Sydney Festival – Philip Glass and the Giacomo Variations

The Sydney Festival has long been a distant thing for me, despite me being a Sydney resident for 36 of my 38 years – for years, it was only ever about the Symphony Under the Stars, certainly not those expensive evenings with imported musicians and other artists; nor the eclectic shows in obscure settings doing obscure things.

My partner and I have attempted to change that in 2011 by immersing ourselves in Festival mania.  So, it was the expensive evenings with imported musicians (with a couple of locals).  We got tickets to a Philip Glass piano recital, the Giacomo Variations (starring John Malkovich), Paul Kelly, Eddie Perfect and Colm Mac Con Iomaire.  With the added bonuses of Minto Live and the Symphony in the Domain.  Pretty hefty prices, pretty hefty effort.  Especially getting the tickets, which involved an involved battle with the Sydney Festival ticketing website when the tickets were released.  It was frenzied and it was a case of grab what one can.

This first post is about the imported musicians.  The first night involved seeing Philip Glass at the piano in the City Recital Hall.  His style of music used to repel me – indeed I enjoyed Peter Schikele’s satire on Glass.  That changed with The Truman Show, where the music definitely set the tone of the film in spectacular fashion.  This does not prepare someone, though, for a whole evening of music of such a repetitive nature.  While pieces like Mad Rush are charming (and we can see where Yann Tiersen, the Amelie bloke might have got some ideas) – an hour and a half can be, well, repetitive.  While pieces like Mad Rush are charming (and we can see where Yann Tiersen, the Amelie bloke might have got some ideas) – an hour and a half can be, well, repetitive.  Ironically, I was doing the Amelie thing half way through the concert, looking at other audience members.  Many weren’t exactly entranced, more “I had no idea I paid $75 to see end to end repetitive patterns of music”.

It was fascinating, however, to see Glass play the music.  I especially liked watching him play Etudes.  Etudes are generally studies designed to train pianists to play various passages – Chopin wrote them to also show off, Liszt to “transcend” the piano and, incidentally, show off just how hot he was to the ladies in the audience.  Then there was Rachmaninov, who set nearly impossible technical targets for pianists.  We also had Debussy, who took the technical side of the Etude as a start, then managed to still make them sound like a commercial for some kind of arty product or perfume.  Then there is a Glass Etude, which doesn’t attempt to hide the mechanics of an etude behind displays of virtuosity and flair.  Instead, it makes the machine at the centre.  And that was what the entire evening of Glass’ music was.  The left hand wasn’t more quiet, the machine that drives the music wasn’t chugging along in the background. The machine was the star of the night.

In addition, Glass has not an ounce of flair or concert pianist presence.  He is just there, in plain clothes, chugging away and quietly announcing his works as he goes.  For any regular attender at piano recitals, it was very unusual.  Still fascinating, however.  The added bonus (especially for the audience, many of whom seemed to be flagging from the repetitive onslaught) was the appearance of John Malkovich, reading an Allen Ginsberg poem, the Wichita Vortex Sutra. Malkovich did the poem with a distinctly American dichotomy – detachment and passion.   It was touching that at the end of the performance, Glass hugged Malkovich in a style reminiscent of David Helfgott.

The encores summed up the performing style and attitude of Glass – he said that he was going to play the two pieces without a break, so “he wouldn’t have to come out again”. All planned, all announced, no spontaneity.  I suspect his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The encores, for me, were lovely pieces that were just the right length.  Perhaps they weren’t written for films or to accompany some other long art project like the others.

Then it was the Giacomo Variations.  The director of the festival, Lindy Hume, came out at the start and apologised for what may happen, in terms of the fact that they could not have a technical rehearsal, due to the arrival of the sets and costumes 3.30 that afternoon.  The floods have had an impact on everything.  The problem, however, was not with the costumes and sets.  They were fantastic and the actors worked very well with them – so much so that you couldn’t tell they were only still familiarising themselves with the stage business.

The problem was the show.  The show is, in effect, like Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You – a show written to recontextualise the music by a particular group or composer, so to make it all fresh.  Except the writer / director, Michael Sturminger has written an uneven and frankly silly show (at times) that crams in as many cheeky – and often gratuitous – sexual references as it can.  Centring its action on the character of Casanova, it’s more Quills meets Amadeus than anything else, except without the faeces being smeared on the wall nor Tom Hulce’s laugh.  It did have pretentions to gravitas and commenting on the nature of love, but pretentions is all it could muster.

The performances didn’t help with communicating the ideas.  The play’s conceit was that there were two non-singing roles (well, for the most part, Malkovich did a pretty good job of singing at the end) and two singers – playing either parallels or an ensemble of 4.  of the non-singers, Malkovich was excellent and carried the show well – giving shape, detachment and heart to the character of Casanova.  One of the difficulties was that the non-singing leading lady, Ingeborga Dapkünaité, was very hard to understand, partially due to problems with sound, but also because of her thick accent obscuring the dense dialogue.  I was wondering whether she was cast for the fact she has been in famous films, rather than her ability to embody the role.  It was telling for me – and ironic – that the singing version of her role, played by Australian ex-pat Martene Grimson, spoke with much more clarity and also out-acted the actress (ironic in the sense that people often say opera singers are terrible actors).   Another difficulty was that when the baritone, Andrei Bondarenko, spoke, he too was very hard to understand, due to his accent and propensity to mumble.

This made the production a real chore for many of the audience, who tried to keep up with the story but found it very difficult to understand what was going on.  This wasn’t assisted by surtitles for the Mozart pieces often disappearing.  The biggest hindrance though, I suspect, was that the lines were littered with self-indulgent twaddle from Sturminger.  It is for these reasons, I suspect, that many walked out (including one older gentleman in the stalls who loudly walked out while declaring “this is crap”) or didn’t return after interval.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t so bad as to warrant walkouts.  The music was performed beautifully by the Sydney Symphony and the two singers (I hope Grimson returns and stays one day) and for my partner, who is not familiar with Mozart operas, she enjoyed hearing the arias and duets she had not heard before.  She, like me, enjoyed many of the recontextualisations – making it clear that Mozart is often about sex, which he was.  I thought the Cherubino piece and the “bed” opening of The Marriage of Figaro were particularly clever.  And Malkovich was excellent, sad and drily amusing in his role.

So, if people have tickets and are now apprehensive, don’t worry – you probably will disagree with me and declare it is a work of genius.  Fair enough.  Or, they will have fixed the sound issues.  Or, you’ll go and find that it is a lovely night of Mozart highlights, beautiful costumes and a variety of ways to depict sex (I would like to see that on a promotional poster!).

It does raise the interesting question of imported stars and the festival.  I would love to hear Philip Glass’ music at a recital as a part of a night of contemporary music performed by Michael Kieran Harvey.  But in the Festival.  I don’t know if it would attract the same audience, but Harvey is a better pianist than Glass.  It would also be interesting to see the Giacomo Variations done with an Australian cast and Australian designed sets – we didn’t really need to have the sets imported, as lovely as they were.  It would need to be a smaller space than the concert hall, though, in order to make the dialogue easier to hear. This is a moot point, though.  The Sydney Festival dedicates a lot of effort getting in international stars in order to dazzle the Sydney public.  Personally, I am now just looking forward to the locals performing in Minto, as well as Paul Kelly and Eddie Perfect tomorrow.

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