Vadim Gluzman found a new use for his epaulette.
SSO Opera House concert 29 June 2016
Staying in familiar territory, but with more ear-challenges than the last APT Master Series concert, the SSO loaded up its heavy artillery for a resoundingly satisfying performance last night.
Although orchestral concerts do not follow operatic dictates, it is always pleasing to begin with an overture to settle the head. There are plenty to choose from, but you’d think drawing from the output of Dmitri Shostakovich would bring forth something atonal. Not so. His Festive Overture Op 96 may well have come from the previous century, beginning as it does with a ripping fanfare from the brass, followed by jaunty orchestral writing that invites cinegraphic scenery, unbidden, into the imagination.
Dmitri apparently tossed the overture off one afternoon in 1954 when the Bolshoi Theatre found that nobody had remembered to organise a striking opener for its 37th anniversary concert of the October Revolution.The story goes that as the composer finished each page of the overture a courier grabbed it and rushed it off to the waiting publisher. With such haste required, Shostakovich probably didn’t have time to get too inventive with it, although the same tonal simplicity can be found in the delicious slow movement of his second piano concerto.
The SSO weighed into the overture with power-packed enthusiasm while providing a warm-up for Korean conductor, Shiyeon Sung. One of a tiny number of women conductors on the international circuit, Sung took charge of the orchestra with precise direction and plenty of passion. By the time the concert was over I had ranked her one of the most effective guest conductors we’ve seen in a long time. Her skill was underlined by the orchestra’s reaction at the end of the night when she motioned for them to rise to receive applause but they remained seated to applaud her instead.
The overture done, it was time for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Russian born soloist, Vadim Gluzman. Although the Tchaikovsky is now one of the most popular violin concertos it had a difficult birth. Assisted in its creation by Tchaikovsky’s virtuoso violinist lover, Joseph Kotek, the two split up when Kotek refused to premier it. It was considered, at the time, just too difficult to play. With such a reputation, the concerto languished unperformed for three years until another virtuoso violinist, Adolph Brodsky, took up the cudgels and played it at a Vienna Philharmonic concert in 1881. Even then it got a bagging from the critics. But slowly, as more soloists took their brave pills and performed it, the concerto rose through the popularity ranks to where it is today.
That said, it still takes a mighty fiddler to conquer its technical difficulties, which is where Gluzman entered the fray at the Sydney Opera House – and nailed it.
More than simply playing notes, Gluzman won hearts with sensitive phrasing and a willingness to turn down the volume wick where a lesser performer might fear not being heard. Tall and imposing, Gluzman’s performance was enhanced by his stage presence and body movements as he totally immersed himself in the music. This was an exciting performance with a breathtaking first movement cadenza along with death-defying speed and accuracy in the third.
A huge orchestra then assembled for the sprawling, five movements of the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. The Opera House stage was crammed with players and instruments for one of the most important musical creations of the 19th Century. In addition to a full compliment of strings, there were two harps, two sets of timpani, church bells, four bassoons, four horns, three trombones and two tubas (known officially as ophicleides) one of which was played by a woman – which is unusual.
This massive collection of instruments made a monumental sound when they played together. The percussion alone was capable of starting an avalanche, to say nothing of the raw power of the brass and string basses or the screeching of the E flat clarinet.
The Symphony’s five movements are built around the story of (to use the composer’s program notes) “a young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with a vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair.” The dose doesn’t kill him but puts him into a stupor in which he has extraordinary visions. While Berlioz didn’t claim to be the young musician in question, he could relate to the passions of unrequited love from bitter personal experience.
Not only did Berlioz write 50 minutes of kaleidoscopic music, but he also supplied a program guide to be given to all future audiences so that they’d understand the story behind the music. The SSO concert program contained the guide – if somewhat tongue in cheek.
I was prepared for an enjoyable SSO concert but got far more than I expected. There were many surprises, all of them good.
Not many people know that I have a twin brother, Angus. When I came to Australia, Angus stayed behind in Aberdeen. He was a professional gardener, famous among other things for growing the first black Lilly, which is now very popular for funeral services.
Angus is about to retire, believing that he has been too long tending plants, especially the Scottish raspberry which takes up most of his farm.
Angus says he will visit Australia once he has found a buyer for the farm. He sent me this recent clip of himself. When he gets here, I’ll be looking for a good dermatologist to fix up his face. The eyes need a bit of work too.
I was at my tennis club a few weeks ago, having a late afternoon drink with other exhausted players when the subject of travel came up. I have observed that when you clearly have one foot in the grave you are expected to tourist-travel until you run out of money, or are unable to walk, or can’t escape from the nursing home.
Our after-game discussions solve the problems of the world every week. The tennis club members could run the country if only the country would let them. And so into this boisterous, good natured and noisy conversation I quietly announced that we were plannng to travel. Ah, I had introduced a favourite subject. The volume of the babble rose. They all wanted to tell travellers’ tales. Through the uproar somebody asked me where we intended to go.
“New York,” I replied above the din. That spawned nods of approval. “You see, I’ve never been to New York,” I continued.
The clubhouse immediately fell silent. Everybody was staring at me. The president, who was sitting at the next table, stood up.
“What did you say?,” he snarled, ashen faced.
“I said, I’d never been to New York.”
“Lying bastard!” somebody called from the bar. “Do you expect us to believe that you’ve never been to New York?”
“It’s true,” I said, “but I had a stopover in Los Angeles once. And I’ve been to Melbourne several times.”
“That’s not New York!” the spritely captain of the club screamed, and ran outside to shout at the players still on the courts, “Fraser McEwing has never been to New York!”
The president, still standing, picked up a racket and pointed it at me. “Pack your bag and get out of here, right now,” he warned through gritted teeth, “before I beat you to death.”
After the tennis club episode, I decided to have a quiet Saturday night at home. I was in my tartan flannelette pyjamas fixing myself a stiff Southern Comfort when powerful blows shook the front door. I opened it to find four policemen on my porch, two with pistols drawn.
“Are you Fraser McEwing?” the front one with the headlight eyes asked.
“I am,” I said.
“Good, then I am arresting you.”
“I am surprised you don’t know, sir. You are being charged with never having been to New York.”
“You’re surely not taking me away with you.”
“Yes sir, we are, to a cell, immediately. Hold out your hands so I can cuff you.”
“But I’m in my pyjamas.”
“You should have thought of that before.”
I could feel my wife behind me. “What’s going on?” she cried.
“I’m being arrested.”
“I can see that, but what for?”
“For admitting I’d never been to New York.”
She stepped back, her hand to her mouth. “You idiot,” she hissed between her fingers, “you never tell anybody that. It’s a very serious hate crime.”
The hearing was over pretty quickly. I refused Her Majesty’s offer of a barrister and threw myself on the mercy of the court. I thought about pretending that I had once been to New York but I didn’t have a passport stamp, or unused traveller’s cheques or a Big Apple tee shirt as proof. I would have had perjury added to my crime, so I decided to shut up and take my punishment.
The judge gave me five years, commuted to six months community service in a travel agency on the proviso that I visited New York within one year and one day of the sentence.
We’ve booked for next April.
SSO Opera House concert 22 May 2016
It doesn’t take much imagination to look over the aging sea of regular Sydney Opera House orchestral audiences to know that in 20 years from now the tide could have gone out – never to come back in.That’s why any attempt to encourage children’s interest in classical music in general and the Sydney Symphony in particular are to be applauded. I took my eleven-year-old grandson to a concert last Sunday called The Composer is Dead, in which actor/comedian Frank Woodley took on the dual roles of narrator and inspector in a musical whodunit. The orchestra played music written and arranged by American composer Nathaniel Stookey with words by Lemony Snicket.
Woodley was a convincing and hilarious inspector as he searched among the various orchestral groups looking for the villain, exposing the individual instrumental sounds as he did so. Regular assistant conductor of the SSO, the youthful Toby Thatcher, conducted the performance and entered into the banter as the search progressed. Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Twelve Overture was used in the score, with the handclaps of the audience taking the usual role of the cannons.
In the end, the conductor was found to have murdered the composer, evidenced by the number of dead composers that have gone through his hands. But there was redemption too, when it was acknowledged that conductors and orchestras brought them constantly, if fleetingly, back to life by performing their works.
In addition to the hour long show in the concert hall, members of the orchestra were stationed in the northern foyer of the Opera House to demonstrate various instruments. The horn player showed one of his prize possessions, an old trumpet which he’d purchased on EBay for five dollars. I think that impressed my grandson even more than the sound it could make.
The concert drew a well-supported house, with plenty of kids, many of whom, like my grandson, had never previously heard a top class symphony orchestra play. One performance won’t turn them all into future concertgoers of course, but at least the grain of sand is now in the oyster.
Here’s the solution to the Eiffel Tower puzzle from Adam Exx Leviticus. You might remember that the question was:
The Eiffel Tower is 300 metres high. Let’s pretend that you could place it in a totally flat, featureless landscape and that you are standing five hundred metres away looking at it. Suddenly it shrinks to a third its size, so that it is now 100 metres high. Under what conditions would you not be able to tell that it had shrunk?
The answer is you wouldn’t know it had shrunk if you had shrunk by the same amount at the same time.
Adam encounters this in Leviticus. We relate the size of our universe to the size of our bodies. If our bodies are small enough, then our universe could fit into a matchbox. It happened!
Read all about it in the Adam Exx trilogy