Archive for August, 2019

CWT

August 25, 2019

Last night to the SOH for the SSO.

Simone Young conducted. The program was:

SCHUBERT The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: Overture

SCHUBERT arr. Liszt Wanderer Fantasy

LISZT Dante Symphony

I heard the SSO play the  overture twice in 2008.  I’ve been a bit more into Schubert since then, and I got more out of it this time.  There is some quite high trumpet writing and a tricky trombone trio.  But it was still just a curtain-raiser.  I was here for the Schubert-Liszt and the Liszt.

To a pianist, “Schubert-Liszt” is an evocative compound, mostly denoting the many song transcriptions.  The arrangement of the Wanderer is on another level.

Until recently I didn’t have a very favourable opinion of the Wanderer Fantasie.  It is an exhausting work for the pianist and the big writing at the end tends to come across as harsh and bangy. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve come round to it on the strength of a recording that finally won me over.  I would still be wary of what I might encounter if I heard it in the flesh. Perhaps I’ve heard it too often in the (Sydney) Piano Competition.

The great thing about Liszt’s arrangement is that it frees the pianist from the burden of maintaining the ground of the rhythm.  Adding an orchestra works a bit like adding a rhythm section (bass, drums) to a jazz pianist.  Whilst that then leads to some flashy Lisztian enlargement of Schubert’s figurations, I suspect this ends up being less demanding for the pianist than the original.  There is a romanticisation and a cute-ification – the opening is more remote from the Waldstein, but a bit more charm does no harm.  I enjoyed Louis Lortie’s performance.

Liszt must have a bad reputation still amongst some – probably for meretricious bombast, because there was a marked exodus from the upper rear stalls at interval. Maybe they had come for the “Vienna” theme of the concert and considered it spent. I moved up and back a bit for the second half.

Leavers were losers.  Albeit with a certain amount of hellish musical noise (up and down some altered/diminished chord in repeated figures) the Dante symphony was terrific.  This is the “new music” of the mid-nineteenth century – half way (roughly) between Berlioz and Wagner.  Simone Young was an ideal exponent.

And the orchestra played terrifically for her.  The string playing had a sheen in the violins – and grunt in the violas and celli and basses – that the SSO does not always achieve.  There were many other well-realised orchestral effects, and a beautiful ending with the upper voices of Cantillation singing from upstairs half way up the circle.

This was the day that Sydney trains were (again) in total disarray.  On the advice of the station attendant at Circular Quay I boarded the first available train, described as terminating at Central.  By Central it had turned into an all stations to Lidcombe (not-via-Bankstown) train and I stayed on it and got D to pick me up from Lewisham.

One of our little joke phrases when I return from a concert is “CWG”  – standing for Concert was good. D considers that a joke because exceptions to it are so rare.  This time, when he asked, I told him “CWT.”

That was “T” for “terrific.”

In the cheap seats

August 22, 2019

My friend UB emailed me at about 2pm yesterday:

Dear [Marcellous], let me know what operas you are going to this year and dates so I can try and get tickets on the same night.

Opera Australia’s online calendar for 2020 was still mostly blank, but I soon confirmed that UB (and I too, at home) had received the brochure. It was time to move quickly. UB sent me pictures of the brochure calendar from her phone.

Artistic Director (a more apt title would be “chief buyer”) Lyndon Terracini has given the Opera Review of a few years ago which recommended 11 operas be performed the finger.  Next year OA is spruiking not one, not two but four musicals. It’s not that a case cannot be made for any of these, but the two at the SOH are displacing operas.

I used to joke about WA Opera in Perth that it wasn’t the case that you couldn’t see plenty of opera, you just had to see the same operas multiple times.  That’s where I now am with OA’s Sydney offering.

A couple of years ago I gave up my long held centre-front row seats in a set series. That’s partly out of frugality, and partly because of OA’s constricted operatic repertoire.  Well-exposed popular works come around all too soon.  I’m a “mature market” and am more interested in things I haven’t seen yet.

My approach now is to see a new work multiple times, saving the best (still cheap) seats, when I also take D, till last.  If I see something 3 times, I will take restricted view from each side.  If an unfamiliar work, first time also needs surtitle view.

This requires a bit of wrangling and is best done over the counter at the OA box office – the earlier the better for the best choice of cheap seats.  The staff are very helpful.  By c.o.b. I had done it. I took a snapshot of my list of performances and SMS’d it to UB.

I’m seeing La Juive, Roberto Devereaux and Attila, all rarities I’m looking forward to, as well as a couple of others I’ve seen before.  D is coming to 4.

This morning UB sent me an email with the four nights she and her husband have chosen once the tickets became available online.

Back home last night, I perused the brochure at more leisure.

The title page touts OA’s NYE Gala offering. You can have dinner, see a show (La Bohème or an Opera Gala in the Concert Hall – in my opinion the latter is definitely the short straw) and then watch the fireworks from an exclusive after party (there must be two parallel parties) in the Northen Foyers. All for a mere $1,422.  Each.

That’s not for the likes of us. UB’s, her husband’s, D’s and my tickets for the whole year came in at less.

Academically approved

August 21, 2019

On Friday with D to the Conservatorium to see/hear a “dress rehearsal” of Psyche, billed as an opera by Meta Overman.

What is she? I hear you ask (not) – assuming you’d even determined the gender.

MO was born in Rotterdam in about 1907. She emigrated to Australia not long after WWII with her young son and pianist husband.  The impetus seems to have been to escape post-war privations in the Netherlands – relatives had accommodation on offer in Perth.  To escape the Perth heat, they moved to Albany.

Albany!  I have spent time there on account of my late aunt.  In the early 50s it must have been a remote spot indeed.

Overman wrote Psyche for the first Perth Festival, in 1953.  It is based on a novella/fairtytale by the Dutch writer, Louis Couperus.  A 1908 translation is available online.

The Perth Festival was and remains a venture of the University of Western Australia.  Psyche was conceived to be performed at the sunken garden there which was used as an outdoor theatre (my mother related to me more than once seeing Jacqui Kott there in Midsummer Night’s Dream).  It’s a special place amidst the sandy wastes of the West.  Meta Overman’s ashes were scattered there and, as it happens, I scattered (unauthorised by the University but at her written request in a document found amidst her effects) some of my Albany aunt’s there when the time came.

Psyche eventually had 10 performances there in the 1955 festival.  It was poorly attended and a financial disaster and this amongst other things apparently led to the end of Overman’s marriage.  She decamped to Melbourne with her son and  (I infer: he is  apparently still living and was active as a jazz pianist as recently as 2012) a rather younger man (not that there is anything wrong with that).

It is easy to imagine why Psyche was not a success with the 1955 Perth public. Aside from the obscurity of its fin-de-siecle source, it  was a novel work – scarcely an opera in conventional terms.  Only two characters – Eros and Psyche’s elder sister, Emeralda, are portrayed by singers.  Psyche herself was represented by a dancer, a male (I assume) dancer represented the Chimera and a Satyr who interact with her – with the Satyr (shades of Debussy) also shadowed by an obbligato flute soloist.  Psyche’s younger sister was represented by a harp solo.  The balance of the instrumental music was provided by Overman’s husband on the piano.  Two other characters were spoken by actors.

For this revival, Jeanell Carrigan semi-orchestrated the piano part for a small ensemble whose makeup seems to have been determined by the availability of the SSO fellows – a string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe and bassoon.  The solo harp and flute parts  were retained and JC herself played a still-extensive piano part.

The music was accessible and dramatically apt without stretching many boundaries and to that extent can be excused criticism of the sort that Dr Carrigan (in my opinion unduly dismissively) levelled against Elliott Gyger’s music in her review of Oscar and Lucinda .

In the scene involving the Satyr the music launched slightly incongrously into treatments of O du lieber Augustin and another song which I recognized but still cannot name.  There may have been other songs referred to here.  The best I can do by way of explanation for this is that in the novel as translated the Satyr is dismissive of “classical music” and these songs therefore represent something more popular. he Wikipedia entry on O..Augustin, which should be updated in the section on “Use in other musical works” to include reference to Psyche, mentions that “The melody is also used in “Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt”, a Dutch children’s song for the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day

I felt the instrumentation was a little cautious and could profitably have expanded, even with the available forces, more beyond the still very evident backbone of the piano part.

The actors both had microphones, which was in my opinion a misstep even if necessary for them.  Singers and actors had books (not always consulted) and it didn’t look to me as if this was just for the dress rehearsal.  The dancers (who were excellent) gave the most fully realised performances.

I enjoyed my encounter with a slightly clunky oddity.

Some peculiar properties of glass

August 13, 2019

On Friday night a couple of weeks back and with D the following Saturday to  Carriageworks to see Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of the new chamber opera, Oscar & Lucinda, based on Peter Carey’s novel. Tthe music is by Elliott Gyger and the libretto by Pierce Wilcox.  They collaborated a few years ago on an adaptation of David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, which I didn’t see.

That makes two new Australian operas seen within a fortnight of each other.  You certainly can’t say that happens often.

In comparison to Kats-Chernin’s, a member of the Dulwich Hill gang who’d been to Whiteley earlier that week described Gyger’s style as “academically approved.”

If so, not by Associate Professor Jeanell Carrigan of the Conservatorium, who didn’t think much of the music at all.

In an opera adaption surely the most important feature is the music and how well adapted to the story it is….[I]n the opinion of this reviewer, the music did not react to or reflect the action on stage or in the story.

Had one not had the visual aspect and the text ….displayed on surtitles, hearing the music would not have given the listener the effect of what was transpiring….

Gyger writes in the program notes:

The guiding metaphor for the music is one not found in the novel …In a kaleidoscope, small fragments of coloured glass fall into arbitrary relationships which are then mirrored geometrically to create the illusion of order. Different settings of the kaleidoscope generate particular harmonic colours

If this was the guiding principle behind the composition then Gyger was successful, as the music does sound like a kaleidoscope, pieces of coloured glass falling into space. However, it seemed to this listener that the music never changed to reflect the story presented.

In the love scene, the kaleidoscope of colours did not reflect a warmth normally associated with such a scene. In the death scene, which was rather protracted, the colours were again so much of the sameness of other parts of the action. What began as colourful and very exciting became uninteresting and no longer captivating.

…..

it was doubtful whether the music portrayed enough of the story line to warrant putting this story into an operatic medium.

That’s harsh.

On first listening, I had something like Carrigan’s reaction, though not as adverse.

A particular bugbear of mine with much contemporary music is that often intricate details, which can themselves be quite rhythmic (in this case, often coming from the words), are laid out against a basically time-measuring background seemingly devoid of  metre.  Where is the ritornello rhythmic pattern that we can (metaphorically) tap our feet to?  Where are the non-duple metres?

That’s probably also a stalking horse (switching metaphors in mid-stream) for regret at the absence of the straightforwardly lyrical.  Give us a song, not mere declamation!

Actually that’s an argument which goes back beyond antagonism to contemporary music.  People made that complaint about Wagner’s vocal writing, and I felt something a bit like that in relation to the constant (and ever so admired by critics as responsive to the text) recits and ariosos in The Return of Ulysses.

There is a bit of a lyricism deficit in Oscar and Lucinda – or at least there is lots of very angular and leapy music.

When I returned on Saturday – better rested than I had been on Friday and with the advantage of already having heard the music once – I found much more variety – even metrical variety – in the music than I had noticed first time around.

As for the two scenes Carrigan picked on: as to the first, her complaint should possibly be with the libretto rather than the music. It is an “in love” scene rather than a “love scene” – the whole point is that they are happy together without having declared their love to each other.  I thought the music captured this well, though perhaps you could have wished for something warmer.

The scene which Carrigan calls the “death scene” is more than that. The libretto ingeniously manages to wrap up the Miriam-Lucinda plot at the same time.  The scene is fittingly a culmination of the glass-themed style which has featured throughout the work.  True, it is a bit static (so a bit of that time-measuring that I am not so keen on) but a glass church on a barge is sinking into the river.  It’s too late to slip into a waltz.  in truth I expect Carrigan just didn’t like the style that much and by the end was sick of it.

Perhaps she should have gone again to gain a better impression.

There is more I could say about the the staging (minimalist, imaginative) and the performances (energetic, impressive, though some of the chorus-commentary harmony could have been better tempered)  and even about the music, but I’ve run out of energy for that right now.

I enjoyed both nights and they made me think about the novel afresh.  The audience was enthusiastic.  Carriageworks is a funky venue.

The ticket price of $35 was very accessible.  It was even more accessible to me because on the Friday, expecting to be too tired, I made a special trip to Carriageworks to book a ticket for the Saturday so as to be sure of one for the last night. Naively I also thought I might avoid the hated booking fee that way.  That was not to be, but there was a consolation: as I was concluding the bargain, a man returned a ticket to be given away for free.  “I’ll take it!” I cried, leaving no chance before any more tentative bystanders could put in a claim. If I flagged, I could always leave at half time secure in the knowledge I still had a ticket for the next night.  In fact, though impaired by a long day and a couple of post-work drinks I never felt the slightest bit tempted to leave.  It was totally engrossing.

Bonus!

PS: the title to this post is set by Gyger to a melodic fragment not entirely unreminiscent of “Peter Grimes I here advise.”

 

Narrow taste and the three “B”s

August 12, 2019

Our rented house has two front rooms either side of the entrance hallway.

One, called by D “the study room” (a translation of the Chinese 书房 (shufang)), contains my piano, desk, bookshelves and books.

The other is D’s bedroom.

About a year ago, D proposed these rooms  be swapped.  I wasn’t keen. One week-day a few days later I came home to find it done. D had enlisted the support of some visiting friends to move the piano and other furniture. D himself had emptied the bookshelves and then restocked them according to his own principles.

Yesterday I finally got around to re-alphabetising the piano solo portion of my music. There’s surprisingly little of it: it just about fills a single Ikea “Billy” shelf.

P1010533

That’s not all my solo piano music.  It excludes anthologies (the alphabetical order I have used is by composer), and my own personal anthologies in tatty scrap-books. These were mostly what I would have lugged to and from piano lessons in later years.

The single red  volume to the left of Beethoven Klaviersonaten I and II  (Henle, cloth bound) is one volume of a Peters edition of the Beethoven sonatas which had been given to me by my grandmother when I was about ten or eleven.  In about 1985, cycling home from a piano lesson in North Sydney, I failed to detect that I had dislodged with my heel a pannier holding its mate as well as a few other volumes. That (and the rise of photocopying) is one reason for the scrap book practice.  You can also fix up page turns more conveniently that way.

I probably have some even more tattered sheet music boxed away somewhere or in a filing cabinet.

At roughly the mid-point of the “collection” so arranged is the yellow spine of the the Schirmer edition of Cramer’s 50 Etudes.

The plastic covered blue spines which catch the light immediately to its left are Henle editions of Chopin.  To the left of Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Bach occupy most of the space – so about an eighth of the total for each.

There is a bit of a clump at the right for Schubert and Schumann.

Which composers take up space isn’t a direct indication of what I’ve actually played.  It’s more a question of which composers’ works I have bought in volume form.

Nevertheless, the relative under-representation of Russian and French composers (leaving aside for now that Chopin was arguably half-French) is conspicuous and probably consistent with under-representation in my repertoire.  Partly that’s because they are too hard, but I also suspect it is to do with my own musical upbringing and hence blinkers.

 

 

 

PTSD Snowflake

August 8, 2019

The NSW Legislative Assembly has been debating the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill – a private members’ bill which seeks to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and to bring NSW law roughly in line with the law in Queensland and Victoria. Within Australia, only NSW still deals with abortion as a specific offence under the Crimes Act.

In so many respects this is a replay of the agonizing process of “homosexual law” reform and specifically the marriage equality debates leading up to 2017.  On the anti-reform side all the usual road-blocks are thrown up.  There must be consultation.  The change is rushed.  The change and the path to change should be offset by obstacles and even set backs (not in the town-planning sense).

There is misrepresentation of the current state of the law and of the effect of the bill if passed.

Amendments proposed by attorney-general  Mark Speakman will make the position worse for persons seeking abortions (and those performing them) than they are under the judge-made (and for that reason inherently uncertain and liable to reconsideration) work-arounds under which abortions are presently performed. Unsatisfactory as the mutable status of such judge-made law is, it would be better there were no new Act than the Act as so amended. That’s a wedge of sorts.

The NSW Legislative Assembly now webcasts its debates and I have been watching some of them.  It is a depressing spectacle.

And if the bill passes the Legislative Assembly unscathed or amended, we still have the Legislative Council to go.

Oh, joy.

Postscript: the bill passed.  Speakman’s worst amendment didn’t get in but there are still some pretty unsatisfactory provisions.  Not that the proponents of any of these amendments including Speakman ended up voting for the bill as so amended anyway.  The pr flak painting him and Stokes as “peacemakers” was nonsense.

There was some weak wavering by temporizers in the middle watching their back against organized religion in their branches.  That’s democracy at work.  Women and the general community support for availability of abortion are less tightly organised than the “pro-life” groups.  The RC Church still has political muscle to flex.

It’s reported that supporters of the bill in the public gallery cheered.  My own response would have been a more modified rapture.