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.


Susan Scheid said...

I love the way you write about music. It's not simply that you're so well-versed, but it's the way you land us there with you (the good and the bad). I remember reading about those instant CDs--maybe it's here I read it. Such a terrific idea, isn't it? And thanks for reminding me of the Messiaen. I hope to spend more time with his music this year, and this piece is one that needs to be on the list.

(Just an aside, though I'm not a robot, I do have a terrible time with these character recognition things. Maybe 3rd time will be the charm.)

David said...

Greetings! What travels you've had. I'd agree that Simone Young is no Charles Mackerras, but I did hear La Brewer with CM, in one of his last concerts, truly magnificent in Isolde's Liebestod and Brunnhilde's Immolation. Though the Wagnerian soprano I was with said she thought there was only one failing - absolute security, no risks.

I'm only just old enough to have heard Birgit at the end of her career, in a Prom which was a real curate's egg but had flashes of magnificence (namely 'Barak, mein Mann' from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten and a 'hoiotoho' encore which brought the house down).

wanderer said...

Susan, I agree the robot riddle thing gets a bit tedious and I just keep clicking till there's one I can decipher. That's 'blogger' for you but I'm stuck here for the moment; the inertia is great! Thank you for your kind words. I'm off to Prufrocks right now after a week of lying low aka getting the gardens ready for spring with early nights and busy days on top of the usual rhubarb.

wanderer said...

David what a thrill to see you are back, and the hills are alive!

I only heard Birgit on that one visit in 1973 but the video exists and I shall post it sooner rather than later, for you. Mackerras that night single handedly opened my ears to Wagner (as much as i dislike those 'best bits' concerts now). Just to watch him is so special. What a Wagnerian he would have been, although we might not now such Janacek penetration into the rep.

I last saw him conducting Katya at ROH in 2007 and was shocked at how frail and spindly he looked, taking his bow after such a powerful performance.

David said...

I went to see him after the Philharmonia Wagner concert and he was so apologetic that his health only permitted bleeding chunks. So typically humble. The Welsh National Opera Tristan was when the press rather belatedly started hailing him as a truly great conductor...