A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

6th August 2020
by harryfiddler

Australian twang

A follow up to an interview with Riccardo Muti (for Sydney Morning Herald, published here).

The marvellous Muti was in town to conduct the Australian World Orchestra, the dream team of Australian musicians assembled from orchestras around the world by the enterprising Alex Briger.

We talked about music and peace and Verdi and singers and all those good things, and we also talked about whether selecting a bunch of Australian musicians and putting them all on a stage together resulted in a certain sound. An Australian sound, if you like. And if so, what it sounded like…

Over to Maestro Muti.

The sound has become for decades an idee fixe. The French sound, the German sound, now the Australian sound…

The sound is produced by the musicians that sit there. But it should be created, put together, by a conductor who must have a concept of sound. Take Karajan and Bernstein. They have two completely different sounds with the same orchestra.

It’s not that they lose their sound, but they adapt their sound to the needs of the interpretation, to the concept of the conductor. The sound is the combination of the possibilities of sound of the personality of the orchestra that every time is changed by the conductor (if the conductor has the concept of sound, for there are many conductors who just beat the time and what comes out comes out.)

Sound is something that should be cultivated. It’s not something that comes out naturally.

Going back to the Australian sound, musicians that are born in Australia but belong to different orchestras in Europe, in America, in Germany, in Vienna. They play in orchestras that have a different culture, a different history and so they have to accommodate, to fit in this environment. So they are Australians by passport but the soul, every Australian comes from a different part of the world.

I’m in heated agreement with Muti on this one. Indeed, I find the whole idea of an ‘Australian sound’ at best frustrating, and at worst troubling. The fact is that classical music is an international field: most musicians who reach the level required to play in top orchestras have travelled far and wide through their lengthy apprenticeship. And even if they have studied mostly in Australia, their teachers bring with them their own tradition. Not to mention that the huge majority of Australians who have had the opportunity to study music to a high level are immigrants, whether they came from Vietnam a decade ago, or Germany fifty years ago, or England two centuries ago. Unless you’re playing the didgeridoo, your instrumental tradition is unlikely to be Australian. Plus, the huge majority of orchestral repertoire, the stuff that gets played over and over, sits firmly within the Western, aka European, classical canon. Brahms with an Australian twang? Honestly, I’m not hearing it.

There is, however, something about the sound of the AWO. I’m not sure I could identify their sound just by a recording, in the way that you can the Vienna Phil. After all, the AWO is not one, consistent band: it is a new orchestra every year. But what I’m hearing is not a matter of style, of tradition, not a national accent. No. It’s more the sound of an attitude.

The AWO enjoys an unique situation, in that everyone who plays in it a/ wants to be there and b/ is, essentially, on holiday. OK, it’s a busman’s holiday but, as leader Natalie Chee points out, it’s a gig which takes them out of their daily routine, which gives them an enormous advantage over regular ensembles.

Everybody wants to be here. Everybody is highly motivated to make really great music, and that’s something that you hardly get in any other orchestra in the world, that level of motivation. And it only comes together once a year, so it’s just one chance to really give everything, to make music with other Australians.

For one week, everyone gets out of their daily life and most of us are away from our families. So most people with kids aren’t at home, cooking for their kids, taking them to swimming classes… They’re here in a hotel, focussed on the music, focus on being together. That really makes a big difference. It’s just pure enjoyment. The way it should be really!

I’m not suggesting that the AWO are anything less than superb. After all, they are the Wallabies, the Lions, the All Blacks of classical music, handpicked from some of the finest orchestras in the world. Of course they sound good. But that special edge, that intoxicating excitement that makes audiences leap to their feet, screaming and cheering… Let’s not flatter ourselves that this is the sound of Australia.

It’s the sound of joy.


19th March 2018
by harryfiddler

A walk on the dark side

Much looking forward to the ACO’s upcoming tour with Alina Ibramigova. There’s another micro-feature interview in SMH here.

There are some artists who give great interview. They talk in seemingly unselfconscious soundbites and you just have to nod and listen as you hear the piece writing itself. You come away from the interview feeling like you’ve been let into their most intimate secrets, until you have a little terse chat with yourself and remember that that’s their job and you’re not special.

There are others, like Ibramigova, who, while they are completely lovely and friendly, are unselfconscious in another way. Ibramigova’s answers are to the point. They are thoughtful. But I get the sense that she would rather let her violin do the talking. Which sounds like her approach to directing the ACO, as well. Why talk when you could play?

So here’s a brief but thoughtful bonus q and a.

Gut or steel?


Gut. For string quartets I use open gut half and wound gut the other, but for this I tend to use wound gut strings except for the E which is steel.

Vibrato or no?

Vibrato when you need it. No when you don’t. But no automatic vibrato. Vibrato when it needs to be.

Felix or Fanny?

[Thinks a long time]

Dunno. Very similar, actually. Probably Felix in the end, but Fanny is great. We just played her quartet recently and it’s great. Can I have both?

What do you do when you’re not playing? Do you listen to music?

No. Silence. Yoga. Just being at home. That calms me down the most. Home is London. Just finding my own space, my own rhythm. Those days are very special.

What would you do if you couldn’t play the violin?

I have no idea! That’s all I do these days. I have no time for anything else. It’s realy hard to imagine. I would love to paint. I’ve always wanted to paint. But I still don’t paint.

Alina Ibramigova leads the ACO playing Schubert, Hartmann and more, from 17-26 March 2018. No painting. 

3rd February 2018
by harryfiddler

Mazzoli Clyne Bibeau

Photo shoot at the ACO studios

Last week Sydney Morning Herald commissioned a very short feature on Missy Mazzoli and her new work for Max Bibeau, the principal bass player of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which is on tour now. I interviewed Missy and Max, and they were very generous with their time, giving me far more interesting material than could be squeezed into a 600 word article. So here are some of the things we talked about, in Missy Mazzoli’s own words.

Where do you start when making up music?

I do alot of brainstorming and I get ideas from some really strange places. This piece is one of them!

Max came over to my apartment in New York and he didn’t bring the really old bass but we were just fooling around with different techniques and ideas and he mentioned off hand, ‘Oh, I have an instrument that’s from 1580’. I said “Tell me more about that!” And that became the whole genesis of this piece.

I imagined it as a historian. Imagine what it would be like, what it would sound like if it were possible for the instrument to accumulate all the melodies and sounds and events that it had lived through for 450 eyars and then to spin it into its own piece.

Doubled and bass: Max Bibeau with his mysterious instrument, which his partner has dubbed ‘Sofia’. Photo: Nick Moir

It’s heavily influenced by the baroque era techniques and idioms, because it was built at the beginning of the baroque era. And then I imagined it accumulating little bits from different centuries as it goes on, so that it extends all the way up to the present day. There are a lot of contemporary techniques that the orchestra is doing as well so that my idea for the whole piece is that it would sound like a baroque piece that had been twisted and turned on its head.

Most recently you’ve been writing for the full catastrophe – orchestra, opera. Was writing for double bass limiting?

No. I approached it in a similar way to writing for my operas. The solo bass becomes a character. The melodies and harmonies and texture become very… I conceive of them in very human terms. They become forces which are either working with each other or against each other. Or there’s a sort of struggle inherent in the work itself. Between the soloist and the orchestra, or between members of the orchestra, between Max and the instrument. So it didn’t feel like that much of a leap to write a concerto coming off an opera.

How important to you is it that you are a performer as well as a composer?

I’ll always be a performer. Performing is very important to me. It keeps me in touch with music in a different way than being a composer, just sitting and watching other people perform. And it also connects me more to the audience. I mean, if you tell people you are a composer, people’s eyes glaze over and they don’t really know you’re talking about in 2018. Long before me, people like Philip Glass, John Adams, Meredith Monk, people at Bang on a Can, composers, recognised this as a problem and made attempts to connect with people on a different ways.

If I say to people, “I’m going to stand in front of you and play something that I wrote,” people say, “OK”. The walls come down and people are much more open to strange sounds and techniques and whatever I’m doing with electronics and samples.

It really affects how I write for instruments. I put myself in the place of the performer, and try as best I can to imagine the feeling of being on stage and how it feels to move from phrase to phrase. It’s people playing with music. That’s what’s interesting to me. I could write this for a computer and have it spit it back perfectly but I’m interested in the little variations and imperfections or, again, this idea of being able to hear the struggle if you are playing in a very extreme range of the instrument. That to me is beautiful and nostalgic and touching and that’s what I want underneath all the work.

Is it a surprise to you that you’ve ended up writing opera?

Yes and no. I grew up loving collaboration. I fell in love with music videos as a kid. I grew up in an isolated community in Pennsylvania and was not going to see operas and orchestras at all, but I was obsessed with MTV. Those videos in the late 80s, early 90s, were operatic in their scope and their budget! I’ve always wanted to tell stories and I’ve always been interested in longform work and creating an immersive experience for the audience, so knowing all that, opera is a natural fit. But the logistics of it are so impractical and crazy that I never thought I’d have even the chance to write one, and I just premiered my third!

The cast of Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up,” a production by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman)

I think that has to do with what is going on in opera in the US, and I think all over the world, but in New York in particular the golden age for opera. There are so many people creating operas that are on a smaller scale, that are telling true, contemporary stories.

Are you overwhelmed with commissions?

Everyone always says, “people must be knocking your door down!”. It’s not actually true. I have a lot to do but opera is a big, expensive, very political genre. There are a lot of other things besides having a success that either get you gigs or keep you from getting gigs. But I’m very happy to be writing a new piece for Opera Philadelphia and I’m writing a new piece for about Cindy Sherman.

On gender and women in music…

VICTOIRE Photo by Jessica Mazzoli

Is it a conscious choice that your ensemble Victoire is all female?

Yeah. I mean. Y’know. Yes and no. I hired them because they’re amazing musicians. And I knew that I could spend a lot of time with them. They’re some of my best friends. But it was part of a decision.

Most of my music making is with men and I’m usually the only woman in the room, or on the creative team in the case of operas. I just wanted 15% of my experience to be with just women. To see how that felt. The vibe was very different and I’m really glad I did it. It started off with this feeling, just let me try this. But it became a more political thing the more interviews we did because we kept getting this question, and we said, “why is this a big deal? Obviously we are not as far along as we thought gender in America in terms of the music scene”. And then we thought, “yes, we’re proudly women”, and started talking about it more in the press.

With opera I see this trend where very young men are given opportunities based on their potential to create something great. With women, you have to write seven operas before someone gives you the chance to write a twenty-minute children’s opera.

When it comes to spending big money and giving massive opportunities, you’re always taking a risk. It’s always based on potential. But I don’t see people giving young women the same chances that they give young men. These young men are very deserving, but so are these young women.

Tell me about your own initiatives to change this imbalance.

Last year, 2016, with the composer Ellen Reid, I started Luna Lab, which is a mentorship and support program for young female composers in their teens. They’re so young because we recognised two problems: that there weren’t enough female composers in positions of power at the very top, in university jobs or as artistic directors, and there was not enough attention paid to composers in their teens.

Teenage girls can be so insecure and so vulnerable that we thought we would focus our attention on them. So we solved both problems at once by connecting each young woman in our program with a member who was a prominent female composer and they skyped together once every two weeks and they work on a piece that is then premiered in New York City every June, and that piece is professionally recorded, so they have this tool with which they can apply to colleges, and generally boost their self esteem. It also provides them with a community of other young composers so they’re not, like I was, the only woman in the room most of the time.

Are you in favour of what has been referred to as ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’?

I want to be really clear. I often come out in these statements against affirmative action for women who are professionals. For someone like me it doesn’t make any sense. My heart sinks when I get a call from an artistic director saying, ‘We really want to commission you,’ — “yes!” — “’cos we really want a woman on the program.” It happens all the time. And part of me dies.

It is a tricky thing. I’m trying to come out against these initiatives that are putting a band aid over the issue, such as when an ensemble has ‘this is our female concert of the year!’ or you become a token.

But I do think there is a place for positive discrimination in very early education. I was travelling around the whole US teaching and doing masterclasses and I noticed that not one Freshman Class was 50/50. Most Freshman classes of composers were 80-90% male. There’d be one lone 17 year old girl at the back, scared to death. And that was me at that age. This is something that is happening to girls in their teens, to make them feel that they are not a part of this community. And that breaks my heart. So I do feel there’s a place for singling out women when they are so young.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is on tour from 1-16 February 2018. The program includes Dark with Excessive Bright, Missy Mazzoli’s new concerto written for double bass principal Maxim Bibeau, and the Australian premiere of Anna Clyne’s double violin concerto, Prince of Clouds, with soloists Glenn Christensen and Ike See. 

It also includes some music by male composers. The title of the tour is Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms.



9th January 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.

30th December 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.


16th December 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.

14th December 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


28th October 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. 



22nd October 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.  





14th October 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.