Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.
Nature doesn’t really impose physical restrictions on our free will, but rather demonstrates the movements best suited to us; these too are the most beautiful. They are not an imposed law but very much individual. There is an ingenuity to discovering them and in so doing one pushes against them, but the effortful courage of pushing them can be a misplaced nobility, and while there is a certain inherent dramatic tension there, it can become awkward. There is a certain quality in today’s contemporary dance style, though there are many original variations and exceptions, which is hardly naturalistic in the way it pushes the extremes of human ability. The Bangarra Dance Theatre is in a unique position in urban Sydney, close to the Contemporary Dance World (sometimes called a “Mafia,” but let’s try to be positive), but also with close ancestral ties which give them access to the preserved ancient Australian arts which developed in unique ways in their isolation.
Stepping down a semitone at a time starting from Spohr’s E Major, seeming to gravitate to the famous Tchaikovsky sextet in D Minor, this group of young musicians brings quite an ambitious program. Despite some uneven playing of the first piece, they became stronger and stronger to give a very satisfying take on the last.
Circular Quay is Sydney’s great public space, but it is no Piazza San Marco. The presence of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at opposite ends of the magnet is powerful enough to allow the eye to glide around the curve past the decent, mediocre and bad architecture in between. In such an enchanted context even the Cahill Expressway, an elevated freeway which runs along the southern foreshore, is somehow not as egregious as Boston’s Central Artery was before it was chopped down. Instead of ancient stones, there is water, the one inlet out of the harbor’s dozens chosen for European settlement, now teeming with ferries and tourist boats promising varying doses of adrenaline. However unrepresentative of the unruly metropolis which spreads from here in all directions, Circular Quay hints at the dream of its city, the city’s best version of itself, the city Sydney could one day be.
It is no easy task to stage a radio play, or even a “Play for Voices.” We’re not talking about, say, making a dreadful Hollywood movie, or even a schlocky 1950’s film of War of the Worlds; in Under Milk Wood nothing happens. That’s not so much even the main difficulty, though, as is presenting something to the eye which complements Dylan Thomas’ “prose with blood-pressure,” an actor’s doing things — or choosing to stay immobile — and creating activity in a sensible way without stepping on the imagination’s toes. Something similar goes for the cooperative efforts of the costume, set, and music. One way might be to make a sort of symphonic concert out of it, in three movements: night, day, and evening, the actors using their voices mainly with minimal secondaries of costume, gesture, lighting and music, a verbal analogue to a recital or concert. The other extreme might be to turn it into a ‘proper play,’ with with changing sets of Coronation Street
When John Cranko came to England from South Africa in 1946 at the age of 19 to learn at the Sadler’s Wells School, Ninette de Valois recognized and watered his talent, putting him to work the same year creating ballets for her Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. She gave him opportunities and encouraged him to create at a time when she herself, though an excellent and very thoughtful choreographer in either a modern or the traditional styles, found herself with less and less time while seeing to her companies, schools and dancers and artists. De Valois made him resident choreographer of the company for the 1950 season. Cranko’s earlier work seems to show his comedic bent, e.g. Pineapple Pole (1950), and in his collaboration with Benjamin Britten in Prince of the Pagodas (1957), though by 1958 showed his full dramatic sense in creating his own version of Romeo and Juliet for Milan, which is now in many companies’ repertoires. In 1960, he left England to direct and choreograph the Württemberger Staatstheaterballett in Stuttgart, though only 33 years old, after remounting Prince of the Pagodas. His dramatic sense and keenly observed characterization, his talent for telling a story led him on to ‘adapt’ to, perhaps more to metamorphose into ballet, the literary giants, finding inspiration in unexpected places: Pushkin-Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (Onegin, 1965) and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1969).
The chamber music fairy can touch any group anywhere, it seems, whether or not they have masses of recordings with prestigious labels, or a ‘high profile’ (in fact I don’t think she even reads the newspaper or listens to recordings). Even so, the Tinalley String Quartet knows their music backward and forward, as if there were no phrase or note they hadn’t rehearsed, discussed or thought about, or just intuitively understood on the moment. They are a very tight group, the sum total of their sound shows care and understanding, as if their feel for and ideas of the music span it vertically, horizontally and diagonally on any diagonal the composer cares to involve, particularly so in the Bach Art of Fugue pieces and the fugal last movement of the Haydn quartet. The close acoustic of the room only reveals the nuanced detail in their ensemble sound and the unique colors and textures of their group’s voice, very sonorous and woody, rounded and well seasoned, rich, but one where all the instruments are clear and yet combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. The favorable acoustic of the smallish room helps, and I suspect chamber music, especially the string quartet, often comes across more strident in tone than the ideal intentions of the artists when played in a larger concert hall shared with orchestras, but a small room like the Utzon Room would only reveal flaws or empty spaces in an inferior group or a less thoughtful and personal interpretation. Here the room was merely complementary, as if just subtly lifting something already there. It was a remarkable mature performance for any group, let alone one so young (founded in 2003 at the University of Melbourne) with musicians as young as they are (all in their late 20s or 30s), but one isn’t really aware of such mundane temporal qualities when they play.
With the Evening Star just about to set, hanging a little above a Harbour Bridge pylon, and, by the second interval, a waning gibbous moon rising through a back-lit bank of cloud, so the Sydney season of the Australian Ballet opens, with three new short ballets. They cover a broad range, like three points of a very large triangle, showing some of the versatility of the company. The Narrative of Nothing as the name implies is an abstract ballet, mostly. The Australian Ballet along with the BBC and the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, has commissioned from Australian composer Brett Dean “Fire Music“, a new score specially for this ballet, and the music and lighting contribute almost as major a part as the dancing.