Posts Tagged ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra’

Keeping up

August 27, 2015

[This is a long gestated and more like still-born post which I should probably now retitle “Falling behind.”]

Blogs are a curious mix of narcissism and exhibitionism. Not, as if that were a saving virtue, that my own exhibitionism is actually read by very many people. This is one of those posts which is much for my own future reference as for anybody else’s edification.

I have been to hear Yuja Wang (should really according to Pinyin be Yujia) twice – once in recital at Angel Place for the SSO on Monday 13/7 and then on Saturday 18/7 playing the Brahms second concerto with the SSO. The SSO, conducted by Lionel Bringeur, also played a[n?] homage to Beethoven by the all-of-a-sudden-the-rage-in-Oz German composer Widmann which I liked a lot and Dvořák’s Symphony No 8. It is a very agreeable work. There is a sense in which Dvořák, I feel, is a bit like Schubert in making his own stylistic contribution but at the same time sitting very easily for the listener within what had come just before him- if you like, a received style.

I backed up to the SOH on Sunday 19/7 for the Australian Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder playing Debussy’s La Mer and Mahler’s 6th symphony. Mahler better than Debussy which as predicted by Elder in pre-publicity, was harder for them to get a grasp on. (Well the point is partly that it shouldn’t be a grasp.)

Then on Monday 20/7 I went to hear the Omega Ensemble at Angel Place. Because I was given a ticket for that I feel I should give them a post to themselves. [27/8: still unwritten.]

On Thursday 23/7 I went to hear a jazz piano trio (different instrumentation to the classical type of piano trio) playing in the old Sydney City Mission in Glebe. It’s a great venue with a good piano which I hadn’t been to before. This was part of a regular series of jazz gigs which are run on a candle-lit BYO (food and drink) basis with a modest cover charge.  Looking at the venue hire it is obviously something the promoters must do for the love rather than the money. That was a bit of an impulse thing because CC, the pianist, is somebody I knew many years ago. Just a day before some kind of internet wandering alerted me to both his presence in Sydney (he has been away for many of the intervening years since our first acquaintance) and the gig.

Tonight [ie 24/7] to the SSO again (Trpceski Tchaick 1; Rach 1 – reviews are promising and I have good memories of Trpceski’s last visit) and then tomorrow for my second performance this time round of Don Carlos. [At least I managed to post on that.] Last time Trpceski was here he was greeted by a large Macedonian turnout. [Postscript: not quite so marked this time though still evident.]

Tristan AND Isolde  (2)

July 1, 2015

A fellow blogger has made the “AND’ point already, and it is one which Isolde herself makes when Tristan carelessly refers in Act II to “Tristan’s love.”

Contrary to my original intention, I made a last-minute booking on Friday for Monday’s second performance by the SSO of Tristan and Isolde.  I secured a seat at the end of row T.  I say that in homage to David Gyger of Opera Opera who used always to qualify critical statements about balance etc with a disclosure of where he was sitting.

My seat was one of only 4 seats described as “available” in the stalls for this performance.  Interest in these performances has been high.

On Saturday night there was a festive mood.  I rode the lift from the car park (necessitated by City Circle track work) with a gentleman sporting a fur collar and a horned helmet. I shared a table at interval with the chief justice of Australia – who (jocularly) called me a cheapskate for having brought my own sandwich from home.  – Not that I actually recognised him until a passing friend of his introduced him to her friend.

Monday was a little more subdued and, once inside the hall, businesslike. Sydney’s Wagner-music-drama drought had been broken (to the extent that a concert performance can do so). There seemed to be a more matter-of-fact approach to getting through it. I felt that came from the stage although I can’t put my finger on anything in particular. And a Monday public is different from a Saturday one, even for a special do like this. There was no track work so I was able to take the train in.

I still managed to observe my own special festive rule which is engaged whenever a work involves the imbibing of a potion. It only requires a hip flask and a little forethought.

At interval, talk turned to the rather literal video art representation of Tristan and Isolde, which most felt was too literal. “I want to imagine them for myself,” said someone, rather plaintively. I remonstrated that if it were an actual opera performance that wouldn’t be an option, but allowed that then it would be the actual singers you were relying on.

Second time round, I didn’t find the T and I figures so distracting. The damage had been done, if you think it so: I now accepted/expected that T & I looked like that – at least on screen. It helped that on a second time through within 2-3 days (almost a third as I’d listened on Sunday to most of the broadcast save for a chunk of Act II when I could not refuse my sister’s phone call from the UK) I did not need to follow the surtitles so closely. I found myself more free to concentrate on the singers. I could choose to look at the video stuff when I felt like it, and at least one moment – Tristan’s death, was actually quite gorgeously and memorably executed.

I wonder if some of the things which qualified my experience on the Saturday were really to do with expectations, because on Monday I had adjusted to the balance better as well, though I still feel that putting the singers behind the orchestra put a burden on them and detracted from the effect they could have had if placed more to the fore.

It’s easy to be a critic, isn’t it?

Obviously I really enjoyed it, even if second time round King Mark’s reproaches made me a bit impatient. In the last act, as Tristan asked after the ship, a mobile phone somewhere had a little gurgle. Fortunately, the music was loud enough that few can have been seriously distracted. I was in such a good mood I didn’t need to respond with any kind of fury. “That’s Isolde,” I imagined. “She’s just been held up a bit. She’ll be here soon.”

Tristan and the beautiful people

June 21, 2015


On Saturday night to the SSO’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by David Robertson.

I have always found this a difficult opera to approach.

First is to do with the story: there are a few such works, such as King Lear and Otello (the play more than the opera), which you know from the start are not going to end up well, which I have to drag myself to with an anticipatory heavy heart. Tristan is one of those.

Second is to do with the context and the concept. I think I am a bit over romantic love, and I am especially over romantic love evangelized by a man who dumped his own wife and made a bit of a profession of going for other men’s. I know that is very old-fashioned of me. Further, though romantic love may be a good means of getting people to latch on to one another, I’m not sure what sort of a predictor it is of long-term happiness. That’s more who is kind and considerate; who does the washing up; who takes the garbage out. Oh, I forgot. I’m sure Cosima and Richard had people to do those sorts of things for them. (Maybe Minna was a bit of a nagger on that front.)

Look, it was good. Almost necessarily so because it is a great work. (To explain: usefully deployed when speaking to friends who have been involved in performances one has just heard and ask you afterwards “How was it?”, I mean by that a piece that is worth hearing/seeing for itself, regardless of the standard of performance – within bounds.) Contrary to my original plans, I shall go again, and I will listen again when it is on the ABC “Classic” FM tonight or when it is subsequently streamed on the internet. (There is an oboe entry in Act III that I want to check in the score.)

[checked – link in anticipation of streaming, still to come Monday am]

Tristan Act III

But I do have a beef with the concept.

The problem is: what to do about an opera in concert, especially (but not so especially, because large orchestral forces apparently now mandate a concert performance or none at all for Wagner) by a composer who proclaimed the Gesamtkunstwerk?

David Robertson has had three goes in Sydney now. First was The Flying Dutchman, with the digital images projected on a sail behind the stage. Second was Elektra, with some dancers on the stage and a certain degree of dramatization by the singers. This is the third, which has reverted to the projected images on a sail-like screen masking the organ which looks rather as though it has been recycled from the Dutchman.

Such images can contribute a lot, and together with lighting and other atmospherics can lift things way above the rather academic sterility of a concert performance with everybody dutifully following the text in their programs.

In the first act I was distracted somewhat by the whirring of the fans of the computer operating them, mere centimetres from my ears in the seat behind. This cast a bit of a shadow over my experience of the first act. I just couldn’t hear soft pizzicato bass sounds and the opening of the prelude was masked by the local white noise. Fortunately, I was able to move away. That’s a beef with management for selling me the ticket without warning and pretty personal to me and them.  Now I’ve got it off my chest we can move on.

My real beef was the use of models to depict Tristan and Isolde. You can get an idea from the picture at the head of this post, pinched from Peter McCallum’s review in the SMH.  The picture captures the moment when, dejectedly, the dead Tristan/Lance Ryan left the stage (which is why the image of Tristan is obscured). I found them almost jejune – like the use of similar models rather than singers in Opera Australia’s posters in recent years – and also quite distracting. I had to look away.

Perhaps some of my discomfort was because I’m not really accepting the dramatic premiss as I mentioned at the start. Arguably there should be a focus on Tristan and Isolde since the whole point of the drama is that they are focused so very much on each other. Part of the problem for me was that their beauty seemed (inevitably; it always is) too much of the here and now. From time to time when there was a reference to greetings from Isolde, she would say something that looked very much like “Hi.” OK, it could have been “Heil dir, Sonne” (OK, wrong Wagner) but it didn’t look like it. The style, for me, didn’t fit.

These images also detracted from the work of the singers, once again placed by Robertson at the rear of the orchestra. A conductor is necessarily an egotist and it may be argued that the orchestra is the true hero of Tristan [and Isolde], but to reduce the singers to tiny figures beneath superhuman projections really rubbed that in. If the problem of a concert performance is that the singers can no longer act, a solution which seems to deny almost any possibility of singerly acting is to me the wrong way to go.

Muddle instead of music (2)

February 24, 2014


That’s the second time I’ve used this title, and of course it is not mine.

Last night to the SOH to hear the SSO under David Robertson and a cast of guest singers do Strauss’s Elektra.

The picture above is the afternoon before the last time I went to see this, just under 6 weeks ago, in Leipzig’s gloriously Stalinist opera house.  An earlier report on the same production by Wanderer is here.

There Eva Johansson was Elektra.  And just to put everything in proportion, the night before the same orchestra under the same conductor performed Die Walküre and Ms Johansson was Brünnhilde in that.

In Leipzig I sat right up the front, on the woodwind side. The Gewandhaus fielded 94 players (the man putting out the music told me that). They must have cut down a little on strings (the wind and brass complement looked complete), and the last few trumpets were squeezed into the corridor outside the door of the pit on the side opposite to me

In Sydney, I sat in row V of the stalls on the violins’ side.  The SSO placed the orchestra – reportedly about 110 [I am now told 103] – out in front of the normal stage in the space usually taken up by the stalls to about row L or M.  The stage itself was given over to an elevated platform on which 8 or so dancers from the Sydney Dance Theatre did some “interpretative dance” and on which Elektra herself occasionally prowled around.  Only in the final moments of Elektra’s dance, presumably the inspiration for the idea, did the two become really integrated: before that, for me, the dance was a distraction which added little.

The concert hall’s acoustic rings were hoisted way out of, if not sight, then certainly any operative effect, which they could hardly have had once the orchestra was relocated in any event.

Elektra is an opera which poses a balance problem.  When the SSO and Australian Opera did it together in the Capitol in 2000, one thing Simone Young and others remarked was the serendipitous resolution in that venue of this problem – everybody could be heard. 

Bringing the orchestra forward but not really in a pit exacerbated that problem – a big orchestra is pretty loud.  Even so, loudness was not really the problem for me, but rather clarity.  Everything was enveloped in an echoic bloom.

Peter McCallum, writing in the SMH, has said that the singers were amplified.  I myself wondered that, especially because Christine Goerke had such an enormous voice and some consonants came over with a kind of super-resonance, but I couldn’t go so far as to say that was the case: the sound still came from where the singer was, which is an indication otherwise, and I know stages can have some echo on them anyway. Anyway, it was the orchestral sound which frustrated me.

What I missed was all sorts of detail which I knew, from my Leipzig experience, is there to be heard. Different colours of string sounds; wind writing which is more than the emergence of the odd highlight from a generalised pitch aureole. The only bit where the acoustic really worked was in the trombone portents on Orestes’ return. Clytemnestra’s song about wanting to be a mother lacked the (relatively) gentle lyricism which could contrast with Elektra’s more frenetic moments. The solo-string writing was scarcely audible or distinguishable. The sum of this was a restriction of the range of mood and [affect?]effect: there was just so much unrelenting and indiscriminate LOUD – and I know the work isn’t simply that.

By the time we got to the amplified off-stage voices, a mark had been well and truly overstepped.

One advantage of concert performances by the SSO is that the vocal casting can be luxurious by Sydney operatic standards. Goerke was phenomenal; Cheryl Barker as Chrysothemis had to force her tone a little in her lower register but had exemplary diction; Lisa Gasteen as Clytemnestra was much better than reports had led me to believe; I’m sorry to say that Peter Coleman-Wright seemed miscast as Orestes, though he could have been better in more favourable balance conditions. Pascal Herington had a good if brief moment as a servant.

Indeed this was not a simple concert performance. Apart from the dance, the singers all acted their roles sans score. That’s a plus, but it’s still a long way short of a fully produced opera.

This sounds boring of me, but for the SSO’s next big-orchestra opera performance (and we can assume more are planned: my nomination – Jonny spielt auf), I’d like to see the orchestra back on the stage with the acoustic rings performing their (albeit insufficient) role. I’m happy to do without the dancers, and I would put the singers on an extended stage in front of the orchestra.

To be fair most of the audience loved it. Maybe Leipzig spoiled me.