Tuesday, March 29, 2011


It's not so much that there's hasn't been anything happening as there's been a lot happening. Most memorable of the last few weeks were two exceptional concerts with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, compiled in association with and presented by Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, author, blogger and long distance driver. I hope to make some record of the programme in the next few days.

But there's been enough time in the country for the soft gentle pleasure of the change of the seasons. Days are now longer than nights, the sun's arc is increasingly lower in the sky, night temperatures are dropping, the morning grass is wet with dew and the lyrebirds are courting. I just love it. Summer holds too many perils down here, and the long winter nights, of the mild temperate southern hemisphere kind, suit my pyschological complexion.

I've been meaning to join in recognising the death of Elizabeth Taylor (Dame just doesn't roll off the tongue, or finger tips). We had, truly, just watched Suddenly Last Summer which I'd recently picked up at that Bookshop near the Balkan (Darlinghurst) where we sometimes grab a grill and sit on the footpath watching the parade. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf (I think this is my favorite film of all, not of hers, of all) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are also in the collection, watched at least once a year, every year. And National Velvet is one of my earliest memories. There's nothing to say that hasn't been said, except that her kind don't exist any more, and that's been said anyway. She was a woman who was ultimately, by all appearances, completely comfortable with herself. There was no pretence. She was who she was and she dealt with her stunning gift of astounding beauty with an honesty and balance rarely if ever seen in today's superficial starlets.

Watch this (all of it) and love her that little bit more (by way of The Arts Desk) :

Monday, March 14, 2011


You know you want to - it's 10 million CD Cecilia Bartoli.

To be honest, rather than really really wanting to hear her, it was that I didn't want to not hear her. So, before it completely sold out, driven by some inner budget-defying demon, I found myself scrolling around the concert hall seating plan when some automatic typing took over my hand and CLICK - I'd bought two tickets.

I don't like talking money and find it tedious when others do. I'm about to be tedious. The tickets were $195 - that's $400 on tickets, $35 on parking (options are available, but getting away quickly was a necessity), dinner $50 (at the very busy new foodies just past the Opera Bar, day sliding into night behind the silhouette of the bridge and its last climbers), and then $20 for one of those glossy oversized advertorial programmes with the song list buried somewhere in the middle. I resisted the programme till interval - surely a song list on a piece of paper is not too much to ask for $200? Yes, it's too much. And a teeny weeny ice cream. That comes to more than half a thousand dollars.

And meanwhile, Japan is being shifted sideways around the earth, and the horror of what is happening to the helpless is all muddled up with my selfish guilty thoughts of superfunds, a trip we've just booked through Tokyo, K's business dealings in Japan, and here we are swishing around this stunning city on a hot summer's night throwing money up in the air. I know, I know, but I just couldn't stop thinking about it.

The concert platform was nicely dressed, a series of lush red curtains, a black drop, a piano, a full house, and on she comes to rapturous applause, thick dangling curls, winning smile and sparkling eyes (not to mention earrings and bracelet) - Cecilia Bartoli (recently married - make that happily partnered - see comments) and pianist Sergio Ciomei. With the (grammy winning) Sacrificium recital clashing with the ACO with Alex Ross , we were in for a night of 'Romantic Songs'.

She had a lovely persona, radiating a feeling of a generous artist, one certainly about to give a generous programme, with few if any pretensions. The stage mannerisms were controlled and in fact rather subdued mostly, her feet anchored, arms moving with appropriate feeling, and face and eyes living the words. She certainly sang the words. I wish I had been more familiar with her repertoire. This voice is larger than I expected, much larger. She had, at least from where we sat (side box near the stage), no trouble filling what can sometimes be a challenging acoustic space for voice. The middle and chest voice is wonderfully rich and full, warm and embracing. There was no shortage of vocal acrobatics, for which she is justly famous, and while I hesitate to be a nark, the sound can get a bit nasal and as she runs through whatever her glottis is doing with her fast articulations, a hard edge appears, more like running up and down wooden stairs than throwing out a string of vocal pearls, and we know who did that. I actually enjoyed her most when she was off the circus routine and letting flow with long lines, and she certainly has them, well controlled, of gorgeous rich tone.

There was perhaps too much fidgety self awareness between pianist and singer, gushing at each other, and clapping, but it all helped fill in what can be awkward empty spaces between a very long list of songs. And thankfully there was no dress change between halves, rather the earrings and bracelet disappeared in favour of necklace of serious brilliance. More Italian, moving comfortably into French and onto Spanish, she wrapped it up with a showy but slightly underwhelming Rataplan. Then, four encores - "We need to end this concert" - she beamed to a wildly enthusiastic audience and we slipped out thinking we were with the early get-aways. They weren't - they were forming a line for CDs and programmes to be autographed that was already across the foyer and they were still clapping and cheering inside.

Here's one from the second bracket, and what she gave us was even more lovely - languid but never limp - the next phrase only countenanced when the caress of the last was complete.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


What a difference some fairy wings makes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


This will amount to not much more than a list, just for the record.

I managed to make it, black tie and all, to our 40th Alumni Reunion dinner in the Great Hall on a steamy hot night at the end of February. Do the sums if you must, but remember things happened earlier way back then. I had my 17th birthday in first year University. It was way too young, for most things, let alone a career choice. That said, forty years later there were few regrets among the large number still alive and still interested, although quite a few had retired, and they mostly 'proceduralists'.

There is a strange commonality at play. A large group initially derived from school academic achievement and adolescent, or parental, ambitions, becomes subdivided alphabetically for practical, in both senses, reasons, only to be reorganised again for student allocation to institutions, then dispersed in postgraduate allocation to an even wider array of institutions, and finally let loose on an unsuspecting public. Yes, I'm talking Medicine. And what happened next was the subject of the night.

It turned out that Turns, despite much goodwill in the audience, really failed to hit the spot. A shame really. Everyone wanted it to work. As K noted, Reg is best with someone else's material and with much stronger direction that his protege could deliver. Nancye Hayes was saddled with a increasingly unfunny costume, loads of dialogue, not her strong point, and not that much to sing. And the mother-and-son routine is pretty old hat.

Our first encounter with the Sydney Symphony for the year was a very satisfying Peer Gynt. This was fine ensemble playing, with some gleaming icy brightness from the violins, and terrific solo work, especially Jacqueline Porter's lovely Solveig and Simon Halligan's ardent Peer, all held together with lucid narration by John de Lancie. Stage direction was considerably better than the last effort, a clumsyish Midsummers Night Dream, and this time the amplification was excellent. Not inappropriately either.

Earlier on the same day, in the same concert hall, there had been a memorial for Bruce Jackson, Sydney's export to the world of big sound. He had a huge career in the USA, front of house for the Greats, (Elvis gave him a plane for his birthday, Streisand would have no other) and though you may not have known at the time, he was the man behind the sound of the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony. He had crashed to his death in Death Valley, on the Californian Nevada border. Bruce and K had grown up together, neighbours, family friends, had entered the world of electronics together, stayed in contact, and worked together again during the recording of the Sydney Olympic music.

Lilli Tomlin was a must see. It was the night before Mardi Gras, and Enmore was buzzing. So was Lilli, kind of. Despite local references, there was a sense of Friday-must-be-X, and although the seriously gay and lesbian crowd loved her, they failed to deliver her that extra feedback I suspect she needed to really raise it up a bar or two. The interesting point she did make, and confirm the next night on the Mardi Gras telecast (where the commentary was between embarrassing and atrocious) was that she was not in agreement with gay marriage, seeing it as aping heterosexuals.

We even managed Nixon in China from the Met, with Adams' score sounding particularly Glassish, with Wagner interludes. The libretto mostly escaped me. It was of a depth and meaning that made it all but impossible to appreciate except by slow reading the text. For me, the women stole the show, except for the exceptional Cho En-lai of Russell Braun. I still find the camera work too close, too often. Peter Sellars alone was worth it.

The SSO Mahler 6 was very good, fast driven, muscular, exciting. They're getting good solid sound happening, which augurs well for the 7, anyday soon.

And last but not least, Orchestra Romantique gave a great concert last Sunday afternoon, all within walking distance, a glass of wine, a happy happy crowd. Harriet has the story. We sat close and the Berlioz was particularly vivid and visceral. I loved it.

Enough already.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Paddington Town Hall; Sunday, March 6, 3pm. You'll be just waking up.

Orchestra Romantique, brainchild of Nick Byrne (second trombone Sydney Symphony and Ophicleide serious dude) and Nicholas Carter (Sydney Symphony associate conductor), is the new Sydney orchestra made up mainly of Sydney Symphony players with a focus on the romantic repertoire. While obviously targeting all music lovers, it is especially conscious of people who for one reason or another don't necessarily make it to the big venues with bigger ticket prices. But the intimacy (Paddington Town Hall, 600 seats), the prices (adults $25, concessions $15, family $65), and the starting time (Sunday 3pm) aren't the only reasons you should be going.

How's this for programming:

Carl Maria von Weber - 'Oberon' Overture (1826 - it was said to have killed him, aged 40).

Jules Demersseman (1833-1866) - Introduction and Polonaise for Ophicleide and Orchestra.

Hector Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique (the 1830 version, with period brass and percussion, prepare to riot).

Never heard of Monsieur Demersseman the virtuoso French blower who died at 33? Never heard the ophicleide?? Then better not miss this challenging work on this amazing instrument with a reputation for needing more air than a rugby player and not without risk - apart from the untimely death of the two composers, there's this: "... and his uncle who tried to commit suicide by shutting his head in a carpet bag, and his father who played Ophicleide and died insane as they all do..." Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, 1916).

More pictures and stories, as well as all about this pre-tuba brass instrument of sweet highs and gruff lows, can be found on Nick Byrne's fantastic Nick and his Ophicleide website. Be careful Nick.

But wait - there's more. There's Scott Kinmont and his big serpent. Hah. The gang's all here.

I missed their first concert but I'm not missing the second. From what I hear, neither should you. My eldest sister and some of her extended family heard the programme last Sunday in Newcastle, and she reports it was brilliant, with the Novocastrians whooping and foot stamping in appreciation.

Meanwhile, here's the 'Oberon' overture. Imagine, instead of that horn, it just might be the first time you hear "the most lyrical Romantic-era brass instrument you've never heard"