★★★★½ Musical and culinary bash pays tribute to Mark Foy’s hedonistic vision.

Hydro Majestic, Blue Mountains
March 13, 2016

Mark Foy is a name that many Sydneysiders ought to recognise. One of the city’s most prestigious department stores, “The Piazza”, was opened by the Foy brothers in 1909 on Liverpool Street and was modelled on Paris’s famous Bon Marché. With its marble lobbies and 1920s remodelled art deco façade it was a Sydney institution until it closed in 1980 (it’s now the Downing Centre courthouses) but it still catches the eye of anyone passing by the southern end of Hyde Park. What is less well known is that in 1904 Mark Foy, a convert to the European fad for hydrotherapy, bought up a kilometre of land overlooking the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains in order to build New South Wales’ first health spa. 

A true eccentric, Foy had the impressive ‘casino’ with its enormous dome built and shipped over from the US. Meanwhile, he imported his ‘healthful’ waters from Baden-Baden (they apparently tasted so unpleasant that patrons automatically believed they must be doing them some good). But as the craze for hydrotherapy waned, so too did Foy’s income, leading him to reinvent the Hydro Majestic as a swanky hotel where the hip and happening could travel the four-hour steam train journey from Sydney to Medlow Bath for what some described as a discreet form of ‘the dirty weekend’.

Cat’s Alley

Foy went on to enjoy a long and successful life with a pair of spouses, a string of mistresses and a predilection for cross-dressing. Patrick, the Hydro’s excellent modern-day concierge (whose splendid moustache neatly echoes the heyday of the hotel) happily shows visitors a delightful snap of Foy at a family function wearing his wife’s clothes.

The first half of the 20th century saw a roll call of the great and the good grace the Hydro Majestic. Dame Nellie Melba began her famously lengthy farewell tour on the casino stage, Clara Butt sang here too. Tommy Burns trained for his fight with Jack Johnson in the grounds and Australia’s first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, died of a heart attack while holidaying at the hotel in 1920. 

Foy’s Blue Mountains business venture has had its ups and downs throughout its long history, but in 2008, new owners, Huong Nguyen and George Saad, closed the hotel for phase one of a major, lovingly executed multi-million dollar refurbishment, including the addition of new facilities. In its new guise, the casino has become a light-filled lobby, leading via the beautifully restored Cat’s Alley (where ladies would retire to gossip, apparently, while their men played snooker in the billiards room) to the ballroom and a new, permanent marquee. Any visitor should sign up for the guided tour – it’s a doozy – where all sorts of fascinating facts are learned while ogling the pressed metal ceilings and sumptuously curved interior architecture.

The Megalong Valley

If all that sounds a long preamble to a concert review, then it should. There’s a lot to do at the Hydro Majestic and the proprietors are thinking big as a Blue Mountains entertainment hub. The centrepiece of this, their first Majestic Concert, was a performance by Sydney’s Metropolitan Orchestra with dinner in the ballroom, but before that was a canapés and cocktails event featuring a fascinating vintage fashion show in which elegantly dressed collector Charlotte Smith talked the audience through a history of designer wear, as local high school students modelled items from The Darnell Collection of International Vintage Couture (at 7,000 pieces, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere).

And what of the main event, two substantial sets by The Metropolitan Orchestra, presented between dinner courses? The sumptuously appointed Majestic Ballroom with its bowed ceiling turned out to boast a rather a good acoustic for what proved to be a very classy concert. Eschewing the tendency for throwaway ‘pops’ on such occasions, the Hydro and the Met opted to properly engage its audience with two meaty masterworks for string orchestra by late Romantics, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky. No fear of indigestion – both are sunny works – but there was plenty to get your teeth into besides the succulent lamb main course. The Metropolitan Orchestra under founder and Chief Conductor Sarah-Grace Williams made a sound perfectly commensurate with the playing space – at 33 players, large for a salon orchestra, but the detailed, agile timbre never felt unwieldy. For the audience, the chance to be up-close and personal with this number of musicians made the whole thing a special experience.

Dvorák’s amiable five-movement Serenade for Strings received a thoroughly idiomatic reading with perfectly judged tempi and plenty of Slavonic fire. Williams shaped each section with care and attention, ensuring that the delicious, catchy Tempo di Valse was a finely swung highlight, as was the call and response between cellos and violins that characterised the Allegro Finale. Occasionally a tricky high passage for unison violins exposed the odd intonational lapse, but generally the tone was full and rewarding, with plenty of light and shade and cellos especially impressive.

Tchaikovsky’s own Serenade was written in 1880, five years after the Dvorák. It’s a more cohesive work – closer to a string symphony than the Czech piece (which is more of a suite) – and with its big, romantic statements it gives an orchestra more of a chance to revel in rich string sonorities. Following a solid opening, TMO launched into the development section of the first movement Pezzo in forma di sonatina in a reading full of attractive incident. The lyrical Waltzer was equally full of character, ahead of a third movement that pitched pizzicati on lower strings against a high, romantic melody and some lovely hushed passages. The Russian finale opened with a lovely Andante before the Gopak-like main dance got into its stride leading to a crowd-pleasing finish and an equally appreciated encore in the form of Piazzolla’s Libertango.

Post-concert, the pleasures continued in the adjacent marquee with a couple of toe tapping sets from smoky-voiced jazz singer Evelyn Duprai and her trio (above). With a repertoire that extended from American Songbook standards to laid-back arrangements of Fleetwood Mac, Cyndi Lauper and more modern fare, it made for the perfect nightcap.

The whole Hydro-Met package was a captivating, invigorating experience that I expect would have delighted the Hydro’s original, eccentric host. Well worth the trip to the Blue Mountains for what amounted to six hours of charming entertainment from guided tour to home time. Thoroughly recommended. 

The Metropolitan Orchestra’s next Majestic Concert is on June 18.


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