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Classical Music - the White Hat guide

Classical Music Newsletter - 13 July 2006

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A neglected tombstone
Major Works
Borrowing CDs
Ballets Russes
Mozart in Love – postponed
Melbourne Performing Venues – Rippon Lea
Film Music
Advance Broadcasts
The White Hat Music Quiz

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 .. and welcome to our little newsletter. I was going to write an editorial but let’s skip straight to the questions. Yes you up the back. I’ll repeat the question in case you can’t hear them. The gentleman at the back with the coke bottle glasses and grey cardigan wants to know how often these newsletters will come out. We’ll probably aim at a couple per month, but who knows. Next. The lady with the bun and the pink twin-set wants to know how long it will run for. Well, we don’t know. We didn’t know when we started our Melbourne newsletter and that has been coming out regularly most weeks for a number of years and is up to number 180 so I guess this newsletter will be around for a while as well. Next. The dentally challenged gentleman with the beard and the twitch wants to know how you can find out about performances mentioned in this newsletter. Simply go to our home page, select classical music from the drop down menu under music. This page has a comprehensive listing of performances in Melbourne. On this page you can also search by composer, solo instrument and so on. Next. The lad with the protruding front teeth and the rather fascinating case of acne wants to know why people who regard those who like classical music as geeks. Well I think that boils down to some rather mindless stereotyping by the mainstream media.

No more questions for now – we’ll take some more next week. In the meantime the lady with the long hair and short skirt in the front row has expressed an interest in the music of the 14th century and I have a fascinating collection of CDs of music by Machaut, Ciconia and Landini in my apartment at the Docklands.

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On Saturday night, Melbourne will get an indication of what it can expect from its new opera company. There has already been a soft launch with Noye’s Fludde, but the success and appeal of an opera company is usually going to depend on the quality of its adult soloists, and we will have a chance to evaluate the talent this weekend at Hamer Hall.

Since the demise of the Victoria State Opera, Melbourne has had lean pickings in terms of major opera productions. Yes, I know that technically the VSO was incorporated into the AO which became OA, but the South Melbourne Football Club became the Sydney Swans, and neither the OA nor the Swans seem to have a strong Melbourne focus. There have been offerings from smaller semi-professional groups. Chamber Made Opera has given us some adventurous programming, Lyric Opera of Melbourne have produced entertaining performances on a shoestring budget and you can sample Melbourne City Opera’s performance of Merry Widow this week at the National Theatre in St Kilda. Also OzOpera (the small touring troupe of OA) have a performance of Carmen in Dandenong on the 21st. Back at the State Theatre, OA is performing Lakme.

On radio there are archive broadcasts of OA (or was it AO) on ABC Classic FM of Figaro, Clemenza di Tito and Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on the 16th, 21st & 23rd. On SBS television there a Zeferelli production of Tosca with Placido Domingo this Saturday afternoon.

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Needless to say there is plenty of Mozart on offer in this anniversary year. On Sunday Melbourne Chorale have a concert featuring the C Minor Mass and the Sinfonia Concertante for violin & viola. At BMW Edge the Pro Arte Orchestra is performing his Symphony No.31 along with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and on the 30th at St Michael’s Church you can hear violin sonatas by Mozart and Shostakovich. For Mozart performances in Melbourne go to our classical music in Melbourne page and select Mozart from the drop-down menu of composers.

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A Neglected Tombstone

‘We shall never look upon his like again’

I was standing in front of a decaying tombstone in Melbourne General Cemetery with those words, now barely visible, carved into a scroll at the top. Underneath were the words ‘WM SAURIN LYSTER / DIED 27TH NOVEMBER 1880, / AGED 53 YEARS’.

William Saurin Lyster had arrived in 1861 with his Royal Italian and English Opera Company. It wasn’t as though he was arriving in a gold rush colony unfamiliar with opera. For instance six years earlier, George Coppin (more on him in our Melbourne newsletter later this week) had presented in a single opera season Der Freischutz, Lucia di Lammermoor, Martha, La Sonnambula, Norma, Lucreszia Borgia, Bohemian Girl plus a number of other works. However Lyster’s efforts were to eclipse even the impressive offerings of Coppin. For nearly 20 years he presented major opera seasons in Melbourne featuring works such as Lohengrin, Aida, The Beggar’s Opera, Faust, Les Huguenots, La Prophete and much more. Such was the drawing power of these operas that late trains were scheduled for performance nights. Neither Coppin nor Lyster had government grants for their opera series.

I can hear an excited group approaching. I look to my right where a short distance away is the impressive Burke & Wills tomb. I am reminded that it was Lyster who had to come in front of the curtain to announce to his opera audience the news of the death of the leaders of that Melbourne expedition. A little beyond that tomb are the graves of Fred Baker (the opera singer who adopted an Italian name who haunts the Princess Theatre) and also Flo Taylor (who was the darling of the musical comedy stage). Over to my left is the grave of Louise Hanson-Dyer who helped found the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and who created the L’Oiseau Lyre publishing company that has done so much worldwide for the promotion of Baroque and early music.

“Hi” says the excited voice, “do you know where the Elvis monument is?” “Straight ahead” I say “past the fountain and you can’t miss it. There are always flowers and cards and even teddy bears there.” “Cool – thanks!” she says. “I told you there was a really important musical memorial in this cemetery” she tells her friends.

As the excited chatter gradually recedes towards Elvis my attention returns to the Lyster grave. There is no evidence of flowers or any other attention there in recent times. I compare the list of operas he offered over nearly 20 years the Melbourne public with no grants – many hot off the press from Europe – with those presented in recent years by our ‘official’ opera companies and ponder the words in the scroll at the top of his grave.

They may well be right. I hope not.

You can see a photo of Lyster’s grave here.

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Major works

In the next couple of weeks you can hear two major works in Melbourne (and one in Geelong). These are Mahler’s 6th Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Maybe we should be a bit more specific. After all, you can hear the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and few would deny that is a major work, so maybe we should have classified the first two as works requiring major professional resources and the opportunity to hear them live does not come around frequently in Melbourne.

The resources required by a Mahler 6 or Alpine Symphony put it outside the ambit of your average suburban orchestra. However I do remember an amateur Melbourne orchestra which would go ahead regardless of availability of players. Although the chairs on stage were often sparsely populated, Jock (the conductor) always made sure the program listed a full complement of players. On closer inspection you would find the 4th horn was being played by Will Etchyano and the contra-bassoon by Una Vail Able.

When the MSO performs large scale works like these, the full-time ranks are swelled by a number of (suitably approved) casuals. These may come from Orchestra Victoria (if available) or from the ranks of well regarded instrumental teachers and lecturers as well as other places. Sometimes in inflated works the extras are there just to ‘make up the numbers’, but when you come to Mahler and Strauss everybody is important. Both composers often pare their orchestration down to small exposed chamber groupings, only to expand into the glory of the full orchestra in the next minute. (Mahler admired Richard Strauss’ skills as an orchestrator and rescored the 6th partly on Strauss’ advice) In these circumstances, no player is surplus to requirements and there is a real frisson as both regulars and casuals are performing not only to the audience but to each other.

Be there.

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Borrowing CDs

Most suburban libraries have CDs for loan and these will usually include some classical CDs. You can find a fairly large (several hundred) collection of classical CDs for loan at the City Library at 253 Flinders Lane in the city. Anyone can join and the loan period for CDs is usually two weeks. It should take you a couple of months to work your way through those. Membership is free and you can join online as well as searching the catalogue online. Details at City Library.

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Ballets Russes

The Ballet Russes companies were responsible for commissioning some of the most remarkable scores of the twentieth century. The Australian tour of the Ballet Russe in the 1930s also had a major influence on the development of ballet in this country. There is currently a documentary film on Les Ballets Russes showing in selected art house cinemas in Melbourne and we can thoroughly recommend it. In the style of Australian Story or Ken Burns documentaries, the protagonists are allowed to tell their own stories without the intrusion of a self-important on-screen interviewer. The musical soundtrack for the film practically chooses itself to match the ballet being performed or discussed. However keep an eye and ear out for the closing scenes where the overall achievements of the companies are celebrated with inter-cut shots from various ballets from various times. The producers could have matched the scenes with a jarring sequence of segments form the appropriate scores. Instead they have chosen to bind them all together with the powerful conclusion to Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet – a passage from a Ballet Russe score that has its feet in the lush late nineteenth century but is pointing forward to the new century where music (and ballet) would never be quite the same again.

Touring country Victoria at the moment is a troupe of dancers from the Australian Ballet performing repertoire from the Ballets Russes. In the next couple of weeks they will be performing in Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Albury (OK I know that’s not technically Victoria but they still speak English). Details of these and other Ballets Russes related events at Les Ballets Russes.

(Pedants Corner: Although originally a single company, the Ballet Russe had two later incarnations, one of which came to Australia. We will leave it up to those readers who enjoy such things to examine the section above to see if we have got our singulars and plurals right.)

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Mozart in Love

The Mozart in Love program by the Australian Pops Orchestra in the Melbourne Town Hall for Saturday 22nd has been rescheduled to next year. We will let you know when dates are announced.

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Melbourne Performing Venues

Rippon Lea

In the 1860s, the Sargood family bought some scrubland in Elsternwick and had a stately home built there. They called the estate Rippon Lea. This fine building together with its gardens is now under the management of the National Trust. On the death of Henry Sargood in 1903 the property was bought by a group of people headed by Tommy Bent (the Victorian Premier at that time), who promptly set about subdividing the land into smaller plots and selling it off. When Tommy went to meet his maker in 1909 (the claims on the National Trust site that Tommy died in 1908 are greatly exaggerated) this provided the opportunity for the Nathan family to purchase the remaining land and house. In the 1930s extensions and renovations were made in the style of the times which, although elegant, don’t seem to marry well with the Victorian era style of the rest of the house. Never mind, it made for splendid entertaining, and the 1930s ballroom is occasionally pressed into service for chamber music and other recitals.

However in the 1960s another greedy developer had their eye on the land and obtained a compulsory purchase order for a large chunk of the gardens. Only by mass rallies at this time was the remaining estate saved. The developer by the way was the ABC who had already acquired part of the estate for studios.

The ballroom provides a suitably lively acoustic (the floors are parquetry if I remember correctly) and an intimate setting suited to music for the salon. This weekend you can experience a twilight recital of oboe sonatas by Poulenc, Hindemith and Malcolm Arnold.

If you want to take full advantage of the setting I would recommend that gentlemen wear tails, white tie and a winged collar, while ladies could wear a flowing after-five number (backless of course) accompanied by an extremely long cigarette holder. On your way home you may want to make it known (in the politest possible way) to the studios of the ABC and the statue of Tommy Bent on the Nepean Highway that you are quite pleased that neither of them were able to fulfil their plans.

Details of the concert at Rippon Lea.

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Film Music

The 1930s swimming pool at Rippon Lea is in the Hollywood style of the time and you could easily imagine an Errol Flynn and bunch of young starlets suitably draped around the margins. For fans of film music, the MSO Pops series has a concert hosted by Clive James with both an afternoon and evening session. Details at Film Music.

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Advance broadcasts

I have friends who, having bought tickets to a concert by a geriatric rock band, will play their records every day before attending the concert to hear a staged reproduction of the same thing. Occasionally there is the opportunity to hear a broadcast of a forthcoming classical concert before it reaches Melbourne. I must admit the concept of hearing a broadcast and soon after attending the same concert by the same performers doesn’t particularly appeal to me but it does allow reviewers to have most of their copy written in advance. If it appeals to you, there is am Australian String Quartet performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet on the 26th with a broadcast on ABC the previous Monday. Similarly you can hear an advance broadcast this Saturday of the production of Porgy and Bess which is due in Melbourne in August.

Local live broadcasts on the other hand can be quite useful. For those of you who like to leave early to avoid the queues in the carpark I would recommend the Monday night performance of Mahler 6. There is a live broadcast so if you leave at the start of the last movement you will be home in time to hear how it finishes.

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The White Hat Music Quiz

How well do you know your classical music?

  1. An instrument not usually associated with classical music and whose tones are usually activated by an animal rather than a human is used in both the Mahler 6th and the Alpine Symphony. What instrument?
  2. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is written for clarinet and string quartet and his Horn Quintet is written for horn and string quartet so what is Schubert’s Trout Quintet written for?
  3. In the 1930s a Tasmanian actor moved to America. Around the same time a young Viennese classical composer, already highly regarded, also moved to America. What connects these two men?
  4. VW’s The Lark Ascending has become a firm favourite among short works for violin and orchestra. Where does its name come from?
  5. Who wrote Mahler’s 6th Symphony (that wasn’t too hard was it?) and who wrote Albinoni’s Adagio?

No prizes – just glory and a warm inner glow.

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