Saturday, May 12, 2012


Last Friday's concert was Poulenc and Mozart, the Gloria and Requiem respectively. The Mozart is always popping up one place or another, Mozart is like that, but sadly not Poulenc. The programme notes suggest the Gloria has had only one performance by the SSO and that was in 1979 which is hard to fathom or excuse. Anyway, I'm grateful for small mercies (now we're in the liturgical mood). This work, as they say, is very moi.

Exactly how I came by this work, and the world premier recording, way back when, I have no idea. It was probably for the more orgasmic Concerto for Organ that I bought my cherished vinyl (still with its outer cover, almost more cellophane than plastic) but it is the Gloria which I came to love.

The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress. Let's dwell here for a bit. Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was music director on the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949, and whereas that link (and who opens them?) behind the name leads you to more detail (although no mention of Poulenc and his Gloria), it is worth listing some things about this remarkable Russian born Jewish musician, composer, conductor, sponsor of fledgling artists and champion of contemporary music.

He played in the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra having trained with the Moscow Philharmonia Society having received a scholarship having been baptised as Jews were then forbidden to live in Moscow.

He debuted as a conductor in Berlin in 1908 with Rachmaninoff playing his own second piano concerto.

He followed Pierre Monteux as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and eventually became an American citizen.

His Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris presented among other things new works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ravel.

He was involved if not entirely instrumental (I can't find out specifics) in establishing the Tanglewood Summer Festival and shaping the BSO into America's then premier orchestra.

He created the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in honour of his deceased second wife, and would later marry her niece, wife three.

He sponsored young talent, finding Alfred Cocozza who would change his name to Mario Lanza, and guiding the early careers of Leonard Bernstein and Sarah Caldwall. (She was to remain closely bonded with Boston, and opera).

He was involved in sponsoring or encouraging one way or another Ravel's Piano Concerto in G; Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Prokofiev's 4th Symphony; Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms; Peter Grimes; The Ballad of Baby Doe; Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra; Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. And that's just for starters.

And in his memory the Foundation commissioned Poulenc's Gloria which premiered in Boston on January 20, 1961 with the European premiere in Paris on February 14 the same year. The first recording was made the following day with Poulenc supervising, with the Italian soprano Rosanna Carteri the soloist, and otherwise, very French.

Very Catholic though it undoubtably is, and reverent and adoring, there is a welcome lack of excessive chest beating guilt. There's no Kyrie (and therefore it is not a Mass per se) and though there is the appropriate 'miserere nobis' in the Domine deus, Agnus dei, it is, to me, a request for mercy infused with the certainty that forgiveness is a given, that the prayer is already received, with the ascending "suscipe", as steps climbed, becoming a wonderfully exotic swaying ascension to God. Rosanna Carteri is simply stunning. Perhaps contained by the great contemporaries Tebaldi and Callas, her career now looks restricted. It is a weighty voice, full of body and colour, and here considerable poignancy, and yet with a perfectly launched piercing top, with the cut of a sharp but never unpleasant edge. It's quite arresting, Startling actually. Poulence must have been well pleased.

David Zinman played it tightly, keeping the forces well balanced and the American soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge in her debut here, made a strong impression. The 150 strong choir was again just fantastic, singing with haunting beauty, the diction crystal clear, with every word falling on every pair of ears. I suspect many if not most were hearing this live for the first time.

If anything I wished for a volume dial, just to crank it up a bit. And while I wouldn't have minded a bit more explosiveness in the declamations, a bit more jazzy swing and cut the some of the angular rhythms, the mystery and incense was all there.

Here is the soprano's second passage in the Domine Deus, Agnus dei, (with a lighter more silvery voice than Canteri) in a passage the record sleeve notes describes as 'a litany of beauty and humility impelled by a profound mysticism'.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei                                    O Lord God, Lamb of God
Filius Patris, Rex coelestis,                                  Son of the Father, heavenly King,
Domine deus,                                                      O Lord God,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,                                    You take away the sins of the world,
misere nobis.                                                       have mercy on us.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,                                    You take away the sins of the world,
suscipe deprecationem nostram;                         receive our prayer.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei                                   O Lord God, Lamb of God,
Filius Patre                                                         Son of the Father,
Qui tollis peccata mundi ...                                 You take away the sins of the world ...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I missed this interview (against fabulous rehearsal footage) at the time of the considerable buzz around Anne-Sophie Mutter's visit to Sydney. You will see here how close she stands to the conductor, sometimes too close!

With enormous charm and naturalness she speaks about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Herbert von Karajan, the early years, the humility of honesty and self-awareness, and serving the music, the art and then nails it talking about 'the loss of musical innocence'. It is a great interview, really.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


If I don't write something now I risk losing track of this special concert. That is to say, not (lose track) of its importance, but of the format, and time and place. Much of what I jot down here, raves and the odd rant, are for my memory and memories. I find myself looking back, wondering who what when and where, and am often sobered by the lost details. I wonder if I'm running out of (organic) disk space and band width.

The justly famous Steve Reich, a man who 'altered the direction of musical history' (the Guardian), was in Sydney as Composer in Residence last week. Alex Ross says it all with worthy insight and clarity. I can't and wont try to do much more than document the concert called A Celebration. I went because I needed to know about this man and his music having been woefully underexposed for too long.

Margaret Throsby's interview was a good introduction and worth a listen. "Yes, she was good" he said when we had a little chat during the second interval. I came back into the house early only to find that baseball cap sitting 'right there', as Mr R was giving himself a break from the controller mixer not-so-comfortable seats and chose, foolishly for him, a seat next to me. I had to ask if I detected some Yiddish melody in the final section of Double Sextet. "Not conscious" he said before breaking into Hebrew (I think).

From 6 on Sunday evening till 10.20 a full house of an unexpectedly young (I mean lots and lots in their twenties, and younger) was enthralled by a riveting full-on Reich night, preceded by 'The Sound of Four Hands Clapping' (my nick), with Steve Baseball Cap Reich and Synergy's Timothy Constable and followed by a spontaneous and genuine standing ovation rarely seen down here. Everyone was up, literally and figuratively.

Drumming Part 1 (1971)
Mallet Quartet (2009)
Variations For Vibes Strings Piano (2005)
Four Organs (1970)
Vermont Counterpoint (1982)
Double Sextet (2007)
Music For 18 Musicians

Murray Black's rather cool assessment of the night doesn't really reflect the visceral effect this music had on the packed house and certainly on me.

Mr Reich, now 76 if the sums are right, was very present all night after a long week, a long day, and the long night. He dutifully signed CDs at the first interval ...

and as I mentioned was at the mixer throughout the concert.

I though it all just wonderful, this music and its almost primal rhythms derived from the very beat of existence, the life force pulse we first experience as embryos, the pulse of a mother's heart beat, the regular pacifying beat of footsteps of mothers carrying babies, the clickety-clack of child train travel from west to east, seven years worth say, and I wonder about the sounds we hear "not consciously" - the pulse of the subatomic particles, the pulse of the stars, the pulse of the cosmos. This was for me the true sound of the universe.

When you have a comfortably spare hour, be still and listen to this. While I suspect it will be only an approximation of the live experience, perhaps you may get a glimpse of the timelessness and spacelessness this work achieves. It was transcendental. When I would occasionally surface to self-awareness, and wonder whether we had been listening for 5 or 50 minutes, there was no answer, not the desire for it ever to end. But it had to.


Oh, here's some news. West Australian Symphony Orchestra gets Asher Fisch for three years starting 2014. I'm madly envious for them, although surely we will get some benefits on the east coast. At the very least, I'd fly there to hear him, repertoire depending, in what is regarded as the best acoustic hall in the country. I was fortunate enough to experience his Adelaide Ring Cycle, hear him speak, and say hello at the lobby coffee shop.

Dare I say I wish he were at the helm of the Melbourne Ring 2013.