Archive for May, 2018

Delightful Breasts

May 24, 2018

Today to a matinee [11.30!] performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music of Poulenc’s opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

The Tiresias of the title is Therese who, tiring of the role of submissive wife, loses her breasts and becomes a man, Tiresias. (That’s a nod to Greek mythology – the original T was a man who was punished for annoying Hera by spending 7 years as a woman.) She leads her fellow women on a sex strike and her husband takes on the woman’s role and bears more than 40,000 babies in one day. At the end Tir reverts to Ther and the couple reconcile and urge the people of France to regenerate/repopulate after the ravages of war. It is a surreal piece, based on a play by Apollinaire. There are a few sub-plots I have left out in this summary.

Stephen Mould conducted a student cast and orchestra. Kate Gaul directed.

I went out of curiosity because it was a rarity. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all though probably something a bit astringent. In fact the music was a confection reminiscent most of all of Offenbach (other French composers up to Ravel were also in there) – pastiche enhanced by Poulenc’s melodic flair. I can’t say I took the story too seriously: instead I relished the music, especially the lush orchestra – a particular luxury at the ticket price of $40.

Sure, it’s a student performance and some allowances had to be made for that – more for the vocalists than the orchestra. But the standard remained creditable and always enjoyable. In their different ways, I particularly admired Gavin Brown (a big sing as the husband and brilliant stage movement) and Haotian Qi (eloquent prologue).

Originally advertised as running for an hour and a half with an interval, the interval has been dropped (wisely) and it runs for just under an hour. There is one more performance, on Saturday afternoon.

It really was a delicious treat.

Odd

May 22, 2018

On Saturday to hear the SSO conducted by John Wilson with piano soloist Lukáš Vondráček at the SOH.

The program was:

Bach arr Elgar: Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
Prokofiev 3 (piano concerto, that is)
Elgar 2 (symphony).

The foyer seemed strangely underpopulated as I foregathered there with the Dulwich Hill gang.

That was the first thing that was odd about the evening, and it carried forward into the concert hall which disclosed a similarly thin attendance.  Where was everyone?  It was the patchiest Saturday night attendance at a Masters series I have seen for years.

The next odd thing was the Bach arr Elgar.  Others of the gang liked it whilst describing it as “a hoot.”  Of course it is a great work.  The Bach original is an organ piece and I suppose if you imagined a big rendition on a big fat organ (eg, the Sydney Town Hall or any similar English municipal instrument of the period) then an orchestration of that might just sound like this.  It felt like band  music for orchestra. If it seemed a bit of a muddle when things got busy that could have been the ungainly instrumentation and the acoustic conspiring together.

The Prokofiev was exciting and taken at a brisk pace from the outset.  V. is a big young fellow with bear-like hands (ie, not one of those long-spindly-fingered pianists).  You’d think he would power through anything but my one reservation about the performance was that the orchestra, when loud, was a bit too loud.  I enjoyed it. Some gave Vondráček a standing ovation (well, some people stood).  He played Brahms Op 118 No 2 as an encore.

Lx, one of the Dulwich Hill gang, to whose opinion I should always defer as he was my Year 9 English teacher and when I was in Year 12 gave me his castoff complete World Record Club set of the Solti Ring, is a fan of the Elgar symphonies.  In its honour he had already heard the program once and thought highly of it, even from the cheap seats.  R, another DH gangster, owed his allegiance to Elgar to an introduction by Lx. By contrast, another friend confided (a confidence now broken, I suppose, to an extent – let’s call him “X”) that it was a bit of a curate’s egg for him.

I was expecting to enjoy it but when it started I realised I had been thinking more of Symphony No 1.

It is possible this cast a shadow over my appreciation, but I found myself siding rather with X on this occasion.  I liked bits of it, and especially the slow movement and very especially the ending of that movement.  Even so, I was bemused by the oboist noodling along practising a bit of the Bach arrangement at one point.  – That’s not what the oboist is really doing, as resort to recordings when I got home established, but it seemed like it at the time.  For my taste on the night there was just too much going on a lot of the time – either too many people playing or too much figural decoration – at one stage half the first violins were doing something rather complicated but though I could see them fiddling away I couldn’t really hear it.

When I told Lx this afterwards he brushed my view aside by reference to Joseph II’s alleged remark to Mozart about “too many notes.”

The symphony sounded a lot better when I listened to bits of it on the internet when I got home, which is food for thought.

Outside, there were signs of preparations for the impending Vivid festival.  “Have we already had peak Vivid?” asked one of the gang, jaded sophisticate that he is.

Speculation returned amongst our group to the reason for the thin attendance.  We couldn’t think of a Jewish holiday.  The program seemed excellent, unless those who liked Prokofiev hated Elgar and vice versa.  Depressingly, the best explanation we could find is that everyone was at home (or out – could Sir Frank have been invited back to Windsor?) watching the Sussex wedding.

Chez Schumann

May 19, 2018

On Saturday with P to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble in its last concert before the traditional mid-year break.

The program was originally advertised as:

Natalie WILLIAMS | New work (Letters to Clara) – first performance (2018)
Clara SCHUMANN | Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (1846)
György KURTÁG | Hommage à (Robert) Schumann Op. 15b (1990)
Robert SCHUMANN | Piano Quintet Op. 44 in E flat major (1842)

On the night the Kurtag was replaced by Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, Op.132 (1853), written, like the Kurtag, for the Mozart “Kegelstadt” combination of piano, viola and clarinet. That came first.

P was a bit pessimistic. By an opus number as late as this, she declared, Schumann’s inspiration was flagging.  That is the conventional view but I found the Märchenerzählungen better than that.  I liked the odd-numbered ones – quirky and dreamy romanticism respectively, more than the Rumpelstiltstkinish mood of Nos 2 and 4 which showed Schumann off in what I think of more as his boots-and-potatoes mode of rustic folkishness.

Natalie Williams’ piece  was a tribute to Clara and was threaded with all sorts of musical allusions.  This is a crowded field because Robert and Clara and their circle did rather a lot of this person-referring musical intertextuality themselves.  Inevitably Robert’s theme which is the subject of Brahms’s variations Op 20 got a Guernsey as well as Clara’s theme quoted there as a tribute to a reference by Robert.

Brahms-Schumann snippet

The mode of homage was relatively direct, so that most of the time we were in the same harmonic world as the source material.  At times it sounded  a bit like theme music for a Jane Austen television adaptation. The instrumentation and how it was treated had something to do with that.

The piece was better than that and I hope there will be a chance to hear it again if the concert is broadcast.  (Microphones were present but it is now impossible to tell from the ABC website when anything is going to crop up in the future.)

[Postscript: this concert surfaced on ABC “Classic” FM in November and yes, the piece was better than that.  It was mainly the first movement where the mode of homage was direct, and as I listened I realised that (much as I am a fan of Geoffrey Collins) it really was the presence of the flute that made it sound like the Melvyn Tan soundtrack to P&P: I suddenly realised that Schumann didn’t really write much for the flute – perhaps it had too many associations for him of slightly Philistine gentleman amateurs, or maybe it simply lacked his preferred romantic intensity: he wrote chamber works and orchestral solos for horn, clarinet, and even oboe, but Schumann flute moments do not really spring to mind.  In the later movements, when the mode of homage was less direct and Williams moved more into her own style, the flute was still there but no longer seemed incongrous.]

Had the Kurtag remained on the program we would have been able to compare Williams’ piece with one where the mode of homage was considerably more indirect – not to say probably totally cryptic to the mere listener.

I’ve heard the Clara a few times before – it gets broadcast airings quite frequently.  It’s always being talked up and yes, it is not a negligible work, but it is more Mendelssohnian than (Robert) Schumannesque.

That really became obvious in the second half with the Schumann Quintet.  Would a lady have even permitted herself so muscular an opening?

The quintet felt so familiar that I was surprised to see that the Australia Ensemble last performed it in 2010. I have since  realised I’d heard the Goldner Quartet part of the AE play it more than once in the Sydney Piano Competition in 2016.

Some of the audience stood to applaud at the end and P then wished she had.

Last Saturday was the second or third day of a cold snap in Sydney (and south eastern Australia generally). I don’t know if that was why the John Clancy Auditorium was unusually cold.  Most of the audience kept on their overcoats, scarves and even, in a few cases, gloves.