Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Season opener

February 11, 2019

The Sydney Symphony  sent me an email on 30 January.

I only read the heading: “You’re invited to our Season Opening” and in a burst of efficiency consigned it to the Deleted Items folder.

Marketing has debased the word “invite.”

Then there came a reminder email on 5 February.  Maybe the word “Reminder” made me pay more intention.  It turned out that they were, indeed, really, inviting me to the concert.  For free.

Not an invitation to treat but an invitation to a treat!

Specifically, the concert on Saturday night featuring:

Also sprach Zarathustra (also known as the opening music to 2001 A Space Oddysey)
An oboe concerto by Nigel Westlake featuring Diana Doherty and
Percy Grainger’s The Warriors.

After some wrestling with the web-page I snapped up about the last two A reserve tickets – one in row K of the stalls (a bit low) and the other in box B.  I invited my old friend LW. It later turned out LW had received a similar offer but not detected it amongst a backlog of emails.

Out of caution born from experience of the vagaries of weekend trains, I offered to pick LW up at Dulwich Hill and drive to Sydenham.

 

This turned out to be a wise move because the Bankstown line trains were terminating at Sydenham and we would have had to change trains there anyway.  It was good to have my suspicions vindicated.

At the SOH, my frequent-concertgoer friend C, who keeps up with this sort of thing, had the good oil.  The concert had been a box office disaster.  Hence the free seats.  He was in one too with his friend D. (in another)

I held our tickets behind my back and asked LW to choose.  There was to be no interval so it wasn’t as though we could take turns.

LW got Row K.  Immediately I regretted my even-handedness and even more when I got inside and found my seat was right up against the wall on the left hand side of that box.  Actually I knew that already but I’ve never sat in one of these before.  Note to self: never buy any of those seats!

David Robertson conducted.

I adjusted as best as I could to the pokey seat which detracted considerably from the splendour of the sound, though the view was comprehensive.  My favourite bit is the moment in the waltz where you can imagine someone clicking their heels in the air for a hemiola, but there are other felicities.  David Elton seems still to be here notwithstanding his London gig, and did the trumpet solos proud.

Emma Dunch gave a little talk as the stage was being reset for the Westlake.  I took the opportunity to squeeze out of my seat and sit in the front row of the box.  My mood lifted.  What a splendid seat!  My new neighbour, who had moved from a seat on the aisle where she said she couldn’t see the back corner of the orchestra, agreed.  She all-but unwrapped an Anticol so that it rested on the wrapping paper, “just in case.”

The Westlake was delightful.  The scoring for the orchestra is hollowed out to allow space for the oboe to be heard – no woodwind and with only horns as the other blown instruments, plus harp, piano and lots of percussion.

The gent at the end of the row began to get a coughing fit and my neighbour passed the Anticol, still sitting on the paper as though on a platter, down to him.  He gratefully (and trustingly) accepted it.

As ever, I most enjoyed the slow movement.  It was only in the last movement that I felt the inability of the oboe to play really loud, as DD launched into what could easily at times be thought of as electric guitar licks in a rather funky finale.  She must have been exhausted by the end.

The applause was warm.  NW came up to the stage,  I thought a bit more might have been made at that point of the contribution by “Justice” Jane Matthews who had provided funds to assist in its commissioning.  Still, she looked happy, from a distance.  Good on her!

“Asthma” explained the gent, and introduced himself to my neighbour.  By now we were all friends and quite chatty – though not, of course during the music.

And then the most enormous orchestra reemerged for the Grainger.

It was a big night for double-reedists because this work includes a prominent solo for what the program notes told me would be a Hecklephone (extremely rare) but what was more probably a bass oboe.

“The Warriors” is an eclectic work: I fancied I caught reminiscences of Stravinsky (‘The Firebird’) and Offenbach (the can-can – though this was more rhythmic than melodic).  It was written by Grainger as an “imaginary ballet.”  Maybe he was just too late to the party because the commission from Diaghilev never came.  Harmonically it’s nothing way out but there is a kind of naive inventiveness – think Charles Ives.  My new seat was perfect to catch the offstage brass playing from outside the north-east upstairs doors.

Afterwards LW was dismissive of the Strauss – the work rather than the performance – he’s such a snob! – but we both agreed that it was a most enjoyable concert.

Circular Quay was packed with Chinese New Year promenaders – lots of families out to catch the festive illuminated “zodiacs.”  This year pride of place next to the Opera House went to the  pig – constructed from luminescent sticks which changed colour most beguilingly.

Owing to the trackwork rearrangements we had to take a train first to Town Hall and then change to the Eastern Suburbs line to Sydenham.  I could not restrain  an inward frisson of smug satisfaction as LW and I slipped away to the car whilst our fellow-Bankstown-liners trudged across and down to platform 1 to await their connection.

Wrapping up

December 13, 2018

Christmas is coming.  I don’t think I am going to any more live performances this year, so this is a post to wrap things up for the year.

26 10 SSO, de Waart – Beethoven 9

This was a hot ticket:  the orchestra sent out an email requesting any who weren’t going  to return their tickets and receive a credit in exchange.

I expect it was the Beethoven 9 that brought them in.  Once it would have been the return of “Edo” but maybe that aspect is weakening as memory of his tenure as chief conductor fades.

For me, the Haydn Symphony No 104 (also his last; one of the “London” symphonies) was more intriguing.

In the Beethoven, the Chinese bass (or bass-baritone), Shenyang, was phenomenal.  And everyone sang from memory!

De Waart is now 77.  He doesn’t look much older to me than when I first saw him though that is in part a trick because my perception of others’ age has been moving forward (or back) with my own.  The one giveaway is that he has developed a little mannerism of steadying himself on the handrail when he steps down from the podium.

17 11 SSO – Robertson, Capucon, Dvorak, Korngold & Mahler (5)

This was billed (and priced) as a gala concert on the eve of the SSO’s European tour.  We got to hear a kind of fantasy orchestra, with a few choice guests, soon-to-be principal flute Joshua Batty, and I’m guessing soon to go principal trumpet, David Elton, who was appointed principal trumpet at the London Symphony Orchestra this time last year and has been a purely paper presence until this recent return.

4 12 Pinchgut Ataserse

An extreme rarity, performance of the 1740 version of this work by Hasse for the first time since it was performed in Dresden.

At first wasn’t sure whether I would go to this. I was persuaded by the second half caught on the radio on Sunday night (it’s fun these days to follow the score, courtesy of IMSLP) and the availability of reasonably-priced restricted-view seats.

Pinchgut fans seem always to be saying to each other “I think it’s their best yet!” I expect there is a bit of confirmation bias in this or maybe a trick of perspective, but this was probably the most consistently well-sung Pinchgut performance across the 6 principals in recent memory.  Vivica Genaux, though very much promoted as the star of the show, did not stand out incongrously above the rest of the cast.

Orchestrally, the first half was all a bit the same, with long sweeping lush string lines, flutes introduced for moments of pathos, horns for martiality.  There was more variety in the second half.  I most enjoyed Artabano’s aria Pallido il sole (here at 2:39:20 while the link lasts; cf Carlo Vistoli singing a bit slower in 2014 here), not least because the strings managed a sound a bit like muted strings.  In the gloom I couldn’t make out any actual mutes and didn’t see the players removing them.   I remain, as ever, a sucker for muted strings – even if simulated.

7 12 Ensemble Apex

This is a group of young musicians either at or recently from the Sydney Conservatorium.  It’s been going since 2016.  I’m guessing it owes its existence to the conducting ambitions of its director, Sam Weller and the willingness of his fellow-students to assist those (and have some playing opportunities themselves).

Earlier this year, the ensemble gave a  rare performance with dancers of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.  I missed that, but in the aftermath  there was an opportunity to sign up for their last concert of the year, to include a performance of Rhapsody in Blue.

I signed up to go, then forgot about it.  So it’s just as well that a reminder email popped into my inbox on Wednesday.

Simon Tedeschi was the the piano soloist.  As well as the Gershwin, he played the Brubeck Blue Rondo as an encore.

The concert was held in the “Music Workshop” at the Con.  This is probably a bit small for an orchestra in full cry.  When they play loud you got that kind of sonic constriction of too much music in a confined space that to me says “Band Practice.”  T.hey could do with a set of risers

The other works were:

Adams- Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Koehne- Powerhouse
Marquez- Danzon No.2

Maybe the Adams and the Koehne one after another were a bit too much of the same sort of thing – even though they are really quite different.

Oliver Schermacher played a truly wild clarinet solo at the start of the Gershwin.

I hope the Ensemble comes back next year.

 

8 12 Sydney Youth Orchestra, Briger, Barker et al, Strauss

I got a tip-off on Friday from someone who goes to many more concerts than I do.  The attraction was that Cheryl Barker would be singing the Four Last Songs and the Marschallin’s part in excerpts from the end of Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s Don Juan rounded out the program, and for completeness I should add that Peter Coleman-Wright had a walk-on moment as the police officer to whom the M replies with the famous “ja ja.”  Alexander Briger conducted.

Cheryl was definitely the highlight of the concert.  She had no difficulty being heard above the orchestra.  Her vibrato is a bit more pronounced than when I last heard her.  In September I felt the orchestra perpetually lagged in a way which must surely have tested her nerve.  Otherwise they made a good fist of things.  The horns were in particularly fine form.  Everyone else could have quietened down a bit more for the woodwind twitters near the end of Im Abendrot.

Getting there

October 30, 2018

red_queen

More brief notes in my attempt (1, 2) to bring to account live performances I have attended.

10.  22 9 SSO Ashkenazy Romeo and Juliet

This was a very neat program mounted by the SSO: Arabella Steinbacher playing the Bruch violin concerto, bookended by Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and Ashkenazy’s own selection from the two Prokofiev suites. It was also very enjoyable.

We have had a number of guest concertmasters this year. Sometimes, although they themselves play well, you get the sense that their approach doesn’t “fit” the approach of the rest of a section, so that they end up sticking out a bit at the front as the section as a whole stolidly ploughs on as usual. That wasn’t the case with Adam Chalabi, guest concertmaster for this concert: I thought the violins sounded very well with them.

11.  26 9 Belvoir Calamity Jane 6.30

D and I sat on the stage for this pocket-musical version of what was originally a Doris Day movie.

The first act was set in a bar and we were able to order drinks onstage before it started. Members of the cast were milling around and improvising business including the kind of chat-up that a barmaid at such a saloon might use to soften up a customer. I noticed that a non-cast member, tending the bar, was the only one actually able to dispense the liquor. “Is that because you don’t have an RSA certificate?” I asked the (in character) proprietor’s “niece.” “I have an RSA,” she smartly replied. “A Really Sassy Attitude.” OK, maybe you had to be there, but it was fun, as was the show as a whole. Exhilarating.

The instrumental accompaniment was provided by the MD on a little Collard & Collard upright which sounded surprisingly good considering the treatment it must have received over the years.

Virgina Gay in the title role was terrific. We are lucky that she did not suffer the same fate of her fellow assailees on Illawara Road a few years ago, one of whom was much less lucky.

12.   13 10 AE

With P (and on this occasion her husband) to the final concert of the year for the Australia Ensemble at the John Clancy Auditorium, entitled “Forces of Nature.” This gathered together:

Maria GRENFELL | Ten Suns Ablaze (2012)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | ‘Szene am Bach’ from Symphony no. 6 arr. Fischer (1810)

Nigel WESTLAKE | Rare Sugar (2007)

Pēteris VASKS | Landscape with birds (1980)

Aaron COPLAND | Appalachian Spring ballet suite (1944)

The Grenfell and the Westlake were return performances of works first commissioned by the Australia Ensemble. I remembered them both favourably from their first outings and enjoyed them again, but by interval the Westlake, which is a kind of clarinet concertino, given a high-voltage performance by David Griffiths, had made such a powerful impression that the Grenfell was quite overshadowed in retrospect.

Opinions amongst my companions were divided about the bird pictures which were projected on the lecture-theatre drop screen while Geoffrey Collins played the Vasks. I enjoyed them and was prepared to go with the flow.

The Szene am Bach was an arrangement for string quintet. It started a little faster than I expected it to go based on orchestral reminiscences.

The Ensemble have used Appalachian Spring as a series closer before – it’s an opportunity to coax the subscribers back for next year with about as large an ensemble (13 players) as the AE ever puts on stage. And despite (for me) some longeurs on the way through, it is a piece that really delivers by the end.

Straight after interval we got a little spiel from Paul Stanhope about next year’s season. This meant there was no delay after the Copland as we adjourned for the traditional drinks and fancy chocolates.

13.   16 10 Cosi at the Con?

This had a question mark in my concert diary because I wasn’t sure when or whether I would go.  My interest was piqued by a reference to an upcoming role on the website of Gavin Brown, who had a star turn in Poulenc’s The Breast of Tiresias which I saw earlier this year.

In the end I went to the Thursday Matinee on the 18th and it was Don Giovanni.

There’s a stronger argument for seeing a student production of a rarity such as the Poulenc than for seeing a more mainstream work, but I’m still definitely glad I went.

I was more impressed by the orchestra in the Poulenc than in the Mozart.  That’s probably because the Mozart is harder.  You pick up any rhythmic sloppiness (which is endemic in student ensembles compared to professional ones) and mishaps stick out more.  The horns were a couple of bars out for what seemed like ages but probably wasn’t really (I admired conductor Stephen Mould’s composure) and there were a few other hair-raising moments. The principal cello could have afforded to play out a bit more in Batti, batti.

But these are quibbles. It really is great that the students get to perform the opera with a credible orchestra.

There is a detailed review of the first night (I heard the same cast) here with which I mostly concur, save that I would be more commendatory of Esther Song, who grew on me in the course of the performance as Donna Anna. Haotian Qi’s performance of the Don’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid (here ironically oblivious to it as she was listening to something else through headphones whilst getting on with her life) was particularly fine.

The production was set in a “celebrity” world somewhere between Hollywood and the Conservatorium itself (when Masetto and his chums beat up Leporello they did so with one of those sticks that cellists use to moor their spikes. DonG was a #metoo celebrity narcissist and abuser. Hell, at the end (solving the problem that the stage lacks a trap-door) was exposure and denunciation. It all worked quite well though perhaps there was just a bit too much business with cameras and phones at times. There were a few cuts which together with the updating made things just a bit confusing at times.

14.   20 10 SSO Thibaudet Egyptian

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted. As well as the Saint-Saens piano concerto no 5 (surprisingly last and first played with the SSO by Thibaudet himself in 2010) the concert featured the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Sibelius 7.

The SSO seems to have given up selling choir and organ stall tickets.  Only a few people were sitting there. Too cheap, or too mean?  Could be both but it is shameful for subsidized tickets to go unsold if it is because of a desire to maintain a floor price.

Francisco Lopez was the latest in a series this year of guest principal flutes, and he shone in both the Debussy and the Sibelius.

I thought Saraste could have kept the orchestra a little more in check in the Saint-Saens, for which Thibaudet set a cracking pace in the outer movements. On the other hand, conducting without music (as I am sure any Finn worth his salt can do) he hypnotised the orchestra into the most dramatic Sibelius 7 I have ever heard.

Saraste last conducted the SSO in 1986. I think I probably was at that concert because I remember hearing the Schumann Konzertstucke for 4 horns played by the Canberra Horn Consort (led by Hector McDonald) and probably went out of my way to hear it. At interval I overheard Emma Dunch, the Orchestra’s CEO, loudly declaring “We must have him back sooner than another 32 years.”

In the early evening leading up to the concert a stupendous thunderstorm rolled across the city.  In the forecourt of the Opera House the Invictus Games were being launched.  Before playing his encore, Thibaudet thanked us for braving the weather and the security.

Thibaudet’s regular visits to our shores seem to have started at about the turn of the millenium.  This is what he looked like then and the picture or something very similar still featured in the publicity for this concert:

thibaudet-jean-yves-980x520

Inside the program booklet was a more up-to-date shot:

jean_yves_05_211_v2-copy

Philip Scott in Limelight referred to an earlier visit when Thibaudet played the complete piano music of Ravel; Thibaudet also performed with the ACO in 1992.

J-YT’s first visit is probably less well-known:

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That’s from the program for the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition.  Soulful eh?  If I’d found this before the concert I would have taken it up for an autograph and, surely, a laugh.

Almost catching up

October 23, 2018

Continuing from my recent post and trying to catch up on a backlog of un-noticed performances. The motive for such blowhard completism is the reduced value of the blog to me as a record if I only maintain it patchily.

7. 1 9 SSO Brahms

This all-Brahms program, conducted by David Robertson, comprised:

Academic Festival Overture
Double Concerto for violin and cello and
Piano Concerto No 1.

The overture was a set work for AMEB musicianship when I was a teenager and I think for some years after (there was a time when the syllabus became set in stone) so I think I both studied and taught it. Oh those student songs! I totally did not understand the jollity of the choice of themes or, I also think, a certain measure of pathos in Brahms, hardly a ‘varsity man in his youth, having the chance to weave them together.

Orchestral principals Andrew Haveron and Umberto Clerici were the soloists for the double concerto. They are both good players but it is I think a shame that when putting such double concertante works on orchestras yield to the temptation to enlist soloists from the ranks. However good they are, they face an invidious comparison with the visiting soloists the orchestra engages and this took a bit of the gloss off it for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of the first piano concerto. It’s a temptation to undervalue players of an (even only passing) local provenance and I think I had succumbed to that in advance. I’ve heard performances of this concerto which have aspired to maybe more grandeur and breadth, but often that has been at the price of forcing the tone to get the volume. Gavrylyuk managed to avoid that entirely and I really appreciated the lyricism that he emphasised – in a way, the Schumann end of Brahms.

8. 15 9 AE

AE stands for Australia Ensemble. This concert was dubbed “Schubert and the Guitar.” The guest artist was guitarist Karin Schaupp. I’m usually suspicious of the acoustic guitar amplified but Schaupp uses amplification  discreetly with her own kind of beat-box rather than being channeled through the venue’s PA system.. I did not find it disproportionate in a venue the size of the John Clancy Auditorium.

Of course we had to have a performance of Ständchen from Schwanengesang. The song is a serenade at the beloved’s window accompanied by a guitar, impersonated by the piano. It was a bit naff but fitted well to have instead Geoffrey Collins play it on flute to Shaupp’s accompaniment.

The full program was:

Robert SCHUMANN | Fantasiestücke Op. 73 (1849)

Robert DAVIDSON | Landscape (2000)

Franz SCHUBERT | Serenade from ‘Schwanengesang’ D957 no.4

Phillip HOUGHTON | From the Dreaming (1991, rev. 1997)

Paul STANHOPE | Shards, Chorales and Dances (2002) – first performance

Franz SCHUBERT | Piano Trio no.2 in E flat

I enjoyed all the contemporary works, but I still enjoyed the Schumann (for clarinet and piano) and the Schubert (a big play for Ian Munro) the most.

9. 17 9 SSO Piano

Back next to Elizabeth for a recital by Benjamin Grosvenor.  The self-consciousness of our first encounter now resolved.  The program was:

JS BACH French Suite No.5, BWV 816
MOZART Piano Sonata in B flat, K333
CHOPIN Barcarolle, Op.60
GRANADOS Two pieces from Goyescas: Los requiebros and Quejas ó La maja y el ruiseñor
RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit

The Chopin replaced a previously advertised transcription of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Grosvenor drew a big crowd, and justly so.  My friend and former piano teacher P liked his Bach the most, the Mozart not so much.  I was the other way around: I loved how he made a lot of variations in the rather spare texture which to me came out as  solo and tutti sections as in a concerto.

At the end of the Ravel, Albert Landa (prominent Sydney pianistic identity) jumped in early and alone with very loud clapping.  I wish he could have waited a little longer.  We all knew it was good. BG was visibly bemused.   I felt bruised.  And then AL walked out before the encore!

After the initial rush at the beginning of the year, I am hearing of same-sex marriages amongst my acquaintances.  D has been a witness at a female one.  He had to return for a re-signing because the paperwork the celebrant provided needed to be replaced by forms with gender-nuetral “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2.”

Amongst older, long-established couples, a reason often offered for taking the leap has been the advantages conferred in the face of possible health emergencies, including when travelling.  At Angel Place  one such couple told me they were getting married at home the next Saturday.

One of them first married many years ago, in Brisbane.  Max Olding was his piano teacher and a very young Dene Olding played at the wedding.  It would have been fun, I thought, if Dene could have been engaged again, even if something more than orange juice and biscuits might have been asked as a fee.

Where’s Lyall?

July 25, 2018

My former English teacher and fellow-Dulwich-Hill gangster Lx first tipped me off a few weeks ago. The ABC Young Performers Awards (revived this year after a two-year hiatus)[non apostrophe sic] were being held in Sydney. The semi-finals would be at Angel Place and tickets were just $50 for 6 sessions over 2 days. One of the semi-finalists was Tony Lee, whom we both liked (and who was awarded the prize for best Australian competitor) at the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition.

Lx, who is retired, planned to go. Work commitments precluded my getting to all 6 sessions, but I thought I might get to some of it. Individual sessions were $15 so I wouldn’t be risking much.

In the end, I made it to two sessions. I could have saved $15 and flashed my ticket for the first session at the second – it was general admission and far from a full house.

I caught bits of other sessions whilst beavering away at my day (or, as often happens, night) job.

There were 109 entrants (so I heard), who submitted “digital” (video) auditions. The semifinalists, as announced back in April, were:

• Anna Da Silva Chen, Violin, 21
• Stefanie Farrands, Viola, 29
• Waynne (Woo Seok) Kwon, Cello, 22
• Andrew Lebedev, Guitar, 26
• Shaun Hern Lee, Piano, 16
• Tony Lee, Piano, 26
• Robbin Reza, Piano, 23
• Oliver Shermacher, Clarinet, 22
• Riley Skevington, Violin, 25
• Emily Sun, Violin, 29
• Benett Tsai, Cello, 14
• Victoria Wong, Violin, 19

Anna Da Silva Chen injured her hand and had to withdraw. She was replaced by Perth-born (more recently studying in Melbourne) pianist Kevin Chow, 21.

That’s a pretty strong North- or East- Asian background tendency which seems to be the future for classical music, and not only in Australia. It’s a bit like the makeup of academically selective highs schools and though the reasons are complicated some of them must be similar so far as youthful diligence, discipline and parental support/direction are involved. The tendency is less marked for blowing instruments which tend to be started later than bowed strings and the piano.

The two recitals I went to (at this stage still online) were:

Reza and Tony Lee; and
Shaun Hern Lee and Skevington.

Lx and I both made special contributions. Lx got involved in a concert-rage incident with a relative of a performer videoing it with her phone right in front of him which then led to a more specific warning about turning off devices being made at subsequent sessions. I managed to drop an apple from my lap which rolled all the way down to the front of the hall (at least it wasn’t Jaffas.) More mysteriously, a tennis ball landed just near me at about the time of the concert rage incident.

None of those I heard got through to the finals. Lx, who had heard everyone, favoured Reza. I was sorry that Tony Lee didn’t get through. There was a terrible buzz in the piano when he was playing (on E an octave and a bit above middle C) and I am surprised he didn’t rush off stage and ask for it to be fixed after the first piece. I particularly enjoyed his first two Schubert-Liszt transcriptions, though the third Waltz one went on a bit.

The finalists were Sun, Chow and Schermacher. There was little doubt that Sun should go through – she was the string category winner in 2011 after all (but apparently still eligible to enter again, which I doubt would have been the case in the days of the old “Concerto Competition”). Lx had included Schermacher in his top 4 and I was pleased to see him go through as he seems a nice young man and I met him on the train one night on the way home from a performance of The Nose.

The Young Performers Awards as they are now known have had various incarnations. In my youth they were known as the “Concerto Competition” even though they included vocal entrants. Each ABC state orchestra held its own finals before by some inscrutable process a Commonwealth final was convened.

The onstage and on-air commentary made much reference to numerous past winners.

In the audience I spotted a familiar figure – doyenne or at least veteran of the Sydney piano scene, Lyall Duke. No Sydney pianistic occasion is complete without her presence. Lx told me that she had been to all the semi-finals.

Home from the last semi-final I went through the list of past winners online and saw that Lyall Duke (from Tasmania) had been a Commonwealth finalist in 1949. I shot off an sms to ABC Classic FM’s number:

You do realise that Lyall Duke 1949 piano finalist was at the ypa, at least at the 2 sessions I attended?

On Tuesday to the finals at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Milton. These were better attended than the semi-finals. The respective concerti were:

Schermacher – Weber 1.
Chow – Prokofiev 2
Sun – Beethoven

Predictably, Emily Sun won. Nicholas Milton, a violinist, knew the Beethoven concerto the best of the three and the orchestra played it the best. Neither of the others disgraced themselves. I thought Ollie could have taken half a step forward – literally and figuratively.

But where was Lyall Duke? In vain I scanned the Concert Hall for her distinctive senior-pianist hairdo.

Lx and I did not stay for the announcement of the results. And then, in the car on the way home, I found out where Lyall had been: in the broadcast box with Margaret Throsby giving commentary.

Not that she got to give much – she was a bit long-winded and too nice to make good copy. Throbbers obviously felt a need to move things along. (I especially like the ten seconds from about 1:16:50 in the broadcast).

I know this could have been planned all along [PS: turns out it was – see comment below], but I like to think my SMS might have set a ball rolling, figuratively speaking.

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.

 

Here’s Runnicles (x2)

April 8, 2018

Emperor flute

Last two weekends (not including this weekend just passed) to two SSO concerts conducted by Donald Runnicles.

The first featured bleeding chunks of the Ring Cycle in the second half with Nelson Freire playing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto in the first half.  The hall was packed.

Nelson Freire makes a stately entrance onto the stage which makes him look older than he in fact is, but once he settles down he just gets on with it.  You can feel his experience although of course his talent is more than that.  I enjoyed his playing.

I was sitting a bit closer to the front than usual which meant I didn’t have a good view of the woodwind – obscured over the lip of the stage.  Then towards the end of the second movement of the concerto my attention was caught by the flute.  That’s the bit above, and especially the bit from letter Q.

Hang on! I thought.  That’s not one of our normal flautists! It’s someone different.  Maybe it’s even a man!

I don’t know why I thought the second thought, because I’m not sure that it is possible (and it seems most unlikely that it should be possible) to make a gender-distinction between flautists.  Probably what I was really noticing was a flautist who was not part of the local school which, as it happens, in Sydney orchestras is pretty uniformly female.  (There are a couple of men who sometimes get a gig with the AOBO though normally even then more likely on piccolo than on flute.)  It was Joshua Batty, previously (as my researches established)  principal flute at the Irish RTE orchestra and currently a tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  Could he be trying out for the currently vacant principal flute spot?  Will the gender bar be broken?

Freire played an arrangement of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits for his encore.

Apart from the possible inevitable  Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkuere, the Ring Cycle extracts favoured the Siegfried story.  This is fair enough given that Siegfrieds Tod (eventually Götterdämmerung) was Wagner’s starting point for the whole shebang.  There was some exciting playing but I fear that I have heard just enough Wagner operas to be spoilt for extracts – mainly because they can never be enough Wagner.  Still, a good time was had by all.

The first half of the second concert was to have been Anne Sofie von Otter singing Schubert songs in orchestral arrangements. I guess we’ll never hear what this sounds like, which is a pity but insignificantly so in the tragic circumstances.  Stuart Skelton made a welcome return to the Sydney stage for a bracket of rather gloomy songs. The houselights were atmospherically dimmed which conveyed the right mood though in the circumstances Runnicles, who accompanied, could have tipped us off while he gave us quite a lengthy chat about the Mahler so we could have conned the texts a bit more while there was still light.  All the same it was moving and the audience was spell bound.

I was a bit tired and not quite sure how I would manage for the Mahler “10.”  I don’t know it at all well and  I can’t even recall anything of the SSO’s 2010 performance other than that I think I went to  it (Ashkenazy chose a different version of the completion).  Coming to it “cold” I found it  compelling if a bit drier than more familiar Mahler.  Was this the new path Mahler was taking or just the consequence of the completion by another hand?

Joshua Batty had another (more extended)  moment in the sun in the last movement.

Australia Ensemble 2018.1

March 23, 2018

Last Saturday to the Australia Ensemble’s first concert of the year with P, my regular companion for these concerts.

The program was:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | Trio Op. 11 (1797)
Brett DEAN | Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) (2010)
[interval]
Erwin SCHULHOFF | Concertino (1925)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH | String quartet no. 8 in C minor Op.110 (1960)

Not originally advertised as a guest artist, Timothy Young from Melbourne took Ian Munro’s place on piano for the Beethoven (a trio for clarinet, piano and cello) and the Dean.  Young favoured an awful lot of una corda with occasional eruptions into a rather brittle capital L “Loud.”  With such strong players I think he could have loosened the throttle a bit more in the Beethoven.  I’m not in a position to judge about the Dean.

The Dean was last played by the Ensemble in August 2011.  I can remember a piece using paper-clip mutes but am not sure if this is it because that concert coincided with a school reunion in the afternoon and possibly I didn’t make it to the concert.  Resolution: blog, even if trivially, more systematically.  Hence this post, you might think.

The program note for the Dean was strangely uninformative about the music itself but, unusually, said you could ask for a fuller analysis by Roger Covell.  I asked for that and received it – an almost note-by-note/bar-by-bar running commentary b ut still strangely uninformative as to what, if anything, the music might be about.

The middle movement is very much the heart of this.

The Schulhoff was a pleasant surprise – hard to pin down where it lies but you could say Bartok with a bit of Weimar-era jazziness.  I doubt if there are many trios for flute, viola and double bass.  Prominence for the flautist is a given but there were also vigorous moments in the sun for both Morozova on viola and Andrew Meisel on bass.

When the players came out for the final string quartet I’d forgotten who the composer was to be.  There was no mistaking who from the opening D-Es-C-H.  I was sure I knew another theme in piano-and-strings instrumentation – which turns out to be the “Jewish” melody from the Piano Trio No 2 – and it turns out there are a few other self-borrowings.  That’s one way to write a work in a hurry (it was composed in a matter of days). I’m prepared to concede that Shostakovich earned the right to that though on reflection the conservatism of the quartet’s idiom is striking.

 

Magnificent Mozart

February 16, 2018

That’s the title the SSO gave to the third of three concerts conducted by David Robertson and with piano soloist Emmanuel Ax featuring music by Mozart to which I went last Saturday.

The program was:

  • Marriage of Figaro overture;
  • Concerto No 19 in F, K 459;
  • Concerto No No 27 in B [flat] K 595;
  • Symphony No 41 “Jupiter.”

First up, we had an appearance by Emma Dunch, the new CEO of the orchestra.  She’s been in the US for almost 20 years and has picked up a bit of an accent – more in the rhythm than the vowels per se.  The substance of her address was roughly as foreshadowed in an interview with the SMH last month: Sydney should be proud of its orchestra just as it is of its athletes.  They are all world-class. Distinguished guests are here (doubtless enlisted as part of this campaign) who were all then listed together to avoid any heckling or invidious comparisons of applause harvests.  It was good to know that we were graced with the presence of Don Harwen, Minister for Resources, Minister for Energy and Utilities, and Minister for the Arts.

I give ED a hall-pass for this appearance as a one-off because it is the beginning of the season and she is new, but I hope there won’t be too much of it.

ED, of course, crucially stepped in on the SSO’s declared attitude to marriage equality last year.  I’m not so sure that she was so wise to step up to the crease so swiftly to announce that the SSO would never again have anything to do with the now sin-binned Charles Dutoit.  As far as I am aware, Dutoit was not at that stage billed to appear with the SSO and he didn’t have any “title” (guest conductor or whatever) with the orchestra.  If he’s not going to be asked back, then just don’t ask him; if unpublicised arrangements are to be called off, call them off in private.  No need to shout it from the rooftop. Just say that there are no plans to re-engage him.

I guess things are different in New York.

But back to the concert.

The highlight for me was K595.  It’s Mozart’s last concerto and a bit of an outlier.  The first movement was a revelation – it has a questiong  philosophical kind of mood which Ax really had an insight into.  The audience was spellbound.

Ax played Chopin’s Nocturne in f sharp major – an odd choice tonally after a concerto in B flat.

At the beginning of the second half  we had more talking up the band as Andrew Haveron came to the microphone to announce a one-by-one (actually two-by-two – one from each side of the stage) entry of the orchestra members to give us a chance to applaud them individually.  The novelty of this wore off  and any sense of individual recognition also dimished after about the first five pairs.

My Dulwich Hill friend, LW, complained that the string complement was too big, and at times in K459 I felt the piano was swamped.  This  also affected the overture (though here for me the main oddity was the oddity of hearing just the overture – I mused to myself – why not have a baritone do the opening number after the overture?) and most of all the “Jupiter” – the last movement lost its spell for me and I think this was  because larger numbers of violins made ensemble more difficult – it all seemed rather rough as if they were just ploughing through it.

The second violins were sitting at the front on the right for this concert, so for once Catherine Hewgill did not get the presented flowers at the end (which happens a bit too often in my opinion).

I enjoyed the concert (with some qualifications about the “Jupiter”). I would have got more out of it if I had gone to all three concerts in what was, in effect, a mini-festival, but I am a bit countersuggestible to such obvious programming.  The house was filled pretty much to capacity.