Tristan AND Isolde  (2)

July 1, 2015

A fellow blogger has made the “AND’ point already, and it is one which Isolde herself makes when Tristan carelessly refers in Act II to “Tristan’s love.”

Contrary to my original intention, I made a last-minute booking on Friday for Monday’s second performance by the SSO of Tristan and Isolde.  I secured a seat at the end of row T.  I say that in homage to David Gyger of Opera Opera who used always to qualify critical statements about balance etc with a disclosure of where he was sitting.

My seat was one of only 4 seats described as “available” in the stalls for this performance.  Interest in these performances has been high.

On Saturday night there was a festive mood.  I rode the lift from the car park (necessitated by City Circle track work) with a gentleman sporting a fur collar and a horned helmet. I shared a table at interval with the chief justice of Australia – who (jocularly) called me a cheapskate for having brought my own sandwich from home.  – Not that I actually recognised him until a passing friend of his introduced him to her friend.

Monday was a little more subdued and, once inside the hall, businesslike. Sydney’s Wagner-music-drama drought had been broken (to the extent that a concert performance can do so). There seemed to be a more matter-of-fact approach to getting through it. I felt that came from the stage although I can’t put my finger on anything in particular. And a Monday public is different from a Saturday one, even for a special do like this. There was no track work so I was able to take the train in.

I still managed to observe my own special festive rule which is engaged whenever a work involves the imbibing of a potion. It only requires a hip flask and a little forethought.

At interval, talk turned to the rather literal video art representation of Tristan and Isolde, which most felt was too literal. “I want to imagine them for myself,” said someone, rather plaintively. I remonstrated that if it were an actual opera performance that wouldn’t be an option, but allowed that then it would be the actual singers you were relying on.

Second time round, I didn’t find the T and I figures so distracting. The damage had been done, if you think it so: I now accepted/expected that T & I looked like that – at least on screen. It helped that on a second time through within 2-3 days (almost a third as I’d listened on Sunday to most of the broadcast save for a chunk of Act II when I could not refuse my sister’s phone call from the UK) I did not need to follow the surtitles so closely. I found myself more free to concentrate on the singers. I could choose to look at the video stuff when I felt like it, and at least one moment – Tristan’s death, was actually quite gorgeously and memorably executed.

I wonder if some of the things which qualified my experience on the Saturday were really to do with expectations, because on Monday I had adjusted to the balance better as well, though I still feel that putting the singers behind the orchestra put a burden on them and detracted from the effect they could have had if placed more to the fore.

It’s easy to be a critic, isn’t it?

Obviously I really enjoyed it, even if second time round King Mark’s reproaches made me a bit impatient. In the last act, as Tristan asked after the ship, a mobile phone somewhere had a little gurgle. Fortunately, the music was loud enough that few can have been seriously distracted. I was in such a good mood I didn’t need to respond with any kind of fury. “That’s Isolde,” I imagined. “She’s just been held up a bit. She’ll be here soon.”

Music Education in Australia

July 1, 2015

Read this job advert and weep (emphasis in bold is mine):

Music Teacher (Keyboard/Guitar/Other)

Excel Music is currently seeking a suitably qualified/experienced instrumental music teacher to teach students generally during normal school hours. The successful applicant will have:

· an excellent knowledge and passion for music

· excellent communication and time-management skills

· a willingness to work in a team environment and be flexible when required

· a willingness to work in a school environment and have an affinity with children

· excellent attention to detail

All applicants must have own car and have playing skills equivalent to AMEB Grade 5.

Excel Music will provide ongoing training and support.
Hourly rate per hour is $30.

Applications should be forwarded by Thursday 23rd July 2015.

To be eligible for this position you must have an appropriate visa to work in Australia/New Zealand

Apply Now!

Aux armes, citoyens!

June 21, 2015


That’s the rallying cry of the chorus to La Marseillaise, but these days in Australia it’s not quite as simple as that.

Of course, you can join the Australian armed forces, if they accept you.  There doesn’t even seem to be much of a problem if you serve in the armed forces of some other nation state of which you are also a citizen (most commonly for Australians, I expect, Israel, though there are probably also dual nationals serving in the British armed forces) or even one where you are not (such as, say, the French Foreign Legion).  What becomes more problematic is if you get involved in something more irregular, such as not fighting for a government, or fighting against a government.

Australia enacted its own legislation against getting involved in that sort of thing back in 1978.  The legislation included a prohibition on recruiting for foreign government armed forces in Australia.  That Act has now been repealed and its provisions, augmented as part of the “Foreign Fighters” suite of legislation, folded into part 5.5 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code .

Currently it’s all about those Australians who have rushed off to Syria and Iraq to fight for (and in at least two cases, against) “ISIS”/ISIL. This is prescribed as a “terrorist organisation” by the Australian Government, which makes it an offence to fight for it or to support it. In addition, there are offences for even travelling to the area where the fighting is going on unless you can prove (the onus is on you) that your sole reason was some valid, non-fighting reason set out in the legislation. Returned fighters can also be subjected to control orders. David Hicks was subjected to these on his return to Australia following his release from prison.

The week before last our prime minister and Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (just have to add that because you may not know who he is otherwise) made the following joint announcement:

The Commonwealth Government intends to update the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 so dual nationals who engage in terrorism can lose their citizenship.

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection will be able to exercise these powers in the national interest where a dual citizen betrays our country by participating in serious terrorist-related activities.

The new powers will apply to dual citizens who fight with or support groups such as ISIL, or Daesh, as well as so-called ‘lone wolves’, whether in Australia or on foreign soil.

The changes will be consistent with our international legal obligation not to leave a person stateless. There will also be safeguards, including judicial review, to balance these powers.

Orwellianly, the headline to the announcement was “New measures to strengthen Australian citizenship” – because apparently citizenship is strengthened by making it easier to take away by administrative fiat.  Dutton later made clear that any judicial review proposed would go to the process, not the merits, of any deprivation. More bizarrely, it bore the legend: “E&OE.” For those not in the know, this stands for “Errors and omissions excepted” and is commonly encountered as a kind of arse-covering catch-all on solicitor’s bills, surveyors’ reports, and the like. When did this sort of thing creep into ministerial announcements?

The announcement went on to offer a rationale for the proposed changes (my numbers added):

[1] Since 1949, Australians with dual citizenship who fight for a country at war with Australia have forfeited their citizenship.

[2]There should be no difference in how we treat Australians who join a hostile army and those engaged in terrorism – both are betraying our country and don’t deserve to be citizens of Australia.

[3] Regardless of how we gain our citizenship, it is an extraordinary privilege with rights and responsibilities for all of us.

(1) is at least literally true.

There was no such thing as Australian citizenship until 1949.

Citizenship in Australia is a creature of statute. Historically and I think at international law it is probably still more accurate to speak of nationality rather than citizenship. At federation, Australians were either aliens or British subjects. Other than naturalisation, this was a matter of common law until in the UK it was codified by legislation in 1915 (I suspect motivated by issues arising from WWI) which was largely adopted or mirrored by the Australian Nationality Act 1920.

Following World War II, there was a rethinking of nationality and citizenship within the British Empire. In Australia this led to the enactment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 . That Act also (as was so often the way at the time) still mirrored UK legislation in many respects. One of these was section 18 of that Act, which contained a new provision which in a slightly modernised form survives as section 35 of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007:

Service in armed forces of enemy country

(1) A person ceases to be an Australian citizen if the person:

(a) is a national or citizen of a foreign country; and

(b) serves in the armed forces of a country at war with Australia.

(2) The person ceases to be an Australian citizen at the time the person commences to so serve.

Both the previous UK and Australian legislation provided for revocation of a grant of naturalization where somebody had aided the enemy in time of war (and for other reasons such as conviction of a crime or fraud in obtaining the grant).

It is worth noting that at that time this section could only apply in 1949 to those with dual citizenship by birth because otherwise those obtaining the citizenship of another country automatically lost their Australian citizenship.  (This only changed in 2002.)  So this section was really just another form of election for people who elected (actually they could have been conscripted) to act upon their allegiance to another state.  It operated by operation of law on facts which were assumed to be juridically clear-cut – a bit like, for example, the way in which your will would automatically be revoked if you subsequently married.  There might be a tussle about the facts in their application to a particular circumstance (did a person serve in the armed forces? It was probably assumed that it would be more clear-cut whether the country was at war with Australia at the time.) but once they were established the consequence followed independent of any ministerial determination – even though a decision to refuse the grant of a passport or admittance to Australia would necessarily be administrative.  (PS: the latest proposal looks like being for something like this for “foreign fighters” which begs the question still as to how organisations or regions are proclaimed – will it be subject to parliamentary disallowance?)

(2) Is more questionable.

First of all, it totally misunderstands the basis on which the precursor to section 35 operated.  Betraying one’s country was not the issue when the section was enacted and still is not, for the reasons set out already.  (By the way, such a point was expressly not taken in the rather amazing English case of Prince Ernest of Hanover – but then he was a toff.)

Secondly, where does this idea of “deserving” to be an Australian citizen come into things?

Thirdly, things are really getting murky when we start saying that a terrorist necessarily betrays Australia.  What exactly is a terrorist?  Who decides?  Different countries make different decisions; one man’s [sic] terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all, and not all terrorists are engaged in terror against Australia.

Fourthly, if betraying our country is the issue, aren’t such people traitors?  The normal recourse of a nation state against traitors is to catch them and punish them, judicially, even if that involves the occasional over-reach, as most people now agree occurred in the case of William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw).

(3) is the most insidious.

Is citizenship really a privilege? Surely not in the sense that it is some kind of optional extra benefit that can be withdrawn.  It is a status which in turn is a springboard to all sorts of rights – most importantly not to be turned away if returning here and to be allowed to stay here.

It is true that governments have always maintained that being given a passport is almost an optional extra (for example, back in the 70s, Ananda Marga members were refused passports) but that is an assertion which can only survive politically by being sparingly asserted even if the cancellation of passports has become more commonplace in recent years.

Back in the cold-war years we used to hear of Eastern-bloc countries depriving dissidents (and, actually I now discover, Jewish emigrants) of their citizenship and refusing them passports and thought: how could a state treat its people so oppressively, so scandalously a.t odds with its high [ha!] ideals.  Oh how the times have changed!

It’s not as if the “me, too” Labor Party is covering itself in glory on this issue any more than our beloved government.


This is an incomplete post which has been sitting here in draft for a while.  Plenty more have written more cogently at length on this topic.  So I’ll stop here and leave it to, for example, Sangeetha Pillai.

Tristan and the beautiful people

June 21, 2015


On Saturday night to the SSO’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by David Robertson.

I have always found this a difficult opera to approach.

First is to do with the story: there are a few such works, such as King Lear and Otello (the play more than the opera), which you know from the start are not going to end up well, which I have to drag myself to with an anticipatory heavy heart. Tristan is one of those.

Second is to do with the context and the concept. I think I am a bit over romantic love, and I am especially over romantic love evangelized by a man who dumped his own wife and made a bit of a profession of going for other men’s. I know that is very old-fashioned of me. Further, though romantic love may be a good means of getting people to latch on to one another, I’m not sure what sort of a predictor it is of long-term happiness. That’s more who is kind and considerate; who does the washing up; who takes the garbage out. Oh, I forgot. I’m sure Cosima and Richard had people to do those sorts of things for them. (Maybe Minna was a bit of a nagger on that front.)

Look, it was good. Almost necessarily so because it is a great work. (To explain: usefully deployed when speaking to friends who have been involved in performances one has just heard and ask you afterwards “How was it?”, I mean by that a piece that is worth hearing/seeing for itself, regardless of the standard of performance – within bounds.) Contrary to my original plans, I shall go again, and I will listen again when it is on the ABC “Classic” FM tonight or when it is subsequently streamed on the internet. (There is an oboe entry in Act III that I want to check in the score.)

[checked – link in anticipation of streaming, still to come Monday am]

Tristan Act III

But I do have a beef with the concept.

The problem is: what to do about an opera in concert, especially (but not so especially, because large orchestral forces apparently now mandate a concert performance or none at all for Wagner) by a composer who proclaimed the Gesamtkunstwerk?

David Robertson has had three goes in Sydney now. First was The Flying Dutchman, with the digital images projected on a sail behind the stage. Second was Elektra, with some dancers on the stage and a certain degree of dramatization by the singers. This is the third, which has reverted to the projected images on a sail-like screen masking the organ which looks rather as though it has been recycled from the Dutchman.

Such images can contribute a lot, and together with lighting and other atmospherics can lift things way above the rather academic sterility of a concert performance with everybody dutifully following the text in their programs.

In the first act I was distracted somewhat by the whirring of the fans of the computer operating them, mere centimetres from my ears in the seat behind. This cast a bit of a shadow over my experience of the first act. I just couldn’t hear soft pizzicato bass sounds and the opening of the prelude was masked by the local white noise. Fortunately, I was able to move away. That’s a beef with management for selling me the ticket without warning and pretty personal to me and them.  Now I’ve got it off my chest we can move on.

My real beef was the use of models to depict Tristan and Isolde. You can get an idea from the picture at the head of this post, pinched from Peter McCallum’s review in the SMH.  The picture captures the moment when, dejectedly, the dead Tristan/Lance Ryan left the stage (which is why the image of Tristan is obscured). I found them almost jejune – like the use of similar models rather than singers in Opera Australia’s posters in recent years – and also quite distracting. I had to look away.

Perhaps some of my discomfort was because I’m not really accepting the dramatic premiss as I mentioned at the start. Arguably there should be a focus on Tristan and Isolde since the whole point of the drama is that they are focused so very much on each other. Part of the problem for me was that their beauty seemed (inevitably; it always is) too much of the here and now. From time to time when there was a reference to greetings from Isolde, she would say something that looked very much like “Hi.” OK, it could have been “Heil dir, Sonne” (OK, wrong Wagner) but it didn’t look like it. The style, for me, didn’t fit.

These images also detracted from the work of the singers, once again placed by Robertson at the rear of the orchestra. A conductor is necessarily an egotist and it may be argued that the orchestra is the true hero of Tristan [and Isolde], but to reduce the singers to tiny figures beneath superhuman projections really rubbed that in. If the problem of a concert performance is that the singers can no longer act, a solution which seems to deny almost any possibility of singerly acting is to me the wrong way to go.

Weak at the knee

June 16, 2015

Owing to an injury to my knee, I’m less mobile than usual just now. D has been driving me in to concerts in the city.

Faced with the various road closures and public transport disruptions associated with the Vivid Festival, I chose to drive myself in and park in the Sydney Opera House’s double helix carpark for the Sydney Symphony’s concert titled “My Country, My Life.”

If you book in advance on the internet it is $4.50 cheaper, by the way.

The car park was full of families with strollers going to Vivid, and though I was early, I had to go right to the bottom (it really is a “Tiefgarage”) and up again a bit before I found a spot.

As I came out of the lift from the car park I met an orchestra member with whom I have a speaking acquaintance – struck up only recently at a piano recital when he recognised me from our days outside concert halls as members of the smokers’ club. That he struck up a conversation at the recital I put down to my being on crutches: this is a bit like having a dog or possibly (I wouldn’t know) a child when it comes to provoking conversation.

“You might want to leave at interval,” he said.

It wasn’t clear at first whether that was intended as a reflection of his taste or what he thought mine might be – maybe a bit of both.

The program was:

DVOŘÁK Symphony No.7
SMETANA The High Castle from Má Vlast
MACKEY Beautiful Passing – Violin Concerto
SMETANA The Moldau from Má Vlast

On one level I think he meant simply that the “big finish” (ie, the Symphony) was in the first half. Wouldn’t one want to go home after it? As we spoke further (there was plenty of time and I wasn’t moving fast) it emerged that he wasn’t all that keen on the Mackey (though he conceded it to be well written) and a little dismissive of finishing the concert with “The Moldau” – “a piece Czech orchestras do on tour as an encore.”

As to the order of the halves, I agree with him. I would have rather left the concert with the exaltation of the symphonic finale resonating within me than the popularism of the Smetana, well-played though that undoubtedly was.

On the other hand I liked the Mackey more than my orchestral acquaintance seemed to. To be fair, he did make the point to me that it was a piece with a program. With that program in mind (Mackey’s mother’s “good death” – lucky her) I found it quite rewarding. There were some muted strings towards the end for which I am always a sucker.

Maybe I am becoming more receptive to such stuff than I once was, on account of my present infirmity, my age and the age of my parents’ generation.

Anthony Marwood was the violinist. David Robertson conducted.

Robertson is in town for a sustained period. I expect that’s been lined up to allow time to prepare Tristan und Isolde, scheduled for 20 and 22 June.

So it was that the next Friday I fronted at the SOH to see David Robertson conduct with the SSO’s Brangane, Katarina Karnéus, as the soloist in a concert titled “Summer Nights.”

Vivid now over and its crowds dispersed, and D out of the country, I got myself to the courtesy bus which waits at one end of Circular Quay station to transport less mobile attendees to the Opera House now that no public buses run there. It is a good service though the steps up to the bus must be a bit tricky for some of the clientele.

It was a pleasant surprise when my onetime history lecturer, J, and his wife, G, also boarded the bus. Happily, J always remembers the course in which he felt I did particularly well rather than the course I took the next year where he got a bit semiotic and which proved a bit beyond me. About 15 years after I took it (probably coinciding with a pre-retirement clearout of his office, I now realise) he even posted me the course materials from a later year of basically the same course as the one I had done well in. (We didn’t have “course materials” when I went through – we had to buy, borrow or occasionally photocopy books and articles for ourselves.)

We parted at the SOH as they were off to the preconcert talk in the northern foyer. This was too many steps for me. I had a snack at the Bistro Mozart to accompany some non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.

And so to the concert. The program was delightful:

HAYDN Symphony No.31 (Horn Signal)
BERLIOZ Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights)
SCHUBERT Symphony No.4 (Tragic)

My Australia-Ensemble-going companion, P, complains that not enough Haydn is done these days. In context, I suppose she has Haydn’s string quartets most in mind (nobody grieves very much over the neglect of his baryton trios), but on the strength of the SSO’s performance on this occasion I’m inclined to the same view about the symphonies.

The problem is that Haydn wrote so many symphonies: even if the SSO did two a year it would take more than 50 years to get through the lot. That is a bit of a straw-mannish way of putting things. It is not necessary to play every symphony, but there is a lot of good stuff there.

It just makes you realise how much recordings and radio have crowded the repertoire. There is these days so much (well-known) music which, from simple numbers of other contenders rather than any particular esoteric or extravagant musical forces, we can only rarely hear live.

Still [going on a bit, now, I know] I’d be happy to hear more Haydn symphonies from the SSO, and not just (in fact especially not just) London symphonies. I especially liked the bright HIP-ish violin sound at the outset (the size of the orchestra beefed up a bit to match 4 modern horns). I liked still, but less, the last movement – a rare example in Haydn of a last movement based on variations. Rare for a reason, I’d say. Not because the variations were bad, but because his more exuberant finales are better. (OK, there is the Farewell Symphony but that’s a special case.)

The Berlioz is another example of a work very well known in recordings and often broadcast, but not so often heard live here. The issue here is probably that big-Berlioz crowds out little or medium Berlioz. It was great to hear it.

I would like to hear from the SSO more non-Symph-Fant Berlioz, and not just overtures. What about The Death of Cleopatra?

Having mugged up on the text furiously before the concert began, I glanced from time at it in the program booklet. I feel it is a waste of a live performance to keep your head buried in the text to slavishly follow it.

Afterwards, my neighbour, a European student visiting Australia, asked me surprisedly “Could you follow the words?” I gathered she didn’t have a very high opinion of Katarina Karnéus’s French. I’m not sure or even convinced KK’s French was totally Gallic, but she projected the gist (which was all that I was after and which I told my neighbour was all I could or sought to follow anyway) very well and over a very wide vocal range – it seemed at one point to go right down to an E below the stave.

The Schubert 4 was another rarity on the Sydney concert stage. Predictably, I enjoyed the second movement the most. Predictably because it is a slow movement (could there also have been some muted strings?) and also because my subsequent research reveals that it is most people’s favourite.

I met J and G at the courtesy bus stop but in the end we did not travel back to Circular Quay together. The bus had just gone and J wanted to strike out on foot to catch the train. Instead I found myself talking to Ph, to whom I had been previously introduced by my concert-going acquaintance Co. Once again, the crutch was a great conversation starter, especially when I disclosed that I had a knee problem. Ph revealed he is about to have a total knee replacement after an unsatisfactory partial replacement. We swapped notes about medication and surgeons. More generally, he reflected “That’s the thing about getting old.”

That’s all very well for him to say. Ph must be at least 10 and more like 15 years older than I.

We also discussed the upcoming Tristan. Ph said that Co said to him: “Go to see it twice. We’ll never hear it again in Sydney.” So he is going to both performances, as is Co.

I hope time is on my side for that one, because I have only booked to go once.

If a tree falls….

May 22, 2015

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.

Postscript, Sunday pm I did and I did. Still thinking about what made the difference second time around.

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.


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.


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.


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