President's Report March 2008

Dear Members

Welcome to our first Newsletter for 2008.

I have to make a confession. My usually placid demeanour was upended last week by a glorious woman (Lisa Gasteen) in an alien setting (a sardine-can in Hobart) and I'm having trouble returning to a stable state. If parts of this report contain more silliness than usual, That Woman is to blame.

December 2007 - Christmas Party

On Sunday December 9, we ended 2007 with a traditional Christmas Party at the Goethe Institut. After showing DVDs on the life of Birgit Nilsson (kindly loaned by June Donsworth) and some musical episodes in the life of a wascally wabbit (kindly loaned by Terence Watson) we moved on to the festivities.

My special thanks to Barbara Brady, who once again donated one of her marvellous Christmas Cakes for our raffle, and to Clare and Margaret Hennessy, who brought some hydrangeas to brighten our festive table, and to all those who manned the tables and helped dispense the seasonal cheer and clean up afterwards.

One member generously bought more than half the tickets in the raffle, and then won almost every prize, proving something about statistics and chance. But, because he was going overseas in a few days, he gave most of his prizes back (including the cake!) to be redrawn. He even tried to give back fourth prize, the framed lithograph of King Ludwig II, but everyone refused to let it be redrawn, and so he had to take it home.

February 2008 - Talk by Alan Whelan on Wagner Russian escapade in 1863

On Sunday 17 February, Alan Whelan gave our first talk of 2008, on Wagner's three-month stay in Russia in early 1863. Alan recounted that, after 77 fruitless rehearsals for a Tristan in Vienna plagued by postponements, Wagner jumped at the chance of getting some income and went to St Petersburg to give two concerts, stopping off on the way in Berlin to see Bulow and see his wife, Cosima, who was in a condition of advanced pregnancy. Wagner introduced the Russian concert-going public to a new phenomenon - the sight of a conductor's back. Previously conductors had apparently faced the audience and beaten time in a desultory manner, like band-masters, and some critics were unhappy with the change.

Alan looked at the influence of the visit on Russian musical performance - for example, it inspired the Mariinsky Theatre to stage Lohengrin - and on Russian composers of the period and afterwards, and also the influence of Russia on Wagner, illustrating his talk with musical examples.

March 2008 - Talk by Warwick Fyfe, the 2007 Bayreuth Scholar

Our next function is on Sunday 16 March at the Goethe Institut, where Warwick Fyfe will talk about his travels in Europe, and his experience around the role of Wolfram in last year's revival of the Elke Neidhardt production of Tannhauser by Opera Australia. I asked Warwick to give me a 'blurb' outlining his talk, and this is what he sent.

'I feel very privileged to be able to talk to the society on the subject of my trip to Germany as a Bayreuth Scholar and to be able to thank its members in person for the wonderful assistance with which I was provided and without which I would not have had one of the great experiences of my life. I intend to start with an account of events leading up to the trip.

'Last year was a turbulent and frightening one for me. Amongst other things, I thought my career might be over due to a throat condition. This situation arose shortly after I'd received news that I'd been awarded the Bayreuth Scholarship. I will describe my brush with vocal oblivion and the infamous circumstances surrounding my return to the stage as Wolfram. The bulk of my talk will of course focus on my experiences in Germany, before I conclude with a few words concerning current and future projects. I promise to try very hard to be indiscreet. In conformity with the spirit of touchy-feely-ness which obtains in this era of Kevinism, I intend my talk to be partly a conversation. This, along with the use of certain audio visual aids, should help, at least partially, to counteract the soporific effect of the sound of my speaking voice. My love of Wagner's works is as profound as ever, but my knowledge of Wagner reached its peak in my 20s, when it was virtually my sole intellectual passion. In the last decade, however, I've been pursuing other intellectual interests, with the result that my Wagnerian knowledge is a trifle rusty. This is one more very good reason to encourage contributions from an audience comprised of individuals who know a lot more about Wagner than I do. See you on March the 16th!'

In the last Newsletter I revealed that I am an uncloseted and unrepentant Warwick Fyfe groupie, which affliction has sometimes seen me in the audience of operas that I loathe with a passion. I'm looking forward to Warwick's talk enormously.

Other functions in 2008

As I write this letter, we are in the unusual position of having more speakers than we have functions, Glenn Winslade has kindly agreed to address our April meeting on 'Life in Bayreuth' from a singer's viewpoint. On September 14, Dr Robert Gibson will address the Society and on October 19 Goetz Richter (A/Prof. Strings- Chair, String Unit, Sydney Conservatorium) will talk on Nietzsche and Wagner. A number of speakers have expressed interest in talking to the Society, but we are still negotiating suitable times for them - and dates for the meetings with the Goethe Institut. The speakers include: Robert Gay, Peter Bassett and Chris Bordrick (NZ Wag Soc president). Details will be confirmed as soon as possible, either in the next Newsletter or by letter and email.

Membership renewals and donations

I'd like to thank members who have renewed their 2008 memberships in such numbers, and particularly those who have given donations so generously.

This year we have introduced electronic subscription payments direct into the Society's bank account, which have been very popular. Next year we'll look at replacing the signed application form for electronic payments with an email.

Each year during membership renewal time, mail correctly addressed to the Society at GPO Box 4574, NSW 2001, is sorted and sent to Kenilworth in Queensland, postcode 4574. The patient and long-suffering staff at Kenilworth then engross the back of the envelope with a dated ink stamp confirming the envelope's brief stop-over in that place, and direct the item back to Sydney. One envelope managed to be mis-directed three times, until one of the good folk in Kenilworth used a big texter to wake their Sydney compatriots up to the item's true destination. (Yes, gentle reader, I probably do need to get a life.)

Dich, tuere Halle

I don't remember who wrote 'there's naughtiness in everyone, and twice as much in me!' but it's true. Professor Kim Walker (Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music) is currently giving a series of talks entitled 'Great Minds' for the Art Gallery Society in New South Wales, at the gallery's Domain Theatre.

I can't attend anything at this venue without remembering a slip of the tongue during a talk given in this venue some years ago. During a lecture on Wagner's sources for the Ring story, the speaker mentioned the 'world ash-tray', from which Wotan presumably took a burnt match and fashioned his spear. It's the best segue I know from Gotterdammerung to Act 1 of Carmen , but alas I've never been able to use it.

Alas too for Professor Walker, with history repeating itself in that dear Hall. The notes for her first lecture contained the following typo, in reference to early English keyboard masters (an oxymoron): 'Aside from writing songs the English composers also excelled and took the lead in writing pieces for the virginal, a small, rectangular and often legless nun.' Even now I can't read the words without dissolving in laughter.

I'm tempted to offer a prize to anyone who can run the world ash-tray and the often legless nun (small, rectangular or otherwise) into a short and pithy sentence!

Lisa Gasteen in Hobart

I have left the best for last. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra opened its 60 th season on February 28 with a concert which included the Preludes to Acts 1 and 3 of Tristan und Isolde , and the Liebestod and Wesendonck Lieder sung by Lisa Gasteen.

A number of members of the Society and other music-lovers from New South Wales and Queensland attended this concert, many as part of a programme organised by Renaissance Tours, which included a second leg to Adelaide and performances at that city's Festival.

I'd like to thank Robert Gibson, a former member of the Society of long standing and now the Tasmanian Symphony's Publications Editor, for looking after us while we were in Hobart. Walking with Robert to a restaurant on our first evening in Hobart, our group first bumped into Lisa Gasteen, walking back to her hotel after rehearsals, and a little further on into the TSO's chief conductor and artistic director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Elsewhere one might have suspected that it was a put-up job, but in Hobart it was just good fortune.

The Hobart concert was followed by a gala dinner to celebrate the Tasmanian Symphony's 60 th year, at which both Ms Gasteen and Mr Lang-Lessing were guests of honour.Ms Gasteen was seated between Barbara McNulty and me, and although I'm not usually star-struck, on this occasion I gladly made an exception.

But first to the concert. The Wesendonck Lieder , as you know, are one of the few works where Wagner used a text written by someone else. Wagner originally set the five poems for solo voice and piano, between November 1857 and May 1858. Wagner intended that Mathilde Wesendonck should be able to play these piano accompaniments.

During this period, Wagner also orchestrated the piano score for the fifth poem, Traume , for chamber orchestra (without voice), and this serenade was performed under Mathilde's window by musicians led by Wagner as a present on her 29 th birthday, on 23 December 1857. I cannot say whether or not Mr Wesendonck was tucked up in bed with his wife at the time, but the similarity of both gift and birthday with Cosima's symphonic birthday greeting ( The Tribschen Idyll ) on 25 December 1870 is scary.

In 1880 Felix Mottl, a noted conductor and Bayreuth stalwart after Wagner's death, produced full-blown orchestral accompaniments for the remaining four songs under Wagner's supervision, and it is with this orchestration that the Lieder are most commonly recorded and performed today. (I have read of but not heard an alternative version with orchestration of the first four songs by the German composer Hans Werner Henze.)

This brief history is included because I can never understand why the songs are not performed more often as the small-scale works Wagner originally created for solo female voice and piano, which I find are far more charming than their overblown orchestral cousins. Given the tendency of many Wagnerians to trumpet 'authenticity' , it's surprising that Herr Mottl's versions are so preferred to Wagner's own delicate and uncluttered piano accompaniments.

That said, Ms Gasteen's rendering of the songs was glorious. The conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, moved seamlessly from the Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan into the first song, Der Engel , which sounds contrived but worked perfectly. I had been warned about the acoustic of Hobart's Federation Hall (likened by some unfavourably to a sardine can, at least in appearance) before the concert, but I was lucky to have an excellent seat and didn't notice any problems. (Perhaps those giving the warning have forgotten the miserable acoustics we endure in Sydney in both music venues at the opera house?)

This was followed by the familiar bookend pair, the prelude to Act 1 of Tristan and the Liebestod . Here Mr Lang-Lessing seemed to me to be too loud and too slow, and neither of these helped Ms Gasteen. Friends who listened to the concert broadcast by the ABC tell me that they detected some strain in her voice, but I was too lost in the sound to notice. My overwhelming impression is of being lost in a rich dark voice full of pathos and ecstasy, surging towards the long-awaited resolution of the opening chord of the prelude.

Some point to the tension created throughout Tristan by this unresolved chord as proof that Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck's love was never consummated, so that only in death would the lovers find their salvation. If this is true, we all owe Ms Wesendonck a great debt of gratitude for resisting the Meister's considerable charms and blandishments.

Ms Gasteen's performance was greeted with a standing ovation and prolonged applause, but I sensed that those making the biggest exhibitions of themselves were not local (in the 'League of Gentlemen' sense). I wasn't convinced that the locals actually liked Wagner, but at least they were polite enough not to fill every silence with tentative applause like their Sydney cousins do. (My advice - if you don't know when to clap, don't!)

The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky's 6 th symphony. I thought that the concert was the wrong way round and should have had the Wagner last (in the manner of the wine at Cana) so I didn't go back into the hall after the interval, preferring to sit quietly while that great voice slowly faded in my memory.

At the dinner afterwards, I asked Lisa Gasteen why she was singing in every capital in Australia this year except Sydney. It's just bad luck, apparently. Next year she'll be singing here in Fidelio for Opera Australia. She has decided to reduce her concert activity for the next few years to have more time with her family, and while this may see her performing less overseas, it may also see her performing more at home.

And one last dinner-table story. Ms Gasteen's husband and son were supposed to join us around 10.30 at the dinner, but their flight was delayed an hour and a half, and in the end their didn't arrive from the airport until around 12.30am. We were talking, and suddenly Lisa said 'they're here' and grabbing her mobile phone left the table and called them. And yes, they were there, outside the restaurant unloading their bags from the taxi. When she came back and sat down, Lisa saw the strange looks on all our faces and asked whether we could feel when someone we loved was nearby?' Our continued bewildered looks answered that question.

Walking back to the hotel around 1.30am in a crisp 8 degree Hobart morning, I felt the surge of that great voice lift my spirits once again. That Woman has another fan!

Roger Cruickshank 5 March 2008