Archive for June, 2009

Muddle instead of music

June 28, 2009

Last night, under the heading “Baroque Masterpieces” with D to a double bill of Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The cast was:

Acis & Galatea:
Galatea Taryn Fiebig
Damon Kanen Breen
Acis Henry Choo
Polyphemas Shane Lowrencev

Dido & Aeneas
Belinda Taryn Fiebig
Dido Yvonne Kenny AM
1st Witch Teresa La Rocca
2nd Woman Amy Wilkinson
Sorcerer Kanen Breen
Aeneas Luke Gabbedy

The Orchestra of the Antipodes played and Antony Walker conducted.

Not really my headline, of course, and in fact, so far as the music was concerned, things were reasonable (in the Handel) to good (in the Purcell). I thought some of Antony Walker’s pastoral compound-time numbers in the Handel were on the brisk side. Nor did either Choo (as Acis) or Taryn Fiebig (Galatea) seem to have really found their stylistic groove with Handel. The big stile antico chorus (”Wretched lovers! Fate has past/This sad decree: no joy shall last”) got off to a shaky start.

The muddle was more in the production of Acis and Galatea. I am not a prude (to coin a phrase) but to me the enthusiasm for onstage simulated fellatio – even if tied into the libretto and in reprise of a joke which worked quite well the first time with sniffing a line of coke (though even that’s pretty cheap) – felt like the director casting around aimlessly for something to do. The resort to the written word (”No joy shall last” as a slogan) also excited my suspicion in this direction. The problem probably comes from the almost total abandonment of the pastoral (a difficult genre for modern audiences to inhabit). Instead of happy shepherds and swains with their love dashed out against the stones by the Calibanish monster Polyphemas, there was a kind of sybaritic cocktail set who seemed vaguely transferred from other OA chorus party scenes. There are some long arias – or at least they seemed long when busied up. This was particularly so in the opening few numbers: the story (such as it is) gets moving towards the end and the musical quality also seemed to pick up.

On the strength of last night, the search is still on for a suitable first half opener to Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas – or is it? The Monteverdi Combat between Tancred & Clorinda put on last time was more eloquent, but arguably too slight. But I’m sure that a few years ago Les Arts Florrisants had a much better double bill of D&A with Charpentier’s Actéon. Sure, it’s their idea, but articularly with Antony Walker at the helm, it’s a pity OA didn’t do something like that. It would certainly have strengthened the one moment of dramatic unity between the works, which both involve at some point a fountain, because in this case it really would be “that same fountain” (as in Belinda’s song).

The Purcell remains brilliant. It has the concision and punch which the Handel, in this production, conspicuously lacks. Kanen Breen was simply stupendous (I almost edited this out as a real-estate-agentish cliche superlative) as the sorcerer[or -ess], though I preferred the green body stocking or body paint which that character sported in the previous run of this production to his more Shakespearean-bearded-lady outfit (actually, he reminded me of the protagonist in film called Taxi zum Klo, but that’s another story). Yvonne Kenny brought all her diva-ism to bear in a memorable performance as Dido. D didn’t think much of Aeneas’s costume. I think he was meant to be the aviator-hero (a la WH Auden), but he just looked a bit dorky (it worked better on Angus Wood).

Though Dido’s lament is the opera-queenish moment of this opera (so much so that it is almost possible to feel all that precedes it as just the set up for the situation), my favourite moment is the sailor’s song which gets things moving once Aeneas has resolved to leave:

“Come away, fellow sailors, come away,
Your anchors be weighing.
Time and tide will admit no delaying.
Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning with vows of returning,
But never intending to visit them more.”

The last line (No, never!) is gleefully repeated with a ringing snap on “Never”! The rustic counterpart of Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido, salted with glee, it’s my favourite kind of Purcell song: there’s a similar one at the end of the first half of King Arthur, all about “Harvest Home” and “Hey for the honour of olde England!” These are usually sung with a vaguely Somerset-ish rustic accent (that’s kind of all-purpose) and lots of “arrgh”s from the chorus. Kenneth Williams (or is it Kenneth Horne?) lives!

“Sibelius with spats”

June 23, 2009

[emphasis added]

That’s the latest rescension of Stephen Hough’s epigrammatic summary of the Walton first symphony, of which more later.

Tonight again to hear Hough play the Tchaikovsky second piano concerto with the SSO and the Walton symphony in the second half.

I had a choice between row J in the middle and row U on the non-keyboard side of the stalls. I chose the former, stalkingly close to piano and pianist. At the price of almost total loss of the woodwinds, and an amusing sense in the slow movement of a conversation between mother and son in one room (son rather inclined to tantrums, I’m afraid) and father somewhere out the back, this was worth it.

Closer up, Hough’s playing felt more romantic, although there were still plenty of crisp touches and this time I really “got” the joke just before the final big (but briskly codetta-ish) finish.

The middle movement opens and closes with concertante parts for the solo violin and cello. Dene Olding, wearing his groovier, thick-framed, glasses, did not disappoint. Nor did Timothy Walden, the recently appointed co-principal cello. To my memory, this is the first really big night out I’ve heard him in. There were murmurs of commendation amongst the senior South African set amongst whom I sit on Saturday night. On Monday, the piano was between us and I was hearing him through the gap beneath it, with the effect already referred to above. The reward was to hear up close some rather delicious voicing and shaping of the inner voice when Hough came to play the theme with all elements brought together within the piano part.

The last movement so obviously comes from the same place as Tchaikovsky ballet finales that it is not surprising that the concerto (the shorter version, apparently) has been used as music for a ballet. My neighbour in the second half told me that.

Come back soon, Mr Hough! Your country (or this one, anyway) needs you! This may show that I haven’t really absorbed one of the most elementary distinctions in economics, but humour me, please.

My neighbour in the first half told me that the best recording of the Walton was made by Previn in 1961. We agreed that he was well free of Mia Farrow.

One difference between Saturday night and Monday night is that there were quite a lot of people on Saturday night in the area near me (rear stalls) who left at interval. There was very little of that on Monday. Nevertheless, I was able to secure a spot in row P, which proved sufficient to get a reasonably clear hearing of the whole orchestra. In fact, it was probably clearer than my usual further back seats, simply because closer, though less well-balanced.

My new neighbour (already referred to as the source of the ballet tip) told me he had been attending Sydney Symphony Concerts since 1936. He (and, I think, his son, there with him and who I judged to be about 5 years older than I) also go to the Friday night series to which I go. He specifically mentioned the bad night for the horn section on the last occasion, though not with any malice. He certainly thought things had improved since 1936, though he hastened to add “It wasn’t a cultural desert, by any means. We had Schnabel here playing the Beethoven concertos.” He might have been a bit of a French horn buff, because he did notice the one bodgy horn entry in the concerto.

On second hearing of the Walton, I heard more Sibelius and much less Elgar. In fact the only really Elgarian moment I noticed was the jaunty bit shortly into the last movement. However, this might have been because I was still a bit low to really hear the brass to its best advantage. The slow music felt the most like real Walton, not because I presume to know who was the “real” Walton, but because to me it was the least like anyone else. The most Sibelian moments were the opening of the first and last movement.

The fugue in the last movement sticks out from the rest of the symphony. It is not a surprise to find that this was a solution to a compositional impasse. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you do get a sense of someone saying (some mixed metaphors coming): “Fill up that gap!” (it seems Walton had already written the opening and its reprise as the finale) and then Walton diligently knitting up a fugue. After all, if anything can generate music to measure or by the yard, it is a fugue.

Bearing in mind just how far ahead engagements are made, succession planning can never really stop for an orchestra. As Ashkenazy has only taken a three-year appointment, the search must be on already. Tea-leaf readers will presumably scrutinize this and next year’s conducting rosters closely for any clues and prospects. I don’t claim to be able to pick these things, but a conductor at Wolff’s level without a present appointment must be at least a plausible candidate.

“Sibelius in spats”

June 21, 2009

Last night to hear Stephen Hough with the SSO conducted by Hugo Wolf (that’s a joke).

The program (entitled “Power and Panache”) was:

TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.2 (original version)
WALTON Symphony No.1

Hugh Wolff conductor
Stephen Hough piano

I was keenly anticipating Hough’s second (Tchaikovsky) piano concerto and I was not disappointed. For me, this was definitely the “panache” part of the program’s title, though not without power when required. Hough’s playing is romantic. He has a kind of “cool” cross-aspect which technically has probably something to do with his articulation and characteristic phrase-shaping (just to think of two aspects of his playing).

One of Hough’s current themes is that musicians should learn music primarily from the scores (ie: not initially by listening to recordings). I wonder whether, on one level, what he is reacting to is a change in young musicians’ practice which itself probably is an incident of the digital revolution. I found the first movement incredibly familiar and I soon decided (“decided” because at this distance of time it could easily be a false memory) that this was probably because when I was about sixteen I’d played the second piano part for another pupil of my teacher. Somewhere in a box of old music at the top of my bookshelf may still be the early-to-mid-seventies photocopy on a black scrap-book, lent to me by my teacher for the purpose. My guess is that we only did the first movement, because I didn’t know the other movements nearly so well. I doubt if there was much of a chance for me to have listened to a recording of it then.

Thomasina has recounted that, at a pre-concert talk, Hough described the Walton Symphony No 1 as “Sibelius in spats.” Brilliant! But whose spats were they? Elgar’s? [My first thought.] More likely (on chronological grounds and for the sheer sake of taking it further) the Sitwells’. Edith would have told everyone they were hers, but they were probably Osbert’s which he never wore.

Sibelius was really big in the Anglophone world (and almost nowhere else outside Finland) in the thirties and Constant Lambert, a fellow guest at the Sitwells’, one of Sibelius’s advocates. One aspect of Sibelius which I heard in the Walton was that way of, sometimes quite slowly, putting together an enormous musical jigsaw puzzle of intersecting patterns (not strictly speaking a technically feasible metaphor) which sometimes comes to unanimous climaxes but at other times shifts in an almost kaleidoscopic way. The other thing was a kind of gigantic approach to orchestration, which is not just a question of scale of the orchestra, but also the use of big blocks of orchestra to lay out the juxtaposed patterns.

The symphony, which was definitely the “power” part of the program’s title, is loud. It’s grim but also brash in a slightly modernist but also, at least associatively, imperialist (thought of as a good thing) way. I heard Elgarian touches, mostly, I think, a matter of wind and, more particularly, British brass writing.

If I can and a suitable seat is available I hope to go again on Monday. In the hope that I can I shall leave any further comment until after that, save that fairness requires me to say that the French horn section led by Ben Jacks had a very good night.

While I’ve been away – Ten concerts

June 20, 2009

P1020339
Given the least encouragement, I am dipping my toe back into blogging, notwithstanding that you can never dip your toe in the same river twice.

A musical update.

1. SSO at Angel Place (Mostly Mozart) “Angels and Broken Hearts”

The Thursday before the arrival of my sister (recorded in my last post), I went to the SSO’s Mozart in the City series at Angel Place. In the interests of keeping this post to a manageable length the remaining scraps of what I have to say about that are here.

2. Sydney Symphony, Nelson, Gerbhardt vc; SOH

The Saturday a week and a half after that, I went to hear the SSO at the SOH. Reminiscences here.

3. The Laughing Clowns at the Basement

The next night I went to hear the early-eighties cult band, The Laughing Clowns, performing at The Basement. This was something of a contrast. Calling it a “concert” is probably stretching things a bit.

The Basement’s glory years as Sydney’s leading jazz venue – years associated in my memory with my own (axiomatically impressionable) youth and Horst Liepolt – appear to have passed. There don’t seem to be any residencies, but rather a series of (not always jazz; sometimes touring) guest acts. Horst or no Horst, it is still a very well-set-up venue. If you pay for the meal you get an intimate encounter with the musicians which you couldn’t really get anywhere else in Sydney. Conditions for the standing patrons are less favourable, but the sound system is clear and well-controlled. I enjoyed this evening more than I expected to.

4. Geoffrey Lancaster, International Pianist

About a week after that I went to hear Geoffrey Lancaster play a bunch of Haydn sonatas at Angel Place for the SSO. Ticket sales must have been poor, because I was able to secure two free tickets for some friends under a special offer.

I expect the reduced attendance was a result of, first, the choice of instrument (fortepianos – actually two) and, secondly, the inclusion of an artist resident in Canberra in a series nominally devoted to “International” pianists. As to the second of these, the person who served me at the SSO box office (not one of the regular box office minions: he wrestled with the software) assured me that Lancaster was an “International” artist, but (more tellingly) let slip that he wasn’t planning to be there.

Maybe I was just a bit too tired, but despite my own early music allegiance (which should have overcome the first problem above, though in even a recital hall the fortepiano remains pretty quiet), Lancaster’s choice of sonatas (none of the London ones; more contemplation than drama) left me feeling that things must have been pretty quiet and the nights very long at Esterhaza, and there was nothing on TV. Haydn filled the void. Lancaster’s habit of guying to the audience with a genial shrug at the end of each sonata did not convince me that the music was as witty as the gesture was apparently intended to assert.

5. SSO at SOH; Ashkenazy/Mussorgsky and Shostakovich violin concerto

That Friday off to hear Ashkenazy conduct the SSO in his own arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Sasha Rozhdestvensky play the Shostakovich first violin concerto. It would be a very big ask for Ashkenazy’s arrangement to dislodge Ravel’s on just one hearing: it was brassier, and there were a few touches which struck me as anachronistic in the same as the Hollywood-ish percussion in Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms strikes me.

6. Australia Ensemble

This program had a Leipzig theme. There was an unexplained substitution of artist in the second half. A further post is in the works.

7. SSO Meet the Music

The next Thursday I was back at the SOH for an SSO Meet the Music concert. These start at 6.30 which proved impossible for me, so I missed Peter Sculthorpe’s Kakadu. I arrived in time for Bax’s Tintagel. Remainder of comments here.

8. Katia Skanavi, piano

I also heard Katia Skanavi at Angel Place for Musica Viva. Post to come.

9. “Mostly Mozart” and Mendelssohn Octet

See separate post.

10. Back with the SSO at the SOH

Last weekend, I went again to hear the SSO at the SOH, which was lit up as pictured above. The current bicentennial is certainly an opportunity to erase the early and bad impression made on me by massed Suzuki violinists playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn concerto. In the second half (Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony) Mr Celata managed the clarinet solos without the embarassing squeaks which marked Lawrence Dobell’s bolder but more risky approach the last time I heard this orchestra play this work, but conversely Robert Johnson was plagued with horn fluffs which even rated a mention in Murray Black’s review in The Australian.

Once upon a time (“in my youth”), horn fluffs were absolutely par for the course in SSO performances and I often wondered if all those composers were just joking when they wrote for the instrument. Things have been better for some time now, and are usually better when RJ is playing than when Ben Jacks is in the chair, but it just goes to show that (as a teacher of mine used to say perhaps unconscious of what feels to me like faintly submerged social Darwinism) “You’re only as good as your last performance.”

The Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture didn’t quite live up to expectations, which were probably at an unreasonable height for the opposite reason to my attitude to the Mendelssohn – in this case, a powerful and favourable first impression on hearing the BBC Symphony play this on their Australian tour almost 30 years ago. I waited for what I think of as the big trombone tune at the end, but it just didn’t seem to be as big as I was expecting or wishing it to be.

11. And the one that got away

Finally, mortifyingly, at the very beginning of this month I forgot to go and hear Imogen Cooper. This was especially remiss of me as she was playing chunks of Schubert, and Schubert (on the simple criterion of inclusion in Vol 1 of the Henle edition of the sonatas) has been taking up quite a lot of time and space on my piano desk recently.

SSO – Meet the Music – Bax and Walton

June 20, 2009

I rushed to this concert from a trip out to the eastern suburbs to interview a witness. For the first time, I took the tunnel from Rushcutters Bay to the State Library. In the taxi, it was worth it.

The program was:

SCULTHORPE Kakadu
BAX Tintagel
WALTON Belshazzar’s Feast

Vladimir Ashkenazy conductor
Peter Coleman-Wright baritone
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

I see that (rather weirdly) Philip Scott gave the pre-concert talk.

I took the taxi because I was late. I heard the end of Kakadu from the foyer.

Andrew Ford acts as the “presenter” at this series. I almost never enjoy speeches at concerts, but I find myself quite enjoying his contribution. He straddles an adult-adolescent divide rather in the way that The Simpsons or Shrek manage to appeal to adults and children: there are jokes just for the adults, and usually a bit of worldly-but-mild smut thrown in to get the teenagers interested. This time we learnt that Bax wrote Tintagel while in Cornwall for a six-week “dirty weekend.”

The Bax is a rarety and to tell the truth it was more interesting for that reason than for its musical qualities, which anticipate twenty years of English B-feature film scores. Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was very much the main attraction of the program. This is sometimes spoken of as the culmination of the English oratorio tradition, even though it effectively left that tradition with almost nowhere else to go. It must be one of the noisiest pieces in the (classical) concert repertoire and possibly one of the silliest. Ford tried to draw some serious analogies between Babylon, its wealth and decadence and desecration of the golden vessels from the temple at Jerusalem and Britain in the thirties going off the gold standard or our present global financial crisis. It’s an amusing thought but I’m not sure how far it stands up to scrutiny.

It’s too long ago now for me to give a fair critical account of the performance, other than to say in general terms that it was pretty stupendous and to recall that Peter Coleman-Wright’s diction was particularly good and the choir’s not bad.

SSO – Mostly Mozart – Amir Farid

June 20, 2009

Earlier this month, to Angel Place again for an SSO “Mostly Mozart” concert. The program was:

MENDELSSOHN Octet for strings
MOZART Piano Concerto No.14 in E flat, K449
Michael Dauth violin-director
Amir Farid piano

The octet is a great work. The performance may not have had the flash and polish of some recordings I have heard, but of course a live performance is something very special to appreciate on its own terms.

Chattiness feature of this series. This time there was no speechifying until the orchestra was being reset for the concerto. At this rate, soon we won’t need to sit through any speeches at all. Robert Johnson (the designated talker) innocuously enough told us how he fell in love with the Mendelssohn octet hearing it on BBC whilst huddling over a radiator in London. That does seem a bit late for a talented musician to have encountered this piece. I guess horn players are brought up rather insulated from string quartets, let alone octets, and I guess male altos (Johnson’s other, lesser-known musical talent) aren’t necessarily much more in contact with them.

The Mozart is a Sydney rarity: this was its first SSO performance. It was written for a rather smaller orchestra than usual, and Farid approached it even more like chamber music than Mozart concerti are usually approached. This seemed right, except that his efforts to produce a certain kind of soft and fluffy touch in the last movement were compromised by empathetic bodily movements. This is an old problem in musical performance: risk taking and expression versus safety and accuracy.

I’m happy for Farid to have taken risks in the cause of expressivity, but my hunch is that the bodily movements, though undoubtedly borne out of an emotional necessity, were more disruptive than functional. OK: maybe I’m just channelling the teacher who was always telling me to sit still.

Alban Gerhardt, SSO, John Nelson

June 20, 2009

On May 2 I went to hear the SSO at the SOH. The program was:

BIZET Symphony in C
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No.1
DEBUSSY Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
DEBUSSY La Mer

John Nelson conductor
Alban Gerhardt cello

In the row behind me there are two rather eccentric gents who have arrived as subscribers this year. It is difficult to describe exactly how they are eccentric save by reference to entirely implicit norms of the concert-going public. The elder of them (hard to guess the age: sixties?) has a toothbrushish moustache and attends wearing shorts and long white socks; the younger just seems like a bit of a younger country cousin. They both smoke. They cough a bit, though not for want of trying not to: this we know because they talk quite a lot and rather loudly, and quite a bit of their talk is about not coughing. At the end of the slow movement of the Bizet, one of them (the elder, I think) said “the fugue wasn’t very long” – a point also made in the printed program. In the silence at the end of the Prelude a l’apre midi, while all was still and before anyone had shifted in their seats, let alone applauded, the same one said, “Very nice.” He said it with feeling.

My masterful South African neighbour and his wife both took steps to attempt to bring this pair to heel, but I fear it will be uphill work.

From time to time, the SSO turns out an all-female (undisclosed transexuals excluded) first violin section. This was one such occasion. Composer and violinist George Lentz was camping in the stalls for the first half with his two children, and my neighbour and I teasingly asked him whether this was because the fast neat and work in the Bizet called for a feminine touch (the musical equivalent of “factory girls” who are preferred for diligence and dexterity in China). Mr Lentz deflected this suggestion though he did concede that the preparedness of young women to practise at a critical age might have something to do with the feminization of violin sections generally. My neighbour but one on the other side claimed that you could hear a difference when the section was all women. Obviously, that would depend also on what was played, but I expect that the contribution of the leader would have more influence than the presence of one or more man in the section.

Aside from gender questions, light nimble music principally reminds me how murky the SOH Concert Hall acoustic is. I assume it is the high ceiling where originally a fly tower and proscenium arch were called for.

It’s now too long ago for me to say anything “critical” about the performances. It was nice to see Alban Gerhardt joining the ripieno cellos in the second half. Much better than skulking around in a dressing city in a foreign city or going back to one’s hotel.

SSO and Sara Macliver at Angel Place

June 20, 2009

P1020083

These are the resuscitated remains of an old and previously abandoned post on SSO’s concert in April at Angel Place with soloist, Sara Macliver. The above is a (possibly felonious) pre-concert shot of the auditorium filling up.

HANDEL
Rinaldo: Overture and arias
Samson: Overture and ‘Let the
bright seraphim’

MOZART
Mitridate: Overture
Non so d’onde viene’, K294
Four Minuets from K585
The Magic Flute: ‘Ach ich fühl’s
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!’, K418

Michael Dauth violin-director
Sara Macliver soprano

Michael Dauth handed over the concert-introducing duties to principal violist, Roger Benedict (who seems to like this sort of thing: he’s one of those orchestra members who is always coming to attention, a bit like Tim White at the WASO). Dauth looked a lot more comfortable as a result.

In a way it was a bit unadventurous for the SSO to have programmed 3 arias from Rinaldo as this is an opera performed relatively recently in Sydney and on the last occasion directed by no less a luminary than Trevor Pinnock. Those were hard shoes for the unconducted SSO to fill, and especially, I felt, for the harpsichordist, Anthony Hamad, who had to play Mr Handel’s celebrated concertante interpolations to Almida’s rage aria (an act closer) as published shortly after the first performances. I remember these with Pinnock culminating in a mammoth and virtuoso cadenza. I saw something like this at the bottom of the second last page of the aria in the harpsichordist’s score, but I don’t think I heard it. Mr Hamad, in a late comment below, tells me that I am wrong to suggest that any notes in the score weren’t played.

Emma Matthews and Rachelle Durkin are also hard acts to follow. Compared to them, Sara’s emotional and vocal/tonal range seemed rather narrow. Although something was made of promised high notes in the program note (one of which I kept my ear out for and failed to detect – this could be an edition thing), I wouldn’t say Sara has a really high voice at all – it is easy to think of her voice as high because of the clear and true way she sings. This made her choice of the Queen of the Night’s aria (‘Ach ich fühl’s’) problematic.

Harpo speaks

June 19, 2009

Last night to the Stuart Challender Lecture, put on by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Customs House.

The speaker was Stephen Hough.

Hough is one of my favourite pianists, and he certainly is my favourite out of pianists who reasonably regularly come and play in Australia. He is hardly so mute as “Harpo.” He has his own website. He writes a blog (maintained for London’s Daily Telegraph). But something about seeing someone speak whom one is accustomed to hear simply play suggested that comparison.

The slated topic was music and religion (that’s a paraphrase). Things ranged wider than that, in part because there was no lecture. Instead, David Garrett (badly miked or suffering from a terrible cold or both) played Parkinson with Hough (better miked or less afflicted and much more nattily dressed) as his sole guest. I know it is ungracious of me to say, but I rather suspect this is because Hough didn’t have the time to prepare a formal lecture.

I’m still not quite sure why I go to occasions such as this. In truth, it was probably because I am a fan of Hough. Maybe it was also one of those “I’m blogging this” moments. Hough referred to these when he recounted with incredulity some advice to would-be bloggers which he had come across: live an interesting life so you can write a good blog about it. Such incredulity is all very well for him, jetting around the world as an international concert pianist, but for the rest of us, maybe that’s what we’ve got to work with. Oh Stephen, spare me your scorn!

Garrett had done his homework. Most of the material he worked with came from Hough’s blog, as did many of Hough’s answers. This was probably fine for most of the audience, if one accepts that age and blog-reading are inversely related. It meant that not very much was new to me.

I am always disappointed with the questions at such events. Often they are a bit silly, or involve someone pushing their own barrow. Maybe it is simply that I would like to push my own barrow, though mostly the example of others deters me. As often happens, I steeled myself to ask a question, but too late. Time was up.

In the “conversation,” Hough referred to his recent blog comments to the effect that if you are learning a piece (seriously, at a reasonably high level) you should go to the score first, and not (as a first step) rush off to the library and listen to whatever recordings you could find. Hough illustrated this point by reference to a number of instances (the Tchaickovsky 2nd concerto, which he is playing at present, and the Liszt sonata – both of which have been referred to in his blog) where he considers that fidelity to the score has been compromised by “bad traditions.” This struck me as odd, and in particular at odds with his generally Catholic approach to the question of tradition (as opposed to scripture). What I wanted to ask was: “How do you tell the good traditions from the bad traditions?”

That’s an old chestnut, I know, both in religion and in music. Perhaps it’s just as well that I was saved from asking it by the (figurative) bell.

There was another question which I didn’t ask and wouldn’t have, though I wanted to. Was it too personal, or simply too rude? I’m inclined to think the latter (at least so far as why I wouldn’t have asked it to Stephen’s face), since I’m not ashamed to mention it now.

Hough, as is not a secret, is gay. He converted to Catholicism when he was 18 or 19. More recently, he has written critically about the Church’s attitude to homosexuality, and he touched on this topic in the course of the conversation. His argument, which seemed to me to be a version of the attempt to excuse homosexuality on account of its reputed genetic causes, went something like this:

1. Recent studies show that homosexuality is much more widespread than was previously thought in the natural (ie, animal) world.
2. Nature is creation. It is God’s sermon in stones. God saw the world and it was good. Revelation is given not only in the scriptures, but in other ways, including in reality. So even if the bible assumes the earth is flat, reality (as created by God) trumps scripture on this point.
3. Accordingly, so far as there are scriptural proscriptions of homosexuality, these can be dismissed as culturally ephemera. The true lesson from God’s creation is that homosexuality is natural, and the old natural-law objections to it will be swept aside. If homosexuality is natural, it cannot be bad, because God has created nature.

It’s an ingenious argument but it is a bit like an argument about how many tackles you can have in Rugby League before you have to have a scrum. If you are not playing the game or following it, it matters little to you. The the game which I don’t play here is believing in God or being a Catholic.

The question I wanted to ask Hough was more about why he wanted to play the game. Why does he want to belong to a club which is so unkeen on having him as a member?

Now, I know there are answers to this. For a start, whereas the law and atheists are inclined to see churches as voluntary associations, believers are inclined to see their devotion as fulfilment of a duty which they acknowledge as a consequence of their beliefs. It is all a bit circular, but that’s what faith is about.

Another answer, though Hough I think attempted to preempt and downplay this, is that his conversion was a response to the romance of “bells and smells” (oddly, to me, Hough said “smells and bells”). Perhaps that is fair enough, particularly if, as seems to be the case, he is referring to a conversion from evangelical religion rather than from a position of complete unbelief.

Another possible reason, which I divine from other biographical snippets, is that Hough took longer to reconcile to his sexuality than he did to convert to his religion (though he has been reported as saying that he knew he was gay when he became a Catholic). I think Hough has said that it wasn’t until he was 37 that he really decided to come “out” – though that may well mean coming “out” publicly rather than to his family and friends. Maybe by the time he fully faced up to the difficulty of Catholicism + Homosexuality it was too late: he was already part of the club and his faith formed. All of this may seem rather impertinent, but Hough himself did joke that many “cradle Catholics” have expressed amazement that he should have chosen the rigours of the faith.

As to how any of this relates to Hough’s music, that’s anyone’s guess. Hough having spoken, I as a fan, and one with an axe to grind, am interested. That’s the Harpo speaking moment: the strange impetus which draws together audiences at literary festivals, which the crowd at the Customs House most closely resembled.

Hough, who lives or has lived in New York, acquired Australian citizenship in 2005. His father (who died about 20 years ago) was born in Mayfield, now a suburb of Newcastle, NSW, in 1926. Hough’s grandparents separated shortly after and Hough’s father only learnt that his father was alive shortly before Hough’s grandfather died in 1960. There was a bit of silly talk from Garrett about whether Hough planned to live in Australia, and Hough (who I think has done just a little to encourage such speculation) explained the practical difficulties this would pose for a touring pianist at his level, though politely he put it in terms of how often Australians would like to hear him rather than how difficult it would be for him to maintain his international career from here. He also gushed on about how lovely Paddington (just visited that day for the first time) was, and how the Sydney Morning Herald is an excellent newspaper. From one who might normally read either London newspapers or some New York newspapers, the latter remark must surely be discounted as visiting-artist sweet talk.

Why then did Hough decide to become an Australian citizen if he can’t live here? It’s not as if he has the sorts of reasons that Hong Kong people had in the 1990s to seek out a safe citizenship. One reason he has offered is as follows:

the third reason for me to try to obtain citizenship came when I discovered some old letters and papers of my grandfather’s and father’s. There was a link here with the past which was in danger of being lost and forgotten.

That is so sweet, and I fancy it shows a truly Catholic attachment to tradition – hopefully of the good kind.

Three after-notes

1. We seem to hear less and less about Stuart Challender at these lectures (which themselves replace the one-time gala concert). That’s probably inevitable over time, though today’s reference in the SMH (not online) to Sydney memories of Irina Plotnikova’s victory in the 1977 Sydney Piano Competition playing the Tchaikovsky second concerto show just how long memories can last.

2. Come to think of it, whatever happened to the annual benevolent fund gala? (Not that I ever went to it – maybe that’s the answer.)

3. Speaking at the end, Rory Jeffes, the new Managing Director of the orchestra, referred to the presently visiting conductor, Hugh Wolff, as “Hugo Wolf.” I’m sure thought (see comments) I heard David Garrett caught on the microphone (danger! open microphone peril!) making a passing remark that “they probably don’t know who he is.” If by “they” Garrett meant the audience and by “he” Hugo Wolf, that would be a bit rude of Garrett. Funnily enough, my opinion of Rory was enhanced by his slip of the tongue – at least it vouches for a reasonable good ear in music.

As to what David Garrett said, on reflection (omg: I’m blogging this!), Thom’s account offered by way of comment below is probably the more accurate transcription.