Back to reality

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
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
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.

4 Responses to “Back to reality”

  1. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    A further divergence: in 1973 the concert began with God Save the Queen as would have been customary. No one seems to have been bothered by its absence this time.

  2. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    Other observations: examination of the footage from 1973 suggests that Wagner tubas were acquired from somewhere.

    And I did wonder about all those harps in the original orchestra list – can’t say I’ve been able to spot six on the stage in the available video, although that’s hardly conclusive. Perhaps someone decided post-publication that there were only two real parts, the platform was a little full, and the harp being such a loud instrument…

    • marcellous Says:

      You are right about the tubas, I now see.

      I think there were only 4 harps in the program but I agree I cannot even see all 4, unless perhaps there are two extra ones over near the double basses.

      It’s pretty rare to have 6 harps. In one miniature score I looked at a few years ago the harp parts were printed as a kind of appendix since otherwise they would totally throw out the orchestral score.

      Did the SSO always have GStheQ in 1973 or only when viceroyalty was present? I know it sometimes featured but I honestly cannot remember what the general rule was by then.

      • Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

        The National Anthem (i.e. that lovely little galliard, GStQ) was played before all ABC performances, including recitals, until 1974. Phillip Sametz recounts a sweet story involving Paul Badura-Skoda in 1952: In one recital PBS forgot to play the anthem and launched straight into a Mozart fantasy. “I saw then that everyone was standing up, and I thought that the audience must have been very impressed with my playing to give me a standing ovation at the start of the recital.”

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