Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Remembering the Berlin Philharmonic

I had heard the Berlin Philharmonic in recordings – often. The first I remember is a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by von Karajan, given to me in the ‘70s by a friend who was horrified to hear the student-bought recording I had of that symphony. But when I was in Berlin in 2008 I was disappointed that the orchestra was in summer recess. In November 2010, the orchestra visited Australia; only Perth and Sydney. I decided to travel from my home town Melbourne to Sydney –  the concert was at the Opera House.  The ‘cheap’ tickets were either at the very back of the hall or in the choir stalls. A ticket in the choir stalls was my choice because I was interested to see how the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, worked with the orchestra.

There I was in the front row of the choir stalls of the Sydney Opera House. The program started with Haydn Symphony number 99, not one that I am intimately acquainted with, composed in Vienna between Haydn’s two visits to London. No matter, it was Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic. Within seconds I was enthralled by the magical woodwind sound – particularly the oboe – ‘woody’ yet pure, the closest I can get to describing it is that it is like a heavily wooded chardonnay; dark, liquid and golden. Simon Rattle is about as far away as you can get from a ‘time-keeper’ conductor. The beat is there in the minds of the players and he seems to draw the music out of them and mime it; sometimes mouthing things, sometimes completely still, often not using the baton. It’s a bit like being an actor, but he’s not acting the music. He is the music.

After the Haydn we heard the Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra (Prelude, Round Dance and March). Here I concentrated more on the music than its execution, and likewise with the next piece Australian composer Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall, which is a part of a succession from Holst’s Planets – a suite called Asteroids, commissioned in 2005. Four composers selected particular asteroids for their music. Brett Dean selected ‘1836 Komorov’, named after astronaut Komorov who died as a result of the failed Soyuz I mission. The music itself depicts frailty – the frailty of the spacecraft in space depicted by percussion such as shaken aluminium foil (being right behind the percussion I focused on these things). The final impact of Komarov’s vessel with earth is horrifically sharp and loud. Then we are left with very shrill eerie rippling sounds.

The final item was Brahms’s Second Symphony. It surged through my mind for many days after the concert. In one sense, the way the Berlin Philharmonic plays is like chamber music – each section is like one instrument intimately connected to the others. Simon Rattle is there, drawing the music out. He doesn’t need to bring in instruments in the conventional way of reminding players of their cues – sometimes there is an important entry and he just lets it happen. Sometimes it is as though he is in the centre of a huge wave of surf, full of energy, but still.  And then his decisive movement causes the wave to break.

After thunderous applause and a Tchaikovsky encore the players shook each other’s hands as they left the stage – another sign of this intimate relationship of the parts and the whole. I sensed that the teamwork is certainly not one of obedience – like a corps de ballet; it seems like 127 people having a shared understanding, which makes phenomenal music.


Madeleine St John: A Stairway to Paradise

With the adaptation for theatre of her novel The Women in Black, the writer Madeleine St John has been rediscovered. She would now be well into her seventies, but she died of emphysema some ten years ago. Having enjoyed The Women in Black, centred around a store very much like David Jones, Sydney in the 1960s, I recently picked up another novel by her, A Stairway to Paradise.


This book has been described as ‘a dissection of desire’ and, although some reviewers see it as about a love triangle, I think that, far more, it is about the nature of desire and love. It is set in London – probably in the 1990s, the exact time doesn’t matter. Two men, Andrew and Alex, both married, love Barbara. But the desire between Alex and Barbara is the focus of the novel. Andrew, Alex’s squash partner has done what is perhaps the conventional thing and divorced his wife – she and his daughter live in another country now and he visits for school holidays etc. Alex and Barbara have a brief passionate encounter. She says that they cannot continue because Alex believes he cannot leave his wife at least until his young son is at secondary school – many years away. Why not a clandestine relationship? Even though there is ‘grinding, abominable pain’ [p.114], they cannot practise deception because of the nature of love. Over time love changes ‘and we wouldn’t find out’, Barbara confides, ‘it wouldn’t be the real thing’ [p.167]. By the end of the book we can see the prospect of the ‘real thing’. Alex starts asking Andrew how divorce has affected his daughter and Andrew believes it hasn’t had a bad effect. The last chapter is written from the point of view of Alex’s two children. They’ve been well aware of their parents’ incompatibility and discuss when a divorce might take place – they seem to accept it as a part of life. An obvious happy ending might diminish the outcome of the book. Instead, the children arrive home and open the door – we know that divorce is going to be discussed and we know how desperately Alex and Barbara want to be together. And the front door becomes a metaphor for what will be faced by Alex and Barbara and Alex’s children: ‘the latch clicked, and the front door began – but slowly, heavily – to open.’ [p.185] End of book.

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