Tuesday, July 26, 2011

MARGARET OLLEY 1923 - 2011

((self) portrait in the mirror 1948)

"Margaret Olley was one of the most unforgettable people I have ever met. I have never met anybody so rarely passionate, committed and yet retaining a wry sense of the absurd that life inevitably presents to us ...

She was probably the most politically incorrect person I knew. Margaret Olley brought a new dimension to the word individual." Edmund Capon


In a clever move, the Sydney Opera House has celebrated itself with THE SHIP SONG PROJECT

SSO, ACO, Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance, Neil Finn, Sarah Blasko, Martha Wainright, Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody, Katie Noonan, Elliott Wheeler, Teddy, Stones, John Bell ....

There are lots of associated interviews with participating artists on Youtube.

I thought this clip with Richard Tognetti especially good.

Monday, July 18, 2011


It took us off the autobahn and it took me back to my childroom bedroom where I'd left Golden Books, Enid Blyton, my sister's Twin Books, even my very own William Books, and moved onto war novels of the more romantic kind, The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, and my favorite by a long way, The Colditz Story, where I focused more on the suspense, camaraderie, creativity, dressing up, putting on plays, and tricking the Krauts than much to do with war. It was all very Boys Own to this boy.

That Colditz even existed had long been forgotten till a chance conversation in Leipzig (with a hotel desk clerk who was a very tall young man in drag, I kid you not, thick with makeup, long jet black hair, and neat blue pants suit) - Colditz was just down the road on the way to Dresden.

The countryside was lush and the driving easy ...

(close inspection, double click, shows roadside wildflowers and wind turbines - there everywhere)

... through little country towns (a quarter past one) ...

.. till we wound our way down into a valley, crossed the Mulde and there it was, sitting high above the town - Colditz Castle.

(from the town square)

(from the far side, the exercise grounds of the camp, and adjoining countryside)

The Castle's long history is here including what was a concentration camp for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and undesirables (1933-1934) now called " 'protective custody' for opponents of the Nazis". I was actually reading Hans Fallada's shocking "Alone in Berlin" at the time. It takes a strong stomach to finish.

Colditz was the camp for allied officers who had an escape history - creating, as our droll guide ('now remember, I am counting', she would say whenever we went through a closed doorway) said was effectively an escape academy. The late Earl of Harewood was one special guest, and inmates were treated like officers, and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

The Castle is a short climb up through the town (fairly obviously not a bombing target) ...

... across the dry moat

(restoration ongoing)

to the main gates, the coat of arms of the castle and the town above.

Next episode - inside Colditz.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


There were two(*) impressive debuts this week with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra - the lively New York born conductor James Gaffigan, leprechaun in size only, and the young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachtryan. I went on Friday, especially for the Sibelius Violin Concerto (1904, not 1804), and sat close, about eight rows back soloist side. It was strange walking into stalls after being away and thinking - but this hall looks small. Why has everything been looking small?

Who was the curly black haired New York (?Jewish) violinist who played the Sibelius about 20 years ago. It is one of those permanent imprints, perhaps because it was the first time I'd heard it live, but more likely it was the technical brilliance infused with a goodly dose of angst that so moved me.

Sergey Khachatryan looked so melancholic and his reading of this was a serious tragic meditation with even the final Allegro struggling to escape into optimism. It was achingly sad and deeply deeply felt. Did I mind? Not really. It is a seriously thoughtful work for me, the opening Allegro quite world weary and the sublime Adagio a poignant reverie on the struggle for faltering ascent to higher meaning, not realised here, but that's as possible as is (say) Nigel Kennedy's flight into transcendence. James Gaffigan paced it beautifully with nice dynamics and my only reservation would have been to reign the orchestra in even more with the soloist as he indulged the softest, almost disappearing, of highs, sometimes cut off, others left to fade to some cosmic minimalism.

The strings sounded nicely shimmery and pretty together, and it was girls nights in the strings, although I can't help but comment that the private joke and giggle between two after the first movement was mood breaking for those in the mood (obviously they weren't) and better kept till later. I wished I hadn't seen it.

A large Armenian contingent were there, and in fact some didn't return for the second half. They, well we, were treated to a traditional folk song as an encore - the Apricot Tree (I think that's what he said, and was left with the impression that it was the only one, and it had just died)- very beautiful, also very sad. I wanted to call out - do happy!

The Prokofiev was a Gaffigan arrangement, and a good story was told. They played well for him, with a high sense of drama and dance (does being a New Yorker help with dance), and the Death of Tybalt built to such an exciting climax (even in row 8) that spontaneous applause erupted, sparingly, through the house, enough for him to turn and quip -'Fortunately, that's only one dead - two to go!' - either to remind people that no, it wasn't over yet, or more likely in the rush of the strong audience connection.

That's the second good American conductor with an interest in opera (Gaffigan is MD in Lucerne) I've heard here this year. The other was Andrew Litton (Rosenkavalier for OA).

(*) Maybe two and a half if Tobias Breider's viola solo was a first.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


There's a few half started posts from the trip I'll get up soon - things are fading fast.

Firstly, back to Amsterdam and the Concertgebouw. We actually went on the guided tour after we'd been to two concerts, two wonderful concerts, in themselves enough to make the trip worthwhile - Brahm's German Requiem, June 9, and then a thrilling Russian night, June 11.

So that opening sombre funeral beat of the Brahms, Residentie Orkest, conducted by Claus Peter Flor (Leipzig born), with Ingela Bohlin, the amazing Dutch bass-baritone Robert Holl, and the Nederalands Concert Choir, were the first sounds we heard. It was quite overwhelming. The thing is, the sound doesn't come to you - you are just in it, immersed. It is warm, and soft, and caressing, and most interestingly, with little sense of directionality, made even more so when the organ was playing. K said it is 'wet'. Whatever resonances and reflections are occurring, it seems little is lost (maybe there's some smudging of detail, loss of brilliance in say the brass, it would take more visits than this to say) and everything good is reinforced. The changes in dynamics are immediate, in front of you. I felt I was completely in the middle of the music, but I was sitting a few rows back in the stalls on the aisle. It is, can I say it again, a very beautiful sound space, and as we were to find out (another concert and a tour during a dress rehearsal for Handel's Messiah, with a lot of moving around), it matters little where you sit. Hence the legend of the Concertgebouw.

The choir (I counted 80 plus - the sopranos and altos separated by the men - producing one blended voice, again the room at work also, such as I've not ever heard) was conducted by Claus Peter Flor as if they were the only ones there. He lent into every word, syllable, with them and they were with him. They are very close to him, on his left. It makes our choir arrangements seem so distant. It was profoundly Germanic reading, heavy, funereal, but never despairing. Humanistic. Robert Holl was deeply emotionally involved, red faced, the pages in his hands trembling, leaning to the choir, the conductor - such an intense and genuine singer, the voice of enormous depth with the most beautiful subtlety.

Then comes silence. At the end of the performance, the audience sits, absorbed, replete. It goes on, more than seconds, forever, a self perpetuating acknowledgement of the power of the work and the performance, till gradually sporadic applause starts, and slowly gathers, till unison is achieved, the volume swells, and then another phenomenon - some people stand, here and there, till, like birds taking flight, the audience, separate yet together, and without the slightest self-consciousness, slowly stands. This is not some routine reflex indulgence. This is understanding.

Two nights later it was 'From Russia with ...' : The Shostakovich Second Cello Concerto op.126 (no, I'd not heard it before; why?, don't know), Stravinsky's Petrushka, and an unexpected amuse bouche, the dangerously familiar Romance from the film music for the Gadfly (Ovod), op 97. Well no danger here. Beware Thomas Hanus and the lady concertmaster for they will steal your heart and make you cry.

Below is Daniel Müller-Schott, cellist (in rehearsal). See that cluster of seats in the upper corner - that's where we sat this time, and again it's in the middle of the music. A magic place.

The cello was amazing and the concerto stunning. I own a copy now, and that's just the beginning. Has this been played here? Cop this -

The Pertruska was just brilliant. Then that Silence again. I am out of adjectives and gush.

Monday, July 11, 2011


We've been back a week now. There's something about coming home, something ambivalent. It starts with that sunrise you see from the plane - the red is burnt with residuals of black, a deep indian red, with a slightly sickly lurid yellow halo, and the whole effect, unlike the pink, blue and pale yellow pastels seen from the ground, I find unpleasant. It's like looking into some space not meant to be seen at all.

Then comes the forced squeeze through the pores of over-lit crass duty free shops before emerging in front of a sullen customs clerk. Everything is starting to feel crowded, and unlike most airports, escaping through customs in Sydney is just the beginning. Now the herding really begins. Another line, another wait, another sniffer dog, another layer of authority. When you finally burst through the crowded arrival hall into the day, they've saved the best for last. Ill-designed garden beds and hideous rust steel somethings, sculptures is too generous a word, need to be navigated before the piece de resistance - a cattle grid worthy of a Four Corners programme, stinking of whisky from a smashed duty-free bottle, hardly a taxi to behold despite thousands waiting yonder, harnessed till called, unable to cross some unimaginably poorly designed road network.

Why is this so cramped, so small, and that's without mentioning the minds, and the thinking.

The drive to the city is along one of the filthiest roads in the world. Rubbish and filth. And then the town house - ah, home. So small, so little. Some perceptions have been reset and something needs rebooting. It wasn't till some hours later as I drove up the winding red dirt road to pick up the dog, through a clump of white scribbly gums, ghost white against the brilliant blue sky, as tens of Magpies swooped from tree to tree, laughing and warbling, that I felt a little rush of pleasure.

Since then we've been buffeted with gale force cold winds, enough to cut off the power for four days and drive me back to town. So we lined up for Terrence Malick on a cold blowy night, only to find out it was sold out in just enough time to iphone our way around the block and into the arms of Bob Connelly and his wonderful documentary. And I cried, not at the end, but the beginning. I was home.

Friday, July 1, 2011


The heat and humidity continue but today was the last full day, so armed with an umbrella, as you do, off I went. At least it was overcast. I was keen to walk along Tokyo's "Champs-Élysées" - Omotesando Boulevarde in the Omotesando neighbourhood, a long tree lined boulevarde constructed in 1920 to conduct worshippers to the Meiji Jingu shrine. Today the avenue is lined by designer buildings, boutiques, and fashion houses. It's a far cry from the crazy scene around the corner at Shibuya and degrees cooler.

At one subway stop from the hotel, it was a walk there and a ride back.

Time for iced tea.

The little side streets extend the posh vibe a short way before it quickly fades away.

Eclectic just about covers it.

I was about to cross the pedestrian overpass the explore Tod's when the battery on the little camera ran out.

Unfinished is good.


I'm holed up in Tokyo for a few days and it's hot and humid. Normally I'd be walking, but memories of dehydration put paid to that idea.

So it's been off to some shows at night at Opera City, a large complex in Shinjuku and a short taxi ride from the hotel. As well as the New National Theatre (opera and ballet) where I saw Butterfly a few weeks ago, there's a concert hall and separate recital hall. The ballet was on, Romeo and Juliet (after MacMillan) in the theatre. Prokofiev - that's a score I like.

The usual pre-performance announcement (Japanese and English) wasn't quite as usual. After the customary electronice devices warning, and please don't lean forward as it restricts the view of the neighbours, came the announcement that the building we were in was built to the highest fire and earthquake protection standards, and in the event of an earthquake, please remain seated and bend forward. Well, now I've heard it all!

The performance was, how to put it, almost saved by the lovely, extremely delicate, joyously youthful dancing of Ono Ayako. Here she is aged 17. How gorgeous is that! You can imagine her Juliet some 7 years later. Everyone is so young here. The conductor looked like he should be at home doing his homework.

Next night to the concert hall for a subscription night at the Tokyo Philharmonic (100 years old and Tokyo's first symphony orchestra). We love concert halls, or had you noticed.

(entrance to concert hall, opera city)

Inside is timbered, an almost square very open and high vaulted space with a reflecting and lighting panel over the concert platform, though quite high up. Timber baffles protrude from the ceiling.

The sound was very bright and not particularly nice I thought. In fact everything sounded sharp to the point of wondering if they had tuned sharp (except the violinist, who seemed to be going the other way). The programme was Three Film Scores by Toru Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (Teiko Maehashi, not having a good night) and the Shostakovich 5th. The Largo was good. The audience was wildly enthusiastic.

Tonight the Mahler 5!