Thursday, May 21, 2009

Vladimir Ashkenazy, the SSO, and one of the top forty reasons to enjoy Sydney

(Above: Vladimir Ashkenazy).

Most of the commentariat never bother with culture - in fact any reference is usually laden with the kind of lip curling contempt Greg Melleuish recently reserved for "cultural studies" as an academic discipline (a tad rich coming from an academic toiling in the history and politics department, but there you go). 

Of the commentariat at large, only the recently and lamentedly lost for the moment columnist and inspiration for these pages, Michael Duffy, showed any interest in kultur, without reaching for a gun.

But I'd like to call a little time out, and indulge in a little cultural musing, inspired by David Penberthy's top 40 reasons for loving Sydney: Why I love Sydney - It's top 40.

Now I know all you pedants out there will immediately begin to howl about Penberthy's header. "It's top 40"? As in It is top 40, as opposed to a possessory its?

Well he is writing for the Daily Telegraph, and they no longer seem to employ subbies, so never mind. Sic transit literacy.

Anyhoo, that aside, it's a fair average list, with obligatory jokes like the way Sydney stages fireworks whenever anyone sees two dogs fucking (well he says it's for anyone opening a tin of tomatoes, but I guess it's a family rag so he has to keep the jokes family safe).

But even allowing for the way he likes to dress up Sydney as vulgar, showy, raffish, uncouth, blunt, loud and in every other way vulgar, it's a  pity he couldn't find the space to mention going to the Opera House for a night's entertainment (as opposed to adding to the billions of digital images of it littering to the ether and filling the intertubes up to the point of overflowing).

Yep, there's nothing like turning up for a shindig, having a pre-event glass of wine looking out at Circular Quay, with mebbe a big ship in at the terminal, and taking in the city lights and the bridge and the bustle of the city (forget global warming, the city loves its lights). Sure it immediately qualifies you as a chardonnay sipper without a sensible view on anything, but that's a small price to pay.

And last night, if you'd turned up and forked over a modest stipend, you would have got eighty year old Peter Sculthorpe celebrating his birthday tour, and cracking a joke about how William Walton had demanded they abandon a Stockhausen concert for a drink, before listening to a taut presentation of Kakadu.

That was followed by a dose of typically airy fairy Arnold Bax film music with his symphonic poem Tintagel, written when he was in deep romantic rut, and though Bax is no Delius, it still works well enough for a Spielberg film.

For the finale, the larger version of the Sydney Philharmonia Chorus took the stage, perched up behind the Sydney Symphony and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, with the organist personning the pipes, Peter Coleman-Wright providing the baritone voice, and two handy brass bands up in the gods on either side to provide some resounding stereophonic blaring. It was the full regalia, no skimping, designed no doubt to give the predominantly young audience some sound and fury.

And then they got into William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, and was it a spine tingler. You know a band is in good throat and crisp if you're left after a final note with the afterglow landing and dying at precisely the same moment. Try getting eighty or a hundred souls to hit a pin head at the exact same moment, and you'll see the skill involved. The Walton had a number of such challenges, especially sundry endings where the band showed an impeccable tautness, while the marshaling of the forces was generally fine. And by golly when the chorus spat out the word 'slain' about poor old decadent Belshazzar I almost jumped out of my seat.

Ashkenazy's arrival in Sydney has been manna from heaven. Forget the jokes about short men, he works up a sweat and puts in the yards.

The band is tight, and while you wouldn't call him a Toscanini, he likes to keep things on the move - in fact, the last time I can remember the band being really slack was a sloppy rendition of a Brahms symphony, for which conductor Simone Young can take a lot of the blame, but Ashkenazy seems to produce a little more spring in the step along with the necessary tautness.

The programming's also better, with a scattering of of Russian fare throughout the year. Last week Sasha Rozhdestvensky played Shostakovich's first Violin Concerto, and while he played from the sheet, he busted so many strings I thought he was going to run out of horse hair and end up playing with the wood. Great stuff.

That was followed by Ashkenazy's own orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, and while the Ravel version will probably continue to reign supreme, the changes he made were forceful, evocative of a Russian approach and more meat and potatoes than Ravel.

Yep, step out into the dark, stormy night, and the music's still running through your head and there's just time for a sorbet and a prayer that the rail service is actually operating.

Some times while the media gets wound up about pissing in the streets, or gang bangs in a Christchurch motel, or Penberthy waxes lyrical all the cheap food he can find in Sydney (while failing to mention the tandoori chicken at Faheem's Fast Food in Enmore Road!), it's worth remembering there are other ways to live a life. 

The media always got snarky about Paul Keating's love of classical music - he was a Bankstown boy who refused to do the bogan thing - but in the end a man who loves Mahler can't be all bad. And wouldn't you know it, he also feels like Peter Finch in Network some days. (The Hot Seat: Paul Keating). Well his liking for the arts was rewarded with a musical bearing his name, a status usually reserved for the likes of Shane Warne in a country where boofheads rule the waves.

Classical music's not for everyone, but then neither is Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, the Eels or Lucinda Williams. Your loss - though funnily enough most people hear classical music any time they watch a big budget movie able to afford a decent orchestral score, and employ a composer to rip off golden oldies (yes you Bernard Hermann, much as I love you, I know what you were up to in the larder). 

Any way you cut it, you could do a lot worse than take in the SSO at the moment, and enjoy the actual inside of the Opera House, never mind the acoustics, ruined by careless politicians, or the fact that they'll never be fixed. Never mind that cheaper solutions like amplification, as proposed by Sculthorpe will never be adopted, or that Opera Australia has to struggle in a venue ill suited for its needs.

Nothing's perfect, but a big band sound conducted by a Russian maestro surely makes for temporary bliss.

Oops, sorry, not a loon in sight. Normal loonery will resume in due course.

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