Archive for August, 2012

Working for Railcorp

August 29, 2012

One of the most dispiriting sets of decisions which are now published on the internet is the decisions of the NSW Transport Appeals Board. The latest is Khalil v RailCorp [2012] NSWTAB 25.

Mr Khalil joined Railcorp as a customer service attendant in 2004. In 2005 he became a train guard and in 2008 he became a train driver. That’s a career in Railcorp.

Mr Khalil had been working as a DJ since 1996. At some stage he obtained an ABN (which got him more favourable terms for purchase of equipment and a mobile phone) under the name of ‘A Mobile DJ 4U.’ He placed some advertisements in this name. He said he used to DJ about once a month.

From 2005, Mr Khalil’s depot manager was Shelley Wall. She got to hear of his DJ work, and she said that at least by about August 2010 she was aware of it, because she mentioned to Mr Khalil that if he wanted to do any outside work or voluntary activity he needed to obtain approval for this from Railcorp. Mr Khalil, she said, “argued the point” about this because he was of the view that it was just a hobby.

In fact, Ms Wall had other concerns about Mr Khalil. She was not happy about his absentee record.

Ms Wall had a meeting with Mr Khalil on 14 October 2010 to discuss his excessive absences which were to be reviewed again in January 2011. At this stage she also returned to the topic of the outside employment and told him he needed to submit an application for approval of that. On 12 November 2010, she sent him a memo about that because he had not yet submitted an application for approval of his DJ-ing activity.

After that, Mr Khalil submitted a form for approval of his DJ activities. He said in that:

“I play music on CDs at parties using a dj sound system and I also MC during the Function”.

Under ‘Fatigue Assessment’ he wrote:

“I only DJ on my rostered days off to ensure I have adequate rest for my next shift”

There was to be a meeting about that in November but it did not occur as Ms Wall’s mother died and she took three and a half weeks off at this time.

The application was supposed to have been dealt with by another manager in Ms Wall’s absence but it came back to her on her return to work as the other manager had not filled in the relevant section as to whether or not he supported the application.

Ms Wall was of the view that she would not support the application. Mr Khalil would need to improve his absentee record before she would support it. If she didn’t support it, it was unlikely to be approved.

On 5 January 2011 Mr Khalil was involved in a safety-related incident when the train he was driving overshot the platform by one carriage.

On 19 January 2011 Ms Wall issued a memo to Mr Khalil advising him of a scheduled meeting on 31 January 2011 to discuss that incident and his attendance record. At the meeting, she told him that she would not be supporting his application to do external DJ work but would revisit the position again in six months if his absentee record improved. After the meeting, she signed off on the form, not supporting the application.

Early in February, the relevant manager did not approve the application, though it is unclear whether Mr Khalil ever received any formal notification of this (he said he did not). By then Mr Khalil had transferred to work as an Intercity driver and his new manager told him in March that he was not permitted to DJ. Mr Khalil said he accepted that and that he did not work as a DJ after that.

But somewhere, for some reason, someone was checking up on Mr Khalil. On 20 May 2011, Kim Manderson, HR Business Partner Sector 2, referred the issue of Mr Khalil carrying out secondary employment when an application for approval of secondary employment had been declined to RailCorp’s Investigations Unit (RUI) for investigation. The investigator found advertisements on the internet and various pictures of him DJ-ing in 2010. An investigator rang up the phone number on one of the advertisements, which was Mr Khalil’s parents’ house (he had since moved out of home, married and had children). Mr Khalil returned the call and left a message, saying “It’s the DJ.” Shelley Wall confirmed that the voice was Mr Khalil’s.

On 18 August 2011 the investigator wrote to Mr Khalil notifying him of three infractions of the code of conduct, namely:

(1) That in 2009 he failed to disclose his work as a DJ in his secondary employment disclosure form, and that he did such work without prior written approval.
(2) That despite being told after submitting his 2010 application that he was not permitted to work as a DJ, he continued to work as a DJ without prior written approval.
(3) That he dishonestly failed to disclose in his June 2011 disclosure form that he was still working as a DJ and has done so without prior written approval.

The third count was based on the (specious, I would have thought) argument that a requirement to disclose involvement even in “inactive companies” extended to a requirement to disclose an ABN registration, even if no business was being conducted.

Mr Khalil submitted a response. He was offered an interview which he did not participate in. The investigator concluded that the allegations were not substantiated. They were forwarded to the Disciplinary Review Panel which on 12 December 2011 recommended that Mr Khalil be dismissed. Mr Khalil’s solicitors then made some submissions and the investigator conducted further investigations and confirmed his earlier recommendation. In January 2012 the DRP confirmed its recommendation and in February 2012, Mr Khalil was dismissed with 4 weeks pay in lieu of notice.

Mr Khalil appealed. There were hearings in June. At them Railcorp argued that Mr Khalil:

failed to carry out his duties honestly and fairly;
failed to maintain high levels of acceptable behaviour;
failed to be aware of breaches of the Code and notify senior employees;
failed to use his authority in an appropriate and unbiased way for the intended work purposes;
failed to use RailCorp resources properly, efficiently and economically;
failed to be honest in meeting attendance requirements; and
did not act in the best interests of RailCorp.

These are all based on requirements set out in the Code of Conduct. At face value that seems to suggest that if you only achieve mediocre levels of acceptable behaviour you are breaking the code and can potentially be dismissed. In fact it all really had to come down to mr Khalil’s honesty or not in not disclosing and undertaking external work. It’s certainly hard to see where the allegations amount to any failure to use Railcorp resources properly, efficiently and economically, or use of authority.

The appeal was successful. The board accepted that the advertisements were old (which would certainly seem to be borne out by the fact that the number on one was Mr Khalil’s parents) and that Mr Khalil had not worked as a DJ since late 2010. It held that none of the disciplinary infractions were made good, or at most that the first one (in relation to 2009) was, but only technically and not in a way amounting to dishonesty, and that dismissal was entirely inappropriate. The board ordered that Mr Khalil be reinstated with continuity and that he be paid the amount of pay, less the amount of the 4 (four) weeks paid in lieu of notice, he would have received as a Train Driver to the date of the orders but for RailCorp’s decision to dismiss him.

There is a lot of grumbling from the government from time to time about the industrial situation in Railcorp and the government bus service, but if this is the way that Railcorp treats its employees, it is absolutely understandable that there might be a bit of work-to-rule in response.

To me there is something quite tyrannous about Ms Wall’s use of the carrot/stick in relation to permitting outside employment of a most occasional nature as a means of bringing about an improvement in Mr Khalil’s attendance record. As the board said (at [122]):

This case did not involve any kind of corrupt or questionable conduct. There was no question of conflict of interest. There was no real question of fatigue. It appeared that there was no good reason to deny the secondary employment (although this is not directly relevant to the case). There was certainly no good reason to dismiss Mr Khalil because he occasionally acted as DJ and thought that this was okay.

Ms Wall has moved on from that job, but at her Linkedin profile she says of her time there:

Drove and maintained staff absences to a level substantially below corporate averages by developing continuous monitoring and management processes leveraging human contact and genuine concern.

I love those words: “drove” and “leveraging.”

Cases like this put the NSW government’s enthusiasm to ensure that not only train guards and station attendants (who do come face to face with the travelling public) but also train drivers (who do not) should front up to work devoid of stubble into not very flattering context.

PS: after going to all this trouble I see there is a punchier report of this case in the Daily Telegraph. It’s not strictly accurate, since it treats the decision as one permitting Mr Khalil to keep his second job as a DJ, though that could be its practical effect if he chooses to apply for approval again. Then again, in my experience you can’t expect organisations like Railcorp to respond to such decisions with good grace. My advice to Mr Khalil: watch your back!

PPS: A good job by Brendan Edghill, organiser with the union, and a reminder of why it’s a good idea to belong to one, especially if you work for Railcorp.

CWG

August 25, 2012

That’s a little joke between D and me. It stands for “Concert was good,” which is what I usually say just after I have come in the door from a concert. (D comes to the opera but mostly not to concerts.) It’s part of our private (now less so, I guess, though not by much) vocabulary of acronyms, along with, for example, GST (MSG), MSG (GST), WG (“what gear?” dating from when we had a manual car and D exhibited reluctance to change down when taking corners), KD (keep distance: another plea by me from the passenger seat) and WB (old internet talk for “welcome back” in the days of IRC).

Actually there’s also SFU (STFU)as a response to things like WG and KD, but that is hardly special to us.

Tonight with some of the Dulwich Hill gang to the SSO to hear the same program I heard on Friday night.

I enjoyed it much more. Why?

One hypothesis: it was a Saturday and not squeezed in at the end of a working day.

Another hypothesis: I didn’t go with Dx, my hypercritical professional musician friend returning to the SOH after a long absence and a musical life in Europe.

A third hypothesis: I sat in the rear of the stalls rather than the front of the circle.

A fourth hypothesis: the orchestra played differently.

A fifth hypothesis: I was hearing the program for a second time.

These hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I put the biggest weight on 3 and 5.

As to 1 and 2, I’m reminded of the legal realist aphorism that a decision depends on what the judge had for breakfast. It’s one reason why I’m glad I’m not a critic.

As to 4, my fellow Dulwich Hill gangsters expressed the view that the orchestra’s playing of a specific program doesn’t vary very much. Given what I’ve said about 1 and 2, that’s a hard thing to be sure of though in an overall way it is probably largely true. It is only incidental, but the masking tape had been removed from the panels closest to the circle since last night, so some things at least had changed.

As to 3, the sound of the orchestra was definitely superior in the rear stalls. The woodwind perhaps didn’t carry so well as they do to the circle, but the string sound certainly was much warmer and could balance the brass. The brass didn’t stick out in the way it did when I was upstairs.

5 mostly affected my response to the Carl Vine concerto. I knew where he was going and I could respond to it more familiarly. It’s no coincidence that many famous works have received a lukewarm reception at their first performance. I wouldn’t go so far yet as to predict fame for this particular work. Returning to (3), the piano sound in the stalls was definitely better. In particular I enjoyed the last third or so of the first movement and the whole of the middle movement, though the pianistic writing still struck me as not being particularly interesting. My fellow gangsters enjoyed it, though when I pressed them they didn’t go so far as to declare they would make a special effort to hear it again. It is an effective work.

I still would have liked to have heard all of Images (ie, Iberia as well). I really enjoyed the Brahms.

Reading between the lines

August 25, 2012

The home hunt and preparatory purging of possessions continue.

Meanwhile, on Monday to hear Piers Lane in the SSO’s piano recital series at Angel Place.

The program was:

Debussy: Arabesques 1,2; Gardens in the Rain (Estampes); Reflections in the water (Images) L’Isle Joyeux

Bartok: Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op 20

Liszt – Venezia and Napoli from Years of Pilgrimage (supplement to Year II: Italy)

Interval

Chopin the 17 “authentic” Waltzes in order of composition

Piers Lane likes to chat.  He came up to a microphone at the front of the stage between each bracket.  In the first half the volume was set too loud and he was plagued by feed-back as he spoke.  Is there a stage manager?  Shouldn’t some technician immediately adjust this?  It shouldn’t be up to the artist, who has a lot on his mind, to dash off stage between brackets and ask for this to be attended to.  Angel Place is not a cheap hall to hire and the SSO, for that matter, is not an amateur concert manager.  Whoever’s responsibility it is, this was an extremely unsatisfactory and quite unprofessional situation. 

In addition, I suspect because of the level the volume was turned up to, there was a distinct and unacceptable ambient hiss emanating from the PA system.  It deprived the room of a proper silence into which the music could resonate in the spirit of object falling into water which is supposed to set of the ripples inspiring Debussy’s Reflections.

The risk of this occurring is just precisely one of the reasons why I am not keen on concert talking.  The thing I particularly cannot understand is why in this post-valve era, speaker systems cannot just be turned off – even at the price of a momentary pop or click.  But no, they and their operators seem to be like diesel engines and their drivers, and cannot bear interruption.

Mercifully, in the second half the hiss abated (though not totally) and the feedback was cured.  It was such a relief and made a world of difference.  I’m guessing it was as simple a matter as turning the volume down but I don’t pretend to know if that was the case – that’s what I expect the people running the concert to know.

The program notes told us that the original first half offered by PL was a later Schubert sonata.  This was ruled out by the SSO because it had been heard in the series too recently.  If that was the true reason, I think this underestimates the preparedness of the audience to hear varied interpretations.  For myself I would have preferred a single work to balance the small works (albeit all of a kind) which the Waltzes comprised as the second half. 

I thought the best playing in the first half was in the Bartok, but it may just be because that is the piece I know and like least.  I’ll return to the Debussy later.

Lane divided the Waltzes into brackets of 6, 6 and 5.  This meant three chatty introductions.  These were quite interesting even if (to labour the point) for me they interrupted the spell.  However, Lane was not always a reliable informant.  He drew a parallel between Opus 18 (often entitled Grand Waltz Brilliante) and Weber’s “Introduction to the Dance” which is fair enough, and added that it was in the same key as the Weber.  The Chopin is in E flat major; last time I looked the Weber is in D flat major. They do share an introduction on the dominant – maybe that’s what he was thinking of.

Lane’s Chopin probably wasn’t playing which would have pleased Chopin purists – he is a bit short on aristocratic restraint, but for me it was at a level of polish way above pretty much all of the first half, and I don’t think it was the relief from the hiss which accounted for this. I enjoyed it. For an encore, he played a waltz by Dohnyani, which suited his natural exuberance and provided probably the most brilliant playing of the evening.

But back to the Debussy. Writing in the Herald about this recital, Peter McCallum had this to say:

“Lane’s finger work was fluid. He tended to avoid the exploration of very soft textures.”

Soft textures are a pretty big thing in Debussy. That’s really a polite way of saying his Debussy was too loud. At least, that’s what I thought. Mind you, such nuances seem to have been entirely been missed by the subeditor responsible for the headline to the review, which is: “Master’s nimble reading breathes life into Debussy.”

On Friday to hear the SSO, this time with Lane as soloist and Hugh Wolff conducting.

For a change, I sat in the circle, in rather splendid front row seats. I went with Dx, who lives in Europe and hadn’t been to the SOH for 4 or so years. The present state of the interior of the SOH struck him as very “tired,” and even allowing for the temporary nature of the current acoustic experiments, particularly daggy. “What’s with the masking tape across the panels closest to the circle?” he asked. He has a point. More specifically, he decried the utterly unsatisfactory piano sound. His diagnosis: there are no overtones; all percussion sounds are harsh with a bit of rebound (which includes the piano) and the piano itself always struggles to be heard over the orchestra. This necessarily constrains what a pianist can do when playing with the orchestra.

The program was:

Debussy Images, 1 and 2 (why not also 3?)
Vine – Piano Concerto No 2 (premiere)
Brahms – Symphony No 2

I’m going again tonight in my usual seat so I’ll give an acoustic second opinion after that. Suffice to say that the Vine did not strike me as particularly interesting writing for the piano – there was rather a lot of alternating hand work (that is, offset chords or octaves between the hands which are analogous to broken octaves) rather than figuration or interesting textures. It seemed copy-book/pattern-book stuff.

Peter McCallum said:

Carl Vine’s Piano Concerto No.2, receiving its first performance from Piers Lane, moved, like several of his works, from veiled shadows to bright light. Vine’s mould with concertos is familiar and successful with audiences. The first movement started with close-textured pianistic arabesques over lugubrious lower chords, moving to more sharply rhythmic straightforward music for the main section.

In the second, after some raw opening brass chords, Lane played dreamy arpeggios against a heavy, somewhat bovine tuba melody with a fleet central section on pizzicato strings and upper woodwind. The last movement reconceived some of the first movement’s ideas in broad daylight.

Lane’s professionalism communicated the work’s gestures with clarity and power.

In the letters column of the SMH, Peter Fyfe of Erskineville has complained:

Several paragraphs on the familiar work of a dead European, but only a couple on the stunning world premiere of an exciting new Australian piano concerto that was barely mentioned in the advertisements (”Wolff feasts on delicacy as intricate interpretation shows off its true colour”, August 24).

It is as if the Herald reviewer and the Sydney Symphony marketing department are conspiring to kill off Australian music. Shame.

Well, McCallum isn’t responsible for the orchestra’s publicity, but I think Mr Fyfe has failed to read between the lines. My gloss: Vine’s concerto made its appeal to the audience in ways that were fairly predictable and not terribly interesting and Lane gave it the performance it deserved.

I enjoyed it all, of course – why wouldn’t I? If I were a critic, I’d suggest that the brass in the Brahms was a little too – ah, how shall I say? – forthright and the whole effect was a bit on the Bismarckian Triumphlied side of Brahms for my taste.

Maybe I’ll feel differently after tonight’s second hearing.

[Postscipt: I did, up to a point.]

Opera Australia 2013

August 24, 2012

Opera Australia’s 2013 series was announced yesterday.  Before the formal announcement, the big glossy brochure turned up in my letter box.

My own subscription set series is down to 6 operas and one operetta.  Under cover of the reduction in the number of operas, the ticket price has quietly been lifted by 13%.

The Sydney season is billed as a “Verdi Festival.”  That means (Verdi unless otherwise indicated):

  • A Masked Ball – new international co-production by La Fura dels Baus.
  • La Boheme – (Puccini)  only 18 months since it was last on.  Have they no shame?
  • Il Trovatore – the dorsal nudity production – can Jin Tea Kim repeat his pushups?  He’s not getting any younger.   Arvo Volmer conducts.  I’m contemplating swapping my ticket for Boheme for this.
  • Falstaff – the production with the laughable (not in the right way) last act.  Warwick Fyfe, a man who almost cannot help being funny (though not always in a way which I would think of as Falstaffian), takes the title role.  Andrew Jones steps up as Ford.  Generational change going on here: Michael Lewis, as far as I can make out, only gets a gig as Vicar Gedge in Albert Herring next year.
  • Orpheus in the Underworld – (Offenbach) first staged in 2003; presumably some of the topical references will need to be updated and possibly the characterisation of “Public Opinion” – originally a kind of Pauline Hanson figure.  My heart sank when I saw that Todd McKenney was to be the selling point as Aristeus/Pluto.  This will of course be amplified.  There is a charming scene with boys on scooters as the “love police.”
  • La Forza del Destino – new production, probably the most strongly cast.
  • Don Pasquale – (Donizetti) new production; Conal Coad in the title role; Ji-Min Park (the curly-headed Korean Rodolfo who sparked some rather odd meditations by Terracini about ethnic styles of acting) returns as Ernesto; Rachelle Durkin.  This is apparently sponsor Dr Handa‘s choice.  Guillaume Tournaire conducts.
  • Tosca – (Puccini) – back to traditional after the mish-mash of the last production, which I for one wasn’t so keen on.  Strong casting (TMKizart/Cheryl Barker; Yonghoon Lee/Diego Torre; Wegner reprising bari-villainy).  Nicholas Milton is one of the conductors.
  • La Traviata – the Moshinsky production (als last seen in 2011 and on the harbour this year); Emma Matthews.
  • Albert Herring – Britten; Anthony Legge gets a gig as conductor.  Revival of John Cox production first seen in 1976 (when Lyndon Terracini was Sid).  Kanen Breen succeeds (again) Graham Ewer in the title role.  I don’t think he wears a dress, but perhaps he can work that in somehow.

The opera season finishes at the end of August.  All of September and October are then taken up with South Pacific.

That means less opera.  That’s my main criticism of the season, and that together with the splurge on Verdi the remainder of the repertoire (apart from 5 performances of Albert Herring) is Italian.

I’m the first to concede that the powers that be for Opera Australia face a perpetual task of squaring the circle.  I just wish they could go about that with less spin and talking up.  For example, anticipated complaint about there being fewer operas is pre-emptively brushed aside with the answer that there are more performances. I also find Lyndon Terracini’s strike back (and sometimes even strike first) approach to criticism pretty tiresome.  Some of his stuff about democracy and egalitarianism certainly rings pretty hollow now.  Instead, plutocracy and corporatism is all the go.

Terracini brags about raising the company’s turnover to $100 million – but $100 million made up of what?  This figure includes the Melbourne Ring, the Handa Carmen on the harbour, and another month and a half next year in Sydney of South Pacific.  The first of these is practically unavailable to ordinary opera-goers; the second is a big-night-out novelty item (and it certainly didn’t lure many back into the Opera Theatre for, say, Pearl Fishers) and the third – well, it isn’t opera.  At least it is priced accordingly.

The real problem about putting on fewer operas is that it makes squaring the circle harder.  In a country with one “national” company and in Sydney, a city with just one opera company (pace Pinchgut), it leads to a curtailment of the repertoire.

I’m getting pretty close to giving up subscribing.  The company may flourish (as we are assured and the various low-grade press-release-regurgitating “journalists” repeat: I have my doubts: a musician friend told me that an advertised and successfully auditioned-for and tried-out-for permanent violin position turned into an offer of a temporary contract gig) but it looks like its target audience is a broader public looking for fewer but more familiar one-off big nights out.

A NYE gala performance of Boheme is in that spirit: how the orchestra is going to manage that and the Concert Hall do simultaneously is a mystery to me. 

Given the consistently full houses for the present Saturday matinees, a new four-opera Sunday matinee series is a canny innovation.

Music for grownups

August 23, 2012

File:Music-simile.png

Last Saturday, with P to the Australia Ensemble @ UNSW (as they style themselves).

As usual, we exchanged a lot of musical gossip, some of which is too sensitive or confidential to be aired on this blog.

After the ensemble’s long winter break (its last concert was in May) it was a bit of a shock to be reminded just how close we sit. Certainly, it imposes an onerous responsibility to keep noise down for the benefit of the microphones. Not a responsibility that some of the more distant members of the audience discharged so well. It was a terrible night for coughing, dropped walking sticks and a mobile phone alarm in the silence just before the slow movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

Speaking of which, the program was:

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918):Sonata for cello and piano (1915) – 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Terzetto for two violins and viola in C, Opus 74: B148 (1887)
Carl VINE (b 1954): Sonata for flute and piano (2003)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Clarinet Quintet Opus 115 in B minor (1891)

I enjoyed the Debussy. It’s one of three wartime sonatas Debussy wrote towards the end of his career. I’ve played the violin and piano one. The cello one struck me as more difficult for both players. It may be (as Wikipedia says) “a staple of the cello repertoire” but I doubt if I have actually heard it since it was a one of the choices for the chamber work round in the 1992 Sydney International Piano Competition, when Georg Pedersen played it. That says something a bit depressing about the amount of chamber music I get to hear. Julian Smiles and Ian Munro had a great rapport.

The Dvořák must count as a rarety. You could think of it as a piece for a string quartet when the cellist is off sick. The highlight for me was (predictably) the slower second movement.  The ending of the final movement is rather perfunctory.  Amazingly, P had heard it in Melbourne, coupled with the Brahms clarinet quintet, moreover, in a program put on by “Wilma and Friends” at the smaller recital hall of the new performance complex there. She said that the Australia Ensemble’s performance took more risks (not all of them successfully: one tricky little run defeated Dene Olding both times it occurred) and was much more exciting.

The date assigned to the Vine must be for a revision, because from memory I thought it was written in 1992 and revised in 1993. It was commissioned by 2MBSFM and is dedicated to Geoffrey Collins, who gave the first performance, in their studios, with David Miller.  It was an effective piece in Carl Vine’s customary lots-o’-notes style, which always seems to me to owe something to the paste function in either Sibelius or Finale, though to be fair Vine’s musical manner and this piece predate such software tools and previous generations of composers have managed much the same thing with the simile symbol at the head of this post.  The last movement is very fast and tongued. GC seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace he and Ian Munro had set each other.  That is rare for GC.  Maybe it’s a younger man’s piece.

I had a funny encounter at interval.  A mild-mannered young man came up to me when I was on my way back in, and told me (after a little apology for the unsolicited approach) that he reminded me of somebody he had seen in a DVD of “the making of Lucia.”  I wonder who he meant.  Anyway, I asked him “Which Lucia?” to which he replied, in all earnestness, “Lucia di Lammermoor.” I suppose he could have thought I thought he might have been talking about Lucia Mapp.

I explained that I meant which production, to which he replied “Oh, the Sutherland one.” I told him that was a bit before my time.

It was rather cute, really.  I went to my seat and I then saw him in conversation with others whom he also appeared to have approached as complete strangers on his way back to his seat.  Perhaps he was just feeling lonely.

In the second half, the Brahms clarinet quintet.  I’ve commented before about how Catherine McCorkill as a clarinetist that other clarinetists don’t always seem so keen on.  In this piece I began to see why, because she did not take the mellow “autumnal” approach that seems to be de rigueur for late Brahms.  Particularly in the upper register, she is inclined to a more strident sound.  I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t quite the conventional approach.  As ever, it was the slow movement which was the best for me.  There are muted strings involved as well, and I am a sucker for them.

The ending of the Brahms is also muted – though not literally.  That doesn’t lead to an outburst of applause (you need the “big finish” for that), but to me it was all very satisfying.

Afterwards, when I got home, I read over the program notes.  I may also have cast an eye over last year’s subscription brochure before turfing it out in preparation for the impending great disruption.  The description of this particular concert on the website provides a sampling of the style – unmistakably from Roger Covell:

Debussy’s cello sonata, one of the instrumental masterpieces of the last years of his life, provides – with its shadowy, light-flecked glimpses of eloquence – a wholly different-sounding musical impression of the cult of the Pierrot figure from the one Australia Ensemble audiences heard in the group’s exceptionally theatricalised version of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire early in 2011.  It is also a world away from the straightforward homeliness of style in the Terzetto of Antonín Dvořák, written for the composer and a couple of his friends to play and full of the references to Czech song and dance idioms that came readily to a musician who seemed to have the art of writing memorable tunes at his fingertips whenever he put pen to manuscript paper.  Carl Vine’s typically elegant and well-written flute sonata is a shapely upbeat to the Clarinet Quintet of Brahms, one of the summits of music and one of the two chamber works (the other being by Mozart) that seem to many listeners to embody the soul of the clarinet and the ultimate felicity of its union with a quartet of strings.

At the time I was also looking at next year’s SSO subscription brochure, and I couldn’t help noticing quite a difference.  The SSO’s, like Opera Australia’s (of both of which more anon) are big and glossy.  It may not be literally true that every page has an exclamation mark, but there is a kind of superlative-laden breathlessness which is all just a little bit exhausting to take in.

The AE’s pitch is a world away from that.  I know they’re selling something different (and, in particular, cheaper and therefore not so inherently extravagant or expensive), but I’m beginning to think it might be the sort of thing I prefer.

Last days at chez nous

August 18, 2012

A week ago, I received a 90-day notice to quit under the Residential Tenancies Act.

This was a bolt from the blue.  It is inconvenient.

We are but sojourners on this earth.  All of a sudden, the place I have grown quite comfortable thinking of as my home, my habitus, is the place I am about to be evicted from.

A lot of junk must be disposed of.  I’ve been going through my books.  I’ve been taking pictures of them in a last desperate hoarding gesture before letting them go.

This is one.

It is one of about 100 volumes of verse that I almost never read, but I’m still not sure if I’m parting with it just yet.

I knew just the poem in there for the moment:

It’s rather a mawkish piece, but just right now it tugs a chord.

And after ten years here, there are boxes, not of preserving jars, that are still unopened.

They must be the first candidates to go, but it will be hard.

Back to reality

August 14, 2012

On Friday night to hear the SSO’s “recreation” of its first concert in the Sydney Opera House, in 1973.

That concert featured [then plain “Mr”] Charles Mackerras as the returning Australian conductor, and Birgit Nilsson as the visiting Wagnerian superstar.

This time we had Simone Young and American soprano, Christine Brewer.

The program, dictated by the terms of the project as a reproduction, was:

Die Meistersinger – Overture
Tannhäuser – Dich teurer Halle!
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude & Liebestod
[Interval]
From Götterdämmerung:
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey
Siegfried’s Funeral March
Immolation scene

The building had been lit up and there was a gala feel with footage from the original concert being screened about the place and a full house. (Next door at the Opera Theatre all was tropical and merchandized for South Pacific; the younger male bar staff are wearing fetching little white US navy caps.) The SSO went to a bit of trouble with a gorgeous program cover. The program itself included (at page 22) the list of players from that concert. That suggested some small divergences in the reproduction of the 1973 concert.

For example, it seems as if in 1973 the SSO fielded 4 harps (6 are strictly called for but often not in evidence in actual performances) – in 2012 there were only 2. If the 1973 booklet can be believed (and the video record certainly seems to confirm it in this regard) the SSO also managed in 1973 to present its principal flute, oboe and bassoon (Neviile  Amadio, Guy Henderson, John Cran: all players I recall), which is more than it did in 2012.

Perhaps in those days the program professed less than it does now to list the actual players in a given concert. For example, Ron Prussing, pictured above from the SMH review with the caption “Ron Prussing plays in Wagner Under The Sails” is one of two players still in the orchestra who played at the 1973 concert, but he isn’t listed. That can probably be explained because he was a last minute substitute. What is a bit more difficult to explain in relation to the picture caption is that unless I am mistaken, Ron Prussing only played in the second half in the 2012 concert, and played the bass trumpet.

In 2012, Diana Doherty was slated to play principal oboe but David Papp, the youngest permanent member of the section, had to step up to the plate [yuck! sporting metaphor] in her absence and an unnamed gent came in to make up the numbers. Neither Matthew Wilkie (principal bassoon) nor Janet Webb (principal flute) were rostered on.  (Dene Olding gallantly took the third desk as Natalie Chee’s guest stint continued, btw.)

Conversely, I rather doubt if the SSO had a set of Wagner tubas in 1973. I think they were a novelty when I first heard them in Bruckner in ’78 or 79.  Correction in response to comment: I have looked again at the video record and can now spot them.

As well as possible comparisons to the past, there was also an opportunity to draw comparisons to Angela Denoke and the Melbourne orchestra’s performances of a few weeks ago, particularly of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde, which in both cases was the first-half closer. I was sitting in different spots, but I’d say Ms Brewer has the larger voice. When it came to the top notes she tended to rather hurl it up there and when it got to B and sometimes a bit below that there was a bit of a squawk, but as a friend who had gone on Saturday arvo put it, you could accept that as the price of her very rich lower and mid-register.

The audience received it rapturously but I’m not sure I shared their degree of adulation. I’ve decided it’s all to do with context. Wagnerian extracts are fun, but a Vorspiel is not the same when you aren’t expectant in the (usually darkened) theatre, and as I said about the MSO’s concert, the same applies to culmination of a long work as in either the Liebestod or in this case, the Immolation. A theatre’s acoustic is usually also a bit drier – relevant in this case to what should in my opinion have been a lighter and hence clearer touch in the jolly middle section of the Meistersinger overture. On the whole, if mostly well balanced and competently and even sometimes thrillingly played, things seemed plush and efficient rather than truly atmospheric.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but not really to the point of being particularly moved except maybe at the end of the Liebestod (which I noticed moved my neighbour to tears) and the Immolation, when I made myself be moved.

For the orchestral half of the Tristan the hall, probably the air-conditioning, added its own peculiar noise which resembled an intermittent low pizzicato D from the double basses. There were funny noises during the Liebestod for the MSO as well, though those were in the electronics. I sometimes wonder if the SOH is careful enough about this sort of thing.

I also listened to the repeat concert on Saturday afternoon when it was broadcast live. Funnily enough, the context issue didn’t worry me so much then, but then nor was I giving it the same sort of attention (there was cooking to be done as well) and my expectations were different.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to Angel Place to hear and see Avan Yu at the winner’s recital for the Sydney International Piano Competition [of Australia]. That is the occasion of the title of this post.

You can follow Mr Yu on the social media. Since he won it seems he has been back to Germany (that seems a rush so I might have got that wrong) then started his tour of the country. A lunchtime concert in Adelaide attracted a spectacular queue which he posted a picture of and I hope the other concerts were well attended by the audiences which the relevant host organisations drummed up on the back of all the publicity which the ABC broadcasts had given.

Unfortunately, SIPCA couldn’t manage the same for itself or its winner. The foyer was ominously underpopulated and when I went in I estimated the audience (in an 1100-capacity hall) as being in the low 200’s. Publicity had been rudimentary.

Avan Yu announced each piece just before he played it, as there wasn’t even so much as a photocopied song sheet. He did this quite personably, though I would have preferred it if he had also given us the whole program at the start. That turned out to be:

Chopin: Barcarolle
Schumann: Fantasie in C
[Interval]
Debussy: Etudes Bk I 1-6.
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No 12

The highpoints of this were the Fantasie (perhaps not quite as good as in the Seymour Centre: maybe this was just a question of atmosphere and possibly the state of the piano; I thought in Angel Place the dotted passage just after the opening and its return in the second movement threatened to get away from itself) and, most definitely, the Debussy etudes. As an encore we got the Chopin Etude in E major Op 10 No 3 – not a piece likely to feature in the competition unless someone ventured a set.

It’s disappointing a bigger public could not be drummed up: the price was quite reasonable and while Avan is not yet at the standard, say, of the majority of pianists in the ABC’s piano series held in that venue, his playing was worth hearing. Perhaps the Sydney audience thought they had already heard him. Perhaps they were all piano-ed out. Maybe some stayed away out of loyalty to or preference for their “People’s Choice” winner.

Whatever the reason, it’s a salutary indication and reality check of what the piano competition can or cannot deliver for its winner.

A week in Sydney

August 5, 2012

We have had a visitor, JK, a Korean long-term resident of Shanghai, for the past week.

What do you take a visitor to in Sydney?

It depends, of course on the visitor. D’s reluctance (which I share to a lesser extent) to rise early also proscribed some choices.

We were lucky that the weather turned out so well.

We went for walks at Coogee (lots of black cockatoos in evidence as they have been a number of times I have ventured that way this year) and Balgowlah Heights. (If we’d got up earlier I would have suggested West Head.) We strolled briefly around Kiribilli en route to Balgowlah. Another day JK and D went to Bondi and Lady Jane Beach. Another day (whilst I worked) D and JK went to the Blue Mountains. They failed to see any kangaroos – you need to go further or rise earlier than that. The word is that Euroka clearing, in from the Glenbrook entrance to the Blue Mountains National Park, is the place for that near Sydney, but D would not have relished the few kilometres of dirt road.

Another night we dined Korean at Strathfield. I wouldn’t count this a tourist highlight, though on the night we were there there was a striking sight of some hundreds of rainbow lorikeets restively roosting in the half-dozen or so trees in the Piazza on the southern side of the station.

I suggested a ferry to Cockatoo Island, where the Biennale is on, but I couldn’t get them to do that. I do think that a ferry trip is an indispensible part of a visit to Sydney.

Oxford Street and 357 “Sauna” (we call it “Sanwuqi” in honour of its large Chinese clientele) on Sussex Street were on the agenda. I don’t claim to cut a good figure in either context, and left that to D and JK.

Lunch at the Sydney Fish Markets was essential. When you go there, it’s clear that this has a particular attraction for East/North Asians. JK had heard about it from friends who visited us back in January. JK could probably have done that more than once, time permitting.

JK also wanted to eat Australian steak. We did that once at home and later he managed this dining out. We wheeled out a few of our domestic cooking set-pieces.

There was some shopping. D and JK rode the monorail.

On Saturday (his last day) JK finally determined to sally forth on his own. His destination was The Rocks but I took him first to Newtown, where I was going to Campos Coffee to stock up on supplies. JK loved Newtown. Even if it is more subdued and Singaporified than it was a few years ago, the eclectic mix of people (and numerous gay couples on the street to JK’s delight) was a lively sight for him – one which we take for granted given that it is our local “street.” Later JK rang us from the Rocks and said that he preferred Newtown and was returning there for the rest of the afternoon.

Of course, we went to the Opera House. We sat in the front row for “Pearl Fishers” on Monday night. This was JK’s first opera and it was fun to hear D’s explanations of various matters, including the differences between French and Italian operas. It’s great in the front row but in a way you don’t really get the true theatrical experience there of sharing something with the rest of the audience. Of course, this has its pluses as you don’t need to share their coughs and conversation either.

PF really is a sweet opera, however creaky its plot is or slightly wonky the “opera-within-an-opera” concept of the production is. Despite its reputation, it has quite a lot more than the one tune, even if this looms large. The chorus was great, Henry Choo was well cast as was Nicole Car (apart from the coloratura in the first act): Christopher Hillier had stepped up for most of the run in the face of the indisposition of Andrew Jones and did quite a good job as Zurga if just a little under-voltaged in the final act trio and when darker baritonal intensity was called for.

On Saturday night, I went with the Dulwich Hill gang to hear the SSO with Nicholas Angelich play the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, followed by a slightly superfluous Dvorak Carnival Overture and then Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. This was a program put together with showpieces for Tugan Sokhiev, who has also collaborated before with Angelich in the Brahms. Jakub Hrusa stepped in at short notice when Sokhiev called in sick.

It was good that the SSO had gone to the effort to get Natalie Chee in as concertmaster in Dene Olding’s absence – he’s lately been in Cairns for the chamber music festival but he doesn’t seem to have had much time for the SSO for a while.

I was a bit disappointed with the Brahms, but that is probably because my expectations of the work are unrealistically high. My disappointment started with the very opening notes of the piano part, which quite lacked the lilt I had hoped for. I liked Angelich (who really needs a more up-to-date publicity photo) when he was soft but not so much when he was loud, and there didn’t really seem to be much of an inbetween. Some of the orchestra-piano ensemble was a bit astray and shifts of mood (especially in the last movement) seemed undercharacterized. I wonder if some of this was down to the loss of the collaboration with Sokhiev – I expect this was a harder thing for Hrusa to step into than for the more obvious show-off stuff. Certainly the second-half showpieces fared better – especially the Rachmaninov, at least up to the last two or three minutes when the piece seemed to revert rather to formula.

Meanwhile, JK and D went back to Newtown for dinner and then a quiet night at home before D put him on the plane this (Sunday) morning.