Saturday, November 29, 2008


The forthright Norman Lebrecht reflects briefly on Richard Hickox and gives his thoughts on his recording legacy in his weekly column from La Scena Musicale:

The shocking death of the irrepressible Richard Hickox, who died this weekend at 60 in the throes of a recording session, has silenced one of the most entrepreneurial podium characters. A self-starter from the age of three when he took the organ seat while his vicar father preached in Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire, Hickox founded his own orchestra after coming down from Cambridge and was among the first to canvass City of London financial support while directing the LSO Chorus.

The range of his involvements extended from a festival at the tip of Cornwall to the Sydney Opera House, where he was music director since 2005, and it was typical of the man’s hunger for music that he should have been recording a Holst rarity in Wales this weekend just ahead of the dress rehearsal for Vaughan Williams’ Rider to the Sea at English National Opera (the show will go on tomorrow under ENO’s music director, Ed Gardiner).

His 300 recordings, 280 of them with the Chandos label, ranked him among the ten most prolific conductors on record. If his style lacked the last refinements of elegance and mystique there was no faulting Hickox on passion or detail. His advocacy of English music, in particular, was second to none. He was the first to perform the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies 15 years ago, and his recent London cycle with the Philharmonia was a huge success.

On record, his account of the original 1913 version of the London Symphony is in a class of its own. There is a terrific Carmina Burana with the LSO, as well as the complete choral works of Herbert Howells and a reverential Mendelssohn Elijah that show his feel for Anglican tradition. But it is a Catholic, Edmund Rubbra, whom Hickox espoused more convincingly than any modern interpreter. In the hands of Richard Hickox, the reticent Rubbra began to sound like a full English Bruckner.

Essential Hickox:

Vaughan Williams London Symphony (Chandos, LSO)

Handel Alcina (EMI, with Arleen Auger)

Rubbra 9th symphony (Chandos, BBC Nat. Chorus and Orch. Of Wales)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


It hasn't been a very good day. I've been having what-if thoughts, the kind of what-if thoughts that you struggle to keep down, meaningless indulgences in a wish for a different outcome that they are, when something dreadful, sudden and permanent happens to someone especially close. I've never consciously felt particularly close to Richard Hickox, but I've had these thoughts. Thoughts about the fatherless children, that anyone should die alone in a hotel room, and wonder even if that is true, hoping it's not. What-if, if the presumptive diagnosis is correct, if he had still been here in Sydney, and fate may have given him access to some cardiac prophylaxis, a coronary stent, an urgent by-pass, another chance. What-if the sustained public criticism of him, right or wrong, had taken it's toll.

This morning I went straight to the garden bordering the front of the house. It has been deliberately planted with Banksias and Grevilleas to bring the honeyeaters, and they did. For several weeks I've been watching two Little Wattlebirds nesting just next to the chimney. Their little nursery cupped two eggs, just a metre off the ground, too close for safety from predators, but bathed in the warm spring sun and surrounded by nectar. The eggs hatched a day apart, little bare pink chicks about the size of half my thumb. What-if the goanna came back. Today the need for reassurance was pressing. And it was there. I hadn't checked for a while, and these little new lives had feathered, their distinctive white streaks already apparent, and their dark brown eyes looked me straight in the eye.

I find it disconcerting when you go eye to eye with an animal. It doesn't happen often in the wild. Late one afternoon, during that hot spell a few weeks ago, the young dog, now nearly 2 (and a joy I don't know how to express) sat staring into the low bushes and mulch just off a path. I followed her gaze. She was face to face, eye to eye, with a red-belly black snake. I dread this encounter, every summers day. She sat still. She didn't stand, didn't bristle and didn't bark. She just looked at the snake. The snake looked back. It was up, head thrust forward, tongue darting, sensing the air. They looked at each other with, and this is something you feel but don't believe, a measure of understanding. It was like they met there everyday. Despite the fear that breaking the dog risks a loss of attention, and a quick fatal dart, I walked slowly away, told the dog that snakes were to be left alone, then after a quick call to follow as the snake watched, we were gone. I gave thanks.

And I give thanks for baby Wattlebirds. Today I broke my promise to keep the camera out of other peoples bedrooms. I needed a record of replacement and regeneration.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Richard Hickox 1948 - 2008

Richard Hickox has died in Cardiff, aged 60, apparently following a heart attack. This is shocking news. The loss is huge.

He leaves behind his wife, three children, an enormous recording legacy, an open wound in the opera world, and with great sadness, I am hanging onto the immediate memory of his recent Billy Budd and The Makropulos Affair here in Sydney, such magnificent farewells he gave us.

Thank you Mr Hickox, and may your family's grief be lightened by what you have given us and left to the world. Your Angel has come.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Midweek at the Opera House is not usual for us. The night was balmy, a moist nor’easter blowing over the harbour. A low fine cloud or mist hung over North Sydney and the office buildings' neons gave the view from the northern foyer a pink-blue wash while further east the empty harbour looked particularly dark.

A good crowd, regrettably not a full house, had come for Wednesday’s The Dream of Gerontius. Even the Minister for Closing Music Academies dared show his face. Was this some calculated attempt to stare down the mounting opposition to shut down the Australian National Academy of Music (on-line petition on home page)? How often does he come to this music? Anyone seen him around in the classical circuit before? Strangely, someone who looked uncannily like Yvonne Kenny sat, bar one, next to him and enjoyed (or suffered, depending) a formal introduction.

All that needs to be said about the performance has already been said. I heard what she heard.

Vladimir Ashkenazy was on top of this. His small tight body wound and gently twisted, intensely concentrated, and he somehow extracted the most expressive, elegant, delicate, fine playing from all the orchestra. Thank you all, and thank goodness this is on tape. It was very beautiful.

The choral forces were big, with good dynamics and tone, and one sublime moment of swelling sopranos over a delayed brass entry. I need to relisten. In the carpark afterwards, K found a credit card, bewildered and lost on the concrete floor. I recognised the owner’s name, a workplace connection I was sure, and rang the card company when we got home, and eventually made phone contact with she of the empty pocket. She was in the choir, and it is always fun to hear it from the inside. Some found Ashkenazy’s beat hard to follow, and she felt some of the ensemble pieces a bit untidy.

Mark Tucker had a pleasant tenor but was up against considerable opposition, particularly in part I, dealing with a cruel hall for voices and facing the larger orchestral forces of the struggles of death. He seemed overparted much of the time. It will be interesting to hear how he records. Recording was a big part of this enterprise it appears, with all rehearsals and both performances taped, and then a patch session. Part II, written now for an out-of-body experience, suited him better, more exposed but less competitive. It is a big sing, suited to a heldentenor voice. Vickers took it in his particularly earnest stride, and the SSO podcast with Glenn Winslade’s 1997 Gerontius (SSO/de Waart) performance shows the way. I also wondered what Philip Langridge would have done with this and have now found this historic DVD, well reviewed with reservations. Which brings me to the Angel.

Any Dream of Gerontius for me must get the Angel right. When I mentioned that Elgar was not one of my desert island composers as I went King Street Fishing to buy the fine (except for the arch, more judgemental, and sharp edged Angel of Felicity Palmer) Hickox version, I was met with disbelief by Sarah’s co-attendant, Peter Google. Anyway, I think I might be revising my list. This Elgar work is now in, with one proviso, the right angel. To date, Yvonne Minton was my angel.

Lilli Paasikivi is now the one. She is the perfect Angel of Understanding. With her beautiful rich middle tones, divine (pun intended) phrasing, and complete ease at the top, she was perfect. Her final “Alleluia Praise be His Name” just before the orchestra plays out the Divine vision and judgement was enough to make the night worthwhile. It was only when she sang could you close your eyes and forget the libretto, her diction exemplary. “I poise thee, and I lower thee, and I hold thee.” I-thee-poise-lower-hold. Her winged Angel dress wafting in a mysterious breese kept me wondering if her feet were always on the ground.

David Wilson-Johnson’s bass baritone was at the disadvantage of his being stuck 'up high', behind and at the level of the acoustic circles, good idea at the time maybe, but his voice rarely had the impact it ought, and I’m sure could, deliver. Why do they do this? Again, the recording will be interesting. I can’t wait for the recording, to take to the desert island, Lilli and me.

I am finding this is taking a lot of listening to. The orchestration is endlessly revealing in its marriage to the text, and I have only started to scratch the surface. On even the most coarse level, the change from Part I to Part II, from earthly death throws to an out-of-body and out-of-time experience is masterly.

And as Newman does not (correctly) attempt to descibe the indescribable, leaving the Angel to tell us what is happening

“..for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.
Alleluia, Praise to His Name”

so Elgar follows with his musical expression of the inexpressible, and again, and unlike the more Teutonic composers, refers to the experience, rather than attempt to delineate it. With the instruction that “for one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force” he leads us to base percussive delivery of aborted and fearful magnificence that one can almost understand the soul’s immediate plea of “Take me away”.

The Angel’s song of farewell, threaded with the final Amen, had even the worst fidgeters now hushed and the performance was greeted with 3 seconds silence.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is offering last tickets to Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (Wednesday 19, Thursday 20) for $35, a considerable discount, only available by calling their Box Office (9-5) 8215 4600.

Their website suggests that Wednesday is sold out.

The excellent podcast by David Garrett, a look at Elgar by Genevieve Lang, and the full programme notes with libretto are also available.

Askenazy has assembled a cast unlikely to be heard together here again, and Lilli Paasikivi, whom I've been fortunate to hear before (Fricka and Mahler 3) is alone worth the visit. $35 is a lot easier than a trip to Europe.

The text leaves no doubt that Cardinal Newman had the insight gained from a revelatory experience, that holy instant. We can only hope that in Askenazy's hands, the orchestra and these singers bring us closer to one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Who would have guessed? Well, anyone who tried to make sense of next year's programming, like Marcellous did, or someone who has rung them recently, about anything, and didn't have half a day to spare.

From today's Crikey:

"Arts insider Dita Hunter writes:

All has not been sweetness and light for some time at the Sydney Symphony. Midyear the orchestra lost one of its key executives, Wolfgang Fink, the latest in a long list of thirty plus staff to have walked through the reign of General Manager Libby Christie.

Unable to hack Christie’s Ruddian micromanagement style, Fink, whose international contacts and experience have been one of the orchestra’s strengths and the reason some staff have hung in so long, quit to run the Bamberg Symphony, one of Germany’s best orchestras.

Other exits stage left are said to have included the Marketing Director, the Marketing Manager, the Customer Relationship Manager, the Online Manager, the Data Base Analyst, the Director of Commercial Programming, the Operations Manager and the Finance Director.
Now Christie has gone too.

The memo below shows that even the mild-mannered SSO chair John Conde and his board have had enough:

TO: All Staff
FROM: John Conde DATE: 11 November 2008.

The Managing Director, Libby Christie, has advised the Board that she will not be renewing her contract with the Sydney Symphony when her present term concludes in June 2009.
There is no immediate impact from this decision. Libby has made a significant contribution to the Orchestra and the advance notice is appreciated by the Board as it allows time for a thorough search and selection process for a new chief executive. In the meantime it is business as usual.
The Sydney Symphony is in very good shape and positioned well to cope with the inevitable stresses and strains that the present economic climate will bring. We now have in place a very strong senior executive team and I am sure we will manage well a change at the top without any disruption to the forward momentum of the Orchestra.
Libby has been Managing Director for six years, during which time the Orchestra has grown in strength, stature and financial performance. Under her leadership, the Orchestra has seen substantial change, emerging with a strong operational and business structure following our divestment from the ABC. Libby has also, in this time, overseen the appointment of our new Principal Conductor and planning for the early years of Mr Ashkenazy’s time with us.
I shall keep you informed throughout the coming months and look forward to your support.
John C. Conde, ao

Christie, daughter of former Commonwealth Bank boss Vern Christie, had a background in business -- Telstra, Optus and Asia Pacific -- so perhaps classical music was just not her forte. However that didn’t stop her from running a red pencil through important repertoire and substituting it with crowd-pleasing pap.

And there was worse: despite mounting subscriber dissatisfaction with the quality of his conducting and his choice of soloists, Christie refused to pay out the deeply unpopular previous Principal Conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti.

Instead she rubber stamped his recent meaningless vanity tour of Italy, which chewed up over a million dollars of the orchestra’s reserves, did bugger all for the orchestra’s reputation and even less for her standing with musicians. But the arrival of renowned and highly respected Vladimir Ashkenazy has boosted morale and audience confidence. The orchestra now has a future instead of a dismal past few year."


"I cycled over from Ledbury to lunch with him ... he was greatly relieved at having that instant written his name under the score of the last bar [of Gerontius] ... I begged Elgar to remain just as he was while I went down and fetched my camera."- William Eller, 3 August 1900

Thomasina has posted a witty and insightful introduction to the upcoming SSO Dream of Gerontius and she includes a link to an essential podcast from the SSO website: David Garrett’s Q&A into the work.

Do listen before you go, and if you're not planning to go, listen and change your mind. I have posted a little, mostly about Cardinal Newman, here.

This all prompted a discography search, which ended up at The Elgar Society which has enough for even the most devoted. For Dream of Gerontius alone, there is :
* a superb comparative recording REVIEW (Walter Essex)
* a musical tour of the work
* the full libretto
* notes on how Elgar came to write the work

From Walter Essex:

Complete Recordings

Sargent (1945)Heddle Nash, Gladys Ripley, Dennis Noble, Norman Walker, Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra(Testament - SBT 2025)

Sargent (1955)Richard Lewis, Marjorie Thomas, John Cameron, Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra(EMI - CHS7 63376-2)

Barbirolli (1957)Jon Vickers, Constance Shacklock, Marian Nowkowski, Orcestra Sinfonica e Coro della RAI di Roma(Arkadia - AKI 584)

Barbirolli (1964)Richard Lewis, Janet Baker, Kim Borg, Ambrosian Singers, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Hallé Choir and Orchestra(EMI - CMS7 63185-2)

Britten (1972)Peter Pears, Yvonne Minton, John Shirley-Quirk, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Decca - 448 170-2DF2)

Boult (1976)Nicolai Gedda, Helen Watts, Robert Lloyd, London Philharmonic Choir, John Alldis Choir, New Philharmonia Orchestra(EMI - CDS7 47208-8)

Gibson (1976)Robert Tear, Alfreda Hodgson, Benjamin Luxon, Scottish National Chorus and Orchestra(CRD - CRD3326/7)

Svetlanov (1983)Arthur Davies, Felicity Palmer, Norman Bailey, London Symphony Chorus, SSR State Symphony Orchestra(Melodiya - LP - ROCT 5289/90)

Rattle (1987)John Mitchinson, Dame Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(EMI - CDS7 49549-2)

Hickox (1988)Arthur Davies, Felicity Palmer, Gwynne Howell, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Chandos - CHAN8641/2)

Handley (1993)Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Michael George, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra(EMI - CD-EMXD2500)

Hill (1997)William Kendall, Matthew Best, Sarah Fryer, Waynflete Singers, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Naxos - 8.553885/6)

“Going through all these recordings within a relatively short space of time has not wearied the ear of the work; rather has it enriched and energised it and left me wishing for more. There are always artists who one hoped would have recorded the work or one hopes might yet do so, but one must not be greedy! We are lucky indeed to have so many recordings to choose amongst. I am not going to be presumptuous in recommending a recording outright - and nothing I have written is going to influence firm adherents to particular recordings or performers - but recently I had cause to introduce Gerontius to an acquaintance for whom it was his first experience of the work. I thought hard and long which recording to use, but I settled for Handley as a good all-round representation in modern sound.

Which recording do I turn to most frequently for sheer pleasure? That is easy : always Barbirolli's 1964 reading. However, in my "desert island" mood I conjure up my own personal ideal : Barbirolli, Vickers, Baker (1964), Lloyd, CBSO & Choir. Mind you, next week it could be Rattle, Nash, Hodgson..... See? The permutations are endless! “

I have the '57 live Barbirolli/Vickers. What it lacks in sound quailty doesn't matter. Vickers sings from within.

Thanks to Thomasina, and a pox on coughers, programme flickers, and purgatory.


Lord Howe Island is a little crescent shaped volcanic residue, 10 km by 2 km, sitting off the coast from Port Macquarie, 700 Km north east of Sydney. The 2 hour flight is a journey to another time. Everything you have, or haven’t, heard about it is true.

The island was discovered, uncharted and uninhabited, one month (February 1788) after the settlement of Sydney Cove, by HMAS Supply en route to Norfolk Island under the command of Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball. Cook had charted and noted Norfolk as valuable to a new colony for its timber and flax and for its agricultural potential. Ball named the island after the then first lord of the Admirality. His name is given to one of the island's two mountains, Mount Lidgbird (aka ‘Lidgy’ in the unique Australian way of combining affection and a little gentle disrespect), and also the staggering Balls pyramid, a mighty singularity, a Lord-of the-Rings granite outcrop spiking 760m from the sea 20 Km to the south east.

Ball's pyramid wisped in cloud from boat off island south

The island is bathed in the warm East Australian Current, sweeping south then curling east around it, warming the milder Tasman seas to no lower than 17 degrees such that it supports some of the most southern coral in the Pacific. This little jewel of marine life, subtropical forests and stunning birds and fauna was World Heritage listed in 1982 when Neville Wran was the premier. It is also the world source of the live-almost-anywhere Kentia Palm, which swept its way through the parlours of the Northern Hemisphere, and remains, with tourism, one of the economic mainstays.

The crucible of the island crescent is protected by a line of coral reef, like a string to its bow, breaking the seas and cradling a turquoise lagoon. It was here the sea planes landed, by the tides, until a land runway was built in 1974.

looking south over the lagoon from Malabar ridge

Some people mark turning 60 by the usual city affairs, a party, a come-as-a-S party (my sister did this – I hate dress-up parties and went as a Sheep having been threatened with eviction if I carried out my promise to come in a Sorry-t-shirt). But not Jy. She chose to gather her family and friends for something more meaningful, the celebration of her life so far as seen through the togetherness of those she loves most.

We 27 came from Sydney, London, Pittsburgh, Wagga Wagga (it’s so nice they named it twice), Coff’s Harbour, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Tennant Creek and we stayed together for six days. Breakfast together, planning the days walking, mountain climbing, snorkelling, kayaking, boat trips, bird watching, fish feeding, lunch at the resort or delivered to some distant beach, lazy afternoons, naps, tennis, cycling, naps, reading, naps, drinks at sunset on the beach, noisy dinners, singing and jokes, then bed by 9.30 among the Kentia palms in an uncommon stillness to be woken by the scratching of Woodhens.

K said it was remarkable how you weren’t aware of the constant mainland static until you left it behind, really behind.

K's meditation spot

It was all very very Jy. Happy Birthday you lovely creature of the wild.

Jy putting toe in water, something Jy very good at

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Jy is having a birthday, a big birthday, and she's having it on Lord Howe Island. It starts on Monday and finishes on Saturday. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't go all gushy about this place and my local bookshop lady, who could be described as picky and more than a little hard to please, has been five times. Paradise seems to be the word.

Reading list

Janet Frame Living in the Maniototo
Annie Proux Fine Just the Way It Is
Philip Roth Indignation
Julian Barnes Nothing to be Frightened of

See you in a week.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Darlinghurst once had the pulse of Sydney in it. It was raw. Life was on the street. Patrick White famously said Taylor Square was the only place in Sydney that had soul. Taylor Square at midnight Friday would throb, the footpaths stuffed with life emerging from the confines of the day into the liberation of the night. The Saturday papers were stacked high next to the magazine stands, sellers darting between treble-parked cars where hands held out dollar notes, no one in a hurry because they were there to be there, no smart flagpoles, no ugly street furniture, and no self-conscious outsiders. The only strutters were drag queens from venue to venue and Capriccios was standing room only. Well not any more. Gutted by the rule of the car, streets widened (boulevard my arse – Berlin and Paris have boulevards), overtaken by crass commercial traders in alcohol and take-away food, the ghetto has been blasted and the crowd dispersed. There’s even a Catholic University jammed into one corner.

In another corner of Darlinghurst, my mother rests and waits. She's waiting to die. Rather we’re waiting for her to die. K says she has mostly crossed over, slowly through the passage, gradually releasing herself in a gentle, slow and dignified way to her next level. I saw her on Friday. I don’t think she saw me, although the face changes when she hears your voice. Her wasted facial features struggle to sustain expression. Gutteral noises jerk from her throat. There is barely anything left.

This one is for you Mum.