Tuesday, August 28, 2012


It's become a major feature of August - the call of the Blue Satin Bower Bird and the discovery of his courting room. I've made note of it here, and here, and here. The fascination gets no less.

This year he has excelled himself with the blue temptations spread radially around the bower. And just where he's collected them from I have no idea. None around here and we are quite isolated. This is just off the drive through the bush to the house and built while we were away.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Again, the thing that strikes me when I've been away and cringe my way past the cattle grid of a taxi rank at Sydney airport is the light. It is just so bright. Glaringly bright in the cleanest clearest blue sky of them all. I suppose leaving the humid haze of a New York summer emphasised it even more. And then the rush down to pick up the dog, and you wonder where everyone is, how empty the streets seem, and how slow things move as if the film you've been watching is winding down. The dog has one aim, straining, crying: to get in the car. Then it's instantly - now, where were we? (lick, lick) - this is the now and we, just you and me, we are in it. Bless her. She's just about all I missed.

So, now it's exactly two weeks home today, and with the help of a few days Melatonin (the slow release form is amazingly effective - this is not a recommendation, check with your doctor etc etc, prescription medicine only blah blah), it was go go. Go go started with the ACO the night after we landed at the very sensible starting time of 7 pm and plenty of time for supper and friends.

The concert was Tour Five, Beethoven 9 (six cities) :

Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father, from L'Ascension

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op 112

Brahms (arr Gardiner)
Geistliches Lied, Spiritual Song, Opus 30

then after interval

Symphony no 9 in D minor "Choral", Op 125

You know the one, the one with the huge forces - zillions of strings, brassy brass, massive choir, and drowned soloists. Well, welcome to the Australian Chamber Orchestra doing the Choral, conductor and lead violin the enormously enthusiastic head honcho, Richard Tognetti, with four stunning soloists in the shape of Lucy Crowe soprano (perfect) , Fiona Campbell mezzo (I love her big tall blondness and richness to match), Allan Clayton tenor (ring it out), and Matthew Brook bass (now listen here and begone that tiny hint of jet lag), with the 30 member Choir of Clare College Cambridge (beautifully youthful perfectly articulated dynamically faultless, glorious singing indeed).

Read all about them and the full programme notes here. There's a lot of good reading about the instruments and Tognetti's re-appraisal of the Choral, and all played on instruments as close a practical to those used during Beethoven's and Brahm's lifetime, and the Messiaen having to "submit for once to a reimagining in the reverse direction."

And the orchestra for the 9th? 7 violins; 4 violas; 3 cellos; 2 basses; 2 flutes; 1 piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 1 contrabassoon; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 2 trombones; 1 bass trombone; 1 on tympani and 3 percussion = 39.

It was quite simply a revelation. In the fine acoustic of the City Recital Hall, sitting in the front row of the upper gallery, there was a clean sound with a nice resonance and the vocals were just lovely. All of the first half was new to me, and this is another time when you wish you could rush out and buy the performance you've just heard. The Messiaen was especially wonderful, a shimmering edgy hesitant ascent of enormous restraint, the restraint of certainty. The one we'd all come for, the Betthoven 9, was not surprisingly, like you'd not heard it ever before. There was a delicate elegance about the size of the sound, though no loss of body, nor masculinity for that matter. It seemed to me that the tonal core lay in the cellos which reshaped entirely the way I heard it. And it had an alert briskness that RT seems so good at. The little military band was delicious, a distant valley or a few streets away. And all the vocals were centered on conveying the text, not a battle of the decibels.

Two nights later it was the big Concert Hall Gala night revisiting the Opening Gala Concert of 29 September 1973 (as part of the SSO's 80th anniversary). Now I'm a keen supporter of the Sydney Orchestra, but this was not a good night, for me at least.

The evolution and planning of the original opening concert, with Birgit Nilsson and (Sir) Charles Mackerras, is quite an interesting read. Click on the link in the para above then download the full programme notes for some juicy gossipy "Have Nilsson, Will Get Wagner". At the time it all seemed a bit strange: a singer who certainly dominated the Wagner stage but had no connection, before or after, with Sydney, and a highly select programme, which most assumed just came with the star. Even the choice to avoid a purely orchestral programme seemed a tilt at the guilt that this really was meant to be an Opera Theatre but because of us/them it now wasn't. And then it was like oh Joan is busy (and she was) she'd come if she could, it's all those delays, and she'd sing Home Sweeet Home. That Ms N came certainly added to the internationalness of it all. But Charles Mackerras was the star. I was there, a youngish dorky three year postgrad working long long hours and experiencing little of life, taken along by my then friend.

Now revisiting anything is dangerous. Have you ever returned to your childhood house? Don't. This for me was a retrograde step. Yes, I was just back from some splendid music making in Europe but that should make for no excuse. The hall looked shocking again. Temporary panels jutting this way and that. It all emphasised that 40 years on they still haven't managed to solve the acoustic problems. Good that they're trying, but that's forty years already. Is reminding us such a good idea? And we've gone from absorbent heavy drapes to flat reflective timber, one extreme to the other.

The last hall I'd sat in, a few weeks before, was Gasteig in Munich, the functional not particualrly attractive 1980s concert hall built on the old beer hall site where Mr H staged his first putsch. It is a timbered big barn of a space, fan shaped and the main body divided into two wide feet by a very large central access column.

It had an interesting sound. It was clean, clear, not warm exactly, but embracing nonetheless. I liked it. The Giergev Shostakovich 11 and 15 were stunning. Interestingly, they seem to have similar issues with the vaulted ceiling and use reflectors with what looks like some thought other than just dangling.

So, just quickly, for a variety of reasons, sitting second row front circle I was having a bad night. The orchestra sounded cold, colourless, and at times plain ugly. Ms Brewer is no Ms Nilsson and Simone Young is no Charles Mackerras. Lots enjoyed it. There was an orgasmic squeal from the circle after the Rhine Journey. People stood at the end, cheering wildly. I was just glad it was over, wishing I hadn't been reminded that after 40 years, neither the concert hall nor the opera theatre really work, nor reminded of why.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Parsifal in Bayrueth. Two weeks ago exactly, on Sunday the 29th, in what now seems like a dream, I heard it in the house.

The Stefan Herheim genius production, brilliantly conducted by Phillipe Jordan, was the most hauntingly beautiful music theatre imaginable. In a nightmarish slow evolution of time and place, and person, we are taken into a morphing boundary-less world, across the great Wars, before being suddenly precipitated in the cold glaring reality of the present, an Act 3 struggling to sustain the tension,  impact and sheer brilliance of conception of the first two. I had the good fortune to meet the director during the second interval and found myself babbling out something like it was just beyond wonderful and like being on a full-on acid trip, to which he generously smiled and said - just like the piece. Replete with complexities, references, layers and subtleties it is worthy of seeing over and over again. Not that tickets to Bayreuth exactly grow on trees. Anyway, this year is the production's last run so praise the deities that it is being telecast, as I type.

It is relevant to know it starts inside the rear salon (the bay window onto the gardens and fountain) of Wahnfried, Wagner's house in Bayreuth. Wahnfried is being restored for 2013 and the immediate house gardens are derelict at the moment as workman and trucks come and go.

I went back for a second visit the morning after the performance to revisit and linger at 'the scene' and to take this photo showing Wagner's grave, which is significantly ever present in the production extending from the prompt box back over the pit, with Wahnfried in the distance beyond the circular fountain. The fountain also features a lot in a production whose smoothness belies the incredible technical complexity.

Here are Acts One and Two for starters from ARTE. Having been in the house, the edits and close-ups irritate a bit, simply because they tend to break the trance and the depth of illusion. The Festspielhaus you'll remember was designed to create the vast illusion, and that it does. Wherever you are, once the lights go down, the shape of the auditorium, the proscenium and false proscenium, the unseen orchestra and the enveloping sound (and Parsifal was especially written to be played here, and only here, and the orchestration designed to match the acoustic) all conspire to completely absorb you in, rather than be a spectator of, the action. It is an absolutely unique experience.

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Addit 14 August

Act 3 is now up above. Quite a few bloggers are linking to the broadcast, and saying watch it while you can in case it is pulled. The DVD will follow and I can't wait. I am looking forward to watching this with the English translation, although in the house it was perfect to let the music and drama carry me with what I already knew, which was significant if far from word perfect.

While I've mentioned above that Act 3 struggled to sustain the tension of those preceding, it was the final scene I meant, and that was no criticism per se but simply the outcome of being so overwhelmed by the preceding. *Spoiler alert*. I am now watching the incredibly moving arrival of the silvered 'stranger' into the devastation, no time or place in this nightmare, and recalling the impact of the Gethsemane Golgotha imagery, at least as I saw them and wish you could see the perspective I experienced, chilling spine tingling stuff. The close ups aren't helping. The mirrored final scene will follow, a bit off-putting at first (in the I've-seen-this-done-before sense whereas everything else has been revelation) but the more I think about the importance of emphasising that this is our dream, our nightmare, our creation of our own reality, at the most simple superficial level (which I see everyday at work) down to the deepest metaphysical belief (which I fully accept as the truth - see my 'about me' on the upper right) the more I like the cold brutality of it, and then the more optimistic we-are-the-brotherhood, the world, salvation is in, and only in, our individual and collective hands ending. Which is in stark contrast to the darker ending of the last Parsifal I saw, which thrilled me no less at the time, but is now well surpassed. I love that. I don't mind - just give it to me I say. It's why it's addictive.

And isn't Jordan making such magic happen.

Addit addit 14 August, still

Here's a very worthwhile link which delves into the Herheim production (2008 premier with different cast c Gatti) as well as a swag of links to other reviews. I like the take on the mirror.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Details should be forthcoming, but just quickly now, New York has been the WTC-9/11 Memorial, the West Village, the High Line, The Met Museum for lunch in the patrons dining room and a quick informed escorted selective tour, The Frick, The Neue Gallery for the Klimts,  and another excellent (Viennese) lunch, an afternoon in the bowels of the Met in the archives with the files, books, records and costumes of the centuries, more walking and walking, a jaunt in Central park, mastering the subway, not mastering the heat and humidity, Williamsburg Brooklyn and the East River ferry back to Wall Street, a very relaxed night in a west village loft and nearby restaurant with two characters even Woody Allen could only dream of. And a sound system which I can without any hyperbole say is the best I've heard. He reviews.

The Book of Mormon was timely, lots of fun and lots of laughs in a South Park shock-em-in-the-aisles kinda way, with people waiting four hours in the hope of returns. And The Best Man, dedicated to its recently deceased writer Gore Vidal, a 1960s look at the hypocrisy and horse trading in politics is just as potent today. With punchy lines and quips, if not quite Wildean, and if tending now to be a bit preachy and overwritten, it is still compelling theatre driven by a great character performance by James Earl Jones, and the fascinating presence of Cybill taxi-driver Shepherd, whose erect controlled performance as Mrs Betrayed Canditate was of another style completely but I found I couldn't take my eyes off her. It was theatre that couldn't happen anywhere else in the world - the size of the theatre, that Broadway slickness of the scene changes, the usher(ettes) in campaign hats seating everyone with asides and the gift of the gab, the two crowded intervals, the audience its own self-aware entity, and then the jammed streets afterwards, the road blocked by a throng waiting for Ricky Martin over the street (after Evita), a hapless NYCPD cop bawling 'keep orrff the street please' every few minutes, guiding endless yellow cabs through the crowd, New York doing New York as if it were its own film set.

The hotel edges Washington Square Park, where we would mostly begin the day and end the night.

Not everyone heads to the fountain.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


There's barely time for this quick hello I'm not dead, yet.

The Bayreuth experience is quite extraordinary. There's the experience of the Festival, the town, the people, the opera glitterati, the dressing up and showing off, the intervals, the drinks, the gardens, the dinners afterwards, the late nights. And this year there is the installation "Silenced Voices" in the gardens of the Festspielhaus.

Then there are the performances. We didn't see Dutchman (but went to Nurenberg for an exceptional Elektra that night).

Sequentially we saw Tristan, Lohengrin, TannhaΓΌser, and Parsifal. It's the things which affect me most that I find the hardest to describe and with just a few exceptions I have never been more affected by performance. The week was a high point I may not ever again reach, and I am quite happy with that.

So from New York, on the way home - hello, I'm not dead yet. Just quickly, I always thought New York a city constantly renewing itself, a surviving living organism. Now (here for the first time since the first election of GWB) I wonder if it is struggling to keep up with itself. That is a very superficial judgement. It is as always palpably the 'entry point' where people come and cling on, hoping to survive.

And there is much still to impress.