Archive for August, 2016


August 29, 2016


On Saturday to the Sydney Town Hall for the SSO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, conducted by David Robertson.  That’s my blurry mobile-phone snap taken on the way in.

First comparison: a picture from the SSO’s archives which I first thought was of the occasion of their first performance of the symphony in 1950 under the baton of Otto Klemperer but which (see comment) is in fact of a 1953 performance of the Messiah (which explains the smaller orchestra and four vocal soloists):


Judging from the elevation, that picture was taken from the East Gallery.

Second comparison: the view from my seat when the bows were being taken. It’s fairly representative of my view of the orchestra throughout the performance.


In the event that the SSO returns to the Sydney Town Hall, as well it might in a couple of years when the SOH Concert Hall is to be renovated, there’s an obvious lesson to be learnt.

Meanwhile, the 19503 picture confirms my recollection that when the SSO played at the Town Hall it occupied at least some of the risers to the back of the stage. That would have given the groundlings in the stalls a slightly better view, and also increased the seating capacity in comparison to Saturday, when the front row was row M.

I’m also pretty sure that in days of yore you were able to leave at the end of the concert by the side porticos as well as the George Street front one. That’s definitely a tradition worth reviving.

Opera Australia 2017

August 25, 2016

Opera Australia has announced its 2017 season.  That link foolishly describes OA as “unperturbed” by the closure for 7 months of the Opera House opera theatre, which is clearly not the case.

It’s a pretty devastating announcement, so far as Sydney opera-goers are concerned.  In place of the closed Opera Theatre, OA has only managed to secure the 400-seat Playhouse, in which it will stage a pasticcio operetta, the Concert Hall (for three concert performances of Parsifal with big-name tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and the Capitol Theatre in October-November for an 11-performance run of the venerable Oxenbould production of Madama Butterfly (last seen here in 2015). The only other conceivable alternative venues, such as the Lyric Theatre at the casino or the Theatre Royal (which would really be a squeeze) are themselves affected by closures for renovations next year.

There are also a few other one-off events including a concert performance at the Town Hall of Massenet’s Thaïs.

Apart from the pasticcio, OA is staging no new productions of its own. Two new productions are brought/bought in from Covent Garden. One is a bold gesture: Szymanowski’s King Roger; the other, Cav & Pag. Otherwise, Boheme, Tosca and Traviata are all very recent returns.  The Handa opera-on-the-harbour is a repeat of Carmen.

Things aren’t much better in Melbourne with a run of The Merry Widow making up their summer season, though it is a new production with a homecoming Young Talent Time winner.

It’s obviously a belt-tightening year for OA. Will there be commensurate cuts for the upper management’s salaries? Don’t hold your breath.  I wonder whether the engagement of Kaufmann for Parsifal (one can only guess at the cost of this) is judicious as opposed to a defiant gesture.  Terracini says that people will pay to hear quality voices but even so he expects to lose money on this.  Personally I’d prefer that the money were spread a bit more evenly on employing local artists.  Even an expatriate would be more fitting and probably a bit cheaper whilst still being of interest to many even if not such a headline for the non-opera-going public.

No set subscriptions are being offered next year.  You have to make up your own series. When I tried to do that on the website my seats were assigned to me (never satisfactory) [Postcscipt: a commenter has not had that problem so it seems this was just me] which is odd because once I reached the minimum of 3 different productions to make up a subscription I was able choose your own seats off the seating plan. [I then rang up – it cannot have been an easy day manning the OA phones.]

As for my subscription, I’m keen to see King Roger and prepared to see Cav&Pag on account of the new production.  I’m making up the minimum 3 with a point seat for La Traviata which enables me to bag a couple more point seats for King Roger as well as extra seats for D for KR and C&P.  It will all be over by about the middle of Feb.  That’s a big retrenchment (and saving).

OA boldly suggests that subscribers make up the shortfall of available shows with a donation to their usual level of expenditure.  I suppose they can always ask.  The bigger risk is that people will break the subscribing habit altogether.  With any luck Terracini will then be free of that opera “club” for which he has expressed so much disdain.



Canberra Symphony Orchestra

August 22, 2016

For the past few years I have made numerous trips to Canberra to see my father and stepmother.  These trips were mostly on a lengthened weekend.  They became more regular last year after my stepmother died and my father was on his own.

A lot of Canberra’s big concerts are on week nights – perhaps because historically so many Canberrans leave on the weekends for either the coast or, if in search of Kultur, a bigger city such as Sydney.  As a result, despite my best intentions, excursions with my father in our last year together were mostly confined to rural drives or to the cinema.  We enjoyed these, but I regretted not being able to get him to any live performances.

Last week, in town for the week with my sisters to deal with my father’s effects, I went on Thursday to hear the CSO conducted by Nicholas Milton at the Llewellyn Hall in what I still think of as the Canberra School of Music.  Now part of the ANU, it is a ghost of its former self. A forlorn display of historic instruments in the foyer could stand as a memorial to that.

The other memorial is the presence in the CSO of players who made the historical emigration from ABC orchestras to Canberra in the mid-to-late late 70s when the School of Music was staffed on a basis that made taking a teaching appointment an attractive proposition.

The program was:

Weber – Der Freischütz overture;
Brahms – Double concerto – soloists Indira Koch and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt ;
Dvořák – Symphony No 7.

Unwisely I allowed the Ticketek staff to whom the CSO has outsourced its box-office function to oversell me a ticket in the middle of row T of the stalls, which turned out to be beneath the overhang of the gallery.  I should have stuck to my earlier resolve to take a cheap seat upstairs on the side where (contrary to the Ticketek staff’s advice) sight-lines would have been perfectly satisfactory and the sound could hardly have failed to have been better than in row T.

The other problem was that, as for most orchestras where the numbers of string players are a bit low for the repertoire, you need to be able to make a kind of psychological adjustment for the proportionate changes in the sound.  The veteran players of the CSO are mostly evident in the winds and principals of the brass. They were good and indeed, in the case of the flutes, more audible than the SSO flutes are in the SOH Concert Hall, but with string numbers of 10,9,6,5,4, (that’s v1,v2,vla,vc,cb respectively) you really need strength throughout the string sections, which I missed in the violins.  I hazard to guess that perhaps also a lot of time playing together can help a smaller string complement assert itself. That’s hard for a part-time/casual orchestra like the CSO.

I felt the lack of string bulk most of all in the Brahms which I usually think of requiring a fairly massive approach, especially in the first movement.  And the sound of the orchestra a whole was odd in a way I cannot now pinpoint as I have already effaced the memory.  These things combined to a point where at times I came close to wondering what I was listening to or why I had paid almost $80 to hear it.

Time has healed most wounds but I recall one oddly big timpani moment just before the soloists’ final return to the fray in the first movement of the Brahms.

I hasten to add that my fellow audience-members showed no sign of suffering from any such disquiet.  I guess they are grateful for what they can get in Canberra – the orchestra has a very loyal subscriber base and the concert was well-booked (which accounted for the limited choices available to me when I rolled up).  Being alone in my grumpiness amidst such pleasure only exacerbated it.

So at interval, chatting to someone I knew from law school 20+ years ago who now finds himself posted to Canberra (“Up the greasy pole?” I asked; “No, not promoted this millennium,” he cheerfully replied; his other joke was a remark about whether this concert included anything by “Eastlakes”), I spoil-sportedly told him that I was close to leaving but that failing that I might go upstairs on the side in the second half so that if things did not improve for me I could slip quietly away.

In the end I went back in downstairs but to a seat three rows forward in row Q, free of the curse of the overhang.

The moment the Dvořák started I felt an improvement in the sound – by at least 40% and not accountable for merely by the effects of an interval double short black which had probably not yet had a chance to kick in. The strings, especially the violins, were still understrength at key moments, but I could make adjustments for that.  Even when I felt that the 3rd movement (the most like a Slavonic dance) was a touch fast, I could recognize that as a plausible response to the orchestra’s proportions.

I’m glad I went back. 

Afterwards, my neighbour explained that the seats just under the gallery used to have the best sound, but that in his opinion that had changed when the hall had been refurbished a few years ago after storm damage.

It just goes to show how important local knowledge can be.



Last night at the opera

August 14, 2016

Last night with D to Opera Australia’s production of Così fan tutte.

This is the last of the set of the Mozart/da Ponte operas directed for OA by David McVicar.  It’s a handsome, indeed opulent production.  Some money was saved off the costumes budget by keeping the (usually rather small) chorus off-stage but I’m sure it was more than spent elsewhere.  In an earlier performance in the run the performance had to be stopped when the rather elaborate set failed to move as required.  As with Don G and Marriage of F, space on the Opera Theatre’s stage is maximised by a set which basically goes right out to the edge and in particular as deep as possible to the back of the stage.

The premiss of Così is famously problematic: two men are led by a “philosopher” friend into testing the fidelity of their betrothed (who are sisters) by pretending to go off to war and instead wooing each other’s beloved in disguise.  The sisters start off adamant, are persuaded that there can’t be any harm in a little flirtation and ultimately yield to the point of marrying each other’s disguised lover.

It’s a difficult premiss to accept.  McVicar has the younger sister, Dorabella, puffing on a post-coital-by-implication cigarette.  If anything like this happened today in the Australian Capital Territory, the sex would probably count as “rape.” How dare we be entertained?

That was the gist of the nineteenth-century objection to this opera.

In this production, Don Alfonso, the “philosopher” seems perpetually enraged against women, and Despina, the ladies’ maid who assists him to contrive things (without being entirely in on the plot) almost similarly set against men.  What bitter experience has got them to that point?  Or is it just pathological?

McVicar’s interpretation, though arguable (especially the ending: partners are swapped) doesn’t to me tally on the way through with the men’s Act I predictions/protestations of mirth.  Yes, I know this could be taken as an expectation which is not fulfilled, but at the time they are saying everything is very funny or will be it just didn’t seem particularly funny at all.

My feeling is that the plot is better approached as a comedy which was always a bad joke which goes wrong/ gets serious – that’s a very common turn in romantic comedy after all. So though it’s good to shake things up, that leaves me siding with a more conventional approach, if sides need to be taken.

I actually found myself caring more about the characters (especially when the mood changed) in OA’s previous, not-so-popular-with-the-punters production directed by Jim Sharman, which had a lighter touch: Alfonso and Despina were cynics and realists rather than enraged persons. There’s an argument somewhere there about opera in English too.

Taken as seriously as McVicar takes it reduces the charm. This has musical consequences as well because it reduces the scope for vocal characterisation, especially for the sisters.  A friend who is far from an inexperienced opera-goer thought that a lot of the singing was rather boring.

For me the more pressing musical difficulty, especially at the start, was that I was still too full of Simon Boccanegra.   In addition to the 4 performances I’ve posted about here, I listened to most of the live broadcast that afternoon.

Fortunately I managed to adjust my [mind]set.  The music carries much before it and it was well sung and played.

[Afterthought: I’ve listened to the 30 July  broadcast a couple of times on ABC Classic FM: and I increasingly wonder if it wasn’t the quality of the singing my friend was reacting to when he said it was “boring”, but the seriousness of the approach.  The more I listen to it all, with Boccanegra receding, the more beautiful it is and I wouldn’t myself say it was “boring.”]

The production has received glowing reviews and was pretty well sold out.  I expect we will be seeing the McVicar trilogy for quite a few years to come.

This was the last night of opera for Opera Australia in Sydney until the now entrenched Bohème season begins just after Christmas.  I’m leaving My Fair Lady for others to enjoy.


Michael Spence

August 12, 2016

is the vice chancellor of the University of Sydney.

It’s been just a bit comical seeing his public road-to-Damascus moment about the “bamboo ceiling” – now that following his remarriage after the tragic early death of his first wife he has a child who might possibly come up against it one day.

Today Spence is reported complaining about the immorality of subsidising the costs of medical tuition for Australian students with the profit from international fee-paying students.  He says:

Australian universities “tax the poor families of Sichuan to subsidise the education of kids who went to Kings to become doctors and charge people a lot of money.”

That seems a bit colourful to me.  Plenty of medical students come from James Ruse rather than from Kings.

There is a university system in China, for which entry is competitive but which you can reasonably say is open to poor students of high ability.  General view in China would be that Australia is where the (relatively) dumb and rich ones come, and as to who the rich are and how they are rich there are plenty more views about that.  According to those views, maybe you could describe the origin of their wealth as a “tax” on the poor in a very loose sense.

Most Chinese would be astounded to learn that the Chinese students studying in Australia came from “the poor families of Sichuan.”

SSO 2017

August 8, 2016

Seven thoughts on the Sydney Symphony’s 2017 season.

You could summarise them as four pluses, a fifth plus (all pluses according to my taste of course) though in part depending, and two just saying.

1. Bartok

Bluebeard’s Castle is the headline act here.  I’m looking forward to this.  We’ll also be hearing an early obscurity, the Four Pieces Op 12 and the violin concerto.  The Miraculous Mandarin  features in a special Lantern Festival concert to be conducted by Tan Dun and otherwise made up of works by him.  I find this just a bit surprising because the scenario of TheMM has always seemed to me to be orientalist in a not very nice way.

2.  Brahms

We don’t often get to hear Brahms’ choral-orchestral works – even the German Requiem.  Next year we have the Alto Rhapsody (in the same concert as Bluebeard’s Castle)  and (on the one program) the Song of Destiny and the Song of the Fates.  There’s a bit more, including a recital (program not yet finalised) by Orli Shaham arranged around the Op 118 and 119 piano sets.  Big names play the violin concerto and first piano concerto in Special Events (see 7 below).

3.  Ravel

Nothing particularly unusual about performances of Bolero or La Valse, but the concert billed as “Ravishing Ravel” is something to write home about: David Robertson conducts Daphnis et Chloe (I hope the ballet rather than either of the suits) and Susan Graham sings Sheherazade.  She’s also the soloist in Mahler 3.  Is it mischievous to suggest that it would have been nice if we could have got Edo de Waart out for that?  I suppose not all stars can align.

4.  Haydn

He’s getting a bit of a revival, mostly in the “Mozart in the City” series at Angel Place, renamed in the body of the brochure “Mozart and Haydn in the City.”  Each concert includes a Haydn symphony. After the first concert, the remaining three will feature in order Morning, Noon and Evening.  I particularly like the program for the final concert, led by cellist Peter Wispelwey.  The Evening symphony will be matched (in the wine with food sense) with the Mozart Serenade for Winds K 388 with Wispelwey playing the (better-known of the two) Haydn cello concerto for dessert.

5.  Pelleas et M, Dutoit, Argerich

Charles Dutoit is to conduct Pelleas et Mellisande.  I’m very much looking forward to this even though it seems to me that it’s not really Debussy in rather the way that Mahler 1 is not really Mahler or Gurrelieder are not really Schoenberg. Martha Argerich’s Australian debut is announced for (I’m pretty sure) the third time. Dutoit will conduct.  She is to play Beethoven 2 and that program also includes The Three Cornered Hat.

6.   Rachmaninov

This is less interesting to me.  All four concerti are getting an outing, as well as the Symphony No 3 and the Symphonic Dances.  I put that down to box office.  More alarmingly, two of them, and the Symphony No 3, feature in 3 out of the 4 “Meet the Music” concerts, aimed primarily at high-school students.  Isn’t that a bit much?  It seems rich fare for the young and impressionable – a bit like too much red cordial.

7.   The Money

In 2015 the SSO’s finances took a bit of a knock with an operating loss of over $1.2 million. Premium reserve subscriptions for 2017 for the main full length series are about 12% more than they were for 2016, from $99 to $111.  I expect a similar increase has been applied across the board though I haven’t dug out last year’s brochure to check.

Gone, or attenuated, is the longue durée where you could wait for the big names to turn up in your series.  The trend continues of reserving the biggest names (with some honourable exceptions) for “Special Events.” Subscribers get first bite of the cherry but at a discount to the premium prices which is generally less than full-series subscription tickets receive over single tickets. This takes a bit of the gloss off subscribing.  If it keeps the general prices (relatively) down, then so be it, I suppose.


August 7, 2016

On Thursday to Opera Australia’s Simon Boccanegra for the fourth time.

There is a kind of law of diminishing returns when you see a work so often in quick succession.  I think the second and third times were my most complete experiences, and on the second I was moved to tears at the appropriate moments.

By the fourth, as I said to Renato Palumbo (the conductor) and Giacomo Prestia (Fiesco) whom I ran into on the train home (I jumped on at St James and there they were! They got off at Museum.) you know too much how it is done.  What I didn’t quite properly explain is that what this mostly affects is the suspension of disbelief and the willingness to go along with the dramatic set-ups – it becomes more about the music and the details.

For example, on a third viewing, George Petean’s dramatic final stage fall didn’t quite so impress me, because I was ready for it and I could see a little through the technique.  (Maybe it was different and not so good, but I doubt that.)

The most well-known aria from this opera is Amelia’s from the beginning of Act I, Come in quest’ora bruna. That’s the one which Opera Australia link to on their web-page (cunningly cross-marketing to Nicole Car’s recording).

That’s an odd aria, not least because of the accompaniment figure in the high winds set against a kind of chugging bass in the low winds.  Nor is it really typical of the opera as a whole or, in my opinion, the best bit.  That’s probably the scene where Boccanegra takes the poison, Adorno resolves to kill him and then changes his mind on learning that Boccanegra is Amelia’s father.  This includes an applause-provoking aria by Adorno as he expresses his jealous rage (when he doesn’t know that SB is Amelia’s father), as well as the moment when SB takes the poison to which I have referred in a previous post.  After Adorno learns that Boccanegra is Amelia’s father, the scene concludes with a trio of reconciliation.  It’s in a slow triple time with triplets – effectively a compound triple time (but with dotted notes giving an expressive edge to this).

At the end of this is, to me, the most moving moment in the opera, sung by Boccanegra (the others join in when he approaches the cadence – that bit is clipped off in this primitive paste-out from the score – and then with the continuation in the second extract below):

SB extract 1

SB Score extract 2

That roughly translates in a word-by-word way as “Let of Italian friendship my tomb be the altar.”

Boccanegra has resolved to spare his would-be-assassin (which we all knew he would because the beloved Amelia is in love with Adorno and also because Adorno, has resiled from his murderous intent) but it’s linked into the big theme (especially in the 1881 rewrite) of Italian unity and the need to rise above historical enmities.  The irony of course is that Boccanegra’s tomb is on its way pretty soon regardless because of the poison but that’s a dramatic irony because none of the characters on stage knows that yet.

The point I’m labouring to make is that the musical materials are very simple (basically just a descending scale over a tenth rising back to the dominant) but it is the context that brings it all together.  It is a very beautiful moment and I have hardly been able to get it out of my head since – except, perhaps, when some of the other ear-worms (such as the Alarmi which follows just after) have crept to the surface.

OK, enough already.

It would be greedy and extravagant to go again.  I sensed that Palumbo and Prestia were bemused to learn that I had been even four times.  What they probably don’t realise is that here in Sydney we have to take our chances when they come.

House was maybe a bit better than previous weeknight performances though not by as much as one would desire.  Natalie Aroyan is growing into the role of Amelia.




Musical chairs

August 6, 2016

On Friday I received the brochure for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 season.

More on that anon, other than to state the obvious that I’ll only believe Martha Argerich is coming once she walks out onto the stage and plays.

The brochure also confirms two scarcely-kept secrets: missing from the list of musicians at the back of the brochure are the current concertmaster, Dene Olding, and long-time principal flute, Janet Webb.

Neither of these are players whom I think of as being past their prime. Maybe David Robertson has a different view, but how long will he be here?

Seeing as the orchestra has not yet seen fit to make any kind of gracious announcement or acknowledgement (which can be difficult if what is being done is not particularly gracious) I just want to take the little opportunity of this post of thanking both Olding and Webb for their long and distinguished service to the orchestra and the pleasure their playing has given me and, I know, many others.



Cunning plan

August 1, 2016

I’m going again to Simon Boccanegra because Opera Australia has marked down the two front rows of the stalls for this week’s week-day performances to D reserve.  As they are usually B or C reserve, that is a saving of about $50 to $100 –  a (relative) bargain which I found difficult to resist.

Obviously, I approve this small sign of flexibility by OA in the face of empty seats.  My only question is: apart from tragics like me who check the seating plan, who could know there was a bargain to be had?