Friday, February 08, 2019

SSO: 2019 Season Opening Gala

It's 2019 and time for another concert. Actually, I wasn't planning to attend any this month but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra offered a couple of free tickets to some 20th and 21st Century music so who was I to refuse, especially when David Robertson is conducting?

Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra isn't quite 20th Century, but it was made famous by a rather famous movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey, so that counts. The only bit I'm familiar with is the Introduction: Sunrise.

For the rest of the piece it sort of felt like Zarathustra spake too much, but I'm not a huge classical music fan. Too much exposure as a child I should think. But it was certainly interesting from a tonal sense, watching the different elements of the orchestra, including the massive pipe organ looming high above the stage.

A large portion of the orchestra disappeared for Nigel Westlake's Oboe Concerto Spirit of the Wild, written for the SSO's Diane Doherty.

Doherty's virtuoso oboe performance was amazing, but I really enjoyed the accompanying orchestral melodies. Westlake has composed for a number of films and I could quite imagine some cinematic scenes for his music. What I couldn't really see was the Tasmanian wilderness that inspired the score - My own experiences would have lead to very different music. Still, this was the highlight of the night in my opinion.

The orchestra returned for the final piece of the night, Percy Grainger's The Warriors. In fact, it expanded with three pianos on stage, a celesta, two harps and a number of other instruments including a heckelphone, which sounds like an audience rather than an instrument.

The conductor had to enter from the right as there wasn't any room through the normal entrance.

I thought all that sound made the piece rather muddy. It lacked a strong melody and again, it wasn't really my thing. But it was visually spectacular and picking out individual sections made the experience quite interesting. Some of the brass also decamped during the piece and you could hear them play outside the concert hall, which was a curious development.

David Robertson, the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the SSO, was mesmerising to watch, his conducting a performance in itself. If that baton was a wand the spells he would create would definitely be those of a grand musical wizard.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend the opening Gala and am looking forward to a year full of music.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Farewell 2018

The year began with fireworks and a rumbling sky and it promises to end that way as well. No surprise really.

Looking through my non-travel highlights for 2018 and it seems they are mainly concerts or karate. The first concert of the year was Star Wars with the SSO in Sydney, the last The Empire Strikes Back with the MSO in Melbourne, just this month.

As for karate, by the end of the year both Alex and I had graded to third kyu blue belts and we both won medals in the club tournament, though my was more due to a lack of competitors.

Alex was also awarded the MVP trophy for tee-ball at school. It's the first year he's done interschool sports, first soccer, then tee-ball. I'm very proud of him, even more so for his amazing academic achievements.

We hosted another Japanese student, Satoe, through the school. She was great, another big sister to Alex.

Both B and I worked hard in our jobs. It's been a stressful year for her, learning the ropes of her new role. But she's got through it.

I was very pleased to release version one of a new WordPress theme framework that promises to make developing new themes much easier for us. We "finished" it just before Christmas, so we'll see how it goes in the new year.

The other two haven't last until midnight and even the dog would rather be in bed. The neighbours have been letting off their own fireworks, but I'll stay up to watch the city midnight show from our driveway.

Hope your year has been good and all the best for the new one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back in concert with the MSO

A long time ago in a city far, far away a young boy went to his very first movie at the cinema, an epic of duelling starships, aliens and a mysterious power called "The Force".

The year was 1980, the movie, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the city, Melbourne and the young boy was me aged six.

My best friend Dishan and his father picked me up from home and together we drove into the city for a night time viewing of the second Star Wars movie. I recall loving it, but being rather confused at some points. Why was (force ghost) Obi-Wan Kenobi good at the beginning and evil (hologram Emperor) later on? What should I call the dog walker vehicles (AT-ATs)? And... Well, I can't remember because it was such a long time ago.

Afterwards I used the small amount of pocket money given to me by my parents to buy a Kit-Kat.

And so began my long love affair with Star Wars and its music.

I saw the Empire Strikes Back at least twice more in Melbourne, saw Star Wars on video and then at the cinema, queued up for Return of the Jedi. Even though we then moved away from Melbourne I managed to return to view Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens at cinemas there.

In my mind the movies, the music and Melbourne are inextricably linked. When I hear Yoda's Theme I am always taken back to the elegant southern city of my birth, recalling the yearning to return from my many years of exile elsewhere in Australia.

So despite watching The Empire Strikes Back in Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra back in July I knew I had to go down to Melbourne to see it there as well.

When it comes to performing film music I have always sensed a resistance and lack of respect from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, whereas the opposite is true from the Melbourne Symphony and that was another incentive to head south.

Prior to the Sunday matinee concert the three members of The Art of the Score, comprising the conductor Nicholas Buc, Andrew Pogson of the MSO and Dr Dan Golding, held a highly informative pre-concert talk. I admit that, despite my passion for film music, I rarely analyse it, so I learned a lot from the talk and will be downloading their podcasts in future!

The Dad Joke level humour was also much appreciated and it was great to have a chance to talk to the team.

Meanwhile, in the lobby there were Stormtroopers and Imperial Officers, along with a jazz band doing a fine rendition of the cantina music from the first Star Wars movie.

The performance was held in The Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre's Plenary, a huge venue that I'd previously sat in for a couple of Doctor Who concerts. Unlike in Sydney, this time I was seated in a premium row close to the stage with a perfect view of both the movie and the orchestra. The acoustics sounded fine to me with great definition of the individual instruments.

Seated next to me was Dr Golding of The Art of the Score, a nice surprise. I'll apologise for any incoherence in my conversation, coming off an overnight trip on a train.

Armed with the knowledge from the talk I had fun identifying elements within the score, keeping a closer eye on the orchestra than on the film itself. One surprise was how often the piccolo features in the score, from that very first rendition of the Imperial March soon after the opening credits (which I never realised until it was pointed out) onwards.

I don't know what to say about the performance itself except to say that it was as close to perfection as you can get, an incredible feat considering that the music is performed in real time. Studio recordings are done over days and weeks with the best performances edited together.

I left the concert feeling like the effort and expense of getting there was fully justified. It may be 38 years since I first saw the film, but today I was a young boy feeling the thrill of seeing and hearing one of the best movies and scores of all time all over again.

Onwards to Return of the Jedi!

Monday, September 24, 2018

3rd Kyu

Bit more self gloss. Two terms after the last grading I've now made 3rd kyu blue belt in Ishinryu Karate, with distinction.

That was unexpected! It took me five terms for the last grading and only two for this one. Then again, I have been spending between five to six hours a week, three to four days, at karate and even helping out with a bit of instruction.

I think that helped a bit because I certainly wasn't perfect tonight. I'm not sure if it was the anxiety of grading or something else, but I felt awful all weekend and today.

Alex has been busy with tennis and wasn't read to grade. Next term. One of his best friends from school failed his green belt grading, along with most of the others going for it. Very sad.

Next stop brown belt. It's getting serious!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in Concert

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks the halfway point in the series and the first of the movies where John Williams was not responsible for the music. Instead Scottish composer Patrick Doyle takes the up the reins for his sole outing in the series.

I'm not particularly familiar with Doyle's body of work, Harry Potter and Thor being the only two soundtracks I have listened to. Both they and today's concert make me want to add to that collection.

Hamish McKeich continued on from the recent Empire Strikes Back concert conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, this time as the Sydney Opera House. The performance was again fantastic with the only a tiny slip up by the brass at the very end of the titles, forgivable after the effort of the past couple of hours. The Durmstrang/Viktor Krum entrance theme was also lacking in power compared to the movie, though perhaps that was due to the lack of a choir and post recording processing.

I was seated seven rows back from the front of the stage which gave an exciting view of the amazing string performance and the conductor, though it did mean that I could see little of the rest of the orchestra. Most importantly, the sound there was great, both for the thrilling action and the haunting Harry in Winter theme.

I've already got my tickets for the rest of the series next year and I'm very much looking forward to them. What I hope won't be repeated is Sydney Trains' awful performance with long delays due to a system failure. Maybe it's better to ride a Nimbus 2000 instead.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Japanese homestay 2018

Two more years have passed since we last hosted a Japanese exchange student as part of Alex's primary school connection with ELS21 in Sakai, Japan. This time we welcomed an 18 year girl, Satoe, into our home.

This was Satoe's third and last time in Australia as part of the program and she was eager to improve her already good English.

During the first week we also looked after Hiromu and his host student Ollie, one of Alex's best friends, in the mornings and afternoons as the usual before and after school care wasn't available to the Japanese students.

Satoe was a fantastic big sister to Alex and a wonderful guest. On the second weekend we drove her to eat meat pies and bush walk at the recently discovered (for us) scenic Fitzroy Falls near Kangaroo Valley, the Famous Doughnut Van at Berry and the Blowhole at Kiama. Being a teenager we suspected she might prefer shopping so the next day crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the train to Chatswood, where she tried Malaysian cuisine (the laksa was too spicy for her). On the way back we stopped by Luna Park where she and Alex rode the rollercoaster and dodgem cars.

Okay it's not as impressive as Osaka's Universal Studios, but a retro amusement park was a bit of a novelty and makes for great photos for the Japanese Instagrammer. The young ones would have stayed longer but it was getting late so we caught the ferry one stop back to Circular Quay, this time heading under the bridge.

Each of the students we've hosted described their mother's role as "house wife". That felt like my position as, unlike B, I have the option to work from home so took on the duties of taking the kids to school, making lunches, shopping, looking after many of the dinners when we didn't eat out. And doing my regular job as well. Quite exhausting really, especially when it was three extra kids, although Satoe was really very easy to look after.

Alex hopes to have one more student before he finishes primary school and so do we. Unfortunately the program is a bit up in the air right now. In the intervening period since the previous visit our school got a new principal and she, in her first role, wants to do everything by the book. That means no older kids. Hopefully something can be worked out, maybe with the nearby high school.

To be fair, if this trip was any guide, things do go wrong. One student was involved in a car accident and another witnessed someone jumping off a cliff. And yes, there is some disruption to the students' learning programs. But I really feel they all get a lot out of these visits. Anything to break down this horrible insularity and racism that has reared its head so viciously in the media right now. The only reason I didn't feel more embarrassed by the nightly news was that I know Japan has its own governing politicians who say the most awful things as well.

May our kids not grow up sharing the same views as many older people who should know better.

The farewell assembly at school was full of emotion, with both Satoe and the ELS21 principle reduced to tears. Fortunately for Alex and the rest of us the parting was not so sad as we look forward to catching up with Satoe, Mayumi and Machiko again in a few months time when we visit Osaka. Until then we have plenty of happy memories and gifts of Japanese treats to enjoy!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back in Concert

The latest in the film with live orchestra concerts series was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I have a story to tell about The Empire Strikes Back, but I think I shall keep it for next time. I have tickets for Melbourne, where the story resides. For now let me tell you about the Sydney concert.
Like Star Wars: A New Hope, tonight's concert was held at new Sydney's International  Conference and Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. The theatre is huge and I was seated quite far from the orchestra, though in the middle. The distance detracted from the excitement of watching the orchestra up close, their movement adding to experience. At least I could see the entire orchestra.
Nicholas Buc, who seems to be in Japan, was replaced in conducting duties by Hamish McKeich from New Zealand. Unlike Buc and some of the other previous conductors, McKeich gave no introduction to the audience, no encouragement to cheer at opportune moment. Indeed the audience was rather passive tonight, applause fairly scattered until the end.
I wasn't fussed by this as I was there for the music and indeed it was good to clearly hear the orchestra over the movie. I did wonder if the sound was rather enhanced by the speakers, at that distance it was a little difficult to tell.
The Empire Strikes Back is one of those soundtracks and movies I know back to front. Before the full score was available I used to listen to an audio recording of the movie, mentally filtering out the dialogue and effects. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed to my satisfaction, the live experience allowing me to pick out sounds somewhat lost in the recordings. A few little niggles with the pacing of the opening and closing bars, but that was it for any criticism of the performance.
The movie was naturally the post-prequels special edition which meant that some parts of the score sat uncomfortably with the spliced in scenes. The addition of sequences of Darth Vader returning to his Star Destroyer from Cloud City were particularly unnecessary and only served to disrupt the thrilling score for Luke's rescue. But there is no point screaming "Nooooooo!" anymore.
I'm looking forward to seeing the concert again with the superb Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the end of the year. In great news you can also include these film music concerts as a package in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2019 season. I was apparently their very first online subscriber for 2019 so I have Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens to look forward to next year as well!
May the Force be with you.

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