A Cunning Blog

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Juggling Fish


fishA busy time in Sydney, writing, playing, listening (and, just in case you think I am an imaginary beast, washing-up, driving children around, walking the dog, going to the supermarket…) A mad Sunday which started with Battle of the Bands at Balgowlah North Public School and ended in North Sydney for beer and recriminations about dropped accidentals and runaway codas. Then, two days later, a trip to Sydney Opera House to see how the professionals do it.

Such is the kaleidoscope of musical life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For while listening to ‘Uptown Funk’ not once but four times, in various arrangements, with flexible scoring and even more flexible intonation, is not my ultimate listening experience, I find being involved in music-making at all levels — from singing in the shower to the Sydney Opera House — deeply rewarding.

Battle of the Bands is a local competition for primary school bands from around the Northern Beaches. We’re talking 8-11 year olds, playing instruments they’ve been learning for max 3 years, min 3 months. Some of the sounds coming out are approximate. Some of the kids on stage would rather be in bed or at the beach. But once the band masters get them going, it’s approaching miraculous. Just the achievement of getting 30+ year 4 students to start, stop and be still together. And when they get it together, in those moments where the drummer’s got rhythm, the tuba’s found the note, the trumpets are behaving, it is pure joy.

I had to run from Battle to Shore School for an afternoon concert with North Sydney Symphony Orchestra, playing Franck, Aratiunian and Brahms. It was a tough program, full of D flats which, as all violinists know, are the work of the devil. In a tell-tale sign of true desperation, I’ve been practising, hard. The biggest bogeyman was Le Chasseur Maudit, (The Accursed Huntsman) a tone poem by Cesar Franck about a blasphemous hunting trip which ends up in hell. Think fast, chaotic, chromatic. Think much cursing.

Steve Rosse, principal tuba player of the Sydney Symphony, played Aratiunian’s Tuba Concerto with us. Tricky for everyone, but he did the lion’s share of the work, and he did it brilliantly.

Then a swim in the Rhine with Brahms Symphony no. 3. I swear to you, playing Brahms orchestral parts is like juggling fish. The rhythm and tonality are constantly slippery, and if you try and grab on too hard they leap out of your hands faster than you can say ‘flathead’. I might not have got all the notes right but I loved the challenge. It’s like that exercise where you must not think about a polar bear: if you try to make the notes fit it doesn’t work. You just have to listen, and let them flow. (OK, and a bit of work on the semiquavers helps too…)

Nelson Freire, Sydney Symphony, Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov on Wednesday. Freire’s playing is undemonstrative, understated and desperately beautiful. I suspect he knows all about juggling fish. His compatriot, Marcelo Lehninger, also conducted the concerto with the lightest of touches. The Beethoven Coriolan Overture was less successful, for me, never quite finding a unanimity of articulation and tempo. As for the Rachmaninov, it was rich, occasionally lumpy, but ultimately warm and comforting. Fish soup.

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