Saturday, March 28, 2009


Busy Russian at the helm

Asked whether she preferred drama on radio or television, the lady opted for radio. Why? “Because the scenery is better.” Which has a sort of bearing on the question whether opera is better in the opera house or the concert hall. When you consider the disease that besets the majority of opera productions these days when ‘concept productions’ are so prevalent, and when ignorant and unmusical producers are so keen to put their egotistic stamp on their efforts, we can be thankful for concert performances of opera that allow the listener to hear the music and imagine the action.

Of course, a good production is the better of the two options: one that has respect for the opera, one that shows imagination in tune with the work. These thoughts came to mind attending on March 12 a performance of the third act of Parsifal. The London Symphony Orchestra was directed by that busy Russian, Valery Gergiev, the Dapertutto of the conducting world. He is not renowned for his direction of Wagner but although I have heard more inspiring performances this was a clear one, impassioned and technically secure, the players straining at the leash to give of their best. There was a fine sonority to be heard, the strings giving a luxurious sheen to their sound was they bore down on their G Saite (G strings).

The singing of Amfortas and Gurnemanz could scarcely have been bettered: the Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin tugged at our heartstrings and the Dutchman Robert Holl was a superb Gurnemanz, sympathetic and with a voice as huge as a battleship. The single line that Wagner allotted to Kundry in this act was sung by a member of the LS Chorus. Chorus excellent.

Curious how Debussy and Nietzsche both doted on Wagner, then reneged and became as anti-Wagner as Stravinsky was all the time.

The Parsifal, Russian Sergey Semishkov lacked a true Heldentenor ring but sang his part intelligently (he looked curiously like photographs of an unsmiling Francis Bacon); figuratively I thought of his entrance, immersed in black armour, complete with vizier – as a sort of holy Ned Kelly. I also remembered Ernest Newman quoting Wagner’s comment on contemporary criticism that the text was blasphemous: “the idea of Christ being a tenor … phew!”

Friday, March 20, 2009


The capital of Victoria has a new music room, a large recital room seating a thousand, no proscenium, just a stage abutting the first row of the audience. All wood: walls, ceiling, floor, even the chair backs. The walls seem to flow, with a two inch indentation looking somewhat like diagrams of ocean charts. A leaflet tells us what to savour – a big bass response. True, a bit too big, supporting horns come at us overbearing. Our old friend Bill Lyne, who ran London’s Wigmore Hall for so long with good taste and success, is quoted as saying; The Elizabeth Murdoch Hall will inspire artists to give their best. Who is Elizabeth Murdoch? the mother of Rupert (but) a much loved lady in these parts, the opening of her hall coincided with her 100th birthday in late January.

In passing: although many are convinced that wood produces the best acoustic, note that our perfect chamber music venue in London, the Wigmore Hall, is not all wood but mostly plaster, combined with wood and marble. My ears tell me that this new Melbourne Hall needs quite a bit of tweeting before it meets the claims made for it. The sound is resonant to the point of crudity, almost bathroom, that is from the circle and from the back stalls, where I sat for two concerts. Only from the third row of the stalls, where I sat for the third concert, did I get a good sound, where the sound flowed naturally. Not only was the bass response too loud but also there seemed to be a favoured octave: A above middle C upwards to top A in the treble clef. Sometimes string sound disappeared.

The programmes that I went to, February 6 -13 were mixed, sometimes orchestral first half, chamber music after the interval. First night we had the Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music but the beautiful score did not jell in performance, despite good singing from local soloists (though the “Elsie Suddaby” soprano fluffed her two climactic top notes). And the final scene of Don Giovanni was not properly coherent and in the Trout Quintet Schubert’s winning music winningly played by Piers Lane with the Goldner Quartet, the string sound often faded away. Another evening the excellent no-vibrato-period-instrumented-Brandenburg Orchestra in toothsome Mozart movements (the slow ones from the Clarinet Concerto and the Elvira Madigan C Major Piano Concerto K. 467) there were the same deficiencies. Only the crystal clear stratospheric Queen of the Night was satisfactory, wonderfully sung by American soprano, Cynthia Siedel (look out for her, she’s the tops). Sitting close to the stage came enchantment in sound and performance: Gidon Kremer and his Baltic Ensemble in a programme called After Bach Adagio and Fugue/Mozart followed by the Bach Chaconne.

At 62 Kremer is still the mature master; knees bent, rather horse-faced (handsome horse mind you) and no kow-towing, he is superior in many respects to the amazing Kennedy, Mutter, Perlman and the gorgeous young girlies. Gubaidolina’s Improvisations on a Bach motive for string quartet were diverting and so were some choice Piazolla numbers. Three of Bach’s Inventions were magically played on a vibraphone by Istvan Petenko. The encore, played by all hands, ragged Eleanor Rigby to rousing effect.

So …. if in Melbourne’s new recital room, try and sit almost on the performers’ laps, or else wait for further tweetings.

Coda: I also attended one late night recital in the adjacent small Salon, a programme given by superb flautist Geoffrey Collins with old friend Roger Woodward, still in the fine fettle, piano bashing as is his wont and as required too often by avant garde composers. No doubt the performers were scrupulously accurate in works by Ann Boyd, Takemitsu and Richard Meale. Not my tasse de thé, to my ears more like stale ship’s biscuits; and really! fluting into the strings of the piano, isn’t that old hat by now?

Audiences: none of these events was more than two-thirds full.


Sonya Orchard, Harper-Collins

The Virtuoso is a remarkable book by a young Australian musician turned novelist – rave reviews before and since the launch last month in Melbourne and Sydney. The unusual format is a sort of biography within a fiction, about a young boy student who falls in love with Noël Mewton-Wood a gifted Melbourner who debuted with Beecham, had a good career, made over a dozen first-class records of concertos, played at Proms, Wigmore Hall and Aldeburgh, great friend of Tippett, Britten and was part of the London Musical scene. He was a depressive and tragically, committed suicide in 1953, aged only 31. The author’s name is Sonia Orchard and she lives in Melbourne with her husband James and their two baby daughters.

Why did Noël commit suicide? His lover-partner, Bill, non-musician, sometime British Council rep in Germany, died of a ruptured appendix and Noël felt guilty. Also he considered, mistakenly, that his career was in decline. He was a remarkable musician with a sure technique, rather in the Clifford Curzon mould, although with more leanings towards contemporary music. Lately critics have praised the recent two-set Decca CDs of his recordings of concertos; Beethoven 4, Tchaikovsky 2, the Shostakovich with trumpet, and Schumann’s solo Kinderszenen, etc. Later this year his complete oeuvre will be issued by Decca, including Tchaikovsky 1, Chopin1, Bliss etc. The slow movement of the Chopin is the best version I know and the Bliss equals Solomon’s. Noël was at his best in the recording studio. He recorded the Busoni on EMI with Beecham conducting. It was with Beecham that he made his debut in London and the old conductor conceded at rehearsal that Noël was right when the cherubic seventeen year old corrected him; “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” he responded.

The novel story is told by an I, a young male student pianist in love with Noël who has an affair with him. Orchard writes graphically, flowingly, poetically at times and evokes quite remarkably the London musical scene. She tells a good yarn, making many interesting musical points on the way. I think, in fact I am sure, that even those who don’t know his name, will find it a book to cherish and perhaps shed a few tears over. None more than myself to whom Noël left his concert grand piano. The night before he took cyanide he talked to me for an hour on the telephone with not a word about dying.

A link to an Australian site selling the book,


A quarter of a century ago the Sultan of Oman decreed a visit to his capital Muscat of the London Symphony Orchestra; I went as a scribe and hanger-on. Especially for the visit he had also decreed that a large hotel be built with a concert hall in the middle of it. And lo! It came to pass, Al Bustan Hotel, nestling between limestone crags that look naked because there is no soil, therefore no trees so that they look almost unreal, like fibre glass. The LSO was somewhat apprehensive about the visit as it feared that in Arabia there might be liquid but without alcohol in it. But when we arrived off our flight at four in the morning we were greeted in the hotel atrium with the sounds of the harp, the splashing of fountains and the popping of champagne corks. Moreover when the lads and lasses retired to their rooms, they found a bottle of Johnny Walker beside each bed. The week was to be more enjoyable than anticipated! The atrium, by the way, is 115 feet high, the dome hoisting huge chandeliers, the whole hotel de luxe, the cuisine likewise.

The Concert Hall was well designed, spacious, an 800-seater, well upholstered, main colour dark plum with goodish acoustics that have been improved subsequently. The conductor was the former LSO leader, John Georgiadis and before the first of the two concerts he was instructed to stand to await the arrival of the Sultan. He stood for some forty-five minutes. Before the second concert he sat down on a chair to await the equally late arrival of the monarch. The Sultan was not best pleased with the apparent incivility. The Sultan has ruled the state absolutely since 1970. And successfully, his subjects respect him. To quote only one statistic, in 1970 there were three schools in Oman, now there are over a thousand. And by law, buildings have to have national characteristics, such as crenellations, they are mostly white and do not scrape the sky, having a slightly toytown appearance, pleasing.

The Sultan was pleased with the LSO visit but had sensibly decided that Oman must have its own orchestra. So some thirty or so boys were selected to form an orchestra in the future, now called the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Instruments to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds were ordered from Boosey and Hawkes, tutors engaged, mostly from the U.K.

So I was keen to hear the result 25 years later; to find what progress had been made. The first thing I noticed was that quite a few of the boys were by now bald. Also that there was nearly a score of girls in the band, looking in their uniforms of headdresses, shawls and draperies of red with green tunics, the colours of the Omani flag, like so many Red Riding Hoods. The programme of the concert I attended on March 2 was quite demanding: the prelude to Verdi’s Nabucco, a suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, not the usual one we hear for strings only but one with full orchestra and harpsichord, and the First Symphony of Sibelius. The conductor was Simon Wright, brother of that Wright who Rogers BBC music and the Proms. He obviously commands the respect of the orchestra and it played proficiently for him, with great enthusiasm; the first tutti in the Verdi nearly knocked the audience out of its plush seats. The first oboe and the bassoons were first class, the strings occasionally dodgy but this was a real orchestra and will improve if it continues to have good visiting conductors, who get on well with the players. Sir Colin Davis was here a little time ago but sadly did not hit it off too well with the band, so that a repeat of his concert in London’s Barbican on March 5 was scrubbed.

I cannot pretend that this orchestra is of international standard yet but I can say that the concert I went to was a pleasurable experience that I would willingly repeat. Simon Wright, conductor of the Leeds Choral Society for many years, did an excellent job; maybe his brother should give him a London concert.