Imagine a peacock at the Paris Opéra. Having taken the Métro eastwards from his digs in the heavenly Parc de Bagatelle, he passes the intermission munching an eight euro canapé. As we stare at the cultured bird, we find his feathers blurring into the architecture. Does the peacock, we wonder, prove that ornament is hard-wired into nature? This is not a “modernist” bird, a bird with clean lines and sharp edges like an Australian King Parrot. Like the Garnier, the patterns of the peacock’s plumage are subtle and layered, they seem to curl in on themselves until, through modern eyes, it is difficult to read in the ornament anything but beauty itself. This is a particular kind of beauty, one which provokes émerveillement rather than analysis.
Imaginez un paon à l’Opéra de Paris. Après avoir emprunté le Métro de son nid au parc Bagatelle, il passe l’entr’acte en mangeant un canapé de huit euros. Lorsque nous regardons cet oiseau cultivé, ses plumes commencent à se mêler avec l’architecture de Charles Garnier. Le paon est-il la preuve que l’ornement vient de la nature? Certes, il n’est pas un oiseau “moderniste,” ses couleurs ne sont pas aussi nettes, aussi précises que, par exemple, le perroquet roi d’Australie. Son plumage est comme le Palais Garnier, subtil, dépendant des effets de la lumière et son grain, autant que de la couleur. Pour nous dans le monde contemporain, les bâtiments si ornés sont quelquefois difficile à lire. Cette architecture d’autrefois excite les sentiments flous, l’émerveillement plutôt que l’analyse.
This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy’s style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces. To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger’s entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece’s title refers to the SSO’s origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his “dialogue” are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion.
Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn’t hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art’s huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
Leleux had put together a program of classics, well known but in playing he brought them a freshness and bright enthusiasm as if encountering them for the first time. He played, in both senses of the word, in an unlabored way even in the more difficult sections, even while his technique proved his mastery of the instrument and all the work and practice that entailed. His honest and lively playing was infectious. The musicians seemed not like performers set up on stage and weighted by everyone’s eyes and ears and expectations set on them, but they gave the impression of artists playing music for its own sake in private, the listeners seemed not exactly an audience but more invitees to share in the experience, the exploration of the music anew.
The concert pulled us away from a particularly beautiful sunset over Sydney with Cray-Pas pink-crimson streaks and squiggles and a new moon following closely behind the sun, sparing us the feeling of mono no aware of a finished sunset. Zarathustra gave us maybe a more conventional sunset’s “riot of color”, or rather sunrise, to complete Vladimir Ashkenazy’s three concert series of Germanic music which opened the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season. This small selection of major Strauss symphonies if not totally satisfying and complete in itself, gives one an urge to seek out more Strauss in order to seek out more in Strauss. Then again symphonic music can be enjoyed as a riot of marvelous sounds. Ashkenazy’s pairings in the three concerts of a tightly formed Beethoven piece — The Ninth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture, respectively — with a more spread-out Strauss piece (with the exception of Metamorphosen), perhaps more fun to conduct than to listen to at times, and the music with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s enthusiasm for it, speaks for itself and justifies itself. Anyway, it is hard to speak generally about Strauss since he is quite varied even within one piece.
The Sydney Omega Ensemble, as fairly young musicians, though with three members of the SSO’s wind section, in no way without experience, with help from the non-profit Ars Musica Australis, enjoys commissioning and playing new pieces from young Australian composers. They do so in many of their concerts, taking the tactic of mixing them in a program with traditional composers, rather than the all-together contemporary music festival approach. Even if the new pieces are only short, it obviously adds variety for the audience and players and fills in some of the difficult gap between conservatory student concerts and festivals and the commissions of more established composers by Musica Viva (for new chamber music) and the SSO, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Ballet, etc. for new orchestral works, the orchestral works usually coming from the same handful of Australian composers. So it is a valuable little institution David Rowden, the Ensemble’s artistic director, founder and clarinetist, and company have run over the past few years.
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continue with the second in their triptych of Beethoven-Richard Strauss concerts which opens their 2012 season. Maestro Ashkenazy, their artistic director for the past few years who usually conducts himself several concerts at the beginning and end of the season (the Eternal Summer!), and the SSO seem to have established a warm and close rapport and respect, to judge from the jocular, playful exchanges and inaudible banter he shares with the orchestra members after the music, shaking hands with all the front-row strings after every concert, as well as from the fine and detailed interpretations they create together. Stephen Kovacevich brought a remarkable like-mindedness to this partnership. He also brought a complimentary attitude so that the concerto was a conversation beyond words between individual beings. The sound of his piano and what Kovacevich expressed therein had a remarkably immediate, very close presence, where often there is a wider gap between a guest soloist-virtuoso and the audience. Similarly the orchestra had a generous and open pellucid quality — not ever quite the homogeneously mixed and integrated sound of cogs in the the romantic-orchestral apparatus, nor exactly a contrasty orchestra of soloists, but something in-between those extremes and something else entirely which preserved the instruments’ characteristic timbres, at least section-wise, in an even-handed balance, a sound which can speak coherently in many different ways all at once. Kovacevich got through his childhood concert début some 60 years ago and so has nothing to prove, and his performance with Ashkenazy, himself a pianist, and now a conductor, of great experience, had deep maturity, but also at the same time a playful child-like quality, a surface insouciance rather more interested in the details and problems in the music which matter.