One of the consolations of living in a successful middle-class society, I think, is to experience the evaporation of self-consciously plug-ugly proletarian art and music. Many of the last century's early musical compositions seem today unnecessarily obsessed with wheezing 'round the campfire, banging on pots and pans, or otherwise ramming washtub crudities down the listener's throat. Even where it isn't that obvious, the blue-collar bias can be detected: "Barefoot Songs" by Tubin. "Hammersmith" by Holst, Milhaud's "Le Boeuf sur le toit,” and of course, almost everything by Copland. Just under the surface of most music from the 1920s and 30s, you could say, lies a post office mural. And like post office murals, sometimes it is great art, sometimes propaganda, and sometimes just not worthy of restoration.
The Australian Ballet presents three short recent ballets which would seem at the surface to have nothing in common. In At the Edge of Night, first performed in 1997, but last performed 11 years ago, Stephen Baynes sets an impressionist ballet to seven preludes by Rachmaninov. The choreography, set design and costumes share the sensibility of the music, rolling subtly between nostalgia, longing, pining, contemplation, mild remorse, occasionally melancholy, ambivalence, poignant joy and other emotions only the piano can give a name. The brand new ballet, Halcyon by Tim Harbour, sets the Greek myth of Halcyon and Ceyx to dance with original music by Gerard Brophy. It is a particularly relevant myth about love oppressed by religion. The last ballet is Molto Vivace again by Stephen Baynes, first performed in 2003, but completely different in tone. It sets a light-hearted rococo comedy to Handel. All three are liminal, either touching, delving or diving into where phases change. We meet frontiers either as precise as the sea's surface, or as blurred as half conscious memories, or as completely black and mysterious as that between life and death and the other.
Sydney Open is one of the best things you can do in this town. Organized by the Historic Houses Trust every two years, the event allows access to more than fifty important Sydney buildings, many of them normally off limits to the public. A City Pass allowed access to dozens of building in downtown Sydney, as well as properties run by the Trust, which are well worth visiting at any time of year. I purchased a City Pass and planned my route carefully, like a marathon runner at a free buffet, to take in as much as possible, from sandstone Georgian to High Tech and beyond. The buildings covered virtually every period of Sydney’s post-1788 history, and present a golden opportunity for a cheap and cheerful romp through the history of the city’s architecture.
A famous flâneur and me, Sat down one day for tea, He observed with a grin, That the the line is drawn thin, Between cities which look and which see.
In a way this production is better Fellini than Fellini. Allowing influence from his films without being overly enamoured of them, Director Elijah Moshinsky manages to draw the opera into the modern era while intensifying Verdi's tight drama. It would have been easy to let the great filmmaker's sardonic sense of humour to infiltrate the opera and mock or belittle the characters to avoid falling too deeply into them, but on the contrary, the company seemed almost always to be sensitive to the characters. Verdi's creation is remarkable how it holds such an intense dramatic tension for so long and with a story which could easily seem an uphill slog. He also manages somehow to keep some sympathy for Rigoletto and ambiguity for the Duke despite their despicable actions. As for the curse, though it is Monterone who first vocalises it, it is really Rigoletto who brings it down on himself.
Earlier in this backward glance, I tried to revive a feeling of what it might have been like to have a phonograph in one's life. Looking over it, a reader may sense that the 78rpm record was a fragile blessing at best, while perhaps understanding why even today a child would appreciate it. We left off in the early 1960s, where, one might suppose, the advent of the stereo LP solved everything! By then, I had decent quality electronics, and even the admiration of screech resistant female ears.
This isn't to say I was always so terribly thrilled with the outcomes, myself. The great curse of the phonograph, of course, was its tracking ability, surface noise and distortion. It was one thing to chisel a groove, another for your needle to follow it. Recordings were quite dynamically limited in those days, but even so, the Empire 108 cartridge simply would not track, even at 3 grams pressure, the first tutti in Klemperer's Philharmonia Schumann Fourth. It wasn't until 1963 and the Empire 880, that a cartridge could be expected to follow every groove. I was fairly happy with the bass performance of my Lafayette speakers, though. That year Charles Munch's famous recording of the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony on RCA was very much a sonic standard, and I was happy to note I could hear the 32cycle organ pedal tones in the slow movement.