Monday, May 30, 2011


These are just too delicious to let slip by. From The Guardian - a preview of an upcoming exhibition of the work of Tony Ray-Jones, photos from the late 1960s, documenting English life "before it became too Americanised".

Butlin's Holiday Camp, Clacton-on-Sea, 1966

Brighton Beach, 1966

Beauty Contest Southport, 1967

Windsor Horse Show, 1967

Derby Day, Epsom, 1967

Chelsea Flower Show, 1968

Click to enlarge

(Photographs Tony Ray-Jones, National Media Museum, SSPL, Getty Images, via The Guardian.)

Monday, May 23, 2011


The first of the three performances was on May 18, commemorating the centenary of Mahler's death. We went on Friday, and it was one of the most memorable concerts in a long time. It was a live broadcast, live webcast, and being recorded for release as with the whole cycle, or odyssey. Quite a big night then.

The concert started with Scottish born pianist Steven Osborne playing a delicate and delightful Mozart Piano Concerto No. 13 in C. Mozart, along with Alma, were supposedly Gustav Mahler's last words.

Then the 9th.

The programme notes introduce the Mahler 9 as "Another World". Maybe, maybe not. To me this was a warm and loving reflection on this world, and very much of this world. It was wonderful. Perhaps the 10th is, or would have been, of 'another world'; much of it has the feel to me of someone looking back on himself from the 'otherside', those death snares, the funeral beat, already dead, being swept away. But this 9th was still very much in this world, not yet gone, but ready to leave, ready to let go. The love and resolution Ashkenazy evoked was more than reassuring - it was assertive, as positive a statement about the composer as I so needed to hear.

Unlike the Das Lied von der Erde with its aching attachment to existence, here was a man at terms with his fate. The first movement was beautifully shaped, with waves of emotion and love from some gorgeous string playing, inevitably driven forward but without dread, despite ripples of fear and chill scuttering through the winds, death becoming inevitable if not yet embraced, a shoulder looked over again remembering the love in life. It was refined, elegant playing, a European sound C said later, the brass and horns (having a very good night so far) contained, the larrikan brashness of the Mahler 1, now a year and a half ago, long left behind. Mr Ashkenazy was shaping a wonderful journey.

The second movement was not so much a dance of death, nor a dance despite death, but rather a dance regardless of death. This was death not feared so much as becoming irrelevant. The mad tumble rumble of the worldly Rondo-Burleske had its climax contained such that it sounded like a perfectly appropraite faux-climax, nothing to celebrate, everything just understood. And then the final Adagio. I've gone all goosey again remembering it. With beautiful and fantastic ensemble string playing, perfectly balanced dynamics and soft diminishing pianissimos, Ashkenazy evoked an elegant contented resigned slow extinction of life, a release, a happy release dare I cliche, till there was just silence.

I've already bought the Das Lied von der Erde. I'll be buying this. But mostly, I consider myself lucky to have been there. I now think differently about Mahler and his complex impenetrable Judeo-Christian life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


That's last night's full moon rising through the blue and pink twilight over the gully. By midnight it was high and white in the sky, throwing its light across the lawn and turning the pebbled driveway into a creamy arc with arms tapering into the darkness of the trees. There'll be a frost in the morning I thought, looking out the bedroom windows.

I was finishing the last pages of David Rieff's painful catharsis on his mother's death, Swimming in a Sea of Death. Susan Sontag 1933 - 2004, life the little dash between the dates. I was reading about her internment in Montparnasse, in the city to which she was, as I understand him, most attached, among the graves of some of the great writers. She was first and foremost a writer, a writer very attached to this world, and even writing that, this world, I know how inappropriate an expression it is for her, that this implies some other, which for her there wasn't. There was only the world. Repeatedly she struggled with the prospect of her extinction, nothingness. It's not so hard therefore to understand the desperateness to cling on, the anger at the loss of specialness, the frustration with inadequateness of science, and the difficulties in dealing with the beliefs of others, whose comforts and well meaning platitudes brought no solace.

I had wandered into Cemetery Montparnesse many years ago on a day scripted for such a visit, cold with light rain, myself and only one other, moving around slowly in the distance, in long black coats under black umbrellas. Not far from the gates I was drawn to a grave, the slab covered in small stones, each weighing down a hand written note, words bleeding in the wet. The remains of Simone de Beauvoir and Satre lay there. David Rieff in those final pages quotes de Beauvoir, who had herself written of her own mother's death, also from cancer : "whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you cling to living, immortality is no consolation for death".

Tomorrow is the centenary of Gustav Mahler's death and The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has programmed his 9th - the final complete symphony, if not the last word. His anniversary is thoughtfully bookended by the 9th and 10th (except for the Adagio, incomplete at the time of Mahler's death)

Mr Ashkenazy had chosen the Rudolf Barshai completion. How different it is to the more frequently performed Cooke version, I don't know. If truth be known, I'd stayed away from 'completions', somehow stuck in the belief that, well, if Mahler didn't finish it, it isn't. I'd last heard the Adagio live in 1988 in the same hall when the Chicago came (for the Australian Bicentenary) with Solti, casting a long shadow with their justifiably famous string sound.

This 10th we heard was nonetheless a particularly moving performance with many I suspect hearing it (the Barshai) for the first time. The auditorium was exceptionally still, concentrating, almost breath-holding for the duration. The Adagio is one of those intensely exposed movements that imperfections rob mercilessly of its impact, not to mention that long Chicago shadow. By the second movement, it seemed as if Mahler had all but 'crossed over', reflecting as much on his death as his life, before being swept away in the closing passages to a place, if at all, I suspect Mahler was dreadfully uncertain about. The death screams from the brass were chilling, the solitary drum of the fireman's funeral perhaps less effective, and by the final movement the strings had gelled into a sheen and luminance the work deserves. At the close, there were a few unusual moments of silence and wonder. Ashkenazy looked pleased, and in a rare display, encouraged the audience into an appreciation growing slowly, too slowly he must have thought, till some stood. If there was uncertainty, it was not about the playing, rather that Mahler man and what he was thinking.

The 9th, complex and mysterious, will be critical I think in how Ashkenazy's great Mahler tribute is perceived. The odyssey will finish later in the year with the 2nd, the Resurrection, a brilliant conclusion, if not, who knows, exactly where Mahler finally stood at the end. Though it may simply be a matter of logistics, the programming I mean. How fortunate we have been.

David Rieff' calls resurrection a "Christian fairy tale". Stephen Hawking believes the afterlife a "fairy story for people afraid of the dark". I believe in uncertainty. I defend doubt.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

JANE RHODES 1929 - 2011

AFP reports that the great French mezzo who was the Carmen of her time has died in Paris. Jane Rhodes and I go back a long way - in fact, to the beginning. In the early 60s, as Sutherland was storming the opera world, my big sister escorted me for my birthday to town to buy my first record. I'd decided on Carmen and we were off to Rowe Street Records, (note - link has audio, and you need to open 'Rowe Street stories', then 'Theatre & Music', then 'Rowe Street Records' for the story, and the pictures) where George Cooks (Kux) presided over his imported classics.

Rowe Street was a small inner city lane with hints of bohemia - coffee, design, boutiques, and those progressives who sought something else - now long since sacrificed at the altar of development. This photo ('Jim Southwell collecting the plates', Lincoln Coffee Lounge and Cafe, Brian Bird photographer), from the State Library, caught my eye, as it looks like he did his.

There was, I think I recall, access to some of the more segregated facilities of the (sadly now demolished) Australia Hotel, and I also remember a book shop, downstairs, where publications of the male physique of the more salacious kind could be accessed from the equally salacious proprietor. But back to the birthday present; the other titillations were still some years away.

I stood sheepishly at the counter. My sister boldly asked, to my juvenile embarrassment, if there was a recording with Joan singing it. I didn't know much, but I did know Joan sang really high notes and Carmen didn't. Mr Cooks was very gracious I remember and assured us that no Joan hadn't recorded Carmen, and the one I should buy was the only one to buy - Jane Rhodes.

Philips Gold Label Series (made in Australia) Classical Favorites - Bizet: Carmen, Jane Rhodes, Albert Lance, Robert Massard conducted by Roberto Benzi, Miss Rhodes husband. I played it and played it, and played it. Hoffman would be next, my first complete opera, Ace of Spades label (they were cheap I think), so the French thing was there early on.

What Mr Cooks didn't tell us, if he knew, was that there was an antipodean connection after all. The tenor was Albert Lance, born with the fabulous name of Lancelot Albert Ingram in Adelaide, who would have a huge success in the Northern Hemisphere while remaining relatively unkown in his country of birth, and who now, at 85, has just been honoured by Paris Opera with an invitation to be president of the Paris Opera Jubilee.

Here they are in the Duet and Finale - burning it up, as they say :

If you got to the end of that without goosing up, go see a doctor. And now for something completely the same, more gypsy French singing, 'Connais-tu la pays?', from Thomas' Mignon :

There's something about them, isn't there.


There were two welcome diversions from routine and lingering lurgy(ie)s last week.

iOTA is back ringmastering, or mistressing, depending, Smoke and Mirrors, for which tickets at the Sydney Festival Speilgeltent were hot cakes over two seasons, I think. It ran in Adelaide and Edinburgh and this is the third, and last, here, so we are told.

With all the hype, some cast changes, and a venue change from tent to Seymour Centre of all places, let alone jaded performers, expectations were guarded. Not a bad way to start because they were seriously exceeded. There's no way the buzz of late steamy January holiday Festival nights can carry. No way. As we lined up for entry (this is general admission, so it's not when you buy your tickets but when you get there that matters), it was about as buzzy as waiting for a bus. But...

Inside the theatre, there was a fair attempt at recreating the circus vibe - lights and things - and it's in the 180, and raked, so all in all quite a good space though I don't doubt much of the magic and some of the thrill was diluted. But there was more than enough to go round and unusually, at least in my experience of jaded Sydney audiences, there was a pretty spontaneous and genuine full house standing ovation at the end. This was first night of this run. And everyone went home happy and smiling. Happy and smiling can be hard to find these days.

If there were messages about who we are, aren't, could be, will be, they were lost on me. Perhaps that needed the intimacy of a smaller venue. But as vaudeville and circus, social commentary aside, backed by the bestest hottest band you're likely to hear, this was a great night. And it is very funny.

iOTA, if you haven't experienced him (in Hedwig and the Angry Inch where his performance was unbelievably moving, and also Dr Frank-n-Furter where he was less successfull I thought, perhaps too young, too campy drag queeny for what should be more sinister), has a huge stage presence, and a great voice, coloured and modulated with a skill that belies his age. I loved the magic, the very funny strongmen, the trapese, and the rather gorgeous voiced bearded chanteuese of Queenie van de Zandit.

Two days later the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was lining up with the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and Sydney Children's Choir, with soloist, with big screen, and as it turned out with a brilliant sound man, for a live backing to the first of the Ring Trilogies - The Fellowship of the Ring. That was buzzy, with a nicely mixed audience, some, it wouldn't be hard to imagine, hearing a big orchestra live for the first time. It's a great Howard Shore (he wrote the opera The Fly, btw) Oscar winning score, here conducted by Ludwig Wicki, no stranger to film music generally or this immense work specifically. Kaitlin Lusk was the soprano with 25 Lord of the Rings Symphonies to her credit. And there was a stunning boy soprano soloist who thankfully was rightly brought onto the stage for bows.

Microphones were everywhere, but actually hard to find at first. They were throughout the orchestra, at front and side of the choirs (each either side of the screen which covered the whole of the choir stalls) and the mixer was rear stalls, where we we sitting. The film is the film - what's too say, except that it looked great of the very big screen, the dialogue was subtitled as well as spoken which irritated some, not me, but was increasingly necessary as the adventures accelerated into the great battle after intermission. I've decided Orlando Bloom is the star - his performance was very stylish, understated but quite masculine and strong without any macho macho, and if he'd never handled a bow and arrow before, you could have fooled me. Charismatic comes to mind.

Anyway, the sound was just fantastic. I've no idea if it's a hard or easy play, but it's certainly long, although there were nice breaks when even the orchestra members were glued to the screen. The sound was BIG, and a very good blend of amplified and direct, the former predominant where we sat, but enough live to give directionality, and the mixing was just first class. The choirs, no surprise here but even then still a surprise, were simply wonderful. That children's choir, I tell you, give thanks.

Everyone loved it, whooped it up at the end, as the exhausted musicians took their bows and their leave. My only regret was the conductor failed to acknowledge, as far as I could see, the mixer as his desk, and the fabulous Rebecca Lagos who had been counting and belting the shit out of some anvil or the like for three and a half hours.