Tag Archives: Sydney Conservatorium

Back to “The Con”…the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

As you may recall, a few weeks ago I went back to Sydney University for the first time in decades. Well, last Wednesday night, I  found myself back at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music doing the time warp again. This time, I was attending concert pianist, Gerard Willems’ Twilight Recital, which marked his retirement from full-time teaching at the Con.

While it only seems like yesterday, I haven’t been back to the Con since my grandmother’s Twilight Recital around 30 years ago. At the time, I was in the throws of leaving school, but now I’m married with two kids and our eldest isn’t terribly far off leaving school himself. So, clearly a lot of water’s flowed under the bridge, and even much of the landscape has been swept away by the tide. Yet, I still felt remarkably at home.

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Gerard Willems and his former teacher, Nada Brissenden.

By the way, I wasn’t just attending this concert out of interest. Gerard is almost an extended member of the family via one of my mother’s “secret societies”. Mum and Gerard both attended Wollongong Selective High School and learned the piano from  Nada Brissenden who, along with her husband Harold, introduced Suzuki Music to Australia. Mum was a year ahead of Gerard, and their paths have crossed over the years, which included studying piano at the Con. There was also a rather significant-to-me soiree which my grandmother Eunice Gardiner put on to give Gerard further performance experience. Not that Gerard was one of her pupils. Rather, he was studying under Gordon Watson. This soiree was also interesting because Australian authors Ruth Park and her husband D’Arcy Niland were there. Knowing Mum knew Gerard and possibly also because she had some single sons, my grandmother also invited my mother to the soiree. So, it was actually Gerard who first introduced my parents at Lindfield Station for the very first time on Sunday 26th March, 1967. That’s a connection you never forget and was brought up again recently at my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.  There’s still is a group of Mrs Brissenden’s former students who get together, forming an extended musical family of sorts. After all, you have your genetic family but as a musician you also have your musical family.

However, I also had an ulterior motive for going back to the Con. I wanted to revisit my grandmother’s old studio. See if I could find my way through the old rabbit warren and back to her door. I remember going in there as a young child after visiting my grandfather who had a dental practice in nearby Macquarie Street. The Con itself was stark white back then and I remember some weird story about how they cleaned it using Coca Cola. I remember going up some stairs and along a longish corridoor and there was a grand piano in the room. Dad told me that it overlooked the Botanical Gardens. So, that narrowed things down quite a lot. So, I planned to arrive quite early for the concert to ensure no regrets.

Conservatorium Sign

A Sign Promoting one of my grandmother’s concerts at the Con around 1960.

By the way, the Conservatorium building is famous in its own right. In 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie commissioned ex-convict Francis Greenway to design the government stables. Macquarie had a grand architectural vision for the fledgling colony and what emerged was more of a “Palace for Horses”  in the Old Colonial Gothick style. Indeed, it reminds me of  Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria’s architectural extravagance. The cost and apparent extravagance was one of the reasons Governor Macquarie was recalled to England. In 1916, the building was extensively renovated and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music was established under directorship of Belgian conductor and violinist, Henri Verbrugghen, with the aim of ‘providing tuition of a standard at least equal to that of the leading European Conservatoriums’.

As I said, it’s been 30 years since I was last at the Con. For better or worse, a massive extension has been built and the original building has had an extensive facelift. Of course, it’s been tastefully done and if I didn’t have an intense personal attachment to the original, I’d only be impressed.

However, as much as I know we couldn’t let the old girl fall apart and that the building itself is representing Australian classical music on the world stage, a facelift is still a facelift. I miss the white paint. The cracks, wrinkles and crooked appearance. Indeed, I’d love to wipe all the beige away and bring her back out of her glamorous shell…even if only long enough to take a photo and then send her back to sleep.

The ticket office is in the new part of the Con and I noticed a sign saying “No Public Admittance” where I’m needing to access my grandmother’s studio. However, as soon as I explained the situation, I was granted access and off I hopped with my camera. I was so excited, even though I was warned that it had changed and the “rabbit’s warren was gone”. Dad had also told me that her studio looked out onto the Botanic Gardens, which narrowed things down quite a lot. I climbed up the stairs and slowly walked along the corridoor. I could hear piano music on my right and saw a grand piano through the window. Her room was further along from memory but very soon I was distracted by the sound of a violin tuning up downstairs. I found it rather strange than when I, the closet violinist come back retracing my grandmother’s footsteps, a violinist was playing. (As it turned out this was  Evgeny Sorkin who played Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in D Major Op. 12 No. 1. with Gerard during the concert.

Yet, the main reason I was at the Con was to attend this concert. So, we’d better head upstairs into the gallery where I had an absolutely fabulous seat with a bird’s eye view. Verbruggen Hall seats around 550 people and as far as I could tell, everyone there loved Gerard, not just as a pianist but as a person. He exudes such warmth and embraces the audience. Gerard introduced each piece himself, usually with an extensive preamble and I was hanging onto each and every word. Indeed, I was voraciously taking notes up in my seat. Among so many other things, Gerard is a teacher and I felt like this concert was also his last hurrah in that department as well trying to share as much of his knowledge and somehow try to encourage the spirit of music which lives in each of us to soar.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, here are a few snapshots.

Gerard Willems.JPG

Gerard Willems.

Firstly, I was struck by how Gerard would play that solitary, perfect note in a way that transcended our earthly realm and entered the heavens. Indeed, I was reminded of when you look up into the night sky and see the planet Venus twinkling almost like a star yet in its solitude. One of my great frustrations as a beginner violinist, was the difficulty of even being able to play one perfect note. I kept practicing and practicing and I’d play two strings instead of one. My bow would glide diagonally across the strings and screech like a flock of cockatoos. It was so incredibly frustrating and yet I was determined to succeed. Gerard made me appreciate the enormity of playing that one perfect note. That it’s nowhere near as easy as you think.

Secondly, I was completely blown away by his unbelievable physicality playing Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B minor Op. 20. Remember the man is retiring and this piece of music, is very physically demanding. Incredible.

However, while the other pieces were far more complex, I couldn’t go past Moonlight Sonata, which was followed by the Brahm’s Lullaby. He played these because these are the pieces he played for his baby daughter, Clara, and grandchildren. Indeed, as he played the Brahms, his wife appeared on stage hold Clara’s hands and helping her to walk across the stage to her Dad. She is only one year old and beyond cute. I noticed when I later looked at the photos that she was wearing a black jacket which looked a bit like a conductor’s jacket. As I said, she was extraordinarily cute and it was so touching to see how much Gerard loves his wife and baby girl. That was another time when you could feel all the stars twinkling in the sky and a sense of magic.

After the concert, I stayed the night at my parents’ place and had been so overstimulated by the concert, that I couldn’t sleep for hours. All my matches had been lit at once and I was firing on too many cylinders I suspect.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Conservatorium_of_Music

 

 

 

 

Sydney Town Hall…Family Concerts to Remember

Sunday night before last, our 8 year old daughter “Miss” sang in a multi-school choir at the Sydney Town Hall. Celebration Sing Out was a concert supporting the Music Therapy Unit at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.

Celebration Sing Out, Sydney Town Hall.

Celebration Sing Out, Sydney Town Hall.

As much as we might have believed in the cause, let’s be honest. All the parents, grandparents and the rest of the royal entourage were there with only one thing in mind…to see their little darling up on stage at the Sydney Town Hall. Our brilliant, shining little stars had us all transfixed in their orbit. It might not have been the Opera House but singing at the Sydney Town Hall is still a big deal and a very imposing, impressive venue with the huge pipe organ towering overhead. When the organ was completed in 1890, it was the biggest pipe organ in the world. That’s not bad for a former convict town.

How have to admit this gig was pretty impressive and the children sang like angels as well!

How have to admit this gig was pretty impressive and the children sang like angels as well!

While our little darlings might have been just one of hundreds all not-quite perfectly cloned in plain white shirts and black pants, we didn’t care. We zoomed in and picked out little star out of the multitude and stared at them transfixed with love and pride.

Christmas came early...the kids checking out the Christmas lights in Sydney's Queen Victoria Building on the way to dinner.

Christmas came early…the kids checking out the Christmas lights in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building on the way to dinner.

A key component of this parental pride was getting a good seat so we could not only spot our darling among the multitude but also to get a good vantage point to take photos. Unlike many public events where you are not allowed to use cameras let alone photograph or film children, this event was a paparazzi free-for-all.

While the kids and I went to check out the David Jones Christmas Windows and have dinner in Hyde Park, Geoff sat in the queue to get our seats. He had left for work at 4.30am and was happy to mind the seats. You get my drift.

Before the concert began, I was down the front and after scanning the crowd several times, eventually I spotted Miss in the jungle. Many of the kids were waving out to the crowd and getting rather excited. However, Miss didn’t respond to me at all. I was pretty hard to miss. What started out as something like a dignified, royal wave became more frenetic as she absolutely failed to respond. She didn’t smile or even blink in my direction. Not one to be ignored, I’m waving both arms by now and doing everything but screaming “cooee” above the hubbub. I decided I wasn’t going anywhere until she responded. She might have been up towards the back but I was standing right in front of her waving my arms, taking photos with the standout Nikon SLR camera (something with a real lens not one of these Mickey Mouse phone cameras). I mean… I really stood out. It was almost like I was standing there with two heads and still she refused to acknowledge my existence. Eventually, finally, at a point no doubt verging on terminal embarrassment, she waved back. Relief! She later told me that she’s not supposed to wave. You see, at 8 years of age, she’s already the consummate stage professional!

Naturally, I wasn’t the only paparazzi in sight. As I scanned around the audience, there was an array of camera phones sticking up above the audience like the sort of TV antennas you see in regional towns desperately trying to pick up the city stations.

The singing was absolutely beautiful and a real tribute to everyone involved. The children sang beautifully in unison and sat still for considerable periods on stage during other performances. The concert began at 7.00PM concluding at 9.30 which is well past many of their bedtimes and yet they were the consummate performers…real little professionals.

While this performance was mostly about our daughter, there was also a ghost in the room…my grandmother.

Hard to believe my grandmother was ever a 15 year old schoolgirl. She, on the other hand, didn't recognise the old lady staring back at her in the mirror. I now understand what she meant!

Hard to believe my grandmother was ever a 15 year old schoolgirl. She, on the other hand, didn’t recognise the old lady staring back at her in the mirror. I now understand what she meant!

A review of my grandmother's Concert at the Sydney Town Hall SMH April 10 1935

My grandmother’s Performance at the Sydney Town Hall 6th April, 1935 SMH April 10 1935

My grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an internationally successful concert pianist, music critic and piano teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium. Eunice was taking up a 2 year scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A fundraising committee had been formed to raise funds towards her living expenses in London. As part of these fundraising efforts, Eunice gave a concert at the Sydney Town Hall on the 6th June, 1935.

This is a story I grew up with and I remember my grandmother showing me her precious newspaper clippings in her seemingly ancient scrapbook. This wasn’t something we looked at often…only once or twice in my life time and indeed while working on her memoirs, she even let me take it home for awhile to scan. Talk about precious cargo. This was back in the days before the old newspapers had been uploaded onto the Internet and you couldn’t just summon up someone’s entire life history with an instant and exceptionally gratifying Google search. Of course, you could look at the old newspapers on reels at the State Library but you needed to do your research first. It was a tedious, laborious process. So these press clippings and particularly her scrap book, were incredibly precious!!

Anyway, as we arrived at Town Hall, I was no longer viewing my grandmother’s concert as an ancient black & white newspaper clipping but as a living, breathing experience. I was walking up Town Hall Steps with her parents and brother, Les. I could feel their pride bursting through my heart and saw it reflected back to me as our daughter sang up on stage, enjoying the whole experience. This was not necessarily going to be a given. Singing in front of 1000 can be daunting if not terrifying but it seems that being part of a crowd can be a good thing.

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I’d had my own piano performance. However, it was hardly at the Sydney Town Hall but in a hall hired by my piano teacher in Wahroonga, a Sydney suburb quite a long way from the Sydney Town Hall both in terms of kilometres and kudos. While it was a big thing for me to be performing at the concert and I had practiced pretty hard and knew my piece from memory, the fact that my grandmother was attending the concert was a big deal. I distinctly remember getting in the car and Mum asking me if I had my music. I told her that I didn’t need it…that I knew my piece from memory. I was a confident little kid and not easily intimidated. I didn’t need my music and I was going to do it my way despite my mother’s concerns.

Well, of course, I got up on stage my legs dangling from the piano seat and of course I lost my place. I remember this terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Mum had seen it coming and I’d botched it. Plus, my grandmother was watching. I’d been to see her perform at the Sydney Opera House wearing my very best dress which she’d brought back from me from Norfolk Island and where I couldn’t cough, sneeze, go to the toilet and if you sat very, very still, you were actually permitted to breathe. My grandmother wasn’t one of those grannies who give you Freddo Frogs (https://www.cadbury.com.au/Products/Pre-teens-Confectionery/Freddo.aspx) either . She was in some sort of inter-stellar zone us mortals could only watch from the outside. I can almost feel myself stop breathing yet I persevere and tinkered with the keys until I found my place and kept going…my pride wounded but undefeated. I am so proud of that little girl who didn’t just burst into tears and exit stage left..It might not have been a perfect performance but I persevered and I conquered.

You can read my grandmother’s obituary here: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/a-musical-career-honed-in-the-laundry-20090823-ev2w.html

Actually, perhaps the last word on that concert should go to my grandmother. When she reflected on this concert in later life, she mentioned nothing about the epic stumble during my performance. Rather, she tell me that she’d got in trouble with my Dad for disciplining my brother during the concert. That’s right. She’d got in trouble. You know I’m smiling!

Meanwhile, as the end of the year approaches, our daughter’s ballet and jazz concerts lie ahead and I’m practicing for my violin concert. Well, like our daughter I’m part of a group and there will be no solo performance. This is certainly one time I don’t want to stand out and for once in my life, just be one of the crowd.

And I’ll be taking my music!

xx Rowena

PS This is a Freddo Frog:

Introducing Australia's very own Freddo Frog.

Introducing Australia’s very own Freddo Frog.