Friday, 5 December 2008

Ethical Culture


J. Robert Oppenheimer the subject of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, which I saw at the Met earlier in November, attended school at the Society for Ethical Culture, so it was appropriate that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was performing there during the renovations of Alice Tully Hall. I heard one of a program of four concerts given under the title “Night Fantasies”. It was lucky I didn’t chose the first concert on November 20 as this was cancelled following a small fire in the basement. I walked past that night and saw the fire trucks and concert goers milling about, but didn’t learn the concert had been cancelled and rescheduled until an announcement at the beginning of the concert on November 21. They had to extend the hire of some percussion which was on the stage on Friday but not used.

The seating in the hall is in two levels in a semi circular formation around a low stage.
Above the stage is an inscription:

"The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground"

The acoustics were good as well. The program ingeniously included three fairly short works with a numerous short movements. The principal artists were the Pacifica String Quartet, which I was interested to hear as I recently purchased their CD of two of the string quartets of Eliot Carter, which I plan to use, if time permits, to see if listening to Carter as a stream of consciousness, (an idea discussed by David Robertson in his recent Stuart Challenger lecture) helps at all with this difficult music.

The performance I heard on 21 November demonstrated the quartet’s great commitment to and understanding of contemporary music.

The program opened with a performance of Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. My interest in Ligeti’s music was enlivened this year by a performance of his horn trio at the AFCM Townsville, but a CD I bought of this trio disappointed.

The String Quartet No.1 is about 20 minutes long and divided into 12 movements which are very short accordingly. They are fragments really. Each is different; and some of them had the same intense rhythmic drive I admired in the horn trio.

Next was another work of 20 minutes duration: Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land) for Electric String Quartet by George Crumb.

My only previous encounter with Crumb’s music was a performance of Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971), for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano at the AFCM a couple of years ago. The musicians wore masks for that (I don’t know if the masks are required by the score). It was notable for the excellent whale song imitations of the amplified cello which were quite moving (suggesting that Alan Hovhaness went to unnecessary trouble in incorporating recordings of real whale song in And God Created Great Whales).

If I count correctly there are 13 movements in this work. I have seen the Kronos Quartet play with electronics attached to their instruments but in this concert the amplification seemed to be done by individual microphones on stands. There was more to it than amplification however. The members of the quartet also played tuned drinking glasses set up on stands behind them, struck gongs and sang or vocalised. There was also an intriguing passage in which the players bowed the neck of their instruments, yielding an early music viol effect.

13 movements in 20 minutes with such a variety of effects was certainly interesting if hectic, and I haven’t mentioned the references to “Death and the Maiden” and other works which I was unable to hear. I would describe the piece as interesting and fun but the composer had much deeper thoughts. “The numerous quasi – programmatic allusions in the work are therefore symbolic, although the essential polarity – God versus Devil – implies more than a purely metaphysical reality” is just part of a long note by the composer. Fortunately the music is not as ponderous.

After intermission the quartet was joined by soprano Claron Mc Fadden in a performance of Lyric Suite for String Quartet with Soprano by Alban Berg, which was also full of interest but which I will need to hear again before being able to comment.

The programmer recognised that there can be too much of a good thing, I think, and abandoned stark modernism to conclude the concert with the charming Chanson perpetuelle for Soprano and Piano ( Gilbert Kalish) Quartet by Ernest Chausson.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bach Penderecki Beethoven


I haven’t heard much of the music of Krzysztof Penderecki. In 1973 I was greatly impressed by his opera The Devils of Loudun at the ENO in which Geoffrey Chard gave a memorable performance as Urbain Grandier. But that is a long time ago now. So to the New York Phiharmonic which performed his Concerto No. 2 for cello and orchestra directed by Lorin Maazel with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.
The concerto begins with a long orchestral introduction which is loud and of ominous intent. It would be disrespectful to suggest that the work should be named 50 ways to feel really anxious. The strings make sounds like air raid sirens; there are bursts of staccato playing from trumpets and eerie bells and gongs.
The cello part which weaves in and out of this background was marvelously played by Ms. Weilerstein. It left me with the impression that it was a fascinating cello sonata trying to escape from the orchestra.

It would not be unfair to say that the program for this concert was strange. Prior to the Cello Concerto we heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, performed by two violas, two violas de gamba, cello, bass and harpsichord: the ensemble for which it was written. The unusual feature of the performance was that Mr. Maazel appeared to conduct it. I wasn’t the only person to think this was odd - the Times music critic mentioned it. I have enjoyed the performances of Brandenburg concertos which have ended Bach night at the AFCM Townsville in which ensembles of similar size have played the works with a vigour which makes the pieces sound as if improvised. There was no chance of that here under the conductor’s steady beat; but there was a lovely sound from the unusual combination of low strings.

After intermission there was an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The people next to me said they had heard it before and left at intermission. I may lack their sophistication but I stayed to the end.

New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, 20 November 2008.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008



I am now familiar with the Met’s production of Madam Butterfly having seen it in the two previous seasons and I wrote about it here last year. The performance was overshadowed by the death of its director, Anthony Minghella, in March this year. Like Baz Luhrmann, he was able to create an opera production which was both undeniably modern and true to the spirit of the work at the same time.
This Madam Butterfly is well paced, visually exciting and was again beautifully sung. The first time I saw it I was entranced by the Chilean soprano Christina Gallarda-Domas in the title role, and she returns in 2009, but on this occasion Patricia Racette was a fine Butterfly. Pinkerton was Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, in for Robert Aronica, who was ill. Mr. Giordani is here to sing Faust in The Damnation of Faust. He not only added Pinkerton but also sang both roles in the one day on Saturday when I saw his Faust at the matinee. The New York Times which, in happy contrast to papers I can think of, provides an interesting coverage of what goes on here, reported this and added:

In a statement, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said, “Marcello Giordani is a wonderful artist but also the iron man of tenors.”

The Act 1 duet was excellent, but I would have liked more real remorse from him at the end; but iron men probably don’t cry.

Sharpless, the consul was Dwayne Croft. I think there is more in the character than he was able to find. Suzuki was sung, as last year, and the year before by Maria Zifchak. It comes as no surprise that she is asked to return as she is perfect in the role.

Patrick Summers, a regular visitor to Opera Australia, conducted the Met orchestra. It was a very lyrical performance, downplaying the melodrama, but complementing the design and flow of the production perfectly.

The 826th Metropolitan Opera Performance of Madama Butterfly, Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 8pm.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Love for Three Oranges

Three Oranges

I’m sure if you stay in New York long enough everything in the world will come to you. Last week the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre St. Petersburg was here playing a series of concerts devoted to the works of Prokofiev, and on Sunday I saw their concert performance of The Love for Three Oranges, a favorite of mine, which I saw a number of times in Opera Australia’s recent production of the English translation by Tom Stoppard.

I was excited to find that my seat purchased over the internet months ago in row D was in the front row. And more so when I discovered that the row of chairs set up in front of the orchestra would not be used by the singers sitting in a row. Although a concert performance with no scenery or props – apart from a clip on bow tie which became the beautiful ribbon which entrances the ferocious cook who keeps the three oranges in her kitchen – the singers performed without music and acted their parts using the whole width of the stage. Having an uninterrupted and close view I could see that all of them were completely absorbed in their performances, and they all sang marvelously as well. The orchestra was conducted by its director the amazingly disheveled Valery Gergiev who occasionally stepped back from his music stand to direct groups of the singers from their midst.

I don’t think I have ever seen a program or artist’s biography which reveals the age of a singer, but it was clear from appearances and the years in which all the members of this cast had graduated or won prizes that they were all young and would be surprised if any of them was older than say 35.

Alexei Tanovitski caused a little confusion at the outset as he sang both the King of Clubs and the Herald, but the Herald was soon gone and it was clear who he was. Though he is young his bass was reminiscent of the deep Russian bass singers familiar from Orthodox liturgical music. Bass baritones are usually solidly built, so Pavel Shimanovich who sang Celio came as a surprise. His voice did not have the liturgical growl of the King of Spades, but he was a fine bass baritone though short and slight.

There are too many characters in Love for Three Oranges for me to list them all: they all sang well. Though the Tom Stoppard translation used by OA was very witty in itself and a highlight of that production, there is nothing like hearing it sung in Russian by Russians. The unique sounds of the language belong with the music and the whole effect, together with the excellent orchestra and chorus was overwhelming.

Love for Three Oranges is both a fairy tale and an ironic commentary on theatrical traditions. It shows that you can have great Opera about nothing of importance, at least which can be described in words. As a composition, it is perfect. There is not a note too many, and the music is a perfect compliment to the story and the text, especially with the sound of Russian voices.

Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges, Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, Sunday 16 November 2008, 3pm.

La Traviata


Last year I wrote here about the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Traviata at the Met, and I saw it again, with a different cast, this year. There are so many variables in any performance, including the mood and state of mind of the listener (me) that it’s not easy to judge after an interval of a year why I found the production so much more engaging this time. Last year I seemed irritated by the ballroom scene, Act II scene 2, in a way which surprised me when I re read my comments. This time the whole production seemed to flow seamlessly maybe on account of the lack of surprise in some of the scenic effects.

Violetta was sung by German soprano Anja Harteros, who was very strong and whose performance I enjoyed more that that of Renee Fleming last year. Alfredo Germont was Massimo Giordano, from Italy, who looked youthful and sang well. Last year I wrote about my reevaluation of Giorgo Germont who for many years I wrongly characterized as the most boring person in all of opera. In fact, his dialogue with Violetta in Act II Scene 1 can be fascinating, and the performance of Zeljko Lucic (seen last year as Macbeth at the Met) confirmed this. He began with an outburst, but soon abandoned bluster as he moved through the scene with Violetta. It was a subtle and thoughtful performance. I think it should remain an open question whether his impression of Violetta really affects him emotionally or whether he is a crafty old man determined to get what he wants come what may. If the latter, it adds an interesting twist to his remorse at the end of the opera: a realization that he has been too clever for everyone’s good.

The 951 st production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera Saturday 15 November 2008 at 1 pm.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008



I had dinner with some Met supporters and staff before seeing the last performance for the season of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. Our tables were separated from the restaurant proper by some bushes in tubs. The Met person told us “John Adams is behind that hedge!” You can’t get any closer to a contemporary opera than that.

There should be a strict rule against recording conversations overheard in theatres and buses and I will follow that rule forever more. But what I overheard prior to Doctor Atomic was very odd and was related to the opera as well.

The main curtain used for Doctor Atomic has a large reproduction of the classic periodic table of elements printed on it. A young couple was seated immediately behind me.

Him: “That’s really interesting: it’s the periodic table….hey … there’s palladium…it’s a very interesting metal.
Her: “What about mercury?”
Him: “I’m not a big fan of mercury.”

“Do you see gold – it’s so malleable and such a great conductor of electricity.”

“I see Chlorine, and Fluorine there - I’m not a big fan of those pharmaceutical elements……”

I am a big fan of Doctor Atomic. I was going to write a lot about it, and may still do so, as it has attracted quite a bit of negative criticism much of it wrongheaded.

I was lucky enough to see the first production of the opera in San Francisco in 2005, and was impressed by it then. Many works need more than one hearing before you can assimilate and begin to understand them. However, I left Doctor Atomic in 2005 with a strong overall impression of the work and distinct memories of two arias: Kitty Oppenheimer’s “Am I in Your Light” and the setting of the Donne sonnet “Batter my Heart” for Oppenheimer himself which ends the first act.

The libretto by Peter Sellars has been criticized as an unwieldy kind of amalgam of miscellaneous poetry and contemporary accounts of the bomb test. I think this overlooks the fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer was himself an exuberant polymath who saw himself in terms of the literature he read. Oppenheimer was recorded as quoting the Donne sonnet for example, and it had some particular biographical associations for him. The references to the Trinity and their relation to the naming of the test site are obvious.

Since its first performance in San Francisco the opera has been seen, in versions of the original production in a number of places, and John Adams has revised it as it has moved from one place to the next, but it’s still very much the same piece. It’s a great tribute to the work that the principal singers who appeared in San Francisco are still in it. Gerald Finley has made the role of Dr. Oppenheimer his own and I agree with Met director Peter Gelb that his is one of the great virtuoso performances of the 21st. century. Eric Owens (General Groves ) and Richard Paul Fink ( Edward Teller ) remain in their original roles.

Peter Sellars was producer in San Francisco and beyond but the Met has commissioned a new production from Penny Woolcock, which is not that different from the original. The last act is still dominated by a hovering reproduction of “the gadget” as the bomb built for testing was known. This production uses what seems to be the new operatic cliché: singers in stacked boxes – but notwithstanding this, I think it achieves greater coherence and intensity. As the opera itself has been changed, it wasn’t clear to me how much of the improvement was to the work itself and how much to the production. For example, a much criticized part of the original was the music, dance and mime performed by Kitty Oppenheimer’s maid Pasqualita and other Native Americans. Pretty clearly, this was intended to contrast the relationship between the New Mexico desert and its longtime inhabitants with the terrible explosion to take place at Los Alamos. This was not incongruous and did not involve wallowing in political correctness either. In the original production however this aspect did seem detached from the main thread and included some less than inspiring dance. Now it is a lot more coherent. Pasqualita was beautifully sung by Meredith Arwady, whom I would describe as a contralto and a deep voice at that; I must investigate why the Met doesn’t recognize “contralto”, it only hears “mezzo sopranos”.

Not everything was better, Kitty Oppenheimer’s movements around the bed during “Am I in Your Light”, caused the action to lose touch with the text.

The Met Orchestra was conducted by Alan Gilbert who will take over the New York Philharmonic next season. There can be no better opera orchestra anywhere, and while the San Francisco orchestra was fine, the playing here was extraordinarily good. Apart from the arias and set pieces, the orchestral score is alive with movement, urgency and anticipation and all of this was perfectly realized.

The Act I finale, the setting of “Batter my heart”, was an intensely moving experience. .Gerald Finley is probably more restrained in his movements than when I first saw him sing it, but this was an amazing and even more powerful performance. John Adams’s setting of the poem has been criticized as insufficiently true to the verse, particularly because of the repetition of some lines. First, this is an opera not a song cycle and the original poem cannot be damaged by the way it is used here. Secondly, any critic should hear Britten’s setting of the poem in his “Holy Sonnets of John Donne” which to me sounds frenetic and superficial by comparison. I think the music here would stand in any context.

The score also includes some electronic music and some poignant spoken Japanese text at the end. This means that there is some amplification. I think the singing or some of it is amplified, but I did not find this troubling. I just don’t like amplified sound in opera. Particularly towards the end there was a repeated motif on a tuba or euphonium, a foreboding of doom I suspect, which was just too loud. Perhaps one day there will be a minimalist version of Atomic without electronics or amplification.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Some Russians


Just like in the movies the traffic on Broadway was at a standstill with horns blasting as I headed out the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday. I then saw the hold up was caused by a demonstration several thousand strong proceeding south on the other side of the street. At first, it was hard to work out what it was about. I saw various banners and signs





As I walked along, it became clear the procession was a protest about the adoption of Proposition 8 in the referendum which California held on November 4. Others were as mystified as I was about why the demonstration was happening on the upper west side of New York City.

“Proposition 8 is California isn’t it – why are they here?”
“Sympathy I guess”
“Do you think so?”

And one older lady clambering into Avery Fisher Hall, clearly not into IM:

“I don’t get this aitch eight”

Unexpectedly, the clue to the thing was the Mormon sign. There is a large Mormon church opposite Avery Fisher Hall, and it has now become apparent that the Mormons poured millions of dollars into support of Proposition 8. An article in the New York Times today suggests it would not have passed without this support.

The concert was the New York Philharmonic conducted by Andrey Boreyko with Gil Shaham playing the Khachaturian violin concerto.

The concert began with a short tone poem, Kikimora, by the Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov (1855 – 1914). Hello Mr. Melody Man!: the only work of Lyadov I could think of was his A musical snuffbox used as a theme by Lindley Evans on the ABC Childrens Hour so long ago. Kikmora was a pleasant if not very memorable piece which brought Rimsky – Korsakov’s music to mind. (And Lyadov was Rimsky Korsakov’s pupil.) It was interesting to hear it in this program which ended with the 1919 version of Stravisnky’s Firebird Suite, as I realised listening to Kikmora that works like Firebird and Petrushka which struck me as unique inventions when I first heard them had very strong roots in works of this kind. In fact, the program note explains that Diaghilev was a pupil of Lyadov, and wanted him to compose the Firebird score and only turned to Stravinsky when Lyadov failed to “fish or cut bait”. Though I doubt Diaghilev put it that way.

I learn from the Wikipeida that Liadov’s pupils included Prokofiev and Nicolai Malko, another link with the distant past as Dr. Malko was chief conductor of the SSO, and I remember sitting in the organ gallery of the Sydney Town Hall watching him, deathly pale, conducting the orchestra. His appearance was not deceptive as he lived for only a short time after that concert.

Next came the violin concerto. I saw Gil Shaham play here a couple of years ago but was unprepared for this exuberant performance. He smiled broadly at the conductor and then at no one in particular. He crouched, he move around the platform between the conductor and the first violins, often approaching the conductor so closely that he appeared to be playing for him rather than the audience. From where I was seated at the left front he entirely disappeared behind the conductor at times. In the slow movement his facial expression changed to one of ecstatic reverie, .but the gawky broad smile was back for the finale.

None of this was inappropriate for the concerto, a lively work with great melodies which becomes very exciting at times, especially when the violinist is a crouching tiger.

After intermission the orchestra played Abii ne viderem for String Orchestra, Alto Flute, Piano Harpsichord and Bass Guitar by the contemporary composer Giya Kancheli who was born in Georgia but now lives in Belgium. I did not know of Kancheli, and for me this was the most interesting work in the concert. The list of solo instruments gives a false impression as the flute is the only on with a significant solo part, and that consists at times of the repetition of a single note. The program says that Kancheli is numbered amongst Eastern European composers who have explored the “new mysticism”. I remain skeptical about program music mystical or otherwise, but the piece contain a range of sounds which demonstrated that a traditional orchestra still has a great deal of life left in it. Many fascinating sounds and contrasts and a lot of silence ( maybe the mystical part ).

The concert ended with a fine performance of the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This version was scored for a smaller string section than the ballet itself and the Philharmonic followed the score. I have found that the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall vary from place to place, but where I was sitting the grinding deep bass from the basses which opens the work was marvelous to hear. The woodwind parts were also crystal clear and subjectively at least somewhat louder than they usually seem. This was odd, because the Philharmonic is arranged on a flat platform and from where I was in front of any raking in the seats I was unable to see the woodwind section at all.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Flight Log

Isle of Pines New Caledonia

This was a flight to LA with an almost silent crew. There was no announcement from the flight deck apart from a reading of the US non congregation rule and thankfully an advice that what we could see from the left hand side of the aircraft was the Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. As this indicates, the flight path was a northerly one. This had the advantage that the modern equivalent of the dark night of the soul was broken by a crossing of the big island of Hawaii. I think the band of lights on the horizon must have been Honolulu. The bright lights of the Kona coast were clearly visible and then a few other lights. The flight path seemed to be direct overhead Hilo, so only a few lights were visible on the east coast of the island. I had hoped to see the red glow of volcanic eruptions or the shadows of the mountains against the moon, but if the lava can be seen, I was too far north and looking in the wrong direction. The mountains were invisible.

Perhaps because of the northerly course the arrival into Los Angeles was to the north of the airport. We flew over the CBD area past the famous Hollywood sign before making some sharp right hand turns for the final approach.

Flight 107 has now moved to the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles and as we were the only aircraft around it meant fast immigration and customs and instant security on the way back in. Everyone was ready to leave on time but we waited almost an hour for 19 passengers from Melbourne who arrived on the new airbus, which I saw for the first time in Qantas livery.

The Los Angeles – New York leg of the trip, as usual, seemed to pass in no time at all. Although a flight attendant told me the track was over Las Vegas, we were well south of it and just to the north of Flagstaff. I think I saw the Grand Canyon again but unlike last year there was no announcement about it.

Then long periods of cloud cover from before the Rockies to near St. Louis. Some views of rural America including the distinctive patterns of the world financial crisis as seen from outer space. Mile after mile of new housing development, this time to the north of Indianapolis.

Sub Prime ?

At last, arrival into New York, flying down the Hudson River to what was said to be an approach from the south to JFK. There were so many twists and turns and corkscrew maneuvers that in the end I had no idea what direction we were headed but we eventually landed about ten minutes later than the time estimated at the beginning of the descent.

My driver from the airport was an American story in himself. He talked New York but told me he had emigrated from Afghanistan at the age of eight.
“There is fear in the city”, he told me “people aren’t coming to New York to see their bankers anymore – our business is down 20 -25% year on year”

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Flying Dutchman


Thursday 28 August 2008.

A trip to Melbourne to see (or hear) Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in a concert performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oleg Caetani.

The Opera
Daland is captain of a Norwegian ship which has just weathered a fierce storm. He leaves the steersman on watch while he and the crew rest. The steersman falls asleep at his watch; and while he sleeps a mysterious ship appears alongside. The Dutchman alights from it and sings of his fate to sail the seas forever unless redeemed by the love of a woman faithful until death. Every seven years he may return to land to seek the woman.
Daland returns to the deck to find the Dutchman, and, in return for the treasure on the Dutchman's ship offers him shelter at his nearby home and the hand of his daughter in marriage.

joyfully taken aback

What? Do I hear aright? My daughter his wife?
He seems to mean what he says ...
I'm half afraid, if I remain wavering,
he will change his mind.
If I only knew if I were awake or dreaming!
Could there be a more welcome son in law?
I'd be a fool to let this fortune slip!
With delight I agree.

Meanwhile, on land, the womenfolk are busy spinning, with the exception of Daland's daughter Senta, who is found in dreamy contemplation of a portrait and who sings about the legend of the Dutchman whose portrait it is, and with whom she is obsessed.
Her nurse Mary asks:

Will you dream away your whole youth
in front of that likeness?

Senta's boyfriend Erik announces Daland's return and seeks reassurance of Senta's love. Erik tells of a dream which foretells what happens next: the return of Darland with the Dutchman.

Senta! Let me confide in you:
it is a dream! Listen to its warning!

But unfortunately for Erik:
awaking suddenly, in the utmost rapture

He asks for me! I must see him!
With him I must perish!
Oh horror! This all becomes clear!
She is lost to me! My dream told the truth!
He rushes off in horror.

When the Dutchman enters with Darland, he and Senta recognise each other and agree to marry.

Am I now deep in. some wondrous dream?

The Norwegian sailors celebrate their homecoming, and taunt the crew of the mysterious ship to join them. Eventually the ghost sailors commence a dramatic and eerie account of the Dutchman's story and the Norwegian sailors flee. The Dutchman overhears Erik reminding Senta of her promise to him and, believing himself deceived, renounces Senta and returns to sea. Senta declares her love for the Dutchman and leaps off a cliff. The mysterious ship sinks and Senta and the Dutchman are transfigured.

I found a libretto on the internet and this let me find and note where dreams are mentioned. The last Opera Australia production of The Flying Dutchman in 1997, in its original form as directed by Barrie Kosky, emphasised Senta's dream to the extent of an opening tableaux in which she was terrorised by an upright piano and which presented the shipboard scene of Act 1 as taking place in Senta's room. The story is more complex than that: it's about mutual dreams or at least dreams that intersect so that all the dreamers are participating in one mystical experience. This is a commentary on the nature of myth, made all the more engrossing by the music of the opera.

A short Talk about the Opera
An hour before the concert Maestro Caetani gave a wonderful short talk on the opera illustrated by musical examples which he played on the piano. I find talks by musicians themselves most usually very interesting and instructive. This talk certainly was.
Since I had come to hear the opera performed with a large orchestra in full view, I was pleased to hear him say: " The music won't be disturbed by anything else."
The orchestra would include 16 first violins which would not fit into any orchestra pit apart from The Met and Bayreuth. And the singers would be in front of the orchestra, which overcomes the problem of the pit orchestra being in front of the singers and therefore too loud: "We conductors have to reduce the dynamics."
Mr Caetani saw the opera as essentially German: Wagner found his German identity in Paris, where The Flying Dutchman was composed, just as Gogol and Tchaikovsky found a Russian identity in Rome where Tchaikovsky composed the very Russian Queen of Spades.
Wagner had just heard a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by a very good orchestra in Paris and the impact of that performance far from Germany was an influence.
He said that the opening chords of The Flying Dutchman were like the opening of Beethoven's Ninth a "quint" his word I believe for a fifth. This intrigued me enough to listen to recordings of both and find the notes on the piano. I have been familiar with the opening chords of the opera and the Dutchman's motif for a very long time, but know nothing of harmony, musical notation or vocabulary. I enjoyed doing this - I hope I got the notes right - but I'm not sure if, and how, it helps in the overall experience of listening to music.
Mr. Caetani next explained that The Dutchman feels stable in the sea, unlike most of us; but when he puts his foot on the land - instability: " Where is the key. Where are we?" Something else to listen for; I didn't in the concert.
The next subject was the duet when Senta and the Dutchman finally meet. It's not a love duet in the usual sense: each sings of him or herself and of recognition. The bourgeoisie world is a reflection of Europe before 1848. Dutchman and Senta just see ideas.
But for Mr Caetani " the sea is the main character" . Every Wagner opera begins in water.
I haven't included everything mentioned in this short talk, but it gave valuable insights into The Flying Dutchman and the knowledge and involvement of the conductor in his work.

The performance itself lived up to the promise of the talk and my expectations. The overture and all that followed from the orchestra was thrilling. The presence of the large orchestra was enhanced by the placement of some instruments, horns in particular, off the stage so that the sound came from all directions.
The overall standard of the singing was high, but a feature of a concert performance is that the singers are very exposed and I noticed things which I may not have heard among the distractions of a stage performance. To begin positively, Senta's nurse Mary was sung by Sian Pendry who has appeared quite often in recent Opera Australia productions. She has a beautiful rich voice which I had not fully appreciated until now.
Senta was to have been sung by Lisa Gasteen who withdrew due to injury and we heard the German soprano Gabrielle Maria Ronge in a fine dramatic performance. She may not have the smoothest transition from mid to upper register but once there achieved excellent volume and one memorably piercing scream.
The Dutchman himself was sung by John Wegner, who sang the role the last time I saw the OA production (in a modified version) and who conveys the dark and mysterious character of the Dutchman perfectly. I thought I detected some head congestion, which may be why Mr. Wegner conserved his voice to allow a gripping finale at full volume.
Stuart Skelton was excellent as Erik. I heard him last year as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire and was keen to hear his voice in Wagnerian mode. He obviously enjoyed the performance as well, and while it was delightful to see him groove along with the dramatic orchestral music, it did take away a little from the, albeit minimal, acting and movement of the other performers.
Another singer new to me was the Icelandic bass Bjarni Thor Kristiansen who sang well and created a perfect gruff but naive persona for Darland.
The young Melbourne tenor Adrian Dwyer sang well as the steersman, although his voice was little smaller.
The choruses were seated round the organ galleries. They were impressive overall but seemed to lack some dramatic intensity, particularly in the brilliant passage in the third act where Wagner opposes the sailors and the Dutchman's crew each singing their own distinctive chorus. It could be because it was the first time I had heard it, but I still remember the spine chilling presentation of this moment in the OA production of 1967 (with the Dutchman's crew in skeleton suits), as the best I have heard, so far.
The MSO plans to issue a CD of the concert.

Friday, 15 August 2008


One way to revive this Wandering is to post a note from Saturday, August 19, 2006

On 18 August, C and I went to the City Recital Hall to see TSUGARU Soul and Beat of Japan. Tsugaru is the northern part of Honshu and the Tsugaru straight lies between Honshu and Shikoku. The Tsugaru shamisen is a kind of shamisen or style of playing which started there. I first read of Tsugaru shamisen music and its origin in the playing of blind itinerant musicians in Alan Booths Looking for the Lost. He tells of a short lived boom in Tsugaru shamisen music in the 1970s.

The leading artist at the concert was Tsugaru shamisen virtuoso Michihiro Sato. His son Michiyosi, who graduated from High School in 2005, also plays the shamisen. Sachiko Kaiho, a Koto player is Mr. Satos wife and Michiyosis mother. Shozan Tanabe played shakuhachi; he had only one large instrument. (My introduction to the shakuhachi was Riley Lee's playing at the Townsville Festival of Chamber Music in July and he had many instruments of various lengths.)

Masaki Yoshimi played tabla, which he studied in India. Im uncertain at the moment how the tabla came into a Japanese group, or whether its use in ensembles of this kind is common. He was the only player who did not wear Traditional Japanese dress. Sachiko Kaiho wore a bright green kimono, and the colour of Mr. Satos jacket marked his seniority in the group.

Mr. Sato spoke in English from notes from time to time. An endearing feature of his speech was the pronunciation of works like shakuhachi which became shak-hashhhhh; Michyoshi michiyoshhhhhhh and so on, just as in the days before recorded announcements words like Nihonbashi became Nihonbashhhhh for train guards.

The family group was larger. The father and son were listed as playing Tsugaru Shamisen Kyokuawase together, but when we reached it Mr. Sato announced Tonight we have a special surprise for you my youngest son will play with his older brother! He looked about 4 years younger than Michiyoshi.

The program notes say that the sounds of the Tsugaru shamisen are notably different from more traditional Japanese music. They are played with a large plectrum held in the closed hand. It is used make drumming sounds on the body of the shamisen as well as to pluck the strings. The younger Sato seemed to make more drumming sounds than his father. When they played together there was great empathy between them.

The music has been compared to jazz and there are obvious parallels, but I was unable to tell what improvisation was and what was not. I am unfamiliar with the music. There was a lot of fast complex fingering in the left hand in some parts but although the sound was distinctive some of the tunes were a little elusive. The most prominent feature on hearing it for the first time was the rhythms. Some were very fast and exciting to hear. There were some vocalizations but no singing mostly shouts and crys at a climax. In the last item, the tabla player accompanied his solo with very fast wordless vocals which resembled scat singing in jazz.

I would like to investigate further but I havent found any available CDs of this or similar music as yet. Still there are places in Japan where it is played and I can search for these on my next trip.

There is some information on wikipedia

The web page for the concert itself is

Please let me know of anything more you know: specially cds.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Narcissus garden

Narcissus garden, originally uploaded by Ninoxowl.

(Revised 6 September 2009)
I visited Brisbane for a commercial purpose but went down to the Queensland Art Gallery as well, mainly to see the exhibition Mountains and Streams, since I am taking an interest in Chinese Art at the moment by attending the lectures Literature and Legend at the Sydney gallery. The lectures on Chinese Art are part of series which moves on to Japanese Art later. I thought the Chinese lectures would be a useful prelude to the Japanese ones but despite their variable quality I found much interested in the history, art, and literature discussed. I found I had seen Mountains and Streams previously at the NGV in Melbourne where it originated but had almost no memory of it, attributable, I think, to my complete ignorance of Chinese art when I first saw it. So I saw it again with a little more insight.

But the highlight of my visit to the Queensland gallery was my discovery of Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist whose installation, Narcissus Garden, is a striking feature of the gallery itself. The Queensland gallery is new. I found it to be a splendid large and open space very well designed for the display of painting and sculpture.

The installation by Yayoi Kusama is a version of a work which she first showed in 1966 at the Venice Biennale; or rather outside it, since she had not been invited. It was a very effective action and brought attention not only to herself but also to the way in which official displays of modern and inventive art soon become as ossified and bureaucratic as anything else. At the Biennale Kusama first offered the individual mirror balls for sale at $2. When she was somehow prohibited from doing this she gave out leaflets praising her own work.

Other versions of this work have appeared in the Serpentine in London and the small boat lake in Central Park, NYC. From photographs, it seems that the mirror balls were set out on the grass when they first appeared at Venice but subsequently floating in water. The essence of the installation is the reflective balls themselves. It looks from photographs as if their surroundings at Brisbane have changed a little from time to time; and in other places they seem to be out of reach and more clumped together in the waters and lakes in which they are floating.

In Brisbane the accumulation of balls looks simple and elegant and attracts attention by the constant movement helped along by the notices calling for them to be touched gently.

Narcissus garden

I find that Kusama has been an influential artist for 50 years. She was born in Matsumoto in 1929 and traveled from Japan to the USA in 1958. She was soon in New York where she was active in painting, sculpture and the organization of happenings for some years. She was therefore involved in making installations and other similar works when the concept was truly innovative and she was able to work with originality and flair. It may still be possible to do this, but the passage of time has made so many of such things seem mundane and derivative.

Although not apparent in Narcissus Garden, Kusama has described her work as emerging from her mental illness: she says has had hallucinations since she was a child. She also says that her ability to produce artistic works is a therapy for her.

Kusama often appears in photographs of her work. In a picture of the installation at Venice she is seen lying on the ground amongst the metallic balls in a red jumpsuit. In more recent photographs she poses staring intently at the camera. I wonder about the border between mental illness and self promotion.

Or could it be a characteristic of Japanese artists who move to the west. I am reminded of the self portraits of Fujita staring languidly from the picture; and of his self promotional antics in Paris in the 1920s.

And I can now add Masami Teraoka whom I discovered in Melbourne even more recently. His MacDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan / self portrait shows the same trait:

And so it was that in late May 2008, I made my way to Matsumoto, taking the super wide Shinano via Tsumago/Nagiso. I enjoyed my brief visit to Matsumoto. I missed a special retrospective exhibition of Kusama's work by only a week or so. However, as Matsumoto is her home town, the Matsumoto City Museum of Art maintains a permanent exhibition of her work. In fact, her Visionary Flowers (2002) dominates the front of the building; I imagine it was made for the site as the museum opened in that year.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

There is also a chair and a drink machine.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

The display inside was dominated by walk though rooms or installations with mirrors and other special effects. I was the only person in the gallery and was able to enjoy some of the illusions without interruption. The exhibition included some of Kusama's early work, completed prior to her departure for the USA in the late 1950's. The quality of these mainly figurative pictures was impressive. Her later more innovative work was produced on a firm foundation. She is a true innovator: her style developed in the late fifties and sixties; but she denies the influence of modernist movements on her work:

" I had nothing to do with Surrealism, I painted only as I wished"

"...I am not concerned with Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, or whatever, I am absorbed in living my life."

( Interview in Yayoi Kusama, Phaidon,2000, at 10 & 16.)

In June 2008, I returned to Brisbane and the gallery there:

Missing Narcissus

Narcissus Garden had vanished. I made some enquiries and found that it had been taken down only few days after I saw it.

Then in 2009, there was an excellent exhibition of Kusama's work in the Museum of Modern Art, Sydney. No Narcissus Garden but some mirrored balls were lying about. This show also included some walk in mirrored rooms. I did not have them to myself here however. There was a queue for entry to one of the rooms, to which viewers were admitted a few at a time for a minute or so. This exhibiton had a public face with Kusama banners and hoardings all around the city. The exhibition is closed but some of these remain to remind us...


Friday, 2 May 2008


On 18 April we heard a concert associated with the Aurora Festival, at the Music Workshop Conservatorium of Music. There were three works on the program.
First, Gavin Bryars, One Last Bar then Joe Can Sing (1986). I was reminded by the program notes that Gavin Bryers is best known for Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) which I remembered as a tape loop of a frail voice intoning the words of the title. I don't know if I ever heard the whole piece which the note said ran for an hour, or if my vague memory of it did it justice, but it made me a bit apprehensive.

One Last Bar is written for a large percussion group, 5 players in all, including marimba and vibraphone and what looked like temple bells or small Balinese gongs. Towards the end the bells and the vibraphone were played with a bow.
The piece has a program of sorts: the program describes the title as “an amalgam of in jokes between the composer and himself". More reason for apprehension.
But the overall effect of the work was excellent. A visual metaphor that came to mind was that it created pools of sound. I didn't quite reach the reverie promised by the program note but headed in that direction. This impression was so strong that I was surprised when I re heard the work on the radio a few nights later to hear the characteristic repetitions of the minimalist style were so prominent.
Next was Micrographia by Michael Smetanin, head of the Composition and Music Technology Unit at the conservatorium. I hadn't previously heard of him or his work. Micrographia is scored for piano three violins, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon (& contra bassoon) trumpet, trombone, two horns and percussion. The percussion included two marimbas played with the hands rather than mallets or sticks. This work, in contrast to the first, created a sound pattern which seemed to make threads of music against a background of patterns of sound made by various combinations of instrumental sound which were fascinating to hear. The title of the piece comes from a reference to the microscopic work of Robert Hooke, and the gradual expansion of a phrase which begins the work. I didn’t hear this happening at the concert but it was apparent on listening to the broadcast. Yet another example of the need to hear works more than once – if only there was enough time.

The last work was the Daniel Variations of Steve Reich composed in 2006. The work is a musical tribute to the journalist Daniel Pearl who was murdered in appalling circumstances by terrorist thugs in 2002. For a long time I have thought that some historical events are so dreadful that they defy reproduction in artistic work and make it almost impossible for the artist, writer of composer to avoid making the impression that the subject was chosen just to shock and enhance the status of the artist, in a way which wrongly makes use of the victims.
The Daniel Variations overcomes this problem completely. It is a remarkable and very moving work.

It is scored for 4 pianos, a string quartet, 2 clarinets, percussion including two vibraphones and a quartet of singers. The singers voices are amplified, and it seemed at the performance that this was done, at least in the first part of the work in a way which restricted the dynamic range of their singing. The work is also in the minimalist tradition, each movement incudes numerous repetitions of a single line, two taken from the Book of Daniel and two from the words of Mr. Pearl himself. These lines are also the titles of the movements.
1. I saw a dream. Images upon my bed & visions in my head frightened me
2. My name is Daniel Pearl
3. Let the dream fall back on the dreaded
4. I sure hope Gabriel likes my music, when the day is done.
Four grand pianos in a single performance space is worth seeing – and hearing; the sound produced by the unique combination of instruments was fascinating and powerful.
The vocal line in the last movement, I sure hope Gabriel likes my music, when the day is done, comes from a remark recalled by a friend of Daniel Pearl, who was a violinist, about his belief in a heaven.
The setting of these words makes them a powerful affirmation of Pearl’s life and memory and a magnificent defiance of the evil which overcame him.

Aurora Live Modern Music Ensemble Daryl Pratt, conductor. Conservatorium Music Workshop 18 April 2008

Broadcast - same program recorded at Penrith 20 April - ABC FM 22 April