A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

January 9, 2018
by harryfiddler

The Merry Widow

ERTÉ Costume for Mata Hari, 1913 Design for Le Minaret – the first theatrical production by Paul Poiret, Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris, Private Collection (from anothermag.com)

I’ve been searching for the image which Danielle de Niese’s pose at the beginning of Act III reminded me of, but I can’t find it. The one above will have to do. It’s meant to be Mata Hari but Hanna Glawari would totally rock this look at a casual Pontevedrian-themed party.

Since scribbling a review of last Friday’s performance for SMH I’ve been going over the performance again in my head. In particular, how the work, the libretto, the translation, the direction and the production as a whole handles women and gender. There’s much to think about.

First up, a distanced prod at my gut reaction to some of what I cast as ‘lazy misogyny’ in the review. Am I being a humourless old fuddy-duddy in turning up my nose at a bit of harmless dick-waving, bottom-pinching and crotch-thrusting? Or, worse, am I completely missing the point? Is this some grand ironic gesture, designed to suck you in then put the joke on you?

I’m referring to this production’s Act III sting, where the unassailably beautiful, elegant and — most importantly — powerful (by virtue of her $$) Hanna Glawari joins the chorus of dancing girls. She jumps into the can-can line-up, not as a posh tart pretend, but as one of them. She kicks as high as her neighbours. She laughs as loud. She even presents her high class arse to the assembled crowd, much to their embarrassment. Is it a Bakhtinian moment of the carnivalesque, a mischevious tilt at the fusty traditions of a ruling class? Or is it, rather, a moment of solidarity with Lolo, Dodo, Jou-Jou, Clo-Clo and Frou-Frou, the grisettes who humiliate themselves nightly to bolster the egos of Maxim’s swaggering clientele?

I’d  like to think it’s the latter. I’d like to think that it’s a directorial decision to let Hanna humiliate Danilo in particular and the men in general for objectifying half the human race.

But where does that leave the rest of the show? Does Hanna’s behaviour render the previous two acts, so full of hammy innuendo and titivating bluster, as sneakily cutting irony? Does it mean the joke’s on us for laughing in the first place?

I don’t know. But, sadly, I think it’s another case of cashing in on cheap laughs, especially in the wake of yesterday’s accusations against musical star Craig McLachlan. Yes, the librettists writing ‘Women, women, women’ as a central number makes the masculine view of women a key theme of the show. But this production continues to indulge the leerier end of the spectrum, from Justin Fleming’s phnarr phnarr translation to the unnecessary Benny Hill sketch in act II.

I’m calling it. Not good enough. It’s 2018.  We’ve had enough of lazy misogyny and ‘ooh missus’ cracks. And, more to the point, the joke’s on you, because we’re not laughing any more.

December 30, 2017
by harryfiddler

Dancing Queen

Madeleine Jones and Maggie McKenna as Rhonda Epinstall and Muriel Heslop

Muriel’s Wedding: the musical
Ros Packer Theatre
26 December

When I suggested to my musical-mad daughter that we have a family outing to the latest, greatest Australian musical, Muriel’s Wedding, she point blank refused. “No. It’s too depressing.” And this from someone who adored Assassins, loved Miss Saigon and lapped up Evita, none of which are exactly feel good bonanzas. Indeed, the musical, in spite of its upbeat, jazz hands tropes, has long been deeply invested in the dark side. Even The Sound of Music has Nazis. So why is Muriel too depressing? Why not ordinary little Muriel from Porpoise Point? Pants-on-fire Muriel with her fragile relationship with reality and her vivid inner life dancing to a soundtrack of ABBA on repeat?

Humankind cannot bear too much reality. And maybe it’s the in your face reality of Muriel’s world which makes it an at times unbearably dark story. Unbearably dark, and utterly compelling.

PJ Hogan’s translation of his 1994 classic is a masterpiece of play-building in itself. The audience is waiting for all the iconic moments of the movie, the unforgettable lines — “Muriel, you’re terrible…” –and they’re all there, but woven in so artfully that they still keep their comedic punch. (Perhaps the only exception is the leaky beanbag). In addition, he’s made Muriel’s spirit animal, ABBA, a bigger part of the action, amplifying her feelings, goading her on and, in a ghoulish moment, welcoming her mother to the suicide club. It’s a brilliant conceit, and Benny tipping his head jauntily sends us whizzing back to the 70s. Meanwhile the contemporary references — what did Muriel do before the selfie?– whilenot essential, fit well with the story.

The original music, from Kate Miller Heidke and Keir Nuttall, is good solid stuff, not helped by a rather fuzzy and top heavy sound mix. The most powerful number is Muriel’s Eulogy to her mother, which takes Muriel-the-character, and the stunning newcomer Maggie McKenna, to a whole new emotional and musical pitch. The big ensemble numbers bustle along but, again, it would be great to have a more punchy, live, sound to the band. It’s broad brushstroke stuff, and fair enough, all in the tradition of the big, brassy musical, but I missed detail and nuance.


The plot, moving from suburban drear to Sydney glamour to the candy shop of the wedding boutique, is a designer’s dream, and Gabriela Tylesova does not disappoint. The costumes are adorable, from Muriel’s mum’s tracky daks to Deirdre Chambers tailored suits. As for the set, the detail is pared back (partly, I imagine, to let the costumes and the characters shine), instead using a double revolve to move from location to location and screens to frame the action. Indeed, the final scene is a nod to its cinema origins, as Rhonda, Muriel and Brice (oh OK, they gave in to the lure of a happy ending) drive off into the sunset.

All in all it’s a terrific show: beautifully constructed by PJ Hogan, ingeniously directed by Simon Phillips, gloriously decked out by the design team and with top-notch performances from across the entire ensemble. I won’t mention all the stars, but a shout out to Justine Clarke, transformed into a heartbreakingly put upon mother, and the wicked spark of Madeleine Jones as Rhonda Epinstall. And a final roar of approval for Maggie McKenna. It’s hard to believe this is her professional debut, and I look forward to seeing much more from her.

Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical plays until the end of January, but good luck with getting a ticket. Hen’s teeth.


December 16, 2017
by harryfiddler

Sentimental? Me?

Look. We need to talk about tradition and authenticity. Because, used in the right way, it’s incredibly powerful. I’m not at my most articulate at the moment but, watching the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s 2017 Noel Noel concert, I was flooded with disparate emotions, and I’d love to tease them apart a little, so please bear with me.

ABO’s Noel Noel has carved itself a spot in the cultural calendar. They’ve been doing this for as long as they’ve been around — more than 25 years. That’s got to qualify as a tradition, right? However, they — and when I say ‘they’, I suppose I really mean the artistic director, Paul Dyer — continue to innovate, to push the boundaries of what is expected. They tickle the tradition, make it giggle and squirm a little. So you get a period instrument orchestra augmented with piano and drum kit accompanying music from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one). Or Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing in a mash-up arrangement by 25 year old Sydneysider Alex Palmer.

Personally, I love it. This is music doing what music does so well: marking an occasion, radiating beauty, providing a space for a bunch of individuals to feel things together. (If I was writing an academic paper I might make up a word like co-emote or something. But let’s not do that.)

It’s also sentimental as all hell, and I love that too, which surprises me, because I’m the first person to get irritated by a film score which yanks my emotions with the subtlety of a 2 year old demanding attention. I hate it when my eyes prick just because the composer cranked the chorus up a semitone. I hate it most when it’s a crap movie that doesn’t deserve my sentiment (yes, The Christmas Prince, I’m thinking of you). I hate to be manipulated.

Sometimes, however, a little bit of sentiment hits the spot. Especially when it’s peppered with interestingly tangy interludes and a side of self-deprecating humour. Especially when it’s performed with such flair and finesse. When it feels so authentic. Like a big hug.

Sorry, there I go, getting sentimental myself. How embarrassing. But what I’m trying to say is that, for all the ABO’s faults — playing fast and loose with notions of authenticity, overegging it on occasion, and even presenting concerts which sound under-rehearsed at the start of a run — I love it. I love the creativity and the invention and the musicality.

Which brings me to the performance. This year’s Noel Noel is a particularly delicious mix of sugar and spice. Opening with the ascetic pleasures of late renaissance polyphony then rolling straight into a pseudo-hymn from Hollywood sets the pattern of new sitting alongside old in comfy companionship. The band — a select crew, but featuring three sackbuts — provides colourful backing to the main event, the Brandenburg Choir and featured soloist Joel Parnis. From the moment the choir begins I am reminded (if I ever forgot) at how outstanding a choral conductor Paul Dyer is. This is not a gush. This is an honest opinion. It’s fascinating to see how Dyer adapts his conducting style to choral repertoire: he draws the sound out, shapes it, moulds it, picks tiny details to highlight. The result is a notably well-blended sound, at all times sitting in the centre of the pitch, bouncing along to a unanimous internal rhythm, and sounding just beautiful. I have to give a big thumbs up to a couple of notes in particular: the last chord of the Palestrina Kyrie,  and a chord in the middle of the Gibbons Magnificat went as close to perfection as it is safe to do. Any more perfect, and the gods would be out for blood.

According to Paul Dyer, he first heard tenor Joel Parnis on stage, as Freddy in OA’s My Fair Lady, and immediately started to plan Noel Noel around this young singing actor. He has a terrific voice. It’s not huge, not a Pavarotti style howler, but it shines at the top. Considering he spends most of his time singing amplified in music theatre, it carries across the choir and orchestra with impressive ease. Versatile and vibrant — a perfect match for the ABO.

A final shout out to Alex Palmer, Dyer’s music assistant, who made several of the arrangements and also presented a work of his own, All Nearness Pauses, While a Star Can Grow. Featuring some of the scrunchiest harmonies and closest part singing of the evening, its delicacy and assurance suggests that there’ll be more to come from this ridiculously young, ridiculously talented composer.

You can still catch Noel Noel tonight in Sydney and then in Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown over the next few days, but if you haven’t already got tickets you may have to beg, borrow or steal.

December 14, 2017
by harryfiddler

Normal service will be resumed…

Hang on. What exactly is normal?

You might have noticed a slow down in blogposts and reviewing. Not my intention, but at the beginning of November I had one of those unexpected and unwelcome life events which means I’m going to be running on empty for a few months. As ever, music and writing are my go-to medicine, and I hope to see you at many concerts and to write about them here. If this wretched crapstorm gets in the way, rest assured I’m there in spirit and will be back as soon as it releases me.

In the meantime, here’s a word from Renee.

Renee Fleming “I want magic!” Madrid 2004 – YouTube


October 28, 2017
by harryfiddler

Songs of Love and War

Things I have learnt this year from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Constantine Costi likes blindfolds, Paul Dyer likes mark trees and if Natasha Wilson is on the program, you need to be there.

77122-fitandcrop-717x437It’s been a thoroughly theatrical year for the Brandenburgs: a semi-staged Messiah, a Spanish baroque circus, and now, in ‘Bittersweet Obsessions’, three mini-operas with maxi-staging. It’s a luxurious approach to music presentation, and one which knowingly pushes the boundaries of the concert genre. That it is not entirely successful is as it should be: innovation is a risky business.

For ‘Bittersweet Obsessions’ some of the hiccups of the previous stagings have been adjusted. The ensemble is at the front, on the floor below the stage rather than behind the action, so the music does not have to fight its way through the action. And in The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda the singers and the fighters are wisely separated from each other, cleverly using vertical space to overcome the limitations of the City Recital Hall stage.

The costumes, lighting and staging are elaborate and theatrically thrilling, if occasionally confusing: a spectacular backdrop of a pastoral landscape, perfect for a nymph’s lament; bleak scaffold for a battle to the death; and a hipster cafe for the coffee obsessed.

As for the program, Paul Dyer has assembled a sort of pasticcio club sandwich, topping and tailing Monteverdi’s lugubrious madrigals with atmospheric toccatas and chaconnes which showcase the delicate timbres of a colourful ensemble. Thus the ensemble is not just a very classy pit band, but also a soloist in its own right, with a glistening performance of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto a highlight of the evening.

All in all, it’s a packed program, full of action, of references and connections, knowing looks, in jokes, literary tropes, special effects and coups de theatre, to the point that I feel overwhelmed, like Mrs Moore on the train to the Marabar Caves, and accidentally laugh when Tancredi discovers he’s just killed his lover. Oops. But this is what taking risks is about: looking for the right pitch of emotion, the right level of theatricality to engage and enlighten. It’s a bit hit and miss.

What does reach the target, every time, is the hard-working cast. Natasha Wilson is, of course, the stand-out. This scarily young New Zealander has a freshness and consistency of tone which, coupled with unerring accuracy and a sassy stage presence, makes her performance a thing of great loveliness. As the impossible Lieschen in Bach’s Coffee Cantata she trounces her well-meaning father, nicely played by Danish bass-baritone Jakob Block Jespersen — what a transformation from the warring lovers in the previous tale! Meanwhile, Karim Sulayman makes an exciting Australian debut as the narrator in Tancredi and an able barista in the Bach. (I’d love to hear more — maybe an Evangelist?) Spencer Darby completes the trio of shepherds with versatile ease and Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter bring an unexpected grace and dignity to walloping each other with metal bars.

It’s wonderful stuff. But I confess I’m now going to go and sit in a room quietly, with my eyes closed, and think of nothing.

More performances: today, Saturday 28 October, at 2pm and again at 7pm, then Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, all at City Recital Hall, then Saturday and Sunday 4 and 5 November at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in Melbourne. 



October 22, 2017
by harryfiddler

Piano play

Piano-Lessons-Anna-Goldsworthy-Adelaide-Cabaret-Festival-The-ClotheslineAnna Goldsworthy‘s memoir, Piano Lessonscame out in 2009. It quickly received a slew of praise and prizes for its eloquent prose and finely drawn characters. In 2012 Goldsworthy, in collaboration with dramaturg Michael Futcher and actor/writer Helen Howard adapted the novel for the stage. In 2017 Piano Lessons makes a welcome return to Sydney.

Piano Lessons isn’t quite a play, nor is it quite a recital. When Goldsworthy plays the piano it often begins as a scene from the story, an illustration of how the indomitable Mrs Sivan wishes a piece to sound, or a demonstration of some technical or emotional speed bump.

The music, however, is not just there to tell the story. At other times the music takes over, so that it is not beginner-student-Anna playing, or nervous-Eisteddfodd-competitor-Anna: it is just music, pure music, which has shaken off the snags of personality and nostalgia to become a piece of, well, art. It’s then that we realise how good a pianist Goldsworthy is: not just the glittering cascades of notes in suddenly effortless Chopin, Liszt and Katchachurian, but also a Bach fugue with all its internal logic laid out for us to hear, Beethoven on the edge, Schubert glowing. It’s at this point that one makes a mental note to go and hear her perform some music without the words sometime.

553452-caroline-kennison-and-anna-goldsworthyGoldsworthy is a remarkable musical actor. She plays a 9-year-old’s version of Mozart’s Sonata in C (K 545), complete with owlish pauses to put together the cadence correctly, and a gallop across the easy bit at the end, and anyone in the who audience who has every played that piece — which is pretty much every piano student, ever — immediately recognises the stumbling gait of a beginner. She launches into a Bach three-part invention, only to be stopped by Mrs Sivan. She listens, thinks, responds. It’s like watching someone learn, before your eyes. Which is precisely what it’s meant to be.

It’s also a memoir, inevitably shot through with nostalgia. Goldsworthy-the-playmaker knows full well that music and nostalgia are keen co-conspirators, and uses to great effect. It’s not just the smile that comes to my face as I hear her play Mozart, badly. It’s hearing all those ‘first in the book’ pieces which have, for generations, served to introduce budding musicians to the Great Masters, illustrating Mrs Sivan’s own word-pictures, extravagant and intimate, introducing each composer like an old friend.

Goldsworthy and her foil, Helen Howard, who plays Mrs Sivan (and every other voice, including Pere Goldsworthy), are a delicious double act. Howard drops Mrs Sivan’s imperious “NOT” (as she stops the young student in her tracks) with deft comic timing, and brings a delicacy as fine as a well-phrased melody to the aging piano teacher’s ego, injured by a thoughtless slight from her favourite pupil.

Meanwhile, Goldsworthy lets us in to her head as an enthusiastic 9 year old, as a gawky adolescent, as a young woman. She tells with painful clarity the bildungsroman of an aspiring musician: realising how much work lies ahead; the compulsive nature of practise; the strange, almost co-dependent relationship which develops between you and your art; the way it informs, transforms and sometimes overwhelms your identity. And she does so with a gentle, self-deprecating humour which quickly pricks any bubble of grandiosity which dares to form. 

It’s almost a relief to discover that Goldsworthy is a better writer and a better musician than she is an actress — it would be overwhelming if she was that good at everything. But, in spite of Mrs Sivan’s enlightening and often hilarious commentary, Goldsworthy’s open-hearted honesty, combined with her musical chops, carry the performance. 

Piano Lessons the book is published by Black Inc. (in Australia) and Pan Macmillan in the US and is available on Amazon, Kindle, and all those booky places. Anna Goldsworthy’s next performance is a solo recital at the Janet Clarke Hall at the University of Melbourne on November 18.  





October 14, 2017
by harryfiddler

Thoughts on Dido

This isn’t a review. This is me writing the strange things that I think about when I listen to music. Many thanks to Sydney Chamber Choir for making it possible for me to think them.


Sydney Chamber Choir
Sydney University Great Hall
7 October 2017

The best performances change something in you.


Hi. I’m Aeneas. Wanna shag?

I never thought of Dido and Aeneas as a great feminist tract. Call me naive, call me dim-witted, but when I studied Purcell’s little great work (‘O’ level music, aged 15, don’t ask what year) I found it curiously bland. The music had none of the rhythmic complexity or thematic development of the Beethoven’s String Quartet we were also studying. It didn’t have the word-painting or the massive four-part harmonies of our other set work, Haydn’s The Creation. And as a drama it felt lacking: who was this characters who walked on, sang, fell in love, then killed herself for a man she’d met only 20 minutes earlier. Even though she died so very very beautifully…


My feelings about Dido and Aeneas have for many years fought against those boring afternoons sitting in the music room with a photocopied score and a lumpen vinyl recording. I’ve played it, sung it, and seen it performed, live, and still I hear my music teacher announcing the ground basses in a listless voiceover. But listening again to the plangent strings, the warmth of the choruses and the compulsive, restless ground basses last Saturday I heard something new. Something changed.


Belinda Montgomery (left) and choristers of Sydney Chamber Choir

Was it Belinda Montgomery’s noble portrayal of the doomed queen Dido? Or the stately ardour of David Greco’s Aeneas? Both sang their opening scenes with a stark beauty. It was as if they were following a story already set in stone, like those bloody ground bass figures going on and on, to an inevitable end. Except that those bloody ground basses doesn’t go straight down the tracks, because they’re all of uneven length, so every repeat creates a new, slightly different iteration. Previously harmonious chords stick to new, crunchy ones, and rhythms stumble and trip. You can see where I’m going with this. The thing I heard in this performance of Dido and Aeneas, which I’ve never heard before, was a strange tension between how things should be, and how we imagine they should be, and how they really are. Suddenly, the naive optimism of Belinda (a powerhouse performance from Megan Cronin), and the chorus’s eager desire for a happy ending, struck me as unbearably poignant. Dido’s hesitation felt like someone hesitating to step onto the gallows. Aeneas sounded like a hollow jock coming to claim his entitlement. Having supernatural intervention in affairs of the heart is a colourful convenience for Aeneas, but I couldn’t help thinking if the witches — the terrific trio of Wei Jiang, Ria Andriani and Josie Gibson, plus that naughty Natalie Shea as the sprite — hadn’t sent Aeneas packing, he’d have found another excuse. Then, like the sailor — a classy comic turn from Ed Suttle — he’d take a boozy short leave of his nymph on the shore, and silence her mournings with vows of returning, but never intending to visit no more.


Dammit, Belinda, do I have any other options?

Whether or not all my rambling psychobabble was intended by Sydney Chamber Choir, the precision and momentum definitely triggered it. That and the spacious direction from Peelman, allowing soloists and the Muffat Ensemble to explore Purcell’s winding melodies, to find strange meetings and breathy pauses which made the 400 year old score radiant. The choir were responsive and nimble, never letting the satisfying weight of their voices slow the proceedings (except when waiting for an echo… echo… echo). The Muffat Ensemble, led by Matthew Greco, were impressive, adding their own voice to a nuanced argument, rather than just being an accompaniment. And as for the lament, Montgomery managed to find that perfect point between clarity and emotion, myth and reality. She was a queen, she was fortune’s tennis ball,  but she was also a woman.


Now I must go and listen to it all over again. I hope Sydney Chamber Choir recorded it.



September 25, 2017
by harryfiddler

Tea Time Dreaming

Ensemble Offspring
Carriageworks, 23 Sept 2017

150910-dreamsleep-stockThree new Noisy Eggs have hatched. Thanks to the generosity of patrons (including the AMCOS Art Music Fund, Kim Williams and the Noisy Egg Creation Fund) three substantial new works have had their first outing in Ensemble Offspring’s latest concert. Each composer was asked to respond to Unsuk Chin‘s fantastical Akrostichon-Wortspiel with a fantasy of their own.

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh is currently based in San Diego where she’s completing a PhD and before that she studied in Melbourne with Brenton Broadstock and Stuart Greenbaum. Her new work, Half-Open Beings, is a tantalising smudge of organised sound which, like Bachelard’s image of the half-open door, both invites and obscures. Instruments make tentative bonds between each other, which melt into fuzz as another pitch, another timbre is added, like the elusive dream which flashes across your consciousness then evaporates, leaving only a vague sense of a memory of a feeling.

Anahita Abbasi‘s Incipio, Bibo follows Unsuk Chin’s lead by taking inspiration from Alice in Wonderland for a playful exploration of the weird and wonderful land of dreams. Soprano Jessica Aszodi is the adventurer who, in the unalienable logic of the dream state, must close her eyes to see better. Meanwhile, a desk top bell invokes that very special time, the Time of Tea. This is dizzyingly sophisticated reverie, using multilayered performance gestures, from words to notes to melodies to noises, brilliantly performed. If only Abbasi, originally from Iran and now resident in San Diego, could have been in Sydney to hear it.  Thanks, Donald. 

Lisa Illean‘s Cantor is an impressive, impressing work. She uses a wide palette of strings, winds and percussion with deft coherence, weaving together complexities — microtones and microtimbres abound — to somehow, miraculously, create clarity. I have no idea what it is about. I just know it makes my ears and my brain and my heart sing. It’s a real achievement and it’s good to know that, besides being recorded for broadcast on ABC Classic FM, Cantor will go on to have performances in the Netherlands, Canada, the UK, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

c86219768d57a823960200114638aec3-victorian-photography-vintage-photographyEnsemble Offspring framed these three noisy eggs with two vintage works. Unsuk Chin’s Akrostichon-Wortspiel was written in 1991 for the Gaudeamus Foundation: practically early music, in Offspring’s repertoire list, but drinking well now. It says something about the dedication of these musicians that, after a good 60 minutes of freakishly tricky music, they could come back on and perform a work demanding this level of precision and technical extension. Jessica Aszodi, in particular, demonstrated of stamina and control most could only dream of. Respect.


Photo: Blackie Bouffant. Bluebell Woods, Knockvicar, Co. Roscommon, Ireland

Finally, as with all good dreams, back to the beginning. Irish composer Jennifer Walshe wrote Everything you own has been taken to a depot somewhere for Ensemble Offspring’s 2013 season. It’s a nutty melange of speech, sound and gesture where three game performers variously pour water, play nintendo, do physical jerks and make the occasional musical noise. The Offspring trio of Claire Edwardes, Jason Noble and Lamorna Nightingale — fab dress, btw — go far beyond the usual remit of musicians, singing, shouting and clowning with gleeful conviction. 

Everything you own… is frequently irreverent and often hilarious. The composer  confesses her interest in sounds that ‘are normally considered flawed or redundant.’

Like… new music, perhaps? 

It’s a ballsy move to open a concert of such uncompromisingly demanding (albeit beautiful) music with a work which systematically undercuts artistic pretention. But when you play these works with such persuasive articulacy, you can get away with pretty much anything. Bravi.

This concert was recorded for ABC Classic FM. Not sure when it’ll be on. Also, Incipo, Bibo and Everything you own… are both quite visual works. I’m not sure if Incipo, Bibo was videoed, but you can see Ensemble Offspring in an earlier performance of Everything here.

September 18, 2017
by harryfiddler

Parnassus or bust

The Sound of Pictures
Australia Ensemble @UNSW, September 16

Master and Pupil
James Fraser and The Marais Project, September 15

I’m currently fascinated by hierarchies in the arts. (Please don’t ask. I’ll try and explain and then we’ll be here for hours, and it’ll end up in an inarticulate and quite possibly drunken heap.) To cut a long, messy story short, who wins: pure or applied? Pure music, that Parnassian goal of the essentially useless work of art; or applied music — soundtracks, anthems, songs of praise, theme tunes, jingles, war cries —  which, in the hands of a skilful artist can transform how we perceive the world, change our behaviour, even change our minds.

3303All this as a prelude to thoughts about two recent gigs. The first, the Australia Ensemble’s The Sound of Pictures, an illustrated talk, or an annotated concert if you like. Or perhaps just two hours of interesting stuff involving live music, music and film, and the mellifluous musings of composer, writer and broadcaster Andrew Ford in an inside-out inspection of how composers and directors and music and film interact.

Ford talked us through a number of classic examples: the shower scene from Psycho; the party scene from Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet; and the glorious climax of the assassination attempt in Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too MuchThis was fun — lots of in-jokes, with a composer-who-knows to elucidate. It’s Arthur Benjamin’s The Storm Cloud Cantata, arranged and extended by Bernard Herrmann, who is seen on film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Death by music. Now there’s a way to die…

As for the concert repertoire, the Australia Ensemble were on hand to perform live. Two full-blooded movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet bookended the program, no visuals required. Arthur Benjamin’s Suite from various Scarlet Pimpernels (arranged by Ian Munro) was, to a 21st century ear, a quaint dip into 1930s Britain, played with exacting insouciance. Nino Rota’s Trio (1958) had more bite, and the musicians delivered it with great flair, but — ah, you knew there was a but coming — but it felt, somehow, inconsequential — no headway up Parnassus, but no emotional buttons pressed either. By comparison, the ensemble’s rendition of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho Suite (originally for strings, arranged for string quartet by Richard Birchall in 2010) ticked all the boxes: a whistle stop tour of the most memorable themes (including the dreamy driving music, beautifully articulated by Dene Olding) spliced into a satisfying musical arc. Film music, but on the composer’s terms, not the director’s.

Psycho_28196029Which brings me to the highlights of the evening, two recent works by Australian composers combining film and live music. The first was Scherzo Perpetuo by Andrew Ford, written in 2014 for the Flinders Quartet as an accompaniment to Le Sculpteur express, a silent short from 1907. The music is made up of funky riffs, layer on layer of rhythmic patterns, match and mismatching, bouncing off each other, regrouping and reinventing. Endless play, if you like. Interestingly, it’s not closely aligned with action on screen, which consists of a sculptor (and his rather intense assistant) modelling faces in clay, making them smile or grimace then, with a punch to the jaw, breaking down the clay to make way for a new face. So the music is not a literal, descriptive accompaniment so much as a commentary on the frantic art-making and breaking; two works in parataxis.

The premiere performance of Felicity Wilcox‘s Vivre sa vie — Composer’s Cut takes this interplay between screen and stage further still, by adapting the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) to an original piece of music. The inventive synergy between the two is a big part of the work’s impact: there are no words, but clarinet and flute manage to provide most eloquent dialogue; and when the ensemble break into an irresistible groove, the main character on screen can’t resist dancing. It’s playful, it’s dramatic, and it nudges the boundaries between live and recorded, screen and stage, concert and film with a delicious sense of exploration. And it manages to condense the movie into a gripping ten minutes which retains the sense of beauty and mystery and urgent, existential enquiry of the original. That works. 

**178137122493be2a0991746a19bd1a30-alain-corneau-matinsJust across town actor James Fraser and four musicians of the viola da gamba-centric group, The Marais Project, presented Master and Pupil as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. Inspired by the movie Tous Les Matins du Mondebased on the lives of French composer Sainte Colombe and his protégé Marin Marais, it brings the wild and wistful monologue of Marais together with live performances of the music of his time. It’s an intimate piece, and rightly so. The viola da gamba has a soft, almost submissive timbre — it won’t make you listen to it, if you don’t want to. But, with The Marais Project, you do want to. You listen, and the ear tunes into the subtleties. Meanwhile Fraser, who created the script himself, sustains the intense, listening environment created by the music with a delicate but moving evocation of longing and regret, creating all the characters from the reclusive and angry Sainte Colombe to the earnest and frustrated Marais to poor, abandonned Madeleine. It’s a fine performance. Ultimately, however, it leaves the audience with their own question to answer:  if an artist creates in the forest and none is there to see it is it art at all?

Still pondering.




September 11, 2017
by harryfiddler

Brahms and Borodin

The Omega Ensemble launched their ambitious and very busy 2018 Season last week. Two concert series, plus a festival appearance and a chamber opera casually dropped into the mix, adds up to what looks to be an exciting year. Omega’s programming revolves, inevitably, around the instruments of co-artistic directors David Rowden (clarinet) and Maria Raspopova (piano). This pulls the repertoire into some zany areas — who knew Elgar wrote a Romance for bassoon and strings, or that Bruch wrote clarinet trios? — but also drives a diligent hunt for new repertoire. In 2018, they premiere works from composers including Samuel Hogarth, Ian Munro and David Bruce. Lee Abrahamsen returns with songs by Poulenc and Alexandra Osborne, acting assistant concertmaster of the Washington-based National Symphony Orchestra, appears in several of the string-y programs. I recommend you take a look, especially at their Master Series, presented in the intimate setting of the Utzon Room.

Image 11-9-17 at 12.57 pmBefore we get to next year, however, last week’s A Brahms Affair. For this, their latest gig at City Recital Hall, Omega presented a swirl of Romanticism: Schumann, Borodin and Brahms. Rowden and Raspopova gave a mostly glossy performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke for Clarinet and Piano, but a few hiccups — intonation and notes — took the edge off the shine. Alexandra Osborne led Borodin’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major with a similarly fastidious approach, making a gloriously clear sound in the opening movement. However, there was something about the ensemble’s care and attention which made the performance somewhat introverted. Which is fine in a rehearsal space, but less so on stage. It wasn’t so much a lack of sound as a lack of connection — between the stage and audience, and between the players themselves. The second movement was hushed, the harmonics of the final movement were wonderfully ethereal but, ultimately, it felt like four individuals, playing to themselves.  At this point the City Recital Hall felt very big and lonely.

Brahms’ Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings was more successful, with Rowden’s clarinet leading the way with mellifluous warmth, in spite of some technology problems. Again, though, there seemed to be something holding the music back, moderately the big climaxes, as if unwilling to unleash the full excesses of the Romantic soul. Happily their encore, the final movement from Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, unlocked a sense of joy, bringing the concert to an exhilarating close.