case of the flutes, more audible than the SSO flutes are in the SOH Concert Hall, but with string numbers of 10,9,6,5,4, (that’s v1,v2,vla,vc,cb respectively) you really need strength throughout the string sections, which I missed in the violins.  I hazard to guess that perhaps also a lot of time playing together can help a smaller string complement assert itself. That’s hard for a part-time/casual orchestra like the CSO.

I felt the lack of string bulk most of all in the Brahms which I usually think of requiring a fairly massive approach, especially in the first movement.  And the sound of the orchestra a whole was odd in a way I cannot now pinpoint as I have already effaced the memory.  These things combined to a point where at times I came close to wondering what I was listening to or why I had paid almost $80 to hear it.

Time has healed most wounds but I recall one oddly big timpani moment just before the soloists’ final return to the fray in the first movement of the Brahms.

I hasten to add that my fellow audience-members showed no sign of suffering from any such disquiet.  I guess they are grateful for what they can get in Canberra – the orchestra has a very loyal subscriber base and the concert was well-booked (which accounted for the limited choices available to me when I rolled up).  Being alone in my grumpiness amidst such pleasure only exacerbated it.

So at interval, chatting to someone I knew from law school 20+ years ago who now finds himself posted to Canberra (“Up the greasy pole?” I asked; “No, not promoted this millennium,” he cheerfully replied; his other joke was a remark about whether this concert included anything by “Eastlakes”), I spoil-sportedly told him that I was close to leaving but that failing that I might go upstairs on the side in the second half so that if things did not improve for me I could slip quietly away.

In the end I went back in downstairs but to a seat three rows forward in row Q, free of the curse of the overhang.

The moment the Dvořák started I felt an improvement in the sound – by at least 40% and not accountable for merely by the effects of an interval double short black which had probably not yet had a chance to kick in. The strings, especially the violins, were still understrength at key moments, but I could make adjustments for that.  Even when I felt that the 3rd movement (the most like a Slavonic dance) was a touch fast, I could recognize that as a plausible response to the orchestra’s proportions.

I’m glad I went back. 

Afterwards, my neighbour explained that the seats just under the gallery used to have the best sound, but that in his opinion that had changed when the hall had been refurbished a few years ago after storm damage.

It just goes to show how important local knowledge can be.