Category Archives: Around Australia

Painting with Music – Tchaikovsky at the Ballet

Little Honey and Isabelle have seen three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets this year!

At His Majesty’s Theatre for Swan Lake with St Petersburg Ballet
Irina Kolesnikova with St Petersburg Ballet in Swan Lake
At Festival Theatre, Adelaide for The Sleeping Beauty with Australian Ballet
Robyn Hendricks as Princess Aurora, Ty King Wall as Prince Desire and Valerie Tereshchenko as The Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty
At His Majesty’s Theatre for The Nutcracker with WA Ballet
The Mirlitons from The Nutcracker with WA Ballet
WA Ballet with the Nutcracker

They would have seen more, but Tchaikovsky only composed three! 🙂

Swan Lake is the most performed piece in the classical ballet repertoire and during the course of its 141-year history it has been reinvented, reappropriated, made-over, dumbed-down and spruced-up more than any other work in the canon of the art form.

One of the outstanding composers of the late 19th century and the best known of all Russian composers, Tchaikovsky had a genius for creating melodies, a mastery of musical structure, and a highly developed sense of musical drama that enabled him to reach directly into the hearts of his listeners.

Almost all of Tchaikovsky’s music, not just his three ballets, is imbued with theatricality and the qualities of dance, especially in its rhythmic energy, vivid melody and emotional clarity. His symphonies, concertos, tone poems, orchestral suites, chamber music, and even songs have all made fine ballet scores. While there are reinterpretations aplenty, there is one constant that binds them all together: the heart-wrenchingly romantic music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The Russian musical giant wrote just three ballet scores, and the indestructible popularity of Swan Lake is matched only by the success of its two siblings, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. With just this trio of works, Tchaikovsky is immovably cemented as the most influential and popular composer of ballet music who ever lived.

These three 19th century masterpieces have virtually no rivals among other choreographic works for enduring popularity, and as perpetual crowd pleasers they are a no-brainer for programmers. But while they may be a box office certainty today, guaranteed to fill the house, the global demand for Tchaikovsky’s unanimously adored ballets is a 20th century phenomenon. The premieres of both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were abysmally received, and while The Sleeping Beauty faired better, reviews for its first performance were decidedly mixed. The notion that the world’s most loved ballets could ever be panned might seem preposterous today, but Tchaikovsky’s music, now so evocative of all things ballet, was a radical departure from the accepted norms of the period.

Pre-Tchaikovsky, composers specialising almost exclusively in ballet music, such as the official composer of the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet, Ludwig Minkus, had set the expectations of 19th century audiences at a far more modest level than the sumptuously orchestrated scores we are familiar with today. Ballet was intended to be a visual spectacle of technical prowess, with compelling drama taking a back seat to the public demand for impressively executed divertissements. As such, the accompanying score was required to have a distinct functionality, allowing the dancers to move from one display of balletic virtuosity to the next, sometimes with little consideration for narrative relevance. Light, decorative and rhythmically unambiguous music was the status quo for the ballet stage.

However, while ballet composers had clung to the notion that the music should serve a specific choreographic criteria, the emotional hyperbole and ambitious scope of Romanticism had allowed concert music to wrestle free of traditional conformity in order to explore the extremities of human feeling in bold and innovative new ways. Tchaikovsky, a composer on the front line of this Romantic revolution, had worked hard to build his musical reputation, and while by 1875 his love of writing opera had yet to be rewarded with any significant acclaim, his instrumental and orchestral works, such as the Piano Concerto No 1 in B Flat Minor, and his first three symphonies had attracted the attention of the Russian cultural elite.

Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest melody writers who ever lived and a genius of orchestration. Through his wealth of symphonic writing and his understanding of the orchestra as an instrument of colour, he took the telling of the story in a full length ballet to a whole new level. With Swan Lake he changed the course of ballet music history.

Tchaikovsky used every musical device (major keys, minor keys, rhythm, instruments, orchestration, etc) to reflect the inner emotion and psychology of the character. He understood that there are places where the dancers need to show off, and that the focus needs to be on them, so the music doesn’t detract from that. Then there are really symphonic moments where the music, through use of keys and rhythm and orchestration and complexity, takes over the storytelling.

From the moment the curtain goes up in Swan Lake, even the overture encapsulates the kind of story it will be. Up until then, overtures had been happy little dancy numbers which were about getting the audience settled. Swan Lake starts with a really dramatic theme, firstly in an oboe. It is actually an inversion of the famous swan theme that comes at the end of Act I in the Flight of the Swans and at the start of Act II, and which comes to its final tragic resolution at the end of Act IV. It already sets the scene for something really sad, really mournful. You immediately know we’re not in for a happy little ballet, just from the way Tchaikovsky uses every musical device, from tempo to melody to harmonic changes.

The score of Swan Lake is totally miraculous in the context of ballet music of that period. That a ballet score should warrant the same artistic reverence as the choreography was a radical notion in itself, and perhaps because of this fractious relationship between Julius Reisinger (the first choreographer of Swan Lake) and Tchaikovsky, the original presentation of Swan Lake, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, was viewed as unimaginative, poorly conceived and badly executed by both the dancers and the pit-orchestra. Some accounts of that first performance recognise the calibre of the music, but largely it was branded overly complicated and unnecessarily symphonic for ballet. Thus, unquestionably a pivotal moment in the history of ballet and the first public hearing of Tchaikovsky’s remarkable score was an unmitigated debacle.

Luckily, far from abandoning the genre and leaving it in the hands of specialist composers, Tchaikovsky became convinced that a marriage between great choreography and great music was possible. A year later in 1878 Tchaikovsky engaged in a heated exchanged with Sergei Taneyev, his protégé, in defence of ballet music. “I absolutely do not understand why you cannot reconcile yourself to what you call ballet music. Do you imply that in ballet music there are only happy and rhythmic dancing melodies? I do not understand what it is in ballet music that could make you conclude that it should be censured. Ballet music is not always banal – sometimes it is good.” This passionate rebuke is a clear indication of Tchaikovsky’s growing reverence for dance, but it would be a decade before one of his most important collaborations would yield The Sleeping Beauty, in 1888.

Approached by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky eagerly accepted the commission to create a new ballet based on Charles Perrault’s fable, La Belle au Bois Dormant. For this work Tchaikovsky would find the guidance and support he lacked during the creation of Swan Lake from the ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, the father of classical narrative choreography, Marius Petipa.

Frustratingly for the composer, the production was the focus of some unfavourable reviews, and although it wasn’t as harshly judged as Swan Lake, criticisms of The Sleeping Beauty’s premiere in 1890 ranged from objections to the juvenile, fairy-tale plot, to the over the top decadence of the lavish sets, and, as had been the case for its predecessor, the “symphonic” nature of the score.

Still, in 1891, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the music for The Nutcracker. The premiere season of Tchaikovsky’s third ballet was another dreadful flop. His three ballets had been three failures, and while an orchestral suite from The Nutcracker, and concert performances of the score for The Sleeping Beauty were both highly lauded during his lifetime, Tchaikovsky would not live to see his balletic works become the global smash-hits they are today.

Despite their inauspicious beginnings, however, it is hard to overstate the seismic influence of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, not only on the development of the art form in Russia, but across the world. In the decade following Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, popularity for The Sleeping Beauty grew steadily, until it became the most performed piece in the repertory of the Mariinsky Ballet. However it wasn’t until the great ballet pioneer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes championed Swan Lake in 1911 and The Sleeping Beauty in 1921 in Europe that Tchaikovsky’s visionary approach to composing for dance would be truly recognised on a global scale.

It is impossible now to think of ballet without thinking about Tchaikovsky, and the reason why these ballets are so popular today is because of Tchaikovsky’s scores.

His genius is in the drama and the story telling, which is so clear in the music. The instruments of an orchestra are like the paints on an artist’s palette: which colours are chosen and how they are combined is vital to the mood and character of the finished work. The drama of the stories and the characters that inhabit them in Tchaikovsky’s ballets are ideal for description through instrumental colour as much as through harmony, rhythm and melody. And Tchaikovsky’s use of orchestral ‘colours’ plays a big part in making these scores so exciting and engaging.

Swan Lake’s iconic theme “Flight of the Swans” first appears at the end of Act I. As the harp springs to life, Tchaikovsky writes a particularly challenging stage direction in the manuscript score: “A flock of swans appears in the air.” According to the libretto, Siegfried spots the swans with his friend Benno and decides to hunt them. On his midnight expedition he finds Odette and the flock of swans as they momentarily regain their human forms. Tchaikovsky’s use of melodic contour and the light and shade of his harmonies are powerfully evocative of the cursed flock. The melody unfolds and rises with increasing bursts of effort, like a swan struggling to rise into the air. At first, the melody could hardly be simpler. Based around a melancholy minor chord, it starts at the top, then jumps down to the first note and climbs back up. The phrase is repeated while the strings collapse in shuddering, chromatic tremolos (rapid scrubbing of the bow on the strings).

The second phrase unfurls a little higher. The brighter second phrase has three ascents, each reaching a little higher. But Tchaikovsky uses the rest of the orchestra to send a contrasting message. As the oboe rises, the cellos and double basses gradually descend in a lamenting bass line. If your stomach isn’t churning at the quivering strings, yearning oboe, and dying basses, the strings end the second phrase by scrubbing out two strongly dissonant chords that are resolved by the diabolically triumphant brass.

The Arabian Dance in The Nutcracker is a perfect example of how instrumentation makes musical ideas clear. Its Orientalist fantasy is conjured up through several elements that each have their own tonal quality. A repeating, rhythmic bass begins with low strings of cellos and violas, later with muted double basses. A first melody twists its way up like rising smoke. This is played by muted violins with ‘much expression’ to sound smooth and sensuous. A second languorous melody, written for a solo oboe, floats down through a series of gracious curves. A little punctuating phrase for predominantly low woodwind sound of clarinets with cor anglais decorates the changes of section. Flute chords and a tambourine rhythm add more decoration around these central elements. The contrast of timbres and pitches makes each part of the music stand out on its own while still complementing the others.

Different timbres can also evoke specific characters. In Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat are two of the fairytale guests. They dance a pas de deux in which their identity is described in sound. The opening phrase is a musical version of a cats ‘miaow’, with the reedy quality of oboes and bassoons imitating the penetrating animal tone. Tremolo strings that follow (with a little pizzicato explosion at the start of the sound) tell us that nervous suspense is in the air. In fact, the pas de deux is a stylized chase by one cat of another, with feline jumps, twitching whiskers and ears in the choreography synchronized with the music.

A more sustained quality of motion is conveyed in the Dance of the Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. At the start, the orchestration depicts lightness and flurry: swift breaths of flutes and piccolo are echoed by a shimmer of cellos, intensifying in frequency and length as the snowflakes appears in greater quantities. With the waltz fully under way, a sustained melody is made distinctive through unexpected children’s voices, not singing as characters but as another quality of sound in its own right.

The use of the full orchestra is one of the thrills of both these ballet scores, and even here Tchaikovsky’s lets us hear individuality too. The Overture to The Nutcracker is a big effect on a small scale. Upper strings are used and woodwind are pitched high in their ranges – no cellos or double basses, and no blaring trombones. A ringing triangle emphasizes the high frequencies. It’s a full orchestra – but a toy one to match the theme and scale of this Christmas Eve adventure.

The Prelude to The Sleeping Beauty is of an entirely different order. It’s as full as you like from the start: a dramatic attention-grabbing theme, interspersed with strident brass. The harps are the only instruments not playing in the opening bars – the sound is too loud and aggressive for their delicate, ringing quality. Yet in the second section, harp arpeggios sweep magically over the repeating low notes of the strings to introduce the flowing Lilac Fairy theme on flutes and clarinets. As this section builds, all of the violins, cellos and violas play the main theme together – a glorious, soaring sound where Tchaikovsky uses as a whole orchestral group as though it was just one big solo. You’d think nothing could top that, but Tchaikovsky finds a way: trumpets! And the Prelude concludes with a glorious fanfare over shimmering chords of strings, woodwind and harps. It’s another huge orchestral sound – and so different from the one that began the Prelude.

Whether on the scale of just a single instrumental line, a small group or the entire orchestra, Tchaikovsky knew how to use all the potential of orchestral sounds to animate the drama, direct our ears and – with these great ballet scores – complement our eyes.

Nick Cave @ Carriageworks

Little bears went to Carriageworks to see Nick Cave: UNTIL – the most ambitious project to date by the influential American artist.

“I view this work as a theatre set, or an elaborate community forum, as much as a work of sculpture,” explains Nick Cave.

The centrepiece of NICK CAVE: UNTIL is Crystal Cloudscape, a 12 metre long and 6 metre wide sculpture, weighing over five tonnes, and suspended within the Carriageworks public space. Made primarily from thousands of crystals, beads, and found objects, visitors are invited to climb one of four ladders to view the top surface of the work where an uncanny bricolage of objects that reference an American vernacular past and present populate a landscape simultaneously alluring as it is menacing.

Crystal Cloudscape
Crystal Cloudscape

Amidst the porcelain birds, money-boxes, ceramic salt and pepper shakers, candelabras, gramophone speakers, soft toys, glass fruit, gold-gilded pigs, life-sized crocodile, holy water receptacles, dandelions, flowers and Beams Trophy Whiskey Decanters are 17 cast-iron ‘Jocko’-style lawn jockeys whose historic roots date to the Jim Crow era of legislated segregation that operated in parts of the United States from 1877-1965. Replacing the lanterns that the lawn jockeys once held, Cave’s ‘Jockos’ hold dreamcatchers that have been fashioned from vintage tennis rackets and beads.

Visitors are able to view the Crystal Cloudscape from above, climbing one of the four ladders up to the surface of the work, or observing the entirety of the constructed landscape from a viewing platform.

Crystal Cloudscape

Nick Cave has created an exhibition experience where kinetics and sumptuous materials are interrupted with stark images of guns, bullets and targets. Other works within UNTIL include the Kinetic Spinner Forest, Hy-Dyve, Beaded Cliff Wall, Flow/Blow and Wallwork.

Kinetic Spinner Forest consists of 16,000 hanging mobiles made from metallic spinning garden ornaments. On close inspection these seemingly playful objects have at their centre the shape of a teardrop, bullet or hand-gun. The initial enchantment of the forest is ruptured by the pointed reminder of the omnipresent and polarising position that guns occupy in American culture.

Kinetic Spinner Forest
Kinetic Spinner Forest
Kinetic Spinner Forest

Hy-Dyve is an immersive 14 channel video installation and exploration into states of anxiety and agitation fuelled by the pervasive notions of surveillance and racial profiling. The floor component of the work is site-specific for Sydney; the footage of waves crashing against the rocks filmed by drone at Little Bay. The pull and swell of the ocean projected onto the floor creates a tidal momentum within the room.

A still of the projections in Hy-Dyve

Beaded Cliff Wall is an extraordinary installation constructed with millions of plastic hair pony beads. This site-specific installation and has been completely redesigned and reconceived for Carriageworks. The beaded curtains are displayed in their entirety, running the lengths of the gallery walls and creating a room within a room. Visitors can walk between the curtains that read as both luscious textiles and powerful protest flags.

Beaded Cliff Wall took 18 months to create and features millions of pony beads threaded onto shoelaces by hand.

Flow/Blow is a fan propelled wall of shimmering party streamers. The life-giving, cleansing and healing properties of water and oxygen are writ large, inviting viewers to take breath.

A still of the Flow/Blow wall

Wallwork is a kaleidoscopic collage of images mostly adapted from Crystal Cloudscape. The image of ‘Jocko’, the eternal gatekeeper and messenger, is interwoven with flowers that represent renewal, and birds who both surveil and bring news.

Nick Cave with his work ‘Wallwork’ for UNTIL at Carriageworks
Unarmed features a bronze hand positioned as if holding a handgun.

Artist Nick Cave has made a career out of this kind of maximalist diversion, which captivates and delights the viewer before they know what is happening — most famously with his Soundsuits, wearable sculptures that generate sound as the wearer moves.

Heard, by Nick Cave, at GOMA
Heard, by Nick Cave, at GOMA

The Soundsuits featured in Cave’s work HEARD, which was performed at Carriageworks and at GOMA in 2016, were made from raffia and reclaimed materials.

Cave’s talent for “play” allows him to sneak complex questions and ideas under the radar of passers-by. His Soundsuits, many of which look like a cross between a Muppet and a Mardi Gras costume, disguise all aspects of the wearer’s identity — and were a response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by the LA Police (the first one was made of twigs he gathered in a park in Chicago, where he is based).

In Until, Cave’s largest and most complex work to date, he is talking about racism — but dazzling you as he does it. The spinning “baubles”, hanging in strings from the Carriageworks ceiling, depict bullets, guns and tears.

Until is a response to gun violence and race relations in America.

A play on the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’, or in this case ‘guilty until proven innocent’, UNTIL began with a question Cave asked himself: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’ Rather than providing a direct answer, Cave offers us an experience, an immersive exhibition that addresses issues of race relations, gender politics and gun violence in America, and the resonance of these matters in communities around the world.

The catalyst for Until was the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old African American man Michael Brown by a white police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

Until is Cave’s most immersive experiment to date, allowing him to create a whole experience for the viewer. He thinks of the exhibition and its various spaces as a choreographer might (and not for nothing — he trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre as a young man), imagining how viewers might move through the environment and experience it.

“Creating the work in the studio is one thing. The other half is executing it,” he said. And it is nothing until the people arrive. And it’s really something when little bears arrive 🙂

NICK CAVE: UNTIL is the result of a partnership between Carriageworks, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with the three organisations co-commissioning and co-presenting the project following four years development with the artist. In Australia the exhibition will be seen exclusively at Carriageworks.

(Why so blue? Inadvertent camera setting.)

Triumvirate of B’s at Sydney Opera House

Berlin Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

The Berlin Staatskapelle is an opera orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, that also plays concerts.

Over the ‘wall’ from the Berlin Philharmonie, the 500 year old Staatskapelle has weathered tyrants and kings, and worst, GDR bureaucrats. But its cultured sound remains — the history lives on. Much of the later, Cinderella part of the story belongs to Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years. When shunned by the Berlin Philharmoniker for directorship after Claudio Abaddo, he focused on his other Berlin orchestra and has thrust them into international prominence.

Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

The Berlin State Opera originated with the establishment by Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg of his “Kurfurstliche Hofkapelle” (Electoral Court Ensemble), formally organised in 1570. That makes Staatskapelle one of the oldest orchestras in the world. By the early 17th century the orchestra numbered 37 players, becoming one of the largest in Europe, but during the Thirty Years War it shrank to just seven players. It slowly recovered, now as an ensemble mostly of strings. In 1696, Elector Friedrich III established the first regular opera in Berlin, using the Hofkapelle as its orchestra.

In 1701, Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Elector became King Friedrich I. Its musical establishment was enlarged and named “Königliche Kapelle” (Royal Ensemble), but with the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713 the group dwindled to a small brass band used for hunting and parades. During this period, the orchestra served as Kur Brandenburg court chapel, exclusively for musical engagements at court.

The next king, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), known as a military genius, was also a music lover, good flute player, and adequate composer who wrote over 120 flute concertos. He brought in excellent musicians to serve as his Kapellmeister, including Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His lovely Royal Opera House on Unter den Linden, built in 1742, was strictly for the court and military officers. After the Royal Opera House was founded by Frederick the Great, the court chapel became an intrinsic part of the Opera House unter den Linden. By the 1850’s, individual members were already extending their Kapelle activities and contributing significantly to the Berlin concert scene. The Opera House has been destroyed by fire and war more than once, but rebuilt each time, and it still serves as the home of the opera and the orchestra.

Frederick II died in 1786, and in 1789 the Unter den Linden opera opened to the public for the first time. The first public symphony concert featuring the Kapelle was a 1796 benefit concert for Constanze Mozart of her late husband’s music. From the beginning of the 19th century the orchestra began giving public concerts which, from 1821, were played at the Gendarmenmarkt Theater.

The greatest conductors in their time left their indelible marks on the orchestra´s culture of instrumentalisation and interpretation. Great figures in music have shaped its instrumental and interpretational culture. Gaspare Spontini, the first to hold the title of Prussian General Music Director, was succeeded by illustrious names, such as: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

There were only sporadic concerts until 1842 when Kapellmeister, Giacomo Meyerbeer, organised regular subscription concert series. The orchestra’s series remained limited and highly conservative by comparison with those of the Berlin Philharmonic Society (founded 1826 and organised as a professional orchestra in 1882) until conductor Felix Weingartner, appointed to head the Königliche Kapelle in 1892, made it a leading part of the city’s musical life. Richard Strauss was its music director from 1908 to 1920. The works of Richard Wagner, who conducted the “königlich preussische Hofkapelle” (royal Prussian court orchestra) himself in 1844 at the Berlin première of The flying Dutchman and in 1876 during the preparations for the Berlin première of Tristan und Isolde, have been a key part of the repertoire of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle ever since.

The post-War Revolution toppling the monarchy (known as the German Empire since 1871) resulted in the “Royal Kapelle” being renamed the Kapelle der Staatsoper (State Opera Orchestra). As part of the lively musical scene in Berlin in the 1920’s it now became associated with modern music. Its great conductors during the period included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Zemlinsky, and Bruno Walter. Many of them left after the 1933 accession of the Nazis to power.

In 1934, the opera orchestra was named the Staatskapelle (State Orchestra), and from 1938 to 1945 was led by the young Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Another political reorganization in 1944 renamed the orchestra the Preussiche Staatskapelle (Prussian State Orchestra), which ceased giving concerts on April 19, 1945 when Allied troops began to enter the city. But it soon reopened (June 16, 1945) as the “Staatskapelle Berlin”. Two long-serving music directors, Franz Konwitschny (1955-1962) and Othmar Suitner (1964 to 1990), saw the Staatskapelle Berlin through its years as the leading orchestra in East Berlin, firmly under German Democratic Republic government rule.

In 1989, the members of the orchestra presented to the government a petition demanding the reorganization of the Staatskapelle as an independent, democratically run organisation. This became part of the widespread public pressure that within months caused the collapse of the German communist state and the reunification of Germany.

Daniel Barenboim is responsible for the Berlin Staatskapelle in his capacity as Staatskapellmeister (General Music Director) since 1992, between 1992 and 2002 he also held the post of the State Opera’s artistic director. Barenboim, unlike most present-day conductors, believes in long-term musical relationships. While it was not unusual for icons such as Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, Georg Szell in Cleveland, and Herbert von Karajan in Berlin to create a strong bond and recognisable musical identity with their orchestras over decades of training collaboration, this is seldom the case today. Eugene Ormandy helped his orchestra develop the legendary ‘Philadelphia sound’ over forty years. How many orchestras would be able to boast of similar achievement today? The Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim might be one of the few and the fruits of this relationship were clearly demonstrated in the three concerts at Sydney Opera House.

When Barenboim took over this former East German ensemble, he described it as ‘as little bit like encountering a wonderful collection of antique furniture; the workmanship was superb but there was a thick layer of dust over everything’. Such has been his painstaking work these past years that what we now have are sounds the like of which have probably not been heard in Berlin since the Furtwängler years. Their playing is marked by a golden tone, rich strings, deep powerful timpani, characterful winds and solid brass.

The first two concerts presented Brahms as it should be. Bold, grand, shamelessly romantic.

Staatskapelle with Daniel Barenboim at Sydney Opera House

The fact that Barenboim divides his violin decks antiphonally adds to the purpose of this music (a practice that is unfortunately carried out by few conductors nowadays) and creates some nice effects especially in the last two symphonies. The tempi are slow overall, slower than most performances, but so gorgeous is the playing that it is a pleasure to indulge in such fine music-making. Plus, Barenboim’s definitely not your standard conductor when it comes to these pieces: he gently shapes, nearly caresses, each phrase as if he were sculpting a fine statue of antiquity.

Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

Performing the Brahms symphonies as an anthology within twenty-six hours offers all kinds of experiences for an audience. It can listen to the cycle as an opulent wash of Romantic orchestral music; take this rare chance to observe the differences between the four works, resulting from chronology and the increasing maturity of the composer; or attend to the minutiae of interpretations in the various movements. There was a unity to musical concept, playing style, and the quality of both, from the first powerful unisono orchestral tutti of the cycle on a single, resonant C to its last, full E minor chord. It was not the differences between tempi and moods, dynamics and emotions, that appealed the most, but the unbroken attention to the flow of musical energy and its changes throughout the two evenings.

One feature was the way in which Barenboim and his supremely disciplined orchestra allowed the music to breathe. A certain freedom of the tempo, which musicians call rubato, became a self-evident part of the performance, as for example in the deliciously slight hesitation of the opening bar of the Symphony No.4.

The collective tone of the woodwind players was mesmerising. Individual solos, such as the oboe theme in the first half of the Andante sostenuto movement of the Symphony No.1 stood out not only for its outstanding musicality but also for an exquisite and highly individual tone colour. Of the numerous horn solos throughout the cycle, the stentorian Alphorn solo impressed particularly with its resonance and impeccable control in the same symphony’s final movement.

Barenboim also inspired his musicians to produce unique sounds, when two or more instruments or groups played in unison. Seldom do cellos and horns blend so well, creating not two different tones but a joint new one, as they did in the final movement’s triplet theme in the Symphony No.3.

The string section – the backbone of most Romantic orchestral compositions – played with perfect unison. Their excellent balance was helped by a long row formed by the eight double basses in the back behind the winds and brass. Thus they directly faced the audience, and their well-controlled sound came through without the hindrance of being seated on the side. The clarity of sound was nothing short of amazing within the string sections; the middle voices remained light, never cluttering the velvety texture of the melodies. This was particularly obvious in the Allegro con brio movement of the Symphony No.2.

Their always warm and unified sound notwithstanding, a rare achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin is that individual players are constantly audible – not only the wind instruments but also the strings. While orchestras around the world often aim to achieve a homogeneous sound within sections, there was a pleasing flexibility in a collective sound that was composed of recognisably individual elements.

Barenboim appeared to have counted on that flexibility. While he gave his musicians latitude, he maintained supreme control over the flow of the music. With his left arm often stretched out, he indicated long musical lines or delicately adjusted the balance between the various sections. He often focused on a melody while also accentuating an accompanying voice, only to emphasise another one a few notes later, drawing the listener’s attention to different voices. In this densely written, highly contrapuntal music, where several voices are playing most of the time, this became an intellectual exercise for the discerning audience, for many secondary melodies (always there, but rarely noticeable) gained much welcome importance. The feeling was akin to looking at an old, dusty painting after a thorough cleaning.

Barenboims’s holistic reading of these compositions, based on meticulous observation of all the instructions in the score, revealed them in a new light. It was a less dramatic approach than even Barenboim’s own first recording of the set from 1993. The myriad alterations distinguishing it from the traditional perception of these symphonies were mostly minute, but they altered the sound of the symphonies and rewarded the capacity audience of the Concert Hall with an unusually rich performance of all four Brahms symphonies.

You say you enjoyed the Brahms beary much? That’s beary good news 🙂

And now you can listen to more Brahms with Staatskapelle at home.

Brahms left his native Hamburg in the early summer of 1853, aged just 20, returning later that year, a doted-upon composer, known to Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz and, of course, Clara and Robert Schumann, who declared him a genius. He had achieved fame and presented in his first few works a solid foundation from which that celebrity would grow. Very few people who crossed his path were unaffected by his obvious and abundant talent.

When he died, in April 1897, aged 63, he was the German-speaking world’s foremost composer; indeed he was probably the most famous composer in the entire world. His music was played across the USA as his disciples took up posts in the musical capitals of the New World. He had amassed a considerable fortune almost entirely from the royalties to his music with occasional supplements from performing. He was a composer who did not rely on financial patronage but who truly lived off his talent and was beholden to no one. Today, Brahms’s music — particularly his orchestral music — has a grip on the repertoire like few others, his god Beethoven apart. No other composer offers a symphonic legacy that is so well balanced, so concentrated and at such an equally high level: four works, like the four sides of a square, that comprise a unit of great strength and integrity. Barely a week (hardly even a day) goes by without a performance of one of his symphonies somewhere in the world.

To talk of Johannes Brahms is to enter a world where fantasy, melancholy and the contradiction of bluff appearances and unfathomable depths are crucial prerequisites. Few symphonic composers have done so much with so few works, but Brahms four symphonies have lasted through the centuries thanks to their verve, their freedom and their complexity.

But it didn’t start off quite like that…

If any one composer in history was hyped to breaking point, it has to be Brahms. For a variety of reasons, he was seen as the natural successor to Beethoven, whose legacy cast a long shadow over the 19th century. Basically, everyone was expecting Brahms to pull out the big guns and follow Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

A total of fourteen years were to pass between 1862 , when the then 29-year-old Brahms noted down his earliest ideas for his First Symphony, and the first performance of the work in Karlsruhe in 1876. Expectations were high. The conductor for the symphony’s premiere, Hans von Bülow, even referred to it as ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’, a term which has stuck. It’s true that there are quotes and references to Beethoven work within the symphony, but it’s more of a homage than a case of plagiarism. As Brahms himself commented, “any ass can see that”.

According to a famous remark that he made to his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, before he had started working on his First Symphony, Brahms regarded his situation as a composer desperate: “I shall never write a symphony. You have no idea who people like us feel when all we can hear is a giant marching along behind us.”

Brahms was clearly aware that he belonged to a generation of epigones and could look back only with anxious wonderment on the age of classical heroes. Although he worshipped Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, as a symphonist he was reacting first and foremost to his father’s generation of Romantic composers, above all to his mentor Robert Schumann and to Menderlssohn. By approaching the symphony from the direction of the serenade and variation, Brahms was able to develop a concept of the medium whose ingenious unity of comprehensibility and complexity is unmatched in the output of any other 19th century composer.

After the nightmare of expectation and hype that surrounded Brahms’ first symphony, you might expect the second to contain some of the composer’s most melancholic work. In fact, it’s surprisingly light and airy, some say with a similar character to Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the ‘Pastoral’. It’s a breeze to listen to, with the first movement especially full of sweeping melodies to whistle along with.

In a show of brilliant self-awareness, Brahms wrote to his publisher in 1877 upon delivery of the second symphony, describing the work with his tongue firmly in his cheek as, “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it.”

By 1883, Brahms was on a roll. He’d had major successes with his violin concerto, his piano concertos and his Academic Overture, but the third symphony was something else. It’s a brave monster of a work, with rapidly changing character and some more of those huge, sweeping melodies.

Nine years after the premiere of his first symphony, Brahms conducted the premiere of his fourth symphony in Meiningen, bringing to an end his engagement with the symphony as a genre. With his final symphony, Brahms again nods to Beethoven on several occasions. As the likes of Liszt and Wagner (who by this time had passed away) set about decrying the old guard of older composers, Brahms ignored most of the developments around him and shamelessly, confidently looked backwards for inspiration. That’s why the fourth symphony has such a strongly classical symphonic feel. There are adventures and experiments within it, but there’s also a huge amount of Bach and more Beethoven.

Bravo! Brahms, Barenboim and Berlin Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

Dinner @ Bennelong Restaurant

Little bears are in Sydney to see, and hear, Daniel Barenboim and his legendary orchestra, Staatskapelle. The renowned maestro and his orchestra will celebrate the Romantic greats in three Australian exclusive performances at Sydney Opera House. We have tickets to two performances, having decided that one night of Brahms was enough. Besides, Brahms is no competition for a cherry jam lamington!

On the night of the first performance, little bears were under the same roof as the legendary orchestra, but at Bennelong restaurant to eat Peter Gilmore’s famous cherry jam lamington.

It was four years ago that Peter Gilmore took over the Bennelong site at Sydney Opera House. Apparently it was a Hollywood-style happy ending to what had been a drama-packed 12 months for Bennelong and Sydney Opera House. The controversy began with former tenant Guillaume’s Brahimi’s decision not to re-bid for the tender at the end of his lease in January 2014 following a Sydney Opera House decree for a more casual operation in the space.

The the three-level space was given a multi-million dollar makeover, and it opened mid 2015 with a signature Peter Gilmore dining room on the lower level, quick bites and drinks in the middle, and a casual restaurant/bar on the upper level.

Little bears couldn’t be happier with the change! The result is a beary friendly restaurant! 🙂

Princess Charlotte Bay bug dumpling
hispi cabbage, finger lime
nori, brown butter
Roast wagyu rump cap
cipollini & buckwheat pudding
horseradish emulsion
with broccolini and asparagus as a side dish

Peter Gilmore is famous for his desserts. Quay’s snow egg was a bucket list dining item for everyone in Sydney, and the lamington at Bennelong is starting to reach equal heights. When he took over Bennelong, Gilmore was inspired to create something as iconic as his new venue.

Cherry jam lamington

This is the Rolls Royce of lamingtons. Peter Gilmore’s take on the classic lamington is an ode to Australian nostalgia, elevated to the point of cult-dish status. On the plate: a square of cherry jam coconut ice-cream and sponge cake, coated in a glossy chocolate ganache, all surrounded by a halo of liquid nitrogen coconut milk parfait that acts as desiccated coconut. Amazing!

Cherry jam lamington

If you feel brave enough to tackle the nearly 50 separate steps needed to create the dessert, here is the recipe.

Content little bears 🙂

The Wildflowers of Western Australia

Western Australia’s wildflower season begins in June and lasts for 6 months.

There are some 12,500 flowering species in WA, 60 per cent of which are endemic to the state. The wildflowers of WA are inventive survivors forced to diversity in order to try to survive in the west’s sandy, loamy soils. As a result WA’s wildflower endemism is second only to perhaps South Africa’s in the world of botanical riches.

The sparkling globules on a sundew (Droseraceae sp.) are not actually morning dew condensation, but sticky nectar used by the insect-catching plants to tempt unsuspecting prey. Any invertebrate unlucky enough to be caught is then ingested by the pretty carnivores. The plants compensate for the lack of water and nutrients in the soil by digesting the insects.

Sundew (Droseraceae sp.)
Smoking bush (Conospermum sp.)

The bulbous flowering head of the kingia (Kingia australis) sprout after fire, their growth likely triggered by the release of ethylene gas. Endemic to south-west Western Australia, this slow-growing, silvery-leaved plant has a thick, often blackened trunk that reaches 4-8m tall.


Fruitful Mottlecah (Eucalyptus macrocarp) flower in spectacular fashion, bursting from a large pod, splitting it slowly in half to produce flowers up to 10cm in diameter, usually bright red or pink-red. The species name is derived from the Greek words, makros, meaning large and karpos, meaning fruit.

Fruitful Mottlecah (Eucalyptus macrocarp)

The flower of slow-growing grass trees (some examples of which are among the oldest living plant species in the world) are sometimes used as a bushy’s compass because their flowers open most on the sunnier, northern side. Their stems also made good fishing spears and the waterproof resin, taken from the leaves near the trunk, has a multitude of uses.

Grass tree flower (Xanthorrhoea sp.)
Wildflowers in Kalbarri National Park

Explorer William Dampier collected the first Australian daisy, a Brachyscome, in 1699 from Shark Bay in Western Australia. Many Australian daisies were introduced into Europe prior to the mid 19th century and were very popular in the colony from the 1860s until the turn of the century.

Yellow leschenaultia (Lechenaultia linarioides)
Mop heads (Petrophile linearis)

The red ‘lip’ of a king spider orchid (Caladenia pectinata) attracts wasps who, thinking that it’s a mate, rub against it and take away pollen to fertilise another flower.

King spider orchid (Caladenia pectinata)
Stark white spider orchid (Caladenia longicauda eminens)
Donkey orchid (Orchidaceae diuris) – two large petals stick up towards the top of the flower giving it a donkey-esque appearance

After his 1699 expedition William Dampier was among the first to cast aside the idea that WA’s low, scraggly looking vegetation was of little botanical worth and commented on the predominance of blue flowers.

Blue bounty
Yellow leschenaultia (Lechenaultia linarioides)
Pincushion cone flowers (Isopogon dubious)
Blushing spider orchid (Caladenia lorea)
Flame peas (Chorizema sp.)
Fringe lilies (Thysanotus multiflorus)

Little bears are partial to everlasting daisies, pretty, delicate and soft… Some wildflowers are prickly!

Photography by Don Fuchs from Australian Geographic.

Kalbarri National Park

Kalbarri is one of Western Australia’s best known national parks, with its jaw-dropping unique landscape, scenic gorges, white and red banded sandstones and soaring coastal cliffs. The park covers an area of 186,000 hectares and contains abundant wildlife, including 200 species of birds, and spectacular wildflowers between July and November.

There are two faces to the park: coastal cliffs line the coast south of Kalbarri, with great lookouts and walking trails connecting them. Inland are the river gorges.

Natural bridge and coastal cliffs

Along the coast, wind and wave erosion has exposed the sedimentary layers in the sandstone cliffs that plunge more than 100 metres to the ocean. Red Bluff, Mushroom Rock, Rainbow Valley, Eagle Gorge, Island Rock and the Natural Bridge are among the best-known features of this rugged coast.

Coastal cliffs

Kalbarri National Park surrounds the lower reaches of the Murchison River, which has cut a magnificent 80 kilometre gorge through the red and white banded sandstone to create formations such as Nature’s Window and Z-Bend.

Nature’s Window

Natures Window perfectly frames the Murchison river and is top on the list of photo opportunities 🙂

Considered by many to offer the most breathtaking view of the park, at Z-Bend the gorge plunges 150m down where red river gums create a striking contrast against the earthy Tumblagooda sandstone.


The Tumblagooda sandstone is a geological formation deposited during the Silurian or Ordovician periods, between four and five hundred million years ago, and now exposed in the river and coastal gorges of Kalbarri National Park, straddling the boundary of the Carnarvon and Perth basins. Visible trackways are interpreted by some to be the earliest evidence of fully terrestrial animals.


The Murchison River is the second longest river in WA, at 820 kilometres long and has a catchment area of 82,000km2 (larger than Tasmania!).

The Murchison River rises on the southern slopes of the Robinson Ranges, about 75 km north of Meekatharra in central Western Australia. The river travels across dry plains, hills, salt lakes and gorges with many tributaries forming a massive catchment area, before entering the Indian Ocean at Kalbarri.

Mouth of Murchison river

The night sky and galactic centre above Kalbarri National Park.