A reaction to @operaaustralia’s Eugene Onegin

Last night your correspondent saw the last night of Opera Australia’s Eugene Onegin. It was, personally, a special occasion, but that is irrelevant, other than to say the production matched the occasion. Nicole Car was magnificent. The orchestra played with a special feel that reflected a fine controlling instinct from conductor Guilliaume Tourniaire. While Tchaikovsky’s music would alone be enough.
But there was something else alongside the operatic, and that was dance. It may be telling that mental anguish, dopamine, seratonin, left brain and right brain have been high in your correspondent’s mind recently, along with the recognition that we are all, nearly always, of two minds. Mostly in benign debate, but sometimes in a fight for supremacy. Two individuals in one, wrestling with issues and demons, illusions and reality, love and life. So it was, after dozing through the first scene, an electric impulse hit in the Letter Scene: the presence, the actions of the dancer were no simple ‘could haves” or “would haves”. Raw metaphor indeed, but the reflection was that of the mind in turmoil. The rational, calm, singing Tatyana battling with an unruly id that demanded she express her deepest feelings, irrespective of the outcomes a clear head, even a young woman’s clear head, knew would result. The dancer was in control. She who wrote the words. The Tatyana in control while the “other” Tatyana succumbed, without so much as a fight. It was a fine exposition of what was, in fact, going on in a scene of little action: a mental battle. How better to represent it than with two representations of the one personality. If one has not, personally, known the battle, or has not seen it in someone close, the reality may pass over us. For your correspondent it was conceptually brilliant.
Onegin’s danced alter ego was less intense but nonetheless real. He was one who had succumbed in the battle in his mind. Truly a lost soul. Indeed his weary reaction to the dancers in the Polonaise reflected his inner state. The narcissist at the end of the road.
If this be the future of dance in opera productions, then let it continue.

(This is an edited version of a comment made on A Cunning Blog http://harryfiddler.wordpress.com)

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“The Saturday Paper” Hits the Streets

Friday afternoon your correspondent was passing through Martin Place, minding his own business when a young lady thrust some printed white paper into his hands. Seeing the masthead, The Saturday Paper, he enquired politely “A Saturday paper on Friday?” This elicited but a smile, and we passed on.

It was not until Saturday that time permitted a review of this unexpected journal. The twenty-first century is not the best time to launch a newspaper. Who are the brave souls and what their purpose? A new front by the Australian Communist Party? A new initiative of the H R Nicholls Society perhaps? Or a new type of Mx, published by the last of the remaining press barons?

None of the above, it seems, and thankful we should all be. It seems the initiative is that of one Morry Schwartz, who, according to a launch address by none other than Malcolm Turnbull, is a radical, an idealist, born in Hungary, a Jew and has ink in his veins. The Internet tells us he is also a property developer and publisher. It is a sign of your correspondent’s cloistered existence that he did not know Schwartz publishes The Quarterly Essay and The Monthly. Clearly the guy knows what he is doing.

Some feel for style can be gleaned from the quality of contributors. David Marr is there with a fine piece on Cardinal Pell. Christos Tsiolkas does film. Novelist Richard Flanagan writes fine satire on the “Comment” page and the co-owner of Melbourne’s fashionable Cutler and Co does food. A crossword from Mungo MacCallum is there for those of cryptic persuasion. It seemingly has it all: Comment, Culture, Business, Film, Books, Food, World, Sport, Interiors, Fashion. Something for nearly everyone. No music performance criticism however. That is an egregious omission.

But who is the everyone at which this august journal is pitched? A clue can be gleaned from the ads. Rolex, and Harrolds, the up-market gents outfitter, have full pages. ABC Books and the Australian Ballet are there, as is a full page pushing luxury homes in “Melbourne’s Prestigious Alphington”. (Nobody lived in Alphington when your correspondent was a boy in Melbourne, but that was an age ago.) Academy Travel is there too pushing English summer music festivals. Opera and chamber music festivals of course. You get the idea.

The Leader say it all, of course: “A young paper with tenacious vision”; “no agenda and no single view”; “knowledge that is broad and deep”; “defiant of trends and conventional wisdom”. Your correspondent rather likes the final words: “We promise to be a small but handsome mongrel, a blue heeler cross of the press.”

A salute to the ideals, and a loud, resounding “Chookas” to Schwartz and his crew. Do you suppose, though, that SportsBet is running a book on how many years the newspaper will last?

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Gran Turismo: Are you sure you want to make that trip?

Your correspondent has just had a weekend of Gran Turismo. For the uninitiated “Gran Turismo” does not, in this context, mean the fine vintage vehicles of the days when motoring was a pleasure and the pastime of the well to do. No, Gran Turismo refers to those travels, in the company of many others, organised and structured to a degree only known to graduates of 21st century hospitality colleges, to visit “cultural” or other natural or man made icons, together with milling hordes, steeped in the belief that travel broadens the mind. Perhaps, in truth,travel broadens the mindless, when the purpose appears, in many cases, to be to check off against some personal list : “been there, done that”. The flock-like herding hither and thither, onto buses, into queues, over to “cultural centres”; walks with trite placards declaiming the importance of this piece of harsh desert dust or that. (And yes, your correspondent knows that there are insects and reptiles hidden away in the dusty plains, never to appear when the punters are abroard, searching for goodness knows what revelations).

Quickly now, back on the bus everybody. “Hello. My name is Fred but my friends call me Shorty. Can’t imagine why. I’m your driver today to take you all of five minutes drive back to your hotel”. Well, he didn’t actually say the “all of five minutes” bit, but you get the point.

The only redeeming feature of Gran Turismo is that it is usually possible to find a comfortable bar or restaurant at which to slake the desert dry and take nourishment of a less academic kind, at, of course, a price pitched to have you wondering if the cost of transport, storage, wastage, petty pilfering and everything else can really justify the exorbitant cost. The onslaught on the wallet is unremitting. A visit to the icon, sir? Of course. Just a fifteen minute drive in our, usually, air conditioned minibus. We then leave you to walk around in the desert heat for two hours before we hope to pick you up again, assuming of course we haven’t miscounted, in which case you’ll have to wait for the next bus. How much? Fifty-five dollars, and oh no, that doesn’t include the park entry fee of twentyfive dollars. No, you can’t pay by card. It must be in cash. (Insert your own developing country joke here). But, stay the starting tear, a lot of people make a very good living out of Gran Turismo. It is just not immediately clear who.

Indeed, the question to whom the spoils are accumulating is surely moot. The subject location prompting this epistle is owned by an indigenous land corporation. So was an expectation of evidence of some local people too much to expect? Sadly, few, if any, were to be seen. Checking the punters in? No. In the kitchens? No. Driving the buses? No. Bell hops? No. Selling in the souvenir shops? No. Waiting at table? Well, a couple of indigenous wait staff were in evidence one lunchtime. But that is all. Sure, there was one woman doing dot painting outside the Cultural Centre, in the so often demeaning “native reserve” sort of way. Perhaps the locals were all beavering away in the administrative offices. Perhaps, indeed. The only positive local aboriginal interaction in the whole experience was a truly inclusive “Welcome to Country” by an inspirational local elder (who also played a mean guitar). This in the context of two concerts which had been the prompt for your correspondent’s investment in the tourism sector. But let’s be fair, here. There was one other intervention of genuine aboriginality, in the ample form of William Barton, didgeridoo player and musician extraordinaire who can single handedly evoke a spirit from the most barren social environment.

But these two exceptions simply serve to underline the problem with Gran Turismo. It is ersatz. Even if the landforms can be viewed in theIr raw, unedited, state there is this terrible realisation: the view, the impact, is better at home, via David Attenborough.

And the $50 bottle of wine consumed in front of the TV is real quality, not some heavily marked up supermarket plonk.

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“Australia” at the Royal Academy, London: A definitive response

At last. From Dr Janet McKenzie, art historian, artist and knowledgable member of the Australian diaspora, a definitive and perceptive response to “Australia” at the Royal Academy, London. And a masterful put-down of an arrogant British critical establishment. This essay is also a fitting, though tacit, tribute to Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions at the RA, without whose tireless commitment over many years, this exhibition would not have happened. Your correspondent was lucky enough to attend the opening of this exhibition and is one who also believes it is a remarkable achievement.

From: Studio International – Visual Art, Design and Architecture – Australia

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It’s confirmed: The Ngeringa Farm Arts Foundation now controls the South Australian Guadagnini

Alert followers of this blog will remember a post in January 2012 suggesting that something was afoot with the, then, S A Guadagnini Trust and its management of the violin originally purchased, in a piece of inspired generosity, by the people of South Australia for violinist Carmel Hackendorf. Your correspondent, protecting his sources, received some flack from some quarters. What, after all would he know?

Well, it is now official: the Guadagnini, currently on loan to Sophie Rowell, is, after a decision of the Supreme Court of SA, in the hands of the Ngeringa Farm Arts Foundation.

This is probably a good development, since the Foundation will be able to address issues such as financing insurance and maintenance, matters that the original trust did not address.

Your correspondent, however, believes that the Ngeringa Farm Foundation now has certain responsibilities to the people of South Australia. Unlike the four instruments obtained for the Australian String Quartet, the purpose of which is clear, there is a need, with the Hackendorf instrument, to make public the guidelines under which the instrument will be managed. How will current and future holders be held to account? What will be the criteria for selecting future recipients? Remember, the Hackendorf Guadagnini is managed on behalf of the people of South Australia. Hence it’s management must be totally transparent.

Your correspondent looks forward to hearing more from the Ngeringa Farm Foundationm

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Degrees of Separation: of Greeks, theatres and @SYOrchestra

Sometimes there is a fascinating confluence of occurrences. In the wonderful textures of life it is not hard to find connections. They may sometimes be negative. But usually not, and with a little generosity of spirit and enthusiasm an element of delight can radiate over the day.

Today there was a chance meeting in the street. A meeting that would not have happened had ABC Classic FM’s Graham Abbott’s dulcet tones and instruction on Wagner’s Ring Cycle held sway over the much more decadent attraction of coffee and a muffin for breakfast at that Woolloomooloo temple of baked goods, ‘Flour and Stone’ on Riley Street. Justifying the soft option on the basis that he has the iPad Ring Cycle app and the Deryck Cooke CD, your correspondent stepped happily into the unseasonally warm winter morning. Not far from the objective a cheerful greeting broke his reverie. It was Bernie Heard, General Manager of Sydney Youth Orchestras, making her way up to the St Mary’s Chapter Hall to check out the morning’s rehearsals. A gladly accepted invitation to be shown around ensued. And so it was, fortified by an excellent bran muffin, that your correspondent surveyed the, always fascinating, sight of young people learning the social, disciplinary, aural and musical skills of making music together. The enthusiasm was palpable. The eyes were shining. At every level. The image of a young girl, towards the back of the most junior orchestra, playing on an, undoubtedly prized, pink violin will linger.

We should not be surprised. Anyone who knows the power of music education understands the immense contribution these opportunities will afford these children in their later lives. But that is not the reason for this brief essay.

It was later conversation, about regional touring, where passing reference was made to the Northern NSW town of Bingara and the Roxy Theatre there. If you do not know the story, it’s worth a few minutes to read this lovely piece of Greek Australian history; a beautiful cameo of life in country New South Wales in the early half of the 20th century, and the commitment of locals to restoring and preserving these artefacts and the memories they invoke. It seems the Sydney Symphony Fellowship has played in the beautifully restored Roxy Theatre and the Sydney Youth Orchestra will also do so on a future regional tour. Although principally built as a movie theatre, the Roxy now fulfils a role as multi-use performance space, a fine example of resources vital to the cultural life of regional Australia

The confluence of occurrences will, however, not be yet clear to you, dear reader: it relates to Mrs Oz, home alone yesterday. A neighbour kindly invited her to dinner. Nothing unusual in that, but it so happened that a dinner guest was none other than Peter Prineas, grandson of Peter Feros, one of the partners who built the original Roxy Theatre complex.

Your correspondent thinks this is all worth a couple of Ouzos and perhaps a few smashed plates. Let us celebrate the Sydney Youth Orchestras and Australia’s wonderful Greek community, with all they both have contributed, and continue to contribute, to Australian life.

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Don’t Give Up Your Day Job! The Forest Collective Present ‘Shared Lines’ at Abbotsford Convent

Don’t be put off by the headline. Like the picture on a paperback, the header is there to grab attention, and is certainly not intended to suggest that Forest Collective were anything other than competent professionals putting on an intriguing mix of art forms in a collaborative endeavour which, in the main, worked very well. What prompted the headline was concern about the economics of the performance, this in the context of recent social media discussion about paying artists less than award rates. Your correspondent does not see a problem with this, but with a group which must have numbered twenty odd, and tickets at $30, it is hard to see the performers making much at all. They should go with our blessing and our hope that as audiences build, their remuneration will improve.

Forest Collective  is a young, genre crossing, group of artists, formed in 2009, after initial collaborations as students, under the guidance of Artistic Director Evan Lawson. The collective currently program a small number of performances a year in, predominantly, performance spaces of the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. The works can range from straight song recitals (“Shared Songs” 11.00am, Stones of the Yarra Valley, Coldstream VIC. August 18), through instrumental ensembles to chamber opera. Eschewing specialisation ensures their, as yet seemingly small, band of enthusiastic followers a rich palette of artistic experiences. What differentiates the collective is an apparent desire to sometimes challenge the conventional by offerings involving diverse artistic forms, loosely connected, albeit by somewhat tenuous threads.

The performance of “Shared Lines” last Saturday was such an event, drawing together chamber music, visual and performance art, inspired by the “rambling walls and rooms of the Rosina Auditorium”, a large barn like space which perhaps originally served as convent refectory. Soprano Rosemary Ball opened proceedings with a soaring performance of ‘Oh, Quand Je Dors’ by Liszt. Your correspondent liked to think this was perhaps how the nuns may have given thanks before their evening meal, calling on their Lord to “come and stand by my bed”, rather than with the more likely dull plainsong. A fine opener, yet one that belied the following piece of theatre. This work, ‘Fixation’, written and directed by Stephanie Osztreicher, opened with a deftly performed dance like routine by a maidservant, joined by glowing moths, expressing some longings for an unspecified male. That male turns out to be a rather aggressive master of a household, including two girls who also seem to crave attention, but through more childlike pranks and intense expressions of desire for personal gratification and the material. The audience is brought up into the “house” to experience close at hand the master’s fixation with moths and a particular insect like creature kept in a large glass jar. The allegorical reference is to the moth’s attraction to heat and light which, of course, ultimately leads to death. For the humans here it is love that attracts, while the death experienced is not literal but, rather, a breakdown in mutual relationships.

Musical performances then continued, but with the actors remaining in character, moving around the auditorium. At the same time an interactive visual and musical work began in a side room of the “house”. Entitled “Pandora”, this experience was a little difficult to conceive as part of the overall texture of the evening. Overlong, it also meant missing some of the other musical performances which, inter-alia, included a rather delightful rendition of an Enescu ‘Allegro de Concert’ for solo harp (Jessica Fotinos) and a performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Metamorphosen’ for solo oboe (Katia Lenzi). Not to ignore the other bi-centennial birthday boy, Wagner got a reference through a beautifully expressive performance of Traume by soprano Olivia Cranwell.

There was no formality to all of this. At any time the audience was free to roam the auditorium, listen, drink wine and observe the visual artefacts. A wooden sculpture, by Isabelle Rudolph, was made predominantly from drawer parts and found objects. What can drawers contain of secrets and past experiences? ‘Untitled’, three illustrations by Katherine Phillimore were quaint, although a rather sparse addition to the evening’s assemblage.

It is true that audiences nowadays crave something extra, to savour involvement and intimacy with artists as they go about their creative endeavours. To this extent the evening worked fairly well, although no one, anywhere, has quite worked out how to involve the audience, physically, in chamber music performances. Perhaps the singers might have risen from an audience chair, or moved around the hall amongst the audience. Be that as it may Forest Collective produced a most worthwhile and thought provoking evening’s entertainment.

Apart from the song recital mentioned above, the season finale will be ‘Shared Ethos: Calypso’, a chamber opera by Evan Lawson and Samuel Yeo.

Shared Ethos: Calypso

5, 6 and 7 December 2013

Industrial School, Abbotsford Convent VIC.

Tickets: http://www.trybooking.com/CFWV

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