Friday, 18 September 2009



Opera Australia has opened a new production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte directed by Jim Sharman. "It's not in an airport lounge this time" a I heard someone explain to her companion " though that is a good setting as they are soldiers going to war". I fear this was a confusion with the recent production of Abduction from the Seraglio; but it shows the risk a company runs locating shows where they don't belong.

This production is located in a Japanese wedding: "I don't understand why the bride is there", someone else remarked. The program notes don't explain it either, but I will try.

It's not a Shinto wedding with the bride and groom staring at the camera from their ancient costumes, but one of those weddings that happen on Guam or at the glass walled Crystal Wedding Chapel in Port Douglas. The popularity of these ceremonies is one of the mysteries Japan presents to outsiders. The tradition behind the elaborate dressing up, chauffer driven limousines and wedding formalities seems completely detached from the participants but they find great enjoyment in it nevertheless.

Guam wedding

The plot of Cosi, is famously absurd. The much adored fianc├ęs of two sisters are shipped off to fight a war at short notice, but return immediately so convincingly disguised as Albanians that each is able to seduce the other's girlfriend. It's best seen as a fantasy, and this production successfully creates one by staging the opera as an entertainment performed at the Japanese wedding. ( If Mozart had known of this scheme he would have allowed a little more time for setting the scene, I think.)

So we have a comedy wrapped in a fantasy inside a daydream, or something like that. Anyway, this device works as a way of overcoming the inherent improbability of the plot and oddly enough makes many of the incidents and interactions more believable and intense than might be possible in a production which attempts realism. Admittedly, the OA production which this replaces did involve the idea of a performance, but it didn't realise it nearly as well.

There is also an irony involved in a story of deception and romantic betrayal told in the framework of an idealised, if fanciful, wedding ritual.

There is a deep, mainly white, single purpose set, which seemed a little too big at times for a work which has only a small chorus and many scenes with only one or two participants. It does, however allow for a lot of movement, and this enlivens a piece which is potentially too static. The liveliness is reflected in the marvellous, frequently changed, brightly coloured costumes. The exuberantly coloured camouflaged greatcoats would maybe provide some cover in sideshow alley, but nowhere else.

It goes without saying that without the music, this story would be of little interest. But too much can be, and is made of it. I don't think we enjoy it because it demonstrates "profound human truths"; or as an embodiment of Enlightenment thought. The story gives Mozart many opportunities, and the score incorporates a remarkable range of moods, situations and colour. It's magic because it can't be conveyed in words, but the best description I have found is the Cosi chapter of David Cairns' Mozart and His Operas.

In some recordings, the youthful exuberance and emotion of Cosi is lost because the singers, however excellent, sound too old. In this production, Opera Australia has found a cast of young but sufficiently experienced artists who sing well individually and blend together so well in the ensemble pieces.

I enjoyed all the performances: Jose Carbo is an active Don Alfonso, more cynic than philosopher. Tiffany Speight as Despina takes advantage of the scope offered in this production to give a more interesting performance than was possible in the 2006 production by Victorian Opera which only just became airborne.

Henry Choo has sung major roles with OA for some years, beginning as a light tenor in productions of Elixir of Love and Lakme. I had some concerns that as he moved to more dramatic roles he could be progressing too fast for the development of his voice, but he was perfect here; more convincing than his Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni only a year ago.

Rachelle Durkin is a wonderful artist and her portrayal of Fiordiligi ranged from girlish delight to intense emotion. This combination was most convincing. Older singers can bring dramatic intensity but can't be very convincing in the lighter moments.

Sian Pendry, Dorabella , and Shane Lowrencev, Guglielmo, are both singers who have emerged in stages from the OA chorus. Last year I mentioned Sian Pendry's fine performance in the MSO Flying Dutchman concert and this performance confirmed my opinion. It is difficult to judge the quality of singers in minor roles. Their ability and potential must be clear to the music staff and management when they are first selected, but the audience must wait for the opportunity for their talent to fully emerge in performance.

I was surprised how suited Shane Lowrencev was to a lyric role as he has been cast more as traditional bass, most recently as Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea, a part more suited to an older and more resonant bass baritone. It was a pleasure to hear him in full flight for the first time.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Saved from Oblivion

St Bartholomew-the-Great

I visited the church or St Bartholomew the Great on bank holiday in May for no particular reason. The church has a long history going back to twelfth century. What remains is only part of the original structure. Large parts of the building were demolished on the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century and other parts were substantially altered and given over to secular use. The original Lady Chapel was bricked off, altered and became an ordinary house, before being further subdivided. Part of it became the printing works where Benjamin Franklin worked in 1725, and then a lace fringe factory. It was restored as a chapel in 1896.

The current state of the building recalls what could be its original appearance with thick Norman columns and walls of stone blocks.

I took some photographs of monuments on the walls there and gave them no further thought. The pictures were not particularly interesting images and I was about to discard them when I discovered British History Online, and excellent site containing digitised versions of historical documents, records and books including The records of St. Bartholomew's priory [and] St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: volume 2 Year (1921) by E.A Webb. This appears to be a very thorough review of historical records relating to the church; and it includes material about the monuments I photographed in May.

As far as I can tell from internet searching, none of the people for whom the memorials were erected was of any significance in history. We know of them by the pure chance that someone decided to erect a substantial memorial, and that the memorial has remained in a church whose fabric has been changed in the intervening years. Webb records that some of them have been moved from different locations in the church. I imagine there have been others lacking their decorative interest which have been removed and lost.

Monument to Percival and Agnes Smallpace

Monument to Percival and Agnes Smallpace

The Latin portion of the above inscription may be thus translated:

All welfare is vain.

Remember that death will not be long in coming and that the covenant of the grave hath been showed unto thee for the covenant of this world is 'He shall die the death'. All things come forth at their due season and pass away.

Judge none blessed before his death since it is in his sons that the man is known.

Percival Smalpace Esquire died the 2nd day of February A. D. 1558 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. His body lies buried near this monument.

Agnes his wife and daughter of John Tebowld Esquire died the 3rd day of September A. D. 1588 in the reign of Elizabeth. Her body lies buried near this monument.

Their children Michael and Thomas are still living and in affectionate memory of their most excellent parents have erected this monument.

To the dying man all things become peaceful;

blessed are they who die in the Lord.

Posterity will award to each his due distinction. Be wise and adopt with reverence this precept: Thy life is of no account for thee, enrol thyself in the full service of the true God: proffer to Him prayers from thy heart, and express thy praise and thanksgiving. To this end was a man born. And, O! very far more steadfast is a faith which repentance renews. There are no parochial records of Percival Smalpace. From his will (fn. 8) we learn that he was one of the clerks of the Board of Green Cloth. The monument was restored by Mr. Gilbert J. Smallpiece in 1897.
 The Board of Green Cloth, named for the covering of the board table, audited Royal accounts and made travel arrangements; athough its functions changed it continued until 2004.

Sir Robert Chamberlayne's Monument

Sir Robert Chamberlayne's Monument

In English: To Robert Chamberlayne, son of Robert by the institution of the pious happy and ever August James, of Great Britain France and Ireland, made a knight of the most noble order of the Bath; lord of the castle of Sherburn in the county of Oxford, descended by a long line of ancestors from the most ancient Earls of Tankerville in Normandy. Fit for any fortune, however great, born with an intellect and an equally great character, whilst cherishing these for himself and his own people, he also travelled many foreign countries, skilled in their habits and languages. Eventually he reverently approached the Holy Land and the Sepulchre of our Lord, and found also (alas) his own (sepulchre) of what kind or on what shore is unknown, dying in the year of the Virgin Birth 1615. A bachelor, far from his own people he perished by the inclemency of the weather or of man between (as far as can be guessed) Tripoli and Cyprus. A sorrowing friend, mindful of so sweet and old a companionship and unequal to support so great a grief and loss erected this (monument) (to a well deserving friend). He lived about 30 years.

He is covered by heaven though he has no tomb.

I wonder if he travelled for his own amusement; or whether he was a government agent of some kind; he was knighted by James I. And I don't know if pilgrimages to the Holy Land were common in the seventeenth century. I seems as if he went missing at sea between Tripoli and Cyprus; the "inclemency...of man" could refer to piracy which was common particularly off the African Coast. From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 merchant ships to Barbary pirates.

And who was the sorrowing friend?

James Rivers

Torn from the service of the state in prime by a disease malignant

Within this hollow vault here rests the frame
Of that high soul wch. late inform'd the same
Torne from the service of the state in 's prime
By a disease malignant as the time
Who's life and death design'd no other end
Than to serve God his country and his friend;
Who when ambition rytanny and pride
Conquer'd the age, conquer'd himself and dy'd.
Here lyeth the Body of James Rivers Esq. (Sonne
and Heir of John Rivers of Chafford (fn. 59) in the County of Kent (Baront) who married Charity Dautr and Cohers of Sr. John Shurly, of Isfield in the Couy of Suss'x, Who died June the 8th 1641.

We learn from the parish registers that he was buried on the 9th June, the day after his death, 'out of the house of W. Freake Esq. the close side' from which, and from the fact that we find no other record of him in connexion with the parish, we assume that he was staying in the Close with a friend at the time and was not resident here. He probably died of the plague as did Sir George Hastings three weeks later. His great-grandfather, Sir John Rivers, Knight, of Chafford, was Lord Mayor of London in 1573. His father, Sir George Rivers, was made a Baronet in 1621 and was still living when his son died.

The monument was formerly on the south side of the quire on the spandrel over a circular pillar, from whence it was moved during the restoration of 1864 because it cut into the arch mouldings. It was at some period covered with black pitch, which was removed in the year 1912 when the inscription was re-written at the request and charge of a descendant, Mrs. Rivers-Moore.

At the moment, I have no idea why this and the next monument were, at some stage, covered in black pitch.

Edward Cooke, 1652.

Unsluice your briny floods

A marble monument (covered with black pitch) in the south ambulatory on the west side of the entrance to the south chapel.

It can be seen that the black pitch has now been removed from this monument also.

Unsluce yor briny floods, what! can yee keepe
Yor eyes from teares and see the marble weepe,
Burst out for shame: or if yee find noe vent
For teares, yet stay, and see the stones relent.

The tablet is made of a stone which readily condenses the water from the air in damp weather; before the hot-water pipes were placed below drops would often be seen condensed upon it.

In English: Here lies interred all that is mortal of a truly reverend man, Edward Cooke, an exceedingly learned Philosopher as well as a very notable man of medicine, who, on the third of the ides (the 11th) of August A. D. 1652, and in the 39th year of his age, yielded perforce to nature in the sure hope of a resurrection.

Edward Cooke is described in the Parish Register in the record of his burial on the 14th of August 1652 as 'Doctor of Physick'. Otherwise his name does not occur in the parish records. His father, also Edward Cooke, occurs in the charter of the Society of Apothecaries, of which he was a Fellow in 1617.

Formerly this monument was on the opposite side of the south ambulatory, where it filled one of the stilted arches at the south-east corner of 'Purgatory'. The restoration of the apse necessitated its removal in 1864.

All of the italicised passages above come from 'Monuments, memorials and heraldry', The records of St. Bartholomew's priory [and] St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: volume 2 (1921), pp. 449-487.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Fellows at St. James


The Sydney Symphony fellowship program provides opportunities for aspiring orchestral players to be part of the orchestra, and take part in performances and further education designed to assist them in their careers. It's part of what I recently heard described as the "academisation" of the beginnings of a career in music. There have been great changes.

Charles Mackerras was appointed second oboe of then ABC Sydney Orchestra at the age of 17, and by 19 was principal. Earlier, Neville Amadio joined the 2FC Broadcasting Orchestra at 15, and was principal flute of the ABC Orchestra by the time he was 21.

More recently, it was not uncommon for conservatorium graduates to obtain orchestral positions on graduation. Now it is much more competitive.

This year, David Papp, who was a member of the fellowship program in 2008, became the orchestra's youngest member, at the age of 24, when he was appointed second oboe.

Each year the fellows give chamber music concerts at St. James King Street; and I heard one of the best so far on 2 September.

There are all kinds of pitfalls in writing about concerts. The Daily Telegraph reports that the pianist and musical critic David Money, who died on July 17 aged 97, " liked to include positive remarks, but occasionally he was reduced to referring to 'a well-balanced program'."

When I read this, I was about to write enthusiastically about the program at this concert, which was very well balanced, and very well performed at well.

The first item was Mozart's Horn Quintet K407, scored for two violas, violin, cello and horn. As the excellent program note says, the scoring for two violas lends a warmer sound which complements the sound of the horn. The horn part, which is really like the solo in a concerto, was beautifully played by Alex Love. The fellowship string players were joined by Roger Benedict, SSO principal viola and artistic director of the fellowship program.

Next came Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp. There is not, as yet, a harp player among the fellows, so the ensemble was joined by the fine player Owen Torr, for the this and the next item. As part declaration of interest and part excuse to wander, I should mention that a few years ago Mr. Torr, was my daughter's harp teacher.

This all began in the tropical warmth of the Sunday market at Port Douglas where we heard the delightful playing of a young man with a small harp. We asked where the harp had been made.

In due course I travelled to the Atherton tableland where I found the maker, surrounded by harps of various sizes in the course of manufacture. He was from the United States and had, I think, found American society uncongenial and exiled himself to the wilderness outside Mareeba. As well as the harps, he had a large aviary full of cockatiels. For those with the skills to do it, working with wood must be a very satisfying occupation, particularly when making something as attractive as the harp.

We soon learned that, attractive as they were, these harps were not concert harps, but ours was still fine for a beginner to use for practice.

Although I hadn't played it recently, I have a old vinyl LP including Debussy's Sonata played by William Schegler, Flute, Fritz Ruff, Viola and Helga Storck, Harp. I found that the piece, or parts of it at least, were recorded in my mind as a result.

I thought fellowship flautist, Lina Andonovska, played with great subtlety and variation. The first movement, Pastorale, seems to echo some of the cadences of Debussy's preludes while evoking the atmosphere of the jungle as depicted by his contemporary Heni Rousseu. Did Debussy have the tropical warmth of the Snake Charmer in mind, I wonder. Ms. Androvska played this with a marvellous smoky, lugubrious tone which was exactly right.

The mood changes in the second movement, Interlude, which does in fact provide an interlude between the more distinctive outer movements, giving Ms. Andononvska the opportunity to play with a brighter timbre.

The Finale is a reminder that we are in the musical world of the early twentieth century, with an edgy dialogue between the flute and viola, well played by Charlotte Burbrook de Vere.

Next we heard the Elegiac Trio of Arnold Bax, written for the same instruments at about the same time. Bax was about 20 years younger than Debussy, but his Trio lacks the modernist feeling of Debussy's Sonata. It was most interesting to be able to hear the two works together in the same program.

I heard the Trio as recently as 6 August at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, in the distinctly less elegiac setting of Jupiters Casino Ballroom. It wouldn't often have been played by finer musicians: Lorna McGhee (flute), David Harding (viola) and Sebastien Lipmann (harp), but I found, hearing it again, that the piece itself had made little impression, unlike the Debussy I recalled from a recording heard years ago.

The concert ended with a performance of the sextet from Capriccio by Richard Strauss. The sextet is so full of associations for those who have heard and loved the opera that it's difficult to talk about in isolation. It is similar to Debussy's Sonata, having contrasting passages of calm and agitation; the agitation in this case reflecting the anxious mood of the competing artists of the opera. The excellent acoustic of the church suited the string playing very well.

Perfectly balanced.

For my notes on an earlier Fellowship concert: