David and Jonathan


Tonight to the opening night of David and Jonathan, put on at Angel Place by Pinchgut Opera.

I saw a lot of familiar faces in the foyer beforehand and there is a particular reason for this. The now practically defunct Music Department at the University of Sydney was an incubator for much early music performance in Sydney, including for authentic performances of choral music. Anthony Walker studied there, as, for example, did Neal Peres da Costa, who was one of the harpsichord players in tonight’s performance. By the time that Erin Hellyard, another leading spirit at Pinchgut, was of university age, early music had gained a toe-hold at the Conservatorium, but there are other links of musical ancestry and tutelage between the department and Cantillation, the chorus for the opera, though the tributary stream has been diluted over time. So, for example, I saw Nicholas Routley and Allan Marrett there, and there were numerous others, especially a few faces I recognized from the Sydney Chamber Choir or Contemporary Singers and even Cantillation in years gone by.

At his invitation left in a comment on this blog, I introduced myself to Ken Nielsen, one of the leading lights of this company. Having shed my anonymity to even that extent, I find myself feeling a little constrained about uttering anything critical about the performance, let alone that I am not a critic.

Although mounted as an opera, it seems that the music now known as D&J was originally interspersed with a Latin play – so in that respect its form is not dissimilar from Purcell’s Fairy Queen. In this production, the
Latin play was notionally replaced by readings in English of wartime letters and war poetry. For me, this was the least successful aspect of the production. This is partly because, like painters adding words or dancers speaking or cross-disciplinary theses, such steps outside genre can often be embarrassing (even though cross-disciplinary theses, if half good, stand a good chance of getting the benefit of the doubt on both sides). I think the other reason is that, whereas the play presumably provided narrative detail, these interspersed recitations (obviously, I can’t call them interludes – maybe inter-anti-ludes) did not.

I felt I was being preached at, and moreover, I’m converted already! Alternately, I felt condescended to. War is hell: I know that. That is a simplification of the substance of the letters and poems, but not by much. Perhaps things are different in the US of A and the Curtis Institute, where the director of this production has done the greatest part of his work. I squirmed during those bits. They could quite easily be left out.

The production is quite explicit about the love “passing the love of women” between David and Jonathan. They exchange a kiss. This of course could not be done if the piece were performed, as it was at the Jesuit college when first put on, with a boy with an unbroken voice playing Jonathan.

At the end of the opera, Jonathan and Saul are both dead. This is hardly surprising: they are the only two combatants who disdain to wear body armour.

Before somebody corrects me, I hasten to add that the picture above is of David and Goliath. It is used in the production to signify David’s fame and military prowess. There is a slightly comical moment where Jonathan (Sarah MacIver, her hair at last, relatively speaking, under control) commends David on the strength of his arm (“Nothing can resist your conquering arm”). David strikes a pose which might show off his biceps, save that Anders Dahlin, as David, is tall and slender and has arms like matchsticks.

I’m going again on the last night (next Monday) and I am looking forward to it. I would go again even, because we hear very little of the French baroque in Australia, except that there are only two other performances, on Saturday (when I am going to hear the SSO) and on Sunday (an afternoon performance which seems likely to be booked out). Despite my criticism of the verse and worse, I have to emphasise that I really enjoyed it a lot, and that is not just embarrassment because I have now spoken to Ken Nielsen. I might say more about the individual performances and the production as a whole after I have seen it again.

I shall go to bed with all those French wobbly 4-3 cadential trills ringing in my ears.


10 Responses to “David and Jonathan

  1. Ken Says:

    No worries, mate, your identity is safe with me.
    Sorry we could not find a phone box for you to change in.


  2. marcellous Says:


    You are a tease. I don’t fancy myself as Clark Kent at all, or that my identity is any matter of great moment to the world.

    My initial reasons for anonymity were as much to do with protecting others as protecting myself from the penetrating power of the world wide web: there is nothing so obscure that cannot be rooted out by anyone with sufficient determination. And once you have started to proceed on that basis, you are pretty well obliged to continue that way. In my case, this mostly involves the mixture of personal and professional material I touch upon.

    Having spoken to you just reminded me of the dutch courage that anonymity also offers. I try not to abuse that.

  3. Rock R Says:

    You describe the Music Department of the University of Sydney as “practically defunct”.

    In fact, it is quite the opposite. The number of students taking music subjects there has never been higher in its history. It is thriving – but with a largely different curriculum to what was offered previously.

    It may be “practically defunct” in terms that one cannot study practical subjects there very much as there is no longer a Bachelor of Music degree. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t having an impact on music in this country. Just a different sort of impact.

    • marcellous Says:

      You make a fair point, but your final paragraph actually ingeniously reformulates what my meaning was. The music department as it was is now practically defunct. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t merit in what has taken its place, but what is there is definitely something quite different.

  4. wanderer Says:

    …”what has taken place”…

    M, could, or rather would, you expand this out a bit?

  5. marcellous Says:

    I’m having some trouble tracking down links which are working but the effective closure of the then music department can be tracked back in the c. 1999 (filmed in 1998) documentary “Facing the Music.”

    The key features of the former department of music were the teaching of musicology, ethnomusicology and composition, whilst performance students were provided with their private tuition by the department. There was a small nucleus of about 15 Bachelor of Music students in each year who were provided with individual tuition (if in composition, from a salaried member of staff, and otherwise from private teachers casually engaged). The remainder of the students were generally in the faculty of arts. So you could also do a major or honours in music as part of an arts degree, but for this you didn’t get any credit or support for any practical studies yourself.

    Within the western art music component of its coursework, the department was particularly keen on “early music,” at a time when the Conservatorium initially didn’t have much time for this. In addition, it was a means for students of teachers who were out of favour in the Conservatorium to continue their tertiary studies – if you went to the Con, you had to learn with one of their teachers. It also prided itself (possibly perversely) in being academically more rigorous than the Con, and I think this is true, in that “academic” subjects at the Con were very much the handmaiden of the practical curriculum, and their content was pretty perfunctory (History of Western Civilization in two semesters, etc).

    Basically, the music department was probably always unviably small. It ran a student choir (not the Sydney Chamber Choir – that was initially an elite offshoot) and an orchestra. The orchestra, in particular, always struggled [the choir did too, but there is more wobble-room for a choir than an orchestra], and was probably not a very valuable experience for the better players because its standard was too low, though the one nice thing it did offer was that every instrumental student got the chance to play a concerto as part of their graduation performance. Once the university took over the conservatorium, and the conservatorium ramped up its commitment to musicology and early music (ironically, staffed with a number of graduates of the University department) the rationale for the music department’s separate existence diminished. There are many other factors which are relevant, including the decline in the school-level music curriculum and the commitment to “classical” culture as, like all humanities, music has become cultural-studies-ized.

    It is a complicated story, and personalities play a part – inevitable when we are talking about such a tiny institution.

    The upshot of all of this is that the Bachelor of Music course was abolished, so that there is now very little, if any, practical tuition offered by the department other than participation in some ensembles. It is probably true, as Rock R, says, that the number of students is greater, but on average each student must be studying less music and being taught less, and the vocational element (always, to an extent, chimerical) is, I expect, practically non-existent.

    Rock R may have a different perspective, especially on the last point. My observations are made from afar, and involve an element of surmise.

  6. Thom Says:

    The academic rigour (and richness) was helped along considerably by the Sydney Uni Music Dept being on the main campus. When you studied the mandatory foreign language, for example, you studied within the university’s main department for that language with other (non-BMus) students. And for the arts “elective” you could take your pick from pretty much any subject on offer. A friend of mine took physics, others could pursue linguistics or history or maths or arts or English or whatever – all taken seriously because you joined other students of that subject. In that respect, despite the tiny size of the cohort, it felt a whole lot less insular than the Con at the same time (and perhaps even now, given the Con’s continued geographic isolation from the campus, albeit in much-improved buildings).

  7. marcellous Says:

    Thom: I agree about then and I suspect what you say about the Con is true now.

  8. wanderer Says:

    Thanks. So the outcomes of the merger, takeover, makeover continue to evolve and you have helped where I otherwise struggled with the main websites involved. I remember the doco well, particularly for liking Anne Boyd.

    Home briskly from the concert M – hoped you liked Mr Zagrosek as much as we did.

  9. marcellous Says:

    Fairly briskly, though not as briskly home as that timestamp suggests. And yes, I did enjoy Herr Z, especially the second movements of the Beethoven and the Schubert, and the middle movement of the Mozart (also DD, even if she took a breath in her cadenzas).

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