Archive for the ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra’ Category

A trinity of concerts

April 9, 2017

Last Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO.  I met up with my friend and former student (though I don’t think I ever directly taught him in class), Db.

It feels as though Db and I go even further back than we actually do.  His PhD supervisor, M (who died relatively young in about 2001) was a close family friend and neighbour when I grew up in West Pymble.  M told Db a few anecdotes about my family which gave a perspective on that time which I would otherwise not have had.  And retrospectively going even further back, Db is now responsible for and from time to time travels to a scientific facility which is just up the road from the sheep station where my father grew up before WWII.

The program, conducted by Asher Fisch, was:

Dorman, After Brahms, 3 orchestral intermezzi
Brahms – Schicksalslied and Gesang der Parzen (with the Sydney Philharmonia)
Strauss, Alpine Symphony.

The first two of the Dorman pieces are based on/derived from aspects of late Brahms piano pieces, respectively Op 118 No 1 and Op 119 No 1.   I can’t say the Brahmsian spirit really struck me in the first one.  It seemed, in its orchestral version, simply too helter-skelter.  The second was closer to its original. Funnily enough, it was the third piece, claiming no specific Brahms model, which felt the most Brahmsian.

This was the SSO’s first performance of Schicksalslied and also of Gesang der Parzen.  For that matter, I’m not sure if we’ve had Nänie and the Alto Rhapsody is only infrequently done.

I had been particularly looking forward to Sl and GdP.  Both texts have rather similar themes, and even a metaphor in common of mortals’ destiny (as opposed to the Gods’) being like water falling downwards over Klippen (cliffs).  GdP (Goethe from Euripides; a song sung by the fates to poor old Tantalus) was grimmer.  They are both a reminder of a Hellenism which is definitely a bigger thing in German literary culture than English. I enjoyed them both, notwithstanding rather whiter-than-ideal tone at an exposed high and quiet tenor part of the Gesang

At interval Db reminded me that it was at the SOH that we had been to what he counted as his most memorable Strauss performance. That was on (if Ausstage be my guide) 13 September 1991. After taking part in a school concert in the Concert Hall, we slipped into about row C of the stalls for the last act of Der Rosenkavalier.  This was Stuart Challender’s last ever performance, three months to the day before he died.  You can only imagine what he must have been feeling when he conducted the bit where the Marschallin muses on the passing of time.

I’m afraid I didn’t really get into the Alpine Symphony.  I must have been in the wrong mood for it. There are definitely some bits which are a bit like the fight between Telramund and Lohengrin and which are only just music.  Until the final section, it just seemed so loud and fast.  I wanted to pause for a few more breathers on the way up the mountain.  The playing, however, was fine, and I’ve since listened to the broadcast on air and online and enjoyed it more.

On Friday, I went impromptu to Angel Place to hear/see the St John Passion – stirred by the rehearsal I had stumbled across the day before at St James King Street.  Inevitably in Angel Place the choir could not match the exhilarating power of its opening chorus when sung in an almost empty church the night before.  Whilst the church would have been less resonant when full and obviously its capacity is less than Angel Place, I wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off staying in the church – sticking the kids up in the back gallery with maybe a few in the choir stalls if they wouldn’t fit upstairs. Fewer people would have got to hear it  and yes those pews are not comfortable, but Angel Place is so expensive to hire that I imagine the financial outcome could have been about the same and there are other reasons – let’s call them authenticity for short – for keeping it in the church.

I was surprised at how few solo arias there in fact are.  Sally-Anne Russell was better suited to her second than her first.  I’m not sure that I have ever heard an unequivocally successful rendition of the second soprano aria, which may be more about the aria and its place near the end of work than the performers.

I find myself less in sympathy with the religious content than I would once have been. The St John is the more blood-libelly of the Passions (“If thou lettest this mango, thou art not Elias’ friend.”) At one time I affected to prefer it to the St Matthew, on account of its more punchy narrative, but now I suspect it would take the more elaborate stage machinery of the latter to sweep me past the Religion to my own higher sphere.

It was an estimable performance.  “You look exhilarated!” said the cloak-room attendant when I went to get my bag at the end, and I suppose I was.

On Saturday just past to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The concert was entitled “Fantasy and Variations.”  The fantasy was a work for piano quintet by Carl Vine.  This was very effective without necessarily sticking its neck out very far.  I enjoyed it.

The remaining works all featured variations: the Carl Nielsen wind quintet; a Prélude, récitatif et variations for flute, viola and piano by Duruflé, and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.  The Duruflé was a discovery to me: it’s only his Op 3 and it seems his only published chamber work, so I wouldn’t say it is really typical of him; it was quite lush.  The Nielsen is deservedly a classic.

I had been blasé about the Mozart in prospect.  It is a work which suffers a bit from over-exposure. But blasé was good because things could only get better once the quintet started. Although the clarinet is prominent – the opening movement is almost a duet between the first violin and the clarinet – what was really striking was the way that David Griffiths integrated himself within the ensemble as a whole.  It’s not the kind of piece where you stamp and shout at the end, but you know you have heard, at least in a performance like this, a masterpiece.

Of the three concerts, I enjoyed the Australia Ensemble’s the most.

Porgy and Bess

November 27, 2016

On Saturday, which is still tonight, to the SSO’s performance of “The Gershwins'” “Porgy and Bess.”

It should have been a triumph but instead much of it was an ordeal because of the extraordinarily heavy-handed approach to amplification of the (many, gifted, visiting) principal singers.

If it weren’t for the price I had paid, the unlikelihood that I would have another opportunity to hear/see this work, and the large number of people I would have had to climb over, I would have walked out long before interval or gone home at half time.

Had I done so, I believe I would have been fully entitled to ask for my money back. Even having stayed, I resent having been held hostage by my regard for the work and still feel very much short-changed and, yes, insulted.

I would have preferred no amplification at all of the singing. I can see a case for it for some of the dialogue. But if there is to be amplification, there needs to be some discrimination and proportion. In the first half, at least, there seemed to be none. All vocalists were brought up to a kind of super-forte, and a generally unremitting loudness prevailed. That is the insult – to us, the audience, to the work and to Art.

There were long faces in the foyers at interval and quite a few people did not return.

It is possible that some words were spoken at interval. Actually I know words were spoken at interval and likely at an earlier stage. It is possible they were now heeded.

Things were marginally better in the second half and there were even a few precious moments of remission or near remission from the electric wall of sound or noise.

For the sake of those going to the remaining performances, I hope there is some further moderation and discrimination in this direction.

Which will be too late for me.

As to how things came to be as bad as they were (in the first half especially tonight though the second half was far from out of the woods), for the time being words fail me but I believe there needs to be some pretty serious soul-searching by all responsible at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, starting from the top and definitely including the people at the sound desk. What were they trying to achieve? Do they know? Do they have any idea?

I guess I may rewrite this in more moderate terms later but right now I am very very disappointed.


October 15, 2016

On Wednesday I was waiting for the train home a bit before 9pm at St James Station when I saw a mysterious message on my phone:

“You will love Bp4”

I’ve still not copied all the numbers from my old phone since I got my present phone late last year, so I had to ring back to discover it was my former student and still friend, Db, calling at interval from the SOH where he had just heard Jayson Gillham with the SSO playing Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

Db and I don’t get to see each other often because, owing to family commitments and his enthusiasm for bushwalking, Db always goes to concerts on weekdays, whilst I mostly go on the weekends. In addition, he is often away criss-crossing the globe for his work administering the Australian limb of an international co-operative scientific project.

It was nice to hear from him.

I went on Friday.

I was sitting a bit close (row Q of the stalls) because it wasn’t my ordinary night owing to a clash with the Australia Ensemble on Saturday. In row Q my ears are at about the same level as the floor of the stage, and you get a bit of the sound from the bottom of the piano rather than the top, but as compensation there was the rare luxury in a concertante work of, if anything, too much piano.

No 4 is the “poetic” concerto and Gillham was definitely poetic.  He’s come a long way since I last noticed him on this blog in 2007.

There were lots of felicities which I’m looking forward to hearing again when this concert is broadcast on November 4. Yes there were a few blemishes, my preference is for a slightly less points-of-fingers playing style (though there were some moments where this was definitely an asset), and there were a few orchestral pickups which didn’t quite line up (Ashkenazy’s fault rather than Gillham’s, I felt), but none of these detracted from my enjoyment.

On the Wednesday, Gillham had played as an encore the fugue from a Bach Toccata. On Friday he gave us Rachmaninov’s transcription for piano of the Preludio from Bach’s violin partita BWV 1006.  This was exhilarating.

I’m looking forward to his recital on Monday week.

Second half was the Eroica. I’d already read Clive Paget’s blistering attack on Ashkenazy’s interpretation of the third and fourth movements in Limelight Magazine. I didn’t think it was as bad as Paget made out (maybe the performances differed), and nor, judging from the applause, did the audience.

In her program notes, Yvonne Frindle riffs on the scratched-out dedication to Napoleon:

The hero is not Napoleon – he had shown himself to be nothing but an ordinary man – or any other individual, and no identifiable nations are party to the struggle (that must wait for Napoleon’s downfall in Wellington’s Victory).

It’s a neat little segue but I feel there is a bit of a mix-up either between Bonapartes or battles.

Speaking of mixups, in recent days, George Brandis has been very much in the news and perhaps was a little too much in my mind because, for a moment at least, I fancied I spotted him on stage:


Apologies to AH.

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.



London calling

June 28, 2016

Last, wind-chilly,  Friday night, to the SOH to hear the SSO in a concert marketed under the title “Channel Crossings.”

The program was a mix of English and French music:

  • BAX Tintagel
  • RAVEL Piano Concerto in G
  • VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)


The irony of this on the night that the UK (or the English parts of it, at least) had voted to leave the EU did not pass unremarked.

John Wilson, whose visit probably owed more to the previous week’s concert of movie music, conducted. Jonathan Biss was the pianist.

You’d think “Tintagel” would count as the rarity on this program.  In fact I last heard it in 2009.  I enjoyed it more this time than last time and was less inclined to discount it as the precursor of a thousand British maritime film scores: it made me think of the first act of Tristan, though I can’t say I explicitly recognised the reference to the “Sick Tristan” theme which comes in the middle.

The Ravel, sadly, seemed to be over almost as soon as it began.  It is one of my favourite piano concerti.   I wouldn’t say that Biss swept the audience off their feet or that the co-ordination between orchestra and pianist was as crisp as it might have been (especially in the first movement), but I still enjoyed it and not just because it is a great work.

Just this week I had taken part in an SSO poll which asked what would improve your subscription series and now, too late, I had an answer: L’Enfant et les Sortileges! Or even L’Heure Espagnole.  Some may have thought we had a surfeit of Ravel in the Gelmetti years, but I’m definitely ready to hear more of his less-performed works.  I also want to hear the Litolff Scherzo one day, by the way, though maybe including the whole work would be a bit of a stretch.

I was surprised to find that I had last heard  the SSO play the Vaughan Williams in 1991.  I can’t say I remembered it specifically, but I did remember it making a strong impression, so that I was looking forward to it very much when the SSO’s projected performance was cancelled in 2009 owing to Richard Hickox’s unavailability.  The first movement, incidentally, has a snippet which sounds just like a bit out of Phantom of the Opera – the theatre-organ melodramish bit.  How ignominious for RVW.  Apart from that, the symphony is pretty pastoral for an avowedly urban work (though RVW did say it was a Londoner’s rather than a London one).  I liked the Bloomsbury Square in November slow movement with muted strings (I’m a sucker for these) and gentle triplet figures the most, though the Mass-in-G-ish ending was also quite magical and held the audience in rapt silence for quite a time before applause began.

I would have enjoyed the concert more were it not for my lady neighbour who spent the entire evening re-arranging her forearms about once every 30 seconds and looking at her watch.  At first I thought it was because she was cold but I think probably just restless and a bit bored. Hard to tell.  I should have moved.

Afterwards, for once, I headed to the Northern Foyer for one of these “Night Lounge” events which the SSO has been running after some concerts.  The goal is to make the orchestra more groovy for younger people – perhaps also to offer other outlets for the musicians. The other reason offered as an incentive to go (not applicable to me) is to sit out the traffic jam in the car park.

It was the promise of witnessing a serpent in action which took me there.  Scott Kinmont played that with Bassist David Campbell and percussionist Mark Robinson in an improvisation on a chant by Hildegard von Bingen; Kinmont was replaced by  Emma West and Alex Norton for a spirited percussioned-up Vivaldi version of La Folia.  Then an even larger cast, headed by singer Katey Wadey, performed “Blues Fall” from “Tombstones” by Michael Pisaro.  We got a slightly incoherent introduction about this from bassist Ben Ward and I still don’t really understand where it was coming from or what it was about, but I allowed myself to mellow with the atmosphere (quieter and darker SOH) and a glass of Shiraz.

The whole thing was a pleasing kind of coda to the main show.  It’s good to see some of the musicians close up and doing something a bit different away from that nineteenth-century industrial machine or factory which we call an orchestra.

We were played out with a more perky song – all about Georgia but not the song I already knew.  Afterwards the younger musicians hung around with their friends as the rest of us left past the odd cleaner.

The next Night Lounge, we were told, is in October.  That seems a long way away for anything to catch on as a regular thing.  Then again, being the SSO, there were almost more staff than musicians in attendance and I suppose they have to watch their budget.

Da geh’ ich zu Dmitri

May 25, 2016

On a Friday early in May to hear the SSO, conducted by Oleg Caetani.  The headline item was Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

The first half featured  young Armenian cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, playing the Tchaikovsky Roccoco Variations and a specifically commissioned companion piece by Paul Stanhope, Dawn and Darkness.  Perhaps inevitably, Hakhnazaryan made a stronger impression in the Tchaikovsky (it’s core repertoire after all) than the Stanhope, and he made an even stronger impression in his striking encore, Lamentatio by the Italian cellist and composer, Sollima, in which he not only played but sang.

As with other young touring artists from the post-1989 eastern edge of Europe, Hakhnazaryan attracted noticeable band of compatriots.  Somewhere on the internet this piece is described as a lament for the Armenian genocide – though I’ve not found a spot where this is mentioned independent of NH’s performance.

I’m not sure if the Armenian contingent would have been quite as ready to cheer the Leningrad Symphony and there was a bit of restlessness from time to time.

I’m naturally a bit suspicious of all of those pictures of Shostakovich wearing a fireman’s hat or wielding a hose, and it might be remarked that he finished the symphony after being evacuated to Moscow.  I think you can nevertheless accept the first movement as genuinely programmatic about emerging senselessness of war – the duality in it is a bit like the (historically parallel) peace and war in Prokofiev’s War and Peace.

Part of the idea, in each case, is that the 1941 war snuck up on a peaceful Russia.  Even before Volkov-Shostakovich issues are considered, there must be a bit of a shadow in the latter integer of that idea – that is, “peaceful Russia.”  You also get a version of this idea in the 2010 film Fortress Brest/Fortress of War.  This starts with a positively idyllic depiction of life in that fortress, which all comes to a terrible end following the surprise attack on the Soviet Union by the Germans.  It’s all a bit like the first movement of the Leningrad.

What the film leaves out is that Brest, site of the signing of the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, was part of Poland until it was captured by the Germans in 1939 and handed over to the Soviet Union later that year in accordance with the prior German-Soviet pact for the division of Poland.

So it’s all a matter of perspective, really.

But back to the symphony and that famous tune and its Bolero-esque treatment.

Whether Bartok and Shostakovich were both guying Lehar’s “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” or whether Bartok was having a go at Shostakovich remains a bit up in the air. I didn’t feel any need to resolve this question.  It was kind of (if mindless) fun to go with the flow as the little tune grew bigger and bigger and the counter-riffs more and more grotesque.

The second movement continued the pastoral feel with some lovely woodwind solos over hints of Shostakovich’s William-Tell/Drunken sailor rhythms with a manic waltz in the middle.

Some of the yearning and eventual affirmation in the last two movements seems less specifically programatic, though of course audiences at the time are likely to have been receptive to the declared program.  In 1942 and even 1943, when the work had wide exposure, the prospect of victory was still remote.  Maybe it’s only with hindsight that one can suggest, as Paul Stanhope did, that it would benefit from about 20 minutes’ worth of cuts, though I confess a similar thought crossed my mind.

Still, monumentalism has its own impact, and I certainly enjoyed it.

Caetani is always welcome here, so far as I’m concerned.  His program biography still effaces any mention of his time at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, summarily cut short in 2009.  If your Russian is up to scratch, maybe you might learn more from his interview  given to SBS during his visit.  The summary includes: “Former Artistic Director and Chief conductor of MSO speaks openly about his shocking dismissal in 2009 and uncompromising musical principles he has always followed. ”  The headline is: “Maestro Caetani returns to Sydney but says NO to Melbourne.”  I for one wouldn’t blame him for saying “NO” in the circumstances, though it would be surprising if Melbourne has had the temerity actually to ask.

Broadcast of concert online for a few more days here.

A big week

May 14, 2016

Last night to hear the SSO, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, well known from recordings by Japan’s Bach Collegium, perform Haydn’s Creation with soloists and the Sydney Philharmonia.

A portion of the SSO’s subscriber base chooses to stay away if a vocal work is featured.  This is not always made up for by a compensatory influx of choral and vocal enthusiasts.  Clive Paget in his review of Wednesday’s performance described attendance as sparse.  I wouldn’t say it was sparse on Friday but it was a bit patchy, especially at the edges.

Which is a pity, because there was much to enjoy.  The time has come where orchestras, playing on “modern” instruments, can really respond to direction which is inspired by “HIP” (Historically Informed Performance).  That’s mostly a question of the string section and vibrato and bowing, but I also particularly admired the playing of guest wind principals, notably Irit Silver on clarinet from Queensland (could this be a tryout?) and especially Andrew Nicholson, flautist from WASO.  How many years is it since we heard a male flautist in the SSO?

Perhaps my neighbour in the first half was a non-enthusiast who should have stayed away.  She yawned, she fidgeted with her program and flicked backwards and forwards through it.  Did she not know how it ended?  I am my own worst enemy when next to such a person.  At interval I moved to get away from her. As it turned out, quite possibly to get away from me, she went home.

The oratorio follows the Genesis narrative, via Milton.  One peculiarity of this (which I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about before) is the order of creation of animals: first birds, then creatures of the sea, and finally of land.  Insects, including flying ones, came in the final category.

Part III, short and sweet after interval, featured Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  It’s hard not to think that more than a bit of this owes something to Milton’s unhappy first marriage, as Eve proclaimed her delight and sole purpose in obeying and serving Adam.  Lydia Teuscher didn’t even pretend to sing this with a straight face. It was left to Allan Clayton (a striking presence, a kind of youthful shaggy prophet on smoko) as Uriel to warn, deadpan, of the perils to come.


Lutoslawski, Berg, Brahms, Dohnanyi

April 24, 2016

A bit over a week ago to the SOH for Christoph von D’s second concert with the SSO.

You can tell his visit has got the orchestra excited because the box office was crowded with orchestra members picking up tickets for their friends or (if off duty) themselves.

First was Lutosławski’s Musique funebre in memoriam for Bela Bartok.  I’m afraid I have a bit of a resistance to string orchestra pieces, but even I finally was drawn in by the wall-of-string-sound shriek of the climactic Apogee movement – which reminded me of Penderecki’s (rather opportunistically-titled) Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima of about the same time.

Second up was Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs.  The concert was billed as Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling’s Australian debut, which can’t be quite correct (she’s been in Melbourne twice before).  She is an engaging singer though for me the fascination was more in the orchestral details.  This is an early work by Berg, more a summation of his precursors (and in the case of his teacher, Schoenberg, of Schoenberg’s own summatory style) than in his mature style, and as with many ‘prentice works, Berg really threw the kitchen sink at the orchestration.  I hope to listen again to it assuming it will be streamed on the web (until about 21 May it should be here).

I did catch just now the balance of the concert as broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM, being the Brahms Second Symphony.  It stood up well to my recollection of the concert, without quite making as strong an impact as the Bruckner.

The experiment with the new seating was continued. To my regret, the horns were brought in from the back corner to the middle of the orchestra and the woodwinds consequently relegated back down to their customary height.  I should have known that the flutes’ liberating elevation was too good to last.




Berg, Bruckner, Dohnanyi

April 10, 2016

Last night to see the SSO conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, making at the age of 86 what was rather cutely described as his “Australian debut.”

I suppose the title of this post is a bit unfair to Carolin Widmann, the violin soloist in the Berg concerto and herself a member of a prominent musical family (you could think of her and her brother as like Australia’s Dean brothers in reverse), but we haven’t had to wait so long to see her.

Once again, the concerto crept up on me unaware (that’s me unaware rather than the concerto), owing in part to a sudden and sad trip to Canberra this week.

The concerto is a kind of musical riddle which works itself out at the end when Bach’s chorale Es ist genug emerges and joins with the Ländler-ish  Carinthian song which is its other not-s0-twelve-tonish ingredient.

After the final chords, gleaming like the notes of a glass harmonica, I was moved to tears. I just wanted to hear it all again.

After interval, the Bruckner 4.  Dohnanyi conducted this without a score.

The concert was marked by what Peter McCallum neatly described in his review as “the trial of circular tiered platforms which created clarity, acoustic focus, immediacy and tangible acoustic improvement.”

We will have to wait until a less extraordinary conductor is in front of the orchestra before we can see how much of this was down to the platforms and how much of it was down to Dohnanyi and the orchestra rising to meet him.   It’s a mystery how this configuration would cope if, for example, there were a piano soloist or a larger orchestra with orchestral piano and celeste, but it is a very promising development which I wouldn’t wish abandoned on that count. Undeniably there was an improved acoustic focus and it was probably even more marked in the middle third of the stalls (where McCallum sits) than in the back quarter where I sit.

Pizzicato bass sounds had a wonderful warmth and the detail of wind playing came through more clearly than usual. I especially enjoyed the playing of guest principal clarinet, Dean Newcomb, from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and the flutes came through much more clearly than usually. The violas in the second movement played/sounded as well if not better than I have ever heard them. Their back desks are usually a bit of an orchestral backwater and it was fun to see them lifted into the limelight.

It goes without saying that the brass had a good night.  (OK: almost without saying, because it was Bruckner.) I particularly liked how Dohnanyi kept them in check with a solid rather than a brash sound – when the trumpets were unleashed (even then bright rather than simply loud) in the Scherzo they really knocked me back in my seat.

Of course a performance is more than the sum of such parts and when we come to balance and interpretation the fanciest set of tiers in the world are not what really does the job.

At the risk of simplifying, I sensed more of the Schubert side of Bruckner than the Wagner side (and, incidentally, quite a lot of Mahler in the first three sections of the Berg).

The entire concert broadcast remains available as streamed content for the next 28 days.   You can fast forward through Throbbers‘ contributions if she’s not a taste you have acquired.

I listened again today.  The Berg improved on greater familiarity (and a bit of help for me from Wikipedia).  I’m the sort of person who likes to leaf ahead to see the ending of a novel in advance and so the riddle was more pleasurable when I already knew the answer.  The Bruckner survived very well the inevitable scrutiny that a recorded performance permits.  An example of the violas in fine form is at 1:19:38.

My modern music weekend

March 22, 2016

The search for a new home proceeds.  We found one place which we liked, even allowing for the 1.6km, 20 minute (I go more slowly since my knee disaster last year) walk to the station.  We put in an application, were told it had been sent to the owner, only to be told the next Monday that the owner had engaged two agents and let the property through the other.

Meanwhile, I have managed to fit in a few musical experiences.  D does not approve, says I should be focussing on the search, but man does not live by renting a house alone.  No need to be more miserable than necessary.

In any event, the two Messiaen concerts I went to the weekend before last were booked long before as part of my SSO subscriptions.

On the Saturday, From the Canyons to the Stars.  This was coupled with video projections.  This is a new trap for unwary players, as I discovered last year at Tristan.  If you are just in front of the computer operating the projections you will have to endure the whirring of the computer’s heat-exhaust fan.  At least Tristan had an interval so I could move.  Canyons to Stars had none: bad luck this time for Anton Enus and Jane Mathews.

There was a pre-concert talk in the hall with the orchestra present.  Despite misgivings, I went to it.  I can’t say I learnt much I didn’t know already but perhaps some people did.  For my money, it would have been better with more examples and less talking: it seemed profligate to have the orchestra sit idle for so much of the time.

There was an amusing little bit where Mr Robertson, accompanied by the pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, demonstrated the whole-tone scale version of “Doe/[Doh], a deer:”

Doh a deer

[as tweeted by the SSO]: someone has an elegant manuscript hand!]

It would be ungracious to put the boot in and confirm DR’s joke against himself that he had better keep his day job.  That’s obvious.  What is maybe less obvious is that it was the A sharp which was the most challenging to sing.  I am sure  that would be the same if I were to try it: I’m doing my best to say it’s something to do with the scale rather than DR’s singing.  My guess is because (to use the pitches in this example) C-D-E and then E-F#G# can be approached as the first three notes of two major scales stacked on top of each other, but once you get to A#, working up from the E that’s the TRITONE!

The piano part was actually more interesting than the singing because it entailed harmonic implications of a transmogrified scale.

One point Robertson made was that in Messiaen’s scales still yield euphonic/concordant chords.  (By then DR cannot have been thinking of the whole-tone scale, but rather one of Messiaen’s other modes.) That was a helpful way of explaining how Messian’s music moves between these more concordant sounds and more complicated “scrunchy” harmonies.

When I go to Wylie’s Baths, a special pleasure when the sea is up or the tide coming in is to swim close to the seaward edge.  Then the relatively warm pool water is intermittently infused with a fresh dose of cooler water from the sea.  Messiaen’s kaleidophonic harmony has something of that bracing effect.

The screened images, by Deborah O’Grady, were variable. That’s probably inevitable and trivially true given the unlikelihood that they could all be of the same standard, however assessed. When they were too distracting or imposed an unwelcome program, I simply closed my eyes or looked more down than up.  Wisely, relatively static images were chosen for the solo movements.  The images for Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange (“Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks”) did the most for me – especially the final panning shot.

I still have mixed feelings about such visual supplements.  In my youth we were scornful of the nineteenth century fetish for foisting programs on music regardless of the licence given by the composer.  What has changed, exactly?  It’s all a bit like that old chestnut of film adaptations of books.  They can be good, but I’m not keen on then festooning the book cover with pictures from the film.  Let us imagine for ourselves!

Last time the SSO did this piece, in the Verbrugghen Hall with Michael Kieran-Harvey on piano and conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, Robert Johnson played the horn solo movement from right in front of the piano which in turn had the sustain pedal down to create a kind of ad-hoc sound-board/echo box.  I rather liked that, and was sorry it was not repeated.

Les ressucités et le chant de l’étoile Aldebaran (“The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran“) was, to me, the most beautiful bit.  I just wanted to lean into the sound and hear more of it.

There were some walk-outs. That didn’t either worry or overly distract me.  It’s easy for people to find they have bitten off more than they can chew, particularly if, as this time, there is no interval. I’d rather they felt able to leave than remain squirming in their seats or glancing distractingly at their watches.

On Monday night, to Angel Place for more Messiaen played by Aimard as part of the SSO’s piano series – the Vingt Regards .   I have played just one of these myself (an easier and slower one).  I can’t remember when I have heard them live – possibly Joanne McGregor a few years back, though I can remember having heard them.  In fact, I was surprised how many of the more famous bits I actually remembered.

These got an attentive hearing.  I enjoyed them.

There were detailed program notes.  They could have been improved by some of the themes notated as Messiaen himself identifies them in his preface.

In between, I made a last-minute decision on Sunday sfternoon to take my chances for a ticket at Carriageworks for the first of the SSOs new contemporary music concerts here.  There are to be two this year, curated by Brett Dean, billed as the SSO’s first “artist in residence.” That’s a bit cute: there have been composers in residence in the past so it’s only really the title which is new.  Dean couldn’t be there.  David Robertson presided.

I needed to take my chances because by the time I tried to get a ticket on Thursday or Friday the SSO had stopped selling them and Ticketmaster’s computer booking system engaged from home earlier on Sunday refused me at the final step.  When I fronted the box office I was told that was because there were just two seats left and Ticketmaster will not accept a single booking which breaks a pair.  So I can say I got the second-last ticket. Avoiding Ticketmaster’s booking fee was an added thrill.

I hate booking fees.

The program was:

Pierre Boulez:  Derive 1
Brett Dean: Pastoral Symphony
Lisa Illean: Land’s End
Gerard Grisey: Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold

This was definitely a bargain at $35, especially as, with the (understandable, commemorative) addition of the Boulez, the originally-envisaged 70-minute concert had blown out to a concert with interval of close-to-normal length.  I’d say this inaugural series must be a bit of a loss-leader.

A bit of the gloss of Carriageworks’ funkiness came off when it came to the single-entrance general admission.  Luckily, I joined the enormous queue early and secured a good spot.

It was an exciting concert. The Boulez, built on trills, was apt and did not outstay its interest.  The Dean was fun if a bit obvious.

Lisa Illean’s piece conversely a bit obscure.  Partly that sprang from the blurry liminality which was its professed theme.  For me the music sometimes threatened to slip into the kind of contemporary music that I am less keen on, where sound events are distributed through a time which only seems to be divided into beats for the purpose of co-ordination in performance – but it didn’t quite. For one thing, unlike much such music which if it has a metre at all is ostensibly in 2 or 4, there were sections of recognizable triple time.

A subgroup within the ensemble was microtonally subtuned a little below the general A442 (Robertson’s number).  The effect was intriguing: not so much out of tune (for one thing, they were in tune with each other) as a bit distant and muted.

The big piece was the Grisey.  Soprano, Jessica Aszodi was terrific.  The slightly comic effect as she repeatedly banged her head with a tuning fork to get the pitches for her entries did not detract from this.

Postscript: to be broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM on 29 June.