Postcard from Vienna

This week’s blog comes from Roger Pratt, recently returned from a few weeks in Central Europe, including Vienna.

I had hoped that the Vienna Philharmonic would be playing at the very grand Musikverein while I was there, but that was not to be. Instead I saw the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, a huge and very Russian sounding orchestra. The first half was Bruch’s Violin Concerto, with Julia Fischer, arguably one of the greatest violinists of the 21st century, as soloist. The Bruch is maybe hackneyed, but is still such an emotive and soul rending work, especially the slow movement.

But the highlight for me was the second half – the 13th Symphony by Shostakovich, known as the Babi Yar. It is a dark, sombre and harrowing work. Babi Yar was the site near Kiev, where the Germans in 1941 slaughtered 35,000 Jews in the space of two days. Shostakovich depicts this through his music, which is a choral symphony but featuring a bass only line-up. I counted 60 basses at this performance, and their sound authentically had that deep full Russian timbre. It is a long symphony, lasting over an hour, and was a highly emotional experience. The huge audience in the Musikverein were totally silent for several minutes after it finished. Applause somehow felt inappropriate.

You may wonder why this symphony would be so special for me. Well, I was privileged in 1987 to be asked to sing in the bass chorus of the CBSO under the baton of Simon Rattle. We performed the Babi Yar at the Royal Festival Hall in London and later went on to record it for Decca. That experience stayed with me, and hearing it done so meaningfully by a full Russian orchestra and choir, in such a sublime venue, was indeed something very special.

That was supposed to be the end of the concert, but we were given one final treat – an encore. It was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This is one of the most ‘English’ pieces of music ever written, and was performed beautifully by the orchestra. Just when I thought I had reached my emotional zenith, having that wash over me brought tears to my eyes. Music can do that to you. It may not happen often, but when it does it truly is an unforgettable experience.

Amen and an unmissable opportunity

“Amen!”  As we sang the final chorus of Messiah at rehearsal last night I was reminded that no one has responded to my invitation a couple of weeks ago to find out how many “Amen”s  there are in the Amen Chorus.  So I decided to count them for myself.

The answer is that there are 142 “Amen”s in the Amen Chorus.  The Sopranos sing 26, the Altos 37, the Tenors 38, and we Basses sing the most, 41.  The last figure is not surprising as we kick the whole thing off.  However, the figure for the Sopranos is interesting.  While the rest of us sing largely short phrases, the Sopranos sing long, flowing, arch-like phrases which gives each “Amen” a longer span.  Very effective choral writing, as you would expect from none other than Mr. Handel.

I did warm very much to Carlos’ request for us to sing this chorus with wisdom.  We have already done justice to the triumphal mood in “Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him.” A finish which reflects on the whole piece with understanding and wisdom is so much more effective than just another big noise.  It acts almost as an Epilogue, more meditative and thoughtful, making it a commentary on all that has gone before.

That having been said, I imagine that right at the end we will all sing the final “Amen”s with as much gusto as we can produce after a vocally demanding two hours of singing.

And now for something completely different.  As I write, there are tickets available for all the evening concerts of the Sydney Chamber Music Festival, held in Manly Art Gallery  this weekend.  Tonight’s (Friday) and Saturday’s concerts are delightful combinations of instruments playing music on the theme “Figuratively Speaking” to match the current art exhibition.  On Sunday, none other than the world-renowned pianist Piers Lane is giving a recital.  I can think of no better way to spend a Sunday evening.  To be able to hear such an accomplished and famous pianist in the intimate setting of the Manly Art Gallery, is incomparable.  Festival Director Bridget Bolliger has worked wonders to include him in the programme.  It is inconceivable that there are still seats available.  But there are.  So click here to book them straight away.  See you there!


A trio of treats

It is said that things, both the good and the bad, come in threes.  I am never quite sure how to interpret this idea, especially when, as recently, three linked things happen which may be seen as either good or bad.

It’s all about Australian rites of passage; things which seem dauntng at the time, and then turn out to be things which everyone, or almost everyone, has done..

The first was in September, when we drove to the red centre of the country, covering 1,000km of gravel roads including the iconic Birdsville Track.  In dry conditions the journey was uneventful except for two dramatic punctures. We went because our son told us we could not count ourselves as Australian unless we had been to Birdsville.  And we returned with stories similar to those of the many others who have travelled the same road.

The second is continuing.  Claiming for the Age Pension is akin to entering a mysterious labyrinthine world full of complexities, intricacies and eccentricities understood only by a chosen few.  Rounds one and two have proved unfruitful, but I hope to score at least a technical victory in round three.  Again, this process seems to provide most entrants with a fund of intriguing stories.

And thirdly this week I have submitted myself to the skin clinic for them to scrape bits off several parts of my anatomy and send them for testing.  Which is why I was not at Choir last night – I have to sit for a few days with leg elevated until the wound heals.  I had thought I was special to receive this treatment.  But no, it seems to be a routine procedure for most of my fellow-countrymen and women.  I feel something of a wuss for having made so much fuss about it.

So there we are, three things, good or bad I am not sure.  But it is good to feel ever more Australian, having experienced these particularly Australian rites of passage.


I’ll say Amen to that!

We spent a lot of time last night singing just one word – Amen.  Three questions came to mind in the gaps when Carlos was focusing on voices other than the Basses.

Is the libretto of this chorus the shortest in the choral repertoire?

Is this the longest chorus in the choral repertoire with only a single word as the libretto?

How many times is the single word Amen repeated and is this a record for the most times a single word appears in a single chorus?

If anyone out there knows the answers to any of these questions (or is sufficiently Google aware to find the answers), I would be very pleased to know.

Many years ago I was persuaded to join a mass Come and Sing Messiah in Winchester Cathedral in southern England.  You know the sort of thing – no rehearsals before the day; a run through in the afternoon; then a performance in the evening.  The event was so popular with choirs that there was no room for an audience.  Around two and a half thousand singers of varying levels of ability were packed into this vast building.

I had had some reservations.  Where would the conductor position himself to be seen by all singers?  As Winchester Cathedral has one of the longest naves in England, if not Europe, and enjoys or suffers, depending on your point of view, a reverberation period of over five seconds, how on earth would we all listen to each other and yet all sing in time?   It felt like a recipe for disaster.

At the run-through, my fears were dispelled.  The conductor stood in the pulpit, positioned high up part way down the nave, and could be seen by all.  And we all sang in time, no-one getting in front of or behind the others.

Would this be repeated for the performance?  All went well, remarkably well in the circumstances, until the Amen chorus.  Maybe we were all tired; maybe we all relaxed as we approached the end of an incident-free performance.  Whatever, Amen fell apart.  We Basses led the charge and are convinced to this day that it was we who were following the conductor’s beat.  The Altos came a close second, Sopranos third, and the Tenors, uncharacteristically, last, almost a complete bar behind.  But right at the end, at the highly expectant Amen (on a crunchy inverted dominant seventh chord for anyone who is interested) before the grand pause and the final two Amens, by some miracle it all fell into place again, and we finished, as we should have done, in a dead heat.

Does anyone else have memories of singing Messiah?  It would be great to share them..  Either catch me at rehearsal or send a note to me at   Thank you.


Hallelu – ?

Last night’s rehearsal proved something which I have suspected for some time.

I do not know the Hallelujah Chorus well enough to sing it from memory.

Despite having sung in around twenty performances of Messiah and all the preceding rehearsals, and despite knowing one or two of the other choruses quite well, I still get befuddled in Hallelujah, especially in the middle where the Basses are dotting Hallelujahs and For evers around like occasional puffy white clouds in a brilliantly blue outback sky.

This will not come as a surprise to family and friends, who continually suffer my memory lapses with a good deal of tolerance and forbearance.  They will remind of the time, for example, when I omitted two entire pages of script in a performance of a school play.  In my defence I would point out that it was a single sex school and I was playing the part of Mrs Winslow in The Winslow Boy, and that my voice had broken during the rehearsal period so sounding like Mrs rather than Mr Winslow for the performances was a bit of a strain.

It is said that opposite attract,  Anne has the most prodigious memory for everything, including the most intricate of details, which pass by most people by.  So that makes it highly like that my memory capacity is, well, like it is, somewhat limited.

All this does not alter the fact that Carlos wants us to sing Hallelujah from memory at the performances in a few weeks’ time.  And we cannot have one or two people surreptitiously looking at half-open copies – we all have to embrace the idea and learn the music off by heart.

So, if you happen to have a few tips about how to learn music, would you be so good as to take me quietly on one side one Thursday and pass them on?   Or contact me by email at – wait a moment, I will just have to check it out – .

Thank you.