Short Notes

After a slow start earlier this year, my musical life has picked up lately. I have been to a few things which have hitherto passed unblogged.

On Saturday 13/3 I went to hear the SSO. A friend stayed away. “I’m sick of the Symphonie Fantastique,” he told me. I’m worried that perhaps my tastes have become likewise jaded. I am inclined to think that the work is best when it retains a power to shock and surprise, which is obviously a matter of diminishing returns. Nowadays I like the pastoral movement the most, which once I found rather boring. It was also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto No 1 (soloist Louis Lortie) which I enjoyed the most. The Franck “Accursed Huntsman” was a genuine rarety which I wish I’d taken more time to listen to before hearing it in the flesh.

PS: regrettably (in my view), the Symph Fant was played with two tubas and sans ophicleide and serpent.

On Saturday 20/3 to the first concert for the year for the Australia Ensemble. The program –

Leopold KOŽELUH (1747-1818): Trio in D, ‘Opus 41 No 2’ for flute, cello and piano
Mark ISAACS (b 1958): String Sextet (2009) – first performance
Francis POULENC (1899-1963): Sonata for flute and piano (1956)
Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960): Sextet for piano, horn, clarinet, violin, viola, cello (1935) –

was billed as a revival of (posthumously regarded) obscurities. Strictly, that applied to the Kozeluh and the Dohnanyi only. Of the two, perhaps the Kozeluh could really have been left in obscurity: it belonged to that period of piano music (Hummel, Weber, finally put to bed by Mendelssohn) which made a virtue of lots and lots of notes in a right hand line. The flute didn’t get much of a word in edgewise and Nathan Waks was positively wasted on the cello. I’ve left it too long to give an intelligent comment on the Isaacs, other than to say I liked it.

The Poulenc was a more elusively reserved than my memories of the piece suggested. Some of that may be because of early and deep impressions heard from the other end of the house of sister tackling again and again some of the higher and more taxing passages but I have also had my own wrestles with the in fact not too difficult piano part? There is a kind of Delphic yearning in the music which you can lean into but which as a flavour is a bit like nutmeg – something you just can’t make stronger.

The Dohnanyi was the sort of thing that you could imagine Schoenberg having written if he hadn’t moved on from Brahms. I found it very satisfying: there’s something about a skilful composer working with a style that he and we are very comfortable with, so long as comfort doesn’t become complacency, which it wasn’t. Regular players Olding, Morozova, Munro, were joined by Robert Johnson (horn) and Waks (cello) and David Rowden (clarinet) substituting for indisposed Smiles and McCorkill respectively. P and I both felt that DR had a bit of trouble matching his elders’ vigour of expression. He adopted a round and smooth tone, and a lot of lines which doubled with the horn were scarcely audible. I wonder if he simply misjudged this, because in the last movement he had no difficulty coming out of his box with a more jaunty and penetrating tone.

On Monday 22/3 I went to the Con to hear Megan Lang (flute) Neal Peres de Costa (h’chd) and Danny Yeadon (viola da g) in a so-called cocktail hour recital. The program was:

J. S. Bach Sonata in B minor for flute and obbligato cembalo
Marais Suite in F Major (Book IV)
Leclair Trio Op. II No. 8

The Bach (without a continuo cello – is this necessarily the way to do it?) came across as rather dour and made me feel just how far Thuringia really was from France; the Marais as a bit chaste. The Leclair was definitely the most charming, especially as once DY was playing continuo it seemed that NPdC could unleash a more gracious keyboard style.

On Friday 26/3 I went again to the SSO. The program was:

Beethoven: House of Prometheus Overture
Schumann: Cello concerto
Tchaickovsky: Symphony No 6

The Beethoven was briskly stirring and over too soon. It took me a while to warm to the Schumann (I sometimes think that I only really like piano concerti) but by the end I had warmed to its Humor. It’s hard to beat a good Russian conductor in the Tchaikovsky and Alexander Vedernikov fitted the bill. I’m sure I’ve seen other Russians just stand back and hardly actually conduct the third movement at all. Is that a performance tradition in itself? There was only a smattering of applause at the famed clap trap which V. gently overcame. The last movement moved me to tears.

And I have been twice to Bliss, the new opera by Brett Dean.

This really is a big event: we don’t get new operas all that often in Australia. On closer examination, the publicity about the opera having been almost ten years in the making is something of an oversell. Nothing much can have happened between the initial conversations between Dean and Simone Young in 2000/2001 and early 2007, when Amanda Holden was approached to write the libretto.

There are quite a lot of ironies about this work. Not the least which occurs to me is that, despite the implicit ridicule of Harry Joy’s wife (in the opera, Betty, in the book, Bettina) for her dream of New York, it is of course Peter Carey who has ended up there. Another irony, which an acquaintance of mine who really does seem to lead the Blissian life (home at Oberon; intermittent musical employment) pointed out is that, for a work which is touted as the next great Australian opera [possibly], musically speaking it has an awful lot of post-Webernian middle-European angst. During the second half of the second act, in particular, I kept on hearing bits of last act of Lulu.

It’s a big undertaking. There is a spectacular (though ultimately theatrically economical) set. There is a chorus, and a “banda” of sorts. The curtain call revealed 13 principal singers. I’d probably say 11 because the 2 nurses’ parts were considerably smaller. I wouldn’t say, though, that it is a particularly singerly opera – rather, there is a lot of vocal acting, which is something a bit different. Peter Coleman-Wright is brilliant, and genuinely funny, even though I still can’t understand the point of the ballad of Little Titch with which he diverts the policemen after the being caught drunk in charge of his elephant-crushed car. The orchestral writing is terrific: constantly inventive and diverting. I was sitting too close to get the full effect of the soundscape.

Coming out at interval the first time, I found difficult to care for any of the characters, because the characterisation is so schematic. Things picked up in the last act and at the second performance I attended. It really was better the second time around, but there remained points when the opera went for psychological depth (especially in relation to Harry’s daughter, Lucy) which ended up feeling like a loose end, partly because there wasn’t time to prepare or resolve it. And yes, in anticipation of any rejoinder, I recognize I’m rather unfairly having it both ways here.

Either Dean or Holden comments [in the program: for once I bought one] that at heart the novel and hence the opera is a love story. After coming to serve Harry Joy’s needs at the Hilton Hotel, call girl Honey B sings something like: “Usually I don’t feel anything, but with you…” Perhaps I just have too much difficulty with the idea of a prostitute-with-heart-of-gold, because that just made me think: that’s what they always say.

At the (rewritten from the novel) end of the opera, Harry Joy is in sylvan bliss, planting trees for Honey B. After they roll around in the dirt together for a moment, Honey B gestures to him where the next seedlings are to be planted. My cynicism intruded: I fancied that Honey B should be dressed in her working-girl gear and waving the car keys as she sets off to the city to meet the next client. Something and someone still needs to pay the bills.

Maybe that will be the Christopher Alden production.

5 Responses to “Short Notes”

  1. ken n Says:

    I’m sorry I missed Symph Fant. It is good fun.
    Although missing the serpent, I’ll bet the SSO used the bells. I understand they are owned jointly by SSO and MSO are are used only for this work.
    Yvonne – do you know the history?

  2. Ardee Says:

    To answer your question (“without a continuo cello – is this necessarily the way to do it?”): the Bach B minor sonata has an obbligato keyboard part, there is no continuo as such, consequently there is no need for a cello, or anything else.
    I must say I didn’t find it dour at all – it’s certainly one of the stranger pieces he wrote, especially the monolithic first movement. Lang is definitely one of the better period flute players around.

  3. marcellous Says:

    I realised it had an obbligato part, but I wondered whether there could be an optional doubling of the bass line by a string instrument to give a more contemporary balance.

    I think the dourness was to do with its teutonic rhythmic foursquareness and Bach’s enthusiasm for filling every beat at his chosen click rate – I don’t know if it could be loosened up or whether that is simply the how the piece goes.

  4. Garde Forestier Says:

    I have enjoyed reading your views on music particular because I am almost always in agreement. But on this occasion…. I found Bliss to be incredibly over orchestrated, especially the first half, and the dynamic range was uniformly loud. Consequently it came across as very drab, like too much brown, from where I sat (premium seating). To my mind the narrative, and as a consequence the whole project, suffers from being stuck in the 1980s. The characters have no appeal and elicit little sympathy from me. Amanda Holden seemed intent on setting a lot of text which made it rather heavy and Dean made Coleman-Wright sing almost constantly for 90 minutes. I also had the impression that it was based on Ray Lawrence’s film rather than Carey’s novel. In terms of being a contender for the great Australian opera, I don’t think it gets very far. Meale’s Voss, Mills’ Batavia or Alan John’s Eighth Wonder are far more colorful and masterful in terms of dramatic form, orchestration, and making a work which has unique Australian elements. I can’t help but think that Brett Dean’s greatest talent is self-promotion.

    • marcellous Says:

      Thanks GF for your response.

      I know this is going to sound insipid of me but I will say that I can absolutely see where you are coming from with just about every point you make, and in a glass half-full-half-empty kind of way I think I made some similar points myself about the work, just with a different ultimate value conclusion.

      I sat very close and when you do that the orchestra is always loud so I couldn’t really judge whether it was too loud. At least it wasn’t as loud as bits of Batavia. I thought there were at least some contrasting soft moments, though come to think of it, they were more in the second half. But then wasn’t the loudness a function of the vision of hell?

      As to Dean’s talent for self-promotion, I expect that is just a sine qua non for any composer, at least one who wants to get ahead. No different than almost any other area of life, particularly areas of life which are especially performative and involve capturing the public attention. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is his greatest one, but it follows from that that there could well be other composers who are more talented as composers but who languish in obscurity – that is, if you don’t count a promotional talent as itself a talent and a useful and necessary one.

      On that issue I always think of the [dramatically ironical] lines from Ruddigore (I had to google it to remind myself which G&S they came from:

      If you wish in the world to advance,
      Your merits you’re bound to enhance,
      You must stir it and stump it,
      And blow your own trumpet,
      Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance!

      As to the other operas you mention, as will probably be clear from the above, I wasn’t so crazy about Batavia. Eighth Wonder struck me as a bit silly and a kind of one-house work. Voss deserves a rerun and is authentically Australian, though cognoscenti claim Mer de Glace is better composed. So far as productions are concerned, I’ve always had a soft spot for Golem with the mud bath and the little tram, but that suffered from pretty massive walkouts and is even more middle-European and hence unlikely to see the light of day (or rather, the stage lights of night) ever again.

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