From New York to St. Kilda – Philip Glass and Paul Kelly at the City Recital Hall

We went to vastly different musical experiences at the City Recital Hall as a part of the Sydney Festival this week. Philip Glass and Paul Kelly. Both were sold out, both had adoring, appreciative audiences and both told rich stories about the cultures of their respective places.

Paul Kelly is an artist I haven’t paid anywhere near enough attention to over the years. I bought a collection of his over 10 years ago and was dimly aware of his better known songs. This is due mostly to an outer suburban life where you don’t hear much outside the “hits”. My partner, though, has been a very enthusiastic fan for a long time. So, for her, the evening of Kelly where he wandered through his catalogue from F to L was a night of rapt reacquaintance with the songs, without the presence of bogans demanding he play more “hits”. For me, it was a discovery of a whole type of storytelling I had never knew existed.

As Kelly gave short, but rich accounts of the background of the songs and then sang them in with the unassuming air of a musician who is in the prime of his career, sure of the tone he is setting with his audience. There was a spellbinding bond between a musician and his/her audience that you experience every so often in a concert hall – Stephen Hough, the English pianist comes to mind. As the night wended its way along, I could also see an emerging image of the variety of what it is to be Australian. I’m pretty sure that was never Kelly’s intention, but It struck me that he has been quietly assembling the Australian story simply by writing about it.

And all this in a setting that we haven’t normally associated with a so-called “popular” artist, the City Recital Hall, which is a far cry from the many venues Kelly would have played before now. But there, the focus was on him and he left a lasting impression.

I contrast this with Philip Glass, for whom the Recital Hall would be a familiar setting. He brought an isolated New York feel to the festival, playing in his own bubble, resembling more a machine that we were there to observe, rather than a musical event with which we could participate. No less special or remarkable than the Kelly performance – just very different. Glass brought a view of his world that highlighted how mechanical the city can be, driving incessantly and with relentless intensity. I know there are many New Yorks, from what I have been told, but Glass brought us one of them. While I understand that world and often feel isolated in the mechanistic and cold Sydney, I found myself more drawn to the warmth of Kelly. I look forward to listening to the A to Z recordings.

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