It is not unusual nowadays to hear a program about women made up of works by women composers. A program such as “A Life’s Work” which Flinders Quartet and Mezzo Soprano Ashlyn Tymms presented last month was, however, remarkable in its cohesion, intelligence and emotional depth.

Flinders Quartet has never been cautious about presenting unusual new works, as evidenced by recent performances of Katy Abbott’s “Hidden Thoughts II-Return to Sender, most recently at the Canberra International Music Festival. Nonetheless it seemed a risk and a challenge this year to juxtapose two major new works in the quartet’s regular season opening performances. Adding to the risk was their first-time collaboration with West Australian mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms who is better known in her home town Perth for recent stellar performances of Dorabella (Cosi fan tutte) and Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana) for West Australian Opera rather than for her chamber music credentials.

In execution, however, Flinders’ four performances rewarded their audiences with exquisite singing, insightful string playing and execution of emotional beauty and depth. It was inspired programming to express together two musical dialogues featuring the words of two fiercely independent women, French Belle Epoque sculptor Camille Claudel and Australian composer Margaret Sutherland, 

To open the program Flinders played a Clara Schumann Prelude and Fugue transcribed for the quartet by Jessica Wells. Clever writing produced an uplifting opening to what was to be a program coloured by deeper emotions.

The first of the major new works, “Hope, Fear, Anything” by Melody Eötvös was drawn from the letters of Claudel and was sung almost entirely in French. It opened with a brief introductory movement by strings alone, setting a quiet and introspective tone, a feature which continues throughout the work. In an interesting approach the composer selected simple fragments from letters, Valedictions in Movement II and Salutations in the final Movement VII rather than longer extracts with fuller meaning. On first reading these simple words seem limited, but when sung express unresolved statements which encourage questions on the part of the audience, evoking need for a greater knowledge of Claudel. What does this say of her life? What more might be learnt?

The Second movement opens with triplet figures, first in violin alone and then descending through the lower voices with a controlled urgency perhaps inherent in the idea of valedictory statements in correspondence. Do they always seek a response? These triplet figures return towards the end of the final movement, again leaving questions in the mind of the listener. Movements III and IV, letters to her cousin Charles Thierry and her beloved brother Paul are from 1913 and 1938 respectively, early and late during Claudel’s incarceration in an asylum. Her clarity of expression belies any hint of madness, apart from a suggestion of paranoia regarding her sister with whom, along with her mother, she had a life-long difficult relationship. Claudel was clearly distraught when writing the first of these letters as her immediate family had omitted to let her know of her ever supportive father’s death. Both movements deliver emotional depth through variation in intensity often delivered pianissimo. Flinders displayed great skill in ensuring these quiet emotions were clear and articulate while Ashlyn Tymms’ velvet timbre underscored that emotion. These feelings were carried through particularly in some lovely writing in Movement IV where the mezzo sings with just viola and cello accompaniment, perhaps reflecting the depths of Claudel’s despondency. 

A short Interlude precedes Movement VI, the only light-hearted movement in the work. The text here is taken from responses, written in Claudel’s hand, to a series of questions published in a magazine type publication: “An Album of Confessions to Record Thoughts, Feelings etc”. The responses reveal a woman of rebellious spirit with a certain sense of humour. But even in this light-hearted exchange with a good friend there is a sting in the last response. To the query “What is your present state of mind?” Claudel’s answer, delivered with quiet intensity, suggests mental turmoil is ever present: “It is too difficult to tell…”

It was unfortunate that no French text was available to assist the audience with understanding the emotional trajectory of the work. Clarity was also sometimes lost where the musical expressions and phrases of the instrumentalists seemed to challenge clear articulation in the sung language.

The Quartet followed this with Margaret Sutherland’s String Quartet No. 2 ,“Discussion”. A short work in a single movement, the dialogues between and amongst the four players provided a wonderful interface and introduction to Katy Abbott’s “Splitting the Ambivalence”.

Here again Ashlyn Tymms had the role of a complex woman, expressing through her writing diverse feelings from life, embracing the “artistic temperament”, reflections on a childhood visit to Heronswood House “Fairy Palace”, and an angry (yet in retrospect quite amusing) letter to the Australian Broadcasting Commission: “Dear ABC…”. This latter Movement III displays Sutherland in high dudgeon, the words uttered with clear articulation: “…pure fiasco”; “beneath contempt”; “please rectify!” This leads into a clearly painful reminiscence about a disastrous house concert performance she felt compelled to terminate, mid sonata (her own violin sonata). Apparently the host explained Sutherland’s actions by claiming she was pregnant. She was not. The violinist had refused a rehearsal: “You wrote it, I played it” was a terse dismissal, a suffered remembrance. Those words are also found in the first movement as well as repeated tellingly at the very end of the work after the beautifully executed last movement’s vocalise, Katy Abbott having found no appropriate words to express the sad state of the marriage in which Sutherland found herself constrained. More about the works’ genesis can be found in the excellent program notes to the concert.

Musically, “Splitting the Ambivalence” is brighter and more accessible than Melody Eötvös’ work, and it was played and sung with a great deal of spirit, perhaps reflecting the protagonist’s brighter, more positive outlook when compared to that expressed by Camille Claudel. Being sung in English also helped the audience become immersed in the variety of expressed emotions.

It is your correspondent’s considered view that this program warrants repetition. In its entirety it could form a worthwhile part of many a music festival. Either or both the major works could also well be programmed alongside Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel – Into the Fire”, a seminal piece championed by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato which has, it is believed, not yet been performed in Australia. 

This concert can now be accessed on-line through Flinders Quartet’s digital offering FQ Digital.
An excellent source of further information about Camille Claudel is “Camille Claudel – A Life” by Odile Ayral-Clause.
More about Margaret Sutherland can be found from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Readers may also enjoy the insights from a recent article in the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate magazine.

Disclosure: Your correspondent has been a long-time supporter of Flinders Quartet and Ashlyn Tymms, in addition to commissioning (together with Mrs Oz) Melody Eötvös’ work through the Australian Cultural Fund.

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Music, Medicine and Memories: The Biography of a Bassist

Where inspired by the work of others, your correspondent from time to time will post a guest blog. The following, written by a family member about a family member, originally appeared in “Tempo”, the newsletter of the Friends of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and is reposted here with their permission.

Music, Medicine and Memories: The Biography of a Bassist

by Lucy Campbell

Music has always played an important role in Kathy Campbell’s life. Across countries, cities, and circumstances, she has always had an enthusiasm for singing, a self-described obsession with the recorder, and of course a penchant for the double bass.

When I speak to her one warm October evening in Darwin, accompanied by her inimitable German Shepherd, Razzle, Kathy shares a striking first memory of classical music, from São Paolo, Brazil. Kathy, aged just six or seven, was treated to her own private tour of the artwork adorning her family’s home, guided by her mother Irene, and set to the sounds of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Years later, as a teenager in Canada, she heard a recording of double bass virtuoso Gary Karr and thought it was just ‘the coolest sound’. Kathy’s godfather would one day take her to see Gary Karr perform live, from the middle of the front row of a Melbourne concert hall. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. 

Returning to Australia for her final years of school, Kathy took up jazz singing, joyfully practicing each day accompanied by a cassette recording. It was not until her second year studying medicine at Melbourne University that the double bass made a more tangible entrance. She was encouraged to take up the bass by two musical friends from college, Kate (who plays the viola) and Stephen (a cellist). Versatile, in vogue, and offering the best of both jazz and classical worlds, how could she say no?

All there was to do was break the news to her parents, who were in Frankfurt at the time. They might have rolled their eyes and asked ‘Why not the cello?’ but they were supportive and agreed to help find a her a bass. (Fortunately, Kathy tells me, they didn’t make a flute joke. If anyone does that, proverbial wisdom demands a donation to charity.)

So, the stage was set for a melding of music and medicine that continues to this day. All she needed was a teacher, found through a phone call Kathy now credits with changing her life. Ciro Vigilante, who was studying double bass at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the time, put her in touch with Rob Nairn, who could teach her over the coming summer holidays in Canberra.  

On a borrowed bass, lessons began, and Kathy’s aural repertoire expanded too as each week Rob would lend her a recording of another great bassist. While photographic evidence suggests otherwise, Kathy also recalls her father John saying that if she was going to learn double bass, it had to be with a German bow and it had to be standing up. ‘All the great bass players play with a German bow,’ he said. Today, Kathy still plays with a German bow, but has never been able to play standing up! 

The time to return to Melbourne came all too soon, together with the realisation that she didn’t have a bass there. Her friend Stephen, however, knew of an unused double bass in the storeroom at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. ‘Go and ask if you can borrow it,’ he said.

So, she did. Christopher Martin, the Director of Strings at the Conservatorium at the time told her, ‘You can borrow the bass, but you’ve got to come and play in the Con Orchestra.’ And she said, ‘I’ve only been learning for two months!’ Nonplussed, the Director just said to start with the first note of each bar and work up from there.

Kathy’s embrace into the world of ensemble music continued later that year, when her college friend Kate adapted a part of the Corelli Christmas concerto for Kathy – and wrote it out by hand – so she could play in the Janet Clarke Hall Christmas concert. 

A year into her double bass endeavours, Kathy moved out of college and found herself keen to join a community orchestra—but without a bass once more. Again, her college friend Stephen found one, this time at a local op shop. 

When Kathy graduated and moved to Darwin for her internship in 1992, it was with that op shop bass, her German Shepherd Jedda and her station wagon. The latter are particularly useful, I hear, proven to fit three double basses, three stools and three bassists at once! 

While Kathy navigated her internship at Royal Darwin Hospital, her registrar’s husband, a cellist, put her in touch with the illustrious Martin Jarvis. He invited her to join the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and she was at rehearsal the very next week.

As most memorable in her time with the DSO to date, Kathy highlights the tours. She recalls finding her bass case quite warm during a chilly tour to Mango Farm, then Kathy’s husband, Dan, chips in with a memory of her bass ‘getting smashed up on a plane trip.’ Dropped off the back of an aeroplane during a tour to Gove, the scroll was indeed knocked right off the top. Thankfully, there was a chap in Darwin who could fix such things, long-term DSO violinist, Ian Ament. 

In 2009, the DSO’s Masquerade Ball brought about a reunion, when Rob Nairn—who went on to teach at The Julliard School and is currently principal bassist of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra—featured, playing Botessini’s second double bass concerto.

In concert with her allegiance to the DSO, Kathy has also been a long-standing member of the Australian Doctors Orchestra, a fellowship of dual musicians and medical professionals who come together to bring a unique concert to a selected Australian city once a year. While the location often goes unremarked over a weekend spent entirely in rehearsal and then concert, one exception to this rule of recollection is, perhaps, the ADO’s first concert in Darwin in 2016. Co-convened by Kathy and fellow doctor and DSO member Cathy Applegate, the inaugural Darwin concert featured ten double basses! The gatherings also offer the chance to reunite with old friends, including Kate from college days.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to participate in a momentous musical moment, Kathy was thrilled when the Australian World Orchestra announced their premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s concerto for eight double basses, The Witching Hour. She bought a ticket to the concert and booked a flight to Sydney then and there. Two familiar figures even played on stage that night: Ciro Vigilante and Rob Nairn. 

With a hint of bemusement, Kathy also recalls having François Rabbath, the French double bass virtuoso, over for dinner one night, together with all the double bass players she could find in Darwin. 

In 2013, recovered as it was from its aviation-mediated misadventures, Kathy’s trusty op shop bass came up for replacement. The tale here begins with an auction bid by Kathy’s dad in Sydney. The bid won, presenting Kathy’s daughter with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit in the pit at the Sydney Opera house during a rehearsal and performance of Verdi’s Force of Destiny. Along the way, Kathy was introduced to Andrew Meisel, Associate Principal Double Bass in the Opera Australia Orchestra. He in turn introduced her to Thomas and George Martin Violin Makers. Plot twist? Not quite. They are, too, specialists in double bass, to which Kathy’s new bass, handcrafted in Oxford, UK and shipped right here to Darwin, remains a testament.

Today, Kathy cites playing music with friends as one of the greatest joys in life. Asked if any music particularly captures her appreciation, Tchaikovsky, Saint Saëns and Mendelssohn earn a mention, but it seems impossible to pick a favourite. One thing we know for sure: Christmas carols feature on the program ahead. 


COMMENT: Not wishing to offend a large proportion of the double bass community, your correspondent would like to make it clear his attitude as expressed in the article to the use of the French bow has radically altered since the opportunity was awarded to see and hear Edgar Meyer here in Sydney. Meyer is undoubtedly one of the greatest bassists. To each, their own!

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Stimulation for the Soul and the Intellect: Musica Viva’s 2022 Season

It has been a while since your correspondent reviewed a forthcoming season from Musica Viva. The program announced yesterday, the first full program developed by artistic director Paul Kildea certainly warrants attention. Previously Musica Viva referred to their mainstage touring program as “international”. Happily, this designation has disappeared, as has the old- fashioned cultural cringe where audiences were mesmerised solely by ensembles’ lack of Australian connection. Kildea, in his comments about how the 2022 program came together, was clear in pointing out that the only sensible approach in program development involves the incredible talent we have in Australia, be it musicians or composers (and indeed visual artists), and that we should recognise the value of interactions amongst them and their international peers.

The season is introduced in a charming and sometimes slightly irreverent video which encapsulates the delightful style of the whole 2022 opus. If this is a foretaste of Musica Viva concerts in the future under Artistic Director Paul Kildea then we are in for a stimulating, varied and enjoyable ride.

It will be fascinating to see the reactions of the more traditional MVA audience member to what is an amazing mix not only of Australia’s best but also some international high-fliers, both well known here and unknown. How’s this for a challenge: a violin concerto from Kurt Weil, arranged for violin (Kristian Winther) and saxophone quartet (Signum Saxophone Quartet); the incredible (some may suggest mad) cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima paired with mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, and variations on the Goldberg variations played by iconic Australian Paul Grabowski. Pianist Andrea Lam’s pairing to deliver the Goldberg Variations as a sort of theme for Grabowski’s later improvisations could well be a pianistic tour de force.  Even the great works to appear, such as Die Winterreise have been given a unique angle. Schubert’s immortal song cycle to twenty four poems of Wilhelm Mueller will be enhanced with video images from Australia’s master of the landscape, Fred Williams, to recognise its timeless relevance also to a wide brown land. We can anticipate an exploration of the human soul, enhanced by the masterful interpretations of the soul of country.

And yes, of course, female composers feature, both living and dead.

There is, naturally, a program featuring string quartet. This is Musica Viva, after all. Flinders Quartet and guitarist Karin Schaupp reunite for a program by composers only two of which will be familiar to most. No Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn or Schubert. Rather, a new work for the five musicians from Carl Vine and a salute to one popular composer, Boccherini, who gets a look in with only two movements of one of his popular guitar quintets, recorded in full some years ago by Flinders and Schaupp for those who may wish to enjoy a taste of the whole and anticipate the guitar virtuosity along with cellist Zoe Knighton’s skills with the castanets. There is a piano trio program too, perhaps the most conventional in terms of repertoire. The audience will enjoy either Dvorak or Brahms alongside a new commission from young Australian Matt Laing and a trio from Arno Babajanian. This latter your correspondent recalls hearing here in recent years but cannot quite put a time or place to it. The Z.E.N. Trio who will perform is perhaps the newest example of Musica Viva’s particular skill of picking up a young and upcoming ensemble at an early stage of what will be become an illustrious international career.

For the lovers of the Baroque, Van Diemen’s Band will present a program called borderlands. Is it the lot of Tasmanians to be sometimes overlooked? Not in this case. It is clear that Julia Friedersdorf, Van Diemen’s Artistic Director, has a meeting of minds with Kildea. While reflecting the amorphous borders of the Baroque era, there is no doubt some irony here as we reflect on our own, currently rigid, borders.

The whole is more like a year-long festival than a standardised chamber music season. Would that some of the major music presenters had as much courage. That the 2022 season is a significant change from the past is unquestioned. It is a credit to Paul Kildea and his team, along with their confidence that Musica Viva’s audiences will embrace the vision, and warm to the liaisons that the season will undoubtedly inspire down the track both domestically and internationally.

Check it all out at https://musicaviva.net.au


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In Praise of Obituaries and Reading from the Back

It may be that your correspondent is feeling his advancing years. Why even contemplate such a subject as obituaries? As an art form the obituary must necessarily be short, neither biography nor reflection on the decades in which the subject may have lived. Unlike a biography, an obituary must, in the briefest of forms, encapsulate the very essence of an individual: the personal, professional, spiritual elements which the life embodied, while eschewing the irrelevant. The skills involved might well be those of the short story writer who must dispense with the novel’s rambles, the character explorations, the myriad influences and relationship complexities, and focus solely on the who. Not just a precis, or worse an executive summary, but a life in miniature. Your correspondent knows the challenges having written a couple, the best of which, on scientist and scientific envoy W.E. (Bill) Purnell, appeared in Chemistry in Australia in November 2009. Another piece, about the late Ken Tribe which appeared on this blog in 2010 was more personal reflection tha true obituary.

There are special skills involved in writing miniatures. Composers wonder at the works of Webern: short in length but long in content and feeling. The Haiku compresses ideas in a rigorous way but does not constrain insight or feeling. Of course, the obiturist has more to play with than seventeen syllables, which is just as well since dealing with a broader spectrum. But the same principles apply. A personality, a life must be communicated in perhaps 1200 words, not a task for other than the most skilled wordsmith.

Along with the formal obituary, there are two other similar forms which depart somewhat from the ideal. These generally appear in the daily press and may owe some of their deficiencies to deadlines. The first is the simple recording of the death of a noteworthy individual. These usually read like a curriculum vitae. At the end of the article the reader knows what the deceased has done but knows nothing of the individual. The other is where the death embodies a wider story of how and why the deceased departed this life, and the individual is subsumed into the mystery or wonder of the narrative. These forms are perhaps mere journalism, lesser in the wordsmith’s eye than the true craft of the obituary. 

References to the times in which the subject lived and those with whom they dealt should only intrude if they add to the knowledge of the subject. Too often, and particularly in the journalistic obituary, the background story becomes the main event to the detriment of the reader’s eventual understanding of the individual.

Depending on your obsessions there can be numerous reasons for reading newspapers and magazines from the back. It may be sports news is your “thing” or perhaps a favoured columnist appears on the back page. The true obituary tends often to be at or near the back of the publication, perhaps the best example of which is The Economist magazine where the obituary always takes up the last page. Belying its location, the writing is invariable stylish, concise and insightful. You would expect that of The Economist, the writers for which are happy to let their work shine without attribution. No by-lines here, so the obituary writer or writers are unknown. Compare that with a recent short article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a deceased jurist. This required not one, but two named journalists to write a rather pedestrian obit. 

The last five months of The Economist have produced a fascinating selection of obituaries, ranging from the quaint and obscure to the great and the good: Evan Boland, Irish poet; Lily Lian, Parisian street chanteuse; Comrade Duch, a hated member of the Khmers Rouge; Larry Kramer, a AIDS campaigner; Julian Bream, guitarist and of course Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice. How’s this for variety? Some you may know, some not. But after reading their obituaries you will certainly know more about them than before, understand them better, and know more of the time and place in which they, and indeed we have lived. Such is the skill of the competent obiturist.

Your correspondent recommends, therefore, if you care for the modern social history of the world, you read from the back. The obituary page of The Economist is the best place to start.

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Burlesque Goes Mainstream


A couple of years ago a burlesque artist moved in next door. There goes the neighbourhood!

Being of a certain age, your correspondent may justifiably claim unreliability of memory, but there is a recollection of once attending, in Sydney’s King’s Cross, a joint called The Paradise Club, a stereotypical strip joint featuring knee-boots and nipple bonnets, high drink prices and tired jokes. Probably one of Abe Saffron’s locales. The entertainment was clearly directed at men. The same appeared to be the case in a couple of clubs in both Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district and West Berlin in the seventies when, accompanied now by Mrs Oz, a different sample of nightlife was entertained.

All the constraints of a conservative, family oriented middle age then intervened, so it was not until post-regular employment in the “noughties” that attendance at burlesque and cabaret shows was again occasionally on the agenda. The one name that stood out then and now as a remarkable producer and exponent of the art was Moira Finucane, a particularly savvy producer, whose work appealed for its social commentary and biting wit, along with good old-fashioned entertainment. It was respect for Moira Finucane, who many might say works in a rather arcane segment of the arts, which led your correspondent to seek to know more of the work of the recently arrived neighbour.

Well versed readers will understand when reference is made to that old G and S Policemen’s Song: “When the enterprising burglar’s not a burgling…” . It is true too of burlesque artist neighbours who, saddled with the pressures of wifedom, motherhood, home ownership, car and all the other elements of suburban life, give little away about professional life. But an early reference to writing for an “obscure New York publication” sparked the interest of this fellow wordsmith. A stage name, revealed later, led to opening up a fascinating world. That obscure publication turned out to be Burlesque Beat, a source of vast information on the burlesque scene around the world. The writing style might not get you a piece in The New Yorker but it’s fresh and honest. 21stcentury millennial style perhaps? And while the amazing life’s journey of our neighbour is one element of this world and can, in part, be accessed in that publication, it is the size and development of the art of burlesque which also attracted the interest of your correspondent. This is how Burlesque Beat’s Contributing Editor put it in a 2016 article:

“Burlesque went mainstream—it happened, folks. It’s everywhere now, with hundreds of festivals, schools popping up like mushrooms, scenes thriving in small towns everywhere. It’s exciting. But it didn’t go “mainstream” like some of us hoped it would—it became more common, and maybe lost some of its outlaw appeal.”

 That is not only true of the USA. In Australia there are competitions in all states except the Northern Territory, as well as a national title. There are schools all over. And even a museum. The shows may generally be found as part of fringe festivals or at smaller venues such as Sydney’s Red Rattler, The Old Fitz or The Factory Theatre. But they also form part of major festivals. Sydney Festival 2019 included a wonderful cross-cultural show “Shanghai Mimi” at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta produced by none other than Moira Finucane. What about Sydney Opera House?  The Sydney Symphony Orchestra put on “A Night at the Speakeasy” as part of their 2018 mainstage opera house programming. Burlesque with classical musicians? That’s mainstream. The sector knows it’s made it, even if Shanghai Mimi and A Night at the Speakeasy were rather light on Burlesque Beat’s “outlaw appeal”.

The better shows in recent years have developed significant social and political edge which probably has been a boon, not only for the audiences but also for producers looking to add some grunt to the plethora of hula hoops and aerialists. Along with social commentary the sector appears to be wrestling with many issues concerning other sectors of the arts: diversity, inclusion, cultural appropriation and so on. Check out this passionate blog post from 21stCentury Burlesque. Depending on your point of view this concern may be natural or perhaps surprising given the genesis of the artform in nineteenth century Britain where it was designed to poke fun, satirise and send up mainstream performance arts and the society around which they revolved, through comedy, song and dance presented by both women and men. Crossing the Atlantic in mid-century, burlesque often presented female producers and performers increasingly questioning the way in which women appeared, challenging their accepted status and Victorian constraints. Politically correct it was not.

No doubt driven in part by the radical changes happening at the time in the entertainment industry, burlesque suffered a downturn in the mid twentieth century, sliding into a sleazy, strip based culture directed at primarily male audiences. Happily, the 21stCentury resurgence of the form as noted by Burlesque Beat has reversed this trend. Neo-burlesque perhaps. It has taken a while for realization to strike your correspondent. Why did shows have such enthusiastic female audiences? The female whoops and shouts far out clamoured the male. Then, one night at the Red Rattler, at a benefit show for a dance school, it dawned. The genre now represents what it did back in the nineteenth century in terms of female empowerment. In a similar way to the growth of pole dancing clubs, shows and competitions, burlesque has become the place for women to express a powerful presence and their individual millennial selves.

This is all very well but has a minor downside for your correspondent: he now gets emails from Sheena Miss-Demeanour. Better not tell Mrs Oz. And by the way, the neighbourhood is doing just fine, thanks.










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Pay Day in Port Kembla

Over half a century ago your correspondent, then a student, worked for a time in the steel town of  Port Kembla. This vignette, which came to light recently during a clear-out of the family home in Melbourne, was penned at the time and originally appeared in “Cranks and Nuts” 1960, a publication of the Melbourne University Engineering Students Club.


The day shift draws to a close. Diesel hoots mingle in three-quarter tone harmony with boiler house sirens and the whine of overhead cranes. In the grit and smoky air a restlessness pervades the tired bodies. Boilermaker, rigger, staff man, all have their mind on a brown manila envelope. The works buses are more crowded than any other day yet the same number of men leave the plant. Perhaps they all feel bigger with notes at their hips.

On the footbridge across the railway a union organiser stands, his grimy coat flung carelessly over the handrail. A battered kitbag squats at his feet like a faithful dog. “Paid yer quarterly dues?” he asks of each bunch of men. They, unconcerned, pass him by. He has been there before, and will be there again.

Down by the canteen a huckster grinds out a tune on a barrel organ, his two-tone shirt shining like a gem among the coal-dirty buildings and be-whiskered faces. The faces toss loose coins onto a rug in front of the organ. They, rich for the day, feel a momentary thrill like a patron of the arts. Yet it is gone in a second and the faces turn to more important things: tobacco; newspapers. A fight it is too through the sweaty bodies to the tobacconist’s window, for today no man may ask his mate for the “makin’s”. Even the Vendolux is laying cigarette packets like a prize hen.

Along the main road two vans are parked, their rear doors open displaying a multicoloured array of cheap clothing. Where is it from? Nobody asks. Many finger the wares while a greasy faced man extols the virtues of this jacket or that pair of stovepipe trousers. Some buy. Necessities must be bought when the money is on hand.

There is another sight, one which is too common to bode well. Many wives come, squealing  children coupled like carriages behind, to meet their men. To remove temptation. To remove doubts and fears they have of a blustering sot, blundering through the house before collapsing asleep and missing the next day’s shift.

A steady stream heads for the pubs where rows of empty, foam etched schooners line the puddled counter, relics of those who came and are gone already. A few play pinball or darts, but most concentrate on the glass in hand. The night is yet to come. There is time enough for games.

The evening traffic swells to a capital city rush as the workers head for the clubs. The men hurry as if eager to lose to lady luck, joining the queues waiting a chance for the monotonous excitement of the press-pull, press-pull action on the poker machines. Then a drink, and again to the machines. The drug possesses the mind, daemonic and horrifying till the last florin is gone.

All the joints are open. The proprietors know that tonight business will be good. And so it is, till ten o’clock when the stream is homewards, gutterwards, while the stench of beer breath fills the air, the sickly thought of tomorrow turns the mind and the stomach turns itself.

It’s a frightening thought, almost unbelievable: a fortnight’s wages blown in a night. But proof enough is the affluent ostentatiousness of the clubs, and the rings on the fat victuallers’ fingers. There is money in steel. It will be the same in a fortnight.



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Orpheus, Presented by Forest Collective


Photo by Kate Baker

It may come as a surprise to the alert members of this blog’s readership that your curmudgeonly correspondent has even heard of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival, let alone gone to a festival performance. The festival, which has been growing in size and stature since 2009 is a celebration of LGBTIQ culture held annually in Melbourne. Last night it offered two classical music offerings. “Homophonic”, now in its eighth year, celebrates the works of queer composers. This year the works ranged from Thomas Ades to Nico Muhly with a raft of young Australian talent included both as composers and performers. The second offering was “Orpheus”, a new look at the famous Greek myth, created by Evan Lawson and his Forest Collective at the Abbotsford Convent. This blog first reviewed a Forest Collective performance, “Shared Lines” back in 2013. Since then Lawson and his group have continued, with obvious dedication and commitment, to present innovative and interesting, relevant, programming.

Orpheus, billed as an opera, might better be called a danced oratorio. Each of the three characters has two creators, one a singer and the other dancer, backed by a collective of musicians ranging from harp to bass flute. To those who might question why Orpheus needs another retelling, Lawson explains: “Since the Victorian era many ancient  Greek myths have been hijacked and altered to have any reference to same-sex relationships or gender fluidity removed.” “I was fascinated to find about [Orpheus’] pederasty relationship with fellow argonaut Calaïs. It provided… a fascinating…love triangle to explore on stage.” Lawson also wanted to draw a new perspective of Eurydice, presenting her challenges and responses more strongly than her more common presentation as just a love object.

Lawson, who also wrote the music, drew on texts from three sources for the work of just over an hour: libretti from Ranieri de Calzabigi and Alessandro Striggio and words from Phemocles as well as Shakespeare. The text was sparse however, and often reinforced by non-flexible vocables to strong emotional effect, while many phrases were repeated as is common in baroque opera.

Opening with ethereal sounds from flute and bowed harp, three singers evoke the sea with an Ancient Greek hymn. The work then falls into four distinct parts followed by a brief epilogue. First is a musical, and then danced, dialogue between Orpheus and Calaïs on board The Argo. Dancers Ashley Dougan and Luke Fryer presented a languorous if somewhat stylised duo which seemed more dalliance than intense relationship. The Siren’s song is depicted by complex harmonies across the ensemble. In the second part Orpheus is joined by Eurydice, danced most effectively by Piaera Lauritz, both in duo and solo leading up to her death which was ominously followed by a quiet rumble of thunder, perhaps foretelling the further trials to come. The dance is combined with some fine singing from her alter ego, presented by mezzo soprano Kate Bright who moves around the stage from time to time giving her the most involved parts amongst the singers. At one touching moment Eurydice comes up behind her singing self and cups her hands in front of Bright’s mouth, modifying the sound to give ethereal effect.

Part three involved Orpheus in a long solo dance, first quiet, developing his remorse and confusion, then becoming more intense and agitated before Eurydice returns to the dance, perhaps in Orpheus’ imagination.

Part four then develops Orpheus’ despair, having lost both his loves, with an elegant trio of dancers, again perhaps in the imagination of Orpheus, at times dancing in unison, in line, reflecting the sad tension of failed relationships.

The epilogue relies on Shakespeare to conclude the tragedy:

“In sweet music is such art

Killing care and grief of heart

Fall asleep, or hearing, die.”

The spare production leaves a great deal to the imagination of the audience. Many of the complexities of the story are related by dancers rather than the sung text. This is a production where a second helping would undoubtedly bring great benefit. The lack of lighting effects also detracted from the overall atmosphere. No doubt cost and constraints of the venue played a role here.

The performance will be repeated on Sunday 3 February at 3.30pm and 7.30pm at Abbotsford Convent.






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Woodwinds, Wine and Wind: Huntington Estate Music Festival 2018

HE FEstival 2018The challenge of reviewing a music festival is daunting: so many concerts, so many players. And then of course there’s so much wine and fellowship – not conducive to reasoned debate and scholarship. But then your correspondent has always left the learned discussions to the experts. Here you will get the personal reflections of a dilettante. FWIW, if you will.

Last Sunday saw the end of the 29thHuntington Estate Music Festival. Its illustrious past embraces the Australian Chamber Orchestra years, and then the Musica Viva era. Different in so many ways but one thing has remained constant: an intensely personal touch which leaves the audiences and musicians with a feeling of friendship and family which is particularly special. This year was no different.

The cold winds tried to cool the spirits this year. But musical and personal communication warmed the Barrel Room such that mere climate became irrelevant. Don’t stop the music!.

There were two particular threads to this year’s festival: a focus on English composers of the 20thcentury (Britten, Bliss, Bridge, Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Grainger) and a concentration on woodwinds, with clarinettist Sebastian Manz and oboist Juliana Koch performing a wide range of works. Of the two, Sebastian Manz was the performer with personality and strength who drove the high levels of excitement which we have come to expect from good music festivals. This is not to demean Koch, a fine oboist who performed with precision and care. Just she was less exciting a performer. Australian composers, both living and dead also received attention with Carl Vine allowing himself a brace of his own works, along with Roger Smalley, Nigel Westlake and Stuart Greenbaum. If the purists prefer to claim internationalist Percy Grainger as Australian, then he can be included here too. There is more on the two young Australian composers later. One of them is female which will hardly allay the concerns of those who demand more women composers in their programming. There were no other female composers featured during the festival.  I suspect the happy audience didn’t notice.

The highlights of the festival were too numerous to detail, but some warrant particular mention. Amongst the necessary “tops of the pops” standards were the Weber Clarinet Quintet where Manz was joined by the Goldner String Quartet. While always a crowd pleaser, in this work Manz delivered a revelatory reading which owed much to his skills communicating new clarinet sounds and sensibilities to a, sometimes, jaded audience. (Did we really need “Death and the Maiden” again?) It was as if hearing Weber’s work for the first time. Manz, who as a young student was strongly influenced by Benny Goodman’s melding of classical and jazz, has clearly embraced the jazz idiom and incorporates it into his own, personal, interpretations. Then, later, it was educational to hear his Mozart Clarinet Quintet, again with the Goldner. It was a clear and precise rendition, without mannerisms, a performance which could not offend the most puritanical of musicologist. At most Manz allowed himself a couple of finely crafted ornaments in the slow movement. This was pure joy. Was the influence of Sabine Meyer on show? Perhaps. She taught Manz free for a year in his formative youth.

It would be remiss not to mention the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and String Orchestra by Alexandre Tansman, a Polish composer who lived mostly in Paris in the first half of the 20th Century. In this work a chamber orchestra of strings from the Australian National Academy of Music joined with Manz and Koch to deliver a resounding and joyful performance which displayed the soloists’ skill in both duet and conversation, as well as wild delight. Festival music at its best.

Artistic Director Carl Vine, whose final Huntington Festival will be in November 2019, programmed two premieres by young Australian composers. The first, “Interwoven”, a string quartet by Elizabeth Younan was a moving work in which differing musical ideas are interwoven to form a complex whole. The composer says the work finishes with a “rush of joy and hope”. The Orava Quartet delivered this with convincing style.

The second premiere, a string octet by Harry Sdraulig, was equally impressive. While an integrated work, there were elements of conversation, or interaction, between the two quartets which suggested to your correspondent that the players should better have been opposed rather than integrated as is the common practice for the better known octets. The work has some beautiful lyrical elements and wonderful moments for viola. It is a fine addition to the limited string octet repertoire, although not quite on the scale of those which are often selected as the big work to end events. It is salutary to observe that Musica Viva has been instrumental in encouraging the composition of at least three string octets, the others being from Jakub Jankowski and Nicole Murphy.

Soprano Taryn Fiebig played an important role at the festival. Her Schumann “Liederkreis” Op 39 was quite delightful, although could have been even better had her diction carried the German text through the hall. A German text alongside the English translation would have helped the audience. Similarly, the beautiful concept of Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs”, based on snippets written by medieval monks and nuns in the margins of religious manuscripts, would have been greatly enhanced had the audience been provided a text to illuminate their enjoyment. In the event a fine work was reduced to indifference. Taryn Fiebig’s unprogrammed intervention in which she accompanied herself on cello was also less than successful. She rendered three arias which lacked form and style, works which she clearly knew well, but failed to embrace while having to play her own accompaniment. Perhaps had she selected works written specifically for singing cellist this segment may have worked better (Gramata Cellam from Peteris Vasks, or Uluru Song from Martin Wesley-Smith come to mind).

Pianists were in abundance of course with Jayson Gillham, Amir Farid and Musica Viva Future Maker Aura Go all contributing to the overall program. Particularly noteworthy were Gillham’s performances of works by Stuart Greenbaum and Percy Grainger. Pure enjoyment. Amir Farid’s playing of the complex piano part in the Frank Bridge Piano Quintet, along with the Orava Quartet, was impeccable with fine articulation and sensitivity. He is a wonderful chamber musician.

There was of course much more. A musical feast accompanied by a feast of food and wine, delivered by a family with whom, over the years, many attendees have formed a fine bond. It is worth the drive to Mudgee. And next year will be the thirtieth anniversary, Carl Vine’s last as Artistic Director. Perhaps a good reason to come along?


Note: Artists for 2019 include: The Australian String Quartet; Arcadia Winds; Ian Munro; Goldner String Quartet and a world-famous violist. Further details to be announced.



Posted in Chamber Music, Goldner String Quartet, Musica Viva | 1 Comment

In Remembrance of Richard Gill

While your correspondent did not know Richard Gill personally, the character of the man was such that many who did not nevertheless felt they did. His influence was all embracing; the intensity of his message unavoidable. So, like so many others,I feel the urge to pay some sort of tribute. Back in 2015 I penned a piece on music education prompted by two inspirational people. Richard Gill gave the Peggy Glanville Hicks Oration that year. I repeat my blog post in his memory. While my words may not sufficiently reflect the stature of the man, those of many others, in the last few days, have made up for my inadequacy. May his legacy grow.

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Major Performing Arts Sector Under Review

The Framework for the Major Performing Arts sector in Australia is being reviewed, driven by the Federal  Department of Communications and the Arts.

Your correspondent finds it interesting that of the MPA companies that regularly send emails, marketing material and the like, only one has seen fit to alert their stakeholders to the survey and suggest participation. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra sees broad input into the considerations as important. (Stop the presses: Belvoir have just also put out the call!) Who would not agree? The attacks on the MPA sector by the small end of town back in the Senator Brandis days might suggest that an avalanche of submissions will be received bad mouthing the larger players. There was something of a diatribe from Scott Rankin from Big hART carried in ArtsHub earlier this month but that appears to be about it. Perhaps all the others are keeping their views to themselves and just submitting responses quietly. It seems there have been some 2000 submissions so far so perhaps there is more going on. A quick and unscientific Twitter search suggests the only organisation calling for submissions other than state arts departments is BlakArt. Good for them.

From the antediluvian perspective of your ageing correspondent there is a need to maintain something like the MPA framework. There is a distinct role for the large companies, and some justification for separating the funding from the small, medium and independent sector. It is the natural order of things that the smaller players will be the leaders in innovation and the contemporary. No one wants to see Sydney Dance Company do “The Nutcracker” or Chamber Made do “Aida”. But these sorts works do need to be staged from time to time as part of a vibrant arts scene. Is there need for some cultural change on the part of MPA companies? Almost certainly yes. But give them credit where it may be due. You never hear mention from the complainers of the likes of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Metropolis” series. It’s been going for twenty years. And while admittedly part of a festival, the South Australian Opera did stage Brett Dean’s “Hamlet”. Over the years your correspondent has enjoyed some remarkable events, all at the hands of the majors: Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” at the Sydney Opera House, “Nixon in China” in Adelaide, “Madelaine Lee” by Opera Australia (or was it the Australian Opera then), “Bliss” courtesy of OA, and a whole raft of good times courtesy of Musica Viva. Sydney Theatre Company did “Secret River” and the Sydney Dance Company “Nude Live”. Perhaps these are just the unspecified half dozen good guys referred to by Scott Rankin in his ArtsHub piece. But it is the experience of a single participant, so must therefore be limited.

Lest readers get the impression nothing needs to change, far from it. But the best approach is to strengthen the best parts of the majors, encourage culture change and perhaps introduce some form of peer review. Not for funding allocation, but to ensure the prime criteria for being an MPA company are being fulfilled. Limit the tenure of artistic directors? Perhaps, but then there are the likes of Carl Vine at Musica Viva. There will always be exceptions.

For what it is worth, quoted below is your correspondent’s final comments as submitted in the final survey box. There was scope for 4000 words. Here are just a few hundred. Let the other pontificators quote the malleable statistics and write learned essays. But whether you agree or disagree, you should have your say. the link is here.

“It has been disturbing in recent years to see how the arts practitioners have turned against themselves with the small to medium sector aggressively attacking the MPA companies for perceived (and sometimes real) failings. This is usually prompted by dissatisfaction about funding and a belief that the MPA sector sucks an unjustified proportion of funding from the available pool. The MPA sector needs to do a better job of promoting the work it does alongside their conventional mainstage activities which tend to receive greatest criticism. In addition the MPA sector needs to strengthen its collective voice in advocating for the broader arts sector, for better funding for all, for the development of sound policy and the development or creation of institutions and infrastructure which benefit the sector as a whole. While the big end of town will always receive much criticism, individual MPA companies can do a much better job of explaining their broadly based activities. And of course some can do a better job of programming the under-represented (women, indigenous, Australian etc.) But that notwithstanding, the sector should not succumb to the introduction of quotas or the like which would potentially lead to compromises of various sorts. It should be part of their culture.

There also needs to be a clearer framework for evaluating whether MPA companies are fulfilling their roles. Evaluation should be regular, if not on-going. It should not have to wait for a major review such as that of opera companies which was the catalyst for change at, for example, South Australian Opera. Perhaps some sort of regular peer review could be introduced to assess whether MPA companies are operating according to the funding priorities. Aside from ensuring companies were encouraged to address shortcomings early, this would also help to answer the often claimed fault that funding for MPA companies is not peer reviewed.”

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