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The HIP village

May 23, 2017

On Saturday night, on a Saturday afternoon impulse (I heard it mentioned on ABC “Classic” FM at about 4.30pm), to Angel Place to hear the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra.  The title was “Unfinished Romance.”

ARCO is a rechristening of the trendily lower-case and alpha-numeric “orchestra seventeen88,” “established in 2013, by Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl.”

Richard Gill was billed to conduct.  I hesitated because of Mr Gill’s propensity to educate.  I wondered if I should keep my phone on to run a stop-watch on his chats to the audience.  He’s not known for his shyness when it comes to this sort of thing.

As the lights came down on an empty stage, Nicole van Bruggen came to a microphone to announce that Gill was indisposed and that the concert was to be conducted by guest concertmaster, Jakob Lehmann.  Rachel Beesley would step up to her usual spot as concertmaster.

That wasn’t all Nicole wanted to talk to us about. She wanted to welcome the orchestra’s sponsors; and also the audience.  She mentioned the 10,000 flyers that had been distributed (a sobering thought: whilst level 1 of the City Recital Hall was reasonably full, levels 2 and 3 had not been opened: perhaps there were 500 of us there).  She reminded us of the next concert, in September.

That is to be one of those “smaller ensemble” concerts.  ARCO is far from the only “orchestra” which keeps itself before the public by presenting concerts of this sort.  I think these are a bit of a swizz but I can understand why they do it.

Back to last Saturday’s concert.

In the first half Fiona Campbell was vocal soloist for a Rossini set:

The Barber of Seville: Overture and Rosina’s opening recitative and aria, Una voce poco fa and Io sono docile;

The Italian in Algiers (this is the conventional translation of the title but more accurate is The Italian Woman in Algiers – “Italian” is crucially gendered): Overture and Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno! and

From Cinderella, Angelina’s (=Cinderella’s) final triumphant recitative and aria, Nacqui all’affanno and Non piu mesta.

Originally the HIP movement made claims for itself a bit like those of Protestants in the Reformation.  If we can strip away the accretions of performed tradition and the distortions of evolved musical instruments [analogy: Catholicism, purgatory, sale of indulgences, etc], we will get back closer to the music as originally conceived [analogy: apostolic church].  What we hear will be more true and more “authentic.” [GOD]

Now the claim seems more limited: the instruments themselves and their sounds will offer insights to the music that a modern instrument performance cannot.

It’s a wise reformulation.  Certainly for the Rossini it would be a moot point which is more authentic: a concert performance of overtures and arias, or an actual staged performance, with a (modern instrument) orchestra which knows its way round Rossini, even if through a glass darkly of the Chinese whispers of accumulated tradition. (Why stop at one metaphor?)

So I didn’t find the Rossini really gave me a HIP epiphany.  Of Fiona Campbell’s arias, the best for me was the one from Cinderella.  It can’t be a coincidence that this is the role she has taken on the stage.

Which is not to say that it wasn’t all very enjoyable, despite some oboe mishaps.  The early instrument sound I most enjoyed was the bassoons – I love that buzz.

I’m not sure though where I would place Rossini in the Romantic pantheon.  Judging from Kater Murr, ETA Hoffmann would not have found a spot for him there.

The second half featured Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony preceded by his very early (even by Schubert’s standards) Overture in C minor for strings.  Let’s pass over the Overture;  the Symphony yielded all sorts of revelations.  I was most impressed by the minatory trombones but the whole was distinctively poetic. The gleaming beauty of the final chords moved me to tears.

On its website ARCO republishes an interview with Ms van Bruggen from Fine Music. The opening gambit is: “It takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to raise an orchestra?” It’s a nice question.  My own feeling is that an orchestra is a village – which rather short-circuits things.  Venue, musicians, audience and repertoire all need to come together.  Otherwise, in Thatcherian terms, “there is no such thing as society” – and there won’t be.

Orchestras and ensembles come and go.  Orchestra Romantique a few years ago turned out in retrospect to have been a vehicle for Nick Carter which did not survive once he moved on.  The great success story in Australia of this sort has been the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, but it took a few years from 1989 when the orchestra was established.  The big breakthrough for them was probably in 2000 when Angel Place opened: now they give their program there a phenomenal six times with two more performances in Melbourne and another in Brisbane.  This obviously makes assembling and rehearsing the ensemble much more sustainable.

That’s an aspirational goal for ARCO.  First they will want to populate the second and third levels at Angel Place.  As the orchestra was mostly standing, the sound could well have been better on Saturday there than in the stalls.  On Saturday the audience still felt very much one of friends and supporters rather than the general concert-going public.

I hope ARCO can continue and consolidate.  The two things I wish for them at present are that they could (1) muster a larger string complement (especially more violins) and (2) put on more frequent orchestral-scale concerts.  Judging from the Schubert and reviews of their last concert’s Mendelssohn, the early German Romantic (say, Weber to Schumann via Schubert) could be a good niche for them to concentrate on.

Ten years

May 12, 2017

It is ten years since the first post on this blog. Some kind of retrospective seems called for.

I had lurked on others’ blogs for years.  I probably caught the blogging wave just as it was about to recede.  As early as September that year I wondered if that was so as I saw blogs falling by the wayside.  That may have been more churn than decline, but by 2012 or 2013 other social media were clearly leaving blogs behind.  Now it is mostly the older and more fixed in their ways who persist.

2007 was the last glorious year of Howard-hating.

At the start I had a backlog of material to unleash on an unsuspecting and generally oblivious world. A number of those early posts continue to attract a steady trickle of attention.

The earliest of these is a post on my childhood choirmaster, who turned out to be a sexual abuser who killed himself in Indonesia in 2006 when confronted with fresh accusations.  At first, many of my fellow choristers were reluctant to concede that the man they knew and remembered gratefully could be the same person.  In the end the dots were pretty conclusively joined.  Other traffic to this post was probably looking for material about a “controversial” and notoriously tough WA chief detective who was murdered, allegedly as revenge for his shooting of a bikie.

The second is: Never fall in love with a prostitute.  Good advice but not always easy to follow.  I cited a Chinese proverb, 戏子无义 婊子无情, roughly “A performer is unrighteous; a whore is heartless.”  One rueful comment: “of course i know this saying but still fallen.”

Another is Are you Gay? Can you prove it?

Yet another is Rice Queen, Potato Queen.  In that post I took advantage of the strong opinions on both of a young overseas student from Malaysia, Je.  Daniel, Je’s not much older Australian boyfriend, took offence on Je’s behalf.  Not that Daniel disclosed that he was Je’s partner when he did so, but it wasn’t hard to work out.  After Je returned to Malaysia (which was a condition of his scholarship), they split up.  You could read all of this on the internet in those days and I am amazed to find you still can.   Daniel (who according to Je was the dumper) is still a quite the keyboard warrior.  Je stopped posting in about 2010.

I published a number of other posts on gay/asian/in Australia topics at that time.  It’s hard to tell because I am now totally out of any “scene,” but my feeling is that this is an area where, gradually, the cultural/racial/sexual frontier is smoothing out and the terms on which it is crossed are becoming more equal.  There’s still a way to go, though.

Meanwhile, in terms of the racial border and who is crossing it, if you see two men, one “East” and one “West,” out and about, D and I reckon they are more likely to be gay than not.

Caveat Solicitor is a not very interesting post which whose title nevertheless exerts an attractive power.  If you come up against the one you are likely to be looking for the other.

Pussy porn was brazen and quite-successful-for-a-few-years click-bait and my first post featuring my cat.

I wrote a post on Geoffrey Leonard, a self-avowed “boy-lover” who courted fame and (with a bit of help from A Current Affair) found it. This led to his conviction and imprisonment in 2008 for a self-published and internet-published book which was held to include child-abuse material by reason of his reproduction of an edited police fact sheet and edited police statements of 2 boys whom he had been convicted of abusing in 1989.  (The sentence was imposed concurrently with a sentence for possession of since-deleted child pornography on his computer to which Leonard pleaded guilty.) This post still attracts attention because Leonard has become a kind of internet cult figure.

Two later posts on the Guardianship Tribunal (now a division of NCAT) and the NSW Public Trustee and Guardian still attract attention because so many people are caught in the toils of one or the other or both, generally when a family member (usually a parent) becomes incapable by reason of age. In my opinion the Tribunal is far too ready to resolve any intrafamilial conflict by conferring powers on the Public Trustee, which is surprisingly expensive and apparently almost totally immune from any effective oversight.

These posts all still get readers because (apart from “Pussy Porn”) they meet some otherwise unanswered niche demand of one sort or another.

Early on I also indulged in an orgy of self-dislosure on the themes of jobs I have had and homes I had previously lived in.  Since then I have remained in the same job. I have yet to bring things up to date in relation to my last two homes.

I suppose I could try to identify my own favourite posts.  That depends on my mood and probably requires too much context to determine.  Instead I shall confine myself to one generally neglected post.  This, based on a Court of Criminal Appeal judgment, retells an almost comic and possibly fantastical story of one night in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney when a bunch of Arabic drug dealers decided to muscle in on the turf of young Yuri Mogilevsky.  I changed the names in the post to protect the Mogilevskys who had meanwhile found themselves in hotter water with the police after moving to greener pastures in St Ives.

I’m a bit disappointed this story hasn’t made it onto the small screen.  My favourite bit is where (as Yuri claimed) one of the gang putting the heavy on him said: “I’m going to enjoy killing you … I’m Palestinian, do you know what we do to Jews.”  Some hapless Irishmen were drawn into the events as well.

When I started this blog I identified my interests as “in no particular order: law, music, opera, gay issues, and China.”  After working off a bit of initial steam, I haven’t said so much more about “gay issues” and I haven’t ended up saying much about China.  I was last there in mid-2014.

That’s partly because, in order since then my cat, my stepmother, my father and my aunt have died.  It is a matter of privacy rather than disrespect to the latter three that the cat’s death has had more coverage on this blog.  He would have turned 20 last month:

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This retrospective would not be complete without also remembering my friend and onetime housemate, S, who only went to operas if they were set in Egypt and included female nudity.  This March it was five years since he took an early mark at the age of 45.

On the road

May 7, 2017

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A spot I’m fond of.

The view from the road (which may be more informative for the cognoscenti):

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Unfinished books 3

April 30, 2017

This is the third post in a series.

Another book I salvaged from my parents’ collection is Australia Felix, the first volume of Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, in an edition published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1971.  My copy is a 1977 reprint.

Obviously “HHR” finished it;  I couldn’t.

Part of my problem was that it is a story which, from the outset, one knows will not end well.  I always have difficulty with these: King Lear, Otello. are two examples which spring to mind.  Yet I am happy to go to operas, where, God knows, a tragic ending is often enough a given, so that cannot really be the problem.

Another is that first-half-of-the-twentieth century realism is not, for me, a high point of literary history.  Even the discovery of a new word within the first three lines – “uprights and tailors” – a word which I have been unable to find in a dictionary but which presumably refers to tailed timber cross-struts – was no consolation.  As far as I got, it all seemed so dreary.

Yet I suppose I could overcome that.

Meanwhile, squatting over my reception of the work is a xxviii page introduction by Leonie Kramer.  Kramer’s work on the sources of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was, if truth be told, her only substantive academic work.  The rest was energy and politics which are not congenial to me.

To her protégées, and they were many, Kramer was an inspiration; to my crowd when I was a student in the English department at Sydney University she was an unloved and unwelcome reactionary.  Just one of the counts against her was that she had complained when Dennis Altman was invited to speak about homosexuality to medical undergraduates at UNSW, including one of her children.

I still cannot work out how a Professor of Australian Literature thought it right that she become a member of the board of Western Mining; let’s not get started on her role in the push for demutualization of the NRMA.  Though she disdained feminism, she was a useful conservative female figurehead.

Enough.  The woman is dead now.  I should try to get over her, but it may take a bit more time.

I’ll hold on to my copy of Australia Felix a little longer in case the cloud lifts.

 

 

Unfinished books 1

April 23, 2017

KMurr

D is out of the country at present.

D sometimes complains that days, even weeks when he is here can pass without any substantive conversation from me.  Nevertheless, whilst he is away I find I have more time to read.

Inspired by Daniil Trifonov’s performance of Schumann’s set of pieces Kreisleriana, I decided to track down their literary namesake – ETA Hoffmann’s literary alter-ego, Kapellmeister Kreisler.  Hoffmann first adopted this character as a journalistic pseudonym in about 1809, but he reached his greatest fame through Hoffmann’s final work, Lebensansichten des Kater Murr  – translated as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper .

Yes, that is the Hoffmann of the Tales of Hoffmann, author of the story on which The Nutcracker is based, and famous in music history for an equivalent to Schumann’s “Hats off, gentlemen” welcoming of Chopin’s genius when, about 20 years earlier, he acclaimed Beethoven’s Instrumental Music (in a review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) as the apotheosis of romanticism.

It is popular sometimes to mock the insularity of Americans who know little of countries outside the USA, but it is no less shocking to contemplate the literary insularity of the Anglosphere when you realise how little presence there is in English of a writer such as Hoffmann.  Most of what little the University of Sydney library has is confined to its stacks (as so much is these days) and a visit to Abbeys bookshop in town proved fruitless.

I have read two of Hoffmann’s shorter stories in the original German. That was when my Deutsch was in better nick than it is now.  Fortunately, Penguin Classics published a translation by Anthea Bell of Kater Murr usw in about 1997.  It was obviously a labour of love on her part.  I doubt if it has been a great commercial success for them.

Gratifyingly I was able to track down a copy in the City of Sydney Library.  It is marvellously easy to order a book to be delivered to the branch of your choice.  Public libraries are wonderful things.

The conceit is that Murr, a tomcat of literary pretensions (he has surreptitiously learnt to read and write by carefully observing his original master, Abraham) has written his autobiography.   By the time of writing this, he is living with Kappellmeister Kreisler.  He has adopted and treated as scrap paper an account of Kreisler’s life (in fact, more like a gothick novel featuring Kreisler) and left pages of it as if used as blotting paper amongst those of his manuscript.  Accidentally, according to Hoffmann (describing himself as the editor) the printer has printed everything, with the result that sections of Murr’s narrative are interspersed with sections of the story of Kreisler.

Murr’s account is continuous, subject to these interruptions – that is, with one exception each extract takes up from where the last left off; the extracts of the Kreisler story are discontinuous and in some disarray – Murr, the “editor” tells us, seems to have torn up some of the paper or used it for something else.

A cat’s life is short, so periods which in a human biography would be designated in  years are designated in months, such as “the apprentice months.”

On occasion, Murr mixes with dogs.  In this fictive world, dogs are cats’ social betters. Murr lives in fear of them even when they befriend him.

Following the restoration of the status ante quo at the Congress of Vienna, there was a crackdown against the student movements which had arisen and been while tolerated for so long as useful in the struggle against Napoleonic France.  Hoffmann, by then holding a day-job as a judge in Berlin, was involved in investigating these nationalist student fraternities with which he likely sympathised.  Murr joins a cat-fraternity until it is broken up and his friend killed from a dog-bite.  Some political satire appears intended, albeit obscure to me.

The plot of the Kreisler story revolves around a princely household in a former microstate which has been swallowed up by neighbouring states (probably a reference to the consolidations imposed by Napoleon). Whilst appearances of a court are maintained, it is all pretence with which the prince’s erstwhile subjects go along. The prince himself is satirized as a ridiculous figure much given to French phrases and punctilious in his observance of now meaningless aristocratic niceties.

To this “court” comes Kreisler after quitting a Grand-ducal Court where his art was not respected, true German art being overshadowed by Italianizing fashions – Rossini is amongst the resented. Hoffmann himself wrote an opera, Undine, favourably noticed by Weber, and spend some years in the theatre at Bamberg after he lost his legal job in the Prussian part of Poland as a consequence a Beethovenesque (cf Eroica) lack of respect towards the occupying French.

One Prince Hector,  proposed suitor of the ex-micro-Prince’s daughter, Princess Hedwiga, has designs on Julia, daughter of Madam Benzon, widow of a councillor at the little court and mother also of a mysteriously disappeared illegitimate daughter of the micro-Prince.

Kreisler loves Julia with echoes of the impossible artist’s love (OK, he is an “impossible artist” but I probably mean “artist’s impossible love”) which is the theme of Offenbach’s operatic adaptation of other Hoffmann tales.  Kreisler confronts Hector with a painting given to Kreisler by Master Abraham, Kreisler’s mentor and (if you can recall that far back) Murr’s master.  Set upon by a retainer of Prince Hector, Kreisler kills his assailant and flees to a monastery.

There is plenty of critical writing, much of which I have dipped into on the internet since reading the book, about the comparison between the self-satisfied Murr and the restless, mercurial Kreisler.  Whilst the general trend of this is to prefer the Kreisler narrative, even Murr encounters some of the difficulties and humiliations of an artist amongst society.

Gradually we learn that something terrible happened in Naples involving the Prince Hector, his brother,  and Master Abraham, of which the painting was a reminder.  The missing illegitimate daughter was murdered, and then there is the question of what has become of Abraham’s wife, whose psychic powers were an essential element of Abraham’s “Invisible Girl” trick.  She is supposed by him to be missing possibly dead; we we know she was abducted and imprisoned at the instigation of Madam Benzon by arrangement with the petit-Prince for fear she would expose their liaison and maybe she is the Papagena-like crone in Naples.

Master Abraham goes on the road and entrusts Murr to the care of Kreisler.  Presumably this is when Murr uses the Kreisler “waste paper” to write his life history and thoughts.

At the end of book 4, which is the end of the second published volume, Hoffmann as editor sorrowfully announces that Murr has died.  Some fragments by Murr survive, which Hoffmann hopes it may be possible to publish with the remainder of the Kreisler story in a volume 3.

Hoffmann himself died shortly after.

So no volume 3, which is pretty maddening.  All those dark gothic secrets unresolved on the Kreisler side!  I can accept the Murr material stopping so abruptly because suspense is not an element in that.

I haven’t really captured here the humour of the book and its charm: cats in novels are almost as good as on the internet.  Hoffmann, who is said to have had an actual cat, Murr, must have been a cat lover.  This endears him to me.

 

The pursuit of hoppiness

April 6, 2017

On second thoughts (this post originally had a more mundane title) I might as well borrow this pun, which was a promotional poster in the building where I work. I expect it was borrowed in turn from some US source.

I confess my first thought was of some (preferably Czech) beer before I divined a reference to the Easter bunny was intended.

Meanwhile, in the courts, timetables become more spacious as the law’s delay accommodates the Easter season. From time to time in a Friday list someone proposes 14 April as a date on which a matter might next be listed.  This becomes a great joke.

There is a famous legal anecdote, told of a number of judges but most often of Lord Mansfield, the late eighteenth-century Scots Lord Chief Justice of England.  When he announced that he intended to sit on Good Friday, some courageous counsel is claimed to have said that, if he did so, he would be the first judge to have done so since Pontius Pilate.  Even if the story happened, the courageous counsel was almost certainly wrong about that.  In 1824, when this anecdote was brought to his attention by one Mr Chitty, Mr Justice Park observed that  “There have been 5,000 persons brought to trial on Good Friday.”

Chitty’s motion was to arrest judgment (the jury brought in its verdict of guilty of murder on 7 January) on the grounds that the court had sat on Epiphany.  Chitty claimed this was contrary to a statute of Edward VI concerning days (including Epiphany) which were to be kept holy.  Oddly enough, Good Friday was not one of the days listed in the statute.

You have to say it was a desperate application.  Chitty went so far as to invoke God:

“It is my solemn opinion before God [Mr. Justice Park, “Oh! Oh!”] that the ground for an arrest of judgment is valid, and I therefore move it.”

Mr Justice Park was distinctly unimpressed:

I am of opinion that there is no validity whatever in the ground laid for this motion, and I must hope, that in future Counsel will not appeal to the Deity for the sincerity of their opinions, because such an appeal gives a sort of sanction, approaching to the nature of an oath, to their assertions, which they are not called upon to give. A Counsel is not only not blamed, but honoured, for advancing an opinion with ingenuity which his deliberate and impartial judgment might not confirm, but he is not called on to sanction it by appeals to the Deity.

The prisoner was hanged on 9 January.

But I digress.

This evening, as I walked up King St to the station, Queen’s Square was filled with frolicking schoolchildren.  The side door of S James was open.  I wandered in: the St John Passion was being rehearsed for a performance at Angel Place on Friday night.  An “early instrument” orchestra has been assembled – perhaps a bit stronger at the front desk of the violins than further back, but impressive nevertheless.  Some soloists are drawn from the choir with distinguished supplementation.

I stayed to the end of Part I.

The schoolchildren (from Shore and Santa Sabina, the latter accompanied by the redoubtable Mrs Carey, now translated from MLC School) were there to make up the massed choir for the chorales.

It should be and I hope it will be a great experience for them.

 

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!

 

 

 

Roxana!

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:

Septimius
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

Theodora
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

Theodora
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.