Archive for the ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra’ Category

Seen and heard

August 8, 2017

More for my benefit than anyone else’s, an update on live performances I have been to recently – well, by now not so recently:

1   SSO, Mozart series, Angel Place, Orli Shaham

I went to hear Orli Shaham with the SSO at Angel Place.  The program was Haydn Midi symphony, Mozart, Piano Concerto No 21 and, as a quasi encore (it is a tradition in this series to end with a mystery piece) the last movement of Mozart’s piano quartet in E flat.

In the Haydn I found myself wondering if the SSO couldn’t afford to be a little less robust in its approach. This seemed more to scale for the next day’s outing at the Concert Hall of the SOH than Angel Place.  As for the Mozart, my memory is now dimmed but I remember thinking Shaham and indeed her colleagues most relaxed in the piano quartet at the end.  Perhaps my reception of the concerto was too much overshadowed by fixed notions from other interpretations.

2    Aphra Behn, The Rover.

With D to this, at the Belvoir/Company B.

D and I hardly ever go to plays.  I was drawn to this by the rarity of Restoration plays in Sydney’s theatrical bill of fare and Aphra Behn’s reputation as a kind of Germaine Greer special topic.  Victor has rightly remarked on the trio of exceedingly skinny-legged (male) actors.  One of these is Toby Schmitz, who featured prominently in the publicity.  Is it him or just the characters he plays that I find just a bit irritating?  He has a line in boyish charm which somehow misses me.  It might be (to coin a phrase I first heard applied to Teddy Tahu-Rhodes) a “chook magnet” thing.

We were promised a “rollicking” show.  Some of this felt a bit forced as the actors ran around madly to convey the sense of Naples at carnival time.  Moments when the actors broke through the fourth wall and played against the work were evidently loved by others more than by me.

I could have done with a bit less physical comedy, especially when this delayed the plot, and more verbal thrust and parry (there was also a bit of sword stuff).  I had a look at the script later on the internet.  There is probably a reason why we don’t see much restoration comedy these days.  It would take an effort to bring that script alive for a modern audience – but in this case I felt a bit of a lowest common denominator approach was taken.  Since I first wrote this I have found that Kevin Jackson expresses a similar view much more cogently than I can.

I was a bit disappointed in it but I did still enjoy it.  Maybe my expectations were too high.   D, did not share my disappointment.  We did still both enjoy it and I’m glad I went.

3.  SSO, Robertson, Graham, Mahler 3.

I heard this once live and then in the car on the way to a funeral at noon on the following Saturday.  In the live performance I thought Robertson’s approach to the first movement was a bit “cool” and “objective;” listening to the broadcast I appreciated how clear it all was.  I wonder if it is actually something about his rather brisk manner on the podium which created that impression.  Whatever, any such impression was not sustained into the impassioned last movement.

Susan Graham was great.  For the bimm bamms and associated Wunderhorn song the choirs sang without scores – not such a feat for the Sydney Children’s Choir (ratio of boys to girls about 1:3) maybe but assisting an pleasingly bright sound from the Ladies (or are they Women now? – that’s what the ABC announcer called them afterwards) of the Sydney Philharmonia.

The posthorn solo was less offstage than usual.  The mystery was only solved when Paul Goodchild emerged for his bow at the end in the organ loft – he must have been hiding round the corner and taking direction from the organist’s video screen.

4.   Omega Ensemble – Schubert “Trout” Quintet and Octet

This too was an event for which I nursed high expectations [/hopes?] which weren’t quite met [/fulfilled].  Both are, as one says if put on the spot, “great works.”  The shadow of well-known recordings and impactful live performances (and the first exposure is always impactful even if in retrospect not so great) hangs over any live encounter. That must be for true even though I am very much not a “record-head” who judges everything against particular recordings with which I am familiar.

In the “Trout” I think the cellist could profitably have swapped places with the bassist and sat in the bow of the piano facing the audience directly.

I always suspect that the issue for the OE is that, as an ad hoc ensemble, they have less chance (than a more permanent ensemble) of things gelling as a result of frequent experiences of playing together.  It is hard in those conditions to obtain an optimal freedom and warmth of expression.  The concert was well attended and warmly received.  I enjoyed both, the octet more than the “Trout.”

I’ll have a chance to hear another Octet in a week or so when the Australia Ensemble plays it on the 19th.  Meanwhile, despite my lukewarm words above, I seem to have been stirred to a bit of a Schubert craze and am stumbling through D568.  There is something about Schubert that for me really hits the spot.

Disguised as a second trombone

June 2, 2017

On Tuesday night to Angel Place to hear the SSO playing Nick’s Playlist.

The SSO “playlist” concerts are a series which plucks members of the orchestra from their (relative) obscurity as members of the ensemble and gives them a short, interval-less program with an Angel-Place-sized orchestra to present a program made up of items which have particular meaning for them.  I’ve listened to broadcasts of some before and mostly they are a bit predictable so far as violinists tend to choose good violin bits, etc etc.  They are also a bit too chatty and made up of bits and pieces for my taste, so I haven’t previously chosen to go to them.

Then I received an email offer of a $25 ticket.  The Nick of the title was Nick Byrne. I checked the program and resolved to go.  The reason?  It featured the ophicleide, an instrumental curiosity which has long held a peculiar fascination for me.

Nick Byrne’s association with the ophicleide is well-known.  In the course of the concert he told the story of how it came to be, and it is a good one.  You can find a version of it in the Daily Telegraph with a fetching photograph of Byrne and, possibly more importantly, his ophicleide.

In about 2001 Nick came off his motor-bike on the race track at Eastern Creek (yes, he is a brass player) and injured his right shoulder and arm.  That is a pretty critical injury for a trombonist (as Nick is) – even left-handed trombonists mostly operate the slide with their right arm. Faced with a good six weeks where he would be hors de combat, Nick rummaged around in the SSO instrument cupboard (it can’t have been quite as simple as that) and found an antique (c. 1830) and delapidated ophicleide.

I suppose an ophicleide could best be described as a cross between a euphonium and a baritone saxophone: most importantly for this story, it has keys (rather than a slide)  so could be played despite the state of his arm. The sound is produced with a brass embouchure.  It’s sometimes described as a precursor of the tuba, but the bore is much narrower.  It is otherwise sometimes described as a member of the keyed bugle family – though I see from Wikipedia that a valved variant was also made.

Nick told how he managed, over time, to produce a tolerable sound from it, and realised that here he might have found another niche, rather than just always being a second trombone.  I thought that a rather comical description of his plight.

Since then Byrne has established quite a profile for himself, recording a CD.  The American composer William P Perry heard that CD and then wrote a suite/concerto for Byrne who features on the recording of that by Naxos.   Nick encouraged us to seek that out and to buy the CD or download it (sign of the times).

But back to the program.  This was:

HANDEL arr. Archibald (for brass ensemble)   Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

BRUCKNER orch. (for string orchestra) Stadlmair  String Quintet in F: Adagio

FALCONIERI  Passecalle (played by 2 sackbuts, organ and percussion)

BERLIOZ    Rêverie et Caprice for violin (Andrew Haveron) and orchestra

MOZART   Masonic Funeral Music

PERRY     Ophicleide Concerto: Pastoral

KHACHATURIAN   Masquerade: Waltz

MENDELSSOHN    A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture

Nick explained that the Handel, played by the brass ensemble from the balcony back of the stage, was a piece he had first played as a teenager (in an ensemble of mostly tertiary students) at the Canberra School of Music.  It was a great concert-opener.  There were flugelhorns and Paul Goodchild on a smaller, higher trumpet.

It’s not quite so clear how the Falconieri got into the program.  It was not specifically written for any particular instruments, and could just as well (as Byrne remarked) be played by 2 viols.  I suppose more specifically sackbuttian music would either require more of them (such as Purcell’s funeral music) or other forces not convenient for the program.

The Perry was the a movement from the suite or almost concerto for ophicleide referred to already.  You can find Byrne’s recording on Youtube.  I’m still scratching my head to work out what the opening solo “lick” in that reminds me of – something niggles at me that it is a tune with words which end “loving you” but I cannot track it down.

In real life the ophicleide came across a bit less prominently than in that recording.  it revealed itself as an amiable instrument – a sort of Perry Como of brass, or given the mood of the piece, some pre-war crooner.  It was good to hear it so exposed, even if, overall, the strongest impression it gave was of being conspicuously inoffensive.

It was hardly surprising that, as a trombonist, Nick should have chosen Bruckner, Berlioz and Mozart.  Each of them has famous music for the trombones – Bruckner – the symphonies, and some church music; Berlioz, any of the brave trombone lines in many of his big orchestral works; and Mozart, church music again and of course, echoing that and echoing down the years since, the famous trombone moment in Don Giovanni.  The oddity of the program was that, probably owing to constraints of venue and available ensemble, none of the works chosen to represent these composers included a trombone.

I’ve never been a great fan of string orchestra stuff, so for me the Bruckner struggled to make an impression after the Handel.  The Berlioz, a violin concertante work based on some operatic offcuts, was new to me.  Its stop-start changes of mood proved a bit elusive and I wondered just a bit about what the rehearsal “budget” for this concert had been, though it remained a great treat to hear it and I shall now search it out.  The Mozart was just right, especially as the plainchant tune sounded forth from the clarinet and oboes – reminiscent, in a way, of the duet of the two armed men in Magic Flute.  And there were 3 basset horns and a bassoon making up the winds.  This was a concert of instrumental peculiars.

After the Perry, things revved up for the big finish.  First the Katchaturian, described by Byrne as a tribute to his Russian… – well, he struggled for a noun at that point as he did at a few other points.  This was rousing.

Finally, we came Mendelssohn’s overture to MSND.  As Byrne said, and truly it is so, this is the piece for which the ophicleide is most famous – certainly, I first learnt of the ophicleide when studying the score an AMEB theory or musicianship exam more than 40 years ago.  The ophicleide part is mostly played by a tuba these days, which Nick declared was “like a bull in a china shop.”

Of course that meant that I had to pay particular attention to the ophicleide part, which is probably a bit of an aesthetic distortion. On strength of Tuesday’s performance, Byrne has a point. How could I ever go back to the tuba? Of course there is more to the MSND overture than the ophicleide, including what I understand to be one of the most difficult woodwind chords in the repertoire to get in tune.  It was a great end to the night.

So an enjoyable concert and very good value.

Afterwards we were invited to join members of the orchestra for a drink in the foyer.  I hope they were given a bar tab for their pains.  I bought a drink (detracting from the bargain rather) but was too shy to approach anyone.  What could I have said?  I might have said to Emma Scholl how much I admired her last G# in the Mendelssohn, but I couldn’t spot her.

In the course of the concert, conductor Benjamin Northey made a little joke, on the topic of unlikely musical sentences.  Northey cited as a classic instance something like:

 “The clarinettist’s Lamborghini is parked at the front of the building.”

(Actually, not so unlikely except as a matter of degree: Mr Celata has pretty flash taste in cars as I recall.)

Northey offered:

“The ophicleidist will be selling his CDs in the foyer.”

Not that, as it happened, he did.

All of a sudden I realised why Nick’s remark about finding a niche had seemed so comical to me.  My own musical sentence in honour of the evening, albeit not entirely without precedent is:

“The ophicleidist was disguised as a second trombone.”

 

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.

Bp4

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:

henery

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.