Archive for December, 2012

End of year

December 18, 2012

is almost upon us.  So I thought I’d mention a few things which I’ve been to which are so far unnoticed here.

I went to the Pinchgut Opera’s production of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux.

I’m sorry to say that I found the acting of visiting American Jeffrey Thompson as Castor almost insufferable, even if it be accepted that some of it was his own musical necessity. At one point, for no perceivable reason, he sat on the edge of the stage just behind Erin Helyard (the harpsichordist) and ran his hands over EH’s bald/shaven cranium. Something like this was done last year (or maybe the year before) as well but then at least it was funny and had a reason. I wouldn’t like it to become a running gag and for that matter I don’t think it is fair on EH, whether he minded it or not.

I sometimes wondered what the director, Kate Gaul, was thinking of, albeit that she had to operate within some constraints.

The realisation of the balletic element was problematic.   There were two rather fetching topless male dancers, and I’m not complaining about that. The women in the chorus, wearing vaguely Grecian drapery gym-slippy outfits, had to do rather a lot of stuff which maked them look like one of those early twentieth century photos of Druidic or Theosophic-ish groups doing something in the open air early in the morning.  Sometimes the urge came to just shut one’s eyes and listen to the music.

I found the second half, which seemed to prefigure Gluck and Haydn in its account of other worlds, more interesting than the first.

The orchestra was good. I went twice. This was something I had planned long before.

I wish I could say I enjoyed it more. Maybe the novelty to me of the French baroque has lessened, thanks in large part to Pinchgut’s own productions, which have also set a pretty high act for Pinchgut itself to follow.

I also went to two SSO concerts. The first of these featured Scott Davie playing the original version of Rhachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred.  The first was obviously a labour of love on SD’s part.  I enjoyed but was not really electrified by it.  Sometimes the verdict of history is right, and of course there are at least three better-known concertante works for piano by this composer.  Manfred excited me more when Caetani conducted it a few years ago.  This time it seemed a bit scrappy.

The second was billed as “Totally Tchaikovsky” (to distinguish it from Pique Dame as also being by Pushkin?) and paired the second piano concerto (also in its original version) with the fourth symphony.  I heard Garrick Ohlsson on the radio admit that the second concerto is an inferior work to the first, but all things considering that is not as big a put down as it might at first seem.  I enjoyed it and again on the live broadcast which I also listened to the next afternoon.  There were differences in approach between Ohlsson and Stephen Hough, who played this concerto here not so long ago.  I like to think that these match differences in their personality.

I have yet to see a publicity shot of Garrick Ohlsson that looks less than ten years old. The standard one looks as though it was taken more like twenty years ago, if not more.

One feature of the original version of the concerto is a kind of trio between the concertmaster, principal cello and piano in the middle movement.  I should concede (because sometimes I rail against her place in the orchestra’s publicity limelight that seems to only be rivalled by that enjoyed or hogged for the WASO by their grinning percussionist) that I enjoyed Catherine Hewgill’s solo in this very much.

The Tchaikovsky was on the mellow and warm side. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t have big moments, but it wasn’t as directly ominous as I have sometimes heard it, nor as angular.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard the second theme of the first movement edged into quite so gently. It was a distinctive approach.

Longer ago I went to the last of the Australia Ensemble concerts for the year.  The highlight of this for me (and I can’t say I was expecting this) was Ian Munro’s arrangement of Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques

At the end of the concert, the retiring Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) announced next year’s program. When he anglicized the “ř” in “Dvořák” a kind of electric frisson mixed with comfort of knowing better rippled round the hall. As is customary, rather splendid chocolates and slightly less splendid but alcoholic-if-you-wished drinks were given out in the foyer afterwards.

I’ll be back for more.

On Sunday night I went to a concert by Orchestra Romantique at Paddington Town Hall. I first heard of this in November from Wanderer. Now that I look I see that it was announced on facebook on June 16. I think I had by then given up on checking to see if anything was happening with this group. You couldn’t say this concert was over-publicized. Handbills were distributed outside Castor & Pollux but to little evident effect. By the time the concert was held, it had been announced as the orchestra’s final concert in its present form. Something smaller may or may not emerge.

The first half of the program was the Brahms double concerto. This was the draw-card for me. Kristian Winther (who also directed) was the violinist and Timo-Veiko Valve the cellist. Without a dedicated conductor (Kirsty Hilton also waved her bow from the leader’s desk in one particularly hairy bit) it was all rather strict-tempo, but I still enjoyed it. The early-music push of the previous concerts did not seem to be a particular issue. Maybe with the size of the band we were meant to imagine ourselves at Meiningen.

The second half was in honour of Beethoven’s birthday and featured a kind of running address by [“Lord”] Geoffrey Robertson on liberty and the enlightenment. It also featured rather a lot of namedropping on GR’s part, though some may feel he is entitled to it. Overall it seemed a rather long bow to draw from the “Turkish March” from Beethoven’s music written in 1811 for von Kotzebue’s play, “The Ruin of Athens” to GR’s proposed appearance before the European Court of Human Rights to argue for the return of the “Elgin Marbles” to Greece.

When GR ascribed the push to end slavery as one originating in “High Anglicanism” he had gone too far. Last time I looked (then, and since) the Clapham Sect and Wilberforce were evangelicals, which is usually thought of as being quite the opposite. Call me a pedant, but that’s the sort of historical howler that can cast a bit of a shadow.

This sort of talking is not really a drawcard for me. It just seems a waste of an orchestra to have it sit by idle. I realise that is an error because the orchestra’s time is not to be measured simply by its time on stage on the night – there also has to be rehearsal time. So maybe the talking was a way of padding the program out. Others enjoyed it.

It’s sad to see the orchestra fold (or even restructure into something smaller) but not really surprising. It was good to hear them while they lasted.

Christmas Nazis?

December 17, 2012

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That was my first reaction when I spotted this on the way home from the station shortly after our move to Ashfield 4 weeks ago.  This was the best I could manage for a picture.

Indians have supplanted the Shanghainese as the dominant arrivistes in Ashfield.

So my more reasoned guess is that these were decorations for Diwali.

End of term

December 14, 2012

On Saturday with my old friend and former high-school English and drama teacher, Lw, to the Sydney Philharmonia’s concert, titled “An English Christmas.”

Lw had a spare ticket because V, who was in the choir, had thought she would not be singing, and so had booked a ticket for herself and Lw.

The title alone was the sort of thing which would otherwise have driven me away rather than drawn me in – it had the whiff of that shop in the Glasshouse where they sell marmite and other English staples.

The attraction was the second half, which was Britten’s cantata, Saint Nicolas.

The first half was structured round the movements of “Peter Warlock”‘s Capriol Suite, played by the Philharmonia [scratch, really] orchestra, led by Jemima Littlemore. As the suite has six movements this meant that there were six carols or brackets of carols – the last was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. The baritone soloist for that and at least one other number was the improbably youthful looking Alexander Knight.  He has bright red hair with a somehwat Dickensian peak at the front, which somehow added to the English-Christmas flavour.  He sounds just a bit too youthful for my ideal sound-image of the baritone soloist in this work, but he has admirable clarity of projection.

I have sung in choirs myself in the past, and so nearly all of the items were familiar to me – not really carols in the congregational or even secularish (Rudolf) sense, but choral numbers of the sort that the English choral-christmas industry (of which the Vaughan Williams must be a relatively early type) has churned out in such enormous numbers over the years.

The other soloist was Amy Corkery, last seen as the lesbian maid (OK: only joking about the lesbian bit) in Pique Dame.  Perhaps concerned at filling such a large hall, she let loose rather alarmingly at the top of her register.

Choirs filed on and off; the massed choirs (“Festival Chorus”) sang a few, easier, numbers; every one of the Philharmonia’s conductors got a guernsey.  It all felt just a bit like a school concert.

Apart from the Vaughan Williams Fantasia, my favourites were an arrangement of Michael Head’s “Road to Bethlehem,” (really an art song) sung by “Vox” (the youth choir) and Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin (except that the semi-chorus seemed too big).

After interval, a woman came on to the stage.  That was ominous.  She announced herself as Sarah Watts, the president [?] of the Sydney Philharmonia Ltd.  The speech-day resemblance strengthened, as she welcomed the governor and the Minister for Citizenship and Communities, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, who was there with his mother.  He then gave a speech.  To give him credit, apparently he had been to all of the Philharmonia’s concerts in the year.

After waxing lyrical about our “much loved” governor Marie Bashir, Mr Dominello got a bit more political.  I became restive.  That’s not the sort of thing I come to a concert for!

It turned out that it was recently National Volunteers Week, a topic within VD’s responsibilities.  He extolled the virtues of the choristers as volunteers.  Lw (who is recently retired as a professional do-gooder for some Catholic organisation) and I exchanged glances.  Surely Philharmonia singers are not volunteers?  Well, they might be if they go and sing to some sick people at a hospital, but otherwise and at concerts such as this we both thought that they are people who love to sing.  They’re amateurs!

After that, Brett Weymarck jauntily taught us the hymns that the audience is required to sing as the congregation would in a Bach passion (once upon a time).  We had sheet music.  Oddly, he took us all the way through the “Old Hundredth” and then dealt most cursorily indeed with the more obscure “God moves in a mysterious way.”  Probably because the concert was already going to be overlength,

The cantata was OK though it didn’t quite live up to my expectations or recollections.  Perhaps the venue is too big.  The role of St Nicolas must be a rather thankless one, and it is certainly taxing.  Andrew Goodwin had a bit of a 78rpm wobble.  He has such a reputation and seems to have a successful career but I can’t quite see the basis for the general acclaim.

The cantata depicts the saints early life (Goodwin’s “God be glorified” a bit underwhelming here), then there is a sea journey with attendant miracle, and his crowning as bishop – after which we sang “All creatures that on earth.” There is a wonderful “Alleluia” when some pickled boys (it’s BB, remember) come back to life. Towards the end there is a “moving right along” chorus narrating a series of miracles and picturesque events.  My favourite is that “rising with the wrath of God” he “boxed Arias’s ear.” That’s Arias of the Arian heresy, by the way, and apparently it happened at the Council of Nicea in 325.  Then St N meditates on the meaning and end of life and goes to meet his maker.

That’s when you get “God moves.”  It’s a wonderful hymn, more Poetic than the hundredth psalm.  In St Nicolas, the point is that it starts quietly (those mysterious ways, especially death, rather on my mind as I had gone to two funerals in the week prior) and then builds up to the big finish.  That didn’t quite work out as it should have because everybody was too enthusiastic to join in and so it started too loud.  Brett forgot to tell everyone what “mp” meant on our music sheets, and the choir didn’t pay too much attention either.  Not that I suppose I can complain about them, given that they were volunteers.

Opera in concert: Pique Dame

December 3, 2012

On Saturday night with D to hear/see the SSO’s concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame. Little did I know, when I saw it in my opera-going youth in 1979, that there wouldn’t be another chance in Sydney for another 33 years.

You can see why it might not get mounted all that often. Opera Australia seems resigned to a loss if it mounts any opera which is not Italian, and the less expensive Eugene Onegin edges out PD whenever thoughts turn to Tchaikovsky at the opera. So that’s why we have resort to “opera in concert.”

This is something approaching an oxymoron, but let that pass for necessity’s sake. When the SSO puts on an opera this way, what it can offer is casting at a superior level and a more luxurious orchestral sound. I’m not so convinced by the Philharmonia Choir as a substitute for an operatic chorus, though they made a pretty good fist of it. The children’s choir probably needed to be a bit more “shouty” to be idiomatic – especially the boys as soldiers. Surtitles (just like the opera though also, just like the opera recently, with the occasional lag, especially on this occasion at the start) freed us from poring over program books.

The main challenge of a concert performance is for the singers: without the lengthy rehearsal process and coaching that they get in an opera production, how much will they be able to bring their characters to life? The risk is that they will be buried in their books.

Fortunately most of the singers overcame this, except for José Carbo. Perhaps the Cyrillic and the lingo were all too much. In the last act he had to sing a funny song at the casino. The chorus all laughed on cue to a gesture from Vladimir Ashkenazy. Alone of his fellow gamblers, Gennadi Dubinsky, as Surin, gave a little actorly chuckle – but it occurred to me he might really have been laughing at JC’s Russian. Mr Carbo is a singer I admire. Even if the “three cards” song sits a bit low for him (though it has a high finish), I think he can do [even] better than he did on Saturday if he can manage to look up a bit more. One peril of “opera in concert” is probably worth a mention: JC sported a pair of spectacles, presumably to read the score; D was shocked because he hadn’t thought JC old enough to need them.

Carbo got some scattered claps after this song, but it wasn’t until the (amazingly youthful) Andrei Bondarenko sang Prince Yeletsky’s big number rather well that the audience was really moved to applause. If it’s an opera, I think there should be room for that response – it would be a pity if people were inhibited from applauding by the concert “rules.”

As the ratio of Russian-speaking singers crept up, things became more dramatic. Stuart Skelton managed to match them, even if his manner of sticking out his jaw made him look, to me at least, more sulky than moody. That’s just a niggle because his performance really was one you could count as a triumph. This is a role he should take to the (proper) stage. Dina Kuznetsova was convincing and (I held back at first because of the sexism, but it is inherent in the work) convincingly gorgeous.

It’s a pity that the mode of curtain calls didn’t permit adequate response to be made to the singers individually.

Given that the opera is Russian, there of course are some sad songs. I know this is a stereotype, but those Slavs, they do good lugubre! Otherwise, the nocturnal middle section, for me at least, was the best. I’m a sucker for muted strings. The orchestra had desk lamps and the stage was darkened for Act III scenes one and two. I think it could also have been darkened for Act II scene ii.

Ensemble was a bit loose when things had to be fast and crisp, especially when there were syncopated figures in the accompaniment and a lot was going on vocally. One of the faster bits in one of Hermann and Lisa’s duets got a bit ragged.

As is often the way today, the performance redistributed three acts into two, with a break in the middle of the second act. I know there are financial reasons for this, but nevertheless I think it is an unfortunate compromise. It also meant that (for me at least) things dragged a bit in the pastoral interlude in Act II scene i.

I’d gladly go again tonight but will probably have to manage with the broadcast, which is on ABC “Classic” FM this Sunday.

Afterthought:

I’m told there were no head-in-book issues with Mr Carbo on Monday night and he certainly sounded terrific on as much of the broadcast as I was able to catch on Sunday night (which for the first half unfortunately required shutting off impromptu guests in the kitchen whilst I caught as much as I decently could – including his “3 cards” narrative – in the living room).