Four last songs

Last night with my friend, P, to the Australia Ensemble at UNSW.  The program was:

Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Divertimenti for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Piano Quintet – 150th anniversary of birth

Thomas ADES (b 1971) Catch, Opus 4, for clarinet, piano, violin and cello

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) arr James Ledger Four Last Songs for soprano
with flute/piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet/b clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and piano

The Frank Bridge had its moments, but was not wildly engrossing. The best bit about the Elgar was the middle movement, which displayed his gift for long long melodic lines. The program notes kept referring to reminiscences of Franck and Brahms, and rather damningly, after the concert I found myself humming not Elgar but the movement from Brahms’s Piano Quintet Op 34 which he was all-too-clearly “reminiscing” in the final movement. Roger Covell’s program note also referred to Elgar’s own idiosyncratic style of playing the piano, and quoted a letter from George Bernard Shaw to Elgar which commented:

“There are some piano embroideries on a pedal point that didn’t sound like anything else in the world, but quite beautiful, and I have my doubts whether any regular shop pianist will produce them: they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself and which struck me the first time I hever heard you larking about with a piano.”

Talk about schmoozing!

I think I know which passages Shaw was referring to, and I thought Ian Munro realised them quite well. Otherwise, my own surmise is that Elgar wasn’t much of a pianist: he wrote hardly anything at all for the instrument, and the writing for the piano in the quintet was for the most part stunningly stodgy.

The Thomas Ades was a striking work, and always interesting: P and I talked about this at interval – what is it that enables some composers of modern works to write interestingly, when others can be a bit boring? Of course, if we knew this, we could bottle it and be geniuses ourselves. It may be nothing in comparison to prodigies such as Schubert, Mendelssohn or Mozart, but by modern standards the Ades was a very creditable piece of work for someone who was only 20 at the time.

The highlight of the evening was the arrangement of of the Strauss Four Last Songs, sung by Yvonne Kenny.  It was a coup for the Australia Ensemble to secure her services. 

If you saw any of that Operatunity program last year on the ABC, you will know that Miss Kenny is very much the diva.  She has gone on record as saying her art required her to remain single (this is Vissi d’arte territory).  I assume it was the wishful thinking of a fan which resulted in my post about Streetcar Named Desire, in which she appeared as Blanche, attracting a hit on the search terms “Yvonne Kenny lesbian.”  God knows, I’ve done plenty of “NN gay” searches myself in my time.  (If Yvonne is a lesbian, she is definitely of the lipstick variety.) 

It is perhaps ungallant of me to observe that Miss Kenny must now be pushing 60 (I have since discovered: “b. 25 Nov 1950″), but aside from one attenuated high B natural, she is still in fine vocal form.  Nevertheless, watching her sing was a reminder of just how defenceless singers are: they have no instrument to hide behind – they are their instrument.  It was also a reminder that nerves never go away: in the first song, she was afflicted by a most alarming tremor in her left arm which seemed like an extension of her vibrato and which even caused P to wonder if YK was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  I very much hope she isn’t.  Though I am not a doctor, I doubt if she is, because it all came under control in the succeeding songs.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear her sing them all.

The arrangement, by James Ledger, was an ingenious reduction of piece originally scored for very large orchestra.  Only one effect seemed misjudged, which was when the pianist was directed to play directly on the strings with timpani mallets: this simply could not be heard.

At the end of the concert, Roger Covell introduced next year’s season.  He spoke very well, but predictably (for the author of the longest and most comprehensive program notes in the world) for too long. 

Roger, too, is not getting any younger: as I watched him speak (and he did flag from time to time), I felt like the proverbial undertaker measuring people up for their coffins, only in my case it was for his obituary (remember, I’d just heard the Four Last Songs, which conclude: “Wie sind wir wandermuede – ist dies etwa der Tod?).  P mentioned to me that when her late mother first knew of Covell, he was the sports editor for the Courier Mail.  He was also an actor in London in the early 50s moving in Australian expatriate circles.  And now he is an Emeritus Professor of Music! 

It may sound carping of me to say, based on Covell’s performances as director of the UNSW Opera, that he was a better organiser than he was a conductor, but actually I don’t want to belittle his organizing skills at all. The things he has organized have nearly all been things which, if he hadn’t organized them, probably wouldn’t have happened at all. 

That includes the Australia Ensemble.  Given UNSW’s recent travails, including the Singapore disaster, one has to wonder if the Ensemble will continue.  At least for one more year it appears it will, and at $176 for 6 concerts (less for concessions), it is a bargain.   

P and I also discussed the recent excitement involving Kim Walker, the dean of the Conservatorium who was stood down, apparently on account of some pretty spectacular plagiarism, but has now been reinstated. 

This is a difficult one: P thinks that Peter McCallum, music critic for the SMH and (I had previously thought but mistakenly: see his comment below) disappointed applicant for KW’s job, is behind all of this, and undoubtedly he has been involved.  P is also inclined to think that P McC is being a bit of a snake in the grass, and that KW has done much good work, even if she is a great self-promoter who is probably unbearable to those who have to suffer in her shadow up close.  On the other hand, Rowena Danziger, former and monstrously masterful headmistress of Ascham, has come out in KW’s support.  P and I both know something about Rowena, and only space and (to a lesser extent) the libel laws prevent me from saying something more about that here.  Suffice to say that if Rowena is for Kim, that inclines me to side against her.

Not that my opinion counts for much.

6 Responses to “Four last songs”

  1. Peter McCallum Says:

    Your blog states that I was “a disappointed applicant for KW’s job.” This is not true. I was not an applicant and not a candidate. I was acting dean at the time she was appointed, assisted the selection process by meeting all candidates and providing any information or background requested, and welcomed Kim Walker’s appointment when it was announced. I hosted a reception for her when she arrived.

    Your blog also states that I am being a “bit of a snake in the grass.” Any concerns I have, as an employee with the University of Sydney I have raised with the appropriate person, whether it be Kim Walker, the Dean of the Faculty in which I work or through other appropriate chanels. I don’t think it right to discuss these issue in the press and have not done so. This is not being a “snake in the grass.” It is simply being professional.

    Peter McCallum

  2. marcellous Says:

    Thanks for your comment and my apology for the error: I have made a correction about whether you were an applicant. I thought I had read that in the Herald (and had been surprised by it), but obviously I was mistaken (or the Herald was, if indeed I read it there).

    As to “snake in the grass,” that was my friend, P’s view, not mine. I don’t share that view, with the small caveat that somebody (and I don’t say it is you) must have done the necessary internet checking to detect the plagiarism. Once the plagiarism was detected, it was clearly a matter which needed to be addressed.

    If Kim Walker’s plagiarism had been committed in genuinely academic writing, I think without question she should have to resign. As I understand it, it was more in writing which was of the nature of managerial-vision guff. There is more that could be said about the trends within universities which have turned senior academics (or at least, as in Kim Walker’s case, people with academic titles) into managers, and also about how good the fit is between a conservatorium and a university.

    There are other issues around about the path the Conservatorium is taking under KW’s leadership. A lot of this is about money, and I expect that KW is in many respects just doing what those who appointed her want her to do. One related issue is of course the syndrome that governments are much more willing to find the money to build impressive edifices than they are to fund on an ongoing basis the activities which go on in inside them and are their true justification.

    I do respect your professionalism and also admire your critical writing. The present situation is obviously a very difficult one, and particularly, I imagine, for you.

  3. Paul Thayerton Says:

    The present situation is a difficult one only because the University and Kim Walker are not willing to accept responsibility for their actions and be truthful with the academic community and the public (whose tax dollars, in part, support the University). Unfortunately, as often happens with people who “divide people”, hubris seems to have replaced any sense of humility.

    The story in the Sydney Morning Herald made a clear case for plagiarism and people want answers as to how this case was handled. Anyone who has gone to school for any length of time knows what plagiarism is and that if one is found to have plagiarised something, there are consequences.

    Kim Walker might have saved her job but has she saved her integrity?

  4. Jason Covell Says:

    Just a quick note — Roger (my father) is not ready for the obituary quite yet! Not by a long shot.

    He recently completed (another) marathon bike ride to Queensland, keeps fit and busy and would put many men 20 years his younger to shame.

  5. marcellous Says:

    I am pleased to hear it. I certainly wouldn’t wish early publication for any obituary. I was really thinking more about how much it would need to cover. And do remember, as I said, I’d just been listening to the Strauss.

  6. Kim Walker « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I have been getting some visits to a previous post of mine which, whilst primarily reporting on an Australia Ensemble concert, also touched on the […]

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