Little bears were looking for a quiet spot to read and while away an afternoon, and they found it at the State Library of South Australia. It wasn’t just reading, it was reading in style in the Mortlock Wing!
This is the perfect spot!
The State Library was opened on 18 December 1884 as a public library, museum and art gallery for the colony of South Australia with 23,000 books and a staff of three.
The Mortlock Wing was designed by Colonial Architect E.J. Woods. Construction of the building took over 18 years to complete after the initial foundations were laid in 1866. The foundation stone was laid on 7 November 1879 by Sir William Jervois and the building was constructed by Brown and Thompson at a cost of 43,897 pounds.
The building is French Renaissance in style with a mansard roof. The walls are constructed of brick with Sydney freestone facings with decorations in the darker shade of Manoora stone.
Now known as the “Mortlock Wing”, it is predominantly an exhibition area and popular place for hosting library functions. It features an example of a 19th century gentleman’s library.
The interior has two galleries, the first supported by masonry columns and the second by iron brackets. The balconies feature wrought iron balustrading ornamented with gold while the glass-domed roof allows the chamber to be lit with natural light.
The Mortlock Wing is considered one of the finest examples of a late Victorian library in Australia. The reading tables sit amid ornate wood carvings, wrought iron balustrading and the original Dent and Sons clock, gifted by astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer Sir Charles Todd in 1887. Todd was responsible for linking much of Australia together by telegram line, including overseeing the 2897 kilometre Adelaide to Darwin line in the 1870s. The clock still stands sentry over the main hall, hand wound and adjusted weekly by library staff.
Reconstruction of the building began in 1985 as a Jubilee 150 project by Danvers architects. Taking months to complete, restoration work included fine decorative finishes such as scumbling, painted wood grain finishes, French polished tables, as well as general painting and decorating.
In honour of a substantial bequest from John Andrew Tennant Mortlock, the Libraries Board of South Australia resolved that a percentage of the South Australiana Collections would be housed in the wing and named the Mortlock Library of South Australiana in 1986.
The ground floor is devoted to a permanent exhibition area of 14 bays reflecting themes of cultural or historical relevance to South Australia and displaying items reflecting wider collections held by the State Library.
The ornate wood carvings, rich Australian history and the atmosphere of a forgotten time were all features that placed the South Australian State Library’s Mortlock Wing in a list of the top 20 most beautiful libraries of the world, compiled by Travel and Leisure in 2014.
The Wollemi Wilderness Treehouse is the jewel of the Wollemi Wilderness Retreat, on Lionel Buckett’s huge property in the Blue Mountains, just 1.5 hours drive from Sydney. The Treehouse is build 12 meters off the ground and set above the deep and spectacular Bowen’s Creek Gorge.
The floor to ceiling windows provide an amazing and unique Blue Mountains experience. You can admire the view while soaking in a puff of bubbles in the corner spa. The Treehouse is completely private and only native animals can see you. It’s an oasis of nature and solitude.
The property is in the Wollemi Wilderness National Park World Heritage Area. Among other things this means Australian bush with bugs, mozzies, spiders and lots of other insects! Thankfully, they were all sleeping the winter away. Mental note: don’t book any of the cabins in summer! Or spring, or autumn…
The property now boasts eight cabins, all different, with a ninth one under construction. There is an Enchanted Cave (on top of the list for our next visit… in winter!), a Dream Cabin, and a Tee Pee. For the full list you can check the Wollemi Wilderness website. On a Sunday afternoon, you can book a two hour tour that visits all the cabins.
The Treehouse is a sustainable dwelling. It’s been constructed from recycled materials and in all respects is an architectural marvel that took more than a year to construct. It faces northeast to catch the sun (you can watch the sunrise from bed 🙂 ), has a solar hot water system and a composting worm toilet.
There is a kitchen with a gas cook top and there is also an outdoor BBQ. The Treehouse is fitted with a sprinkler system that cools the house in very hot weather (and is also used if there is a bush fire). A wood-burning stove warms the cabin in winter. The large, comfy bed is covered in animal skins, locking in the warmth during cold winter evenings. The electric blanket helps as well!
Strong winds create a concert of a thousand creaks and screeches of the branches around, but the Treehouse is in a sheltered position, safe and stable.
Once you’ve climbed up the long ramp and ladder into this secret Treehouse high off the ground, cosy up, relax and enjoy… It is a special experience.
You can add to the experience by exploring the rugged and beautiful canyons, raging rivers, towering cliffs and much more in the Wollemi National Park. The park covers more than 500,000sq.km and is home to 235 bird species, 46 mammals and 55 butterflies. Though much of it’s impenetrable to all but the most intrepid bushwalkers and climbers, there are plenty of opportunities for trekking, camping, canoeing and kayaking.
Australian Geographic has a photo gallery of the amazing landscape, flora and fauna in the park. Here is a taste of it.
Wollemi National Park is home to an absolutely unreal gift of nature, the one-of-a-kind Glow Worm Tunnel. Once part of a railway line, the spectacular tunnel stretches 400m, and is packed full of glow worms putting on an incredible light show. This region is home to a huge number of these little sparklers, who mostly hang out in caves and old mines. However the tunnel is special, as it’s completely dark, it’s one of the only places you can see glow worms during the day. Note: You’ll need to bring a torch but be super careful not to shine your light directly on to the worms or they will turn out their lights and ruin the show for everyone. Don’t be that person!
We have these adventures on the list for our next visit. Someone had the flu during this visit (hint: it wasn’t the bears!) 😦
In September 1994, NSW National Parks Wildlife Service officer, David Noble, discovered some trees he didn’t quite recognise. In a deep, narrow canyon of the rugged Wollemi National Park, he discovered what we now call Wollemia nobilis or the Wollemi pine.
Dubbed “a living fossil”, the distinctive pines captured the world’s attention because it was thought they had been extinct for at least 60 million years.
The Wollemi Pines are about 40 metres tall and are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Their trunks are more than a metre in diameter and they have distinctive bark which resembles bubbling chocolate.
But the last two decades have taken their toll on the prehistoric pine and its future is now under threat from a soil-borne pathogen called Phytophthora, which most likely walked in on the boots of uninvited visitors!!! The introduction of Phytophthora has caused root rot in several of the pines.
To ensure the species survives, an insurance population of young Wollemi Pines has been planted at another secret location in the Blue Mountains, a site specially chosen for its similarity with the original site. Access to the insurance site is strictly controlled and each piece of equipment taken in has to be washed down with fungicide to stop the spread of Phytophthora. The location of each tree is recorded using GPS and they are regularly measured to track their progress.
The locations of the insurance population and the wild population are top secret and they need to stay that way if the species is to survive. So no bear photos with the pines!
In 1882, Alexander III appointed Ivan Vsevolozhsky to the directorship of the Imperial Theaters in Russia.
A cultivated aristocrat and ardent Francophile, intelligent and with a keen sense of humor, Ivan Vsevolozhsky had worked at the Russian consulate in The Hague and in Paris and his tastes were distinctly European. His small office in the Winter Palace was crammed with paintings and sculptures from French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters. “Everything around Vsevolozhsky,” the Ballets Russes artist Alexander Benois later recalled, “breathed that high-born taste, that parfait goût” of the French 18th century. Even his bows “were marked by a special elegance and even complexity,” and to him “dance was not something frivolous or absurd” but a necessary and supremely cultivated art.
Yet Vsevolozhsky was also a strong advocate of Russian art. He pried the ballet master Marius Petipa away from Minkus and the predictable rhythms of made-to-order ballet music and pushed him toward the far more complex and Russian voices of Tchaikovsky and (later) Alexander Glazunov. Tchaikovsky, whose prominence in Russian musical life was by then well established, shared Vsevolozhsky’s interest in ballet and was a willing collaborator. When he was a child his mother had taken him to see Giselle with Carlotta Grisi in the title role, and as a young man he had attended the theater frequently. His brother, Modest, later recalled how Tchaikovsky enjoyed demonstrating the proper balletic form, teasing Modest by likening him to the undistinguished Russian ballerina Savrenskaya—and himself to the elegant Amalia Ferraris “because of the fluidity and classicism of his movements.”
In 1888 Vsevolozhsky proposed a new ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. He wrote to Tchaikovsky: “I thought I would write a libretto to Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant [The Sleeping Beauty]. I want to do the mise-en-scène in Louis XIV style,” and he went on to suggest that Tchaikovsky might consider “melodies in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau …” Responding in French, Tchaikovsky enthusiastically agreed. Indeed, this was not his first ballet, but it was his first, and only, sustained collaboration with Petipa and Vsevolozhsky. And it was a genuine and engaged collaboration: Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s graceful and beautifully mannered correspondence reveals the respect and warmth they felt for each other, and the three men met frequently to exchange ideas (always in French). Tchaikovsky also often appeared at Petipa’s home (the ballet master’s daughter later recalled the excitement of these visits) and played what he had written on the piano while Petipa shifted his papier-mâché figurines around a large round table.
Today, we like to think of The Sleeping Beauty as an elevated artistic landmark, but at the time of its premiere in 1890 many critics and observers saw it as a sellout to low popular taste. They were not entirely wrong. As a consequence of Alexander III’s theatrical reforms and the explosion of popular musical theaters in and around the city, audiences were treated to a whole new array of performances — not just Russian fare, but lavish mime and dance spectacles mounted by Italians with (as one critic complained) “masses” of performers and fantastic effects. These were Manzotti’s Excelsior dancers, and the spectacles were known as ballets-féeries for their fairy-tale magic and emphasis on the merveilleuse. In 1885 Virginia Zucchi set the trend when she danced at the Sans Souci in St. Petersburg in a lavish six-hour-long féerie entitled An Extraordinary Journey to the Moon (after Jules Verne), which had already had successful runs at music halls in Paris, London and Moscow. Shortly thereafter, the Italian dancer and mime Enrico Cecchetti mounted his abridged version of Excelsior, which played for over two years in the Russian capital.
This “Italian invasion” touched a sensitive political nerve. The suburban theaters catered to a burgeoning urban populace created by industrialization and the movement of peasants and workers, fleeing crushing rural poverty, into towns and cities. Ostrovsky enthusiastically welcomed the change and saw the ballet-féerie as an “appealing” people’s art that might “replace” outmoded court ballets with a more modern and accessible form. Others, however, were mortified and complained that the féerie represented a decadent and democratizing Western culture. It was nothing more than “ballet as circus” and its performers moved like “machines” with “steel points” and “sharp” gestures. Their flexibility, one critic bristled, was an affront to “correctness and beauty of line” and unfit for a “self-respecting stage.”
Partly this was a matter of technique. Italian dancers had developed an arsenal of remarkable stunts such as multiple turns and extended balances on pointe, whereas dancers at the Imperial Theaters still favored the softer and more fleeting movements of the French Romantic school. One Russian dancer later recalled his shock at seeing the new Italian style: Russian men, he noted, generally confined themselves to a restrained three or four pirouettes, whereas the Italians brashly spun out eight or nine. More alarming still, the Italians seemed to throw themselves from step to step with anarchic abandon. Their school, one critic glumly concluded, represented “a confused nihilism in choreography”. Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky and Petipa stood firmly with the skeptics: Tchaikovsky had seen Excelsior in Naples and thought its subject “inexpressibly stupid”, and Petipa and the “old titans” (as they were referred to) at the Imperial Theaters, including Vsevolozhsky, were equally unimpressed. One dancer recalled seeing Petipa at a féerie slumped in the stalls with his head hung in despair.
Yet The Sleeping Beauty was itself a ballet-féerie — not a “sellout” but an astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game while at the same time affirming the aristocratic heritage of the Russian ballet. It marked a sharp departure from the exotic and Romantic ballets of the past and had none of the charming village boys or ghostly, spirit-like ballerinas coveted on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Nor was Beauty a slavish reprise of Perrault’s fairy tale, for although Perrault had originally written it as a tribute to Louis XIV’s “modern” France, it was Vsevolozhsky who introduced the lavish grand siècle setting. The ballet opens in the 16th century with the birth of a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and condemned to death upon her coming of age. The good (Lilac) fairy, however, softens the sentence and when the princess pricks her finger on a spindle the entire French court falls into a deep sleep, only to be awakened one hundred years later to the glorious reign of the Sun King. As a story, it was thin (one disgruntled critic complained, “They dance, they fall asleep, they dance again”), but that was the point: The Sleeping Beauty was not a narrative pantomime ballet in the old sense at all. It was about the court and its formal ceremonies — a royal birth and coming of age, a wedding and celebration. It was a sympathetic ritual reenactment of the courtly principles of classical ballet and Imperial Russia alike.
Petipa took seriously the 17th century setting: he studied pictures of the Sun King and made careful notes about Apollo and the “fairies with long trains, as drawn on the ceilings of Versailles.” He read about old court dances and pored over Perrault’s works, carefully cutting out and saving illustrations. Vsevolozhsky spared no cost in the sets and costumes (the ballet absorbed more than a quarter of the 1890 annual production budget for the Imperial Theaters) and brightly colored silk, velvet, gold and silver embroidery, brocade, furs, and plumes were all in abundant display, giving the production a vibrant, candy-coated appeal. This impressive pomp and pageantry was never stuffy or bombastic, and the ballet had many entertaining fairytale characters drawn from other Perrault stories, such as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Puss-in-Boots, whose whimsical dances lightened the last act. The apotheosis, however, struck a high note: against a backdrop of Versailles with terraces, fountains and the grande pièce d’eau, audiences were given a vision of “Apollo in the costume of Louis XIV lit by the sun and surrounded by fairies.” The ballet ended triumphantly with a musical quotation from the French popular tune celebrating an earlier French king, “Vive Henri IV!”
Just as the fairies in the prologue endowed the baby princess with gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song and music, so The Sleeping Beauty civilized and refined the ballet-féerie, bringing it up to meet the elevated standards of a classical art. Tchaikovsky’s music set the tone, and its sophisticated, graceful classicism and eloquent Russian sweep presented Petipa with unprecedented choreographic challenges. Many critics found the music too operatic, and the dancers complained bitterly that it was difficult to move to. Accustomed to the predicable rhythms and simple, programmatic structure of Pugni and Minkus, Petipa pressed himself — and his dancers — to find newly suitable movements. Ironically, when searching for material he drew precisely on the Italian techniques he had so lamented. Indeed, the title role was performed by the Milanese dancer Carlotta Brianza (a veteran Excelsior performer), and Enrico Cecchetti was cast as the evil fairy Carabosse and in the difficult Bluebird Variation.
Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind — he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work — but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music, the ballerina’s balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will.
So it was with the charming solo dances for each of the six fairies in the ballet’s prologue. These dances are all perfectly constructed models of classical principles. Again, Petipa did not shy away from virtuosity — the dances are full of difficult jumps on pointe, multiple turns, and fast footwork — but he tamed these bravura steps, ordered them, and pinned them into elegant, architectonic, and musically disciplined phrases. They look like scintillating aphorisms, the dance equivalent of La Bruyère’s sharp-tongued maxims or the conversational wit of les précieuses. Each dance works on many levels: it traces a symmetrical path across the floor (recalling Feuillet) with clear lines and sharp diagonals, for example, and these same lines and diagonals are then reflected and reproduced in the geometry of the steps themselves. But it was not just the construction of the dances that was so impressive; it was the way that dancers moved to Tchaikovsky’s music. It is difficult today to imagine just how different these dances must have been to perform. Tchaikovsky’s music brought out a whole new range and tone color in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus or Pugni could never inspire.
Even today’s most skilled performers find Petipa’s fairy variations a test of classical precision: the slightest false move or cheat — a leg straying off center or a step out of line — immediately shows and throws the whole dance into disarray, as if a poem had been scanned poorly or a column in a Greek temple carelessly distorted. Performing these dances well is a matter of technical acuity and cast-iron discipline but also of style: a dancer cannot plausibly get through them without a modicum of charm. The steps and music — not to mention the luxurious costumes — make dancers move like courtiers, with chest open and a light, high center of gravity.
No acting was necessary: Beauty had very little “he said, she said” pantomime, and the mime and dance sequences were not musically distinct or set apart, as they had been customarily. The gestures and the dances flowed together seamlessly, and Petipa and Tchaikovsky thus quietly returned ballet to one of its original premises: mime and dance were a natural extension of the noble comportment that Russian courtiers had been practicing and perfecting for nearly two centuries. They meshed so beautifully because they came from a single source, just as they had in the grand siècle: court etiquette.
Audiences, or at least critics, were disoriented: Beauty did not fit into any of the old categories, and many saw it as little more than an empty parade of “too luxurious” sets and costumes. “A ballet, as we understand it?” one indignantly squealed. “No! It is the complete decline of choreographic art!” If there was a reference point, it lay in the decorative rather than the performing arts. Beauty bore a striking resemblance to Fabergé’s exquisitely rendered objets de luxe. These ornamental pieces, including the famous Fabergé eggs, were enormously sought after by the tsar and the Russian elite at the time. Their superior craftsmanship, hyperrefinement, and meticulous, detailed re-creation of a world-in-a-shell had an intense appeal for an elite increasingly in retreat from the social and political problems facing their country. Fabergé reproduced the court in miniature; Beauty put it on the stage. The similarities were not lost on a younger generation of artists, including several who would later go on to create the Ballets Russes. They rightly saw that sealed within The Sleeping Beauty lay a whole way of life and “world of art”.
The Sleeping Beauty was thus the first truly Russian ballet. It was an impressive act of cultural absorption: this was no longer Russians imitating the French but instead a pitch-perfect summation of the rules and forms that had shaped the Russian court since Peter the Great. With Beauty, Petipa found a way to take out the seams of French ballet, to expand its technique and expressivity while paradoxically reinforcing its strict formal rules and proportions. And if the ballet’s grand scale seemed to some a capitulation to féerie and spectacle, it could also be read as an exaltation of the dignity and noble ideals of an aristocratic art. But Beauty also showed that high court ballet could meet popular theater and assimilate that and the Italian techniques too, folding them both into a newly Russian style of dance. It is no accident that the ballet flowed from the imagination of a great Russian composer working in conjunction with a Francophile St. Petersburger and a Russified Frenchman, and that its cast was led by Italians with Russians filling the ranks.
The key to the ballet’s enduring appeal, however, was Tchaikovsky. It is a point worth emphasizing: Tchaikovsky was the first composer of real stature to see ballet as a substantial art, and his music lifted dance onto a new plane. Before Tchaikovsky, music for ballet had been tied to dance forms and rhythms, and (later) to programmatic music or vaudeville tunes designed to illustrate and narrate pantomimed action. None of this was necessarily to be regretted, well into the 19th century ballet composers across Europe had produced lovely and serviceable ballet scores, from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle and Léo Delibes’s Sylvia (a ballet Tchaikovsky himself greatly admired) in Paris to the melodic dances of the “big three” in St. Petersburg: Riccardo Drigo, Pugni (both Italians), and Ludwig Minkus (who was Austrian). However, these composers tended to follow rather than lead, and their music enhanced and illustrated but rarely challenged — much less upset — the way that dancers moved.
Not so with Tchaikovsky. It was not merely that The Sleeping Beauty was a powerful symphonic score that stood on its own merits, without Petipa’s dances. What mattered was the way the music worked on the human body and spirit. Even today, Tchaikovsky’s music pushes dancers to move with a fullness and subtlety that few other composers then or since have inspired. It is no accident that Tchaikovsky’s music was initially perceived by some as too operatic or big or difficult for the public, and especially the dancers, to fathom. Human bodies did not — never had — moved that way before. And yet the change was also perfectly natural, scaled to St. Petersburg and their own lives.
Petipa became a great choreographer because of Tchaikovsky, and he knew it: his memoirs pay touching tribute to the composer and he was well aware of the momentous opportunity Vsevolozhsky had afforded him. Tchaikovsky was pleased too, and Modest recalled the composer’s delight with “the miracles of elegance, luxury, originality in the costumes and scenery, and with the inexhaustible grace and variety of Petipa’s fantasy.” And if Alexander III failed to appreciate the ballet’s significance, commenting dryly that it seemed to him “very nice”, the public was enchanted: The Sleeping Beauty was performed more than twenty times in 1890–91, accounting for more than half of the ballet performances that season. Modest wrote to the composer: “Your ballet has become a kind of obsession…. people have ceased saying to each other ‘How are you?’ Instead, they ask, ‘Have you seen The Sleeping Beauty?’”
Little bears can finally answer, Yes!
Luckily, The Australian Ballet has revived The Sleeping Beauty again this year, for a season in Adelaide.
The Australian Ballet’s ravishingly beautiful production of The Sleeping Beauty, directed by David McAllister, sold out when it premiered in Sydney in 2015, and then subsequently in Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
Artistic director David McAllister’s reimagining of the fairytale, first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1890, was one of the company’s biggest-ever hits upon its 2015 debut. It was also the most expensive. So no point having its 300 bespoke costumes, 100 wigs and hats, and 130 pairs of fairy wings – altogether said to have used 5,000 metres of tulle – gathering dust…
The costumes are stunning and the sets are lavish. Not entirely out-of-place at the court of Louis XIV! Gabriela Tylesova’s wonderland includes floral garlands, marble columns, three massive chandeliers for the finale and a princess casket that must be seen to be believed: something like a massive Faberge egg with a bed of pink roses, it wouldn’t be a bad place to kip for a hundred years.
This ballet features exquisite solos and group routines that are danced in perfect unison. The sequence of whirling leaps from a lovesick Prince Désiré was breathtaking. It’s a ballet full of entrancing moments – the Rose Adage, the vision scene, the Bluebird Pas de deux – and the appearance of Aurora’s six fairy godmothers at the baby princess’ christening is one of the most charming of these.
There is no Fairy of Mischief! Isabelle volunteers 🙂
Robyn Hendricks, as Princess Aurora, lit up the stage, and she is blessed with remarkable balance. Not many ballerinas could stand en pointe for as long as Robyn Hendricks does while letting her suitors down gently. A ballet first-timer could appreciate her athleticism; a veteran, her technical precision.
One didn’t need the program notes to know that Alice Topp as Carabosse, stalking the stage in flowing black and giving an evil eye for the ages, was the baddie of the piece.
The storytelling is crystal clear – Princess Aurora is cursed by the witch Carabosse for being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening. Carabosse proclaims the princess will die on her 16th birthday, but the Lilac Fairy, who comes late to the party, announces Aurora will merely sleep for 100 years and be woken by a handsome prince. In Act III Aurora and Désiré’s wedding is celebrated with a masked ball with guests dressed as fairy-tale characters.
An altogether sparkly night! Even ballet skeptics are unlikely to fall asleep during this Beauty.
Little Honey and Isabelle are at the concert hall to listen to Nicole Car with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Originally from Melbourne, Nicole studied jazz singing in school, switching to classical voice in her late teens. It was a great choice, Nicole has become one of Australia’s finest classical singers.
The ACO program was a cleverly conceived program of vocal and orchestral works, the performers sequed from one piece to the next with barely a pause, maintaining a sense of momentum and contrast. The vocal pieces highlighted Nicole’s versatility and range. In all of them she displayed focused clarity, impressive agility and strength across her tessitura.
It was all about drama in the first half. In Mozart’s Basta, vincesti – Ah, non lasciarmi, no and Beethoven’s Ah! perfido, Nicole’s strong tempo, dynamic contrasts and expressive intensity captured the music’s range and despair. Beethoven’s great concert aria Ah! perfido is a tall order for the most accomplished of singers. Its shifting moods require a soprano of imagination, who must move believably between fury, tenacity and despair while also retaining a sense of the aria’s overall arc. Nicole met the challenge with spirit.
In the second half, in Verdi’s Ave Maria from Otello and Mozart’s Misera, dove son! – Ah! non son io che parlo, Nicole’s pure timbre and long-breathed phrasing conveyed her characters’ sadness and suffering. The concert final aria, Mozart’s Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia was a display of virtuosic coloratura. In the encore, Beethoven’s No, non turbati… Ma tu tremi, o mio Tesoro?, the rosy bloom of Nicole’s soprano was simply lovely.
Throughout, Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra provided sensitive accompaniments. Satü Vänskä had ample opportunity to show off the ACO’s newest family member, a 1726 Stradivarius, in a rich account of Beethoven’s Romance in F. With a sweetness of tone and some affecting phrasing, she brought pearliness to the high notes, easily handling the intricate interplay with the orchestra. The ACO was in fine fettle here, paying attention to the tricky double-dotted notes.
Little bears are at the Melbourne Recital Centre for the Ásgeir concert.
Ásgeir was 20 years old in 2014 when he became an overnight sensation with the release of his first all-English album In the Silence. The album became the fastest selling debut from a home-grown artist in Iceland, breaking all previous records and outselling Björk and Sigur Ros. Last year, Ásgeir released his second album, Afterglow, with a more melancholic electronica sound, and a departure from the folk-tinged acoustics of In the Silence. On both albums, Ásgeir collaborated with producer Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson and his father, renowned poet Einar Georg Einarsson who is credited with writing the lyrics for Afterglow, alongside long-time musical collaborators Thorsteinn (Ásgeir’s brother) and Julius Robertsson.
When he was seventeen, Ásgeir held his nation’s record for the longest javelin throw. A future as an athlete seemed fairly secure. But a back injury threw a wrench into that dream, and he focused on his second love, music. By 2012, he had the bestselling album in Iceland, Dyrd í dauðathogn, a record of ethereal melody and melancholic meditation. An estimated 10 per cent of Iceland’s population of 323,002 bought his 2012 debut album. Two years later he recorded his vocals in English and rereleased the album as In The Silence, under the name Ásgeir. The album re-release in English made him one of Iceland’s major exports, along with raw aluminium and fish fillets. His indie-folk hipster vibe ensured a cult following in the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Denmark and it’s easy to hear why – its mix of organic instrumentation, lilting electronics and Ásgeir’s otherworldly voice hits a sweet spot between emotion and mystique. It’s a chemistry he’s kept bubbling on his follow-up album, Afterglow, which sounds a little livelier than his first album. It’s on the cusp of being positively cheery!, with elements of electronic music and a whiff of pop.
One of the most remarkable things about Ásgeir’s album In The Silence is the fact that his father, the poet Einar Georg Einarsson, wrote the lyrics. He’s also contributed words to Afterglow, as has Ásgeir’s brother Steini. It’s an odd choice for a young, international pop star, yet it makes sense considering Ásgeir’s childhood in a village of only forty people. There’s a tight-knit intimacy and soulfulness to the album that feels familial and warm, even as the music itself carries a glacial chill. There’s nothing conventional or expected about Afterglow, an album that submerges all ego and blissfully loses itself in oceanic imagery and crystalline soundscapes. At the same time, the songs are instantly familiar, like old friends, departed loves, or bittersweet remembrances. Ásgeir may no longer be hurling record-setting javelins, but in a gentler way, his songs soar even farther.
Ásgeir struggled with his sudden success, at home and abroad. He won album of the year at the Iceland Music Awards and outsold the first offerings of Bjork and Sigur Ros. But the prospect of having to replicate that success froze him up. There was a big period where he didn’t feel inspired at all and was questioning why he was forcing himself to make music. To find inspiration, he went back where he grew up, wandering about the fiords and mountains, planting trees and tossing javelins. Where he grew up listening to Nirvana in his garage and composing music and recording songs with haunting melodies and gibberish English lyrics.
In the village near the sea that Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson calls home, there are six streets, 40 people and more sheep than anyone cares to count. The Icelandic ocean in springtime is inky blue and frigid. He would sit on the black sand, watching people run from the water screaming.
The 39 other residents of Laugarbakki, a remote dot in the country’s northwest, are mostly aged farmers and retirees. It is isolated, quiet and a little like living in a nursing home requiring low-level care. Ásgeir loves it.
Yay, the concert is about to start!
The music is melancholic, contemplative and eerily beautiful, like a beach in bad weather. Ásgeir is not much of a performer, he doesn’t get the crowd going, he doesn’t say much at all to the audience. They don’t seem to care.