Archive for the ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra’ Category

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Ach wer heilet die Schmerzen des, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?

December 4, 2017

Who will heal the pain of him for whom balm has turned to poison?

On Friday and Saturday to the SOH for this,  together with the Alto Rhapsody and BWV 82.  My ticket on Friday was an offer made by SSO at the end of the Marthe-Argerich-no-show saga.  So that all worked out OK for me in the end.

It was a bold programming move by Robertson – bringing together three rarities for live performance in Sydney.  Bluebeard was last done by the SSO in 1981, and only once before that.  The SSO first performed the Brahms in 1967 with Janet Baker and last in 1968 with Lauris Elms.  The orchestra’s only previous performances of the Bach were for visits of John Shirley-Quirk in 1967 and Gerard Souzay in 1968.

It was also a notable act of curation.  The Brahms picked up the thread from the two choral odes heard earlier this year; the Bartok from Pelleas and Mellisande, to which it owes much. P&M was of course given a terrific performance earlier this year by the SSO. Listening to the rebroadcast on ABCFM a couple of weeks ago reminded me just how fine that performance was. The Brahms and Bartok each dealt with love, loneliness and hurt.  The title to this post comes from the text to the Brahms, a poem by Goethe apparently inspired by a sad young man (he had read Werther) whom Goethe met whilst on a trip inspecting mines in the Harz Mountains.

There is a very silly review of the concert in the Australian Financial Review which reads like a jump back to the great Australian tradition of sending any journalist with nothing else on off to review a performance.  Michael Bailey writes:

The night had opened with Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, back in Sydney after a 40-year break, although in this case one might suspect that is because it is not the German’s most memorable work. The men of the Opera Australia Chorus bought some religious fervour to the piece’s final section – the switch to C major from the opening’s difficult C-minor helped – but in retrospect it seemed Ms DeYoung was holding something back as the soloist.

With the tour de force to come in the second half of the program, one could not blame her.

I don’t find the Alto Rhapsody unmemorable at all. Whilst a dip in Brahms’ popularity probably accounts in some part for its long absence from SSO programs (it is hard these days to imagine Brahms’ onetime position, still taught to me as a child, as one of the “three Bs”), I’d say a more proximate cause is that being short (about 12 minutes) and requiring a soloist and a chorus, it is too much trouble to program.  And Brahms’ symphonies and concerti probably push his shorter works off the notional roster.

What a treat it was to have the men of the Opera Australia Chorus.  Whilst a true contralto might be more ideally suited to the work, I didn’t sense that Michelle de Young was holding back.

At about the same moment on both nights, about a quarter of the way into the last strophe (the choral, C major one) I found myself moved to tears.

Apart from its key, the Bach was the odd piece out in the program, probably included to take advantage of Andrew Foster-Jones’ appearance for Belshazzar’s Feast.  David Greco stepped in when AF-J didn’t show.

It’s really too intimate a work for the Concert Hall.  Robertson’s response to this was to field a surely bigger-than-Leipzig band – 6-6-6-4-2 in the strings plus a bassoon [maybe there were only 4 violas].  I was closer on Friday than on Saturday.  On Friday it seemed lumbering; on Saturday not so lumbering and I can see why such a beefed-up bass line might have been necessary for those further back.

My mental picture of David Greco was fixed when I first saw him, in early Pinchgut productions. Then he cut a somewhat roly-poly figure.  He no longer does so – an achievement I, especially, must respect.  Greco has spent time in Europe following the Early Music path and this showed, especially in some rather stylish ornaments.  I very much enjoyed his performance.

Diana Doherty played the oboe obbligato.  Michael Bailey writes in his review:

Diana Doherty’s swinging yet melancholy oboe made a case for Mr Bach as a proto-jazz composer.

I can’t say that occurred to me at all.

This post is already gone long enough and I’ve run out of steam to write about Bluebeard’s Castle.  I enjoyed it, even more the second time round.

Others didn’t even get to the first time: the work may have been written in 1911 but Bartok can still drive them away – there was a marked interval exodus.  If only the parent of the crying baby carried out from the circle during the opening suspenseful section on the Friday night had taken the same decision.

My one disappointment was that after the house and stage lights were darkened for the spotlit prologue, the stage lights came back up (and, to a lesser extent, the house lights).  The approach taken in Perth in 2000, with darkness and desk-lights for the orchestra, was more atmospheric.

 

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.