That Sydney-Melbourne thing

On Friday night to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis, and with Angela Denoke as soloist.

Originally, and as late as when I booked in response to a $20-off offer, the soloist was to be Deborah Voigt.  Just after that, she cancelled.

There was to be a concert on Saturday as well.  This was cancelled before I booked.

I had held back, first because such diva programs tend to be rather silly, and secondly, in resistance to the price – gouging is the word which comes to mind, however loaded that term may be.  My guess is that I was not alone, especially on the second front. Prices were $169, $129, $89, $49.  The prices alone do not tell the story: also relevant is just how widely the criteria for the highest price category was determined and, conversely, how narrowly the cheaper categories.

It matters not who was doing the gouging – that is whether it was Voigt, the MSO or the SOH, which appears to have been the presenter of the Sydney concerts.  I do however suspect that the SOH itself was playing its part.  That’s because of the tell-tale sign: withholding cheaper tickets from sale.  No tickets at all had been sold for the galleries behind and the boxes at the side of the stage.  There were about half a dozen people sitting in the first box on each side, scarcely justifying the expense of the usher in each, but that must have been some anomaly because I was certainly not offered the chance to buy such a ticket, which in my opinion would have been, for the orchestra at least, preferable to the seat I was able to get (said to be the last one left in the stalls at the time) in row G, which was the fourth row, looking up the skirts of the cello section.

This tactic is, in my opinion, misguided because sales create their own momentum, and even if the cheap seats fill absorb some demand which would otherwise result in a higher price sale, people who are going (and the cheap-seaters will be the enthusiasts) can generate word of mouth publicity.  Secondly, because it probably causes a double bluff which can end in a lose-lose: if people inquire early and are told the rear and side seats are not on sale, then just maybe they will wait and see until they do come on sale.  Thirdly it is wrong (in a way which is still relevant to the SOH as a recipient of substantial public funds) because there are people who will just never be able to afford the higher priced tickets but who don’t want to sit in the last couple of rows of the circle, and to leave the choir and organ galleries and side boxes empty is a waste of the chance to cater to them.

As ever with entrepeneurs cold-selling to the public (as opposed to those with a subscriber base to draw on) it seemed the SOH overestimated the drawing-power of their artist. Voigt may be well-known to the Met-Opera-in-the-cinema crowd, but they see her there for $20-something. It all takes me back to Clifford Hocking’s scandalously half-empty Concert Hall for Peter Schreier in 1990.  (There is a characteristically perceptive article by Katrina Strickland in the AFR which touches on this issue.)

Once Ms Voigt cancelled, refunds were offered.  Oddly, I got a second email from the SOH because it turned out they wanted you also to confirm that you were coming.  I wondered if they were testing the waters for an insurance-based cancellation of some sort, but on reflection I think they were just shoring up their defences about complaints.  As The Age’s reviewer of the Melbourne concert on Wednesday put it, inferring a sizeable acceptance of the refund offer from the presence of young people picking up tickets on the night: “If you’ve paid for a first-class seat on a plane, being bumped to business class for the same price would smart.”

In Sydney it wasn’t crowds of young people, but instead a bigger than usual free list gang which crowded the box office foyer – easily numbering in the hundreds.  Familiar faces from the SSO and the AOBO could be spotted and obviously it was open season for them (confirmed to me by a conversation with an AOBA member I ran into at the greengrocer this afternoon).  And fair enough.  I expect many of them were in fact as interested in hearing the MSO in a rare Sydney outing as they were in hearing Ms Denoke.

The first half was:

Wagner  Tannhäuser: Prelude
Wagner  Die Walküre: Du bist der Lenz
Wagner  Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod

From where I was sitting, the opening pilgrim’s-chorus theme in the Tannhäuser was mellifluous, though it lacked the sense of occasion that it has when it comes at the start of the night in a darkened theatre and in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on, an antique processional tread. It was impossible for me to get a good impression of the subsequent busy violin figuration, which came to from over the lip of the stage with the result that it sounded, whether it really was or not, scrappy.  The excerpt from Die Walküre was so brief that it came across more as a warm-up than anything else.  Oddly the program notes attributed the MSO’s first performance of this to a tenor: my guess is that it was coupled with Winterstürme, which really makes for a more satisfactory [albeit still bleeding at the end] chunk.

Up close I got maybe too much of the jaw-wobbling needed to support Ms Denoke’s big and creamy voice, and she seemed perhaps too modern, European and svelte to convince as Isolde.  The thing really was that to hear the Liebestod just after the prelude foreshortens things (it’s the bleeding-chunk criticism again).  When the famous wave breaks it should be the culmination of hours of build-up, rather than just 10 minutes.  Still, it was nevertheless enjoyable in a slightly out-of-context way.

In the second half, I moved back to the middle of row R, next to a man whose wife had cancelled for the evening: they’d been to the SSO that morning and had originally booked to hear this concert on Saturday rather than Friday.  I caught a glance of his ticket and saw the $169 and thought: “ouch!”

The second half was:

Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier: Suite
Strauss  Salome, Op.54: Final Scene

The Rosenkavalier Suite was luxuriant stuff and Davis was well in command of his gang.  The quinty string stuff gets rather less attention in this version than I would like and it ends jauntily – the duet from near the end only lasts a moment in this version.

It’s clear that in appointing Sir Andrew Davis the MSO has taken a leaf out of the SSO’s book with their engagement of Ashkenazy and whilst I expect this has been expensive (as with VA for the SSO) the signs bode well, even if he will not be there very much in his first year at all.

Given what followed, I rather wonder why they couldn’t have included the Dance of the Seven Veils – it’s not as if the program was overly long as it stood.

The Salome gave a chance to hear Denoke at a distance.  In the big orchestral stuff the orchestra could have held back a bit.  Despite the recent acoustic improvement, the Concert Hall is more resonant than an opera theatre.  She came into her own by the end (she has just performed the role to acclaim in London) and received a rousing ovation.  It was not [crucial word inadvertently omitted on first posting] I think, merely out of a determination to have a good time sans Voigt.

Which brings me to the title of this post.

Strangely enough, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was the first orchestra I heard in the Opera House Concert Hall.  It was a try-out concert before the official opening, and they played Tchaikovsky 5.  I can’t remember who the conductor was but my best guess is John Hopkins.

Since then, perhaps I have heard the MSO twice in the flesh before this concert.  At first I could not recall when but now I think it was when I lived in Canberra in the early eighties, when each of the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras paid a visit for the ABC subscription series.

At that time we used to hear lots (mostly from Melbourne, surprise surprise) about how the Melbourne orchestra was much better than the Sydney orchestra, and there may well have been something in that.   It is difficult to be dispassionate about these things, because the old Sydney-Melbourne thing is so deeply ingrained.  Since then, I fondly imagine the SSO has pulled up its socks.  It is busier than the MSO, has a substantially larger subscriber base, has a larger and better-paid establishment (and price of living differentials between the cities have narrowed).  It used to be said that the MSO had more adventurous programming, but the Caetani episode put a bit of a dampener on that line of argument and the suggestions at that time that the MSO could manage without any chief conductor at all are unlikely to have been a healthy sign.  One advantage that the MSO probably now has is the proximity of the Australian National Academy of Music.

The truth is, with the Sydney-Melbourne thing, that no two cities could possibly be more alike, and I expect this is also true of the orchestras.  Of course there are differences, some of them attributable to the principal players in the wind and brass sections (I’m thinking Crellin/Doherty in the oboes here but there must be others).  To me it is a shame that more of an effort is not made to allow people in both cities to hear both orchestras from time to time.  The problem is that there is nothing to be monetarily gained from it: the lesson from the TSO’s forays to Sydney and of the two-then-one concert plans for Voigt in Sydney is that free-standing concerts are a fraught venture.  The obvious solution is that they should swap an orchestral series slot in each city.  It’s not as if the SSO, at least, has not been above palming off the AYO on its subscribers in the Meet the Music series in recent years.  Even better would be if this could be done under the batons of their respective chief conductors, because that is the etiquette for touring.  That might be a harder sell, given the obviously limited availability each chief conductor has.

This is something which I might have raised with Sir Andrew when I unexpectedly came across him having a durry at interval (as I was too, having relapsed) at the top of the Aztec-temple-inspired steps.  That would have been unfair: I’m sure he needed a breather and time to start thinking about Strauss.  So we briefly exchanged the usual smokers’ jests about a breath of fresh air and I belatedly remembered to say that, of course, we were all enjoying the performance.

I could I suppose have raised it with the SSO’s Rory Jeffes, evident on the free list, but having witnessed his display of masterliness in Shanghai in 2009 I expect I would be wasting my breath.

It’s in honour of my moment with Sir Andrew that I have linked at the head of this post to the King’s Singers’ filmed version of Come, Sirrah, Jack ho!  It’s hard to imagine such a scene being filmed today, though you can sometimes be surprised.

The lyrics to that are:

Come sirrah Jack ho,
fill some Tobacco,
bring a wire and some fire,
haste away, quick I say,
do not stay shun delay,
for I drank none good today.

I swear that this Tobacco
it’s perfect Trinidado
by the very Mass never was
better gear than is here
by the rood, for the blood
it is very good ’tis very good.

This strikes me as an early use of the term “gear” in relation to substances.

OMG, I have gone on rather.  Is anyone still with me here?

With such a wealth of digression, it seems apposite to say:

This is Wilfrid Thomas Marcellous from London Sydney, thanking you for having me at your place.

8 Responses to “That Sydney-Melbourne thing”

  1. wanderer Says:

    I’ll bite. The Sydney-Melbourne thing is tiresome and is there anyone in Sydney who really gives a toss one way or the other? Second child syndrome if ever there was one.

    Re Voigt, as you say, it wasn’t ever value for money. Nothing about the concert – the voice, the orchestra, the programme – warranted the outlay in a season in full swing and with a seriously BIG singer, no little black dress for Christine Brewer, in the all but sold out BIG glam event of the year (with Sydney stamped all over it) just weeks away. I’m wearing my white tiled shoes and Edna glasses.

    • marcellous Says:

      I’m a second child, W, as you know. Hence, perhaps, your concession “if ever there was one.” Naturally, I think of the syndrome (if any) being one which arises for the third child.

      I agree that the Melbourne-Sydney thing can get a bit tiresome. What interests me more in relation to the orchestras is not which is better, but the possibilities of difference. These can offer some amelioration to our tyrannous isolation of distance which generally means we hear only the one symphony orchestra all the time.

  2. Ken nielsen Says:

    Thanks for that. I was away for the weekend but otherwise would probably have gone. Not really my kind of repertoire…
    And I do agree that we should have more opportunities to see interstate orchestras. Tho it’s probably cheaper for those of us who are interested to buy a cheap seat and fly than bring the whole band..
    Some years ago when I was traveling a lot I set out to see all the Australian orchestras over the year. I came close – only Queensland missed out.

    • marcellous Says:

      Ken, I was thinking of the (admittedly rather intangible) benefit to the orchestras as much as to audience members. I was specifically thinking of a Sydney-Melbourne swap of slots because the orchestras are such near-twins in size and standing that there shouldn’t be any objection to the substitution by either public.

  3. Concertgoer Says:

    Just a small thing… I too found the small number of people sitting in the side boxes over stage odd (one can only assume some sort of ticketing glitch).
    But these seats, including the ones further back, and the choir stalls, would not have been sold as the soloist can not be heard there. For some instrumental soloists this is less of an issue but the voice really only projects forwards.

    • marcellous Says:

      Cg, I think it is up to the audience to decide whether they want to go with the back or side of the soloist in exchange for being closer but to the side or behind the orchestra. I am sure that these seats, if cheaper, as they usually are, would have found buyers. After all, the singer was only part of the program, albeit a big part of the price.

  4. wanderer Says:

    Actually I didn’t know the sibling order. Anyway, I think Ken is correct about it being easier and cheaper to fly the listener to the orchestra than the orchestra to the audience in this instance. Actually now I think about it, this could well be very cleaver marketing to give the MSO interstate exposure before the imminent reopening of Hamer Hall and lure us all down – marketing orchestra and acoustics.

    • marcellous Says:

      Travelling around Australia to hear different orchestras is really one for the cognoscenti and the better-off. In most cases, I expect it is something that people might fit in when they are travelling anyway. I confess that eight nights in a hotel is a powerful price deterrent to me in considering next year’s Melbourne Ring. I’m a stinge.

      So long as we are talking just about the cognoscenti, then I agree Ken is right. I’m thinking about the orchestras (we’re always told that touring is good for them), and also about something which would be interesting for their subscribers even though they would not go so far as to get on a plane and book a hotel just to seek it out.

      Even if is just a pipe dream (see youtube at head of post) – I’d still like to mix our isolated orchestral monocultures up a bit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: