Saturday, February 28, 2009

SSO 2008 take 1

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Mendelssohn - Shakespeare, 

or Shakespeare - Mendelssohn in this case.

Friday night was the second 'gala' night of the first performances of Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2008 season. There had been a considerable build up, not the least emphasising a good dose of magic and mayhem, and an extra two marriages to the play's already three. We were there to witness the marriage of music and theatre as well as the marriage of the Orchestra to its new principal conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope the latter works out better than the former.

As usual, Friday had been a longish day, a solid 10 hours at the factory, so Puck grant me, the dreamer, all forgiveness; I did my best.

     If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended,
    That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
    And this weak and idle theme,
    No more yielding but a dream,


We managed to arrive comfortably, have dinner, a little drink, make that 2, pick up the October 2007 Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek, Strauss Mackerras/SSO CD, enjoy the pre-concert talk, and slip into our seats; hello neighbours, ...hello big line array of speakers, umm...hello mixing console.

I quite like Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't love it and I don't have a copy in the house. There have however been some memorable moments based around it. We had heard a particularly ethereal Boston Symphony performance years ago in Carnegie Hall with Kathleen Battle tossing off some vocals, and years before that I'd heard a revelatory performance in Hamburg, the city of Mendelssohn's birth, where the synergy of this music with contemprary dance was, at the time, I thought the most sophisticated thing I had ever seen.

Things started well. There was a general sense of thankfulnesss that the orchestra, playing at its considerable best, was at last in Ashkenazy's hands. Everyone was paying attention. As the evening unfolded, the music was to be soon delivered in conjunction with the text, that we expected, it is after all, an overture and incidental music. What wasn't expected was just how incidental the music was to be. 

Amplification was the issue. The speaker distortion was so bad that most of the words were indecipherable, and as seems the case these days, delivered so quickly that it was actually a strain to try and listen. What's more, it was loud, unreasonably loud, which of itself was unpleasant but also made the return of the orchestra sound recessed and entirely secondary. It was brutal in its dominance and the effect was not much short of coarse. What this really necessary anyway. When Ashkenazy himself finally did speak, half back to the audience, his voice seemed to travel well enough . Can't actors today project? Not only was the actual detail lost, we also lost the natural beauty of the spoken word.

Talking with C and G at interval (they were seated front stalls), I was saying how my ears were starting to hurt. C said he couldn't work out why his eyes were getting sore till he realised he was trying to lip read. G wished they would just stand there and speak. Now, C has audiophile ears second to none, and part of his explanation was that the line array playing to the rear wall of the hall (where no one was sitting) had a time delay and that this was likely a major factor in the distortion. There was one lovely exception: Heather Mitchell's Titania. Whether it was her voice in relation to her mike, or more likely her pitch, or the mixer, or whatever, but her lines came out with clarity and softness, and with all the nuance and cadence of the text intact.

The second half was more of the same. The drama came and went, lighting did moody night things, fairy lights continued on and off, and Bottom did his funny dying routine, but people were leaving, ferries were departing, eyes got heavy, and I found myself looking foward to it finally ending. Not really a good sign I think. I timed it at 2.40 all up, 20 minute interval, and about 52 minutes of music.

That said, others absolutely loved it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Sometimes you read something which is so transporting that you wish you had been - to London, yesterday.

Edward Seckerson's five star review of the Royal Opera House Der fliegende Hollander is five stars in itself. Worthy of no further reduction or vacuous hyperbole by me, here it is, lock stock and metaphor:

You knew from the palpable fizz of those open fifths in tremolando violins and the cut and thrust of the horns that conductor Marc Albrecht was very much at the helm of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and that he’d started exactly as he meant to go on. 

Add to that the flying Welshman, Bryn Terfel, weighing anchor in a performance of thrilling intensity more than matched on this occasion by a soprano, Anja Kampe, who simply knows no fear; throw in the Royal Opera Chorus on blistering form and a stage director, Tim Albery, for whom less is always more, and you have one of those rare evenings in the opera house that has you sitting so far forward in your seat that every muscle in your body is aching by close of play. 

Albery doesn’t attempt to illustrate the tempest-tossed opening of the opera – Wagner does that supremely well in his overture – but he and his designer Michael Levine do suggest an awesome scale right from the start with the front cloth imagined as a giant sail caught in cross winds and streaked with salty spray. Suddenly the entire stage is a gigantic metal hull that dwarfs even its crew and when the mysterious Dutchman’s ship does finally arrive the all-enveloping shadow creeps across the stage like a total eclipse. 

Enter now the flying Terfel toting a rope like it’s his lifeline or his cross to bear for all eternity. His still, dark, bulky, threatening presence is already not quite of this world and as he quietly utters the words “Die Frist ist um” (“The time is up”) you sense the weariness of his eternal torment. Terfel’s German has always been exemplary but here he uses words like a fist of defiance against “eternal annihilation”, spitting out consonants with impunity and making phrases like “barbarous son of the sea” as ugly and they are vivid. He is as good here as I’ve heard him in a long time, capitalising now on his well-marinated vocal timbre, weathered and craggy but still capable of great tenderness in those ascents into honeyed head voice. 

The line “Tell me, blessed angel, to whom I owe the terms of my salvation” has the ache of hopeless longing about it and it’s at this moment that Albery first brings in Senta cradling a model of the Dutchman’s ship close to her heart. Then, as her workplace, the factory sewing room, descends from above like some alien starship it seems almost to underline the sense of her remoteness from reality. 

Anja Kampe has a very special intensity on stage. The vaulting vocal line of her ballad’s verses spoke excitingly of her fearlessness while the recurring plaint of the chorus had one truly believing in “the angel of salvation”, its final reprise like a hushed benediction. Of course, the danger of a talent as unstinting as this is always going to be wear and tear. Kampe doesn’t want to sing too many Sentas if she hopes to hang on to the lyricism in her voice. It’s a push for most, this role, but definitely for her. Still, what inner-light she radiated: nowhere more so than in the central duet where Albery truly caught the other-worldliness of Senta and her elusive Dutchman - just two chairs a single hanging lamp isolating them in time and space. 

Indeed in this contemporary take on the old fable the Dutchman only ever really exists in Senta’s imagination. I’m not sure what Wagner would have made of Albery’s denoument but this Senta does not hurl herself into the briny deep of eternity but rather is left to languish on dry land clutching on to her very own phantom vessel - and her dreams.

Oh that we may be so lucky with the new Adelaide production later this year, where hopefully we move from Opera Australia's cluttered self conscious Kosky production. This is where 'you never never know if you never never go' takes on meaning. Every now and then there's a jackpot. One a year is a good enough average I think, but sometimes you have to buy a lot of tickets to get a winner. Last year's Billy Budd, as anyone with ears has already heard, was just that.

Reviewers and critics seem a declining breed. Consider the loss of depth in the print media, an increasing tendency to laud for marketing appeal not talent, and the slippery slope, in North America at least, to praise to the extreme anything that is in front of you because, well, because it is in front of you and, therefore, if it is worthy then I am worthy; if it moves it gets a standing ovation, and sometimes if it doesn't.

Talk of a decline in standards of the classical music magazine Gramophone has been around for a while. The current issue leaves little doubt. The cover is the old beat up story of diva vs diva, two glamour girls (Netrebko and Gheorghiu) facing off on the cover under the heading "Who's Today's Prima Donna". Singular. Either or. This is followed by "Leading critics take sides in Italian Opera's lastest Diva rivalry". This is the stuff of No Idea and Woman's Weakly. I snatched one up and read it on the footpath ouside the newsagent.

The journalism was up to the cover. Anne Midget, the music critic for the Washington Post (one of the better things about Gramophone was that it was British, or shall we say, rather British), declaims pompously that she is not to be told Netrebko can't trill, or is over-hyped (no room for truth here), because she (Midget) is a "critic, after all", who has an inner voice which listens carefully to things like expression and phrasing, but regardless of what the inner voice hears, it is the sound of the voice with its primal, tactile quality to which she is, in fact, addicted. Right then. Sing how you like, what you like Ms Netrebko, just sing sing sing. Perhaps a name change to Antonia Netrebko would suit Ms Midget. Now I have only heard Netrebko once, Donna Anna, Covent Garden. She is a big stage presence, a beautiful voice, but she isn't an especially good Mozart singer, she has no trill, and anyway, my eyes were fixed on Mr Schrott, (heart check-up before opening that link please).

John Allison (Sunday Telegraph and Opera Magazine) goes into bat for Ms Gheorghiu. I don't like Ms Gheorghiu. She dissed our Joan. That's it. Mr. Allison is more considered than Ms Midget, but nonetheless seems to pin his hat on her 1994 London Traviata, and even then falls back on quoting the tearful George Solti. I wonder if he was there. By all accounts Gheorghiu's new Butterfly, EMI, Pappano, is very good. You-tube have an EMI promo of the recording session and she sounds gorgeous. You'll have to search that yourselves. No Gheorghiu face on this page , sorry.

However, there is some very good, very fantastic (as our friend Kenji was want to say) news about Gramophone. Their archives have now gone on-line. It is free, up to but excluding the current issue. The technology is fascinating:

"Each page is viewable as a digital image of the original alongside a plain text ‘extraction’ of the words employing OCR {Optical Character Recognition} that can be searched but also pasted out of the viewing box (though see our copyright policy)."

"The Gramophone Archive is a searchable database containing every issue of Gramophone from April 1923 to the latest issue. Despite the complexities of producing a magazine during wartime, Gramophone has never missed an issue and in 1995 added an extra, 13th, issue each year to coincide with the annual Gramophone Awards."

There is where you will find some excellent reading, in the past.

Friday, February 20, 2009


How often have you not appreciated what you had till you haven't got it anymore: youth, a full head of hair, mother, teeth, dog, superannuation fund, job, freedom...FREEDOM.

That's freedom, the freedom only last year that we were spruking about.

Get Up:

The Federal Government is planning to force all Australian servers to filter internet traffic and block any material the Government deems ‘inappropriate’. Under the plan, the Government can add any ‘unwanted’ site to a secret blacklist.

Testing has already begun on systems that will slow our internet by up to 87%, make it more expensive, miss the vast majority of inappropriate content and accidentally block up to 1 in 12 legitimate sites. Our children deserve better protection - and that won't be achieved by wasting millions on this deeply flawed system

This widget can be forwarded and/or embedded, click on forward.


There is precious little for a Wagner lover in Australia these days and certainly none in Sydney. As far as I can see, anyone wanting a live Wagner fix this year will need to be in Adelaide this November for the State Opera of South Australia's new production of Wagner's coming-of-age sea dream drama, The Flying Dutchman.

November 7 | 10 | 12 | 14  Adealide Festival Theatre 7.30pm

Priority booking has already opened, and general public booking starts 3 March. (I wouldn't wait if I was keen to be well seated).

BASS (Adelaide) 131246 for Australia-wide callers. International call +618 8205 2304

SOSA are building up good momentum as our major Wagner house with the 1998 Pierre Strosser Chatelet Ring (Jeffrey Tate), the 2004 Elke Neidhardt full-on Antipodean Ring (Asher Fisch), and Australia's first staged performance of Parsifal in 2001 (Jeffrey Tate).

A return of the 2004 Ring is looking increasingly unlikely, in Adelaide or anywhere else. Apart from funding problems, I read recently that there is now considerable deterioration in the stored  sets.  Shame shame shame on the ABC for not filming this milestone, this pinnacle, not only in Opera, but in Australian theatre. Sandra Levy, the finger points at you.

Adelaide is a good host city, a pioneering city in a pioneering State, with a fine orchestra now properly recognised as on par with the Wagnerian best: "the playing of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, which places this ensemble on a par with the most prestigious orchestras in the world: luminous strings, warm woodwind and powerful brass – so important in Wagner..."  

The festival theatre is up to the task, as well as being fitted with the Lares Artificial Acoustic Enhancement System. This is not direct voice or pit amplification. It is the electronic modification of the hall acoustic, doing what design, materials, and reflectors otherwise achieve. The sound is warm, full and very immediate, but suffers no loss of perspective or directionality.

The team is:

Conductor   Nicholas Braithwaite

Director   Chris Drummond

Lighting and Sets   Geoff Cobham

Dutchman   John Wegner

Senta   Margaret Medlyn

Erik   Stuart Skelton

Daland   Daniel Sumegi

Mary   Katherine Tier

Steersman   Angus Wood

Sydneysiders and Adelaide Ringheads are pretty familiar with Wegner, Skelton and Sumegi, and it is great they can get a Wagner gig down here. I'm really keen to hear Margaret Medlyn, English born, New Zealand based, the Kundry in Adelaide in 2001.

The company's notes say designs will feature "amazing new lighting technologies and special effects". I hope that's another way of saying a fantastic head trip, beacuse it is a fantastic head trip I want.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Things have been blogged down here for a while. The switch from PC to Apple was smooth enough, and all the angst about lost bookmarks, emails, and years of favorite things amounted to little. There are ways to import, and for the rest, well, it is a little like clothes: if you haven't worn something in the last 12 months, 4 seasons, then you're not going to wear it again. Clear the cupboards. Exceptions apply, but you get the picture.

So the new browser was Safari. Apart from a clunky bookmark menu, which I took as some sort of lesson in old-dog-new-tricks, all seemed well. But (never start a sentence with but, although better to start than finish with one), however, Safari and are all but incompatible. The show-stopper is you can't copy and paste into you Blogger post window using Safari. It pastes outside the window.

As a juvenile and non-pro blogger, I had chosen Blogger because it was free, easy, looked reasonable enough, and seemed widely used in blogs I cruised. Oh, and as hosted by Google, you-tube was easy peasy to post. So, let's get another browser. Enter Firefox.

Firefox was fine, for a while, until the latest upgrade. I think it was then. You know how you always relate something that has been creeping up on you to an event, a memory flag, like Dad was fine till his last anaesthetic, then his memory has never been the same, in fact his brain has been damaged, when in fact Dad had been deteriorating for years, but blame saves introspection.

So, creeping up on me, or maybe since the last update, Firefox took great delight in throwing up the spinning rainbow wheel, the wheel of misfortune, ever more frequently, till typing a single letter, let alone a search, would send it off. It's unusable.

Drum roll.....curtain.....OPERA.

This is a browser I downloaded yesterday. Early days. But, sorry, however, there are some immediately obvious good features: speed dial, quick find, opera link (it displays Safari bookmarks with considerable more nous than Safari), and so far seems satisfactory, let's say manageable, with Blogger. 

And what about the name.

Monday, February 16, 2009


photo NASA, The Guardian

This NASA picture shows a compilation of temperatures from January 25 to February 1 over continental Australia, one week before the deadly Victorian fires.

It is all too obvious:

Red - above average temperatures
White - average temperatures
Blue - below average temperatures

Three words come to mind:


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday 8 Feb 2009

Australian Red Cross
Victorian Bush Fire Appeal 2009

Photograph: Mark Smith/AFP/Getty Images