Archive for September, 2009

www.sydneysymphony.com/pianosurvey

September 30, 2009

On my return after 10 days in the West, I received a letter from the SSO dated 21 September 2009 inviting me to take part in a survey at the link above.

The survey closed on 28 September, which strikes me as rather early.

The letter says that the orchestra “is considering changing the start times of the concerts in the International Pianists in Recital series.”

I know that means they want to start it earlier.

I get the impression that the City Recital Hall at Angel Place, the concert venue, is dead keen on 7pm starts.

At the very least, that’s less time between 5pm and the start of the show to keep the box office open.

I’m dead opposed to a 7pm start or to anything earlier than the present 8pm. For one thing, it is impossible to get a street park in the city at that hour – admittedly something which I desire as a result of my preference for (a) a nap before a concert and (b) a trip home afterwards unplagued by the vagaries and gaps of Sydney’s night-time public transport timetable, and as a result of my aversion to (c) paying money to park in a parking station.

And yes, I know that (b) mightn’t be so bad at 9-something pm as at 10-something pm, but not sufficiently to offset the other inconveniences, including of travelling into the city at peak hour, even if against the tide.

So, disenfranchised from the survey, this is my vote to leave things as they are (in fact, why not an old-timey Musica-Viva-esque 8.15 while we are at it?).

I don’t recall the same solicitude of subscriber views when the SSO decided to shift the entire series from Tuesday to Monday. I suspect that had a much more adverse effect on the subscriber base (so easy to destroy; so hard to build up) than any question of 7 or 8 pm.

It’s true that a Monday recital means a touring pianist could be off somewhere else for a first rehearsal with an orchestra on Tuesday. I suspect however that the real advantage was to Angel Place in palming off (I hope at a reduced rate) four Monday nights. If Angel Place ends up saving money because the concerts are brought forward to 7pm, I hope the SSO gets a share of those savings.

“Up” denotes water

September 30, 2009

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My trip to the West is over, though I may have to return.

It included a dash from Perth down to Albany to see my aunt, just turned 80.

To one used to the roads out of Sydney, the Albany Highway was a dream: it felt as though I had the road to myself, though in truth probably only the strip about 800m before and behind me. A few cars overtook me; perhaps I passed 4 or 5 vehicles in 400+ kilometres, a few more on the way back.

My own theory is that the minerals wealth of WA has meant that rural roads are maintained at a level which roads of similar traffic density in NSW would not be considered to warrant. It also helps that the terrain is, generally speaking, much less challenging.

A billboard announced that the shire of Kojinup, through which I passed, was “the first shire” with “1,000,000 sheep.” I’m not so sure that this is the case today.

In case you are wondering, the title to this post comes from something in the WA handwriting copy book of the 1930s, recalled to me on more than one occasion by contemporaries of my parents. “-up” at the end of a place name in WA indigenous place names (at least of the southern, Noongar people) was thought to mean a place where water is to be found, though another explanation is that it just means “place of”.

Maybe my geography is faulty, but I have always thought that this was WA’s wheat belt. I saw no wheat. It could be more accurately described as WA’s rape belt.

That’s rape seed, of course, or canola.

To a lawyer on on the road, it resembled nothing so much as though someone had run a gigantic yellow flourescent highlighter through the landscape.

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I also squeezed in another visit to the Perth Concert Hall to hear the WASO with Marc-Andre Hammelin (pf) and Paul Daniels do Brahms piano concerto No 2, Beethoven 6 and a piece by Mark Anthony Turnage inspired by an asteroid (Ceres). The box office told me that the seat I was getting was usually reserved for their corporate hospitality. It was only when I got in that I realised just how nice a seat it was. I couldn’t resist taking a picture to document the vantage point – that is, until the usher told me to stop. Here they are set up for the Brahms after interval:

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David Marr on ABC Classic FM

September 23, 2009

I’ve known David Marr and Neil Armfield at one remove for many years. I know they’ve known each other for about the same amount of time. This lent a certain comical and dramatic irony as David interviewed Neil about his career and upcoming production of Peter Grimes on ABC Classic FM the other morning, without giving away any of this.

Funnier was David’s back announcement for Bach’s cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. David obviously knows that the number is 147, but he was a bit vague about the letters which come before it. There was a little Marresque um, and then he hazarded a guess:

“BMV 147.”

I’d like to think David was led astray by the BVM. I suspect BMWs are a more proximate cause.

Frère Jacques

September 20, 2009

In a minor mode.

Yes, I have been to hear Mahler 1, in Perth, with the WASO conducted by Paul Daniels.

This has been a sudden visit, brought on by a medical emergency (not mine, obviously). Instead of flying to China on Friday (which was my plan) I flew to Perth.

I was last here in 2005. I feel a bit like Rip van Winkle. The car hire firm I sought out in Milligan Street in the city informed me that they have moved twice since. The underpass/tunnel to nowhere under St George’s Terrace from the Perth Concert Hall is now barred shut. The sexy gay cellist of a certain age whom D rather fancied seems to have moved on (he could have been away)[afternote: still there, but a little older, as, of course, are we all].

On the other hand, some things seem to stay the same. The percussionist with poise and a talent to always be in the limelight is still there. There was no sign of John Harding, the latest concertmaster, or even, as far as I could make out, his deputy. When I looked in The West Australian on my arrival on Friday (I was internetless) in the hope of a WASO performance to catch, there was absolutely no mention anyway, in advertisements or any “what’s on” section, of the two performances on Friday and Saturday this weekend.

My guess is that, as a self-respecting monopolist, the West doesn’t give any publicity for free. Conversely, judging from the quite healthy attendance, the orchestra doesn’t feel the necessity to contribute to the paper’s rivers of gold.

Intelligently, the concert opened with the discarded movement from the symphony, Blumine, and then the Bartók (posthumously completed by another) viola concerto played by Ruth Killius. I will be missing this and her in Sydney, so this was a bit like Death and Damascus. I can’t say that I really warmed to the work. Bartók and I have a troubled relationship (though it was from the WASO that I heard a brilliant concert performance of Bluebeard’s Castle).

In other news and social technology, I see that Cosi fan tutte played tonight to a half-full house in Sydney. That’s a Saturday night. Just what is going on? I think Henry Choo is entitled to be upset about that.

School for lovers

September 17, 2009

A short note as, in the middle of some personal concentration of drama and upheaval, I have just been to the opening night of Così fan tutte.

It’s a new production, in contemporary garb, directed by Jim Sharman. I don’t normally get to opening nights, and even less of new productions, so I don’t know to what extent I should discount audience reaction for claque-ish elements, but even making a generous allowance for that, the production is a success and even, possibly, a hit.

There is maybe a bit much of this projected-action-filmed-live-on-stage (there is a cameraman who wanders on from time to time). I’m just guessing: is this a thing which has only recently become more technologically possible? How else to explain its repetition as a theatrical device in recent productions?

The opera itself is full of beautiful music including what seem to me to be pastiches by Mozart of himself, albeit at times superior to the originals. There is even a reprise in the production of Figaro’s denunciation of women with the houselights up. My neighbour (we were in row C) got a guernsey on the big screen.

It’s well cast. My only misgivings are about Jose Carbo’s singing as don Alfonso, which starting (I think) out of zeal for the [English, colloquially translated] words, ends up somewhere near musical theatre. I would rather his diction and hence his singing stayed a little closer to the other men’s approach, mostly for musical reasons, some of which start out from the effect of translation on the musical line.

Henry Choo gave a very impressive account of his big aria (Un’aura amorosa). Mozart tenor arias are notoriously treachorous but he really managed to fill out the long phrases. If there was a price in expenditure of vocal stamina (and there were signs of that towards the end of a long evening) it was worth paying.

The title can be translated as “Women are all like that.” (That is, in particular, fickle.) For this, the opera is said to be misogynistic. For intelligent adults, however, whatever it says about women applies to men from the opposite or complementary point of view.

A varied practice

September 17, 2009

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With the assistance of a very kind friend I have been tidying things up a bit in my office. Miscellaneous books have been herded into one alcove of the shelves.

Quite unintentionally, [honestly: despite the original version of this post which said “intentionally” – or at least the intention was not mine as I wasn’t doing the tidying] this produced the juxtaposition pictured above. I’m afraid I couldn’t help but blog it. Bills of exchange have a special fascination for me.

“A varied practice” is a bit of a two-edged phrase, often used in obituaries (“He had a varied practice.”) Perhaps “a wide-ranging practice” is kinder, even if it can still mean “anything he could get.” Not that I’ve had many requests in the b,b&s line, at least professionally speaking.

Either/or

September 10, 2009

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Girls and Boys”

So Richard Gill began his address to the audience at the beginning of tonight’s Sydney Symphony Meet the Music concert. (OK, I can’t now swear that it wasn’t “Boys and Girls.”)

In this series, we already have a compere – Andrew Ford. But it would take more than that to stop Richard addressing the class – sorry, audience – and in this case there was an extra reason. Some Danish (I’m sure he said that) acoustic experts were testing the acoustics of the hall, and in particular (I guess) the impact of various acoustic baffles above the stage and a smoothing of the horizontal crenellations on the side walls. This required silence (and, I’m guessing, our bodies in the hall) whilst a thereminesque tone was repeated six times.

So many possibilities to be tried out. What will be the best solution?

All very interesting, even if any improvements seem likely to go the same way as any other major public works in NSW these days – that is, nowhere, or not very far.

I don’t sit in the seat I was in tonight all that often, so it is difficult to really make an assessment of the effect of the trialled features on the sound in the hall. It’s hard to do a true experiment, because of course the piece and the performers (and particularly the conductor) can all have an effect on the orchestral sound. The trumpet, oddly, sounded further away than usual, even though the principal was the not usually reticent Paul Goodchild. My own feeling is that more might be achieved by a bit more elevation on the stage – but that’s probably because, sitting in the stalls, I would always like to hear more woodwind.

The evening’s program was:

HANDEL Concerto grosso, Op.6 No.3
DVORÁK Cello Concerto in B minor
GORDON Lightfall for Horn and Orchestra premiere

Gautier Capuçon and Robert Johnson were the respective soloists. Mr Gill directed the Handel from the harpsichord.

Obviously, it was designed as a lesson in the concerto.

I’m not really convinced about this as an exercise in program design. Even if it is the case that the audience like a good soloist, in this case with three concerti (even if the first was grosso) you can still end up with too much of a good thing, or maybe just not enough of a really good thing.

With the works chosen, I would have put the Dvořák on last. I would also have given serious consideration to a concerto grosso which featured not simply string concertante instruments. As it was, when Andrew Ford came on afterwards and talked of all the drama and pathos with which Handel invested these concerti, I had to wonder if he’d been listening to the same performance (my observation is that he generally waits outside, but maybe that’s because I go on the Thursday and he’s already heard enough at rehearsals and on the Wednesday).

Christopher Gordon’s piece is not strictly titled “Concerto,” but Robert Johnson was up the front for the whole thing. There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, though I didn’t feel that the ending really worked. One moment the orchestra were building up a bit with the horn doodling along rather as people do in meetings or when talking on the phone, the next thing it stopped.

In other news, the Opera Australia brochure arrived today. I have so far searched it in vain for any details of the actual dates of the series I am being asked to renew. I did this just before my pre-concert nap, so perhaps I missed something.

Afterword: the dates for my series are in the separate letter addressed to me, which includes the ambiguous sentence:

“We are only offering our current subscribers the opportunity to retain their seats in 2010.”

According to Bill of the OA box office [this may yet have to serve as my contemporaneous note], that does not mean that this is all that OA is offering its current subscribers. It means that no new set subscriptions with assured renewal (or, I would presume though he didn’t say, improvement of one’s seat) are being offered to new subscribers. In other words, existing subscribers alone will have rights to renew their seats in the future; others had better scramble in early with their renewals each year if they want a good seat. I do wonder if OA will regret this loosening of the company-subscriber bond which just brings subscribing down to just a discount for booking in quantity at the beginning of each season.

The sad news is that Lisa Gasteen, given in the brochure as Minnie in Girl of the Golden West, has apparently had to withdraw because her neck injury precludes learning new repertoire. A replacement is yet to be announced. This is kind of an embarrassing pause for everyone. Will Anke Höppner (singing Minnie in Perth this year in what must surely be the same production) ever get a call? Perhaps Opera Australia is waiting to see how she goes first.

And now a confession: the fourth paragraph of this post is just a set-up to justify the post’s title, which is actually inspired by the name of the acoustic engineers – Kirkegaard Associates (headquarters in Chicago).

Pretty lame, really.

Mazeltov!

September 7, 2009

Chaucer_MadoxBrown

Last night to the most luxurious wedding I have ever been to, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The taxi to get me there never arrived so I drove. There was valet parking!

The ceremony took place in the Schaeffer room, in which you will find Ford Madox Brown’s picture of Chaucer at the court of Edward III.

There is also a picture by Henry Scott Tuke, A sailor’s yarn.

tuke

Tuke painted the picture when working at Falmouth, where he had purchased an old ship (presumably not actually seaworthy) and set it up as his house and studio. The painting was exhibited in London in 1887 and entered the NSW collection in 1889.

The plaque on the wall names the the boy featured in the painting and mentions that he lived with Tuke on the ship for some years. Tuke, the note deadpanly adds, later became known for his genre pictures of boys/youths bathing.

There were some interesting people there, including the girl who beat me in sixth class, whom I last saw 32 years ago. She was one of the bride’s best friends from high school and witnessed the register.

To be at a wedding as a gay man or, in this case, to be there on one’s own, is a slightly awkward situation. They are the heterosexual coupling moment par excellence. (We can all go to the Family Court when it is over.) There was a moment when I toyed with the thought: would I not like to have a wedding myself?

And then, for some odd reason, the celebrant started reading all the formal stuff from the Marriage Act, including the now statutorily entrenched common law definition of marriage, which states (thus precluding any growth or development of the common law to meet contemporary standards) that marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

Of course, the “for life” bit is as at the time of getting married, since otherwise one would need to add “subject to the provisions of the Family Law Act.”

Nor is the bit about to the exclusion of all others is really true any more. Now it is possible to be married and simultaneously have a multiplicity of de facto relationships, each with pretty much the same consequences as marriage, at least so far as property division on separation, inheritance (well, almost) and status of children (if any) are concerned.

The formal Marriage Act bit did make me almost come round to the opinion that some hold (and generally speaking was my starting position years ago in relation to marriage). Why is the state in this business?

Nevertheless, it was a lovely wedding and they are a happy and fortunate pair. The government has nothing to do with that at all.

The second-last song was “When I’m 64.” There was a playful little alteration of the usual text:

Digging the garden, smoking the weed
Who could ask for more?

I’m not sure how many people spotted it: it was a little musos’ joke.

The last song was “YMCA.” The groom knew the movements better than I did.

My car was waiting for me right outside the front door. I doubt if it will ever again be parked in a spot so grand.

B and R, Mazeltov!

Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5

September 1, 2009

Last Friday night to hear the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play Schubert, music from Rosamunde and “Unfinished” Symphony, and, with Nicholas Angelich, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

It was the Beethoven 4 which really drew me in. It’s my favourite Beethoven [piano] concerto – if only because I am a countersuggestible type and feel compelled to go beyond the general (or at least ABC-Classic-FM-poll) favourite, No 5.

The hall was a little under half-full, by my reckoning (500-550; usual suspects observed on complimentary tickets). My neighbours told me it was about the same on the first night (when I would expect even more dignitaries and sponsors to attend).

The TSO’s approach to marketing remains puzzling – or alternatively just predictably misconceived.

For months, it was selling only the first level of the hall. Owing to the pricing policies it had adopted, this meant that the cheapest seats were $80 (A reserve) and there was otherwise a $100+ Premium reserve. I have complained about the pricing structure before. No wonder sales were slow. Eventually, the second level was opened up, though even this only brought a B reserve at $49 into play: in the very last row of the circle and in the last bays of the galleries at the side of the stage. Tellingly, the night I went, the back row and the keyboard side gallery were practically full (the non-keyboard side was relatively empty but my neighbours told me it was fuller on the first night). There is a demand for the seats at this price.

I heard the first half of the Thursday concert courtesy of the live broadcast. There is a very jaunty little skipping theme in Die Zauberharfe which is very difficult to dislodge.

As to the Friday program, it was a shame that there weren’t more to hear it. The Schubert was delightful (Rosamunde) and quite satisfactory (the symphony) and the Beethoven, well not the best I’ve heard it, but still compelling. I expect it would have been better if I’d had a more frontal piano sound (I was sitting in the opposite gallery). Serves me right for being frugal – but what can one do but lend one’s weight to the invisible hand?

The TSO has a distinctive wind section. First, because the flautists are both male – masculinity is almost a disqualification for any full-time flute playing job in Sydney (though there are two males who supplement the AOBA flute section). Secondly, because the principal oboe and clarinet both have rather old-fashioned sounds. Paradoxically, this means a thinner oboe sound, but a rounder clarinet sound than has more recently become the fashion. I wonder if the seeming convergence of sound is a trend driven by a drive for sectional blend. Still, there was nothing wrong with the famous moment (as featured in orchestration textbooks) in the “Unfinished” where the clarinet and oboe double the opening theme an octave apart.

On Saturday night, to the SOH for Fidelio.

On my way in, I overheard an intriguingly urgent conversation about paging someone between a member of the house staff and someone who had emerged from backstage.

As D is away, I had returned his seat, and my neighbour in his place, Po, told me how much he was looking forward to hearing Nicole Youl as the heroine, Leonore. She was originally a substitute for Lisa Gasteen, but had only sung one matinee, being replaced at the opening night and all other performances by Elizabeth Stannard.

Just as the curtain seemed destined to rise, OA’s General Manager, Mr Collette emerged from behind it to announce that, as she was warming up, Nicole Youl became indisposed, her understudy was in Melbourne, Anke Höppner was coming in to sing the role from the side of the stage (NY would mime and speak the dialogue) but that Anke wasn’t here yet. The curtain would go up at 8.15.

Often I am a bit skeptical about exactly how last-minute Opera Australia “emergency” indispositions are, but the overheard conversation in this case puts Mr Collette in the clear. Just as well Anke H only had to come in from Turella. At least that’s what my friend Sk told me when I rang him to kill time whilst waiting for the show to start. (The SMH says Bardwell Park: so he was pretty close.) Sk knows this sort of thing because for many years he drove a cab. On account of his operatic enthusiasm and knowledge of show finishing times, he frequently picked up at the SOH after shows. As well as conversations with individual artists, he has a rich supply of overheard conversations from OA luvvies when they travelled together in the back of his cab.

In the end, it was 8.10. Fortunately, it is a short opera.

Anke did pretty well. Given that she had no rehearsal, she did excellently. As always seems to be the case with stage-side singers, she warmed to her task as the evening went on, though probably the dramatic stuff at the end suited her better than her first big aria. She sings big which makes her voice less manoeuvrable for the curly bits.

The last time I heard Anke she was also standing in – for Cheryl Barker in The Macropoulous Secret. It’s a bit surprising and even insulting in a way that OA can’t find the occasional real role for her.

A friend whom I ran into on Monday night (who had not gone to the same performance of Fidelio as I had) was very critical of the production and more specifically its musical values and conducting in particular. He’d seen better recently, he said, on a Tuesday night in Turin. He is well-travelled. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about that because it is a great work and though there was some scrappiness, there wasn’t anything that came between me and the work. Fidelio gave Beethoven a lot of difficulty, but it really is full of a lot of very solid music, even if it starts off (after the overture) a bit like the Papageno parts of The Magic Flute. I always come out tapping the rhythm of “Retterin des Gatten sein” from the final chorus.

So far as the drama is concerned, there is one grimly funny moment which (though criticised for it) Conal Coad made even funnier. Leonora (disguised as the young man, Fidelio) is recruited by Rocco (CC) to assist him to go down to the deepest darkest cell where the unknown political prisoner (whom she suspects to be her husband, Florestan) is being starved and thirsted [OK: “thirsted” is not an actual word, but he’s on short supplies of water as well as food] to death. News has come that the minister is coming to visit the gaol and Pizzaro, the governor of the gaol, knows that if the minister finds Florestan there the game will be up. He decides that Florestan must die sooner than previously planned. He orders Rocco to dig a grave (and pays him generously for this). Rocco tells Leonore that they have to bury the prisoner. Rocco is a bit evasive about this: Leonore asks: “Is he dead?” Rocco says: “Not yet.” Leonore presses him: “So is your job to kill him?” Rocco answers, reassuringly (so he thinks), that Leonore shouldn’t be afraid: the governor himself will be coming to do that. Their job is just to dig the grave. As if that makes it all right. Rocco would never be involved in murdering anybody. (Shades of Neddy Smith, years ago: “I’m a thief, not a liar.”)

Julian Gavin as Florestan was the best I have ever heard him. And that’s not meant as some veiled insult or even faint praise: I found him quite convincing, musically and dramatically.

Perhaps I suffered from being up too close to be convinced by Peter Coleman-Wright as Pizzaro. Vocally, he is convincing, but he always seems such a nice chap and there is something about the way he moves around that made me feel that his baddiness was all a bit of a giggle. I think I first saw Robert Allman in this part, and he was really a monster. I was probably further away from the stage, and also quite possibly more readily convinced. That’s a bit of a theory I have about all remembered experience, and certainly about action on the stage. I can recall being utterly convinced as a child and teenager by dramatic depictions which I am sure, re-viewed through adult eyes, would fail to have the same impact.

Fidelio did provide an opportunity to compare the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the TSO in Beethoven. The AOBO had about 1 string player more right down the line (9/8/6/5/4, I think, though I’m working from memory by now). It is of course hampered by the pit and the demands of pit work. It would be nice to see the orchestra out on the stage more often but they hardly have the time for it. If they were, my guess is that the AOBO’s violins mightn’t measure up to the TSO’s, though if they could match them for rehearsal and preparation time (as well as time on the stage rather than the pit) maybe they would.