Tuesday, December 28, 2010


One of the many Old Man Banksias (Banksia serrata) near the house has produced a mass of new flowers. But only one - the vagaries of plant fertility escape me. It just looks too obvious to call them our Christmas candles, but they do, don't they?

These are the summer-flowering Banksias (the others - B. spinulosa, marginata, integrifolia -flower from autumn, through the winter and into spring). Last years flowers, and years before as well, sit alongside. 'As I am so shall you be' my father would have said, as is being proven increasingly to be the case.

Not that the young ones need much attention. A closer look suggests the silvery cream new flowers are themselves more than well organised.

It's the old dried flowers, with their variably gawping seed pods, patriaching (or matriaching, anyones guess) over the juveniles, that earned these stay-arounds the title of Big Bad Banksia Men in the May Gibbs comics. What's a comic without bad men intent on abducting innocents.

The man behind the (genus) name is the underestimated (by many Australians at least) Sir Joseph Banks. Most will associate him with botany and James Cook, captain and commander. As it turns out, he had garnered significant influence in scientific circles in London and access to the Crown, and was in all probability one of the most coercive in the establishment of the colony. So much so that we were nearly named BANKSIA. We'd have been Banksians! I'm working on the anthem at the moment.

Early portraits suggest a man of rackish charm.

I rather like the look of him. And the Old Bad Men. In fact, there's a bowl of them on the table in the hall.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Back in the highlands, the contrast with Christmas couldn't be greater. No wonder ...

(Storm front meets leader of Sydney Hobart yacht race on Boxing Day - from The Australian, photo AP)

The southerly blew through here last evening. The temperature plummeted, a heavy fog suddenly appeared as it does when the temperature drops and the humidity is high, wrapping itself around everything, and it rained steadily overnight.

What really caught my eye in the light morning drizzle was a silver aura around the Hakea teretifolia (Dagger Hakea) , whose sharp acicular leaves give it its name. The laminae are so reduced in surface area (an adaptation reducing evaporative loss and so increasing drought tolerance) that the leaves are fine stiff needles, and with nasty sharp points. Beware. I've planted them as a bird refuge.

The lovely shimmer was lots of little rain droplets giving a strange chandelier effect over the whole bush. It seems incongruous that the leaves without laminae were actually hanging onto the most water, by some sort of capillary action I suppose.

Similarly the terete leaves of the Petrophile pedunculata (Stalked Conesticks) glistened with rain drops.

The lovely Baeckae virgata (Twiggy Heath-Myrtle) gets heavy with its summer flowers at the best of times, but after rain it droops into a gently swaying white willow echo.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


(Bondi on Christmas morning, taken with K's iphone - there's Santa standing next to the coloured umbrella near the blue shelter - you'll need a few clicks)

It has been years since I've been in the sea. We were in the city for Christmas and woke early - early enough to give the dogs a long run in the park and the streets still looked deserted as we cruised around looking for a decent cup of coffee. The air was hardly moving but quite clean and the warmth of the sun was palpable, and yet it wasn't really hot. Some days the early heat betrays what the day will be like and that's too hot, too burning to stay outside. But today there was a welcoming seductive warmth and we found ourselves, almost magnetically, driving down Bondi Road. Lets check the beach K had said as the car was already well on its way there.

There's that sweep left at the end of the road as the sea comes into view and the sky meets the horizon, electric sky blue over deep green sea. And the sand glares white at you. Bondi doesn't look half bad. The parade is dressed with an impressive line of palms, the grassy slopes are still nicely green and the height restrictions have worked - not only are there no tall blocks, but the buildings that are there are the ones that have always been there. Stunted as if by the salt spray. Everything the same, without much grunge, shining in the morning sun.

It was meant to be a drive by, except we found a park in the spot where we always used to park, had rummaged through the boot for togs and towels, and were leaning on the promenade rail in minutes. It was absolutely stunning in every sense - sight of course, but the sound of the waves and the smell in your nose and the feel of the concrete and grit under your feet before they sink into the finest sand in the world. It's the sand at Bondi alone that elevates it into a class of its own.

Whether Christmas morning or not, there was goodwill about. Happy happy. Families, singles, couples, tourists, all ages, all sizes and all colours. And far from crowded, at least not yet. We dropped our things near the red and yellow sufboard and walked through that strange mix at the water's edge - some going in, slowly; some running out, hair wet, cosies clinging, faces beaming; some standing ankle deep talking; some walking; the odd careful jogger; children sitting beneath parents in the wet sand - until you felt that first sting of wet cold on your legs.

I takes me about five waves to make it in - no, I'm not a runner diver. You just have to keep going, turning sideways into each wave, and by wave four I'm wet waist down and wanting to leave, until wave five leaves no option but to dive under it. You're in. Tingling all over. Foam is all around, bubbling frothy salty foam which dissolves and clears and now you can see how green and clear the water is. Look sideways, left right, look back to shore, see who's out further, get ready here it comes, dive under again, come up through the foam, look sideways....

And again there's that wonderful feeling of being together with all these people you don't know but with whom you are now sharing one of life's greatest pleasures - going back to the sea.


Here's the late great Stunning One lighting up the sky with a feverish expectant joyous (and all but incomprehensible) rendition of one of the favorites, the words no matter. She is both crystalline and diamond brilliant yet with a warm soft vibrato, a tremor of excitement. The message all in the delivery. I love the acceleration, and the last comet blazes forth with an attack of such confidence and sustained with such support as to convince the biggest sceptic that greatness is at hand.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Everything is late this year. But just in time for Christmas there is a nice flush of golden yellow kangaroo paw along the path out to the little lookout over the gully.

And the flannel flowers are at the end of their short life - they go for five years at best, so the stragglers will be pulled out in Autumn. I'll replant more, if not in the large numbers we've been growing. Like a lot of things, you don't really appreciate them till they've gone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our last Sydney Symphony concert for the year was the Tchaikovsky Spectacular, which actually started with Sibelius'(s)- it all gets a bit littthpy - Finlandia. I'm not complaining. In fact the reason I was there was for the Finlandia. I'm a bit of a Sibelius nutter, and here finally was the chance to hear it live. It's been avoiding me. And Mr Ashkenazy is a Sibelius man.

Nationalism and music, well nationalism and anything, is something of ambivalence to me. If unison is a good thing, with the absolute unison of all as the ultimate highest state, then where lies Nationalism, both uniting and dividing, uniting the 'us' against the 'them'. Nationalist music is about the only nationalism that gets to me. Other arenas - sport, chest beating, flags, and shockingly wars - are the stuff of dismay. But plug me into Nationalist music and away I go. Mostly. The obvious is that nationalist music as the voice of oppression is tolerable if not embraced or inspirational, while Nationalism as the boot of the oppressor is to be despised on all counts. Add human voices to the music of the oppressed, and another almost irresistable dimension again is added.

Finland in the late 19th C was suffering increasing loss of autonomy at the hands of the Russian empire. Finlandia originated from the finale (Finland Awakes) of a series of patriotic pieces Sibelius premiered in 1899. It closes with a stirring hymn-like section for which words were written in 1941. The hymn is often sung separately but rarely as far as I know is the Finlandia concert piece performed with a choir. Perhaps in Finland.

Here is a hybrid version with male choir, with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lief Segerstam. My favorite is still the Vänskä, who by the way is coming next year but not for Sibelius, more's the pity ... well, as well as.

But what a difference the voice makes.

And speaking of Nationalism, the winner is:

Thursday, December 16, 2010


(photo ABC News)

If you didn't know the Oprah Roadshow has been through town, you're dead. Whatever else you think of it, her, them, us, as a tourism marketing awareness campaign it is genius. Not surprisingly, in the swamping with all things native, she was given a here-hold-these bunch of flowers for her press conference.

Close inspection reveals not only was she exposed to and exposing some of the charms of Annandale, but what's more, there's the rarely seen Dorrigo Waratah (Alloxylon pinnatum) on her bosom.

And as it turns out, this year we are picking them for the Sydney markets (and for the market's major native flower wholesaler) instead of for Tokyo, what with the dollar high and other matters.

They are a fabulous Christmas flower, a Santa red with a cyanotic blush unfurling on top of vibrant green glossy leaves.

Could I have picked it for Oprah? O the celebrity of it all.

(Yes, yes, I know, there's really only one Big O)

Sunday, December 12, 2010


While I haven't ever been one for little, I must say he's a good dog, has settled in well, and is quite the little man about the house. Orphan no longer, he knows this is home.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


At this time of year, especially after the rains and with the sandy soil nice and moist, the forest floor is dotted with purple.

The tiniest flower is that of the Bauera (River Rose, Dog Rose) family. They have shy little lampshade bell-like flowers on a scrambling low shrub.

The three leaved Patersonia (Native Iris) is more confident, its conspicuous violet petals outstretched on an upright stem.

The slender stalked Scaevola (Fan-flower) keeps its wiry spreading branches close to the ground.

And the last one is a bit of a floozie, with a conspicuous fringe and extra makeup. Its the Fringe Lily from the Thysanotus family.

(click to enlarge)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The Kangaroo Paws are out.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


There's a misconception that natives don't like water. It's wet feet from poor drainage that they don't like. Drought tolerant? - yes. They can wait, sometime years, waiting and just staying alive conserving what water they get.

But when the rains come, off they go, off they grow.

These photos (taken on the same day) are from several different but closely related Banksia species.

The Banksia serrata (Old Man Banksia) grows freely around here and is a soil moisture marker, the first to brown off and die in a prolonged dry. But now they are bursting with luxurious new soft lush tender growth, later to harden into the tough serrated adult leaves.

There's more rain yet. The ants know.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Truth be told, it was all about Lilli. For me I mean.

Last week the Sydney Symphony Orchestra clocked up Mahler's Third in their Mahler journey, which finishes at the end of next year with the Second, again with Lilli Passikivi, of course, thank goodness. So they began with the First and finish with the Second. I need to think about the sequencing some more, but the Second is definitely the one to wrap it up.

It was another full house, although I suspect not completely full of Mahler tragics. The coughing was pretty bad, and most likely there was a fair smattering of children's parents. Shouldn't complain though - no parents, no children, no Bimm Bamm (which is when they stopped coughing).

The start was fantastic with a thrilling call to march from the horns. Things sagged a bit in the long middle, and Mahler does tend to sag when he gets into 'what's going on in the world' mode. I think I like my Mahler on the faster side of very slow.

Enter Lilli. I love her voice. It's rich and warm and caressing and very reassuring, which I think is what Mahler needed, reassurance that is, don't we all. Maybe I'd forgotten, but she sounded fuller and richer and the voice perfectly centred for the Midnight Song. And how could I have forgotten how she sings (in recital) with her whole body.

The big finale got a few to their feet, led in fact by a certain past prime minister, who jumped up like the old days in question time. It was good. In fact K particularly liked it, despite his criticism of poor dynamic balance, perhaps related to where we sit. It was a change from the last time we heard it (LSO Barbican) when I was quite transported and he was completely unmoved - we had a rare domestic because the tube station was closed and I couldn't care less about going anywhere let alone back to the hotel. I ended up walking across London (to Berkeley Square) -- on my own.

If you can't hear Lilli, then this should make up. It's the fabulous and commanding contralto Norma Procter on the Horenstein LSO 1970 recording which I'd been listening to in readiness.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

PETER HOFFMAN 1944 - 2010

If you, like me, spent hours riveted in front of the TV in the early 1980s, stunned by the Centenary Patrice Chéreau / Pierre Boulez Bayreuth Ring (first staged 1976, filmed 1980) running week after week as the complete cycle went to air, then there's no forgetting the German tenor Peter Hoffman. He was the beautifully cast handsome, sexy, curly haired Siegmund, Volsung twin to Jeannine Altmeyer's Sieglinde, with more than enough heroic tenor and good looks for any sister, and any Wagnerite, to be left swooning. It was a defining moment in my Ring addiction.

He died aged 66 on the 29th November, apparently from pneumonia complicating Parkinson's Disease, another dreadful disease trapping a mind in a crippling body. It's been reported that it was the early onset of Parkinson's that was responsible for his premature move in the 80s away from opera into rock and finally ~ Phantom of the Opera ~ in Germany. He spent a lot of time dealing with the disease and helping its sufferers.

So much to hear and see here - just the way he lifts her up and leads, escorts, delivers her to the light, so upright, so masculine, so sensitive, so right ...

Listen for the collapsing gasp from Sieglinde as Notung finds its intended... in his hands...wouldn't you!

Pneumonia is considered a peaceful way to go, 'old man's friend' we call it. I find it a struggle now to look at Siegmund's death at the hands of Matti Salminen's brutal Hunding.

December 8 -
The Independent's obituary is quite detailed about his operatic, essentially Wagnerian, career. Read it here.

Monday, November 29, 2010


The word incautious caught my attention. I don't recall having ever seen it before, and certainly not the noun. Better late than never, although I can't see myself dragging it into the everyday: 'that was rather incautious of you' is at the least a bit awkward. However, it served its purpose in Peter MacCallum's review of last week's Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Mozart Clarinet Concerto coupled with Mahler's Fourth.

He was referring to the soloist for the Mozart being Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of the orchestra's chief conductor Vladimir, our Vlad. And the context in which caution was referenced was the recent unpleasant to-do about then music director of Opera Australia, Richard Hickox (whose sudden death served to even further the angst) casting his wife Pamela Helen Stephen in local operas where others were considered, by vocal discontents, to be as, if not more, worthy. I'm not sure the comparison stands up.

Richard Hickox's critics were rooted in company members who were, they claimed, missing out in favour of younger singers, and it appeared to me that Mrs Hickox was the obvious lightning rod. It was a cruel and weak choice, not the least as Hickox was engaged when the company had unceremoniously sent Simone Young packing (to her susbstantial benefit as it turns out) and were left with an empty podium. That he relocated his family, wife and school age children, from one hemisphere to the other, was clearly a necessity, and with it, she, the wicked interloper, was surely removed from her artistic connections and career opportunities in the north. That they, he and she, saw it as reasonable that she get work here seems perfectly reasonable to me. And it seemed to me her use was more than fair, both in the roles she was given and the talent she brought. The vitiperation even extended to a snipe at one son being given a walk on part in Billy Budd.

There are no such complexities around the young Dimitri Ashkenazy, except that both father and son have been attached to Sydney by misadventure, and Sydney audiences seem proud, if not honoured, to have someone as internationally recognised as Ashkenzy snr as chief conductor. A risk on incaution? - slight at most and better left unsaid. The audience gave its verdict (I was there on the Friday, the day of the 'warning'), with a very warm reception given the shy and nervous looking Dimitri as he walked onstage, and after, an enthusiastic response which encouraged him to give a lovely stream of consciousness encore (a composition by his partner apparently) with solo viola as haunting echo, the whole effect reminding me of those Paul Horn (flute notwithstanding) in the Great Pyramid and Taj Mahal recordings.

To see them, father and son, embrace on the Sydney stage, was heartfelt and transcendent of pure, you could almost say cold, music making. Murray Black, for the record, was more kind.

That for me the Mahler 4 didn't transcend is another matter, although the third movement nearly, you now that nearly feeling, did. Mahler 4 (a strange assembly of four 'movements', looking back, looking forward, a hard to categorise musical bridge) and I go back to the 60s, with the Klemperer Philharmonia and Schwarskopf and more recently I have become obsessed with the Fischer Budapest Festival Orchestra release. I often, in fact mostly, play sections in isolation and find the third movement, which in the Hungarians hands is as sublime as sublime gets, an all but perfect summary of what Mahler is on about. In fact, maybe it's all you need. It certainly is a perfect introduction to someone who seeks to 'get into Mahler' - if that doesn't do it, then Mahler's not for you.

Introduction to Mahler pieces was the first thing I saw when I flicked through Norman Lebrecht's latest book, Why Mahler?, very prominently displayed in the local bookshop, on that same Friday as the concert in question. Lebrecht suggests an ingenue go unprepared to a performance of the Second, and that's pretty good advice. Flicking on, the next tit bit I came across was some discussion about Mahler and his circumcision. Only Lebrecht could and would go there. Philip Kennicott's review, in which he quips the book should be titled My Mahler, such is the fetishism, is worth a read in itself.

Anyway, titillated by now, I risked incaution, and bought it.

Monday, November 22, 2010


(all pics from Berlin Philharmonic Travelling Blog)

In searching for what the Berlin Philharmonic would be doing at home next year (we've seen/heard them many times over four years at the Festival Aix-en-Provence, and once in Berlin but not - yet - at their home, the acoustically revered Philharmonie), I found that an embryonic trip could be engineered to include Rattle conducting Berg and Mahler, the Three Pieces again, but this time Mahler 6. Yes, please. But most fun of all, I found that there has been a travelling blog running on the orchestra's trip down under.

It is well worth scrolling through, for their experiences in both Perth and Sydney, local fauna (zoo and concert hall), performance, hotels, weather, education, workshops, young musicians, helicopter flights down the east coast to the best view of Sydney, as a bird .... and " many in the orchestra beginning to ask why anyone who could live in Australia would ever choose to live anywhere else". To which one could add why would any Australians (especially musicians) choose to live in Berlin. I'd love twelve months in Berlin. But what about the children?.

I wish now I'd booked the last night in Sydney, speeches and all that. Sir Simon Rattle had this to say:

Well, what can I say, except that it's really very puzzling. Everybody is under this desperate misapprehension that we're going. Whatever makes you think that? All I would say to all of our incredibly kind Australian hosts is, look really carefully in your spare rooms and your attics, because the noises you hear are members of the Berlin Philharmonic who have jumped ship. We have been so wonderfully looked after. It has been so generous in every way around here. And I must say we have a reputation for being quite a wild orchestra, and I think we've met our match in your audience. It's either thrilling or really scary, I'm not sure which. We look forward to coming back. Ladies and gentlemen, it's very simple. We've loved this. It's changed our lives. Anyone who comes to this country is not quite the same again. We'll carry it in our hearts. And we've made a new family here and we treasure it. Thank you.

And in Perth:

I would like to thank all of you. When we walked on stage yesterday and we felt the welcome and the support of the audience, we all thought, oh my God, we'd better play well! There aren't many audiences like this in the world, and you could feel what a difference it makes to the performance, as well - this kind of support. We have had a welcome here from this theatre, from Andrew and Rodney, these visionaries who are running it, and all the people here, that we can only dream of. And everybody keeps saying, have a great time on the rest of the tour. I simply don't understand why you think that any of us are leaving.

There's going to be a plane journey tomorrow, and there's going to be a really severe head-count, because I think we could have lost a good proportion of the orchestra here. We are so impressed with what is going on here. We've always heard that Perth was really a centre for the arts. At a certain time I have to tell you that Perth was the only place that was really definitely on for us - it was Perth who was willing to say yes, we'll take these crazy programmes when this place - I think it's called Sydney? - was beginning to wobble a bit. They have been behind us absolutely from the start. They have treated us like princes. We were so happy to be here, we've left a large part of our heart here. The idea to send this programme out to all the ends of this gigantic state, the size of Europe with a smaller population than Birmingham, that's how I think of it - is a visionary thing. And it's something that is so important for us, it is something that we are trying to do at home, I hope you are very proud of it. We've had a wonderful time. Simply: Bless you. We've lost our hearts, and we look forward to coming back, if indeed we ever go.

From their blog I was moved on to The Arts Desk, where lo and behold there is a review of the just released 'Nutcracker'.

If you missed Program 1 in Sydney, here's the encore - the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker, starting at 4.30.

Christmas is coming. Or have we just had it?

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Talk about Talk of the Town. Hotels are full, restaurants around the Big Tiled Building buzzing, and not a red or yellow rose left in florists. The Berliners are here and the week has been preoccupied with, if not devoted to, them.

The Concert Hall was glowing German gold from its crowded front foyer.

There were two programs:
Program One

Haydn Symphony No 99 in E Flat Major
Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra
Dean Komarov's Fall
Brahms Symphony No 2 in D Major

Program Two

Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances
Mahler Symphony No 1 in D Major

For programe one, Tuesday night's opening concert, we sat in the front row of Box X, a fantastic and not accidental choice. Perched above the first violins, and harps, with Sir Simon Rattle in full and close view, the clarity of sound was astounding. Not that this was entirely because of where we sat. It was entirely because of this phenomenal orchestra, but we were as well placed as possible I suspect to take advantage of the brilliance of such perfect ensemble playing.

From this legendary organic music machine came the Berlin sound, a big rich ballsy rather masculine sound spiked with the crystalline clarity that comes from extraordinary musicianship, an acute awareness of each member of the other and the whole, unfailingly integrated entries and dynamics, and the loving guidance of their conductor. The Haydn was like the Eisteddford set piece, the one that after the first ten bars everyone knows this is the winner, whatever their own choices would be. The incredible confidence of excellence in both player and listener.

And their own choices for the first program were simply marvellous. The Berg Three Pieces, for huge orchestral forces, which I had not ever heard live, and had only recently, and because of this encounter, spent time listening to, was devastating. The premonition of chaos, the haunting fading fraying edges of empire as the waltzing violin is snuffed out, till the frantic march to catastrophe is shattered by the most ghastly climactic Sarajevo moment. Not since I heard Mackerras's Siegfried Funeral March have I been so frightened by a sound, the sound of that final shot.

Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall was a spine tingling surprise. It is both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad. From the opening violins evoking space signals, a sound so like the high pitched calls of parrots to each other as day fades as to be a certain pointer to a sound encyclopaedia of only an Australian, to the goose bumpy "weightless and floating" closing moments, again it was the starry sparkling clarity of sound that so astounded. And then there was Rattle blowing kisses to a man in the rear stalls, and he back, he Brett Dean of whom we are so proud, in a few incredible moments of raw public emotion, and mutual thanks. Listen here.

The Brahms was simply stunning, every theme laid out in perfect clarity, intertwined with love and loving attention to detail, and an acceleration to a climax of literally breathtaking intensity and impact.

The next night, Wednesday, we had managed to sit in our usual Sydney Symphony Orchestra seats, another deliberate move, to finally compare the local band with the best in the world under the same conditions, same seats, same hall.

Well, as good an experiment as it was, for the clarity carried, the sometimes muddiness of our Sydney players nowhere to be heard, there was no doubt where we wanted to be sitting, and that was back in Box X, from row, back amongst it again, immersed, drowning, exhilarated. There is now the need to rethink where we sit for the home games.

After the lovely balance of the first program, the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances seemed a strange choice against the one we all had came for, the Mahler 1, which had been given a fine exposition by Mr Askenazy earlier this year. Again, the word that I can't get out of my mind is clarity. The hushed and reverent opening of the Mahler set the pattern. In a study of slow and steady revelation, Rattle opened and laid bare this work as never before. As never before seems to be a bit recurring too. It was slow, quite slow, though never stalled, never self indulgent, and yet the overreaching arch seemed slightly weakened, as if the peering into the depths meant some loss of totality, the details wondrous and marvellous nonetheless, yet the emotion of the vision stalled, unless the vision isn't really there yet, that yet to come as Mahler laid down his foundations.

But the thrill of the excellence, the insights, the magnificence of the delivery itself roused the usually sedate Sydney audience to its immediate feet, not in some slow bracket creep of standing ovation, but a sudden spontaneous eruption of gratitude.

Peter McCallum's informed praise is worth keeping on record, program one here, and two here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


There were costumes from some of the famous roles (Lucia, Merry Widow, Huguenots) in the foyer. People were being hurried in to be seated. VIPs and pollies had yet to arrive, and it was going to air on National Television. The Concert Hall was full, as usual for Joan, it was never anything but full for Joan. Programmes in Joan Green on each seat. The lighting was quite beautiful - generally low level, a dappled violet blue over the concert platform and orchestra (Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra), with the chorus, together with past company members, in civvies, in the front of the choir stalls.

A large screen dominated the space. White flowers decorated the front edge of the concert platform with two star bursts either side, with adjacent Australian flags. A single bunch of red roses sat to one side at the tops of the steps. Not sure about the flags, although there would be repeated mention of her 'Australianness' throughout the morning. I don't think we needed the flags, placed for the cameras as they were.

After the prelude to La Traviata and a welcome by Adrian Collette, a rousing first stanza of the National Anthem filled the Hall, the chorus leading the way. Joan then sang the 'Bell Song' from Lakme filmed at the Opera House in 1976. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke well, of achieving success as one thing, sustaining it another.

Pavarotti joined her for 'Parigi, o cara' from the 1983 Sydney Gala Concert. I found this very moving, more so than ever before. The Governor of New South Wales Marie Bashir spoke as a friend and music lover, recalling Dido (which she sang here before leaving for London) - Remember me, Remember me. The Lucia mad scene (1980s) was met with an ovation as if she were live, still. Whatever else, it was, is, and will be, her fetish role.

Moffat Oxenbould was warm, affectionate, with stories and praise going back to the great Sutherland Willamson Grand Opera Tour of 1965, when jaws dropped not only in awe of the technique, the brilliance, but the beauty, the sheer beauty of tone, and what those who heard her live would forever know, the ability to connect to one's deepest inner emotional core.

After 'Era desso il figlio mio' came il figlio mio. Adam Bonynge, present with wife Helen, Richard unable to attend, spoke of his mother. He let us into their family, a tiny chink. Of dishwashers (only one way to load a dishwasher - her way), ironing, suitcases perfectly packed, the best ever scones, breakfast tables set by nine the night before, for coffee and surgically dissected grapefruit.

The chorus sang 'Va, pensiero' and Joan sang 'Home Sweet Home'.

FAREWELL filled the big screen.

What didn't go to air is Natasha Bonynge's poem to her 'Mimi':


Shut the doors,
Turn out the lights,
Pull the curtain to a close.

Put away your tickets,
Pack up the chairs,
Silence those who shout 'the show must go on'.

Quieten the piano,
Hush violins,
Soften your voices and let the mourners in.

Today we remember.

Not the diva, La Stupenda, the soprano, the dame.
But our grandmother, our mother, our one true love, our family, our friend.


Shut the doors,
Turn out the lights,
Pull the curtain to a close.

And remember.

Peace be with you my darling grandmother.
You will be in our hearts until the end of days.

Natasha Bonynge

Saturday, November 6, 2010


(Albert Namatjira Simpson's Gap - country of Lizard Man - source)

Perhaps it was because of a sense of gaining control over my life again, although the purists would say one has complete control. But you know what I mean. When that deep ugly visceral pain hits, beyond the nociceptive and autonomic responses, there lies a deep sense of unease - what is this that is happening to me. A benign diagnosis is almost as narcotic as narcotics. With life back in balance, I had quite the best week, and interestingly, two (even more than usual) moving nights - one theatre, one orchestral.

On Wednesday we sat down the front for Namatjira. Trevor Jamieson was already sitting just there, the sitter for a portraitist, John Hannaford. (Namatjira's portrait was the 1952 Archibald winning portrait by William Dargie, and now hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.) For the ten or so minutes it took the theatre to fill, he, Trevor Jamieson, Albert Namatjira, sat there absolutely motionless, his large chocolate eyes brown fixed on infinity. Shirtless, he looked leaner than any photograph I can find of him, or the subject of Dargie's portrait, a perfect dancer's body half naked on the sitter's stool, head slightly forward, shining brown skin curled with greying black hairs, nothing whiter than the whites of his big round eyes.

Scott Rankin, with Big hART, has scripted the most wonderful story telling, a story for anyone interested in country, anyone not (aware they are) interested in country, anyone into laughter, anyone into crying, anyone into song, anyone into mime, anyone who has still to learn what beautiful people were here before 1788, anyone whose first memory, like mine, of something hanging on a wall was a Namatjira between two windows of my first school, with a Guardian Angel of oversized wings folding around a boy peering over a cliff on the wall opposite.

Namatjira is sold out. But my neighbour rang, after we spoke the next morning, and managed a single ticket row B last Friday.

I thought I'd been a bit emotional, and now I'd be right, balanced, hardened up again after two weeks of introspection and illness. Well, not so. On notice to not miss the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Arabian Nights programme, we were lucky to get seats close to the piano and just under Jean-Yves Thibaudet's hands. I didn't know the Saint-Saëns (wracked with pains) 5th Piano Concerto, at all. The orchestra was playing it for the first time, so I didn't feel too bad. Click Click Click - the Thibaudet/Dutoit was playing now. Ah, the wonders. I listened to it for three days, and gave thanks there are people in your life to give directions.

Not Mr Dutoit (he is in Melbourne where he will conduct Thibaudet, in the Saint-Saëns 5th - does that seem a little strange?) but for us Mr Lazarev, the showman, all good fun and lively, but thankfully invisible behind the piano for the Concerto. I was fine till that fabulous nights-in-the-garden-of-Spain Adante opening of the second movement. Tears flowed. Thibaudet was dancing, the orchestra was dancing with him, gorgeous evocative yearnings with promises of satisfaction, mysteries about to be revealed, such well being now and forever. Even the capital O oriental chopsticks we-are-Chianese-if-you-please interlude didn't seem so cut and pasted.

And they played a fantastic Scheherazade, Lazarev now well in his element. We were a bit close, organically close, but not too close. Not for the Concerto, oh no, not for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I had to say a quick hello and a thank you at Interval, at the signing table, no one there as I walked past. Your Ravel Preludes were played at my mother's funeral I embarrassingly found myself saying. They are so very beautiful, he smiled back. So was she I heard myself reply. What they have to put up with, or up with what they have to put, or God bless these people they bring us so much.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


The last few days have mostly revolved around analgesed reverie, mostly on warm afternoons (at least before today's cool misty drizzle set in), and mostly in bed. The verandah doors open wide and the gully slips away just beyond the giant gum, rooted deep below in the rainforest floor and whose upper branches, themselves alone the size of any other nearby trees, reach confidently above the cliff.

The orphan is here to stay. He sleeps on his trampoline bed on one side, and the old dog on the floor on the other. The pup is now a three year old and the bonds are strong. She lies with me, tucked into my knees or stretched out alongside, always pressing close whatever the arrangement. Respirations are rhythmic and shared, interrupted only by the sporadic twitching and yelps of deep dog sleep.

Iris Murdoch, with whom I have started a belated relationship, is also in the room. If not in hand, The Green Knight is on the bed on the other side to the dog, my place marked with a small horse, a clever folding cardboard magnet, which S bought at the Acropolis Museum just before she came back to Sydney, and died. Bellamy, gay and desperately seeking, has just written again to Father Damien, to whom he is abnormally attached, begging, if not admittance to the monastery, then such physical pain as to shatter his mind and allow God to enter.

Outside there is absolutely no breath of air. It is warm and still, nothing moving, not even a leaf, except for the slow assemblage of soft puffy white clouds and they are working on another time meter altogether such that difference is only noticed after a long period of not looking at all.

With the completely unpredictable downbeat of an unseen conductor, a mighty chorus of cicadas starts and without hint of any variation in dynamics or fatigue lasts till the sky shades two fingers of pink above the horizon and the arch of blue above picks up a darkening indigo tinge. They sing for hours. Timbals, that's what they're called, the ribbed membranes these insects vibrate in endless unison. They are courting, each individual frequency searching a mate, but the total harmonic effect is one of omnidirectional radar jamming. They know where each is, predators can isolate none. You'll never find one by listening, and they climb high, higher, highest. Seven years for seven days is the legend.

I spent days in the branches of the big Liquidamber (an easy climb) in our childhood yard in the thrill of it all, green grocers, yellow mondays, piss whackers, and the occasional prized black prince. Childhood comforts - the sound of cicadas, scrambled eggs, pyjamas warmed by the fire, and dogs.

And today Polly and friend flew in from the mist, for a check, and a swing.


A State Memorial Service for Dame Joan is to held in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, on Tuesday November 9, 10.30 am.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Out of my mind? To death?

No - although either would have been better. Stones in the kidney!

I think it probably started in Shanghai. It was hot, humid, and quite frankly I was scared of drinking the water. The hotel had four bottles of water in the room at any time, and if that wasn't the clue, what was? I didn't take them out in the day, and did go walking. The hottest day walk was when it took a few hours to get to the Shanghai Museum. Stopping at a stall in a park I picked a bottle of what looked like water. But no, it was syrupy and lemonade-like. I couldn't drink it. I headed into the Museum Cafe, but by then perhaps it was too late. And then there's air flights, although I tend to over-drink and drive everyone nuts getting up and down.

Remember chemistry classes and making crystals? There has to be a nidus, and I think mine was made in China (tempted to say cheap and nasty, but won't). It seems a predominantly male problem. The payback by the other sex. It's the closest you'll come to knowing what childbirth is like they say. Well I didn't want to know, thank you very much.

Anyway, it's twins. I've got two. Treatment has started but far from finished. I know my way around these circles and have been lucky enough to be in control of who does what to whom.

Should the ramblings get too wild, blame it on substances.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Some details of the funeral have emerged. From someone who was there:

"Her funeral was held in a 17th century church filled with gorgeous floral tributes and friends came from all over the world to attend the lovely service. Her son Adam and his son Vanya both gave superb eulogies along with others. Many of Joan's religious recordings were played including "Let the Bright Seraphim" and "Oh Divine Redeemer." At her grave site each of us mourners was given a red rose and a scoop full of earth to accompany her casket as it was lowered into the ground."

Out of the darkness into the light.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The BBC have been having some trouble with their Joan tributes. It's all bit of a giggle, but worth watching for more than the muddle. I was struck by the emotion of Pavarotti's face, as he holds her tightly, visibly moved by the occassion, Joan's final stage appearance, guesting in Fledermaus at Covent Garden.

If they were looking for a good tribute, there's none better than that Kennedy Centre Honours night, presented by Marilyn Horne. Americans are so good at this sort of thing. She includes the story of that New York debut.

The Rosalinde clip that the BBC finally showed as they tied themselves in knots is quite interesting in itself. It is from 1982 in Sydney. Now if you don't know, Sydney has a significant Hungarian community, and as generalisations go, they love music, love opera, and love good seats. Joan laughed at herself telling the story of the complaints about her diction and someone once saying for all intents and purposes it could have been Hungarian, when it was!

Well, this is it. She is 56, singing the Czardas in Hungarian, but not before a fabulous "Zsank you darlink" (0:10) to the front stalls.


My thoughts are still preoccupied with the death of Dame Joan. Here are a few of my favorite photos.

* Amina, La Sonnambula, La Scala 1961

# Margeurite de Valois (on horseback), Les Huguenots, La Scala 1962

* Elvira, I Puritani, London 1964 with Gabriel Bacquier

# Norma, Vancouver 1963. Her first Norma and an ecstatic audience (it's worth clicking to enlarge just to see the man in the front row)

# Lucia, Lucia, Lucia, Sydney Concert Hall, January 1980 (I took Mum and Dad)

* Alcina, Sydney, 1983 with Margreta Elkins and some beefy boys.

# Beatrice, Beatrice di Tenda, La Scala 1961

I had planned to follow each picture with a recording from the time, if not the actual photographed performance. While everything is special at the moment, there's one more special than the others to me. It is the exquisitely beautiful, impossibly difficult, achingly sad cry from Beatrice just after her entrance - "Yet am I the only one, alas,"

Beatrice di Tenda was her Feb 21, 1961 New York debut (along with Marilyn Horne), the opera resurrected for her by the American Opera Society in concert at the New York Town Hall. As we know, the two would go on to form a close friendship and formidable working relationship - the 'Druid Duo'. Marilyn Horne is said to have been restless that night, unable to sleep, and finally rang Switzerland at 4 am New York time. Richard told her Joan had just died.

One the day before this New York debut (Lucia at the Met would come later the same year, Sonnambula at Carnegie Hall at the same time), Sutherland received the news that her mother had died, all the more shocking as she had been in good health. Encouraged by her aunt to stay and sing, she did. She sang. The emotion in her voice is only to be heard. Two more performances had to be scheduled at the larger Carnegie Hall to meet the overwhelming demand.

This is the later studio recording. The live 1961 pirate is widely available.

Harold Schoenberg in the New York Time 22 February 1961 wrote: It is a beautifully colored voice, one that ascends effortlessly to the E in alt and most likely beyond. Where most sopranos have trouble with B flats and Cs, Miss Sutherland is at her most secure above the staff. And withal she preserves the color, warmth and style. In concerted numbers her voice soars above the ensemble without ever becoming hard or jagged. She is a supreme technician... She phrases like an artist, and she never tries to take centre stage in the ensemble numbers. She has numerous ways of changing the color of her voice, in accordance with the dramatic and stylistic needs of the moment, and she does not hesitate to do so...in somewhat altering the coloratura she follows precedent.

I don't think she'd like us to finish that way. She often said she loved to leave the daffy mad roles ending in death and revel in humour and joy, in the sheer delight of singing. Enter Joan, all but held aloft by the gentlemen, little feet skipping down the stairs (just) in the most breathtaking entrance, a flash of relief across her face that she made it, then sweeping her way through this, this small pinched hint of what she sounded like in the Concert Hall, in a gorgeous camp very Sydney production:

* Joan Sutherland A Tribue, Moffat Oxenbould
# La Stupenda, Brian Adams