President's Report February - March 2010

Dear Members

Happy New Year, and welcome to our first Newsletter for 2010.

Congratulations to Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Our warmest congratulations go to Miriam Gordon-Stewart, who has been cast in the role of Helmwige in Bayreuth this year. We last saw Miriam in August 2006, when she arranged a discussion with Deborah Polaski as a special member function. I'm not sure when the last Australian soprano sang in Bayreuth, and I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows. For details of her recent European performances and repertoire, check her website

2009 Functions

On Sunday 20 September 2009, a number of members who had attended the 2009 Bayreuth Festival gave a fascinating presentation covering more than just the performances. Because there were no new productions in Bayreuth in 2009, the group decided not to cover the same ground as speakers from the 2008 festival, but to talk about events and interests around the Festival itself.

For example, Maree Leech began by discussing what someone might read before attending his or her first Bayreuth visit, recommending for 'Bayreuth Virgins' works as diverse as Robin Holloway's article entitled 'The Bayreuth Experience' in the Spectator of 27 August 2008 (still available online), Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights and Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner; Loraine Longfoot spoke about concerts she had attended at other Bayreuth venues, including a piano recital by Stefan Mickisch; Michael Chesterman talked about touring the countryside around Bayreuth; Jim Leigh covered material which has been expanded into an article on Stefan Herwegh's production of Parsifal published elsewhere in this Newsletter; and others discussed the performances and their likes and dislikes.

Our thanks to all who participated in the meeting, and gave such an informative and in many cases personal account of their Bayreuth experiences.

On Sunday 18 October, members of the Sydney University Opera Company gave a singularly outstanding concert. Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds played an arrangement of the 'Pilgrim's Chorus' from Tannhauser for piano duet; Emma Moore (soprano) accompanied by Louis Garrick (piano) sang Berg's Seven Early Songs; and Jack Symonds and Chad Vindin played seven scenes from Parsifal arranged by Humperdinck for piano duet.

I only knew the Berg songs from a CD with Jane Eaglan, and hearing them fresh and live was a revelation, with Louis Garrick's lucid and supporting accompaniment. Emma has recently won the 2009 2MBS-FM Young Performers Award, and sings her first opera role in March as Miss Jessel in the Sydney University Opera Company's production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw at the Cleveland Street Theatre, 199 Cleveland Street, Strawberry Hills on March 2, 4, 5 and 6. Tickets are $30, and you can find details on the Company's website, , including how to book. These are extraordinarily talented young people in search of an audience, and I'd urge you to make the effort to see this performance.

The Parsifal transcriptions were a brilliant tour-de-force by Jack Symonds and Chad Vindin (who have been playing piano duets together since they were 6 years old.). The full work, with narration by Elke Neidhardt, had been part of the 2008 Utzon Concert Series at the Opera House, with two of the four hands belonging to Simone Young. Dr John Casey was not alone in his view that the Symonds/Vindin performance was the better of the two, perhaps because their playing was more immediate, youthful and vigorous, and less musicological. It wasn't an attempt to make the piano sound like an orchestra, or to copy the tempi of a live performance, but a piano performance in its own right with its own tempi and dynamics.

Later in 2010, the Sydney University Opera Company will present the world premiere of a new opera Notes from Underground, written by Jack Symonds and based on the Dostoyevsky novel. We'll let you know when more details are available.

On Sunday 8 November, Antony Ernst spoke about curses in Wagner, in a talk entitled 'From Malediction to Valediction - curses and dramatic resolution in Wagner.' Antony began by describing the kinds of curses Wagner uses, and then catalogued the litany of curses throughout Wagner's work. Antony's attention to detail and his intimate knowledge of these works was breathtakingly displayed.

Antony leaves the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in early March to return to Sydney and take up the position of CEO of the Sydney Youth Orchestras. It's always a pleasure to welcome a prodigal son home, and we hope to see and hear more of him.

2010 Functions

Our first function for 2010 is on Sunday 21 February when Peter Bassett (who provided the following information) will give a richly illustrated talk on 'The Operas Wagner Almost Wrote', about the great composer as he is rarely seen: the creator of such non-Wagnerian characters as the theatre prompter who can't stop sneezing, the young man who makes his living dressed as a bear, and the poet who addresses his audience from a hot air balloon. Peter will also discuss the visionary composer who planned dramas dealing with the lives of Jesus and the Buddha, and relations between the west and Islam. This talk will explore Wagner's many unfinished works and show how these anticipate dramatically and textually the great music dramas of his maturity. Peter's preparations for this talk have formed part of his research for a forthcoming book on Wagner and Verdi, whose bicentenaries will be celebrated in 2013.

Our next function is on Sunday, 28 March when Professor Heath Lees (who provided the following information) will be our guest speaker. Heath's presentation 'Lifting the Lid on Wagner's Piano,' covers two main aspects of the subject. The first, which might be sub-titled simply 'Wagner and the Piano' shows how the young Wagner was frequently rude about the piano. Sometimes he called it more of a musical laboratory than a musical instrument, and claimed that the expressive difference between the orchestra and the piano was so great that no real comparison could be made. And yet, Wagner wrote a number of pieces for the piano, and as Heath will show, much of the music for his operas was clearly written in 'sketch' form at the piano - it seems obvious in many places that the way the notes lay under his fingers helped him to find the music that he was after. He travelled everywhere with a sturdy Erard grand piano that he had almost tricked Erard's widow into donating, and in later life, he was often pictured seated at the piano. Thanks to the equal-tempered tuning of the piano, he was able to write his most chromatic music easily by hearing it first on the piano.

In sum, it seems clear that in his youth and early manhood, Wagner had a kind of love-hate relationship with the piano, but that he came to terms with it as life went on, and by the end, came to accept it as an important musical resource for composition, and expressive in its own right, for performance.

The second aspect of the talk might be sub-titled 'Wagnerism and the Piano.' In other words, it explores how Wagner's music was introduced to others and spread widely through the piano, which was used to teach, to demonstrate, and to win 'converts' in private gatherings and in amateur circles. Heath will offer a brief survey of the kinds of transcriptions that people have produced, from Wagner's day (Liszt, for example) to our own day (for example Stefan Mickisch in Bayreuth). He will also relate how the wagneriste 'showman-pianist' arose in many countries of Europe, where amateur pianists made a name for themselves by offering Wagner 'performances' at the piano, singing, describing, playing, and re-composing large passages of Wagner to increasingly devoted audiences.

Some hilarious send-ups of Wagner by pianists young and old will be included as well, and there will be a few examples of the way composers/performers found ways of using the piano to help them break the stranglehold that Wagner's music exercised on later generations of composers.

As usual, Heath will provide lots of examples and illustrations, with some (sometimes rare) video and audio excerpts. He will also give the impression of some live moments from the past through his frequent, dangerously impromptu piano-playing.

Lisa Gasteen

In an interview with Helen Trinca published in The Weekend Australian of November 21-22 2009, Lisa Gasteen revealed that she may never sing again. The article says that Lisa, 52, has 'agonizing neck spasms that began after she pinched a nerve while picking cumquats 18 months ago"¦' While the neuro-muscular spasms may subside, she has cancelled forward bookings to 2012. To her legion of fans, this is awful news. My most vivid recollection is of her Isolde at a concert performance in Brisbane in 2005, with Richard Mills and the Australian Youth orchestra, which remains the most impressive Isolde I have heard live. Not everything Ms Gasteen has sung has pleased everyone, but it will be a tragedy if another great Australian voice is prematurely silenced.

Der fliegende Hollander in Adelaide

Last November, there were 4 performances of Der fliegende Hollander (the Wagner opera, not Andre Rieu) in Adelaide. There's a review elsewhere in this Newsletter, so I won't duplicate that material. I attended 3 of the performances, unimpressed by the continuous days of 39 degrees of dry, windy heat which accompanied them.

My first observation came when I sat down again in that Dear Hall, reflecting on the bleeding obvious. Here, in this hall, we have been able to enjoy a feast of Wagner over the past decade. First, in 1998, through the genius of Bill Gillespie, the Pierre Strosser / Jeffrey Tate Ring; in 2001, the Elke Neidhardt / Jeffrey Tate Parsifal; in 2004, the Elke Neidhardt / Asher Fisch Ring; and now in 2009 the Chris Drummond / Nicholas Braithewaite fliegende Hollander. (Please don't ask 'who?')

What has the rest of Australia done in that period? Opera Australia has yet to stage the Ring, or Parsifal. Lyndon Terracini, who took up his four-year contract as Opera Australia's artistic director in October last year, has promised Sydney a Ring and Maureen Wheeler, co-founder of the 'Lonely Planet' publishing phenomenon, is willing to put up a rumoured $12 million to see one staged in Melbourne. But neither city has an obvious venue to fulfil these promises. While in Adelaide, slightly teary-eyed, I am sitting in the one venue in Australia which has all done this, twice, and more besides, waiting for the curtain to rise.

My second observation is more frivolous. There are those who believe that Wagner was ahead of his time in many fields. For example, his profound understanding of human psychology predates Freud, and his understanding of the space-time continuum shown in the transition music in Parsifal Acts 1 and 3, predates Einstein and relativity. In this production, we are reminded of Wagner's prescient knowledge of the very new crime of 'internet grooming'. Mary supplies Senta with the picture of the Hollander, and teaches her his Ballad so that, even before she first sees her spectral lover, Senta has been groomed for her role as willing redeemer, even unto death. In this production the giant video picture of John Wegner's Hollander is 'alive' as his head turns, eyes following Senta as she walks across the stage singing his Ballad. He is able to inspect Mary's handiwork in grooming another potential saviour before even setting foot on land. Oddly, the Hollander only understands how well Mary has chosen in the last few bars of the opera, while we humble viewers have known since the middle of Act 2.

My final observation follows on from the first. In 2013 we will celebrate the bicentennials of the births of Verdi and Wagner. The world will be awash with Ring cycles, but what will Australia be awash with? I have no doubt that Stephen Phillips and the State Opera of South Australia are already planning a commemorative production, but what will Opera Australia provide? In the absence of a Ring, perhaps it will be world ash trays and rinse cycles?

Membership renewals

Membership renewals for 2010 are now open

Roger Cruickshank 31 January 2010