Archive for the ‘Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’ Category

Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5

September 1, 2009

Last Friday night to hear the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play Schubert, music from Rosamunde and “Unfinished” Symphony, and, with Nicholas Angelich, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

It was the Beethoven 4 which really drew me in. It’s my favourite Beethoven [piano] concerto – if only because I am a countersuggestible type and feel compelled to go beyond the general (or at least ABC-Classic-FM-poll) favourite, No 5.

The hall was a little under half-full, by my reckoning (500-550; usual suspects observed on complimentary tickets). My neighbours told me it was about the same on the first night (when I would expect even more dignitaries and sponsors to attend).

The TSO’s approach to marketing remains puzzling – or alternatively just predictably misconceived.

For months, it was selling only the first level of the hall. Owing to the pricing policies it had adopted, this meant that the cheapest seats were $80 (A reserve) and there was otherwise a $100+ Premium reserve. I have complained about the pricing structure before. No wonder sales were slow. Eventually, the second level was opened up, though even this only brought a B reserve at $49 into play: in the very last row of the circle and in the last bays of the galleries at the side of the stage. Tellingly, the night I went, the back row and the keyboard side gallery were practically full (the non-keyboard side was relatively empty but my neighbours told me it was fuller on the first night). There is a demand for the seats at this price.

I heard the first half of the Thursday concert courtesy of the live broadcast. There is a very jaunty little skipping theme in Die Zauberharfe which is very difficult to dislodge.

As to the Friday program, it was a shame that there weren’t more to hear it. The Schubert was delightful (Rosamunde) and quite satisfactory (the symphony) and the Beethoven, well not the best I’ve heard it, but still compelling. I expect it would have been better if I’d had a more frontal piano sound (I was sitting in the opposite gallery). Serves me right for being frugal – but what can one do but lend one’s weight to the invisible hand?

The TSO has a distinctive wind section. First, because the flautists are both male – masculinity is almost a disqualification for any full-time flute playing job in Sydney (though there are two males who supplement the AOBA flute section). Secondly, because the principal oboe and clarinet both have rather old-fashioned sounds. Paradoxically, this means a thinner oboe sound, but a rounder clarinet sound than has more recently become the fashion. I wonder if the seeming convergence of sound is a trend driven by a drive for sectional blend. Still, there was nothing wrong with the famous moment (as featured in orchestration textbooks) in the “Unfinished” where the clarinet and oboe double the opening theme an octave apart.

On Saturday night, to the SOH for Fidelio.

On my way in, I overheard an intriguingly urgent conversation about paging someone between a member of the house staff and someone who had emerged from backstage.

As D is away, I had returned his seat, and my neighbour in his place, Po, told me how much he was looking forward to hearing Nicole Youl as the heroine, Leonore. She was originally a substitute for Lisa Gasteen, but had only sung one matinee, being replaced at the opening night and all other performances by Elizabeth Stannard.

Just as the curtain seemed destined to rise, OA’s General Manager, Mr Collette emerged from behind it to announce that, as she was warming up, Nicole Youl became indisposed, her understudy was in Melbourne, Anke Höppner was coming in to sing the role from the side of the stage (NY would mime and speak the dialogue) but that Anke wasn’t here yet. The curtain would go up at 8.15.

Often I am a bit skeptical about exactly how last-minute Opera Australia “emergency” indispositions are, but the overheard conversation in this case puts Mr Collette in the clear. Just as well Anke H only had to come in from Turella. At least that’s what my friend Sk told me when I rang him to kill time whilst waiting for the show to start. (The SMH says Bardwell Park: so he was pretty close.) Sk knows this sort of thing because for many years he drove a cab. On account of his operatic enthusiasm and knowledge of show finishing times, he frequently picked up at the SOH after shows. As well as conversations with individual artists, he has a rich supply of overheard conversations from OA luvvies when they travelled together in the back of his cab.

In the end, it was 8.10. Fortunately, it is a short opera.

Anke did pretty well. Given that she had no rehearsal, she did excellently. As always seems to be the case with stage-side singers, she warmed to her task as the evening went on, though probably the dramatic stuff at the end suited her better than her first big aria. She sings big which makes her voice less manoeuvrable for the curly bits.

The last time I heard Anke she was also standing in – for Cheryl Barker in The Macropoulous Secret. It’s a bit surprising and even insulting in a way that OA can’t find the occasional real role for her.

A friend whom I ran into on Monday night (who had not gone to the same performance of Fidelio as I had) was very critical of the production and more specifically its musical values and conducting in particular. He’d seen better recently, he said, on a Tuesday night in Turin. He is well-travelled. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about that because it is a great work and though there was some scrappiness, there wasn’t anything that came between me and the work. Fidelio gave Beethoven a lot of difficulty, but it really is full of a lot of very solid music, even if it starts off (after the overture) a bit like the Papageno parts of The Magic Flute. I always come out tapping the rhythm of “Retterin des Gatten sein” from the final chorus.

So far as the drama is concerned, there is one grimly funny moment which (though criticised for it) Conal Coad made even funnier. Leonora (disguised as the young man, Fidelio) is recruited by Rocco (CC) to assist him to go down to the deepest darkest cell where the unknown political prisoner (whom she suspects to be her husband, Florestan) is being starved and thirsted [OK: “thirsted” is not an actual word, but he’s on short supplies of water as well as food] to death. News has come that the minister is coming to visit the gaol and Pizzaro, the governor of the gaol, knows that if the minister finds Florestan there the game will be up. He decides that Florestan must die sooner than previously planned. He orders Rocco to dig a grave (and pays him generously for this). Rocco tells Leonore that they have to bury the prisoner. Rocco is a bit evasive about this: Leonore asks: “Is he dead?” Rocco says: “Not yet.” Leonore presses him: “So is your job to kill him?” Rocco answers, reassuringly (so he thinks), that Leonore shouldn’t be afraid: the governor himself will be coming to do that. Their job is just to dig the grave. As if that makes it all right. Rocco would never be involved in murdering anybody. (Shades of Neddy Smith, years ago: “I’m a thief, not a liar.”)

Julian Gavin as Florestan was the best I have ever heard him. And that’s not meant as some veiled insult or even faint praise: I found him quite convincing, musically and dramatically.

Perhaps I suffered from being up too close to be convinced by Peter Coleman-Wright as Pizzaro. Vocally, he is convincing, but he always seems such a nice chap and there is something about the way he moves around that made me feel that his baddiness was all a bit of a giggle. I think I first saw Robert Allman in this part, and he was really a monster. I was probably further away from the stage, and also quite possibly more readily convinced. That’s a bit of a theory I have about all remembered experience, and certainly about action on the stage. I can recall being utterly convinced as a child and teenager by dramatic depictions which I am sure, re-viewed through adult eyes, would fail to have the same impact.

Fidelio did provide an opportunity to compare the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the TSO in Beethoven. The AOBO had about 1 string player more right down the line (9/8/6/5/4, I think, though I’m working from memory by now). It is of course hampered by the pit and the demands of pit work. It would be nice to see the orchestra out on the stage more often but they hardly have the time for it. If they were, my guess is that the AOBO’s violins mightn’t measure up to the TSO’s, though if they could match them for rehearsal and preparation time (as well as time on the stage rather than the pit) maybe they would.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2009 – Giveaway prices

November 7, 2008

I probably need to apologise in advance for a bit of a rant.

For anyone who has just come into the room, I have been quite a keen supporter of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra on its trips to Sydney in recent years. But it has been frustrating to see how ineptly the concerts have been publicised, at least judging by the attendances they have managed to attract. I’ve hazarded numerous theories as to why this might be: their publicity; the prices; the reputation of the orchestra; the difficulty of selling tickets for three nights in a row; the difficulty of attracting an audience from a zero base. The reasons are doubtless a mixture of these and others as well. Interestingly, they have managed to sell their cheaper seats, which suggests that the remaining seats, or at least some of them, are simply over-priced.

At the end of their last trip, I wondered, are they coming back next year? and what are they going to do about the attendances?

Quite by accident (I made one of my periodic visits to their website) I have discovered that the TSO is coming to Sydney next year and will be playing at Angel Place.

This is the program:

thursday 27 August
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conductor
Nicholas Angelich piano
SCHUBERT Die Zauberharfe – Overture
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No 5, Emperor
SCHUBERT Symphony No 4

friday 28 august
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conductor
Nicholas Angelich piano
SCHUBERT Rosamunde – Suite
SCHUBERT Symphony in B Minor, Unfinished
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No 4

saturday 29 august
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conductor
Nicholas Angelich piano
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No 3
SCHUBERT Symphony No 9, Great

At least the SSO isn’t playing any of those nights.

This is the pricing:

For subscribers, as best I can make out (but that means TSO subscribers; you can’t subscribe to this series):

ADULT (per concert)

Premium $91, A Reserve $72 B Reserve $44


Premium n/a [why so mean?] A Reserve $58 B Reserve $27.

For single tickets (which means everyone in Sydney except possibly Leo Schofield):

Adult: Premium $101, A Reserve $80, B Reserve  $49; Concession: n/a, $64, $30.

By way of comparison, in Hobart, apart from a “Showtime” series at Wrest Point (Roberta Flack; Tommy Emmanuel; an Abba copy band; Jame Morrison) the most expensive concerts as subscription tickets are $76 $64 $54, concession $70 $54 $42.  Most are $68 $58 $50; $64 $50 $39.

Or, for another comparison, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, seven (as far as I can make out from the web page) concerts at Angel Place, $497, $399 and $287 (A, B C reserves, Full), with concession prices available in all reserves. Admittedly, they sell all three levels, so the B and especially C reserves are worse than the TSO’s probably would be.

At first glance, the prices seem to be destined to produce the same give-away scenario as this and last year. It is true that they did better with Beethoven and Freddy Kempff in 2006, but I wonder if Beethoven will do the same for them a second time, at least at these prices.

Judging from this year, I would have thought $75 and $60 for full price “Premium” and A reserves would have stood a better and more realistic chance, though even then getting the punters in may well prove difficult simply because it remains in essence a “cold call.” B reserve is probably fine as it stands, as they have shown they can sell these tickets at that price.

Then again, if you are on the TSO’s free list, I’d say you are pretty safe for a free ticket or three (and for your partner, which makes six) on present indications.

I’ll be happy to be proved wrong. But the portents are unpromising. When I rang the TSO Box Office today, I was told that:

  • there was to be no Sydney package for next year for people attending all three concerts (hence my statement about single ticket prices);
  • they were only just getting round to sending out their subscription brochures in Tasmania;
  • there might be a mailing list assembled for people who attended in Sydney this year who will at some stage be sent brochures;
  • they couldn’t tell me when the tickets would be going on sale but it might be some time in December.

It really sounds as though the TSO’s heart isn’t in it. They are certainly setting out to fail, and maybe people in the orchestra want to. It looks very much as if the orchestra is not planning to return in 2010, because there is a complete lack of any audience building in this. I’ve been told that Stephen Block, the orchestra’s marketing manager (I remember his name: his was one of the uncollected comps I picked up from the service desk at interval on the first night this year) is the person I should get in touch with about this. I don’t know if I can be bothered. It is dispiriting.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2008 – 3

October 4, 2008

Tonight for the third consecutive and final night of hearing the TSO at Angel Place.

The program was:

MOZART Symphony No.35, K385, Haffner
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto
MOZART Symphony No.41, K551, Jupiter

Kolja Blacher was the soloist and of course Sebastian Lang-Lessing was the conductor.

I enjoyed the concert, except when my repose was invaded in the middle of the last movement of the “Jupiter” by furious cogitation about the man (curse him!) responsible for my unpleasant court experience on Friday and with whom I will still have to deal further – a solicitor who has been struck off and gaoled for fraud (and that’s just the half of it) who is now claiming that I dishonestly lied to him. Uneasy lies the head that wears the wig. Actually, it was just a notice of motion so I was unrobed. Enough of that.

True, there was some fast violin figuration in the last movement of the “Haffner” which sounded decidedly scrappy. Some exposed cello moments were not up to the mark (others have been fine). It took a little while for the first movement of the Mendelssohn to gell. Perhaps the slow movement could have been even quieter and more rapt, but then I was so close that nothing could be too quiet other than the soloist, owing to my spot – OK for the piano and the orchestra but with no line of sight to the S-holes of of the violin soloist except when he turned right around to face the principal violin. 

The audience responded most warmly to the Mendelssohn. My own favourite, inevitably, was the muted-violin slow movement in the “Jupiter.” All 15 violins (8/7) used old-style wooden mutes, seemingly a matching set.

This is my second “Jupiter” this year.  The first was the SSO conducted by Dutoit.  The SSO’s playing was better and their players of a higher standard (that’s a statement of averages of course) and the interpretation more polished (though less authentic), but the TSO’s performance also had its own attractions which in some ways made for a more vivid experence.

And that is one reason why I hope the TSO will be back.  I like to hear them play and I especially like to hear a smallish orchestra like this in a small hall. The problem, as ever, is the economics.

The house was by no means full or even half full on the levels which were open, but it felt more like a real audience then either Thursday (beefed up by the private function from the Tourist Commission) or Friday.  Obviously, there were lots of relatives and freebies there.  I even met a number of fomer teachers and a conductor of the suburban youth orchestra in which one of the cellists had played in Sydney in his youth – so obviously the call had gone out far to find bums on seats.  

Yvonne Frindle has suggested that the disappointing attendances can in part be put down to the “collective wisdom” of audiences to snub an under-rewarding program.  That’s my paraphrase.  But the key is in that term “unrewarding.”  I didn’t find the concerts unrewarding, but how rewarding something is is a matter of degree, and in prospect in particular, a very important part of that is price. And here’s the telling fact: this concert was sold out in its B-reserve tickets – not that there were very many of them – only the seats at the side of the orchestra (though not along the side of the hall) and in the back two rows only of the far gallery.  I know this because a young friend who arrived to buy a ticket tonight was told that – and you could see it, too from where people were sitting.  My friend bought an A-reserve seat – not much better than my cheap seat, except that it had a more frontal aspect for the violin concerto.  Meanwhile, you will remember, they couldn’t give away the other tickets, though they gave away plenty.  Is that a ridiculous holdout, or what?  It makes me seethe. He is of an age and a means (just a year or so out of uni) that he could just as easily have turned around and gone home rather than pay that price.

So my advice to the TSO (presumptuous of me, I know) is: if you are coming back to Sydney, don’t listen to what Angel Place or whoever is presently advising you is telling you.  Certainly, don’t think you can charge more in Sydney than you charge in Hobart or Launceston or wherever.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  There you are their orchestra and the only one they’ve got.  Here, for whatever reason and with whatever justification (this is no time for pride or dignity – not until an audience is found) a lot of people are going to think the less of you because you are “just” the TSO – a small orchestra from a small state.  The market has spoken and it has said that the cheap seats are about the right price, but obviously the other seats are not, and not by a long chalk.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2008 – 2

October 3, 2008

Tonight to hear the TSO again.

You couldn’t give away tickets to this concert, or so it seems from a comment to my post on Thursday night’s concert. Tickets were being given away to Con students, though as far as I could see few took up this offer. A case of too-little-too-late. As I know from my own experience with spare tickets, it is no good trying to rope people into a concert at the last minute. People will be tired, or have a date with a non-music-lover, have to practise or complete their assignment, or just be washing their hair. Giving away tickets is the worst tactic: a more realistic approach is needed to selling them off cheaper when the state of the house becomes obvious – and not just to the pampered jades of the Con, easy to reach though they are. I’m sounding like a cracked record here, and I am sure I will again.

Together with a depressing day in court, this inclines me to gloom.

It’s just as well that the music definitely cheered me up.

The program was:

MOZART Symphony No.31, K297, Paris
MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No.2
MOZART Symphony No.40, K550

For an encore, Kirill Gerstein played the Schubert Impromptu in G flat major. That was very nice (there was a smudged leap at one point which provoked an audible intake of breath from some self-righteous person nearby) but it is worth commenting that at about 7 minutes, it was equal to about 10% of the advertised program length. If it weren’t for that and for stretching out the interval, we woud all have been out by about 8.40.

There were no muted strings tonight so my favours between Mozart’s Paris and No 40 symphonies are probably fairly evenly distributed. In the Paris, the trumpets and the horns both played natural (ie, unvalved or keyed) instruments. I asked the principal trumpet and he said that he hadn’t played natural trumpet on Thursday because the keys were wrong – he has an E flat natural trumpet, but it is a bit hairy. With the Haffner and the Jupiter tomorrow night we will be back in D and C respectively, and natural trumpets will be the go.

The Mendelssohn was again the highlight, if perhaps a little less successful than the G minor Concerto (a few ensemble moments and a couple of fluffs by KG). Mendelssohn is often belittled as being rather saccharine, but laid down next to Mozart, he sounds quite full-bloodedly romantic. There are little musical fingerprints in his phrase shapes which I now intend to track down and relish, including a little relistening to some recordings of the concerti.

The program note (they are all rather brutally “abridged”) stated that the concerto “was composed on Mendelssohn’s honeymoon, and the newly-wed husband reported joyously of the last movement that his wife, Cecile, ‘cannot hear it often enough.'” I’m not sure if something has been lost in the translation or the abridgement here, but this summoned a distinctly ambigous “play-it-again-Felix” scenario to my mind. Maybe the last movement was preferable to the alternative.

One of the nice things about sitting at the side of the orchestra is the opportunity for orchestra-watching: all those little moments and glances which are incidental to musicians working together. Sometimes, these exchanges are more introspective. In the Mozart 40, one of the notes in a rising arpeggio in the clarinet solo didn’t speak, and the player (who is, incidentally, a rather old fashioned kind of clarinettist) held the instrument in front of him and glanced accusingly at his reed [“A bad workman always blames his tools” Miss Elvy used to say when I was in 4E at West Pymble Primary.] He got it right on the repeat. The principal flautist bears an uncanny resemblance to Gerard Willems.

The word is that next year the TSO proposes coming to Sydney in August and playing Schubert and (another) round of Beethoven piano concerti. This seems unnecessarily similar to their trip with Freddy Kempff playing Beethoven concerti and Schumann symphonies and overtures in 2006. With the right artist, it might work. We shall see.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2008 – 1

October 2, 2008

Tonight to the first of three concerts by the TSO, as previously anticipated.

On my arrival, I could see that the concert was sparsely attended. The usher told me the house was only 500, and if that was based on all tickets issued, then the large number of uncollected comps sitting on the TSO service desk at interval should be deducted from it.

I can’t say I am surprised. Not because the TSO is not worth hearing, because obviously I am not of that view, but that, apart from the fact that I had already booked my tickets, I did not see any other trace of their trip to Sydney. I suppose I would have if I had walked past Angel Place itself, but that is a walk on an obscure, narrow and fairly unfrequented laneway.

Someone whom I see regularly at concerts quipped that maybe there were 6 music lovers there. That was an under-estimation, but my guess is that the Tasmanian Tourist Commission had about 120 – 150 there; there were another 100 or so relatives and friends of orchestra members, and another 100 or so on the free list (I saw a few of the usual suspects). That only leaves 100-150 paying members of the audience. OK, maybe I’ve pitched the figure too low, but it couldn’t have been more than 250 at the most.

To put it another way, in an auditorium with a capacity of about 1200 people (1238 is the official figure) there were probably almost 800 empty seats. The entire top level was untenanted. In the second half I counted perhaps 35 upstairs on the keyboard side, 15 upstairs on the non-keyboard side and probably 50+ in the central gallery (I moved there from my initial cheapest-possible seat behind the pianist), and the remainder were downstairs.

What a shame and a disgrace.

Were they even trying to get an audience? What steps did they actually take to do so? Who was looking after this for them?

I hope things look up tomorrow and on Saturday, when the most popular (but in fact least interesting apart from a reasonably distinguised violin soloist) items are programmed.

As mentioned before, the program was:

MOZART Symphony No.29, K201
MENDELSSOHN PianoConcerto No.1
MOZART Symphony No.39, K543

The highlights of the program for me were both in the first half. The Symphony No 29 was described in the program note as his first “recognized” symphony, and I certainly recognized it. I am a sucker for muted strings (in this case, just violins) and so I especially liked the second (slow) movement which featured them. I also tip my hat to the horn players, who in both Mozart symphonies played natural horns.

But definitely most exciting and novel was the Mendelssohn concerto. Neither of these often get a concert outing and certainly not in Sydney: I wouldn’t be surprised if the last time I heard this one live is when I played second piano to Marilyn Meier in some eisteddfod in about 1976 or 1977. It was interesting (to me) to see how deeply it remained imprinted in my musical memory. Kirill Gerstein, the pianist, was a persuasive advocate, though he sadly looks at least 5 years older than his rather fetching publicity photo and has distinctly thinner hair and a higher forehead.

As an encore, he played the Liszt arrangement of Schubert’s Erlkönig. This was quite an apt choice, given Mendelssohn’s associations with Goethe (who wrote the poem set by Schubert). Perhaps it was a bit meaty after the almost Offenbach-esque finale to the concerto, but Gerstein did a good job right up to the last moment (I prefer the denouement more abrupt) to capture the three different personae of the child, his father and the sinister supernatural Erlkönig who calls the child to his death.

In the second half I was sitting further away – I wanted to hear the hall a bit more. Maybe the TSO is an orchestra that sounds better close up (the empty-ish hall may have been a factor here), or maybe I just am not so keen on Symphony 39, as it was a bit of an anticlimax, but not disappointingly so.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow night, when I go for the next instalment. I hope then to continue a conversation with my criminal law lecturer from 1989, and to canvass my first proxy for next year’s Opera Australia AGM – my second-half neighbour (a former teacher at Ascham who knows Rowena Danziger well).

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra coming to Sydney

September 27, 2008

This coming week the TSO is coming to Sydney.

I am going to all three concerts, which will be at Angel Place on 2-4 October.

The programs are:


MOZART Symphony No.29, K201
MENDELSSOHN PianoConcerto No.1
MOZART Symphony No.39, K543


MOZART Symphony No.31, K297, Paris
MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No.2
MOZART Symphony No.40, K550


MOZART Symphony No.35, K385, Haffner
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto
MOZART Symphony No.41, K551, Jupiter

As I have mentioned before, I would have preferred a little less Mozart and something else more interesting, but doubtless they are hoping to widen their appeal this way. For my money, they have more chance of attracting the cognoscenti than the general public in any event, and lower common denominator (no disrespect intended to Mozart, but there are other opportunities to hear his work) is not really the way to go.

The soloists are Kolja Blacher, violin, and Kirill Gerstein, piano, who is also playing a recital there on Oct 13 for the SSO.

I hope that the TSO manages to do a bit better in drumming up an audience than it did last year or the year before. The regional monoculture in Australian orchestral music is really something which needs to be overcome. Maybe it will help that this time the SSO is away in Italy. I have had to change my ticket to Billy Budd to make the Saturday concert.

I have heard on the grape-vine that the honeymoon period between the orchestra and their chief conductor, Lang-Lessing, has cooled somewhat. I hope that won’t show in the playing.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 3

October 27, 2007

Tonight for the third and last time this year to Angel Place to hear the TSO.  The program was:

Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 2 (actually his first) and
Mendelssohn: “Reformation” Symphony No 5 (actually his second).

The house was better than Friday, though still healthily leavened with comps and relatives.  A friend claimed he could spot the Poles, who had presumably turned out for the Chopin.

Ewa Kupiec played the Chopin competently, though without quite the hairpin crescendo sparkle at the top of decorative figures which I think can add the necessary elan to Chopin: this is a hard thing to reduce to words, but I could have done with a bit more of Chopin’s Roman nose.  I thought her choice of encore (Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks”) rather odd.

I enjoyed the Reformation Symphony.  It gets better after the first movement, though my favour for the Scottish was not dislodged. 

Afterwards (drinks and light refreshments were served) I buttonholed Mr Lang-Lessing (the conductor) and gave him a (polite, I hope) earbashing, particularly about the publicity for the concerts.  As one of the few people to go to all three concerts, I felt qualified to do this, and he didn’t appear to resent it.  Mr Lang-Lessing commented that the Sydney Symphony had not been helpful, and I can well believe that.  This is one of the downsides of the dismantling of Symphony Australia and the corporatisation of the individual orchestras – that now (even though the TSO is only here for three nights) they jealously guard their own turf. 

I also mentioned my reservations about next year’s drive to the lowest common denominator with a surfeit of Mozart (which I presume to have been marketing-driven).  Mr Lang-Lessing let slip that he had wanted to do Schubert, which would indeed have been much more consistent with the orchestra’s presentation of itself as an early Romantic orchestra, and also the logical place to go after last year’s Schumann/Beethoven and this year’s Mendelssohn/Chopin. 

I am keen for the TSO to keep coming to Sydney.  In the Australian classical music scene, the different states might as well be continents apart, for all the artistic interchange which occurs between them, and some relief from orchestral monoculture is surely welcome.  However, I am seriously concerned that, unless they can make a better fist of it, the TSO will not be able to maintain their present loss-leading streak.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2

October 26, 2007

Tonight again to hear the TSO.  The house was a bit better than last night, and I got the feeling that there were more genuine paying concertgoers, but my earlier comments still stand.  And this time I heard the whole program.

The program was:

MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides (Overture)
CHOPIN Allegro de Concert
CHOPIN Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No.4, Italian

The two Chopin works were played by Ewa Kupiec.  The first is a rarity and probably justly so.  The Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise was pleasant enough, but I will save any critical appreciation until I hear the 2nd concerto tomorrow night.

I have enjoyed and admire the orchestra’s and Lang-Lessing’s approach to Mendelssohn.  It is clear that they have done a lot of work in approaching the style and it has paid off.  The overwhelming impression you get is just how well Mendelssohn structured his works: he really was a supremely ingenious craftsman.  If I found the Scottish symphony last night more heart-warming than the Italian tonight, I think that is because the brilliance of the Italian is familiar and expected, though the orchestra certainly gave a sizzling account.   

After the concert, I chatted briefly with the pianist Philip Shovk.  He asked after my elder sister, who was at the Conservatorium High School with him.  He is possibly the only person in Sydney whom I would meet (apart from old family friends) who remembers her from that time, or remembers that she used to dabble in the visual arts.  Whilst in year 12 at the Con High, she illustrated a piano beginners book by Warren Thomson and Miriam Hyde which I still see in music shops (or at least saw relatively recently) , and for which she received absolutely no monetary payment, but merely a copy of the Oxford Companion to Music. 

That’s one of those funny things about life: that we lodge in the memories of others as we were at the time, and that others can often remember things we ourselves have forgotten or moved on from.  At least I was able to disabuse Philip of any preconception that my sister might have settled down with kids: although she has to an extent now settled down, her life remains pretty bohemian and decidedly childless and she works as a musician in London – any settling down involves the inevitable supplementation of playing gigs with an increasing amount of teaching work – this is part of the life cycle of the musician.

Oddly, whilst I was speaking to Philip, Ross Cameron, former member for Parramatta, rushed up to say hullo.  We were colleagues many years ago, though not in circumstances where he could have thought I would ever be particularly happy ever to see him again.  You have to admire some people’s nerve.

Tomorrow night I shall go for drinks with the orchestra after the concert: I was invited by one of the double bassists at interval tonight at smokers’ corner who recognized me as having come for a second night in a row.  So now I am a groupie! 

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney

October 26, 2007


Tonight I only read my ticket on the way to the concert, which turned out to have begun at 7.00 pm, which was after I left home.  Angel Place management love to go home early, and they had obviously persuaded the TSO that 7.00 pm was a normal concert time.  I hate 7 pm concerts, because it is a difficult time to get into the city and an impossible time to park and doesn’t leave time for the indispensible afternoon nap.  Anyway, that’s my mistake and my loss.

So I missed Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture. I only heard the latter half of the Chopin 1st piano concerto from the foyer, in the company of the TSO’s front-of-house manager (who, I notice, left with a date before the second half of the concert – is this poor form or what?).  Never mind though, because Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, which made up the second half, quite restored my good humour, and more.

There was lots to like.  The orchestra played much better under their chief conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, than they had in the Federation Hall in Hobart back in September, and the acoustic was incomparably better.  What I particularly liked was the opportunity that this gave them to play extremely quietly when called for.  Lang-Lessing also did not drop the baton (so to speak) between movements: the spell was held without yielding to the usual tedious coughing and shuffling, and the violins even had a bit of their part photocopied to enable them to go straight into one movement without turning the page.

With so much to like, there is still one thing that I must grumble about, and that is the size of the audience.  You can’t blame the audience for this – after all, they are the ones who have turned up, but you can ask what the management are doing about it.  It was the same when the TSO came to Sydney last year: houses were pitifully small.  So what did they do about it this year?  Well, for the first place, they didn’t sell any tickets in the second gallery at all.  The stalls were two-thirds full, but of those about half were invited representatives of hoped-for corporate sponsors, and I guess a good number of the remainder will have been relatives or people who won some free ticket giveaway on ABC Classic FM.  The first gallery had a scattering only of patrons, mostly (including me) in the cheaper seats. I would be surprised if more than about 150 of the (generous estimate) 600 in the audience were genuine, paying punters.  And with so many empty seats going begging, the cheapest tickets were still about $65. 

This wouldn’t annoy me so much, except that it is such a waste, and because the TSO management are happy to proclaim their Sydney tours as a great success (which they might be, artistically) when, from a management and box-office point of view, they are a total failure.  Clearly the price-points are totally wrong, the publicity is going nowhere, and they could learn a lot from airlines about ways of filling empty seats.  Public money has been spent: if they can’t sell seats, they should be giving them away.

The TSO is coming back to Sydney again in 2008, but I am not convinced that their approach (which is largely Mozart and more Mozart, plus the Mendelssohn piano concerti and violin concerto) will prove any more successful without some more fundamental rethink about these matters.

Perhaps the houses will be better tomorrow night and on Saturday. I shall report here in due course.  Unless things are much better than tonight, you would be fulfilling a public duty even if you turned up at interval and snuck into the second half for free.  This would at least ameliorate the waste of public funds which every empty seat represents.  Providing I don’t miss the first half again, I am prepared to “spot” for anyone who chooses this course of action, even though (regretfully) I doubt if this will require any particular skill or finessing.

Away from APEC

September 12, 2007

 Callington Mill

As foreshadowed, I escaped the APEC brouhaha and spent an extra- long weekend in Tasmania.

D and I flew to Hobart on Thursday afternoon. 

We sat next to a nicely spoken young man of Indian extraction.  He told us he had participated in the APEC youth forum (he had a bag to prove it).  I chided him mildly for participating in such window-dressing (and particularly, window-dressing directed towards Mr Howard’s reelection campaign).  He almost returned a plate of fruit given to him pursuant to his mother’s usual preference (the flight was booked with her points) until I suggested to him that he could keep the fruit and have the normal “light refreshment.”  Later, he warmed to this sort of thing, and seems to have spent the latter part of the flight chatting up the flight attendants and getting extra meals from them for later consumption.  He took lots of pictures: of his meal; of the view out the window.  I guess that is what it means to be young.  There was just a little comedy when we got off the plane when he spotted the quarantine dog and had to disclose all to them.  Not all of the food needed to be abandoned. 

We drove as far as we could until nightfall and spent the night at Oatlands.  After dinner, we walked to the drought-depleted (and arguably former, notwithstanding partial replenishment) Lake Dulverton and gazed into the moonless sky at the never-seen-in-Sydney Milky Way.

The morning dawned unseasonably fine.  A total stranger exclaimed to me that you could get sunburnt.  We climbed the partially restored windmill, before driving on to the pretty and prettified Ross, where we sampled the famous Tasmanian scallop pie. Then to Campbell Town, Lake Leake (disappointing encounter with the Tasmanian shack phenomenon), Cole Bay and Cape Tourville lighthouse in Freycinet National Park.  After an overpriced snack from Swansea, we spent the night in Orford.  Of Orford, little to relate here, save for another moonless moment on the beach taking in the Milky Way which made me think of Matthew Arnold, though without quite the same post-Hellenic second-generation romanticism-tinged-with-Weltschmerz.

On Saturday morning, again sunny, we drove to Hobart, where we lodged with Rz.  With Rz we walked to see what he assured me was Paul Keating’s favourite Australian building.

Later, we walked  across town to the acoustically unsatisfactory Federation Hall to a concert given by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Tasmanians are fiercely proud of the TSO, or so I am told.  Yet, all-too-typically, this does not translate into very much actual attendance at the TSO’s concerts.  I estimate the house at 60%.

The program was:

Bizet, L’Arlésienne Suite No 2
Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No 5 (Egyptien)
Mozart, Symphony No 38 (Prague)

I will defer more detailed appraisal of the TSO until their three Sydney concerts in October.  Suffice it to say that the Saint-Saens (which had occasioned my trip to Tasmania) was the highlight of the program, notwithstanding a shocker of a chord from the woodwind right at the beginning.  As an encore, Stephen Hough played his own slow-waltz arrangement of Waltzing Matilda which I imagine will also feature as an encore to the second-half of waltzes which he is playing in his recital tour of Australia this month

After dinner we went on a sad search for a gay bar. Though there was no moon, no milky way was to be seen.

On Sunday we drove south and finished the day at sunset on Mt Wellington (eery).  We popped into St David’s Cathedral (spoken evensong in a side chapel, viewed from the west door).  Later, we dined with Rz on Tasmanian fish.  Still later, Rz demonstrated to us the joys of cable TV (Die Meistersinger, which, under pressure from me, we watched for the second half of Act III Scene i), before switching to something lighter.  In passing, Rz offered the opinion that, despite his often-mentioned Mahler fetish, Keating is really more of a Richard Strauss type of person.

I don’t mean to suggest that Rz harped on about Paul Keating.  Any particular fascination which might be responsible for giving that impression is entirely mine.  Our talk was wide-ranging. 

Rz and I started uni together.  He was one of those who had the incredible historical good luck of taking a Department of Education teaching scholarship (not, I am sure, from any economic want: he grew up in Mosman).  This was good luck because it provided a non-means-tested living living allowance but by the time he graduated there was a surfeit of teachers and (albeit having endured the pain of a Dip Ed year) he was released from the concomitant bond, so long the bane of many young teachers. 

Later, we were postgraduate students in the same department.  I was on the rebound from Canberra, whereas after he finished he was Canberra-bound.  There he very quickly (and somewhat surprisingly to me, though not, I hasten to add, because of any reservations I ever had about his ability) shot up the greasy pole.  Just now he is tending his garden in Hobart.

So we had a lot to talk about, including undergraduate and postgraduate contemporaries, as well as Canberra circles which he joined a few years after I had left them.

I doubt if Rz would think of himself as having been the hand that signed the paper, but he was often the man who wrote the minute and I am sure he signed plenty of pieces of paper consequent to such minutes.

What struck me in the course of our conversations was something which I would compendiously describe as Rz’s toughness of spirit. If you are a senior bureaucrat, you make or help make and carry out, decisions which affect many people. Some favourably, and some adversely. There is a kind of necessary hardening of heart to individual hardship. Rules are there to be enforced.

This is quite different from the lawyer’s approach, which is always tender to the hardship caused by rules adverse to the interests of one’s client, and endeavouring to use rules to bring about a favourable outcome for the client. Of course, there is still a necessary toughness to the plight of one’s client’s opponent or anybody else whose interests get in the way.

The night was again moonless, at least while I was still awake.

We flew home on Monday morning. In the afternoon I was back at work, preparing for a work-related trip to Orange on Tuesday. Casually picking up the newspaper in the foyer, I discovered that, unawares, I had just returned from a minor brush with fame. Staring out from the opinion page was a picture of our nice young neighbour of Thursday’s flight, identified as Vikram Joshi, “the school captain of Sydney Grammar School” [possibly they meant senior prefect: I understand these to be distinct offices at SGS].  His piece, about young voters and the impending election, seems to say not very much rather elegantly – he is a debater and English Speaking Union prize-winner, after all. Towards the end, he says:

“I’m not sure who I’ll choose for prime minister. Instead, I may just play up the stereotype and in typical teenager fashion, vote for myself.”

If I’d known this on the plane going down, I would certainly have bent his ear about whom to vote against and why.