Saturday, May 23, 2009


The ever thoughtful Alex Ross, music critic for the The New Yorker, is in Sydney for the Sydney Writers Festival. He spoke with Romana Koval on Thursday, was interviewed by Margaret Throsby on Friday, and speaks tomorrow, Sunday 24, with Mrs Danvers, on 'Classical Music in Popular Culture', Drama Theatre, SOH, 1400-1500. I wish I could get up there.

The Margaret Throsby interview can be heard here, scroll down to May 22.

His first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) was awarded The Guardian First Book Award and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer and Samuel Johnson prizes. Mine is marked with the signs of a well loved book.

The Sydney photo on his blog has changed from a rather charming shot of the great stairs with a wind swept Japanese bride to one which suggests Bridge Climb, and in this weather, you know why they chain you on.

May 22: He's changed it again. Why either or?  Can't Sydney justify THREE (great) photos at once? 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has announced Rory Jeffes, previously Director of External Relations, as their new Managing Director, starting now. The media release is here.

Rory Jeffes was director of developemnt when the partnership with Bigpond for concert streaming was organised in 2006. And on top of all that, and flying planes, and being seriously into youth welfare and advancement, he also signed the 2005 National Petition against Mandatory Detention, (unless there is/was another Rory Jeffes in Mosman). 

So I forgot, Alban Gerhardt hasn't completely gone, he's streaming here. And, did you know Bigpond members get 15% off tickets? It is in that last link with the little asterisk - conditions apply.

Monday, May 18, 2009

HEATHER BEGG 1932-2009

Dame Heather Begg died in Sydney on May 17, aged 76, a month after the New Zealand Government redesignated her title from Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order Of Merit to Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

She was a stalwart, a wonderful constant presence in my operatic life, with those amazing eyes that seemed to find you wherever you were in the audience. She had quite a presence, a creature of the stage without the slighest suggestion of effort. Her warm rich mezzo was instantly recognisable and when required was every bit as commanding as her stature.

Born in Nelson New Zealand in 1932, she started her musical life as a double bass player in the Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra, passed into the hands of the legendary Dame Sr Mary Leo, through scholarships and the Sun Aria, to become a fine and handsome mezzo in Britain, North America, Europe and their great houses.

Contracted by Richard Bonynge, she would finally settle back in her home corner of the world as a formidable ensemble member of the (then) Australian Opera, where among a vast array of roles, she would accompany her own Lady Jane (Patience) with her own double bass playing. There was no one like her. In a season of considerable Kiwi glamour, 1978, she sang Flora to Kiri te Kanawa's Violetta, in a gorgeous new Copley production, an extra performance needing to be scheduled for the trans Tasman traffic. Sutherland and Carden would follow in later seasons.

Celestial Audio's tribute is here, and the Australian's obituary here. Nothing from Opera Australia yet as far as I can see. I miss her eyes, her smile, her sense of timing and camp, her always-there-ness (she was on stage in 2006 as the grandmother in Jenufa) and of course, her voice, her lovely voice. We have lost so many lately.

Heather Begg Alisa, Beverly Sill Lucia, 1970 Covent Garden.

UPDATE 21 May: The Sydney Morning Herald has this obituary today.

"I enjoy being outrageous, but only on the stage."

Monday, May 11, 2009


  Photo Tristam Kenton, The Guardian

English National Opera's new Peter Grimes, previewed here, has opened to glowing reviews of a sort rarely seen these days. Stuart Skelton's Peter is mentioned in the same sentence as Vickers. I don't know any other words more appropriate, except happiness, for him. This is likely a big milestone in his career, and we are about to share it in an Opera House near you, October 15.

Without taking anything away from the production, music direction and cast, I just want to focus on Stuart Skelton's achievement. The rest is there to read. 

The Guardian, with 5 stars:

"This superb company achievement has Stuart Skelton's towering performance at its heart, perfectly combining human frailties with an edge of brutality and moments of touching poetic insight – probably the most complete Grimes in London since Jon Vickers at Covent Garden in the late 1970s."

The Financial Times:

"...the lusty sensuousness of his voice means his Grimes is always more human than caricature".

The Times On Line:

"...Skelton’s nobly-sung Grimes.."

MusicOMH, with 5 stars:

"Stuart Skelton in the title role was nothing sort of sensational. Not only was his acting minutely observed but he sang this daunting role with apparent ease. He had the vocal heft to rattle the rafters in the explosive declamatory episodes and the ability to hone his voice down to barely a whisper for the more introspective moments. His mad scene was almost too painful to watch – a stunning performance."

The Independent, with 5 stars:

"...Stuart Skelton in the title role. If ever a singing actor combined the force of a Jon Vickers with the crazed inwardness of Pears, it is he."

... "This was no time to be different – and no one knew that better than Britten." 

(Nothing has changed; it can't change. We are trapped in a place of judgement. I can't wait to see this in Neil Armfield's hands.)


"Stuart Skelton ..[ ]..sings with touching purity of tone during the lyrical episodes such as ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ and with searing intensity during his outburst in the ‘Prologue’ and his ‘mad scene’ at the close.

Alden has said that Jon Vickers’s performance of the part was “the greatest thing one could ever see” – rightly so, no-one who saw Vickers’s Grimes can ever forget it. Nevertheless, Alden has still managed to elicit from Skelton a reading that respects the influence of his great predecessor yet also embraces touches of Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. This is not to say it is a derivative performance – far from it, since I don’t think I’ve heard ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ sung with such poignant fervour."

*(...this momentous staging is overwhelmingly moving: it is dedicated to the choreographer Claire Glaskin, who died in a car accident at the end of the first week of rehearsals, and she could hardly have a finer memorial.)

Telegraph UK, (with a 1.17 video whose judgemental commentator is the antithesis of what I believe Britten was on about):

"The burly Australian tenor Stuart Skelton sings Grimes with tremendous sinew and sureness..."


"..., it would be worth the trip to the Coliseum just for Stuart Skelton's performance as Grimes. His is truly one of the finest portrayals of any role I have ever seen. Alone amongst the cast, Skelton's performance is complete. On the one hand, he conveys Grimes' innocence whilst also making it clear that he's mentally disturbed, while on the other, the amount of colour he brings to his singing is remarkable. He's also alone, I feel, in fully achieving a Brittenesque style of singing. The finest Britten singers use vibrato in an expressive way that can be quite special, as Skelton shows, but too often the singing here was full-on and did not embrace the neo-Classical aspect of the music. Skelton, however, responds to the text on the most minute level, creating different sounds even within a single note: he makes the part very much his own."

The Sunday Times:

"It is the Grimes of the young Australian Stuart Skelton — surely the finest on a London stage since the celebrated Jon Vickers — who sets the seal on the evening. His burly frame and heldentenorish timbre do not preclude singing of the most inward and eloquent vulnerability in the Great Bear monologue and the Mad Scene."

The Observer:

"ENO's production is blessed with a magnificent Grimes in Stuart Skelton. Lumbering, vulnerable, bullying, helpless, the Australian tenor radiates a musical intelligence as electrifying as it is heartbreaking. He convincingly unites the visionary, floating lines of the loner desperate for the safe love of Ellen Orford, with the brutal yawls of the thug whose callousness leads to the deaths of his boy apprentices."

The May 23 performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on July 11, introduction here.

Some production pics can be seen here, posted by George Mott, NYC.

As I've said before, after the Sydney Grimes, Stuart Skelton sings Erik in SOSA's Flying Dutchman, as far as I can see the only staged Wagner in Australia (!) this year. I've heard Skelton in this theatre with this orchestra before, and I'll hear him again. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Sydney was blessed with the first time visit by the 40 year old German cellist Alban Gerhardt last week in an all French programme (Bizet, Saint-Saens, Debussy) with a rather English subtitle (Sense and Sensuality), conducted by an American born in Costa Rica. We went on Friday. There were noticeable French accents in the audience, and the hall quite full, if not exactly packed.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald (belying that paper's increasingly thin arts coverage) Gerhardt is refreshingly unpretentious and direct about himself, music and audiences.

"I find it incredibly arrogant to diss the audience, to say 'You are so stupid' if they want to clap," he says of the no-clapping camp. "People end up not wanting to go to a concert because they feel so intimidated. But the less musical education, the better - you can get to the core, get that raw, emotional response."

Right then. Read his travel blog, via his website (above), for the run up to the interview. This man is exceptionally warm and generous. As was his playing.

The Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No 1 in A Major is short at under 20 mins, its three movements as one, but what a joy it was. To Gerhardt it is a thing of delicacy, something he's been devoted to since youth, a work he feels inside how he wants it to be, and hopes some day it will emerge as he hears it. Whether it did so on Friday to his satisfaction I don't know, but he's kept me happy since. I've taken to playing it over and over, the wonderful Rostropovich with the LPO and Guilini. Buy it for someone you love, and that includes yourself, of course.

The programme guide listening notes use the word 'swirl' six times, and that is just talking about the first and last movement, the second movement a minuetty dancing delight between the cello and the woodwinds. Swirl it does and swirl they did. The last movement by the way contains one of the longest rising scales in the cello repertoire, lasting 25 seconds in Rostropovich's hands.

Whatever was the matter with the audience I've no idea, but when they should have been on their feet, the applause nearly faded out just as he was about to come back for an encore and caught him unbalanced at the platform door. As you'd expect from such a man, he hesitated slightly then bounced out, to hold the place entranced with Rostropovich's Moderato (not very, he quipped) and then he and his lovely smile were gone.

Driving away, C asked if I'd noticed how Catherine Hewgill didn't take her eyes off him the whole time. I hadn't noticed because I couldn't. I hadn't taken my eyes off him the whole time.

If you want to know what you missed:

Sunday, May 3, 2009


The STC's Wonderful World of Dissocia (Anthony Neilson) is one of those plays which you are not meant to reveal the plot but you are meant to encourage people to stay after interval. That (you must stay) is always a bit worrying though often right. Even, or especially, in opera. So read on at your own risk. I don't know what I'll end up saying, but I'm unlikely to be too circumspect. 

What I did like about this play is the underlying tenet that we are creating our own reality. To be honest, that was why we went. Anything which deals with our mind games, or brain games, or however you care to deconstruct the processes, is on the right track for me.

The play was written a bit backwards, the second part (you must stay) first, and the first part workshopped with the actors as time was running out for the opening (Edinburgh 2004). I'm afraid it shows. Give a man a hammer. Using the promising device of lost time (they had time on their mind and not on their hands remember) as a trigger to another reality, we are taken on a wild anarchic journey through one woman's fears, victimisations, and fused childhood memories, in a pyshco pop world of funny punch lines and shock situations which lose much of their giggle and all of their shock way before we finally get to the interval. But you must stay they all said. To be fair, K absolutely loved it, and true, there were some great moments, but scissors please.

Like most others, fortunately we went back. The hospital sequence, which drives the whole work and is the antithesis of where we had been, is cold, clinical and colourless, day to night, night to day, repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. This was abandonment, whatever the dressings. Is abandonment and rejection our most primal fear, our only fear, our genesis? The boyfriend's final juvenile selfish rant was itself almost worth the night. I thought this was maybe what was penned first, and all else flowed, not entirely satisfactorily, from it.

It was a fine production, beautifully dressed, and I would imagine took lots of hard work to get right.