On Monday my first Shuttercal postcards arrived.
They took about two days from time of ordering to the postmark date, and another ten days to arrive from the United States. Quality is nice, too, even if the mailing process means they end up with faint orange barcodes printed across the front. Any message on the back is printed in a fairly small font, so there’s room for quite a bit of news if you’re so inclined. My conclusion? Definitely an option for postcrossing as well as casual greetings.
Ever since Avant Card began doing business in the early 1990s, I’ve been collecting postcards, mostly of the promotional variety. I pick them up if they’re clever, or funny, or beautiful, or if they’re about something I’m interested in. I like them best when they have space to write on the back – somehow they feel more like the real thing.
But there came a point – it might have been when I was packing for the fourth long-distance move in my life – when several shoeboxes of postcards seemed excessive. And then, 1218 days ago, I discovered Postcrossing. The site explains it pretty well – basically it’s a fun way to get rid of spare postcards while actually using them for their stated purpose by sending them to random people in other countries. Of course, I receive postcards in return, so this isn’t really a way of banishing clutter. But at least the collecting seems less pointless.
My other enthusiasm is Shuttercal, the calendar-based daily photo project site. (You can check out my most recent photo over there on the right.)
And now the two enthusiasms are combined. Shuttercal is offering a postcard printing-and-postage service: select a photo from your own calendar, write a message, enter an address and the finished postcard is printed and mailed for you, anywhere in the world (USD2.90). It’s brand new, so I can’t report on the results yet, but the idea certainly appeals.
Oh, and no need to point out that this won’t help me get rid of my postcards either…
Following in a long and noble tradition, I bring you a Salon des Refusés. It’s a personal and in some ways haphazard selection – simply what caught my eye during the week and again during the checking process. I fear I may have forgotten some favourites, in which case I’ll have to add them in later. These may not have won in the main round, but they made me smile and I want to keep them around somewhere handy.
Organised alphabetically by opera (discounting the articles)…
Pattyoboe – Leaving your
husband & child isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the end she
finally gets on track.
Let’s all try to figure out why the King of Sweden was assassinated in
Boston. I think it has something to do with the censors.
Un ballo maschera
S Piano – He sings.
He schemes. He lies for the lovers. He steals keys. He evades arrest.
But does he actually cut hair?
The Barber of Seville
Prima La Musica – Ad man,
ladies’ man, lucky man. Dead man, changed man, madman. New man, green
man, Honey’s man. Good man. It’s bliss, man.
Prima la musica –
Betty’s a Bitch, Johnny’s a Jerk, Lucy’s a Leftie, David’s a Dealer.
Honey’s a Hooker-with-a-Heart. But Harry? He’s just a Joy.
Bliss again, #incaseyoumissedbliss
Prima la musica –
Contestant on macabre Hungarian gameshow ignores all hints from the host
and opens one mystery door too many
P Schleuse – Some folks
shun CosiFanTutte, find its characters too fruity. Its moral yet is
worth a ponder: Absence Makes the Heart Go Wander
(like it says)
Dumble Dad – @belinda
Remember me but oh do not archive my tweets.
(Because you can never have too much Purcell, although the same might not be said for Twitter)
Sam Neuman – Today
Lakovsky: Eugene wouldn’t give Tatiana a second look when she was a
kid-but look at her now! Come on out, Tatiana!
We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars or,
more specifically, dreaming of the moon and the 15th century
The Excursions of Mr Broucek
Hell, I would’ve been better off staying home with a margarita.
the opera she was called Leonora,but sacrifices that name for Florestans
sake.This offer comes free with four overtures
Maura Lafferty – Max
competition to win love. Kaspar has help from below, not above. Bullet
flies, someone dies. Karma fits like a glove.
Lattavanti – Creepy
shepherd forms cult, convinces king to embrace Nietzsche waaaaaay before
it was cool.
Nicole Brockmann – Hindu
priest’s daughter, spurned by one who loved honour more,
Delibes-erately offs self w/datura. Sponsored by British Airways
Olivia Giovetti – If you
knew what happened to the first couple who heard it, you may rethink
using that ubiquitous bridal march.
Lohengrin (I don’t know that it’s a plot exactly, but I wholeheartedly agree)
Alejoplay – Everyone
thought Lucia was mad when she insisted it would be a simple ceremony
Lucia di Lammermoor
Prima la musica –
Amatory lepidopterist traps fragile specimen among Nagasaki cherry
blossoms. Fumbling to release her, he crushes her instead.
Talopine – The crew play
baseball / In the desert’s heat. And wait. / And…stay with the plane.
Meister Mole –
“Nürnberg’s Got Talent”
N Brockmann –
from the headlines: sad clown loses it; stabs wife+her lover for real,
not pretend. Hey–wasn’t this a Law & Order episode?
Postilion always marries twice…
Le postillon de Lonjumeau
Eighth Blackbird –
An ageing, nostalgic Duchess recalls her youth. Sings an aria while
giving fellatio. ’Nuff said.
Powder Her Face
build a castle in Paradise, I’m going to get there at any price; Stand
aside, I’m on my way (Wotan, apologize to Gershwin)
Das Rheingold (despite not being that into Wagner, I am seriously into Gershwin)
rivers of Germany are lined with gold. But if you have any sense of
destiny, keep your hands off.
Das Rheingold again, my sentiments exactly!
After decades away, man returns home to free faithful wife from
contrapuntal suitors, burden of singing only in recitative.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
MMmusing – The
puts tonality on notice. The ending lets Isolde Liebestod us.
Tristan und Isolde
P Schleuse – What with this hallucination, country life is no vacation. You’ll see
him if you sort of squint: that creepy guy is Peter Quint.
The Turn of the Screw
Music Vs Theater –
Mix one part Mary Poppins and one part Sixth Sense. Turn until screwed.
The Turn of the Screw
primalamusica – It’s
just like The Sound of Music, but with ghosts & Freudian angst
instead of schmaltz & Nazis. And the kids are even creepier
The Turn of the Screw (at least, I swear this one was entered for 2010, but it’s not showing up except for 2009; maybe I was just imagining it…)
Pamina! I just
saw a pic of Pamina. Her mom’s a crazy dame & sent it in a frame to
me. Pamina! I just dissed a girl named Pamina.
Die Zauberflöte (there’s another very aMMmusing one on the same theme, which made its way into a movie trailer, but I got sucked in by the Sondheim/Bernstein reference of this effort)
I’ve already revealed my all-time favourite. If I had to pick two runners up they would be Otterhouse’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau – which is wonderfully epigrammatic, to the point, and a very, very clever use of a cross-cultural reference – and Primalamusica’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which is elegantly apt and completely unforced.
I would then give MMmusing a special prize for uniting the pleasures of musical theatre with the intricacies of opera. Pattyoboe would get the prize for punning. ClassicalReview would get the Sondheim award for perfect internal rhyming. And I could probably go on inventing prizes for everyone. Which is ultimately the greatest pleasure and reward of the whole week: following the whimsy and creativity of all these wonderful wordie-nerdie-musical types. Congratulations to everyone, and a big thank you to the OM for making all this happen.
I’ve been too pressed for time, alas. And so, as the clock ticks down to the announcement of the final results, I will simply put in my personal vote for what I think is the best, the most compleat, the most brilliant, the most poetic, and the most beautiful of #operaplots – the one that should stand as a model for us all:
Amatory lepidopterist traps fragile specimen among Nagasaki cherry blossoms. Fumbling to release her, he crushes her instead.
And I swear, if @primalamusica doesn’t win this time, I will eat a plate of tomatoes!
And here follow my final 13 entries in the 2010 #operaplot competition. A few more reprises from last year, but also some eleventh-hour inspiration.
You know it’s getting too meta when onstage chamber music takes over the overture & we launch into a conversation piece about Art #operaplot
17. Bliss (2)
Be still my beating heart; the dead white-suited male wakes to a polonaise. Hell, it seems, is a bass clarinet; heaven is Honey. #operaplot
19. La Cenerentola
“And what is the use of a Cinderella,” thought Alice, “without glass slippers or pumpkins?” #operaplot #rossinidowntherabbithole
21. Oedipus Rex
Son abandoned after patricidal prediction, kills father anyway AND marries his mother. That kind of thing will turn you blind. #operaplot
22. La Gioconda
Hello muddah, hello faddah, I’m in love w/ Gioconda! But she hates me (so enticing), And goes in for all this noble sacrificing. #operaplot
One of my favourites from last year – nearly forgotten!
23. Lucia di Lammermoor
How do you solve a problem like Lucia? How can a marriage splice the feuding kilts? (Madness, death & the moonbeam’s out of hand) #operaplot
Brutalised Soldat leads a dissonant existence; stabs inconstant mistress; only saved from serial crime by accidental drowning. #operaplot
What’s the Joyful feeling when the opera’s Harried hero dies three times (so the author said), but nobody dies at the end? Bliss! #operaplot
2. A double bill: Prima la musica…/Der Schauspieldirektor
First the music then the [Italian] words? Or a flustered impresario auf Deutsch? Opera vs Singspiel playoff in Joe 2’s orangerie. #operaplot
He had a hunch, the Duke was up to no good. Precautions futile: between ducal charm & noble curse Gilda didn’t stand a chance. #operaplot
4. Doctor Atomic
The nuclear-physical Trinity meets the metaphysical three-person’d god in Adamsian setting. John Donne wins. #operaplot
5. The Golden Cockerel (aka Le Coq d’or)
Ki-kiri-kuku! Silly recumbent king finds that relying on avian warning system for border control costs him sons, bride and life. #operaplot
6. The Invisible City of Kitezh or the Maiden Fevronia
Saintly forest maid weds prince (cue balalaikas) Tartars disrupt honeymoon (cue Bb min) Ghostly reunion in misty city (cue bells) #operaplot
7. The Merry Widow (aka Die lustige Witwe)
Pretty respectable widow & proud former flame waltz around the matter of money in the shadow of the Pontevedrian economic crisis. #operaplot
8. Dialogues of the Carmelites [with thanks to the Met Opera quiz]
Begins in French. Shy miss flees aristo danger for Carmelite cloister. Martyrdom not quite the plan. Ends badly and in Latin. #operaplot
9. Der Rosenkavalier
The horns orgasm and it’s all downhill from there in the face of young love. Who’s it by? Mozart: you can tell from the costumes #operaplot
10. The Telephone (Menotti) [with thanks to Verizon]
Can you hear me now? [No] Can you hear me now? [No] Damn phone. [Goes out] Can you hear me now? Good. Will you marry me? Yes! #operaplot
11. The Beggar’s Opera
Polly is a sad slut: finds upwardly mobile marriage is more encumbered than suspected. Madness & folly in a totally Gay pastiche. #operaplot
12. Giulio Cesare [in tribute to Yvonne Kenny]
See the conquering hero comes (wrong #operaplot) while she bathes in ass’s milk. Revenge & plotting saves her throne but the bath gets cold.
And the Omniscient Mussel has just reminded me that #operaplot is happening again. Not that I’d forgotten exactly, but I hadn’t been paying proper attention to the dates.
And it’s this week. Yikes!
Entries open Monday 26 April at 9am EST. And I don’t think that’s Australian EST, so Sydneysiders are best to wait until after 11 o’clock tonight just to be on the safe side.
Entries close on Friday 30 April at midnight (or 2pm on Saturday). Thank God it’s only a week or I would get nothing done.
Non-winning entries from the past are eligible, so those of us with treasured rejects can dust them off and send them out on another attempt. But half the fun is inventing the things, of course. The other half is following everybody else.
The entry limit is ten (your first ten contributions, anything after that is sheer indulgence). Unfortunately @FAKEfrindley was outed last time, although no one’s exactly saying you can’t enter from more than one account…
So off you go, get ye a Twitter account if you don’t have one already, and operaplot!
For geeky Mac-using types I recommend the Smultron text editor as a drafting tool (Smultron is Swedish for strawberry, by the way). It’s very simple, which is good for creativity, and it counts characters as you go.
The risk you run when making a movie about important musicians from history is that the pedants will be out in force. Salieri didn’t really plan to poison Mozart or make masked visitations, for example. There are really only two solutions. One is to make a truly great movie (which is why no sane person cares whether Amadeus is ‘historical’ or not). The other is to bore the pants off the pedants.
This is the solution adopted by the creators of Coco & Igor.
In theory, I should have liked this film a great deal: I’m interested in fashion history, I’m a Chanel No.5 girl, I adore Stravinsky’s music, and anything involving a substantial re-enactment of the premiere of The Rite of Spring must surely be a winner. But it left me unmoved, and by the second half I was stifling yawns continuously. Because – and there is really no getting ’round it – Coco & Igor is not a good movie.
First, an incident that might warrant a sentence in a book or a few minutes in a bio-documentary has been expanded beyond its means to fill two hours. This fleeting relationship is not a two-hour story. In fact, as a fellow sufferer kept pointing out to me, Stravinsky’s relationship with Vera Sudeikina (which followed hot on the heels of the fling with Chanel) and their eventual marriage is far more significant and interesting.
Vera is also reported to have been more beautiful than the real Coco. You wouldn’t know this, of course, because the film casts in the role of Coco a beautiful and willowy actress-model (and representative of the House of Chanel, incidentally). She does justice to the gorgeous clothes, but not so much to the script, which is minimalist, or to the emotions, which smoulder with the uniform stoniness of the modern catwalk. She is extraordinarily tall. Perhaps this is why her Igor must be a foot or so taller than he was in real life. They both look rather good in the nude. Repeatedly.
I give brownie points for the extended opening sequence showing the premiere of The Rite of Spring. (And for what sounded like a French bassoon.) The BBC documentary, Riot at the Rite, captured the ballet better and more completely, but it was spoilt a little by its English-accented audience shouting things like ‘utter twaddle’. At least the heckling in Coco & Igor is in French.
And Gabriel Yared doesn’t do too badly in creating a complementary soundtrack in a Stravinskian vein.
Someone has done some research, working into the plot Chanel’s financing of the December 1920 revival of The Rite… (to the tune of Fr.300,000), which used Roerich’s original costumes and decor but with revised choreography by Massine. But it’s probably best not to look too closely at the timeline in relation to the affair (winter 1920/21). Nor worry that Chanel’s foray into Ballets Russes costume design was later, for Cocteau’s Le Train Bleu (1924), or that Ernest Ansermet conducted the revival, not Stravinsky. Ah, picky details!
Someone – possibly the same someone – seems to think that Stravinsky practically recomposed The Rite of Spring for the revival. (Not so. Some very minor revisions were made, but after the score was published in 1921.) Even more amusing is the fond belief that composers spend their time playing over music that they composed six or seven years ago.
I can’t deny that it was all very beautiful: the aloof decor of Chanel’s villa, the period clothing eye candy. But I was left questioning the motivation behind this movie. For example, the conclusion involves a completely unnecessary ‘flash forward’, with a doddery Stravinsky yet again picking out that bassoon solo on the piano and a very elderly Coco wearing an iconic Chanel suit. I can’t help thinking that this sequence is there primarily to get on screen an example of a post-1920s Chanel design (the Chanel design), which otherwise couldn’t have been featured. The ‘aimable’ collaboration with the House of Chanel acknowledged in the credits seems to have dipped in the direction of a branding exercise.
Meanwhile, there is no genuine drama or convincing storytelling to compensate for the infelicities or the tedium. It’s not sufficient just to be good looking. I call it utter twaddle.
I like Brett Dean’s Bliss enough to have seen it three times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it problematical. The stumbling block for me has been the ending, which (at its core) is simply not very operatic, or even theatrical.
The first performance I saw left me feeling slightly deflated, as if I’d just read to the end of a certain kind of New Yorker short story. Like the woman I overhead at another performance, I was thinking “That’s it then…” At this point I still hadn’t managed to finish reading Carey’s novel, so I heard Act III of the opera with no idea of what was in store other than curiosity as to whether Harry would actually die that third time. After I had finished the novel, it seemed to me that Brett Dean and Amanda Holden had dealt very well with the challenges presented by the book itself, which meanders to its conclusion in a way that isn’t suited to theatre.
And after tonight I’ve decided that New-Yorker-short-story is the wrong analogy.
Here’s what really happens: Acts I and II are Harry Joy’s story. He’s the one you care about, the one whose struggles you share. But Act III is really Betty Joy’s story. She becomes the one whose ambition, pain and self-destruction draws empathy. A certain kind of good opera ends with someone dying, and as one person said to me, half joking, Bliss could easily end with Betty’s inflammatory suicide (not necessarily musically spectacular, but dramatically spectacular). That’s not entirely true, but you get the point. After the Board Room scene, the conclusion is something of an anticlimax. And I realised tonight that if Bliss weren’t strictly speaking all about Harry, then the final scene would probably be labelled in the libretto as the Epilogue.
You know what an epilogue is…
“No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there needs none to be blamed.…But come, your Bergomask: let your epilogue alone.”
But the players in Bliss are not all dead, and Harry must be there at the end, no question, and so we get the final scene, In Elysium. It’s not a Shakespearean epilogue, an “apology” and summons to applause, it’s more like the final chapter of a Regency novel. All the action has come to a conclusion, but we must needs find out what happens to the characters after and be given something improving, and possibly epigrammatic, to take away:
“If you would seek salvation, remember this:
a life in Hell can still aspire to BLISS.”
I’m not the first to say this, but it sure is bliss to have the libretto of a new opera reproduced in the program. Bravo Opera Australia!
I should have known… Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony is on the program this week and at some point it was going to come up: this matter of clapping after the third movement.
In many ways the applause question is a big yawn. When Alex Ross’s recent lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society turned out to be largely focused on the traditions and perils of concert applause, it occurred to me that the ABC orchestras were publishing similarly thought-provoking articles on applause back in 1994. And as one of the SSO’s fans reminded me this evening, Peter Goldsworthy’s novel Maestro (1989) offers its own brief commentary on concert-hall convention. [When earnest young concertgoer Paul shakes his head rudely at those clapping between movements, old concertgoer Herr Keller – musician and music teacher – makes a point of clapping himself.]
So what to do about the Pathétique? It’s a trap.
Everything about the third movement prompts the sensitive, uninhibited listener to applaud at the end of it. At the premiere they did. (After all the movements actually.) And you have to assume Tchaikovsky was expecting this. So is he playing up to expectation by writing something which you simply can’t resist applauding? It’s possible. The slow finale then emerges not just from the brittle triumph of the third movement but from under the echo of tumultuous applause. There’s real drama and tension in that, and Tchaikovsky would have known it.
On the other hand, if generations of modern listeners – trained by recordings to expect neatly sliced silences between movements – do the counter-intuitive thing and hold their applause after the third movement, so be it. This has its own tension and drama: the unnatural, unnerving hush following that euphoric coda, an almost palpable “sitting-on-hands”, and then the sighing opening of the finale.
For my part, I can enjoy the dramatic effect of either, which is just as well, since there’s no predicting – and certainly no controlling – what an audience will do.
In the Pathétique there are really only two potential mishaps which have the power to spoil the drama, and neither rests in the hands of the audience: the conductor who ploughs on into the fourth movement under enthusiastic applause, and the conductor who mocks the applauding audience.
My solution as a program editor? It seems patronising to tell people how or when to respond to music. But it’s pointed out in two separate spots that the third movement sounds like it could be the end of the symphony but isn’t. What readers choose to do with that information is up to them.
This post is not really about the opera Bliss, but an incidental thought brought on by it, in particular by the ending, over which I’ve been mulling. (What could have made it more satisfying in dramatic, theatrical terms? And has it been hindered by the structure of the novel?)
Anyhow. In the novel, Harry Joy has a way with stories, a certain rascally charm and a white-suited panache.
More important, he is killed – finally – when a log of wood falls on his head.
So does that make him a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac figure?
Cyrano is an opera as well, at least twice over that I’m aware of, but this one will do.
Not being a true opera buff, it so happened that I saw Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time in my life on Tuesday night. I knew only one part of it, the very beginning:
How the opening happens to be engraved in my memory is a curious story. It was played to us in Year 8 elective music as a dictation exercise and for some strange reason it’s stuck with me ever since. I’m not sure why, since I couldn’t name even one other work that was introduced to us in this way. I may have been especially attracted to the set of intervals on the words “We do wander everywhere”. Or maybe it was the glissando strings accompaniment, which wreaked havoc with our efforts to write down the melodies.
I’m quite pleased to have been able to unearth it on YouTube, especially since the only version I could find also happens to demonstrate that superbly reedy Spanish choirboy effect (Catalan, actually) that I was hankering for at times on Tuesday. Curiously, it shares echoes of the bilious green, blue and pink colour scheme in OA’s Baz Luhrmann production, but (I’m guessing) its moon remains that classic nail-paring shape for the duration of the performance.
Which brings me to the only truly annoying thing about the Luhrmann production (surely an achievement – I’m easily irritated). Perhaps because of Athens’ new-found sub-continental proximity to the Equator, the moon changed phase several times in the evening. And yet I did always think the whole point of Shakespeare’s play was that the forest adventures took place in one magical night.
But this was a very small thing – and it wasn’t enough to dampen the magic. This production deserves all the acclaim it’s earned. It’s bold, it’s imaginative and, most important, it’s sensitive to music, text and spirit. It’s a brilliant move to get the orchestra out of the pit and onto the on-stage rotunda and in doing so bring the staging further forward into the audience. If there was a downside to this, some of the orchestral balance seemed off at times. The harpsichord, for example, would emerge from the texture mid-phrase and at other odd times, and then be perplexingly inaudible in moments when I’m convinced it would have been playing. (Someone who knows and loves the piece well confirmed my suspicions on this front.) But it was nice to see the musicians as actors within the production: costumed and with a “part” to play that went beyond the usual black-garbed anonymity.
I wasn’t the only one to mark Tobias Cole’s stunning diction (and gorgeous sound): it’s a rare enough thing to be at an opera in English and not feel the slightest urge to check the surtitles. Could the interpretation have been more dangerous and oozing with the power-plays that underpin Oberon’s games? Perhaps. But I’m not sure – on one hearing – that this is in Britten’s opera; perhaps it’s only in my reading of the play, which for various reasons I’ve come to know best of all Shakespeare’s works.
All of which tells me that Britten’s Dream deserves more of my attention. And since I don’t listen to operas on recording if I can possibly help it, I guess this means I’ll need to go see it again. Once anyway.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere…
One of the things my ballet teacher taught me was that everything – everything – should look effortless, regardless of how much work you were doing or how difficult the steps might be. We were never to be like the tightrope walker who sets out to make you gasp at the danger and the risk.
Two concerts last week reminded me of this.
From the program book of a set of piano recitals: Joyce Yang commenting on how “the hardest thing with Chopin is to make it as effortless as possible”; Bernd Glemser said something similar (not quoted) in his conversation. Whereas the more dazzling of Liszt’s pyrotechnics might occasionally seem calculated to elicit oohs and aahs from an audience, there’s none of that in mature Chopin. Even the most brilliant and powerful moments must seem easy and effortless to the listener, with no edge-of-the-seat anxiety or fear of missed notes. And Joyce Yang is right, it’s probably one of the hardest things with Chopin.
My ballet teacher was talking to 10 year olds. The more complicated truth is that sometimes choreographers quite deliberately set up a “tightrope walker” effect. You get it in the famous 32 fouetté pirouettes in Swan Lake and the nail-biting Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty – spinning and balancing acts respectively. Of course the dancer still strives for effortlessness and grace but, all the same, you are meant to sit there, holding your breath, and be utterly impressed.Ravel does this in the opening of his G major piano concerto, which offers some kind of fiendish difficulty to just about everybody, beginning with the piccolo. When you listen to Ravel himself conduct the first movement (a whole minute quicker than anybody else – eek!), it’s hair-raising. And after hearing it again in concert this week I’ve come to the conclusion that this is precisely the effect he wants: to make it sound like everyone’s hanging in there by the skin of their teeth, even when the execution is perfect. Just another reason why this concerto makes me think of circuses.
A few days ago The Times pulled together “the cream of British talent” to suggest how they would transform the traditional audience for a new concert. Sorry, Freudian slip there: “how they would transform the traditional concert for a new audience.”
As the deliciously irreverent Proper Discord says, “The responses range from visionary to downright retarded.” Personally, I’m with the commenter who cringes at any headline containing “to the masses”. Bloody condescending indeed.
But what really jumped out at me was a comment from pianist James Rhodes. It’s not new thinking, I’ve read the same comment hundreds of times before, it’s practically become an unthinking cliché devoid of meaning, like “relevant”. But for some reason, the context of his remarks brought to the surface an idea that’s been niggling at the back of my brain for ages.
Anyway, here’s what he said:
“Musicians should be seen as just like anyone else.”
The first thing I wonder is if what James Rhodes is proposing does actually show us musicians as “just like anyone else.” Or does it in fact emphasise that musicians are not just like anyone else at all?
Which is not a problem in the slightest, because the second thing I wonder is whether audiences (regulars or newbies) really do want musicians to be seen as “just like anyone else” – on stage and in performance at least. Really. Is that what we want? I don’t think so.
When I go to the theatre or the opera or the ballet or a concert, I most emphatically do not want to see performers who are just like anyone else. I want to see and hear artists who represent the best in their field, I want to be wowed by tremendous performances, to be moved. I don’t want ordinary; I want extraordinary. And I don’t particularly want the performers breaking the fourth wall with a view to showing me how “ordinary” they really are or to tell me what it all means to them. That would spoil the magic. With good reason we never ask this of other artists in the performing arts (the dancers, the singers, the actors), but it’s continually being suggested of classical musicians that they should do this – in performances.
[Just to be clear: I’m not talking about all the various things that performing artists can do, outside their performances, which might reveal their personalities, foibles, passions and so on, this is about what happens in concerts.]
But let’s get tangible. Here’s just one example (and it’s something that audiences complain about):
When a musician turns to their stand partner and looks glum instead of acknowledging enthusiastic applause, they’re showing themselves to be just like any one of us in the audience – it’s the equivalent of rolling your eyes to a colleague as you walk out of a long and frustrating meeting, which, needless to say, has never really taken off as paid entertainment.
In this and countless other ways, classical musicians already show themselves to be just like anyone else. Of all the performing artists, they’re actually way ahead in this game of demonstrating ordinariness on stage. We see them and we can tell if they’re reserved or outgoing, we can often tell if they’re in good spirits or not, we get to hear orchestral musicians warm up in our presence (and whether you love it or loathe it that’s a very personal and “exposed” thing to be doing), and it can be very easy to tell what musicians think of the performance that’s just taken place, whether it’s the exhausted, glum look or the excited stand-rapping for a soloist they admire. There’s a remarkable degree of candour present in classical concerts already.
Now I’m not entirely disagreeing with James Rhodes. Music deserves to be shared, absolutely. Concert audiences don’t want to be lectured to. Audiences much prefer for performers to have stagecraft, to use their body language to acknowledge the audience and to invite them into a musical world, even without necessarily saying a single word. It’s a post-concert thing, so strictly outside the scope, but I think it’s great that he goes to the foyer bar afterwards to chat with patrons: I’d just love to see more venues keep the foyer bar open afterwards, punkt.
[However, I do think it’s ok if the audience is down here and the performer is up there: it means I’ll be able to see and hear him. Small thing, that. And I am cross that he perpetuates the tired old line about bad program notes. Come on, people: there are well-written program notes that support the artist’s vision; if presenters publish unhelpful or irrelevant ones that’s not a reason to diss the form altogether.]
But the nub of it is that James Rhodes belongs to a growing group that likes to talk [from the stage] about what the music means to him. So let’s think about that. I’d say, if he does that well and in a way that’s illuminating, then this is actually another way in which he demonstrates that he is not like anyone else. Because relatively few people – including more than a share of performing musicians – have a gift for writing or speaking about music in a way that’s meaningful or revealing. It’s genuinely difficult to do. If a musician can do it well, then it becomes something extraordinary, and a part of the performance, of the stagecraft. (I won’t say “act”, but that would be another way of thinking about it.)
I would also say, that for most of us in the audience, if we enjoy the experience of a musician speaking from the stage it’s not because it’s enabled us to regard them as ordinary or “like us”, but because it’s been a well-crafted, enjoyable and illuminating element in the performance. It will have revealed not just something of the performer’s personality and approach but something of the music itself. Above all, it will have helped us do the thing we came for, which is to listen and to really hear. [Of my recent experiences the Diotima Quartet talking about Ligeti achieved this beautifully.] If talk from the stage leaves us thinking of the musician as just like anyone else then chances are it’s being done badly (after all, doesn’t everyone quail at the thought of public speaking?), and it almost certainly won’t have made for a better concert.
So let’s get off this cracked record of an idea that classical musicians will somehow enjoy more success in the modern world if they appear to be just like anyone else – in performances. They’re not like anyone else and I don’t think we want them to be. If they’re going to talk from the stage, something which requires its own artistry, the question has to be: Will this make for a better concert?
And so while this isn’t new, or even groundbreaking, I’m going to share it anyway: The The Impotence of Proofreading.
I like Taylor Mali a lot (there’s another great one called “What Teachers Make”). Perhaps if he’d been in my staffroom I could have contemplated teaching another term. Actually, that’s a lie – the lure of putting on concerts was always going to win out. It’s best if I leave other people to change the world one 8th grader at a time.
On Saturday afternoon one of Australia’s more prominent composers was booed at a concert. Not as a composer but as a representative of the world’s largest presenter of chamber music.
Why? Said presenter has stopped offering pre-concert talks. There were people in the audience who were pissed off by that and I think I sympathise.
Of course, I’ll say straight off that I can sympathise with the presenter too, because they tour their ensembles to cities around the country. Where I can hire one speaker to talk about a program three or four times, they’ve been hiring five or so different speakers to talk about the same program once each. The standard has been variable, they say.
[But you know, I’m not so sure that admitting the variable standard in public is good form. It’s tantamount to announcing from the stage that some of your speakers aren’t any good. I’m sorry, but if your speakers are good enough for you to have hired them, the least you can do is not implicitly defame them. And as the rationale for an unpopular decision it doesn’t hold much weight with those audiences who’ve been enjoying the excellent talks. Anyway, moving right along…]
I also sympathise with the fact that some venues can’t accommodate the audience numbers that a strong talks program deserves. A talk venue might be packed to standing room, but if the capacity is 80 or so people then the audience reach is curtailed right there.
And I’m hugely sympathetic to the desire to reach a wider audience in flexible ways by doing stuff online – enthusiastic, actually. This is excellent: it extends what you do to audiences with different expectations, different lifestyles, and different ways of seeking information.
But mostly I’m sympathising with the audience in this instance, and here’s why:
The loss of the pre-concert talks hasn’t really been compensated for. I don’t mean that many who would have attended the live talks can’t access the online alternative (although that’s true), or that the video format isn’t very conducive to being enjoyed as close to the concert as possible (i.e. while travelling), I’m referring to the fact that nothing’s been offered that fulfils the same all-important function.
A suite of videos (Online Concert Talks they’re called) is the designated replacement. The official claim is that they offer “a deeper dimension to the concert experience”, but in fact they don’t have much to do with the concert experience at all, being brief compartmentalised expositions of individual works. Such things can be useful, but if you enjoy pre-concert talks, you’ll know that’s not what you rock up half an hour early to hear.
A good talk is part of the evening’s, or afternoon’s, entertainment [heresy alert]. As well as aspiring to the same level of imagination and flair as the art form it introduces, it provides a transition from daily flurry into the kind of concentration that music demands, and an aural prelude that sets your mind on trains of thought that really can enhance your experience of the concert. Videos that you must watch ahead of time at your PC can’t do this; a downloadable audio format that you can listen to in your car might come closer.
A good talk isn’t a set of verbal program notes; it encourages you to use your ears, to make comparisons, to listen for relationships in places you weren’t expecting them, and to really pay attention to the music you’re about to hear.
And above all, a good pre-concert talk is about the concert, that is, it helps you get a handle on the program as a whole and appreciate the programmers’ vision. After all, anyone can swot up on the individual pieces and the lives of composers with the help of Professor Google, iTunes and the public library. (Furthermore, plenty of concert-goers do exactly that. And they purchase recordings in advance, as a Fish insider has told me.) But one of the reasons people go to concerts, apart from the immediacy of live performance, is because we want to enjoy the results of the artists’ and programmers’ curatorial efforts – because we hope that their selection of repertoire with its contrasts and balances, internal links, alignments and unexpected insights will be part of the pleasure. And only the concert presenter – via its published materials and its speakers – can explain and justify and illuminate that. That’s where the insights (as opposed to information) come from.All of which is why the Online Concert Talks in their current format aren’t going to satisfy those talk-goers, even were they to be sent to them on DVD or screened in a room before the concert. I didn’t boo, but my heart went out to those who did.
All the hoo-ha about Men at Work’s “Down Under” and its reference to the “Kookaburra” round has reminded me of another flute riff.
Listen carefully at 2'01".
Whose publisher will be suing orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and which symphony has been quoted?
A [long] postscript…
Although I didn’t follow the Kookaburra/Down Under case especially thoroughly or with anything approaching legal expertise, I read enough to find the result disturbing.
First, many musical people didn’t notice the similarity until it was pointed out to them – I know I didn’t. One of the reasons for this is that the melodic idea in question is fragmented and combined with other motifs, another is that it’s so fleeting. [Sorry Dr Ford, the reason school children don’t sing “Kookaburra” at the tempo of “Down Under” has nothing to do with their “age and ability” and everything to do with their good musical instincts – the round would be ridiculous and unsatisfying if sung that fast.]
Another, much more important, reason for the melodic similarity passing unnoticed is that the harmonic context is quite different. Not only is there a change from major to minor tonality [which is not the same as transposing something to a new key in the same mode, even a mug like me without perfect pitch can hear that], but the chords in relation to the home key and the harmonic rhythm in relation to the melody are different in each case. We do hear and recognise themes in their harmonic contexts.
Of course, just because a quotation remains largely unnoticed at first, including (it seems) by its performers, doesn’t make it more or less right. I recognise that. My point is that the melodic similarity went unnoticed because the motif was so radically changed in the process of incorporating it into the song, apparently to the extent that the creator of the riff didn’t register at first what he’d done. So at what point does copying stop and originality begin?
For example, the first six notes of opening theme in Mahler’s Blumine follow the same contour (in the same key) as the big tune in the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony (about 8 minutes in). So is that theft? Was Mahler even aware of the similarity before they pointed it out on Spicks and Specks? (Possibly not, although some have proposed this as a reason for him removing the movement from his own first symphony before it was published.) Should Simrock have sued? At least one of my colleagues dismisses the similarity as an inconsequential coincidence, yet it’s much closer than the similarity between “Kookaburra” and the “Down Under” flute riff.
A better comparison, perhaps, is Stravinsky, who used the music hall tune “Elle avait un' jambe en bois” in Petrushka, mistakenly thinking it was a folk tune in the public domain. He ended up having to pay a royalty to Mr Emile Spencer every time Petrushka was performed. But that seems fair: Stravinsky uses the tune in full and in a recognisable way. You could say he appropriates it. I’m not sure you could say that of Men at Work and “Kookaburra”.
My completely inexpert response is that a tiny quotation (tiny in absolute terms, not the proportional terms the lawyers are using†) that is so thoroughly reworked and adapted into the fabric of a song becomes a fresh idea of its own. Any relationship to the original – to the extent that this is conscious or even recognised – is one of tribute, not theft. A quotation like this in no way diminishes or detracts from the original nor does it establish itself as a replacement for the original song (which might then have deprived the copyright owner of income). That’s why the decision seems to me both unfair and a blow to creativity.
† Part of the problem in the Kookaburra/Down Under case is that what would have been 4 per cent if quoted from a typical pop song (and maybe 0.05 per cent of a 19th-century symphony), turns out to be 25 per cent of a four-bar singing round. Suddenly four beats of music is a “substantial” as well as substantive portion.
A post postscript…
Did anyone else notice that iTunes is selling “Down Under” for AU$2.19 while all the other songs on the Men at Work albums are the regular AU$1.69? Curious.
Alex asks why an Australian orchestra would outsource their program notes to an overseas writer
“…when Australia is practically bursting at the seams with unemployed musicologists (and other writers-about-music) who would jump at the chance to write their notes for them.”
In my own corner of the scene there are two main instances when I would publish the work of an overseas writer, “outsource” in other words:
The first is when the writer is an acknowledged expert in a particular composer or area of repertoire and I want to draw on that scholarship. To give a hypothetical example, Henry-Louis de la Grange on Mahler, and a real one, Peter Laki on Bartók. By doing this, I’m bringing to my readers an international level of expertise.
I’m doing the exact same thing, incidentally, when I commission writing from a local writer who is an internationally acknowledged expert, say, Larry Sitsky on Scriabin, or Richard Charteris on Gabrieli. [By the way, SYO, that’s the “genius of Gabrieli” you want on your postcard, not Gabrielli.] The writer’s location is immaterial, it’s the specialist expertise that counts. Going the other way, you could imagine an overseas presenter wanting to commission an Australian like Graeme Skinner to write on Sculthorpe, or Charteris on Gabrieli for that matter.
The second reason applies to certain obscure and rarely performed works, where it might be difficult to justify commissioning an original program note for what could be one publication. If there’s an existing note (in a CD booklet or from another presenter’s program) that’s in a suitable style, then sometimes it makes sense to seek a reprint from the writer, regardless of where they live. That’s fairly rare for me, though.
But there’s one scenario, by far the most common one, where I couldn’t even imagine looking overseas for an annotator. That’s the “standard” program or work requiring the treatment of a generalist. There are so many fine writers about music in Australia (and covering pretty much any style or approach you might be seeking) that there’s really no need to look further afield. Especially not if you’re a presenter that receives funding from Australian taxpayers and which therefore carries a responsibility to nurture the talent (performing, composing, administrative, etc.) that exists here.
But before you accuse me of being parochial, here are some other reasons why local writers are better (wherever your “local” might be):
On Saturday night I headed off to the ACO in search of a much-needed Mahler antidote. [For the record, I don’t dislike Mahler – and I’ve loved playing in his symphonies – but I do prefer him in occasional doses.]
It worked a treat. “Tognetti’s Mozart”, as they dubbed the tour program, was everything that Mahler’s music is not. (Well, nearly. I’ll come to that.) Classical in spirit, compact, lean, playful, sincere in its wit, fervent without being overblown. Add to that the pleasure of sparkling performances with impressive ensemble and imaginative direction.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto K218 was a highlight. I like it when musicians don’t try to take Mozart more seriously than he took himself. His musical humour is an appealing one, different from the wit of Haydn, who was represented by Symphony No.46. Where Mozart can inspire broad smiles, Haydn will prompt knowing ones. And when those smiles are shared between musicians as well as between composer and listener, there’s a feeling of vitality and shared love of music-making that emerges along with the rhetorical gestures. It also gave truth to the possessive of the tour title. Without sacrificing style, this really was an individual and distinctive interpretation.Speaking of style: more delight was to be had in discovering the playing of principal oboe, Anna Starr, living up to her name with sweet, polished performances on a historical instrument. In fact, the whole wind section (natural horns, oboes, bassoon) was impressive, leaving me wishing we could have heard even more from them in the second half.
As it was, the concert ended with a string orchestra arrangement of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, and after about 15 minutes of this I was wishing myself back in the presence of Mahler. Grieg’s charmingly original folk idiom and vibrant ideas weren’t standing up to extended development, and the quartet, which lasts for more than half an hour, seemed unsatisfyingly episodic and prolix as a result. As in the finale of Mahler 1, there are several points where you feel the music could end, and begin to wish it would. Not even the strength and richness of the performance could save the Grieg from its longeurs.
So perhaps this was not so much an antidote as a vaccine, which must resemble in some small way the thing from which you’re seeking immunity.
I’m considering making the postscript about the program book a regular feature, but I seem to have run out of green ink.
I’ve been known to leave concerts at interval, and opera too. But I’ve never done a half-show at the ballet and not at the theatre.
There is, however, a first time for everything, and on Tuesday night I wandered out of the STC’s Optimism (Tom Wright after Voltaire’s Candide) at the point where they flashed the sign “Drinks at the bar”. It wasn’t awful so much as lame – the “confection” (Wright’s word) was too reminiscent of an undergraduate revue, and just as uneven. Someone needs to buy a candy thermometer.
The very best moments (Abigail’s monologue, for example) tended to be those that stayed closest to Voltaire. Mixed in was a staggering variety of songs, a gentle kind of standup comedy and strange jokes, like the one about underwear fitting like a glove. Perhaps my heart wasn’t in it, but for something that was meant to be funny, I wasn’t able to manage much more than a wry smile at most of the silliness.
The first disconcerting thing was Barry Otto, projecting as a fine actor does, but miked. Too loud! And why does anyone need microphones in the SOH Drama Theatre anyway? Because of the singing, it turned out, and an often intrusive underscore. It probably didn't help that I was down front and to one side, too close to a speaker stack for comfort and not enjoying the forward-facing spotlights and industrial fans all that much either. For a romp – which is what I think its creators and performers were aiming for – it was often too “in your face”, literally.
And so I left Candide and his companions in Surinam with the gurgling slave. (That was actually quite impressive: Michael Hamish singing “I could be happy” at half tempo and sounding for all the world like he had mud in his throat.) I figured the second half was going to be much the same as the first, and – pace Dr Pangloss – I couldn’t muster any optimism.
I went to buy a program, as is my wont, and was startled to find the price had gone up to $12. I winced and handed over another gold coin. I winced again when I got home and realised that I had in fact purchased a set of discounted program vouchers with my subscription.
I have six minutes till pumpkin hour (yes, I know that’s the wrong fairytale) so no time to comment on the production in this post. But I do have time to say this:
Thank you, oh publications people at the Australian Ballet. For the first time (at least since the 70s) you have given us a program book that fits in a girl’s handbag. You wouldn’t believe how happy this makes me – how deliriously and irrationally overjoyed I am. Yee ha!
It’s a handsome number, with no compromise in its scope.
I’m just going to say one thing, which in no way diminishes my joy but which might have spoiled it if I were 15 or 20 years older: the body copy font is just too small. It’s 6.5 point by my reckoning (the embedded quotes are even smaller!) and although, unlike in concerts, there’s no need for it to be read in semi-darkness, it really wants to be at least 8.5 point or 9 point. For two reasons: the obvious one is legibility and reading pleasure; the other one is to avoid the page design looking as if an A4 design has simply been shrunk down all round to fit the new size.
Oh, and since I’m griping (joyously, of course): it would be so nice if the cast sheet, when folded in two, fit nicely inside the book without jutting out. After all, we’re being encouraged to sit these new programs “snugly” on our bookshelves, and the cast sheet is an essential record of the performance and the dancers seen, so we’ll want to keep that pretty snugly too. If 20mm were trimmed off the height of the cast sheet it would be perfect. Actually – wicked thought – I could do that myself: there’s a band of sponsor logos across the bottom… Ahem.
Now comes the nerdy complaint, which probably I and maybe two others will be making: those of us who keep our program books and actually plan to take them down to Croydon to get the bookbinder there to make them into annual volumes will be wondering why, oh why, couldn’t this change of program format be kept until the beginning of the 2010 season? Now I’ll have to bind the first three programs from 2009 in one book and keep this final one to be bound with the four from 2010 (assuming the format doesn’t change again). “Grr” is the customary response, I believe.
But ignore the whinges (especially the nerdy one). This was quite the nicest surprise of the year.
I go to the ballet alone. This, combined with the strange state of affairs that gives me mobile reception in the SOH Opera Theatre but not the Concert Hall, meant that I could tweet some of my immediate reactions to the Australian Ballet’s Concord triple bill as the evening progressed.
The one thing I didn’t tweet (and perhaps I should’ve) was the question that’s been bugging me all year: why is Concord called “Concord”, and how does the idea of agreement or harmony relate to what’s meant to be “a journey to the centre of modern ballet”? Is it too nerdy of me to want a satisfying explanation? (I’ve read the season brochure and the program book, and scanned the blog, which for all its excellent coverage of the development of the new works doesn’t seem to have stopped to ask this question…) But I’ll let the matter drop; glass houses and all that. In any case, this was a triple bill of three disparate pieces – there’s probably little point in forcing them together under some common theme.
Although the program book suggested the original plan had been otherwise, the evening began with Por vos muero (For thee I die) by Nacho Duato. I had seen this before (in 1998), but it was only the Australian Ballet’s repertoire list that reminded me of this. The Duato ballet that I did remember seeing was Jardi Tancat, from three years before that.
Part of me thinks that Por vos muero should have been left last on the program, because it was by far the most successful and satisfying piece of the evening. And that’s not just because it allowed me to spend 40 minutes or so listening to Jordi Savall and the Spanish repertoire he does so well. This dance work was intrinsically about dance itself. The refreshingly clear-headed summary of the ballet says it all:
“In the 15th and 16th centuries, dance formed part of the cultural expression of all people, including all social hierarchies. Por vos muero pays a tribute to the pivotal role that dance played in every social event during the Spanish Renaissance.”
This is a very simple but strong conceptual foundation. No surprise, then, that it works incredibly well. The dances and canzonas of the period provide a logical and grateful musical fabric – and much as I might lament that the music wasn’t live, I wasn’t exactly complaining. [The score incorporated poetry too; unfortunately the program didn’t include any translations, so I have no idea what this contributed to the overall work.] The choreography was marvellously musical, with just a hint of period gestures, more often in the patterns made on the floor than in the movements themselves. The costumes took us to realms of emerald green, violet and midnight blue within an overall darkness suggestive of old Spanish paintings. Again, there were discreet period touches. The women’s skirts, in particular, seemed almost formless, so unlike the highly structured garments of the Renaissance, but the magic was in the way they took shape when in motion. The props were similarly abstracted (masks for example) until real censers made an appearance with what, from stalls row J, smelled like real incense.
Scuola di ballo, which followed, was the opposite in every respect. Where Por vos muero was subtle, richly sensuous and beautiful, Scuola was highly coloured and heavy-handed. Even high camp needs a light touch if it’s to yield frothy comedy.
I’ve not seen the original (footage resides in the National Film and Sound Archive), so I’m not sure whether to point the finger at Alexei Ratmansky or Léonide Massine, who created the ballet in 1933. What I am sure of is that I like Boccherini, I like Françaix, I like Goldoni, and my impressions of Massine’s works in the past (Les Présages, Symphonie fantastique) have been very favourable. But I simply couldn’t find it in my heart to like Scuola di ballo.
Valerie Lawson’s fascinating program article about the “studio ballet” did Scuola no favours by bringing to mind far superior (Bournonville’s Conservatoire, Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun) or much, much funnier (Béjart’s The Competition) examples of the genre.
There was one very beautiful, admirable thing in Scuola – something for which I’m sure we can thank Massine. When the talented Rosine arrives in the class it is necessary for her to demonstrate her superior natural gifts. What’s telling (and lovely) is that she does this not with technical fireworks but with an expressive and musical adagio. Without going into specifics, I was very glad to see the message being given that razzle-dazzle does not equate with artistry, however much the former may make an audience erupt in squealing applause.
Por vos muero I could not fault; Scuola di ballo left me cringing. The final piece, Dyad 1929, prompted a mixed response. The music was the recent Pulitzer prize-winning piece by Steve Reich, Double Sextet. This work can be played by 12 musicians or by six with a pre-recorded tape. The program didn’t credit the 12 (or six) musicians, nor did it mention this rather interesting aspect of the musical score. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was six-plus-tape for this performance (although it may simply have been amplified sound that I was hearing), but I didn’t think to investigate the pit during interval and so can’t say for sure.
I’m going to be nice about the music, since it was commissioned by an ensemble for which I have a lot of admiration. Actually, I don’t need a pretext to be nice about it; this is a strong piece that deserves its accolades. But Reich’s pieces do have this one problem (for me). I like to close my eyes when I listen to them. Not because they’re soporific (as the unkind might say), but because I like to trace in my mind’s eye the subtle transitions of textures and harmony and to let the hypnotic aspects of the music take full effect.
So several times during the performance my eyelids drifted shut until some small voice reminded me that there was dancing to be watched! So take this with a grain of salt if you like: the choreography was very pleasing in its form and balance – let’s say its geometry – and impressive in its virtuosity.
My gripe with Dyad 1929 is with its stated concept, which is either half-baked or poorly explained. Where the inspiration and intent of Por vos mueros could be summed up in a few sentences, Dyad 1929 still didn’t really make sense after four paragraphs. Apparently aviation and the first flight over the South Pole was a key inspiration for choreographer Wayne McGregor, but you’d be hard pressed to see how that manifested itself in the final creative work. (Kate Scott’s blog post on the ballet admits that the other half of the diptych, Dyad 1909, was a much more literal realisation of McGregor’s interests.) Given that the ballet, in itself, had all the potential to be very satisfying, I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better to ditch the supposed inspiration, tribute to the influence of Diaghilev, yadda yadda, and simply offer it as the abstract work that it seemed to be.
Ultimately this is a matter not of choreography or of dancing, but of how the art form is presented to its audience. Yes, we in this modern age love words about art – we’ve inherited that tendency from the 19th century – but sometimes less is more and sometimes being more straightforward (vide Por vos mueros) and less clever or contrived (Dyad 1929) pays off. They say, for writing, that if you can’t express your ideas in a clear, simple way, then your ideas are probably faulty. Allowing for the fact that a choreographer’s mode of expression is movement rather than words, I do wonder whether the success and power of Nacho Duato’s ballets is related (cause? effect?) to the fact that his themes and concepts can be communicated, in words, so convincingly.
On Friday the 13th I had the good luck to hear a piano recital presented by City Recital Hall. Curiously, the only publicity I’d noticed for it was an e-newsletter I received, which sent me diving for my credit card. Advertising via the conventional outlets was either incredibly discreet or simply non-existent. But maybe the people at Angel Place know what they’re doing: when you’re presenting the kind of artist who impresses not through glamour and hype but through commanding pianism and profound musicality, perhaps the word will simply get around. In any case, although the upper gallery wasn’t opened, the rest of the hall was respectably full, and not just on the keyboard side.
The artist in question was Stephen Kovacevich – and I confess to being a fan. In recent years I’ve been known to put my hand up for interstate pre-concert talks on the grounds that he will be the soloist. Which points, among other things, to the fact that a Sydney appearance was long overdue. (I think his last visit here was for the concert in 2005 when Yannick Nézet-Séguin jumped for Maazel.)
He was playing Bach, Schumann and Beethoven, with the Diabelli Variations as the program culmination and highlight. From where I sat the recital got better and better as it went along, by the time I’d heard the tenderly shaped Schumann and the muscular conception of the Beethoven I was even more a fan than I was when it began. But in saying that I’m also admitting that I found the Bach strangely disappointing.
Who am I to fault a great musician and pianist like Stephen Kovacevich? Well perhaps I can’t when, as a colleague said, his Bach convinced on its own terms. It was intensely musical – true – but it didn’t quite convince me on Bach’s terms. A French ouverture in D major: this alone calls for a more dashing interpretation, one that calls to mind harpsichord flourishes and dancing articulations even as it exploits the singing potential of the piano. What we heard was more ruminative, almost too private in view of the rhetorical clues offered by key and musical gestures.
But ultimately this is a quibble: I’d happily rock up to hear the program all over again.
And that would be?
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Partita IV in D, BWV828
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op.15
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and People)
Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story)
Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff)
Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child)
Glückes genug (Happy Enough)
Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event)
Am Kamin (At the Fireside)
Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse)
Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious)
Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep)
Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120
[And here you can imagine, if you will, 33 lines of tempo indications, which I’m not going to type out here.]
I’ve taken the trouble to list the program in detail because the presenter didn’t. The program sheet, such as it was, looked like this.
Now, believe it or not, I have no problem with a simple program sheet, listing the pieces, sans notes. But when that sheet contains minimalist publicity titles and nothing more about the music I get cross: that a major venue in a major city presenting a major artist should so neglect its audience is embarrassing as well one mammoth missed opportunity.
When there are no program notes it’s even more essential that the program listing contain all the necessary details. So much can be gleaned from these: the key gives advance orientation of mode (and in baroque music, character); composer dates help place the work historically; opus numbers suggest when in the composer’s career the work was written; a formal title will convey useful facts such as the kind of theme and the number of variations; translations are a courtesy; and, above all, movement headings aid navigation as the music progresses and, in the case of a piece like Kinderszenen, are absolutely essential to appreciating what the composer is doing and following the emotional journey.
Perhaps it was thought that the audience would be almost entirely piano connoisseurs, familiar with these three works from the standard repertoire and so not needing that kind of detail in their “order of service”. But I disagree. I’ve studied the Bach as a piano student, I’ve played the Schumann for pleasure and I’ve written (at length) about the Beethoven, and still I would have appreciated having a detailed program listing. No one’s memory is perfect, and in the Schumann I could put names to only three of the miniatures. Meanwhile, what about the poor soul who might not be familiar the music?!
In any case, piano recital audiences in Sydney are more inclined to buy program books than nearly any other kind of concert audience – clearly they seek more information, not less. So if there’s one kind of concert where it’s worth going to the trouble of publishing a “proper” program it’s the kind that took place on Friday night.
Over at Standpoint magazine, the new home of Jessica Duchen’s blog, another conversation has started up on the perennial subject of program notes. My initial comment was on the long side, so I’m bringing a tangential thought over here rather than trespass further.
It’s this: when it comes to talking about writing in program books, we need to make a clearer distinction between technical terms (which can often be helpful) and jargon (which generally is not). [Disclaimer: jargon isn’t quite the right word, but it will have to do for now.]
Jessica’s piece was prompted by a column by David Lister in The Independent. It’s called “You need a PhD for a night at the opera” and going by the examples he gives from the Royal Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, he’s right. There are breezy references to Lacan, without the benefit of a wikipedia link, and beginnings like this: “Love is an act of radical transgression that suspends all sociosymbolic links and, as such, has to culminate in the ecstatic self-obliteration of death. The corollary to this axiom is that love and marriage are incompatible; within the universe of sociosymbolic obligations, true love can occur only in the guise of adultery.” As Thomasina would say, Eurghhh!
David Lister is right to complain about over-intellectualised writing that cloaks everything in abstractions. There’s a place for thinking and writing of this type, but perhaps not in the Royal Opera’s program book.
But it’s not right to conflate that particular flaw with a quite different one. Jessica conveys it with an analogy: “…can you imagine if the notes on the ballet set out a blow-by-blow account of the choreography, tracing every landmark grande pirouette, grand jeté and port de bras with in-the-know terminology spread as thick as marmalade?”
Bernard Shaw made his own analogy by analysing Hamlet’s soliloquy:
“Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognise the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.”
Personally I find technical terms – in any art form – far less offensive than the abstract jargon that’s sometimes trotted out, especially in the visual arts and in certain kinds of theatre.
After all, a word like “pizzicato” or “tremolo” or “chord” or even “recapitulation” ultimately refers to something real and tangible: you can see/hear it, you can attach a real experience to the technical word. That’s why kiddies have no trouble learning all this and more when they’re studying practical music.
Yes, technical terms can be over-used, or used inconsiderately. Some technical terms are simply too advanced for a diverse readership. But ultimately they lend themselves to being helpful because they are precise and tangible and, once known, they focus attention on specifics.
What is never helpful is the jargon, as I’m calling it, the loading of writing with abstractions (“where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings” anyone?). Instead of focusing the reader’s attention on things that can be seen and heard, this kind of writing fosters thinking that is both muddled and disengaged. Once you’ve deciphered it, you’re not necessarily any closer to noticing and appreciating the magical things that are happening on stage in front of you.
But it’s fair to say that the kind of obfuscation in program books that David Lister highlights is a trap that goes hand in hand with opera’s current obsession with the director and the “concept”. Fortunately, concert music (ironically a much more abstract art form) doesn’t lend itself to this approach. With the possible exception of a few old-guard new music circles – you’re unlikely encounter corollaries to axioms or suspensions of sociosymbolic links in concert program books.
At least not in the Antipodes…
So I wonder… will we be hearing little Prokofiev encores after each of our Mahler symphonies next year?
What would you put after the Symphony of a Thousand, for example? Something short, you’d hope. Has anyone arranged a Vision Fugitive for orchestra and large choir?
The other day FK of Classical Review posed the question: “Would more people get ‘into’ classical music by hearing it first on CD or in a concert hall?”
I’m assuming the question is about getting into classical music generally, as opposed to getting into specific musical works. And since it’s a hypothetical question as it stands, I’m going to turn it into something more personal if not necessarily more scientific:
What got you “into” classical music?
Was it hearing the music on recordings, was it hearing the music in the concert hall, was it hearing the music used in some incidental way (soundtracks, advertisements…), or was it something else?
This post is my answer. You’re invited to share a response in the comments, or to write your own blog post and leave a link here. (Does that make it a meme? Maybe.)
I got into classical music as a kid, when I was too young to be taken to formal concerts, but not too young to ask for my favourite records to be put on.
The family record collection was probably 75 per cent musical theatre and 25 per cent classical (orchestral) music. So strictly speaking, the musical genre that I first got “into” was musical theatre and I got into that solely via recordings, since I was in late primary school before I saw any musicals on the stage. (By contrast I’ve never been interested in recordings of opera and my interest in that genre is solely from performances.)
Anyhow, classical music. Recordings first. No prepping or priming or earnest guidance from my parents. The music was there simply to be listened to and enjoyed. I didn't particularly identify what I was listening to as “classical” music. It was all just music, from Scheherazade to Eagle Rock. I knew I preferred the Rimsky-Korsakov by a long shot, but I wasn’t making any particular genre distinctions with the exception of one: singing and no-singing.
But recordings were only part of the picture. There was a piano in the house, my big sister was taking lessons, and at some point I began fooling around, trying to work out notation with the aid of one of those paper charts that sit at the back of the keyboard and improvising what I called “fairy music”. This was probably maddening, formal lessons were in order!
But there’s more, and if this next factor wasn’t the real reason I got “into” classical music, it certainly has influenced my taste in the long term. It’s dance, specifically ballet. I first heard live orchestral music not in a concert hall but in the theatre, in a production of Giselle that I saw when I was about 6 or 7. The first accomplished pianist I heard play regularly was the ballet school accompanist. The music I most liked to listen to, I realise now, was often ballet music or at least well-suited to dance. My favourite mode of “listening” involved moving. There were plenty of concert works I heard for the first time in the theatre, for example Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (which I loved, aged 9) and Webern Opus 5 (which I hated, aged 14). And I grew up revelling in the colour and buoyancy of Russian and French music and the elegant rhythms and phrases of baroque music.
All in all, it was a gradual immersion that began at a very young age, first with recordings and then through the theatre. My attraction to classical concerts is really part of a bigger love for live performance generally, and it seems to have emerged as much from a childhood of going to plays and ballets as from the music itself.
To my shame, the memory of my earliest classical concerts is really hazy. There was my first studio concert, in which I played some little beginner piece in the midst of a program of lieder and advanced repertoire (the other students were all much older and mostly singers). My teacher also conducted the Western Sinfonia, and I recall going to a couple of those concerts, probably when I was in primary school. Around the same time there was the SSO concert in the Sydney Town Hall to which I was taken in fervent anticipation of seeing and hearing a harp. There was a harp, but not as soloist; I was very disappointed.
The first orchestral concert that I really remember was the SSO, in the Opera House, with Jean-Pierre Rampal as soloist. I was at least 12, because I’d begun learning flute. Mum and I set off with the primary goal of hearing Rampal play Mozart. I remember the concert so vividly because I emerged from it having lost all interest in Rampal, and Mozart – I had just heard Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Woah! Now that was exciting stuff. But by that time I was well and truly “into” classical music, I knew that was its name, and I also knew that I belonged to a nerdy little minority. And I didn’t care because I was in love.
Others are way more qualified to write about opera than I am, but I want to enthuse a little. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the scenario: someone who’d done a half-show at the previous OA production he attended raved to me about Peter Grimes. Enthusiastic reports came from one, two, three other trusted sources. So I knew I had to go, especially since I still bear the bruises from kicking myself for missing Billy Budd. The final prod came in the form of an attractive rush price. Now there were no “barriers”, as the marketing bods would say. It turned out to be one of those nights where I saw a lot of familiar faces. Heaps of industry acquaintances and colleagues, performers, various “important people”, the odd composer. This was good to see: an audience full (literally full) of the kind of people whose opinions are likely to hold sway.
I’d not seen this opera or listened to it in its entirety before. Like many orchestrally biased music-lovers, my appreciation is for the Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes. But I’m not sure I’ve seen any Opera Australia production that I’ve liked better, has been better sung and played, or made more musical and dramatic sense.
The storm-painted curtain opens on a period piece, a town hall in all its sturdy detail, an interior not from the early 19th century but c.1940. It’s Britten’s era, in other words, not Crabbe’s, and Britten’s sympathies emerge unhindered. The hall becomes the set for the whole opera, shifting easily from indoor to outdoor communal spaces with just the subtlest of variations (some of them carried out by possibly the most illustrious stage-hand ever: Peter Carroll as the silent Dr Crabbe). There are basically no private spaces in this opera, barring one, which I’ll get to.
The set conveyed no real sense of the sea, and you could argue that this is a (minor) weakness when the music so overpoweringly redolent of the sea. But there’s reason in the madness, I think. First, the music needs very little help; its evocations are even more powerful for not being mirrored in any literal or naturalistic attempt to represent the sea or the shore. Second, and more important, it allows us to step back slightly from the plot and see the theme: this is an opera that ultimately is about community, public opinion, and gathering together vs social isolation and rejection. I think we can be sympathetic to Britten’s Grimes in a way that it’s nearly impossible to feel for the Crabbe Grimes because he’s recast as the dreamer and an outcast, battling futilely against an implacable, tight-knit community. Crabbe, on the other hand, portrays a Grimes whose sole motivation seems to be the desire to exert power over a weaker character. You don’t go all weepy when he goes mad with despair. You do when Stuart Skelton does.
The one truly private space is Grimes’s hut, in Act II. Here Neil Armfield proved that less is more. There’s an interlude. Dr Crabbe methodically clears the stage, then moves to the curtained platform at the rear of the hall and beckons it forward. And the whole wall moves, slowly, inexorably to the front of the stage proper. It’s the simplest thing, really, but the effect was oppressive and somehow damning. Shudder.
From Britten himself came tiny discoveries and exquisite pleasures. Some of the text setting in Widow Sedley’s part is astonishingly effective, with such striking colours in the accompaniment. Her amateur sleuthing and predictions of doom are clearly meant to be a pain in the proverbial, but I didn’t want it to stop.
There was no faulting the cast: Skelton as Grimes; Peter Coleman-Wright as Balstrode; Susan Gritton as the one character I can’t quite understand, Ellen Orford; some serious-looking casting in the supporting roles and an adorable pair of “Nieces”. Aside from the mad scene (or the scene in which the orchestra switches off its sconces and Grimes’s life totally falls apart), Skelton had me wowed with his amazing pianissimos. At one point he was singing so softly while projecting so unerringly, that, as was commented to me, it was as if he was singing from offstage. And then to bloom from that into a perfectly shaped crescendo. Stunning. Is there nothing he can’t do? But always in the service of the music. The same is to be said for Coleman-Wright.
I’m not sure how to sum this one up, because everything seemed so right and so wonderful and so moving. Let’s just say it was, without hesitation or question, a “stay to the end” evening at the Opera House. And that’s high praise.
There’s an interesting syndrome going around right now: it seems to be a circulatory problem as it results in cold feet, which in turn leads to the late changing of concert promotional titles. So tonight I heard “The Girl with the Golden Flute”, according to the subs brochure and the program book, or “Tchaikovsky Serenade”, going by the posters and recent advertising (not to mention the tumultuous applause this work received).
Alternatively, it could have been called The Girl with the Purple Frock, the said frock being a simple but elegantly shaped number in a lovely shade of royal purple. More’s the pity then that its wearer felt the need to keep tugging at the top of the bodice as if she feared it would fall down. I’m sure Chanel said something about how you should be able to put on your clothes, look in the mirror and then forget all about them. Goes double for stage wear.
While I’m on a clothing theme, the orchestra was decked out in new outfits which threaten to be selectively rather than universally flattering. I’m unconvinced about the capri pants for the women (exposed ankles work only on long and slender limbs), and there’s no agreement on exactly where on the leg the hem of the overdress should hit: it seems a bit too short on the taller women, oddly long on the shorter women. The men’s overshirts haven’t changed much that I could see, but are possibly more tailored – a good thing.
This program had always included an element of uncertainty: the idea was that in each concert you’d hear either the Vine flute concerto or one by Serebrier, together with another concerto by Izarra. Somewhere along the way Izarra was dropped from the concerts altogether and so we got both Vine and Serebrier. Or so it seemed.
A flute-playing friend who knows the Vine told me at interval that we hadn’t heard the whole piece, only (I think this was it) the third movement preceded by a portion of the second. The reference to structure in the SMH review suggested that the whole concerto had been performed on the Saturday at least. So maybe there was growing concern about the program being too long because, as so often happens with commissions, the new work by Peteris Vasks had turned out to be 25 minutes instead of the expected 10. Not that I was complaining on that point, Vasks being a favourite of mine and the music being really effective. (Now his is a flute concerto I’d like to play.)
When, after interval, the soloist came on with just her golden flute in hand, I began to have doubts about the Serebrier, which apparently features the alto flute in its fourth movement tango. It’s even called “Flute Concerto with Tango”; I’m guessing what we heard was just the Flute Concerto. And as the program annotator pointed out to me later, this made a nonsense of at least some of what had been published about the piece.
Left unexplained, discrepancies between program book and performance always bother me. And that’s not just a personal aversion to “mistakes”. If someone is genuinely trying to use the program as a navigational guide then they are either going to be misled or left confused if what they read doesn’t match what they’re hearing. I don’t think it’s too much for performers to announce from the stage (especially when they’re good at it) where changes have been made, perhaps even why, but at least what.
There was a little encore for solo flute. Apparently it was from Sweden. The composer’s name (spoken over laughter) sounded a little like Alfvén, the music not so much. In its modal qualities it reminded me more of those recorder variations that Jakob van Eyck wrote to entertain people strolling in the Utrecht cemetery (a popular pastime in the 16th century), only a whole lot more showy. The applause only confirmed that we’ve lost none of the pleasure we instinctively feel in admiring a virtuoso performance. Faster, Higher, Louder – it works for music too.
But no surprises for guessing that everyone was going to love the Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings best of all. It’s gorgeous, adorable music – made to be loved. The performance itself had an uncommon vigour that was instantly appealing. You could see (literally) some of the things that make a standing chamber orchestra so very attractive to an audience: that moment in the Elegie when four first violins angled their bodies in towards each other for a perfect, muted unison giving a visual complement to the aural effect; or when individual musicians leant across the ensemble, sharing melodies with counterparts in other sections. This stuff isn’t just for show, but it’s part of what makes a performance one. And when that happens you don’t really mind what name they give it.
There are critics who’ve been known to scurry out of a concert hall before the encores, lest this – and the audience response – somehow influence their assessment. Or the rationale might be that only the formal, planned portion of the concert is worthy of review. Others stick around, but might choose to make no mention of the encores.
That’s wrong, I think. Like them or not, encores are a part of the performance and invariably they are a planned element in the concert, even if they’re not publicised as such.
More important: encores can be terribly revealing – in choice and interpretation.
Orchestral encores are a rare treat in Sydney, and usually they are a treat. But last week I heard a couple that were no treat at all, despite being well chosen. In both cases, if I’d been assigning “points”, the concert’s score would have been lowered considerably by the encores, much in the way that a perfect 10 on the beam is squandered when the gymnast fails to stick her landing at the end. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to imagine the gymnast sticking her landing but then sticking her tongue out at the judges.
Which is kind of what happened. It almost made me wonder whether there mightn’t be a fundamental antipathy to encores behind it all (and later I heard that this is more or less the case). To which all I can say is, if you dislike them that much, stick to your guns and don’t play them; if you are going to play them, honour the music and the audience.
I’ll have to admit right now to being in a minority. Whether through genuine pleasure or misguided politeness, there were close on 2,500 people heaping up the applause while I and a handful of others sat numb. But what for?
On the first night it was a Brahms Hungarian dance so distorted, so grotesque, you’d swear Dali had gotten at it. Through the centuries – CPE Bach, Chopin, Debussy – we’ve had clear instructions and beautiful models for how a stylish and musical rubato works. You play with tempo on the surface, sure, but without ever losing sight of the underlying pulse; the rhythmic logic is always apparent, the integrity of the music assured. But this performance began with the beat pulled around like taffy, to the point of smearing the pulse altogether. (The score calls for none of this, by the way – there is a pause in the first bar, and shortly after that a three-bar slowing followed by a return to the initial lively(!) tempo, but that’s pretty much the extent of the liberties Brahms expects.)
It’s concert music, I know, but you couldn’t even have imagined dancing to this. It sounded like simple showing off: a demonstration of how far a phenomenal technique and an ensemble of fine musicians will allow you to stretch and contract the beat. Alas, the result had nothing with the composer’s intentions to do. Give me a less impressive technique and the humility of true musicianship any day. And I wish the review had mentioned it, because observations such as this one about the beautiful performance of the opening work – “an overriding strategy to carefully realise the composer’s precisely notated intentions” – were completely contradicted by what went unreported at the end.
Later in the week the pain was short and swift. Perhaps a little too swift: I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard the Trépak from Nutcracker skated quite so quickly. But on arriving home I was reminded that Gergiev’s recording takes it nearly as fast, only he understands that you have to give men (a) time to make those magnificent Cossack jumps, and (b) some downbeats to propel them into the air. This is a Russian dance after all, and it needs some virility. Again, it was all the more disappointing given that the opening work (Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead) had been given a performance that was not only impressively shaped but filled with obvious affection and respect.
Perhaps reviewers should pay more attention to encores and hold them to the same artistic standard as the main program, then presenters, performers (and audiences too) might be less inclined to regard them merely as essential crowd-pleasing fluff.
Other little girls wanted to be ballerinas (this I understood) and nurses (this I didn’t). My first serious ambition was to be a pirate.
This was thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson and my dad, who read Treasure Island to me on Saturday afternoons while sitting on the stoop of his workshop, with the result that tales of the high seas and buried treasure will always be accompanied for me by the faint aroma of sawdust. (Oh, and thanks also to whoever wrote that very detailed and fabulously illustrated history of piracy, which I devoured as a child.)
Then I was taken to a Navy open day. Now I knew: I wanted to be a submarine captain. The romance of being able to sail undetected beneath the waves clearly outweighed the discomforts and cramped conditions. The grownups thought it very amusing to remind me that I wanted to be a pirate; I informed them I would be a pirate in a submarine.
And so it remained until later, having read rather more Biggles books than is good for anyone, I decided that I wanted to be a pilot. [Insert Pirates of Penzance quip of choice here.]
[The tall ship above is a replica of Captain Cook’s vessel, the Endeavour. Both photos taken at the Australian National Maritime Museum.]
Eight horns a-standing… four trumpets blazing… two timps a-thumping… and a bass solo in a minor key!
Everyone, it seems, was in Perth for Mahler 1 last week. Well, not everyone, but several Sydneysiders to differing degrees of my surprise. Two of us were on a busman’s holiday: one of the SSO horns was augmenting the WASO’s regular forces, making, according to one of them, a “Titan” horn section; I was out in the foyer explaining, among other things, how Mahler had rejected the “Titan” nickname for his First Symphony.
I love visiting Perth. The hall might look severe and unappealing from the outside, but the acoustics are so good that I wish I could bring them home in my suitcase. There is much to be said for a shoebox with masonry walls and a capacity under 2000.
The Perth Concert Hall has another advantage, rivalled only by the Sydney Opera House, and that is an ideal location for pre-concert talks. Where some venues – even quite new ones that should have known better – choose or are obliged to tuck their talks away in rooms, Perth and the Opera House have open spaces in their foyers that are large enough for the couple of hundred who attend and which also allow for the casual listener to “stumble” on a talk and so catch something of it by chance.
I won’t go on about it. I’ve already said my piece in response to another busman’s holiday earlier in the year, where I found a talk for a major concert presenter relegated to this tiny space:
Back to the concerts… Ruth Killius was performing the Bartók Viola Concerto, as she will in Sydney this week. She uses the Serly completion but enjoys the best of both worlds by lifting an idea from the more recent version by Bartók’s son Peter and Nelson Dellamaggiore. The newer version follows one of Bartók’s orchestration instructions that Tibor Serly seems to have either missed or misunderstood. It’s a nice touch: with timpani in conversation with the soloist at the very beginning, instead of Serly’s pizzicato cellos and double bass.
The matter of Mahler removing the charming Blumine movement from his First Symphony was solved by presenting it as a prelude to the concert. It’s an effective programming strategy, even if just about everybody’s doing it nowadays. Meanwhile, the uncanny parallel between the Blumine trumpet tune and the beginning of the big tune from the finale of Brahms 1 goes some way to explaining why Mahler didn’t even want this movement published.
I should admit that I’ve not been especially looking forward to the prospect of two years of Mahler on home territory. I like my Mahler in very occasional doses – since it’s impossible to have him in small doses. So preparing this talk for the WASO did me good by reminding me how astonishing the music can be. In particular, the opening of the symphony is absolute magic. It’s the kind of writing that puts the listener on the conductor’s podium; it’s like hearing a slow-motion replay in which all the precious details of the musical thinking are crystal clear. They say Mahler is a conductor’s composer; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This year’s visit was shorter than usual, so I didn’t get a chance to see the Perth Theatre Company production of Equus, a play that I studied in high school but have yet to see. Even more of a pity, since the reports are that this production is extremely good. But I was able to catch The Soloist, a sobering movie which, thankfully, didn’t turn on the Hollywood Happy Ending, although its (limited) depiction of professional musicians left me frowning and cringing in turn.
Anyhow, the busman’s part of the holiday is over and I’m back, attending to that chicken elbow.