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