Monday, December 29, 2008


Before being consumed in an orgy of fireworks, grog, and evanescent self-reflection (in all of which I will fully indulge), I'm trying to hang on the 'Christmas Spirit' for at least as long as there are left-overs in the fridge and am playing Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, choir of King's College Cambridge, Sir David Wilcocks.

St Paul Cathedral Choir, soloist Edward Burrowes:


"O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.

But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my heart sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow"

After four years in North America, and four months after the United States had entered the War, Benjamin Britten, now well joined-at-the-hip to Peter Pears, chanced crossing an Atlantic menaced by U-boats and returned to Britain on the Swedish cargo ship 'Axel Johnson'. He was nurturing the beginnings of Peter Grimes, an outsider against the rest, and was heading home to face the consequences of his stance on war service. The ship had docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where in a bookshop Britten found the medieval texts he was to use during the passage to compose his A Ceremony of Carols and "alleviate the boredom". It was a very English return to choral music, scored for 3 part trebles and harp, the voices and instrument of the angels, and infused with innocence and reverence.

They arrived in Liverpool in April 1942. In May he was called to appear before a tribunal to explain his conscientious objection. His statement to the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors reads:

"Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction. Moreover, I feel the fascist attitude to life can only be overcome by passive resistance. If Hitler were in power here or if this country had any similar form of government, I should feel it my duty to obstruct this regime in every non-violent way possible, and by complete non-cooperation. I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing the work I am qualified to do by the nature of my gifts and training, i.e. the creation of propagation of music"

His two most powerful anti-war statements were yet to come: the extraordinary War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (1962) where threading the Requiem Mass with the poems of Wilfred Owen, he would write music for tenor, soprano, baritone (Britain, Russia, Germany), choir and separate boy's choir, creating a work claimed to be among, if not the, greatest pacifist statements of the 20th C; and a BBC commissioned opera-for-television, Owen Wingrave (1970), wherein the son of a military family rejects militarism and claims his inner peace, and death. Any details of any performance of this work in Australia would be welcome.

The sudden death of Richard Hickox had robbed us of one of Owen Wingrave's latest proponents. He recorded it only this year, for Chandos, following a very well received concert performance at Cardagan Hall London. The CD is now released, with cast members very well know to us, notably Peter Coleman-Wright as Owen, Elizabeth Connell, and particularly sadly, Hickox's widow, Pamela Helen Stephen. Would we have at last heard this long overdue work here?

After the concert performance, The Guardian wrote: 'Any doubts as to its worth, were quashed by this performance, conducted by Richard Hickox, who exposed, often with lethal precision, the moral paradox at the work's centre. In depicting Owen's determination to come out to his military family as a pacifist, Britten adopts a fiercely anti-war stance: yet the opera also envisions life as a battlefield, where death is often the price for the preservation of integrity. Hickox drew us through the resulting complexities with passionate subtlety."

Following this thread led me to a now rather haunting interview with Richard Hickox, podcast, talking about his busy schedule, Owen Wingrave, Opera Australia, and Brett Dean, artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music. Dean and Hickox were in collaboration and work-shopping a new Australian opera Bliss, based of the Peter Carey novel of the same name. I had dwelt on Sydney's potential as a world host to a (bi-annual perhaps) Britten Festival; the core of my dream is now gone. Nor will he lead the new Armfield Peter Grimes next year.

Back to Christmas, and more joyful matters. The Ceremony of Carols is a celebration of the birth of Christ, childhood and innocence, and finally, if unexpectedly, acceptance (Deo Gracias) of the downfall (of Adam/man).

The opening processional and closing recessional bookend:

Wolcum Yule
There is no rose
That yunge child
As dew in Aprille
This little babe
Interlude (for solo harp)
In freezing winter night
Spring Carol
Deo Gracias

For those unlucky enough to not have a copy, here are some, to me nothing short of exquisite, selections, and maybe for your stocking next year...

Westminster Cathedral Choir:

Today Christ is born

Wolcum Yole
Welcome be thou hevene king

O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

Choir of Trinity College Cambridge:

That Yunge Child

That yonge child when it gan weep
with song she lulled him asleep

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008


It's Christmas week.

My childhood family celebrated Christmas in a traditional Christian way. My parents were Irish-Italian, mostly Irish if one really gets into it, and the roots of Irish Catholicism ran deep. The whole affair, from my perspective, started with school holidays, and the blessed relief of the end of exams. It was all about the summer holidays.

Yes, Christmas cards were a big deal, the Christmas tree was a very big deal, and coloured lights, the little ones, rainbowed the curve of the stone arch that lead to the front porch. Midnight Mass was romantic for the staying up late, the ceremony, the incense, the music, the coming home in the early hours of the morning, seeing our house twinkling through the front garden, and most of all the magic of walking into a darkened house lit only by the tree, now surrounded by presents.

Christmas day centered around the midday meal, the table elaborately dressed, candles, lollies, muscatels, bonbons, a flower from the garden at each place, and a genuine sense of happiness and well-being. And lots of hydrangeas. They grew freely in the shade by the creek, and were now great clumps of blue around the house, lasting for days, their stems crushed before they were soaked overnight in the big concrete tubs in the downstairs laundry.

Dad would say grace and add his thoughts on the meaning of the day. Dad was softly spoken, generally underwhelming in his public thoughts, but he somehow managed to touch the essence; perhaps it was his natural reticence and lack of gravitas evoking an effect which was just the opposite. We all took notice. He spoke about the birth whose anniversary this whole feast was about, but emphasised it as a birth into poverty and a birth which was to define, for us, as a family, our standards for living, and the birth of a man of whom we should always ask 'what would you do' in our uncertain moments. It is Christmas when I most remember Dad.

I also remember the heat. Heat waves, cicadas, bush-fires, sunburn, and the regular and very Australian ocean deaths by drowning. By New Year, as the Davis Cup played out on the radio, it was all over, and we were back where we started ... the holidays.

So when on Friday the American wife of a work client wished me 'happy holidays' in her twangy Texan accent, I very unreasonably cringed. I just managed to stop myself bleating out another 'happy Christmas' (I refuse to embrace 'merry', never have - it is a word reserved for something I have yet to discover) and smiled back a 'and you too' kind of response. She was, after all, right, if for all the wrong reasons. I can't think of anyone at work who sees this as anything but the end of the year and the beginning of the holidays. The place is littered (decorated is far too complimentary) with Christmas things, loud and gaudy Christmas things with all the look, and sincerity, of having been bought from some department store sell-off, where they once were as genuine in intent as this consumer driven event allowed then, zip. There is nothing other than the sense of relief that we have made it through again. There is certainly no joy. It's joyless. Didn't someone (Annette Benning's character) say that in American Beauty? And there are parties, parties and more parties. They're called Christmas parties, but they're not, they're end-of-year parties.

Despite a particularly jarring and appallingly literal stable-angel-animal-star-wisemen contrivance outside St Mary's cathedral (itself scrubbed and restored to perfection, the contradiction obviously escaping the collectors of congregational funds), the city doesn't look too bad (Taylor Square remains an exception, whatever its curse, it is not being lifted any time soon) and Clover Moore I am your greatest fan. And I readily acknowledge those who do take the meaning of all this to heart, Bill Crews for starters.

But what I can't find, yet I hope is out there, is the sense of any connection between strangers, some recognition that we all have something in common, that something in common my father
spoke about before Christmas lunch, wherein lies the essential message that doing unto others is doing unto self.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


The Age reports that Maureen Wheeler, co-founder with husband Tony of Lonely Travel publishing of which 75% was recently sold for a reported $250M, is prepared to toss $12 million towards Melbourne mounting a Ring Cycle as early as 2012.

Peter Bassett is apparently engaged in some feasibility studies and reserving comments till next year. He was heavily involved in the very successful 2004 Adelaide Ring. It was of the highest musical standards with Asher Fisch leading the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and a phenomenal coup de theatre after coup de theatre masterwork, thanks to Elke Neidhardt who assembled a world beating antipodean production team and world class cast led by the (then at least) in top form Lisa Gasteen.

If you think I’ve resorted to hyperbole (again), it’s because the memory still stirs emotions. Perhaps Bruce Martin would not approve, but the full three cycles were recorded, rehearsals and all, by the resourceful Melba Records, mixed and patched, and the result is now the first released Ring in SACD.

While it is reported as early days in the planning, good on you Melbourne. Oh that we had that level of artistic aspiration coupled with a matching benevolence here in Emerald City. What’s $12 million – half a house in Point Piper. There’s money in Sydney but you have to wonder if it is all in the wrong pockets. What Melbourne may be lacking however, the report suggests, is the right venue. Well here's where we can help. We have the perfect place, although even it may struggle with the complexities of the fire and water show Elke and the team (the Sydney Olympic Torch Lighting team, if you didn’t know) gave us.

Nonetheless, Melbourne, as I’ve already suggested, I think the best place to stage your Ring Cycle is right here in Sydney.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Most of the spring flowers have nearly finished, and much of the bush and garden shuts down for midsummer. The heat and drier conditions mean plant leaves tend to close their leaf pores (stomata) to conserve moisture, but they then reduce respiration, reduce carbon dioxide uptake, and so slow right down. Summer wattles are an exception, and there is another burst of gold due around Christmas.

However, there are two special flowerings here this month. The Dorrigo Waratah (Alloxylon pinnatum) is a medium sized tree, naturally found in temperate rainforest areas. It is happy here provided with extra summer water, well mulched, and talked to daily. They know what you say. It has exceptionally beautiful terminal flowers, a little like symmetrical grevilleas, a whorl of deep scarlet petals which unfurl gradually, the tips getting a cyanotic blush as they mature. We have grown them for the export market, but this year are giving them, and us, a break.

Alloxylon pinnatum

More familiar is the Flannel Flower (Actinotus helianthi), found growing wild on sandy coast dunes around Sydney, and even quite rampant on Middle Head. It is, for many, the most beautiful of our native flowers, perhaps because it has a traditional European look and is at the same time hardy but delicate looking. The creamy off-white 'petals' (actually they are bracts, there are no true petals) have a soft flannel feel, with a tip of faded olive green at each point. Each plant has a life of about 4 years, but in the right conditions they seed prolifically.

Actinotus helianthi

Both these plants have something unusual in common with us. They are subject to air embolism, whereby in abnormal circumstances, an exposed vascular system, at least that under low pressure (veins) can entrap air. Where there is air, there's no blood: no blood, no oxygen, no oxygen...

In these flowers, cut them and they may not bleed, but cut them and they 'suck' air into their vascular system, the ingenious method of their getting water and nutrients uphill, and the outcome is wilting and reduced vase life. They need to be picked into water, and how hard is that? Very hard.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Last night’s Pinchgut Opera production of Charpentier’s David and Jonathan was fantastic.

The bush fire was under control, K had received some good business news, and as “those coming to this kind of music for the first time”, any reservations we might have had were soon washed away in glorious music and glorious voice. A few things had conspired to get us there at last: the increasing public awareness of the rarity and excellence of the productions, some recent things I had read about Antony Walker in the USA, an interest in the story of the opera and about the opera, and an interest in all things French.

(photo sarah puttock, via opera critic)

The hall was even better than I remember for acoustic immediacy. We sat front on level 3 and it was hard to imagine there was anywhere better. The sound was wonderful. Our seat neighbours, Pinchgut regulars, speculated about amplification. The programme notes said clearly mikes were for recording only. The look of the set was Paris circa whenever, war ravaged, and if anything too cluttered, and one noisy ramp in and out, too noisy for a live recording I would have thought, all presided over by a large Caravaggio David and Goliath, and a few chandeliers. But the floor – no French aristocracy would have a terracotta floor like that, unless perhaps sous-sol.

“Make the music the main element of the production, with the set, costumes and the rest there to support the music, not to swamp it” says the about-the-company notes. Well, while I shouldn’t really comment, this being the first time, I did wonder if this mission may be being left behind. There’s no doubt that the music was what they, and we, were there for, but it looked like the production was getting big, if not bigger, if not too big. I couldn’t help thinking more is less here, too many competing references and altogether too much unnecessary stage movement.

But take that as very slight criticism. It was a splendid night, superbly managed by Antony Walker and the Orchestra of the Antipodes underwrote it all. I absolutely loved the sound. Mahogany. Beautiful to hear, beautiful to watch. The five minutes, or so it seemed, of repeat tuning of the period instruments was one of the best bits. I don’t suppose that will be on the CD, but I wont mind if it is.

Anders Dahlin was amazing with his extraordinary and seamless range. He sounded especially comfortable at its upper limits, ringing up to us, and reached his final lament with tremendous reserves, saving the best, in dynamics at least, for last. Whether humility was the intent, his demeanour and slender frame was so laid back that at times he looked almost limp. Sarah Macliver’s Jonathan was the bigger stage presence of the two, with a voice sounding like it was made for this role, white enough to be youthful, a moon white, pearl white tone, but able to be coloured when called for, and a lovely trill. The effect of two males, lovers, warriors, singing at that end of the scale was something extraordinary, itself giving the relationship an elevation beyond the pure physical, a distancing likely needed for a Jesuit commission of the day. We got the kiss.

Of the others, all good, I really liked Richard Andersons’ handsome Achis, and Anna Fraser be my shepherd any time.

Last but not least, Cantillation. How good are they. I don’t know what to say, except I want this recording and I want it especially for Cantillation and the orchestra, and to remember Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who gave such really beautiful music that so few have been lucky to hear. More please.

There’s very few reasons not to go: you’re in hospital, jail or a bush fire.


Who better than David Malouf, writing from within and without the Board of Opera Australia, to get to the nitty gritty.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


It was nearly midnight. I was deep in Julian Barnes "Nothing to be Frightened of" and writing words like 'uxorious' and 'shriving' in an old exercise book.

The house was still wide open, the air still. The sound of a siren took a while to jerk me to remember that I wasn't hearing what you always hear in inner Sydney, but I was hearing something I had never before heard down here, on the edge of the National Park, way down an unsealed bush road. Someone must be...the phone was H, from the nearest property. Her husband C has been called out with the reserves, they could see it, could I see it? The men can't even find their way in and that's why they were trying down our road to a fire-trail which slashes through our place. She'd stay in touch; C would let us know.

Yes, I saw it and was hypnotised for I don't know how long. Bush Fire. It was orange yellow and organic and no more than a kilometre across the gully, probably around our boundary, wherever that is, I don't know.

Everything had been rehearsed and the routine swung in. Fire-pump, water straight from the dam, big fat yellow hoses, roof sprinklers, baths filling, towels and blankets, dogs (where's that bloody young dog, there's ducks on the dam, she must be there) and now K is driving down. H is on the phone again, yes I know it is getting bigger, much bigger, yellow, can't really see smoke at night, it has to climb one small ridge then it is in the house gully...

All you can do is look at it and be thankful that the night was cool with little air movement and the ground still moist from recent rain. The trucks and the men must be there, I can see blue and red flashing lights. What about all the little animals? K is here now. We watch the front widening, actually moving down the gully, which at least is self-limiting. It is bigger, but seems to be moving away.

Now it is morning. There's smoke and two helicopters. One helicopter has a water bag on a very long rope and it seems that it does careful spot drops, the rope length letting him stay high about the draft. The other makes lower sweeping runs, spewing the water in giant yawning vomits. They'd be getting the water from the big dam on the other side of the town road, where they got it some years ago when two fire-fighters perished when a back-burn turned on them when the winds changed.

I rang next door and to my embarrassment woke C who had worked on the ground all night and had only been home since 6.30. I was worried about leaving and going up to the city, which sounded foolish and self-indulgent under the circumstances. I couldn't tell him it was Pinchgut. Off you go and don't you worry, it's all under control, he reassured, not a hint of tiredness in his voice.

The rural fire service, volunteers, people who live in the bush. It gets to you, you know.

Monday, December 1, 2008


In case I'm not the last to find it, if you're not following the Pinchgut Opera rehearsal blog, then you should be.

Another find is Sarah's very fine research notes on Charpentier.

Joern Utzon 1918 - 2008

Joern Utzon died in his sleep on November 29, 2008, aged 90. He was a Dane, a beautiful Dane.

The Danes are remarkable people, who, by whatever process and influence, have evolved a tolerant society where living together in harmony with each other and with nature takes an uncommon precedence over competitive materialism. They are, to even their surprise, voted as the happiest people in the world. You could do worse than say they have learned acceptance.

Already so much has been said and written about Joern Utzon and his most famous landmark, our most worthwhile and valuable added asset (in fact our only worthwhile added asset if you ask me). I would recommend Francoise Fromonot's "Jorn Utzon The Sydney Opera House" , if you can beg, borrow or steal one.

My thoughts on the building, its position, and the major players, from tricked Aborigine (Bennelong) through tricked music visionary (Goosens) and tricked Danish genius, are on record. Elizabeth Farrelly's orbiturary in The Sydney Morning Herald explores the seismic clash of ego and inspiration in her usual detail. The former editor of Architecture Australia, Davina Jackson, reflects clearly and evocatively on the man and his works; read this if nothing else.

Among Utzons many honours, he recieved an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture from The University of Sydney in 2003. with this citation:

Chancellor, I have the honour to present Mr Joern Utzon for the conferring of the degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture (honoris causa).

Today, it is our pleasure to celebrate a special symmetry.
In 1955, Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth, then Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, drew up the conditions of an International Architectural Competition for the design of a new National Opera House at Bennelong Point.

The competition was won by the then almost unknown Danish architect, Joern Utzon, with a beautifully resolved design. Today it is Australia’s principal architectural monument in the most perfect locus of our wonderful harbour. Born in Hellebaek, north of Copenhagen, in 1918 in what is one of the most beautiful regions of Denmark, Joern Utzon was influenced heavily by his father, Aage Utzon, a naval engineer who designed famous double-ended yachts and managed the Aalborg and later the Helsingor shipyards. He was raised in a proud and solidly middle-class design and engineering family. At an early age, Joern designed pendant lamps and designed and built polished half-scale models of yachts.

It was Professor Ashworth’s strategy to compose a brief for the competition such that only an architect of genius could win. By eliminating all but the most essential requirements, Ashworth ensured that this competition could only be won by the strength of the submitted architectural project. Professor Ashworth was an utterly inscrutable Mancunian, who, behind a bluff exterior harboured a longing for a radical project that would overturn Sydney’s tired architectural status quo. By inviting the Finnish-American, Eero Saarinen, and his Manchester contemporary, Sir Leslie Martin, to be his fellow competition jurors, Ashworth all but sealed off the local architectural network.

Utzon understood Ashworth; he revered him and, after winning the competition, he involved Ashworth in all of his design studio work, like a benevolent uncle taking a friendly interest in Utzon’s visionary project, secure in the knowledge that it was his, Ashworth’s strategic genius that enabled it all to happen.

Ashworth loved Utzon: I think that is the right word for his untrammelled belief in this irreverent young Dane. When Utzon wrote to Ashworth from China to tell him that he had, from his protracted study of a Sung Dynasty architectural treatise, found a way through some of the most difficult design issues of the Sydney Opera House, Ashworth immediately went – armed only with a cheap modern reprint that Utzon had sent him – and convinced his Technical Committee that Utzon had made a significant breakthrough. Ashworth trusted Utzon’s interpretation of Chinese construction, enabling the second and third stages of the Opera House to be assembled from prefabricated elements produced onsite at Bennelong Point.

At the moment that the then NSW Minister for Public Works was removing Utzon as architect for the Sydney Opera House in early 1966, the German Architectural Association, in an unprecedented move, was awarding him its Honour Plaque. Joern Utzon was being recognised as one of the outstanding architects of our time, not so much for the quantity of his architectural works but for the unique quality of expression and ability to define place. He has received many other major prizes, including the RIBA Gold Medal, the Alvar Aalto Medal, the Wolf Prize and the Sonning Prize in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of European civilisation.

Joern Utzon has never returned to Australia, yet he has never forsaken his affection for the place and the people he worked with all those years ago. Indeed, by placing his archive in the Mitchell Library and insisting that it remain unembargoed, Utzon has put himself forever in our care and trust. Utzon’s faith in both human nature and the spirit of enquiry lets him give the people of Australia this unique and precious record of his most important work, the Sydney Opera House, knowing that disinterested study of his drawings and models of this now national treasure will, eventually, achieve his halls, glass walls and interiors.

Bennelong Point was always an important site. Utzon revealed that with his wonderful composition of the two performance halls placed side by side on a vast platform, so as to acknowledge both the city and the harbour. We can only guess at what rush of inspiration led him to this design.

Like any great work of art, Joern Utzon’s Sydney Opera House will always challenge our creative intelligence.
By giving us the Sydney Opera House, at tremendous cost to himself, Joern Utzon has made a place for himself in the culture of our country, such that we can now embrace him as a truly great Australian.

Chancellor, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture (honoris causa) on Joern Utzon. As Mr Utzon is unable to be with us today, I present to you his son, Jan Utzon, to receive the award on his behalf.

Whatever else is said by whomever, no one speaks to the heart and mind more than Joern Utzon himself. In perhaps his last interview, I'm not sure, he speaks of the development and importance of the Utzon (I like to be on the edge of the possible) Centre, and of life and art, speaking with his hands, face, eyes, and his very Danish wisdom.

Part I 9:32 The Utzon Centre

after the War, life, design, existence alongside each other and nature (note the quip at 6:32)

Part II 9:41 The Opera House

continuing, and then suddenly (3:30) there he is talking about the Opera House, 450 men, the building emerging, craftsmen, the story of three workers, call it 'Sisu', past fusing with present...

and finally, an Expression of Love

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The forthright Norman Lebrecht reflects briefly on Richard Hickox and gives his thoughts on his recording legacy in his weekly column from La Scena Musicale:

The shocking death of the irrepressible Richard Hickox, who died this weekend at 60 in the throes of a recording session, has silenced one of the most entrepreneurial podium characters. A self-starter from the age of three when he took the organ seat while his vicar father preached in Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire, Hickox founded his own orchestra after coming down from Cambridge and was among the first to canvass City of London financial support while directing the LSO Chorus.

The range of his involvements extended from a festival at the tip of Cornwall to the Sydney Opera House, where he was music director since 2005, and it was typical of the man’s hunger for music that he should have been recording a Holst rarity in Wales this weekend just ahead of the dress rehearsal for Vaughan Williams’ Rider to the Sea at English National Opera (the show will go on tomorrow under ENO’s music director, Ed Gardiner).

His 300 recordings, 280 of them with the Chandos label, ranked him among the ten most prolific conductors on record. If his style lacked the last refinements of elegance and mystique there was no faulting Hickox on passion or detail. His advocacy of English music, in particular, was second to none. He was the first to perform the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies 15 years ago, and his recent London cycle with the Philharmonia was a huge success.

On record, his account of the original 1913 version of the London Symphony is in a class of its own. There is a terrific Carmina Burana with the LSO, as well as the complete choral works of Herbert Howells and a reverential Mendelssohn Elijah that show his feel for Anglican tradition. But it is a Catholic, Edmund Rubbra, whom Hickox espoused more convincingly than any modern interpreter. In the hands of Richard Hickox, the reticent Rubbra began to sound like a full English Bruckner.

Essential Hickox:

Vaughan Williams London Symphony (Chandos, LSO)

Handel Alcina (EMI, with Arleen Auger)

Rubbra 9th symphony (Chandos, BBC Nat. Chorus and Orch. Of Wales)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


It hasn't been a very good day. I've been having what-if thoughts, the kind of what-if thoughts that you struggle to keep down, meaningless indulgences in a wish for a different outcome that they are, when something dreadful, sudden and permanent happens to someone especially close. I've never consciously felt particularly close to Richard Hickox, but I've had these thoughts. Thoughts about the fatherless children, that anyone should die alone in a hotel room, and wonder even if that is true, hoping it's not. What-if, if the presumptive diagnosis is correct, if he had still been here in Sydney, and fate may have given him access to some cardiac prophylaxis, a coronary stent, an urgent by-pass, another chance. What-if the sustained public criticism of him, right or wrong, had taken it's toll.

This morning I went straight to the garden bordering the front of the house. It has been deliberately planted with Banksias and Grevilleas to bring the honeyeaters, and they did. For several weeks I've been watching two Little Wattlebirds nesting just next to the chimney. Their little nursery cupped two eggs, just a metre off the ground, too close for safety from predators, but bathed in the warm spring sun and surrounded by nectar. The eggs hatched a day apart, little bare pink chicks about the size of half my thumb. What-if the goanna came back. Today the need for reassurance was pressing. And it was there. I hadn't checked for a while, and these little new lives had feathered, their distinctive white streaks already apparent, and their dark brown eyes looked me straight in the eye.

I find it disconcerting when you go eye to eye with an animal. It doesn't happen often in the wild. Late one afternoon, during that hot spell a few weeks ago, the young dog, now nearly 2 (and a joy I don't know how to express) sat staring into the low bushes and mulch just off a path. I followed her gaze. She was face to face, eye to eye, with a red-belly black snake. I dread this encounter, every summers day. She sat still. She didn't stand, didn't bristle and didn't bark. She just looked at the snake. The snake looked back. It was up, head thrust forward, tongue darting, sensing the air. They looked at each other with, and this is something you feel but don't believe, a measure of understanding. It was like they met there everyday. Despite the fear that breaking the dog risks a loss of attention, and a quick fatal dart, I walked slowly away, told the dog that snakes were to be left alone, then after a quick call to follow as the snake watched, we were gone. I gave thanks.

And I give thanks for baby Wattlebirds. Today I broke my promise to keep the camera out of other peoples bedrooms. I needed a record of replacement and regeneration.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Richard Hickox 1948 - 2008

Richard Hickox has died in Cardiff, aged 60, apparently following a heart attack. This is shocking news. The loss is huge.

He leaves behind his wife, three children, an enormous recording legacy, an open wound in the opera world, and with great sadness, I am hanging onto the immediate memory of his recent Billy Budd and The Makropulos Affair here in Sydney, such magnificent farewells he gave us.

Thank you Mr Hickox, and may your family's grief be lightened by what you have given us and left to the world. Your Angel has come.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Midweek at the Opera House is not usual for us. The night was balmy, a moist nor’easter blowing over the harbour. A low fine cloud or mist hung over North Sydney and the office buildings' neons gave the view from the northern foyer a pink-blue wash while further east the empty harbour looked particularly dark.

A good crowd, regrettably not a full house, had come for Wednesday’s The Dream of Gerontius. Even the Minister for Closing Music Academies dared show his face. Was this some calculated attempt to stare down the mounting opposition to shut down the Australian National Academy of Music (on-line petition on home page)? How often does he come to this music? Anyone seen him around in the classical circuit before? Strangely, someone who looked uncannily like Yvonne Kenny sat, bar one, next to him and enjoyed (or suffered, depending) a formal introduction.

All that needs to be said about the performance has already been said. I heard what she heard.

Vladimir Ashkenazy was on top of this. His small tight body wound and gently twisted, intensely concentrated, and he somehow extracted the most expressive, elegant, delicate, fine playing from all the orchestra. Thank you all, and thank goodness this is on tape. It was very beautiful.

The choral forces were big, with good dynamics and tone, and one sublime moment of swelling sopranos over a delayed brass entry. I need to relisten. In the carpark afterwards, K found a credit card, bewildered and lost on the concrete floor. I recognised the owner’s name, a workplace connection I was sure, and rang the card company when we got home, and eventually made phone contact with she of the empty pocket. She was in the choir, and it is always fun to hear it from the inside. Some found Ashkenazy’s beat hard to follow, and she felt some of the ensemble pieces a bit untidy.

Mark Tucker had a pleasant tenor but was up against considerable opposition, particularly in part I, dealing with a cruel hall for voices and facing the larger orchestral forces of the struggles of death. He seemed overparted much of the time. It will be interesting to hear how he records. Recording was a big part of this enterprise it appears, with all rehearsals and both performances taped, and then a patch session. Part II, written now for an out-of-body experience, suited him better, more exposed but less competitive. It is a big sing, suited to a heldentenor voice. Vickers took it in his particularly earnest stride, and the SSO podcast with Glenn Winslade’s 1997 Gerontius (SSO/de Waart) performance shows the way. I also wondered what Philip Langridge would have done with this and have now found this historic DVD, well reviewed with reservations. Which brings me to the Angel.

Any Dream of Gerontius for me must get the Angel right. When I mentioned that Elgar was not one of my desert island composers as I went King Street Fishing to buy the fine (except for the arch, more judgemental, and sharp edged Angel of Felicity Palmer) Hickox version, I was met with disbelief by Sarah’s co-attendant, Peter Google. Anyway, I think I might be revising my list. This Elgar work is now in, with one proviso, the right angel. To date, Yvonne Minton was my angel.

Lilli Paasikivi is now the one. She is the perfect Angel of Understanding. With her beautiful rich middle tones, divine (pun intended) phrasing, and complete ease at the top, she was perfect. Her final “Alleluia Praise be His Name” just before the orchestra plays out the Divine vision and judgement was enough to make the night worthwhile. It was only when she sang could you close your eyes and forget the libretto, her diction exemplary. “I poise thee, and I lower thee, and I hold thee.” I-thee-poise-lower-hold. Her winged Angel dress wafting in a mysterious breese kept me wondering if her feet were always on the ground.

David Wilson-Johnson’s bass baritone was at the disadvantage of his being stuck 'up high', behind and at the level of the acoustic circles, good idea at the time maybe, but his voice rarely had the impact it ought, and I’m sure could, deliver. Why do they do this? Again, the recording will be interesting. I can’t wait for the recording, to take to the desert island, Lilli and me.

I am finding this is taking a lot of listening to. The orchestration is endlessly revealing in its marriage to the text, and I have only started to scratch the surface. On even the most coarse level, the change from Part I to Part II, from earthly death throws to an out-of-body and out-of-time experience is masterly.

And as Newman does not (correctly) attempt to descibe the indescribable, leaving the Angel to tell us what is happening

“..for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.
Alleluia, Praise to His Name”

so Elgar follows with his musical expression of the inexpressible, and again, and unlike the more Teutonic composers, refers to the experience, rather than attempt to delineate it. With the instruction that “for one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force” he leads us to base percussive delivery of aborted and fearful magnificence that one can almost understand the soul’s immediate plea of “Take me away”.

The Angel’s song of farewell, threaded with the final Amen, had even the worst fidgeters now hushed and the performance was greeted with 3 seconds silence.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is offering last tickets to Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (Wednesday 19, Thursday 20) for $35, a considerable discount, only available by calling their Box Office (9-5) 8215 4600.

Their website suggests that Wednesday is sold out.

The excellent podcast by David Garrett, a look at Elgar by Genevieve Lang, and the full programme notes with libretto are also available.

Askenazy has assembled a cast unlikely to be heard together here again, and Lilli Paasikivi, whom I've been fortunate to hear before (Fricka and Mahler 3) is alone worth the visit. $35 is a lot easier than a trip to Europe.

The text leaves no doubt that Cardinal Newman had the insight gained from a revelatory experience, that holy instant. We can only hope that in Askenazy's hands, the orchestra and these singers bring us closer to one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Who would have guessed? Well, anyone who tried to make sense of next year's programming, like Marcellous did, or someone who has rung them recently, about anything, and didn't have half a day to spare.

From today's Crikey:

"Arts insider Dita Hunter writes:

All has not been sweetness and light for some time at the Sydney Symphony. Midyear the orchestra lost one of its key executives, Wolfgang Fink, the latest in a long list of thirty plus staff to have walked through the reign of General Manager Libby Christie.

Unable to hack Christie’s Ruddian micromanagement style, Fink, whose international contacts and experience have been one of the orchestra’s strengths and the reason some staff have hung in so long, quit to run the Bamberg Symphony, one of Germany’s best orchestras.

Other exits stage left are said to have included the Marketing Director, the Marketing Manager, the Customer Relationship Manager, the Online Manager, the Data Base Analyst, the Director of Commercial Programming, the Operations Manager and the Finance Director.
Now Christie has gone too.

The memo below shows that even the mild-mannered SSO chair John Conde and his board have had enough:

TO: All Staff
FROM: John Conde DATE: 11 November 2008.

The Managing Director, Libby Christie, has advised the Board that she will not be renewing her contract with the Sydney Symphony when her present term concludes in June 2009.
There is no immediate impact from this decision. Libby has made a significant contribution to the Orchestra and the advance notice is appreciated by the Board as it allows time for a thorough search and selection process for a new chief executive. In the meantime it is business as usual.
The Sydney Symphony is in very good shape and positioned well to cope with the inevitable stresses and strains that the present economic climate will bring. We now have in place a very strong senior executive team and I am sure we will manage well a change at the top without any disruption to the forward momentum of the Orchestra.
Libby has been Managing Director for six years, during which time the Orchestra has grown in strength, stature and financial performance. Under her leadership, the Orchestra has seen substantial change, emerging with a strong operational and business structure following our divestment from the ABC. Libby has also, in this time, overseen the appointment of our new Principal Conductor and planning for the early years of Mr Ashkenazy’s time with us.
I shall keep you informed throughout the coming months and look forward to your support.
John C. Conde, ao

Christie, daughter of former Commonwealth Bank boss Vern Christie, had a background in business -- Telstra, Optus and Asia Pacific -- so perhaps classical music was just not her forte. However that didn’t stop her from running a red pencil through important repertoire and substituting it with crowd-pleasing pap.

And there was worse: despite mounting subscriber dissatisfaction with the quality of his conducting and his choice of soloists, Christie refused to pay out the deeply unpopular previous Principal Conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti.

Instead she rubber stamped his recent meaningless vanity tour of Italy, which chewed up over a million dollars of the orchestra’s reserves, did bugger all for the orchestra’s reputation and even less for her standing with musicians. But the arrival of renowned and highly respected Vladimir Ashkenazy has boosted morale and audience confidence. The orchestra now has a future instead of a dismal past few year."


"I cycled over from Ledbury to lunch with him ... he was greatly relieved at having that instant written his name under the score of the last bar [of Gerontius] ... I begged Elgar to remain just as he was while I went down and fetched my camera."- William Eller, 3 August 1900

Thomasina has posted a witty and insightful introduction to the upcoming SSO Dream of Gerontius and she includes a link to an essential podcast from the SSO website: David Garrett’s Q&A into the work.

Do listen before you go, and if you're not planning to go, listen and change your mind. I have posted a little, mostly about Cardinal Newman, here.

This all prompted a discography search, which ended up at The Elgar Society which has enough for even the most devoted. For Dream of Gerontius alone, there is :
* a superb comparative recording REVIEW (Walter Essex)
* a musical tour of the work
* the full libretto
* notes on how Elgar came to write the work

From Walter Essex:

Complete Recordings

Sargent (1945)Heddle Nash, Gladys Ripley, Dennis Noble, Norman Walker, Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra(Testament - SBT 2025)

Sargent (1955)Richard Lewis, Marjorie Thomas, John Cameron, Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra(EMI - CHS7 63376-2)

Barbirolli (1957)Jon Vickers, Constance Shacklock, Marian Nowkowski, Orcestra Sinfonica e Coro della RAI di Roma(Arkadia - AKI 584)

Barbirolli (1964)Richard Lewis, Janet Baker, Kim Borg, Ambrosian Singers, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Hallé Choir and Orchestra(EMI - CMS7 63185-2)

Britten (1972)Peter Pears, Yvonne Minton, John Shirley-Quirk, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Decca - 448 170-2DF2)

Boult (1976)Nicolai Gedda, Helen Watts, Robert Lloyd, London Philharmonic Choir, John Alldis Choir, New Philharmonia Orchestra(EMI - CDS7 47208-8)

Gibson (1976)Robert Tear, Alfreda Hodgson, Benjamin Luxon, Scottish National Chorus and Orchestra(CRD - CRD3326/7)

Svetlanov (1983)Arthur Davies, Felicity Palmer, Norman Bailey, London Symphony Chorus, SSR State Symphony Orchestra(Melodiya - LP - ROCT 5289/90)

Rattle (1987)John Mitchinson, Dame Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(EMI - CDS7 49549-2)

Hickox (1988)Arthur Davies, Felicity Palmer, Gwynne Howell, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Chandos - CHAN8641/2)

Handley (1993)Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Michael George, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra(EMI - CD-EMXD2500)

Hill (1997)William Kendall, Matthew Best, Sarah Fryer, Waynflete Singers, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra(Naxos - 8.553885/6)

“Going through all these recordings within a relatively short space of time has not wearied the ear of the work; rather has it enriched and energised it and left me wishing for more. There are always artists who one hoped would have recorded the work or one hopes might yet do so, but one must not be greedy! We are lucky indeed to have so many recordings to choose amongst. I am not going to be presumptuous in recommending a recording outright - and nothing I have written is going to influence firm adherents to particular recordings or performers - but recently I had cause to introduce Gerontius to an acquaintance for whom it was his first experience of the work. I thought hard and long which recording to use, but I settled for Handley as a good all-round representation in modern sound.

Which recording do I turn to most frequently for sheer pleasure? That is easy : always Barbirolli's 1964 reading. However, in my "desert island" mood I conjure up my own personal ideal : Barbirolli, Vickers, Baker (1964), Lloyd, CBSO & Choir. Mind you, next week it could be Rattle, Nash, Hodgson..... See? The permutations are endless! “

I have the '57 live Barbirolli/Vickers. What it lacks in sound quailty doesn't matter. Vickers sings from within.

Thanks to Thomasina, and a pox on coughers, programme flickers, and purgatory.


Lord Howe Island is a little crescent shaped volcanic residue, 10 km by 2 km, sitting off the coast from Port Macquarie, 700 Km north east of Sydney. The 2 hour flight is a journey to another time. Everything you have, or haven’t, heard about it is true.

The island was discovered, uncharted and uninhabited, one month (February 1788) after the settlement of Sydney Cove, by HMAS Supply en route to Norfolk Island under the command of Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball. Cook had charted and noted Norfolk as valuable to a new colony for its timber and flax and for its agricultural potential. Ball named the island after the then first lord of the Admirality. His name is given to one of the island's two mountains, Mount Lidgbird (aka ‘Lidgy’ in the unique Australian way of combining affection and a little gentle disrespect), and also the staggering Balls pyramid, a mighty singularity, a Lord-of the-Rings granite outcrop spiking 760m from the sea 20 Km to the south east.

Ball's pyramid wisped in cloud from boat off island south

The island is bathed in the warm East Australian Current, sweeping south then curling east around it, warming the milder Tasman seas to no lower than 17 degrees such that it supports some of the most southern coral in the Pacific. This little jewel of marine life, subtropical forests and stunning birds and fauna was World Heritage listed in 1982 when Neville Wran was the premier. It is also the world source of the live-almost-anywhere Kentia Palm, which swept its way through the parlours of the Northern Hemisphere, and remains, with tourism, one of the economic mainstays.

The crucible of the island crescent is protected by a line of coral reef, like a string to its bow, breaking the seas and cradling a turquoise lagoon. It was here the sea planes landed, by the tides, until a land runway was built in 1974.

looking south over the lagoon from Malabar ridge

Some people mark turning 60 by the usual city affairs, a party, a come-as-a-S party (my sister did this – I hate dress-up parties and went as a Sheep having been threatened with eviction if I carried out my promise to come in a Sorry-t-shirt). But not Jy. She chose to gather her family and friends for something more meaningful, the celebration of her life so far as seen through the togetherness of those she loves most.

We 27 came from Sydney, London, Pittsburgh, Wagga Wagga (it’s so nice they named it twice), Coff’s Harbour, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Tennant Creek and we stayed together for six days. Breakfast together, planning the days walking, mountain climbing, snorkelling, kayaking, boat trips, bird watching, fish feeding, lunch at the resort or delivered to some distant beach, lazy afternoons, naps, tennis, cycling, naps, reading, naps, drinks at sunset on the beach, noisy dinners, singing and jokes, then bed by 9.30 among the Kentia palms in an uncommon stillness to be woken by the scratching of Woodhens.

K said it was remarkable how you weren’t aware of the constant mainland static until you left it behind, really behind.

K's meditation spot

It was all very very Jy. Happy Birthday you lovely creature of the wild.

Jy putting toe in water, something Jy very good at

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Jy is having a birthday, a big birthday, and she's having it on Lord Howe Island. It starts on Monday and finishes on Saturday. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't go all gushy about this place and my local bookshop lady, who could be described as picky and more than a little hard to please, has been five times. Paradise seems to be the word.

Reading list

Janet Frame Living in the Maniototo
Annie Proux Fine Just the Way It Is
Philip Roth Indignation
Julian Barnes Nothing to be Frightened of

See you in a week.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Darlinghurst once had the pulse of Sydney in it. It was raw. Life was on the street. Patrick White famously said Taylor Square was the only place in Sydney that had soul. Taylor Square at midnight Friday would throb, the footpaths stuffed with life emerging from the confines of the day into the liberation of the night. The Saturday papers were stacked high next to the magazine stands, sellers darting between treble-parked cars where hands held out dollar notes, no one in a hurry because they were there to be there, no smart flagpoles, no ugly street furniture, and no self-conscious outsiders. The only strutters were drag queens from venue to venue and Capriccios was standing room only. Well not any more. Gutted by the rule of the car, streets widened (boulevard my arse – Berlin and Paris have boulevards), overtaken by crass commercial traders in alcohol and take-away food, the ghetto has been blasted and the crowd dispersed. There’s even a Catholic University jammed into one corner.

In another corner of Darlinghurst, my mother rests and waits. She's waiting to die. Rather we’re waiting for her to die. K says she has mostly crossed over, slowly through the passage, gradually releasing herself in a gentle, slow and dignified way to her next level. I saw her on Friday. I don’t think she saw me, although the face changes when she hears your voice. Her wasted facial features struggle to sustain expression. Gutteral noises jerk from her throat. There is barely anything left.

This one is for you Mum.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SALOME live from the met

"Salome", Richard Strauss, live from the Metropolitan Opera House.

Production Jurgen Flimm
Design Santo Loquasto
Salome Karita Mattila
Jochanaan Juha Uusitalo
Herod Kim Begley
Herodias Ildiko Komlosi
Narraboth Joseph Kaiser

Conductor Patrick Summers replacing an ill Mikko Franck

In a break from the usual Sunday morning country routine of doing as little as possible as slowly as possible, we drove to the local town for the Metropolitan HD (that’s video, not sound) latest season kick-off: Salome at midday. About 50 other people did the same. C and G had organised the tickets.

The night before we had watched Oscar Wilde’s Salome in the Steve Berkoff directed stage version, filmed for TV in 1995 in the Ginza Saison Theatre, Tokyo. With hardly any colour, minimal sets and props, and most action in stylised slow motion, it is reduced to the essentials – the text. Berkoff explains: “So much was the perfume and tapestry in the language that I decided that the stage should be bare and allow the words to bounce off the hard surfaces without being softened or cushioned by ‘carpets and ivory tables and tables of jasper

The effect is startling. There’s only one person I know who can, and did, successfully add to Wilde, and that is Richard Strauss. Leaving the original text largely intact, Strauss underlines the drama with his now familiar shocking score and Berkoff’s principle of less is more becomes even more relevant.

What a disappointment therefore to find yourself face to face with a Hollywood version, with a set cluttered to the ridiculous extent that Salome is walking across planks over a crack in the universe in between dodging any other amount of unnecessary steps, stairs, rails, chairs, tables, holes, lifts, crates, faux everything and real nothing. It was crap. It may well have worked better in the big theatre where perspective reduced clutter to impressions and over direction to relevance. All this was then augmented by the transmission direction of Barbara Willis Sweete. That would be the same BWS who cut and sliced and spliced and mutli-screened the T&I to the point that the only way to survive it was with eyes shut tight. No wonder Johannaan had his eyes covered; he’d been to the dress rehearsal.

BWS may be able to edit film to text, but she sure can’t edit film to music. Having failed badly in T&I, this is better, but still she manages to ignore musical phrases and cut across them as if just to remind us that she (BWS) is still there. Just one example, and the worst I remember: the closing moments of necrofiliac ecstasy, with Salome and her trophy locked in orgasm, are spent cutting to the nasty angels (oh, they must be angels of death) to the executioner, black body-builder of course, (oh, someone is sure to get killed around here soon), never mind that Mr Wilde and Mr Strauss are perfectly able to tell us that for themselves, and then a quick peep at how Sal’s going with the head before off we go again, camera roving around the set.

Patrick Summers gave what sounded like a routine performance of little nuance, little eroticism, little vulgarity and little thrill. The sound system we heard was compressed and not good. Back to the Chauvel next time.

Karita Matilla was, as reported, in sensational voice, suffering only from too many close-ups, BWS again doing everything she can to destroy the magic and the illusion. A 48 yr old dramatic soprano playing a singing dancing 16 year old doesn’t need close-ups. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in this league, except perhaps Katarina Dalayman. Can we expect an Elina Makropulos from Mattila soon? Does Makropulos mean big chook?

Speaking of America, what’s wrong with it? We can show a virgin sucking blood from a dead man's mouth, but can’t show a nipple, let alone the bit where the legs join the body, because this is a family show! Mommy and Daddy have nipples and funny bits where the legs join the body, but they don’t suck blood from dead men’s mouths. Maybe in Alaska.

The other Finn, big Juha Uusitalo, was boomy in and out of his cistern and had about as much belief is his holiness and his Lord as BWS has in long shots.The rest of the cast was fine.

The dogs were pleased when I got home, and so was I. That said, Mattila made it more than worthwhile.

Monday, October 27, 2008

MAKROPULOS performance

The Makropulos Thing, or Nothing Lasts Forever.

There isn’t much more to be said about the current run of the OA ‘The Makropulos Secret’ (1926), music and libretto by Leos Janacek. The praise has been pretty well unanimous and superlative. We went last Tuesday when it was conducted by Stephen Mould.

Neil Armfield and Carl Friedrich Oberle, and not least a cast of superb acting singers, manage to engage you at the second of curtain-up and never release you till the final shadow appears. It is fantastic theatre. Yes, people sat really still during Janacek. Without theatre of this standard, I imagine it becomes that much harder, as in too hard, to make Makropulos work.

Robert Gard deserves special and repeated mention. He jolts the stage into life when he enters. He alone, in a performance of a remarkable mix of delicacy and broad strokes, manages to raise Emily from her hereto stultifying ennui. I have to wonder if he hasn’t found the secret. My first memory of him was also Janacek, my first Janacek, in another exceptional local (John Copley) production of Jenufa, with Lone Koppel Winter and Elizabeth Connell facing off. Robert Gard sang Steva, 34 years ago. It was a revelation in music theatre and my template was set. I think it was the first time I was aware of seeing opera for its content, not just its form. It was Elizabeth Connell’s last night before leaving for the Northern Hemisphere except for a single farewell Wagnerian recital. At final curtain, friends of Connell, and there were lots, had shredded the nightly cast fliers into floaty squares of snow which were flung from the upper front boxes when she took her solo curtain. The audience was stamping its feet. I miss that level of excitement and enthusiasm too Emily. I somehow ended up in a small crowd at the Bennelong Restaurant where it happened she (Connell) was celebrating her birthday at another table. Waiter’s gossip. A bottle of bubbly was sent, she beamed, then stood and waved, and everyone laughed and sang, across the tables and across the restaurant.

Back to Makropulos - the set is not unlike the 1995 (Hoheisel) Glyndebourne production. It is a delicious yawning horn, or helix, or time tube, or a genetic helix, (or ground floor Australia Square, for the less romantic) opening to the full extent of the proscenium. It is beautifully dressed and filled with an elegance and reverance for the little things – reaching for a book, bobbing heads in the snow outside the stage-door, frozen moments of life.

Musically, and philosophically, The Makropulos Thingy is challenging, or rather challenges me. It begins, and continues, infused with restless striving, short motifs of strain to gain, aborted and repeated, aborted and repeated, none two the same. It is almost harrowing at times, and all this starting in a legal office, where combatants prepare to win and winning, as far as I see it, is all that matters.

As it finally approaches resolution of purpose, the great closing moments, where ‘nothing has purpose’ is replaced by the greatest purpose of all, death, Janacek delivers an almost Straussian orgasm, an ecstasy of relief, but nothing redemptive, nothing anticipated, nothing if not nihilism. Admittedly, Emily is different to other dealers in immortality - she had longevity imposed on her, while most others solicit and bargain for it. She lets it all go for no other reason than she doesn’t want it any more (or was it sleeping with Prus). Moreover she ultimately declares the soul will die with her, which didn’t quite fit the final stunning visuals, both as beautiful and as meaningless as they were.

This must say a lot about Janacek; he wrote the libretto, based on Karel Capek's comedy, as well as the music. He was born in 1854 in Moravia, the ninth of thirteen children, in a time and place where Church, school and home were closely integrated. By the age of eleven he was at an Augustinian Monastery, where from chorister he became choir master and finally composer. He went on to become a declared atheist, holding organised religion in contempt, describing it as ‘…concentrated death. Tombs under the floor, bones on the altar, pictures full of torture and dying. Rituals, prayers, chants – death and nothing but death. I don’t want to have anything to do with it’. His muse, Kamila Stösslová, was Jewish.

Next step, The Glagolitic Mass (1927), there will be clues there.

Meantime, a paper “Immortality and Meaning: Reflections on the Makropulos Debate”, Mikel Burley, (Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds), has surfaced. More on that later, or for those interested in sooner, here it is.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


It started off well enough. 10:30 weekday morning. Not far along the gently curving street, where I’d spotted 2 gardeners in about the first 20 houses, there was a collection of snappy little mid-size cars outside a cream picket-fenced corner block with neat hedges inside and a curved sandstone path wandering through a scandalously green buffalo grass lawn to an open front door. This must be it.

M. is a retired country school teacher and an old friend. I’d managed to help her through a few rough patches lately, and I was now her guest at something most unlikely for me…a cooking class, on the upper North Shore, just a short walk from where I had grown up and had long since left behind. A main road now crosses the deep eucalypt gully where all those years ago there was only a wood and cable pedestrian suspension bridge, swinging just to the side of a fantastic stone castle. The castle is still there, but the little wobbly bridge is gone and with it the gut sinking feeling of looking down through the white painted rails to drop penny bungers timed to go off mid-air.

It was a generous thank you and lots of fun. Thirteen ladies who lunch, and me. We sat with recipes, made notes, watched, swapped food tips and stories (well, they did), and with perfect timing, sat down to eat what had been cooked. Rather than get stuck again next to the woman who had a slightly different way of doing everything that was being demonstrated, you know the type, I snapped a place next to the shortcut blonde, whose husband it turned out was away in China on business. Perhaps I’d looked eager, because when she offered me an extra serve of the lamb backstraps, which I declined, she leant a little too closely, and said a little too softly, ‘ah, that’s why you’re so beautifully lean’. Neither lean nor beautiful, and now completely wrong-footed, I stumbled over something about waiting for desserts, at best hitting the ball into the net.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I was back in the city. Feeling unusually weary, I headed to the best public pool in the world for a few laps. Nothing felt right, and I kept on getting a funny feeling in my chest, not tight, not heavy, but not relaxed, and couldn’t help but think of an old work friend J, who had taken to his rehabilitation after successful heart valve surgery with unreasonable vigour. When I was cycling, I would see him running in a nearby park, beaded with sweat and grey, always a few paces behind his mates he used to lead. One day he dashed home from work around midday, having been short-tempered all morning. Someone called him to see if he could come back soon, but he snapped an unhelpful reply, and apparently took to his pool, where he swam himself to his death. I was wondering if the last thing he saw were the tiles or the sky, and got myself out of the water.

Despite feeling worse, I wasn’t going to miss the last night of Billy Budd, and didn't, thanks to a good dose of cold and flu tablets. It was magnificent. We sat very close. However good it had been, this was something even more complete. The three main protagonists had evolved. The only word I can find for Philip Langridge’s Vere is perfect. His voice had cleared, no ruff patches, nothing held back. The words hit you between the eyes. In the prologue I was struck immediately by

Much good has been shown me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect.
There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech.
So that the evil still has something to do with every human consignment to this planet of

The libretto stands alone.

And Vere stood alone, all night. He begins alone, haunted by his demons and phantasms, rides the seas alone, and ends alone, stooped and stumbling. The only time anyone gets reasonably close to him is Billy, seeking his mercy, to be pulled back before reaching him. This worked for me this time. K found Langridge's voice quite beautiful, much more approachable than Pears, whom we had been listening to in preparation.

Wegner’s Claggart seemed also more secure and blacker vocally, and his characterisation less histrionic. Teddy Tahu Rhodes suffered a little from having been such a pleasant surprise the first time, and that said, his ‘Billy in the Darbies’ did sound throatier and rather more blokey, not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that my memories were of such youthful sweetness. And, was that some sweat on his left nipple, caught in the light, or an unnecessary adornment?

Langridge gave a powerful and emotional performance I expect to not ever experience again.

That night and the next day I was no good, feverish, aching, spare you the details. In the morning I rang in sick for the first time ever, and stayed horizontal for two days. Why haven’t we evolved to be able to drink lying down yet?

I did however manage to miss K’s nephew’s 21st birthday, a nautically themed affair. K went as a Viking (every family should keep a horned helmet). I was thinking seaweed, or Claggart.


A much admired friend was on the ABC’s New Inventors during the week. He is a man of huge intellect with an enquiring mind which does not take no for an answer. He is generous, funny, and has devoted his life to the welfare of others, in and out of the workplace.

He has invented a man overboard (MOB) rescue device, which he demonstrated with his usual understatement. One of its significant advances is in keeping the victim horizontal during rescue, helping to prevent aspiration into the lungs, and maintaining blood pressure and flow in the hypothermic.
It rightly won the night 2:1, the third vote being given by a woman panellist to a biodegradable multi-hole flower arranger. Remind me to throw her one next time she falls overboard.

For those inclined, you can vote here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008



The day wouldn’t write
What the night penciled in

After six years gestation, The Leonard Cohen – Philip Glass poetry / music collaboration Book of Longing (2007) has been crisscrossing the globe for 12 months, and slipped through Sydney on the weekend, a beautiful Sydney weekend, on the way to the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

We went to the 6pm Sunday show. Why aren’t more things scheduled here on Sunday evenings, perhaps with the exception of the hottest of Sydney’s mid-summer nights, when nothing should be on, including clothes, before sunset? Glass gave a preconcert talk which we missed, blissfully unaware it was on, and blissfully finishing off a harbourside lunch with a creamy sago of the texture of meringue without the sweetness, lightly dressed with a passionfruit syrup. It should have been called endorphin pudding.

Unlike K, who listens to Leonard Cohen as an almost meditative experience, hearing the voice more than the words, I’m not a great Lenny fan. Too much Cohen and I start to feel like I need to kill someone, that’s Lenny or me. Mr Cohen didn’t appear, but sent his voice, his poems, his drawings and his psyche for what was to be a very personal exploration of one man and his search.

My introduction to Philip Glass, who readily acknowledges the influences of Ravi Shankar, Nadia Boulanger, and Steve Reich, was the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, one of those ‘if you remember it you didn’t see it’ affairs. I saw it three times in rapid succession, and more memorably, with his ensemble backing the film live during a Sydney festival some years ago. It epitomised Brian Eno’s description of minimalism : “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space”. Glass's enormous body of work is many things, and good accompanist is one of them. Probably it was film scores which most brought him into the mainstream (Thin Blue Line, Kundun), and it was a pretty mainstream crowd who came to this show. The hall was full except for the very upper rows of the closest side boxes where there would have been restricted view of the screen.

The Concert Hall stage was blocked in black, comfortably accommodating the eight musicians, and four soloists. Philip Glass was on keyboard. Leonard Cohen drawings hang at the rear around a central screen for further imaging. The effect was quite intimate for such a large hall, helped probably by us sitting mid stalls. It began like entering a private studio or study but by the end it felt like you were exiting a mind, this whole dark space ultimately became inside you-know-who’s cranium.

Cohen’s (“Anyone who says I’m not a Jew is not a Jew”) work is startlingly frank. He exposes himself and his struggle between attachment and release with a repetitive intensity, returning constantly to lust, music, death, sex, no death, rebirth, sex, round and round, Boogie Street to mountain and back. It was all very agitating, as well it ought be. It is after all a Book of Longing. Once when asked if he might turn his attention (from longing) to fulfilment, Cohen’s reply was “What has fulfilment got to offer?

Glass, no stranger to agitation himself, was ultimately the calming influence. His soothing rhythms and soft Buddhist precussions, with fine interludes on violin (a tilt perhaps at Cohen’s comments that the approach by Glass was like being asked by Bach if he could use your lyrics) and cello, amounted to a kind of therapy, reassuring but never hindering or intruding on the word. It was a well drilled performance, choreographed to fine detail, the mezzo of Tara Hugo the most willing of the vocalists to emote beyond the routine, although on reflection, that is counter to how Cohen deadpans his lyrics.

And just when you think he’s trapped in his vortex forever, there comes the

Epilogue – Merely A Prayer

Now I’m here at the end of the song
the end of the prayer
The ashes have fallen away at last
exactly as they’re supposed to do
The chains have slowly
followed the anchors
to the bottom of the sea
It’s merely a song
merely a prayer
Thank you, Teachers
Thanks you, Everyone