Thursday, July 23, 2015


                                                                    (michael sowa)

When we got back home, with the Berlin Philharmonic concert still a very fresh memory, K was especially keen to revisit their Digital Concert Hall (DCH). There was a small window of time to compare the actual in-the-hall experience with that of the transmitted live broadcast. We had subscribed to the DCH some years ago, probably after a similar Berlin visit I'd guess, but it lapsed.

The streaming rate was slower then I think, either their level or ours (which has improved), and the depth of programming may not have been what it is now, of that I'm uncertain. Now they have a speed test you can do for your region, and we were satisfactory, although we still occasionally have a small stall in the upload. Certainly our equipment has improved. Our speakers are one step just short of what I'd really like (the boxless DEQX calibrated Kyron Kronos system) and we've a new projector and a wider screen - all in all still a comfortable domestic experience but with excellent audio and visuals.

There's a trial period with the DCH, and we watched the concert we'd just seen (the Barenboim Tchaikovsky 6 and the fascinating Widmann Devil Cupid) and then the Mahler 1 with Dudamel which we missed by a few days. And then we signed up. It's excellent. The broadcast quality is astounding, and the direction faultless and musically informed to the highest level. The integration of sight and sound is note perfect with phrase and arc 'pull backs' just when that's what you're wishing for.

I'm not recommending subscribing; I don't ever recommend how people spend their money. But I can say there's much to explore. There's a vast library of broadcasts, there's films, and there's interviews (and they are free - see the Widmann interview above and the Yuja Wang interview in the comments of my previous post). But it's hard to avoid the reality that good equipment makes it very much more worthwhile.

We've been watching the movies, starting with the Karajan films (the very beautiful Carlos Kleiber - I Am Lost To The World we already had on DVD). No wonder they are so good at it; they're being doing it for decades. It was HvK who really introduced the concert film with an aggression and ego-centricity of which he was his own master. The pursuit of perfection, and his own place in the centre of it, is something to behold. Even to playing mime to previous recordings, some players dead, the orchestra was worked to the bare finger and bleeding lips.

If the result was sometimes like Disney gone Deutsch

the tradition of matching sight and sound was started.

From last weekend viewing:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


       (RCA album photograph of Johannes Brahms taken c 1879 and from the personal collection of Fritz Reiner)

"I love it" I heard myself saying to the frowning seat neighbour. "It's something I grew up with -- the Van Cliburn", her facies slowly morphing into a look now more like that if I'd said my mother was a Russian princess, or I'd given an obscene inheritance to aboriginal health and joined a monastery.

We had just heard 'Chinese Superstar' Yuja Wang play the Brahm's Second. She is quite a character, oozing charm in a Lena Horne silver spangly fishtail dress, with a jet black bob of hair, and a no nonsense dazzling technique. That she played this "most adult" of piano concertos, "the biggest from the pianistic and musical standpoint" so masterfully caught me by surprise, but it shouldn't. She's late 20s. And Cliburn won Moscow at 24, and recorded the Brahms at 28.

                                               (from her Facebook, not the SSO performance)

Ah yes, I smiled, rifling through the records as soon as we'd arrived in the bush in the black of night and the fire was alight. Of course we played it, just us together now, and quite fine the pressing is still. 'This album is also available in stereo' it says proudly on the back cover, next to RCA 1962.

John Rosenfield, from The Dallas Morning Herald, writes that Brahms was clean-shaven when he started the concerto and 3 years later, now 45, had matured in look and output with a concerto with 'the seething rather than eruptive passions of middle years' and a 'grandeur at times spiritual', in a sense a 'full-blown Brahms symphony with piano obbligato', as Hanslick had written.

While I could muse that maybe the neighbour's frown was that some of the grandeur, orchestral grandeur, and balance was still in the rehearsal room, or maybe whatever else it was, and I felt it was that she simply didn't care for the work (and that I wasn't really in the mood to discuss) it was wonderful to hear it again and have memories stirred. But rest assured that the piano and the cello, Umberto Clerici, were talking in some of its most touching moments, among many, the especially beautiful Adante, the piano like the Woodbird, peace reincarnate, showing the way.

What I didn't know was much about Van Cliburn. Taught by his piano teacher mother, his winning of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, an award endorsed by Richter and ratified by Krushchev, at the height of the cold war and the start of the space race, made Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr an American of ticker tape parade celebrity. Criticised for a contained career, one wonders how much his homosexuality restricted his trajectory. Despite enduring relationships with men, and particularly Thomas J Smith, his sole survivor, he lived with his mother till her death, and American showmanship had big closets, even now let alone then. That he played for Reagan in 1987, at the height of the AIDS crisis, in which he would be embroiled, is forgiven - Mikhail Gorbachov was present.

Louisiana born and Texas raised, he went to Church and kept going to Church, more's the story, and Van Cliburn's church was the Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church which now contains the huge organ he donated in memory of his mother. When in 2008 the Broadway Baptist Church faced the controversy of including photos of gay and lesbian couples in its church directory, and welcoming them into full membership, for which it would be expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention, Cliburn was frequently mentioned as a gay member of the congregation.

The final word in this unravelling story of a man "whose talent deeply touched many" resonates well with me. On the other side of the world, a school boy in a suburban house with a radiogram, awakening to his own complexities, and containment, was and remains deeply touched.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


The blurb says for Sydney it's been fifteen years since (the four act) Don Carlo(s), the mighty grand Verdi take on politics, religion, insurrection (and sex) was given a run here. It was it seems beyond the scope of the forces, and/or finances, involved and boiled over into a dummy spit by Elijah Moshinsky about the standards of the orchestra with Simone Young, then MD, taking up a strident defence. Now he, and not she, is back.

For me it's been twenty.

Here I am at the grand old age of mumble mumble meeting it for the first time live. In younger days, I waited half a day on the steps of Palais Garnier, all comraderie and false expectations, before retiring ticketless for lunch at (Maison de) La Lozère, a rustic cheapo at the back of the tourist bureaux for the region. And after that, and a carafe or so, we lingered in the luxury of slow time in Paris. I'd been in Paris a month, and C had just arrived.

It was September 27 1986.

Terror was on the streets. Nine days before, the most deadly of a series of bombings spewed death, havoc and more fear through the city as the Tati discount store on Blvde Montparnasse exploded. I was staying nearby at St Sulpice. Armed police, or military, were stationed every fifty metres or less on the streets, and corners. There would be no tickets, standing, returns or otherwise, to off-the-streets for this grand season opener.

Anyway, last night the Don Carlos arrived in Sydney from Melbourne where the reviews have been fairly gushing. I really only wanted tell my little story for my rocking chair days, but I've a few wee thoughts on things.  Many of the now regulars I was hearing for the first time. I don't know the work well, just the few more famous bits, though we watched the Salzburg Kaufmann/Harteros/Pappano (five act) version on the weekend, and then a bit more.

It is long; it is big; it is hard. And they did well. Is it narky to complain at all? Not really - it's hugely expensive. We sat in the front row which is more affordable, but you are denied subtitles (it shouldn't be too hard to organise I'm told) and with a tendency toward anything you can sing I can sing louder, it was seriously loud. And for what it's worth, there were way too many empty seats. There's something wrong here. There should be people waiting half a day of tickets (v.s.).

Ferruccio Furlanetto was outstanding. He stopped the show, rightly so. Really, a tremendously sung and felt Philip. I did like Jose Carbo's Rodrigo. I really like his style. They could call the whole damn thing Rodrigo; he's there, and there, and still there. Diego Torre was pretty unsubtle. The voice is big, and rings, or at least your ears do in the front row, if not bleed. Once (I can think of only once) in the final love duet he softened into some nuance and it was a really lovely sound. Latonia Moore's a big voice too and had the music's measure, if for me again relying a bit too much on more is more. Milijana Nikolic I'd been looking forward to seeing, and she's impressive, and handsome of stage. David Parkin was a very strong ghost, a very young one but then ghosts can sound whatever. Daniel Sumegi was up against Mr Furlanetto and didn't win.

I didn't care for the sets one bit. I know it's a Sydney / Melbourne small stage / big stage thing. But I just do get why you design for a tiny stage by making it two thirds smaller. And then fill it with costumes which cramp it even more. The sets were realist through hyporealism to semi-abstract, and the clincher I-really-don't-like-this was the jail scene where some granite arch, looking like an opera house shell had crashed through, was plonked there some reason still escaping me and for Mr Carbo (bless him) to gingerly tippy toe across without slipping. Now, I have to bitch - a ghost with walking sticks? Can someone help me there?

The production was stand and sing, mostly. Mr Furlanetto got some character into it, Carbo too, and the others tried, but really, detailed it isn't. It guess with something this size, it's consuming enough to get people placed. It really is a massive work. At least they're doing it.

Rushing (to Susan Graham singing Ravel and Respighi), I ungraciously overlooked credit to the great choral work, the well cast minor roles, the really very fine and true Verdi sounds from the pit and the charming Andrea Licita conducting. His score was as fat and squat as it was old, weathered and well fingered, and likely been toted around the globe for yonks. He certainly knew it, and enjoyed it.

Monday, July 6, 2015


I didn't fail Economics 101. I didn't even do it. But I look at Greece, and it's like looking at someone prescribed blood-letting (phlebotomy) and when they look pale and dreadful and nearly dead the doctor says 'mein Gott' you look pale and dreadful and nearly dead, we must take some more blood. Which seems silly, unless you want them dead anyway.

It's all very complicated.

Thankfully, the Washington Post explains all the big words.

And Pyrrhus might have the last word.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Yesterday I found the book of poems Mary gave me. It had been missing for years and occasionally when I'd go through spasms of regret that I'd lost it I'd search again but fruitlessly. Yes, it was in a bookshelf, and it's been waiting for me to be ready for it. It knew.

                         Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Mary was my mother's eldest sister, the eldest in a family of five siblings, and with my mother the second youngest of that family, and me the youngest by a long way in ours, then Aunty Mary was a good deal older than I. She had flame red hair and lived, when my memories of her start, in Vaucluse. She was heavily burdened, I suspect, despite very comfortable circumstances, and years later would never fully recover from what was in those days called a mental breakdown. I think about her often, and my cousin Robert, always with the feeling that age was then a barrier which now is finally dissolving such that she can talk and I can listen, through the poems. And fingers touch.

For me this is a very precious gift, a personal selection from another's treasures, from the heart to the heart, slightly worn and aged by her eyes and hands and thoughts, and worries. And there is an envelope with a letter dated 8 May 78. I sometimes think that handwriting is more touching than a photograph.

I've not been good with poetry. The intensity and concentration has often defeated my lazy inclination to stream of thought and less disciplined patterns. It's time.

                                              I thought once how Theocritus had sung
                                          Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
                                             Who each one in a gracious hand appears
                                              To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
                                              And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
                                              I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
                                              The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
                                            Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
                                             A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
                                               So weeping, how a mystic shape did move
                                            Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
                                            And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, -
                                       'Guess now who holds thee?' - "Death," I said. But there
                                          The silver answer rang, - 'Not Death, but Love.'