Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Future of Classical Music

Interesting 3 part piece by Kyle MacMillan at the Denver Post, as follows:

1. Relevance lost

An intensifying confluence of factors is taking classical music from the cultural mainstream.

2. A classical comeback?

By being entrepreneurial and creative, organizations across the country are finding ways to rejuvenate the field.

3. A new image

Can classical music be cool?

All interesting stuff, but there’s one question MacMillan has pointedly refused to ask.  More on this next time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Community Orchestras and Tchaikovsky

The Norwood Symphony Orchestra’s final performance for the year featured pieces* from Borodin, Holst and Vaughan Williams, as well as Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major.  This latter piece had bemused me somewhat, as we’d previously been told that the NSO’s own Tinel Dragoi would be playing the solo violin part.  Given the fearsome complexities of this work, I couldn’t really see how a bloke who sits in the second row of a community orchestra could possibly do it justice, but needless to say he did, in fact I thought he turned in a fabulous performance.  Turns out of course that he’s a recent immigrant form Romania, with experience playing orchestras in a number of European countries.  I guess you never know what’s going to turn up in the ranks of a community orchestra.

* repertoire safety index of 5.1

Monday, December 6, 2010

Vivaldi, Elgar and Cricket

You’d have to work hard to find a link between Vivaldi and the game of cricket, although less so with Elgar – the handlebar moustache and empire building profile suggest a keen interest in the game.  My link with these things came late on day two of the second test between England and Australia.  The inability of Australia’s bowlers to take a wicket, or the fielders to hold a catch or effect a run out, not to mention the 37 degree temperature at the ground, suggested some other form of entertainment might be in order.  I’d tried to get hold of some tickets for the ASO’s Vivaldi performance some months ago* – both concerts sold out and no chance of a third – and was delighted (and relieved) to see that a block of tickets and been re-released earlier that day.  Hence an early end to the cricket.  Even herself, a pronounced cricket tragic, was happy to call it a day.

As for the concert – terrific – in particular soloist James Ehnes, who seemed to be very much in control, and made it all look pretty easy.  The program listed him as both soloist and conductor, and he did in fact conduct the Elgar piece (Serenade for Strings), as he wasn’t required to play.  However, for Vivaldi and Beethoven (two of his romances rounded out the program) the orchestra were pretty much left to their own devices, and the performance (especially that of the concertmaster) did them a great deal of credit.

So just to prove that every cloud has a silver lining, if it weren’t the unending horror of the Australian XI’s on-field performance we’d have missed this concert, and that would have been a pity.

* this concert scored just 1.5 on the repertoire safety index.

** Q. When the English cricket team tours South Africa, where do they stay?    A. At home.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Andre, a mullet and undone criticism

Amidst all the debate about the talents that Andre Rieu may or may not have (including a vigorous discussion on Angel Trumpets here), I see that Wikipedia has – as usual – put together a fairly balanced article covering both sides of the argument.  Check it here.  This has obviously taken some serious vigilance on the part of the pro-Andre camp, as the history tab shows a huge number of entries that can be best summed up as:

(Criticism Of Rieu) (undo)

Amidst the reams of undone criticisms there’s a few gems, like:

Rieu tries to compensate for his utter lack of a unique playing style by selling over-commercialized versions of classical music to his unsuspecting fans.

Many argue his audiences must be paid to endure his concerts as no one in their right mind would ever pay money to hear his rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

and even more extraordinary:

He also made a brief, pathetic and random cameo on the show Neighbours.

Perhaps even more incredible is the fact that the Wiki article retains the following:

Rieu sports a hairstyle colloquially referred to as a mullet.

Amazing to think that his legions of fans are happy to cop that, but there you go.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brahms and sudoku

Orchestra programming generally takes in a number of different pieces and composers, albeit often with a common theme, presumably to ensure that everyone goes away happy with at least some of the evening, if not all of it.  This weekend’s ASO concert was limited to just two pieces – Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade (RSI = 1.3).  Two disparate pieces – one a serious undertaking by one of the three Bs (that’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the three Bs of German music, as opposed to Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman, the killer Bs of the Houston Astros), the other a 45 minute musical rendition of a fairy tale.image

Everything about the Brahms was restrained – the pianist, the orchestra and eventually the audience, who in turn gave it a fairly restrained reception (although enough to coax a very pleasant Mozart encore).  Certainly herself got the fidgets within two minutes of the start, and deeply regretted not having bought a program, which would have given her something to read.  Happily there wasn’t a sudoku or crossword within easy reach.

After the break, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade proved to be a complete contrast, with the orchestra ripping into the piece with a great deal of verve.  The solo violin passages were as good as anything I’ve heard in a long time.  It’s not often that you get to hear a bassoon solo – Bill Bailey (in his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra) postulates that as no-one ever seems to hear them, the bassoonists are in fact surreptitiously playing Bee Gees songs.  Not on this occasion, as the principal bassoonist made full use of his time in the spotlight that Sheherezade offers him.  This was terrific stuff and made the evening quite memorable.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sydney Symphony–boos for Gershwin?

When preparing the repertoire safety index for the 2011 season, I was really struck by the low scores for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Australia’s premiere orchestra, premiere concert hall and most famous conductor, with a program loaded to the gills with rolled gold classics from Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky etc.  Hardly surprising that they come in a distant 5th, ahead of the Tasmania and Queensland orchestras.  I’m a bit jealous of course – there’s just so much must-see music in their program – but it does seem  a bit odd that there’s not a bit more adventurous programming, including of course works from our own contemporary composers (of which there’s very little).

It was therefore interesting to read an article in the Australian about Michael Kieran Harvey playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Sydney Opera House – and drawing boos from the audience for his freewheeling improvisation of Gershwin’s music:

The point was that [conductor] Kristjan Jarvi encouraged me to improvise and some in the audience considered it a travesty.

It was hilarious to me that people would care so much," Harvey says, although the response clearly hit a nerve. It's something he returns to twice again during our conversation. "It was surprising to me when it was so obvious that it was in the spirit of improvised music. It was done in the spirit of the jazz piece. At the heart of jazz is interpretation. Even so, we still have this dreadful conservatism about how we expect music to sound.

Improvising Gershwin – the problem is?  One of the reasons he was able to write Rhapsody in Blue in just 3 weeks (it was a commission with a serious deadline!) was by not writing the piano solo parts.  As Gershwin himself played the piano when the piece was premiered, he simply improvised the solo parts and nodded to the conductor when he’d had enough.  After the concert he was then able to write down what he’d just played.  So, if improvisation on this piece isn’t acceptable, is there any place where it is?  Apparently not – not in Sydney at any rate!

Just for the record I got to see the same pair performing Rhapsody in Blue at the Adelaide Town Hall with the ASO – a brilliant performance hugely appreciated by the sell out crowd. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bach/Busoni and Schumann

Some strange trademarking issues going on here.  Busoni made a bit of a name for himself transcribing old Bach pieces into piano, the pieces subsequently being known as “Bach-Busoni (whatever)”, in this case the Bach – Busoni Chaconne.  Not really sure why it wasn’t Bach’s Chaconne (arr. Busoni).  Where were the lawyers representing Bach’s estate?  At any rate it was quite an interesting piece (Leonie Horvat, Recitals Australia lunchtime recital).

Couldn’t quite say the same about Schumann’s Piano Sonata in G Minor Op.22.  While Horvat did an excellent job with what seems like very demanding material, it reminded me a bit of Schumann’s Etudes which Coady Green played at an RA recital in September – namely quite challenging to listen to, and no doubt to play.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Repertoire Safety Index – 2011 Programs

The results are in for the Repertoire Safety Index for 2011 (including the SSO, which finally made a copy of its 2011 program available to download in pdf format).  No surprises in terms of who has the highest score – the ACO weighs in at 6.0, well out in front of the second place, which is the ASO on 4.2. 

One thing which shouldn’t have surprised but did was the result for the MSO.  After reading Melbourne-based music writer Eamonn Kelly’s drivel concerning the need for the ASO to offer a “safer” repertoire to keep its older audiences interested, I had a quick look at the MSO 2011 program,  and was a bit confused about how a program offering so much Mozart and Tchaikovsky could be deemed to be “adventurous”.  Hence the birth of the repertoire safety index, in an effort to put some objectivity around the issue of which orchestral programs are safer than others….and this what we got for 2011:

aco2 6.0
ASO2011 4.2
mso 4.0
waso 3.8
image 3.5
tso 3.3
qso 3.0

it’s worth noting that the “adventurous” MSO did manage a podium finish, sneaking into 3rd place.  They do boast one very high scoring concert (featuring Tippett, Vaughan Williams and Walton, scoring 7.3) but this is offset by a lot of very safe concerts scoring in the 2s and 3s, and one which scores zero (an all Mozart affair).  In contrast there’s only one ACO concert with a score below 4 (Schubert, Bach, Stravinsky and Webern, at 3.5), with almost everything in the 6s and 7s.

Just for the record, although the QSO trails the field with a score of just 3.0, it also offers one of the most adventurous individual concerts of the year,with a program of Gershwin, Gulda and Prokofiev, scoring 8.0.

One aspect of this that needs more thought is the result for the Sydney Symphony.  More on this later.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The repertoire safety index

A "safe" repertoire. What does that actually mean? According to Eamonn Kelly at the Weekend Australian, the ASO has an older audience than elsewhere in the country, which means that it has to stick with a safe repertoire, presumably on the understanding that older audiences can't cope with an "adventurous" repertoire.

Aside from the ageism implicit in this statement (are older people really unwilling to stray far from a "safe" repertoire?), it raises the question of how repertoire can be classified as "safe" or "adventurous", and if it can be classified, how the various orchestral programs around the country stack up.

In an effort to put some kind of objectivity into this process, I've constructed an index consisting of two parts: a composer safety factor and a repertoire safety factor.  I’ve sourced these from a number on online “top 100” type sources, including:



The Naxos 200 Essentials list, from the world’s leading producer of classical recordings


ABC Classic FM classic 100, as voted by listeners



I don’t know who they are either, but they have tons of great music related lists



The name alone warrants inclusion

The composer index pans out as follows:


These composer scores are then modified by the repertoire safety factor, which reflects the popularity of individual works. For example, anything by Gershwin will rate 8 points (composer factor), except Rhapsody in Blue which is scaled to 4 points owing to its appearance on the favourite works list.

Any program can then be rated by averaging the scores assigned to each part of the program. For example, the first ASO master series of the 2010 season was:


Beethoven - Violin Concerto

0 points

Dvorak - Symphony No. 6

1 point


1 point



In contrast, masters series concert number 11 scored a little more highly:


Adams - The Chairman Dances


Milhaud - The Creation of the World


Bernstein - Prelude, Fugue and Riffs


Dvorak - Carnival Overture


Gershwin - An American in Paris


Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue






Monday, October 25, 2010

Pompous blathering from the Weekend Australian

It was hard not to be peeved by a recent article in the Weekend Australian entitled “Little orchestras with big ambitions count cost”.   The title alone provides a fair indication of what’s coming – a pompous dismissal by one or more Sydney or Melbourne-centric arts buffs of the aspirations of the hayseed orchestras located in the rest of the country.

Feedback on the article has already pointed out the obvious error on the ASO grant figures (they double counted the grant money the ASO receives from the state, including it as both a state and commonwealth grant) and there were a couple of crackerjack quotes which beg some further investigation.

Firstly, some unnamed "experts" are cited in support of the view that orchestras outside of Sydney and Melbourne are very lucky to exist at all - suggesting by default that they really shouldn't:

The Weekend Australian's Melbourne music critic Eamonn Kelly says funding has become "a perpetual problem for small orchestras". Experts based in the nation's bigger cities argue that smaller centres should consider themselves very lucky to have a resident orchestra at all.

We can draw two obvious conclusions from this:

  • Funding is not a perennial problem for big orchestras
  • Big cities are entitled to a resident orchestra while smaller centres are "very lucky" to have them

On this basis I'd have to question why $19m of commonwealth grant money was spent to keep the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras alive in 2009. Clearly they are entitled to this amount of money. On the other hand, $24m of commonwealth grants were spent to keep the ASO, QSO, TSO and WASO going in the same year. Clearly we should thank our lucky stars for this windfall!

The following is an extract from the 2009 annual reports of each of the major orchestras, with NZ thrown in for the hell of it:


(amounts in $m)








Commonwealth  Funding








State Funding








Ticket Sales
























Total Funding
















Employee Expenses








Total Expenses
















Grant Funding as a % Total








Cth Fund as % Empl Exp








State/Cth Funding Ratio








  *30/6/09 exchange rate of 1.2399 used

There are a few interesting conclusions to be drawn from these numbers:

  • Without Commonwealth government money, they're all finished
  • Sydney is clearly less reliant on Commonwealth money than the rest, but they'd still collapse without it
  • Melbourne's reliance on grant money is much higher than Sydney, and higher even than WASO
  • The mining boom has done wonders for the WASO sponsorship and donations programs

The pomposity of Kelly and these nameless "experts" didn't end there. For example:

But Kelly says because its audience tends to be older than in some other cities, the ASO has not been able to be as adventurous with its repertoire. The safer repertoire means the orchestra does not generate as much excitement as orchestras in other cities.

Looking through the programs for Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide I find it hard to make this distinction, but what's needed here, to prove or disprove this hypothesis, is a "repertoire safety index" - something to think about for a future posting.

Sponsorship, philanthropy and ticket sales tend to be static in smaller capitals, and government funding is growing annually by about 3 per cent.

Are they? This one's easily tested - again, some fodder for a future posting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Triple concerto and the “orchestral piano”

Recitals Australia piece today featured Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, a fine piece made all the better by the principal cellist of the ASO (Janis Laurs) teaming up with music students Taria Pietsch (violin) and Michelle Zhu (piano).  Quite generous of him I should say, given the volume of the work that the ASO currently has on.

A fourth player here was Karl Geiger, who was listed as playing “orchestral piano”.  This was a smaller (I think) piano than the one Michelle Zhu was playing, with its lid down.  I assume this takes the place of the orchestra.  I see from Wikipedia (which may or may not be right) that the concerto was scored for one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.  Yes I did cut and paste from Wikipedia, and I didn’t delete the links.  I wonder how many plagiarising students have been laid low by this slip?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Solidarity, Comrade Shostakovich!

The ASO musicians again turned up to play in their red t-shirts ’s for the weekend’s “Triumphant Shostakovich” program at the Festival Theatre.  Presumably their salary negotiations haven’t got them very far.  At any rate the theme sat quite well with the Shostakovich piece, subtitled as it is “A Soviet artist responds to just criticism”.

If ever there was music written by someone who was composing as if their life depended on it, Shostakovich 5 would be it.  Prior to this, Stalin had reportedly canned Shostakovich’s music (hence the reference to “just criticism”!) following which some party officials and then Pravda got on his case.  In 1930’s Russia no doubt this was about one step off exile to a Siberian gulag (or worse).  We know that Shostakovich immediately shelved his 4th symphony (presumably more of the same – I’ve never heard it) and set to work on the 5th, with a clear intention of making it more “soviet”.  The fact that he lived suggests that it hit the mark, and the fact that it’s become one of very few 20th century symphonies to be amongst the standard “classics” suggests that – in the face of what must have been extraordinary pressure - he wrote something very special indeed.  So special that having heard it on Friday night I couldn’t resist going back for another helping on Saturday evening.

The rest of the program was outstanding too – a new work by local girl Anne Cawrse (terrific, especially the all too brief violin solo), followed by Bernd Glemser playing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.  This is of course outstanding material, wonderfully played by Glemser, although somewhat marred on the Saturday night by one of the patrons.  Towards the ends of variation 18 (the really serene one, that Rachmaninov –always alive to the commercial realities of his art - purportedly summed up with the words “this one’s for my agent”) where it goes really quiet, we were a bit bemused to hear a really faint piano echo from the back of the theatre.  We were in the front row, and the sounds seemed to come from way back – I thought it might be coming from the piano bar in the foyer, but no, it was of course a mobile phone, with a piano ringtone (my money’s on Chopin).  I had a good look a conductor Volmer’s expression as it ranged from puzzlement (an echo?) to irritation (piano bar?) to anger (mobile phone!).  That it had to ring in the quietest part of the most famous of the 24 variations was probably inevitable.  A salutary reminder to ensure that the phones are silenced and/or off (I prefer both).  Mind you, it also begs the question why the ASO is disinclined to broadcast a reminder to patrons about this before the performance – everyone’s been guilty of this in one form or other, so in my view a quick memory jog would be welcomed by almost everyone.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Recitals Australia – Rachmaninov, Bartok and Liszt


Warming up for her B.Mus. Honours recital India Hooi gave us a most impressive rendition of three Rachmaninov preludes (excluding the famous C sharp minor one – how could she resist?), Bartok’s Three Burlesques and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.  Herself most impressed by the Bartok. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Solidarity Comrades!

News reports today of the ASO taking industrial action in support of a wage claim – something to do with fixing their pay at 90% of the Melbourne SO. Not that they’ve gone all BLF on us, but they are threatening to wear red t-shirts instead of their usual garb for the opening of the Schuman festival. I’m sure management is terrified!

Coincidentally the Overgrown Path blogger was reminiscing about the strike of the BBC SO back in 1980.  Check the photo – what’s the story with all that facial hair.  If I was management there I would indeed be terrified.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Best ASO concert I’ve seen in a good while.  The two Gershwin pieces were of course brilliant, Bernstein and Dvorak most enjoyable, Milhaud not so, but the real surprise packet was the Adams piece, The Chairman Dances, which was outstanding.

One question from Rhapsody in Blue – is it possible for a pianist to do too much improv?  Perhaps not with this piece – one of the ways Gershwin was able to complete this piece in just 3 weeks was by not writing any of the piano solo pieces, and just improvising them on opening night (nodding at the conductor when he’d had enough) then writing them down afterwards.  Fair game then, and a terrific job Michael Kieran Harvey did with it.

The pre-match address by one of the flautists (?) added a great deal to the understanding not only of the individual pieces but also the way they went together under the banner of American jazz-influenced classical music, including the Dvorak.

Here’s the complete program:

Master Series 11 - Rhapsody in Blue

Friday 24 September, 8pm

Saturday 25 September, 6:30pm

Adelaide Town Hall

Kristjan Jarvi: Conductor

Michael Kieran Harvey: Piano

Milhaud: The Creation of the World

Adams: The Chairman Dances

Bernstein/Foss: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs

Dvorak: Carnival Overture

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin: An American in Paris

No introductory flourish sends a frisson down an audience’s collective spine like the clarinet glissando of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, symbolising the spirit of jazz age America so potently. It’s the musical equivalent of the Empire State Building. With Michael Kieran Harvey at the keyboard, the thrills just keep coming. In a roller coaster ride, the ASO and über cool podium dynamo, Kristjan Järvi, swing through a program symbolising some of the most spectacularly successful fusions of jazz and more ‘traditional’ idioms. With inspiration as diverse as the foxtrot, in John Adams The Chairman Dances, to the Frenchman Darius Milhaud’s sophisticated primitivism in the surrealist ballet The Creation of the World, this concert delivers thrills aplenty.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Elder Hall – a reprieve


Friday 24/9 – was to be the 4th concert of the week, this time down at Elder Hall where they were going to be playing a (the?) Beethoven cello concerto.  Before tooling down there I checked the web and lo and behold Beethoven has disappeared and a visiting NZ music professor is doing his thing on the organ.  Perhaps not.  As I’m off next week (late season snow trip to Hotham/Falls) there’s a fair bit to do, so here’s a bonus hour to do it in.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Recitals Australia–Scarlatti

Wednesday 22/9 – concert no. 3 for the week – recital really – as Joshua Mollart puts Scarlatti though his paces at the Pilgrim Church.  A good crowd relative to the usual Wednesday lunchtime turnout, lots of Barossa Valley high students (where I think Mollart does some teaching).  Very short program – 35 minutes or so, which suits me down to the ground really, given my current workload.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ASO Season 2011


Tuesday 21/9 – concert 2 for the week.  Not really a concert as it turned out – more a lecture (with cheese and wine thrown in), as the ASO’s 2011 season is introduced by one of the cognoscenti.  The orchestra – most of them – were in place and did play a bit, but as this was the third time they’d heard the talk that day they were looking a bit jaded.

A few observation will follow later.  Suffice it to say that the Masters series is looking a shade more highbrow than usual.

Monday, September 20, 2010

NSO plays Beethoven PC 6

Jonathan Heng.  There’s a name to remember.  This guy was press-ganged into performing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 6 when the woman who was to do it decided she’d had enough of live performances.  Not sure how much warning he had, but he certainly had the piece down pat.  If that wasn’t enough his encore was Listz’s “La Campanella”, which seemed insanely difficuly.  As her indoors mentioned to me, if we had a bet to simply hit as many piano keys as possible in five minutes – any keys – it’s unlikely we’d hit as many as this guy.

Terrific stuff – a snip at $15!

And while we’re on the subject of Beethoven, how about those Beethoven digital clock sunnies….very cool.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

5 concerts in 7 days

Here's the plan:

Sunday 19/9 – the Norwood Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 6, amongst other things

Tuesday 21/9 – the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra launches their 2011 season

Wednesday 22/9 – Recitals Australia regular Wednesday session at the Pilgrim Church

Friday 24/9 – Elder Hall

Saturday 25/9 – ASO plays Gershwin