Monday, November 29, 2010


The word incautious caught my attention. I don't recall having ever seen it before, and certainly not the noun. Better late than never, although I can't see myself dragging it into the everyday: 'that was rather incautious of you' is at the least a bit awkward. However, it served its purpose in Peter MacCallum's review of last week's Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Mozart Clarinet Concerto coupled with Mahler's Fourth.

He was referring to the soloist for the Mozart being Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of the orchestra's chief conductor Vladimir, our Vlad. And the context in which caution was referenced was the recent unpleasant to-do about then music director of Opera Australia, Richard Hickox (whose sudden death served to even further the angst) casting his wife Pamela Helen Stephen in local operas where others were considered, by vocal discontents, to be as, if not more, worthy. I'm not sure the comparison stands up.

Richard Hickox's critics were rooted in company members who were, they claimed, missing out in favour of younger singers, and it appeared to me that Mrs Hickox was the obvious lightning rod. It was a cruel and weak choice, not the least as Hickox was engaged when the company had unceremoniously sent Simone Young packing (to her susbstantial benefit as it turns out) and were left with an empty podium. That he relocated his family, wife and school age children, from one hemisphere to the other, was clearly a necessity, and with it, she, the wicked interloper, was surely removed from her artistic connections and career opportunities in the north. That they, he and she, saw it as reasonable that she get work here seems perfectly reasonable to me. And it seemed to me her use was more than fair, both in the roles she was given and the talent she brought. The vitiperation even extended to a snipe at one son being given a walk on part in Billy Budd.

There are no such complexities around the young Dimitri Ashkenazy, except that both father and son have been attached to Sydney by misadventure, and Sydney audiences seem proud, if not honoured, to have someone as internationally recognised as Ashkenzy snr as chief conductor. A risk on incaution? - slight at most and better left unsaid. The audience gave its verdict (I was there on the Friday, the day of the 'warning'), with a very warm reception given the shy and nervous looking Dimitri as he walked onstage, and after, an enthusiastic response which encouraged him to give a lovely stream of consciousness encore (a composition by his partner apparently) with solo viola as haunting echo, the whole effect reminding me of those Paul Horn (flute notwithstanding) in the Great Pyramid and Taj Mahal recordings.

To see them, father and son, embrace on the Sydney stage, was heartfelt and transcendent of pure, you could almost say cold, music making. Murray Black, for the record, was more kind.

That for me the Mahler 4 didn't transcend is another matter, although the third movement nearly, you now that nearly feeling, did. Mahler 4 (a strange assembly of four 'movements', looking back, looking forward, a hard to categorise musical bridge) and I go back to the 60s, with the Klemperer Philharmonia and Schwarskopf and more recently I have become obsessed with the Fischer Budapest Festival Orchestra release. I often, in fact mostly, play sections in isolation and find the third movement, which in the Hungarians hands is as sublime as sublime gets, an all but perfect summary of what Mahler is on about. In fact, maybe it's all you need. It certainly is a perfect introduction to someone who seeks to 'get into Mahler' - if that doesn't do it, then Mahler's not for you.

Introduction to Mahler pieces was the first thing I saw when I flicked through Norman Lebrecht's latest book, Why Mahler?, very prominently displayed in the local bookshop, on that same Friday as the concert in question. Lebrecht suggests an ingenue go unprepared to a performance of the Second, and that's pretty good advice. Flicking on, the next tit bit I came across was some discussion about Mahler and his circumcision. Only Lebrecht could and would go there. Philip Kennicott's review, in which he quips the book should be titled My Mahler, such is the fetishism, is worth a read in itself.

Anyway, titillated by now, I risked incaution, and bought it.

Monday, November 22, 2010


(all pics from Berlin Philharmonic Travelling Blog)

In searching for what the Berlin Philharmonic would be doing at home next year (we've seen/heard them many times over four years at the Festival Aix-en-Provence, and once in Berlin but not - yet - at their home, the acoustically revered Philharmonie), I found that an embryonic trip could be engineered to include Rattle conducting Berg and Mahler, the Three Pieces again, but this time Mahler 6. Yes, please. But most fun of all, I found that there has been a travelling blog running on the orchestra's trip down under.

It is well worth scrolling through, for their experiences in both Perth and Sydney, local fauna (zoo and concert hall), performance, hotels, weather, education, workshops, young musicians, helicopter flights down the east coast to the best view of Sydney, as a bird .... and " many in the orchestra beginning to ask why anyone who could live in Australia would ever choose to live anywhere else". To which one could add why would any Australians (especially musicians) choose to live in Berlin. I'd love twelve months in Berlin. But what about the children?.

I wish now I'd booked the last night in Sydney, speeches and all that. Sir Simon Rattle had this to say:

Well, what can I say, except that it's really very puzzling. Everybody is under this desperate misapprehension that we're going. Whatever makes you think that? All I would say to all of our incredibly kind Australian hosts is, look really carefully in your spare rooms and your attics, because the noises you hear are members of the Berlin Philharmonic who have jumped ship. We have been so wonderfully looked after. It has been so generous in every way around here. And I must say we have a reputation for being quite a wild orchestra, and I think we've met our match in your audience. It's either thrilling or really scary, I'm not sure which. We look forward to coming back. Ladies and gentlemen, it's very simple. We've loved this. It's changed our lives. Anyone who comes to this country is not quite the same again. We'll carry it in our hearts. And we've made a new family here and we treasure it. Thank you.

And in Perth:

I would like to thank all of you. When we walked on stage yesterday and we felt the welcome and the support of the audience, we all thought, oh my God, we'd better play well! There aren't many audiences like this in the world, and you could feel what a difference it makes to the performance, as well - this kind of support. We have had a welcome here from this theatre, from Andrew and Rodney, these visionaries who are running it, and all the people here, that we can only dream of. And everybody keeps saying, have a great time on the rest of the tour. I simply don't understand why you think that any of us are leaving.

There's going to be a plane journey tomorrow, and there's going to be a really severe head-count, because I think we could have lost a good proportion of the orchestra here. We are so impressed with what is going on here. We've always heard that Perth was really a centre for the arts. At a certain time I have to tell you that Perth was the only place that was really definitely on for us - it was Perth who was willing to say yes, we'll take these crazy programmes when this place - I think it's called Sydney? - was beginning to wobble a bit. They have been behind us absolutely from the start. They have treated us like princes. We were so happy to be here, we've left a large part of our heart here. The idea to send this programme out to all the ends of this gigantic state, the size of Europe with a smaller population than Birmingham, that's how I think of it - is a visionary thing. And it's something that is so important for us, it is something that we are trying to do at home, I hope you are very proud of it. We've had a wonderful time. Simply: Bless you. We've lost our hearts, and we look forward to coming back, if indeed we ever go.

From their blog I was moved on to The Arts Desk, where lo and behold there is a review of the just released 'Nutcracker'.

If you missed Program 1 in Sydney, here's the encore - the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker, starting at 4.30.

Christmas is coming. Or have we just had it?

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Talk about Talk of the Town. Hotels are full, restaurants around the Big Tiled Building buzzing, and not a red or yellow rose left in florists. The Berliners are here and the week has been preoccupied with, if not devoted to, them.

The Concert Hall was glowing German gold from its crowded front foyer.

There were two programs:
Program One

Haydn Symphony No 99 in E Flat Major
Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra
Dean Komarov's Fall
Brahms Symphony No 2 in D Major

Program Two

Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances
Mahler Symphony No 1 in D Major

For programe one, Tuesday night's opening concert, we sat in the front row of Box X, a fantastic and not accidental choice. Perched above the first violins, and harps, with Sir Simon Rattle in full and close view, the clarity of sound was astounding. Not that this was entirely because of where we sat. It was entirely because of this phenomenal orchestra, but we were as well placed as possible I suspect to take advantage of the brilliance of such perfect ensemble playing.

From this legendary organic music machine came the Berlin sound, a big rich ballsy rather masculine sound spiked with the crystalline clarity that comes from extraordinary musicianship, an acute awareness of each member of the other and the whole, unfailingly integrated entries and dynamics, and the loving guidance of their conductor. The Haydn was like the Eisteddford set piece, the one that after the first ten bars everyone knows this is the winner, whatever their own choices would be. The incredible confidence of excellence in both player and listener.

And their own choices for the first program were simply marvellous. The Berg Three Pieces, for huge orchestral forces, which I had not ever heard live, and had only recently, and because of this encounter, spent time listening to, was devastating. The premonition of chaos, the haunting fading fraying edges of empire as the waltzing violin is snuffed out, till the frantic march to catastrophe is shattered by the most ghastly climactic Sarajevo moment. Not since I heard Mackerras's Siegfried Funeral March have I been so frightened by a sound, the sound of that final shot.

Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall was a spine tingling surprise. It is both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad. From the opening violins evoking space signals, a sound so like the high pitched calls of parrots to each other as day fades as to be a certain pointer to a sound encyclopaedia of only an Australian, to the goose bumpy "weightless and floating" closing moments, again it was the starry sparkling clarity of sound that so astounded. And then there was Rattle blowing kisses to a man in the rear stalls, and he back, he Brett Dean of whom we are so proud, in a few incredible moments of raw public emotion, and mutual thanks. Listen here.

The Brahms was simply stunning, every theme laid out in perfect clarity, intertwined with love and loving attention to detail, and an acceleration to a climax of literally breathtaking intensity and impact.

The next night, Wednesday, we had managed to sit in our usual Sydney Symphony Orchestra seats, another deliberate move, to finally compare the local band with the best in the world under the same conditions, same seats, same hall.

Well, as good an experiment as it was, for the clarity carried, the sometimes muddiness of our Sydney players nowhere to be heard, there was no doubt where we wanted to be sitting, and that was back in Box X, from row, back amongst it again, immersed, drowning, exhilarated. There is now the need to rethink where we sit for the home games.

After the lovely balance of the first program, the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances seemed a strange choice against the one we all had came for, the Mahler 1, which had been given a fine exposition by Mr Askenazy earlier this year. Again, the word that I can't get out of my mind is clarity. The hushed and reverent opening of the Mahler set the pattern. In a study of slow and steady revelation, Rattle opened and laid bare this work as never before. As never before seems to be a bit recurring too. It was slow, quite slow, though never stalled, never self indulgent, and yet the overreaching arch seemed slightly weakened, as if the peering into the depths meant some loss of totality, the details wondrous and marvellous nonetheless, yet the emotion of the vision stalled, unless the vision isn't really there yet, that yet to come as Mahler laid down his foundations.

But the thrill of the excellence, the insights, the magnificence of the delivery itself roused the usually sedate Sydney audience to its immediate feet, not in some slow bracket creep of standing ovation, but a sudden spontaneous eruption of gratitude.

Peter McCallum's informed praise is worth keeping on record, program one here, and two here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


There were costumes from some of the famous roles (Lucia, Merry Widow, Huguenots) in the foyer. People were being hurried in to be seated. VIPs and pollies had yet to arrive, and it was going to air on National Television. The Concert Hall was full, as usual for Joan, it was never anything but full for Joan. Programmes in Joan Green on each seat. The lighting was quite beautiful - generally low level, a dappled violet blue over the concert platform and orchestra (Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra), with the chorus, together with past company members, in civvies, in the front of the choir stalls.

A large screen dominated the space. White flowers decorated the front edge of the concert platform with two star bursts either side, with adjacent Australian flags. A single bunch of red roses sat to one side at the tops of the steps. Not sure about the flags, although there would be repeated mention of her 'Australianness' throughout the morning. I don't think we needed the flags, placed for the cameras as they were.

After the prelude to La Traviata and a welcome by Adrian Collette, a rousing first stanza of the National Anthem filled the Hall, the chorus leading the way. Joan then sang the 'Bell Song' from Lakme filmed at the Opera House in 1976. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke well, of achieving success as one thing, sustaining it another.

Pavarotti joined her for 'Parigi, o cara' from the 1983 Sydney Gala Concert. I found this very moving, more so than ever before. The Governor of New South Wales Marie Bashir spoke as a friend and music lover, recalling Dido (which she sang here before leaving for London) - Remember me, Remember me. The Lucia mad scene (1980s) was met with an ovation as if she were live, still. Whatever else, it was, is, and will be, her fetish role.

Moffat Oxenbould was warm, affectionate, with stories and praise going back to the great Sutherland Willamson Grand Opera Tour of 1965, when jaws dropped not only in awe of the technique, the brilliance, but the beauty, the sheer beauty of tone, and what those who heard her live would forever know, the ability to connect to one's deepest inner emotional core.

After 'Era desso il figlio mio' came il figlio mio. Adam Bonynge, present with wife Helen, Richard unable to attend, spoke of his mother. He let us into their family, a tiny chink. Of dishwashers (only one way to load a dishwasher - her way), ironing, suitcases perfectly packed, the best ever scones, breakfast tables set by nine the night before, for coffee and surgically dissected grapefruit.

The chorus sang 'Va, pensiero' and Joan sang 'Home Sweet Home'.

FAREWELL filled the big screen.

What didn't go to air is Natasha Bonynge's poem to her 'Mimi':


Shut the doors,
Turn out the lights,
Pull the curtain to a close.

Put away your tickets,
Pack up the chairs,
Silence those who shout 'the show must go on'.

Quieten the piano,
Hush violins,
Soften your voices and let the mourners in.

Today we remember.

Not the diva, La Stupenda, the soprano, the dame.
But our grandmother, our mother, our one true love, our family, our friend.


Shut the doors,
Turn out the lights,
Pull the curtain to a close.

And remember.

Peace be with you my darling grandmother.
You will be in our hearts until the end of days.

Natasha Bonynge

Saturday, November 6, 2010


(Albert Namatjira Simpson's Gap - country of Lizard Man - source)

Perhaps it was because of a sense of gaining control over my life again, although the purists would say one has complete control. But you know what I mean. When that deep ugly visceral pain hits, beyond the nociceptive and autonomic responses, there lies a deep sense of unease - what is this that is happening to me. A benign diagnosis is almost as narcotic as narcotics. With life back in balance, I had quite the best week, and interestingly, two (even more than usual) moving nights - one theatre, one orchestral.

On Wednesday we sat down the front for Namatjira. Trevor Jamieson was already sitting just there, the sitter for a portraitist, John Hannaford. (Namatjira's portrait was the 1952 Archibald winning portrait by William Dargie, and now hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.) For the ten or so minutes it took the theatre to fill, he, Trevor Jamieson, Albert Namatjira, sat there absolutely motionless, his large chocolate eyes brown fixed on infinity. Shirtless, he looked leaner than any photograph I can find of him, or the subject of Dargie's portrait, a perfect dancer's body half naked on the sitter's stool, head slightly forward, shining brown skin curled with greying black hairs, nothing whiter than the whites of his big round eyes.

Scott Rankin, with Big hART, has scripted the most wonderful story telling, a story for anyone interested in country, anyone not (aware they are) interested in country, anyone into laughter, anyone into crying, anyone into song, anyone into mime, anyone who has still to learn what beautiful people were here before 1788, anyone whose first memory, like mine, of something hanging on a wall was a Namatjira between two windows of my first school, with a Guardian Angel of oversized wings folding around a boy peering over a cliff on the wall opposite.

Namatjira is sold out. But my neighbour rang, after we spoke the next morning, and managed a single ticket row B last Friday.

I thought I'd been a bit emotional, and now I'd be right, balanced, hardened up again after two weeks of introspection and illness. Well, not so. On notice to not miss the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Arabian Nights programme, we were lucky to get seats close to the piano and just under Jean-Yves Thibaudet's hands. I didn't know the Saint-Saëns (wracked with pains) 5th Piano Concerto, at all. The orchestra was playing it for the first time, so I didn't feel too bad. Click Click Click - the Thibaudet/Dutoit was playing now. Ah, the wonders. I listened to it for three days, and gave thanks there are people in your life to give directions.

Not Mr Dutoit (he is in Melbourne where he will conduct Thibaudet, in the Saint-Saëns 5th - does that seem a little strange?) but for us Mr Lazarev, the showman, all good fun and lively, but thankfully invisible behind the piano for the Concerto. I was fine till that fabulous nights-in-the-garden-of-Spain Adante opening of the second movement. Tears flowed. Thibaudet was dancing, the orchestra was dancing with him, gorgeous evocative yearnings with promises of satisfaction, mysteries about to be revealed, such well being now and forever. Even the capital O oriental chopsticks we-are-Chianese-if-you-please interlude didn't seem so cut and pasted.

And they played a fantastic Scheherazade, Lazarev now well in his element. We were a bit close, organically close, but not too close. Not for the Concerto, oh no, not for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I had to say a quick hello and a thank you at Interval, at the signing table, no one there as I walked past. Your Ravel Preludes were played at my mother's funeral I embarrassingly found myself saying. They are so very beautiful, he smiled back. So was she I heard myself reply. What they have to put up with, or up with what they have to put, or God bless these people they bring us so much.