Maß für Maß

On Wednesday night I went to hear/see Emmanuel Ax with the SSO and Robert Ticciati conducting.

The program was:

SCHUBERT, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: Overture
MOZART, Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
MEALE, Clouds now and then
SIBELIUS, Symphony No.7

Originally, as part of the SSO invite-a-friend special offer, I had arranged to go with E, my old high-school music teacher, and R, her husband. Unfortunately, when I spoke to E this afternoon, she said she was sick, so there was a ticket spare. D didn’t want to go.

On the weekend, my former piano teacher, P, mentioned that she might be going with her son, T, if her friend X, who works with the orchestra, could wangle her a free ticket. Apparently, bookings this month for the SSO have been a bit disappointing. Is this really then a sign of discretionary spending slowing down as mortgages and petrol prices bite? Or is there just a lot on this month, as another of our company suggested? As I drive right past P’s place to go into town, I mentioned that I could probably give them a lift in.

I messaged L, who lives just up the road from me and who was my English teacher in year 9 and also directed a few plays I was in. My acquaintance with L really owes as much to the fact that for many years we ran into each other on Monday night SSO concerts as to our initial teacher-pupil association. I also run into him if we catch the same train into the city, or at E’s place, to which we are sometimes invited together. L said he was already going. He gave me J’s number to ask J. J (odd one out) was not my teacher though he did teach other people I know at another school. I have known him as a friend of L’s over most of the same period in roughly the same way. J accepted the offer of the spare ticket.

In fact, I had spent the day at home attempting to shake off an incipient cold. I made these calls in between fitful and feverish slumber. At about 6.30 I arose from my couch, dressed and fortified myself with 1.5 sudafeds. (Arrest me!) I picked up P and T on the way in and we arrived at the Opera House in good time, where I met R, J (I had their tickets) and L.

R and I were sitting in row L of the stalls, which is rather closer than I usually sit. You can’t hear the woodwind very well, but (importantly for the Sibelius) I could still see a trombone bell. It did mean that some scrappy violin playing (that Charles Dutoit would never have tolerated) was exposed, but it gave a comfortable intimacy, especially in the Mozart, where the balance favoured the piano in the way which we have been spoilt by recordings rather than what prevails in the concert hall generally. Were it not that the woodwinds were by now entirely obscured by the piano lid, this would have been close to ideal.

The Schubert was attractive. It’s hard to say much more than that about it on a single hearing. It was written when he was 17, and though some of his songs written when he was the same age show his own style, this piece could fairly be called, in stylistic terms, embryonic.

For me, Emmanuel Ax was the drawcard for this concert, and so inevitably the Mozart was the highlight. This is listed amongst the ABC’s “top 100 concerti” but strangely is not one I am so familiar with. I expect it made the cut because of the last movement, but even this movement’s familiarity is deceptive, because its initial theme closely resembles one of the jolly horn-concerto last movements, though the horn concerto usually goes at a brisker pace than that at which Ax took this movement.

I am at a loss even to start cataloguing the felicities of Ax’s performance. I enjoyed the slow movement the most, but I definitely looking forward to all of it when I go again on Saturday night, which is my normal subscription night for this series. As an encore, Ax played Chopin’s Waltz in A minor (Op 34 No 2). A little googling reveals that this is a regular encore standby of his.

It is sometimes said of tone-deaf people that they know two tunes – one is God Save the King and the other one isn’t. The SSO seems to know two pieces by Richard Meale which date from his ’60s and ’70’s avant-garde phase: the loud one is Very High Kings and the quiet one is Clouds, now and then. You know where you are in Clouds now and then right from when it starts with a bit of flutter-tongued flute. It’s based, programatically speaking, on a Haiku, summarised by the SSO in their blurb to the concert as being “about the necessity of transient sorrow to appreciate life’s joys.” That’s almost as long as the Haiku which the program gave as “Clouds now and then Giving men relief From moon-viewing.” Rather rudely, at the end of it, I quipped to R, “Well, that’s a relief.” I was joking, but as ever I expect this was the sentiment of others in the audience.

The conductor, Robert Ticciati, is almost impossibly youthful. He is “still in his mid-20s” and has been mentored by Colin Davis and Simon Rattle who, according to his blurb, he first got to know when he was 15. You have to wonder if he and Simon Rattle go to the same hairdresser, as he has a similar shock of curls. If D had known what a cutie he is, perhaps he would have come to the concert.

All of that said, I don’t think Ticciati quite mastered the Sibelius. The Sibelius is a peculiar, almost abstract (not that all music isn’t abstract) piece which is unmistakeably Sibelius from the beginning (especially the woodwind writing not long in) and which shifts in a blurry way from idea to idea. There is a big trombone tune which sort of floats in and out of the picture, and the final big moment is one which then settles into an ending which, though mildly affirmative, also has that half-questioning air which is often punctuated by an ellipsis, thus … This was one of the bits which didn’t quite work; other sections also didn’t seem to catch with the requisite waltz-like lilt. I wondered if (and I know this sounds ridiculous) he’s just too young and skinny to conduct this piece. All the same, I’m looking forward to a second hearing on Saturday, when things may well have settled.

On a second hearing, the description understates the force of the ending. Even if I misheard or misremembered, that must in some way still be symptomatic of how it came across to me on Wed (the listener is always right even when wrong!). On Sat it still didn’t quite work. It simply came up too abruptly. On listening to Ashkenazy’s recording for comparison (and his performance with the SSO is the last live one I heard) I wonder if the issue was whether the tension was allowed to drop out of the strings line as it turns the corner just before its final cadential ascent.

After, we all met up. Poor R was consigned to the bus home to Glebe, and L, J, P, T and I walked together back to my car. I mentioned to L that P had in fact played second piano with my then piano teacher D, in a production of Britten’s Noyes Fludde which L had directed in 1974. It turned out that P remembered L from when he played the role of Angelo in a production of Measure for Measure directed by Neil Armfield at Sydney University in 1977 for which P’s good friend, Mi, did the music.

I always like to take the high road back from the Opera House, by the steps up to the poetically-named Tarpeian way. This offers some respite from the objectionably noisy Opera bar on the lower concourse and the jostle of people headed to the parking lot. But it does involve a bit of walking in the dark. At the top of the stairs, we came across a group of people sitting together on the path in a circle. We instinctively bunched up defensively. As we passed, it became clear that, as is so often the case, we had nothing to fear but fear itself (to coin a phrase). They didn’t actually have a guitar, but they were murmuring together quietly in German, and some of them even said “Hullo” to L, who said “Hullo” back.

After, one of us asked if L knew them. L said he didn’t. I suggested: “Warscheinlich sie waren auch in Maß für Maß.”

OK. I guess you really had to be there.

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