Monday, August 11, 2008


K and I were back at the Opera House on Friday night. Most of the city seemed already home, red and yellowed with chopsticks in their hair, bracing for what one commentator had told us was an Olympic opening ceremony that had everything needed except the seat belts…more on that later.

I never arrive at this place, the one building that always makes my heart skip, without feeling some sense of reverence, and I am not a person prone to reverence. It is the only building in Sydney that lifts up my soul. It is my cathedral.

We met up with C and G at the CafĂ© Mozart. There’s lots of pre-performance goings-on here. Under the huge concrete ribs which hold up the great Aztec platform on which it all sits, where the lighting in sometimes wonderful but often not, where the queues move mostly faster than you expect, where the food comes from the posh kitchen at a fraction of the cost, where elbows bump and tables rock, where everyone has an eye on the clock, here is expectation. Enjoy the show. See you at interval. Is there time for the loo? We like to reenact the old George Molnar cartoon when the Opera House first opened, where a wide-eyed couple dwarfed by the foyer, lost in the newness of it all, agreed to meet at interval “underneath the Whitlams”.

After what must have been a gruelling time backing up the Sydney International Piano Competition, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were up for Stravinsky’s Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 (marketed as Bartok No 2, changed, more's the pity, somewhere along the line) with the Tashkent born Israeli Yefim Bronfman and Californian born David Robertson conducting.

I arrived with baggage: the 2001 SSO Firebird under Charles Dutoit, who somehow manages to most always be able to get an exacting discipline from the orchestra while at the same time making music where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Certainly he did it on that special night in 2001, where he drove a tense and shimmering performance of Firebird to a brilliant cracking forte climax and a ravishing sweep of strings that seemed to hover somewhere above the concert platform in swirls, such that the final chord was met with that rarest of moments: stunned silence, broken only by an orgasmic moan of ecstasy from a man in one of the side boxes, a moan I suspect he wasn’t even aware of till he heard it in his own ears, swiftly followed by thunderous applause.

Enter Bronfman, a large bear-like man, unruly hair, and was that a scowl? People shifted in their seats. The Steinway Grand looked nervous. Even Nathan Waks had moved back a row in the cellos. Mr Robertson followed, trim and neat, clipped straight hair, which would later bob its way through with the exaggerated beat, and was that a cummerbund?

So it began. Daaa daa de DUMB daaaa, de DUMB…

There were two concertos being played here, one was Bronfman’s, like a St Bernard straining on a leash, the other Robertson’s, keeping it all tight and compact, and dare I say, a bit boring. By the end of it all, Bronfman must have decided he was going to lock it in Eddie (it was being broadcast live) so he fixed his stare on the conductor (you rather had the impression the conductor had forgotten there was a pianist), keyboard left to its own devices, and they belted the finale out TOGETHER. Bronfman didn’t look happy. I know how he felt.

K liked Bronfman a lot. Our seats give a good view down the keyboard and this bear could play. At interval I joked to C that Robertson looked, and worse conducted, like a smart young republican senator. C said this was a terrible thing to say, and he could think of no worse insult, except that we had indeed heard two concertos.

Firebird, the original 1910 full score, was given the same tight leash treatment. It was so slow that where there should be tension we got lethargy, shimmer became quiver, brass became just brass. Someone (who if they are wise will stay anonymous) had arranged for special effects, through what sounded like loud speakers, no players could be seen, to give weird and very distracting surround sound gimmicky up here, over here now, guess where I am, brass bits. Boston Pops sprang to mind.

I did buy a Decca reissue ($12 – Vienna Phil , von Dohnanyi, 1979) from the jolly Spider Music lady in the foyer. Back in the bush, K and I listened on Sunday afternoon with C’s loaned planar speakers. Wonderful stuff: brilliant detail, racy rhythms, and a fantastic sound stage, rolling around the room, while the snow flurries we get here every few years danced outside the windows.


Anonymous said...

I assumed that the extra brass were outside the north-east door in the gallery. Not so?

It was just an assumption because I couldn't see from the rear stalls.

wanderer said...

Others agree with you.

From where I was in the cirle, it seemed to start in the north-east, then 'circle' the hall before settling in the south-west as if travelling under the box overheads.

Add hearing things to the list.