Monday, July 26, 2010


"I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."

July 16, 1945 Trinity at 0.025 seconds; pictures are here.

One of the things I didn't know I didn't know was that the first atomic test, or test site, or both, was called Trinity. About Los Alamos I knew. Some time ago, I shocked myself more than my host by declining an unexpected invitation to drive up there, to Los Alamos. I was staying in Santa Fe and I remember it was during the first Clinton presidential campaign. A typical starry ribboned red white and blue candidate poster (Clinton/Gore) was stuck in the front lawn.

Every second house had staked its intention, and Santa Fe was leaning strongly democrat. Now I wish I'd gone. Instead we went to the Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande just outside Taos. My legs went to jelly and I couldn't even go near it. I wonder if I'd have gone jelly legged at Los Alamos.

Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande, outside Taos, New Mexico, photo source

This has all come back after hearing the SSO under David Robertson play the John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony. I'm not sure why, but I didn't buy the CD, (or better still record the broadcast) settling instead for the complete works of Chopin. All very nice, and very well played, thank you Garrick Ohlsson, and at 16 Cds, it took the best part of yesterday to load it all onto itunes. Now I need the Adams CD, and the Opera. I'm playing the Chopin, but thinking bombs.

Why Trinity? The origin is uncertain. John Adams, in the Opera (and with the trumpet taking the vocal line in the symphony) refers to the suggestion that it was J. Robert Oppenheimer who named it after the sonnett by John Donne: "Batter my heart, three person'd God". The historian Ferenc Szasz quotes the head of Engineering, Explosives Division, Manhattan Project as saying the devout Catholic, Major Lex Stevens , noting that the nearest siding to the test site was called Pope's siding, extended the connection from the Pope to the Christian Trinity. Another possibility is the divine Hindu trinity of Brahma (the Creator), Visnu (The Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer).

After the blast, Oppenheimer quoted the line from the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."

From the Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, here is the history of nuclear explosions. A month in time is reduced to a second. What starts slowly gathers pace. There is no language.

21 UK tests were in Australia.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


"Hands up anyone who hasn't heard the Beethoven 5?" asked David Robertson nearing the end of his engaging preconcert talk last night. A bit like asking if there were any Martians in town, almost, and there was a collective hush as his eyes scanned the crowd, apparently not finding any little green men dressed as concert-goers, before glancing on someone sitting to the side on the purple steps. "Excellent" he said, with a wide toothy smile. "You're going to love it. It's really good".

He only spoke briefly about the Beethoven and with an infectious sense of fun described the famous opening as akin to a teenager, impatient for his first driving lesson, in the garage revving dad's car through neutral before letting off the clutch, only to have the (caddy maybe, he's an elfish American) jerk forward - Uh Uh Uh Craash (garage door) - then suddenly thrown in reverse - Uh Uh Uh Craassh (garage wall). Take it seriously, but have fun, seemed his message. And when you're listening, if nothing else, he cautioned, remember that there was a time when the Beethoven 5 didn't exist. Imagine that.

His point I think was that there is no reproduction, as in bringing home from Paris a print of the Mona Lisa, but that with the building blocks, each 5th is built as it goes along. To that extent, you might have heard Beehoven's 5th, but you haven't heard the one you're about to hear. Having been stunned by the Kleiber/Vienna last week, and I mean all week, I can vouch for that.

Creation (and the shock of it) was never far below the surface of the main talk topic, (the Australian premier of) John Adams and his Doctor Atomic Symphony. The talk was why we'd made the effort, rearranged the late afternoon, indulged an early dinner (nothing displaces dinner), and arrived in good time. If he'd asked who'd heard the Doctor Atomic Symphony, or Opera, I suspect the number of hands would have been similar to those not having heard the B5. Moreover, I think this was the first time I'd heard a conductor give the talk before dashing off to reemerge on the concert platform in white tie and tails. And I had formed a slightly negative impression on his last visit (rash judgement my mother would have said) which I was keen to realign.

David Robertson is a long time friend of John Adams and commissioned the Symphony for his St Louis Symphony Orchestra. He is the dedicatee. It isn't a pastiche of the opera, not a best-bits-tempter, but a work secure in its own integrity. Robertson used The Marriage of Figaro and Mozart's Prague Symphony as an example of parallelism in composition, melody and rhythms easily spotted, locked in time and place and output. John Adams found this his hardest work, anything but a refashioning of sorts to gain exposure and popularise his opera, and a good thing too noted David Robertson. In a first for Adams, his initial deadline was unmet. The premier was in London in 2007, the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (very off Broadway) and the critics were guarded. After reworking, the North American premier was the next year with David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony. It deals with the clash of science and humanism, of extremes never before imagined, let alone attempted, and a glimpse of heaven and hell.

The hall was near capacity, and there seemed more children than usual. There's never any children on a Friday night, and it was wonderful to see. One little girl curled up on her mothers folded scarf during the night, not asleep I thought, but content.

The Adams was a tremendous thoughtful provoking story, confronting but optimistic, a tuba Erda of a native American woman, a haunting trumpet call to reason, and a pervading sense of a diety. Robertson was at home here. You felt strongly it could be in no better hands. The talk at interval was one of pleasant surprise.

The Chopin second piano concerto was in Garrick Ohlsson's hands. It was familiar and lovely, if slowish, but even slowish couldn't rob it of Mr Ohlssons' sparkle. Just how it ended up between the Adams and the Beethoven is a bit of a mystery, but it was a palate cleanser, if one were needed.

The last 5th I think I heard was Gelmetti's and I remember it fondly I think, all rounded and comfortable. Robertson's reflected his persona as much as Gelmetti's had. It was taught and terrific, with exemplary vigorous playing and terrific control and balance. It was good, really good.

I like hearing the performers. Here's Garrick Ohlsson talking, firstly a short chat about Chopin, and then a long (1 hr 20) look at the piano, Chopin and other questions, courtesy of UCBerkeleyEvents. Take the time and watch, it's really good.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


There's a lot happening in the garden. The days are lengthening quite quickly now and the main flowering season has started. The Grevilleas are leading the way. They are tough little aussies, but their flowers are dainty and delicate, and incredibly intricate.

One of the prettiest is Grevillea Rosy Posy, a cultivar of Grevillea rosemarinifolia. From midwinter through spring it is a mass of clusters of rosy pink flowers,

with terminal dangles of earrings, here the early light catching the last of the overnight rain drops.

Another beauty is the Grevillea Forest Rambler, a rampant fast grower of intertwining branches giving honeyeaters and the like a safe haven for food and rest. The shell pink flowers are almost translucent.

Just up the path there's some Banksias whose pale lemon green flowers are shaping an inflorescence with a classic symmetry and rhythm no less beautiful in their own way than the spidery wildness of the Grevillea.

(clicking should enlarge)

Friday, July 16, 2010


As widely reported by now, the exceptional Sir Charles Mackerras died yesterday in London aged 84.

Born in America where his father was working, to Australian parents, he was brought home (sic) to Sydney aged two, and here he grew up, a member of the prodigious Mackerras family, at least two brothers also virtually family names, Alastair (headmaster of Sydney Grammar) and Malcolm (political commentator). He is uncle to Alexander Briger who is now carrying the family baton.

His story is as vast as his command of music. The Guardian obituary is here, together with a very personal life in pictures, as well as a fine tribute from Tom Service. There was his Janacek, Dvorak, Mozart, Beethoven, Britten, Sullivan, wherever he went, including for those lucky enough (and that means Sydneysiders), Wagner.

For me, most of all Mackerras means the Sydney Opera House, the opening concert in 1973, when he launched the building that is the city onto the world stage. That beginning was as wonderful a moment in my musical experience as I can remember, its signficance increasing, not unsurprisingly, more and more with time. And especially now he is gone.

Here again are the 3 ABC classics 'youtubes' from the night. If you haven't seen them, look, look at Mackerras, with some fantastic camera work in black and white. Words don't cover it.

I last saw him in 2007 in Covent Garden in his element, conducting his beloved Janacek and giving us a sublime and heartbreaking Katya Kabanova, at curtain call already then looking quite frail and belying the magnitude of the performance he had just given.

It is his recording of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, that wildly anarchic commentary on man, gods and institutions, that I wish I was playing right now. I'll seek it out this coming week.

He died as he lived, virtually on the podium, about to conduct this August in Edinburgh and be celebrated at this years Proms. It's very sad, and I do feel sad, but I especially feel tremendously thankful for having being alive at the same time as this musical giant, thankful for what he has given the world, this country, this city, and me.

Update on the 17th - Via Jessica Duchen's Standpoint, I've found these fond memories from David Nice.

There's more - Another interesting piece of information has popped up. In 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart's death, Sir Charles conducted the Don Giovanni that reopened the Estates Theatre in Prague (the Theatre where the Don had premiered). I immediately thought back to our visit, and can't resist reposting the photo (one of my favorites) I took from our box.

(none of the pics from the old camera, uploaded through the old pc, enlarge - don't ask me, I just fluke it)

More still - Antony Lias, in Opera Brittania, has relinked to a 2009 interview with Sir Charles. He speaks in quite some depth about the early years, and his thoughts on Janacek and Britten. Even Cheryl gets a mention. Some tit bits:

On first hearing Katya Kabanova (Prague 1947) -

“I was completely and utterly bowled over by it. I will always remember that incredible first chord, coming out of the pit of the National Theater (Prague), that B Flat minor chord, which starts inaudibly and then gets louder and louder, before finally moving on to that gorgeous phrase. I always remember the effect that it had on me, and will never forget it. It’s so different from any other style of music, you can’t say that it is really influenced by anyone else at all. Although he made use of a lot of the means of expression that was popular at the time, like the whole tone scale, Janacek used such effects in a completely different way, and so doesn’t sound anything like his contemporaries, Suk and Strauss.”

Working with Vaclav Talich -

"We then both got married and both went on to Prague, I to study conducting with Vaclav Talich, whilst my wife undertook postgraduate studies on the clarinet. Talich didn’t really have time to teach in a conventional manner, instead he told me to come to all his rehearsals, which I did. When the communists came, poor old Talich was thrown out of all his positions. He lived out the rest of his life in his country house just outside the capital. I took the opportunity of going out to see him to study there, after which I then returned to England."

On Britten -

I have to say straight away that I consider him to be the greatest musician I ever came in contact with. The man who could compose Peter Grimes, just pull it out of thin air, is incredibly original. He was certainly rather fickle at times, as he had a habit of taking somebody up and then discarding them. They called them “Britten’s corpses”! I think it was Lord Harewood who invented that particular term. And of course I too became a “corpse”.

On (the ghosts in) The Turn of the Screw -

Of course, that was the big decision that Britten and Myfanwy Piper had to take: is this actually happening, or is it only a figment of the governess’s imagination? So they made the decision that it is in fact happening, and so the two ghosts actually sing, whereas they don’t say anything in the novel. Most people are certain that James intended you to not be sure about this point. The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful opera, and arguably Britten’s greatest.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Salut à la France

..... et voici mes amis Non Non et Juliette (en Provence)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


More from Get Up, this time on climate change and, gaassssp, putting a price on carbon.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The winter solstice has just been and gone. Here in the highlands, there's been a run of cold bleak overcast days, some with steady light rain, others with showers and drizzle, but none of the heavy drenching downpours around Sydney and the coast. Occasionally there's a reminder of what sunshine was like.

I like it. It's good walking weather and an excuse to avoid outside jobs. I love starting the fire early and lighting candles, during the day. One of the things I liked about Denmark was the daytime use of candles, at threshholds. Nothing self-consciously new-agey, just a welcome, a light, a warmth.

This morning there was a gossamer mist floating up from the gully as the sun tried to break through.

A couple of Harmonica birds, Grey thrush-shrike, (Colluricincla harmonica), were out on the grass for breakfast. They may look grey and drab, but these two-feet-on-the-ground all hopping all singing birds pour forth endless songs of gorgeous tone and commanding rythym.

They used to nest in the young Old Man Banksias I'd planted next to some windows, and peck on their glass mirror image in the early morning light. Now I see them mostly feeding on the grass along with the Rosellas and Eastern yellow robins.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Rather good video from GET UP exhorting (young) voter registration -

Update July 19 - Good news. While compulsory voting, whatever you think of it, is only compulsory if you are enrolled, that there's been a late rush of enrollments now the election has been announced shows there's at least some energy left in the electorate. The SMH reports there has been a rush with tens of thousands eager to get on the roll, the Australian Electoral Commission national call centre upping its staff from 500 to 700, and the AEC website crashing.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010