Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Young Russians

March 5, 2017

This was the title for my first SSO concert for this year which I went to on Saturday night.

The town was abuzz with Mardi Gras.

The “young Russians” of the title were Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, aged 18 or 19 when they wrote their first symphony and piano concerto respectively (the concerto as we now hear it has some slightly more mature-aged revision) and Prokofiev and Daniil Trifonov, aged 26 (actually Trifonov turned 26 today, Sunday) – Prokofiev for his Classical Symphony (his No 1) and Daniil Trifonov as piano soloist.

Conductor Gustavo Gimeno, a Spaniard, was the odd man out though he is still comparatively young in conductor terms.  Just because I’m not going to talk about him more in this post does not mean he didn’t do a good job. In the Shostakovich in particular there was a big job to be done.

The Shostakovich 1 was the rarity – last played by the SSO as part of a Shostakovich festival in 2002.  I missed that as I was in Perth.  I expect that means I haven’t previously heard it live.  I felt as if I’d heard the perky little march in the first movement before.  Could it have been Peter and the Wolf?  Apparently when Prokofiev admired some of Shostakovich’s work at about this time, a mutual acquaintance suggested that Prokofiev just liked it because Shostakovich had imitated his style.

The Symphony is a bit like a first novel or a kind of musical scrapbook where Shostakovich pasted in everything he had stored up to date.  It switches gear half way through to a more sustainedly tragic mode with a rather tacked-on,  it seemed to me, obligatory big finish.

At first I felt that if it wasn’t by Shostakovich we wouldn’t have been hearing it.  That’s probably because it’s easy to take for granted elements of his style which are familiar from later works.  My friend and former teacher, LW, starting from the view that he didn’t like the symphony very much, expressed himself as converted to it by this performance. I enjoyed it and am glad I heard it.  Despite some restive coughing from, I assume, the Rachmaninov crowd, it received rousing applause.

I say the Rachmaninov crowd because Trifonov was without doubt the big draw-card for this concert.  His recital on Monday at Angel Place is all-but booked out (2 seats available when I checked just now).  His approach to the Rachmaninov was a bit on the cool, objectivist, side, but it was undeniably thrilling.  It was a solace to mere mortals and probably a symptom of youth that he managed to beat the orchestra to the finishing chord by a microsecond in the first movement and a microsecond or two in the last, but this in no way detracted from the whole, and I’m definitely looking forward to Monday.

For an encore Trifonov played – what was it?  I could tell that it was an arrangement of a Gavotte from a Bach unaccompanied string suite but as for me all of those works are a bit like a dog walking on its hind legs exactly which one was a bit of a mystery.  Could it be a cello suite? We’re always hearing so much about these.  Well, no. The key should have given the game away, as it was in E and is an arrangement by Rachmaninov of the  gavotte from the Violin Partita No 3- evidently one of his party-pieces.  Jayson Gillham gave Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Preludio from the same partita as an encore last year.

RG, arts-savant and cultural tour-leader, complained about this, because now after all that Rachmaninov, the Bach would inevitably become the ear-worm – and in my case he  proved to be right. Does that mean we can have no catchy encores? I am not such a purist though I see RG’s point about this particular one.

I don’t think it was the earworm alone which kept me awake well into the morning – which I find occurs if a performance has really made an impact on me.

Happy Birthday Mr Trifonov, and see you tomorrow!





February 6, 2017

On Saturday night with D to OA’s King Roger for the third time – I had been for a second time on Tuesday with my old friend Ub.

Ub’s husband couldn’t go and, at the last minute she asked a friend, Nt.  Ub thought Nt might be interested because Nt’s father was a musician and was Polish.  Those proved to be tenuous grounds for an affinity: Nt left at interval, citing sciatica and declining my offer (in my opinion generous given that their days as an OTC remedy are numbered) of some codeine-enhanced paracetamol.

Ub thought the opera very dark.  She didn’t mean the lighting.  For most of the opera, King Roger seems to be chronically depressed and bewildered, much given to calling out the name of his wife, Roxana (initially  just to shut her up but later as more of a cry for help).  This was a bit odd, given that we also learn he hasn’t been, um, Rogering her [sorry, couldn’t help that] for a while and that didn’t look like Roxana’s decision.

Both of them (Rog and Rox) and the crowd are seduced by the mysterious shepherd, who turns out in the end to be Dionysus – not that that is particularly clear in this production.  Male pole-dancers in rather brief trunks rise up and down the various levels of the Act II set which represents Roger’s mind.  This in turn is a allegory/proxy for Szymanowski’s and indeed for all of our minds.  It’s the human condition (Apollonian/Dionysian) but with added homoerotic overtones.  At the end of the opera Roger has ostensibly confronted all of these dark desires and overcome them but it doesn’t look like he’ll be returning to Roxana’s bed any time soon.  Ub didn’t find the ending very convincing: she’s an author and perhaps she could sense some “tell” of Szymanowski’s rewrite (in his original Rog ran away with the shepherd).

I’m making fun of it all a bit here.  The virtue of the production is that these themes (in human nature, the hero and the composer) are all laid out pretty clearly – if anything too clearly and schematically.

In Act III, the shepherd appears, supposedly (according to the libretto) as Dionysus but here dressed rather as Roger had been dressed at the beginning.   There was probably a point to this – but it entailed a sacrifice of what the libretto says should be the opera’s grandest moment.

On the Tuesday I sat next to an [even] older [than I] gay (I assumed) gentleman who told me that My Fair Lady had been terrific and that he wasn’t really so keen on these “discordant” operas. I attempted to demur on the grounds that diatonic notions of discord and resolution were superseded in the musical language adopted, but I knew what he meant. In fact, the more I recognise the various melodic motifs on repeated hearings the less discordant the music seems.  This must be linear harmony at work.

On Saturday, D and I sat next to a woman from a small town (1200 residents, she said) in Arkansas.  She had just spent 3 days pre-cruise in Sydney and this was her first opera, ever.  She stayed to the end.

I have warmed to Saimir Pirgu (the shepherd) and Michael Honeyman continues to impress.  It’s a terrific workout for the orchestra.

There’s been a bit of price-cutting for the remaining performances and I’ve snapped up one more ticket for the last night.


Fate worse than death!

December 3, 2016

Last night to the second night of Pinchgut’s production of Handel’s Theodora.

For the first time, as far as I can make out, Pinchgut are doing a run of 5 performances – up from the 4 in a week which has been the pattern for many years.  That’s got to be a milestone of sorts for which they deserve congratulation.  I see they propose to repeat that for their December performance next year.

I’ve always thought of “fate worse than death” as a bit of a joke phrase, probably because I was most familiar with it as a parodic usage in Have some Madeira M’dear.  The OED traces “fate worse than death” to 1810.  The libretto for Theodora anticipates that by about 60 years though without the collocation with “fate.”

Theodora is one of a bunch of Christians in Antioch who have refused to sacrifice to Jove.

Here is the context.  Septimius is a sympathetic soldier; Didymus a chaste admirer of Theodora and Valens is the governor who has ordered that Theodora be punished.  Septimius breaks the news to Theodora:

Death is not yet thy doom:
But worse than death to such a virtuous mind,
Which Didymus wants eloquence to praise.
Lady, these guards are order’d to convey you
To the vile place, a prostitute, to whom
Valens thinks proper to devote your charms.

23. Accompagnato

Oh, worse than death indeed! Lead me, ye guards,
Lead me, or to the rack, or to the flames,
I’ll thank your gracious mercy.

24. Air

Angels, ever bright and fair,
Take, oh take me to your care;
Speed to your own courts my flight,
Clad in robes of virgin white.
Angels. . . da capo

Exit Theodora with Septimius

This is a “well-known” air.  Together with the accompagnato (orchestrally accompanied recitative) which comes before, it is something of a triumph for Leo when he sings it (a triumph of course pregnant with impending disaster) in LP Hartley’s novel The G0-Between.  In the novel Leo sings AEBAF as a follow-up to The Minstrel Boy. In the film it is just the Handel.

In the novel, a staple year 11 text for teaching symbolism when I was an English teacher, Hartley makes rather a lot out of the fate worse than death (not strictly a phrase in the song or the recit).

That made a kind of double-whammy: original and serious “worse than death” usage, and the original context of Leo’s song.

Coincidentally or not, it was at around about this point that the story got moving (in both senses really) and the music became more emotionally engaging for me (actually that started a bit before).  The word which comes to mind is eloquent.  I was moved to tears at points.

I’m not sure if the staging is entirely successful (there was this big table on one side of the stage which dominated proceedings in a rather awkward way), and Andrew Collis had a rather thankless task as Valens.

The chorus was great – if anything the men were a bit strong, which is a welcome change from the usual. The orchestra also acquitted itself well – I thought the violins in particular carried off their ripieno obbligatos with great elan and, in an improvement from previous years, the oboes were up to scratch.  And then there was the monster contra-bassoon!  Just occasionally, in very quiet moments, I wondered if Erin Helyard could have made his continuo organ quieter.

In his review for the SMH et al, Peter McCallum concludes:

“Of all the Pinchgut productions to date, this was the most rewarding for its restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement.”

I’m still not quite sure what this means – does he mean that Theodora was most rewarding provided you were measuring rewards of “restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement” or does he mean most rewarding generally, by reason of those integers?   I suppose this sort of judicious statement is why PMcC is a music critic and I am not. I’ve seen 14 of Pinchgut’s 18 productions since 2002.  In the early years I might have been able to apprehend improvement and consolidation but I would be hard put by now to say of any one “it’s the best yet.”

I enjoyed it very much – more than I expected to, in fact.  Maybe it went on a bit, in terms of the narrative, towards the end – but who would want to stop the music?  (apart from Pinchgut itself which apparently imposed a few cuts.)  By then I was really into the groove.

I would love the chance to go again but expect to be away, so Sunday’s broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM will have to suffice.

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.

Damn statistics

November 20, 2016

Poisonous little story in The Australian by Rick Morton, purporting to show “data clusters” for over-representation of people born in certain overseas countries for receipt of the dole, carers payment, old age pension and invalid pension.  Does this by comparing the percentage of recipients of each benefit as at 1 July 2016 by country of birth (newly obtained DSS statistics) with the percentage of Australia’s population by country of birth in July 2015 (ABS statistics).

Source of this presumably is a Jeremy Sammut from the Centre for Independent Studies.

There may well be such clusters, for all sorts of reasons (eg: refugees suffering mental health problems after long-term detention) but I doubt that, without some adjustment for the age of each group, it is possible to reach very meaningful conclusions.

At least one comparison cries out for further explanation/comment:

Australians are more likely to be on welfare than New ­Zealanders living here as permanent residents.

Kiwis make up 2.6 per cent of the population but are under-­represented in all the major ­welfare categories.

Two observations: (1) ABS definition of “permanent residents” is not the immigration definition or one which translates into welfare eligibility;  in particular, (2) no-one should be surprised that New Zealanders are under-represented given the treatment for welfare-eligibiity of New Zealanders who came here after 26 February 2001.

In my opinion the story is rubbish but rubbish calculated to push all the right Oz hot buttons.  Predictable comment thread though a couple of people have taken the trouble to point out some of the obvious factual considerations.

Bartered Bride in Rockdale

November 15, 2016

On Saturday to Rockdale Town Hall to see the Rockdale Opera’s production of Smetana‘s second-most famous work – assuming Ma Vlast to be the most famous.

This is only the third time I have been to a Rockdale Opera production.

The first was Donizetti’s La Favorita in 2002. Andrew Byrne gives an accurate-enough account here .   As Byrne said, “somehow it ‘worked’, despite serious limitations in several areas.”

D always cites that production and my going to it as proof that I am mad (for opera).

The second time I went alone.  It was G&S and it was a bit of an epiphany: amateur G&S, like four-handed piano works, is more rewarding for the participants than for the spectator/auditor.  The fact that others obviously enjoyed it only made it worse for me.  I can quote the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes and much more beside from the G&S corpus but I now have the anti-zeal of the apostate.  Even professional G&S is these days a stretch for me.

Back to Smetana and last Saturday.

In many respects, a trip to Rockdale Opera is like a trip back in time, to an earlier, more participatory era.  A more detailed account can be found in Leonie Bell’s history of the company.

There are some trends.

First, the chorus.  Even in the 1990s David Gyger commented that its numbers were decreasing as its average age increased, and that seems still to be the trend.  I imagine it is hard to gather together a group of amateurs who will gather for all the necessary rehearsals with no greater ambition than being in the chorus.  It is a big commitment.

The orchestra, described by Andrew Byrne in 2002 as numbering about 20 and “valiant” is now even more valiant, at about 12, made up of strings 2:1:1:1:1 (vln 1:vln 2:vla:vc:cb) and one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and percussion.

The town hall has been renovated.  The main noticeable improvement for the audience is that the rear portion of the seating is elevated on risers.  As Leonie Bell’s history recounts, the renovation of the Town Hall was preceded by a disaster where the entire accumulated costume stock of the company, mostly sewn by its long-time director, was by misadventure destroyed as asbestos-contaminated.

Tickets, $30 in 2002, are now $45.

It is obvious that the company has a very loyal and longstanding audience – by no means confined to relatives of the performers, though possibly made up of former performers and their friends.  At interval I had a momentary double-take when I heard a very familiar voice: Silvio Rivier, SBS personality and long-time ubiquitous voice over man, is an alumnus of the company.

The main principals acquitted themselves well, sometimes in the face of some adversity.  I most liked Blake Parham as Vašek, the “village idiot” (in the original – there was a thin attempt to veneer this in this productionn with a marginally less politically incorrect approach) to whom the bride is initially proposed to be married.  His part is vocally not the most demanding, but what made his performance more enjoyable to me was that, because his numbers incorporate his “idiotic” stutter, they were rhythmically better articulated than some of the other numbers.

In her history of the company, Leonie Bell writes:

In 1992 the 24 piece orchestra was significantly smaller than the 53 members of the 1940s ensemble. In the nineties they were paid students and retired professionals, earning $25 per rehearsal call. If critics complained occasionally of a lack of cohesion in the orchestra, no doubt this was a result of the company only having the finances to pay for two rehearsals of three-hours each.

Hopefully the amount has gone up from $25 since then, but I expect the principle remains the same, save that the orchestra has now become about as small as it could possibly be.

On Saturday, in any number where the tempo was not a brisk one, it seemed as though conductor Julia de Plater was scooping up the orchestra – especially the strings – to gather it/them forward into and from just about every beat.  Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a firm place to stand on. In this case, each beat became a kind of wobbly morass.  That the players were not far on from sight-reading probably contributed to this.

This is the adversity I referred to which must surely have made life hard for the principals.

Things were better when the music became brisker, more “rhythmic” or more familiar to the musicians. The Comedians’ Dance was even exhilarating, though I could have done without the children in the chorus punctuating this with party blowers.  (Memo to director: this is opera and the orchestra is playing cheerful music.  Enough!)

There were dancers, acrobats, children.  Everyone had a good time, some younger up-and-coming singers had a chance to get experience on stage with an orchestra. No animals were harmed in the production (the bear was played as Kevin the Koala in a chugger suit).

The company has been through some lean times.  They are working towards their 70th anniversary in 2018. I hope they get there and beyond.

Usually the company alternates lighter works with a more substantial work. The Smetana counts in this scheme as a substantial work.  When it comes to the more substantial works I do very much wish the company could find a bit more money for the orchestra – for either more rehearsals or even just one or two higher class players.  Of course both would be nice.

I suppose that really means it would be better to go on the second weekend when the orchestra will be on their fourth and fifth reads-through.

Next show is The Gondoliers. I’m happy to let the Plaza-Toros manage in my absence with the short-form band.



Sunset on Canterbury Road

November 12, 2016


Businesses all gone, apparently empty, this building roughly opposite Canterbury Station looks unlikely to make its 2020 centenary.

Meanwhile, across the road, nest to the station, a monster rises:



Lit up for aerial-drone spruiking photography:


And more to come:



November 10, 2016


Secret commissions and bribes

November 9, 2016

Matthew Gill Doepel was chief technology officer for the Catholic Education Office in Parramatta Diocese (CEOP) from 2008 to 2013.  This is a big organisation – it effectively (or not, as you will see) administers 56 primary and 22 secondary schools in western Sydney as well as four early learning centres. It employs over 6,000 staff.

This was a period which coincided with a fairly massive roll-out of IT to schools, including the Commonwealth-funded “Digital Education Revolution.”  A lot of money was spent, and CEOP was probably awash with it.

In fact there was enough money sloshing around for Mr Doepel to solicit and receive $750,200 in bribes from one supplier in the period 2008-2012 (at which point Doepel and the supplier appear to have fallen out) and $566,200 from a second supplier.  I say “enough money” because presumably the suppliers expected these amounts to be more than covered by profits they could make in return from CEOP.

Somehow, eventually, CEOP got wind of this and commenced proceedings, in 2014, against Doepel.  They also claimed against the principal of the first supplier and the supplier, though that claim was settled.

Last week the CEOP’s claim against Doepel, who by then had gone bankrupt, was determined by Justice Beech-Jones in Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Parramatta v Doepel [2016] NSWSC 1566.

I am afraid I am showing my age a bit, because what I recall from law school as being a rather tricky problem in relation to bribes was treated by His Honour as now being comfortably resolved.  Where an employee has received a bribe (the technical term here is “fiduciary” but surely anyone worth bribing in a commercial context is a fiduciary to the extent of whatever they are being bribed for), you can either recover the bribe (or “secret commission”) from them, or you can claim compensation for the loss you have sustained as a result of their acting on the bribe.  Obviously you will only do the latter if you can prove that your loss is greater than the bribe.  But unless the bribers were also taken for a ride it ought to be – if you could only prove it.

In this case, CEOP elected to claim the bribe in relation to the second provider.  In relation to the first supplier, CEOP claimed compensation for loss, measured by what the first supplier had been able to overcharge it.  CEOP did this by having an accountant analyse how much higher the supplier’s profit margin was with Parramatta Diocese as opposed to other dioceses, and inviting the court to conclude that this was the measure of the overcharging permitted by Doepel conniving with that supplier.

It’s a bit of a broad brush but (to mix metaphors) Beech-Jones took the bait.  It helped that there was no contradictor – Mr Doepel did not turn up to defend the claim, and nor did the first supplier need to, having already settled.  The court held that the first supplier had overcharged CEOP and Mr Doepel by taking the bribes had caused CEOP to lose over $6.3 million dollars.

Pause for [not] audible intake of breath.

First observation – staying away from a losing case always gives the other side a free kick – other examples posted about on this blog include Kathy Jackson and the HSU and young Andrew Farley and the Mrs Mickle music centre at Orange High School.

Second observation, if the first supplier, EDC, really overcharged the CEOP by over $6.3 million, then EDC and its principal, Mr Lowy, got off pretty lightly by settling with CEOP for only $75,000.

Thirdly, what most astounded me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, is that the CEOP has managed to keep pretty quiet the fact that it was so spectacularly ripped off by its employee. Google searches of selected keywords by me have so far drawn a total blank on any press mention of this affair.


October 31, 2016

On Sunday night on a Limelight Magazine prompted whim (helped that it was free) off to Carriageworks with D for a brief performance by Jon Rose: The Museum Goes Live.

I’ve been following Jon Rose, mostly from a distance, for years.  In very general terms, he works with music or sound made with some combination of wind, wires, bows and bicycles.  The museum in question is a collection of violin-like instruments and associated violin-related kitsch.  It’s an impressive and intriguing collection and a very sustained body of work, not to mention at least one heroically sustained joke which actually manages to be funny, albeit one that owes a bit to Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach.

Some of Rose’s inventions and instruments used in the performance have a decidedly Heath-Robinsonish air.  A more modern one is described as a violin played by recording of trading on Wall Street – you can see that at about 6:00 here.

I think there are meant to be some more serious environmentalist and political messages beneath the tending-to-satirical surface.  I’m not necessarily convinced that the performance leads to the stated message though maybe I need to think about that a bit more.  I find this kind of message a bit on a par with words written on paintings and dancers speaking.  But if not leavened with art, would we be ready for the message?

Is it music?  D and I had a discussion about this after.  D thought it was. I tend to think not really, because I wouldn’t really want to listen to the sound on its own on repeated occasions by, say, buying a CD or whatever it is people buy now.

Afterthought: I say “I” but I mean anybody.  Sound art?  Possibly  [Outmoded litmus-test: radio play or the Italia Prize], but given the impact of the setting, performance-art.

There’s a second round beginning Wednesday and I plan to go.