The visit to Sydney by one of the world’s top orchestras is not a common event. When the Berlin Philharmonic’s visit was announced I was in two minds. My first experience of a visit by a top orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic in the 1950s. I was young and the gap between the quality of Australian orchestras and the world’s best was large. The experience, in the Melbourne Town Hall, was intense and has stayed with me all my life. So, I wondered, now that the gap has narrowed, could I be so moved? Three concerts later I can say yes, perhaps not as intensely as my remembered Melbourne experience, but youth has emotional benefits which are sadly attenuated with time. Others, more qualified, have reported on the performances. Indeed, one not generally given to hyperbole, critic Peter McCallum, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘…the concerts rank among the finest ever heard in the [Sydney] Opera House.’
It remains to your correspondent but to report on two incidental and personal reflections, both of which will mark my recollections of this visit in much the same way as the Czech Philharmonic memories did, from a standpoint perhaps not so far removed from those last century passions of youth.
Last Saturday, in the company of Mrs Oz, and having received a rare invitation to an Opera House event, I had the pleasure to meet Berlin Phil cellist Rachel Helleur. This was a chance, after-concert party meeting at which I button-holed her while she stood briefly with mouth and hands full of well earned nibblies and a glass of bubbly tucked under her arm. She handled my approach with aplomb. (She was the first of a number of musicians with whom we spoke. They were all charming and displayed a collegiality which reflected their style of playing. Forget your German stereotypes, of which we have met a few in our time, having lived in Berlin in the 1970s.)
Then today, browsing the Internet Cello Society website, I came across this comment from a 2001 RNCM Cello Festival by the respected commentator Tim Janof:
“The next morning started off with a fantastic master class with Frans Helmerson. He was most impressive in his ability to help students who already play their pieces breathtakingly well to reach an even deeper level. Of particular note was a young British girl, Rachel Helleur, a student of Colin Carr, who played a sizzling Dvorak Concerto. Not only was her technique impeccable, but her straight-ahead performance was so thrilling that I forgot to breathe at times. She demonstrated that you don’t have to mangle a piece with overly mannered playing and tempo distortions to create an absolutely riveting performance. Keep your eye out for her.”
To their credit, the Berlin Phil did. She is only the second female cellist to grace their ranks. Good on her. Perhaps one day she may grace the Adelaide International Cello Festival.
Only twice before have I sensed an intense collegial feeling between organization members and an individual. I was looking for neither, but they just transpired. The first was between the Australian Ballet and their then Board Chairman the late Sir Robert Southey. I did not know him, nor except from the occasional performance did I have any connection with the ballet company. But there it was, in the evening air at a Metropolitan Opera dinner in New York after a tour performance. The second was the remarkable esteem in which the late Ken Tribe was held by his musical constituency. Both disparate relationships, but yet the same.
And now Brett Dean. So he played viola with the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1990s. A credit, to be sure, particularly at that time as an antipodean. But lots of people play well. There are, however, many mansions in a one hundred and twenty strong orchestral house. According to Dean’s wife, Heather Betts, he, over the years, gained much respect as a quiet contributor to discussions about orchestral matters. Remarkable for a foreigner. Ten years after leaving the orchestra one might have expected the ties would have become tenuous. What happened on this tour? First, Sir Simon Rattle decided the only work by a living composer to be performed would be Dean’s. Likewise the artistically independent ‘12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic’ decided they would present Dean’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’, (not one of Dean’s most approachable works) as his contribution to their performances. But perhaps most, the connection was displayed through the words of Rattle in the course of the first program, and similarly from principle cellist Ludwig Quandt before presenting ‘Twelve Angry Men’. In both cases the words conveyed much more than your usual, formal, introduction of the ‘contemporary piece’ in the presence of the composer. The love and respect was palpable. Be this as it may, the most wonderful of all was to look down on Saturday night to see a familiar face to the rear of the viola section. Was it really Brett Dean playing along? That was surely an honour granted only to the truly beloved.