A little life

August 27, 2014

Cat in a pot

Cat in box





August 25, 2014

Last night to Opera Australia’s production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, directed by Simon Phillips.

I was shocked at the state of the house and made a remark to one of the ushers. “It’s the third time,” she said, by way of an explanation.

That’s not much of an explanation in the brave new world of opera-Terracini where everyone, judging by the rate at which familiar works return, is assumed to be a first-timer.

Last time was in 2006, when I saw it. I was living in Perth at the time of the first Sydney outing in 2001 and so missed it.

The present return is possibly the most strongly cast.  It’s a shame that Rachelle Durkin was indisposed for the opening night because, despite whatever praise the critics heaped on Jane Ede for stepping in, Rachelle is a woman with a very special comic talent on top of her musical gifts.  I think of her as a kind of soprano Bruce Spence.  Of the other principals, only Samuel Dundas seemed a little light on vocally by comparison, though his stage presence went a long way to make up for that.  Simon Parris went later and so saw Durkin, which makes his review the most accurate.

The production itself is delightful and more, from the sets, costumes to the comic business which, for once, ocker surtitles included, (though from my front row seats I only occasionally glance up at them) is genuinely funny.  And with the famous Una furtive lagrima, the work itself takes a masterful step from the comic to the romantic.

So why so few people?  When I looked on Sunday afternoon, of the two remaining weeknight performances, 786 (on Wednesday) and 802 (on Friday) of a total of 1441 tickets were still available for sale. The final performance, a Sunday matinee, was faring slightly better with 415 tickets left but as matinees go that is a very poor house.

Maybe Mr Terracini has been too busy selling next year’s season (and himself) to the world to notice.  It is likely that people aren’t prepared to fork out the big money required for what they expect will be a mildly amusing night’s entertainment.

Whatever the reason for the present situation, there isn’t much sign of OA doing anything to shift the remaining seats by way of reduction of price.  Which, as ever, is a scandal.

BJ in summer

July 24, 2014


I’m back from behind the Great Fire Wall.

Beethoven continued

June 20, 2014

The SSO’s Beethoven piano concerti series with Emmanuel Ax continues. I went to the second on Monday night, when Tippett’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli for double string orchestra with two violins and one cello soloist preceded the third and fourth concerti.

The live streaming of Wednesday’s repeat of this program is up on youtube at the time of posting. At the end, David Robertson shows he is a man of the people by announcing the State of Origin score.

I’d have been more interested to hear a brief comment about the cancellation of the live video-cast of The Death of Klinghoffer from the Met later this year.

But back to the music.

That is, if I could frame any sensible comment in the time allowed. Suffice to say that it has so far definitely been a memorable event.

Ax hardly requires introduction – even where he takes an approach which is different from what I might have preferred or expected (for example, he saved speed in the last movement of the third concerto for the true finale) you can see why he does it and it works. How can one not be in awe of someone who can play all five concerti like that within 10 days?

I like Robertson’s Beethoven, which is in the main lean and brisk with a rhythmic spring when required. He has drawn some terrific sounds out of the orchestra: most memorably for me, a harmonium-like blend (or am I just thinking of Harmonie) of winds and muted strings in the slow movement of the third, and a kind of low strings growling at one point in the fourth. The perching of the woodwind a row higher than usual (because the horns and trumpets have been put on the floor on each side) has also helped and I expect made a great improvement in the lower half of the stalls where one usually has to take what the woodwind is doing on trust and with a bit of extrapolative imagining. The strings rose above usual form in the Tippett and new leader Andrew Haveron and principal cello Umberto Clerici have both shone in that and at other points.

Tonight I shall go to the final concert, with the fifth concerto supplemented with/complemented by Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Beethoven finds his (concerto) mojo

June 14, 2014

Last night to the first of three concerts with the SSO and Emmanuel Ax. Ax is playing all 5 of Beethoven’s piano concerti.

First up (after some Hindemith) was the so-called number 2 – published second but written first.

It is always hard to tell at a concert how much of your reaction is because of the state you are in yourself. It was only really in the second movement of the concerto that it began to really reach out of me with something that felt like the real Beethoven poetry, though the last movement is familiar and with its off-beat accents is obviously Ludwig van B.

At interval I had a sandwich and glass of wine. I wandered back into the hall.

Then the second concerto started – ie No 1.

This was the real McCoy unless it was all down to the intervening alcohol.

For the time being you can judge for yourself, because the live streaming is still up to view. For myself the leap between the first and second concerti (especially the first movements) is clear.

What’s with the handcuffs?

May 27, 2014

News recently in:

Police have arrested disgraced ex-detective Roger Rogerson at his home in Sydney’s south-west, over the alleged murder of Sydney student Jamie Gao.

Shortly before 11am, about 10 officers arrived at the premises and went inside.

A short time later, he was escorted from the Padstow Heights home in handcuffs.

Rogerson’s solicitor is quoted as saying that “arrangements had been made” for Rogerson to hand himself in at noon at Surry Hills Police Centre. That migrht mean no more than that he had told the police that was what Rogerson would do, but it’s not as if Rogerson’s house hadn’t already been searched so there can have been little to lose in waiting for this to happen before deploying such substantial police resources.

Rogerson is far from being my favourite person, but what was the point of all this? Is it really necessary to handcuff every arrested person? I think we are seeing an Americanisation of law enforcement practices: life imitates art – if you can call those reality police programs that. It would be a shame if the (amongst other things, highly prejudicial) “Perp walk” were to become the norm in Australia.

Ballo 5

May 25, 2014

ABC TV has been broadcasting last year’s Opera Australia recordings, though with remarkably little publicity. Last week I saw most of Don Pasquale, which I missed last year owing to a trip to China.

Today I caught A Masked Ball.

The video version included some footage which could never have been seen by the audience (since it was from micro cameras carried by cast members or mounted on bits of the set).

Some of the more topical bits of the production (the “Occupy” “Joker” face) already seemed a bit dated, but over all I thought the production, and especially the performances, stood up really well, which is not always the case with recordings of things which one has enjoyed live (1, 2, 3 & 4).

The situation of Mendelssohn

May 17, 2014

Wagner thought it tragic. He certainly had a fucking nerve.

Last night to hear the SSO’s performance of Elijah.

I went with some trepidation. “It’s long,” warned my concert acquaintance, Cx, when I bumped into him in the foyer. “It doesn’t finish until 10.40!”

At least I knew the work. When aged about 15 I was rehearsal pianist for a performance of it and must have played in the orchestra. I hadn’t remembered it as particularly long, but then when you are in something it rarely seems so. All the same I do remember concentration flagging somewhere into the second half when Elijah starts going on about things in the wilderness: “It is enough” he sings, in presumably a tribute to BWV 82, and just after that, we are told “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”

I’ve heard it since, but without doubt it is the early imprintation which has stuck.

Surprisingly perhaps, the SSO has only performed Elijah twice before. Probably it is seen as a work for choirs to put on rather than orchestras.

Notably, compared to the previous performances, which featured prominent local vocal soloists (including some stalwarts for their time), this time the SSO imported 3 soloists from the UK; I was particularly impressed with Andrew Foster-Williams as Elijah (it was with admiration that my neighbour (pretty sure on reflection he was Clive Paget) and I had to giggle at one particularly relished initial rolled “R”) and Thomas Walker as the tenor (in various characters). The fourth soloist, Deborah Humble, counts as an Australian “international” artist: I didn’t think she quite mastered the oratorio mode of singing – she needed to get her head out of the stand a bit more, especially in the boring bits (and she did have a few of more ordinarily composed parts.

The choir was bulked up to 400 by the supplementation of the Philharmonia by the Conservatorium High School choir. Maybe there are some kids at the school who get out of this choir, but it doesn’t look like it. Given that most Con kids are instrumentalists, you have to wonder how much they could really add to the adult choir and I expect they probably compromised its finesse of singing occasionally (matched vowels or not and some consonants). [One question: why do the [ethncally] east Asian boys at the con make up so many more of the tenors than the basses?] Maybe the loss of finesse was not such a problem, because generally conductor McCreesh was after recreating the big choral sound which such numbers (based on the original performance in Birmingham in 1846) bespeak. Actually, I thought he could have allowed for a few more piano choral moments than he did. Maybe there was a weak link amongst the choral soloists, and the boy soloist was a bit mature aged, but these did not detract from the general effect.

After interval I moved back a row and sat next to an elderly couple. He followed the performance in his venerable Novello pocket vocal score. There were quite a few empty seats: I don’t know if this was an escape from boredom or simply fear of a late finish. In fact, the second half went more quickly than I expected it to.

I really enjoyed it. You cannot fault Mendelssohn’s musical craftsmanship and there is much to admire including some truly brilliant numbers. But I also had a niggling feeling of limitation. It is hard to work out what it is. Is it because the music, even in its inception, is deliberately middlebrow?

Nevertheless, a memorable performance.

Signs of the times (2)

May 8, 2014



Our new car doesn’t have an ash tray.


Searching at the supermarket the other day for bars of soap, I could scarcely spot them amidst the shelves of shower gell and liquid soap.


The weather has taken a nippy turn.  Last winter in a retro and frugal mood (our house in Ashfield is electricity-only and so expensive to heat) I bought a hot water bottle.

As a heat-seeking child  I resented the covers on ours. I finally learnt their rationale after a winter’s night in the (unheated) lumber room in Shanghai sleeping up next to an uncovered and not even particularly hot hwb when I awoke with two enormous blisters on the back of my calves.  In fact you can get closer to a covered hwb when it is hot and it will keep its heat through the night better.

D has knitted a cover for me using yarn of his own devising.



May 2, 2014

My father grew up on a half-million-acre sheep station at Pindar, near Mullewa, inland from Geraldton and about 500 km north-ish from Perth. He says he hardly ever wore shoes until he went off to boarding school at about the age of eight which is probably why the people he most admired were a travelling group of Hawaiian fire-walkers. He spent summers in Perth. For the rest of the year he saw few children his own age apart from his younger brother. Maybe because they were in this way forced on each other, I don’t think they got on very well at all in their childhood.

My father sent off to join a club sponsored by the producers of Ovaltine and yearned for the day when he could hail a clubmate (recognizable by the badge) and give the required greeting, which he assures me was “Ovaltiney Ovaltiney!”

In relatively less isolated circumstances in Sydney in the 1960s I joined the Puffin Club. At least I did know one member, even if she had just returned from a year in England where there was some chance to participate in club activities.

Nowadays I sometimes get close to that frisson of recognition when on public transport I spot a fellow-reader of the London Review of Books. Subscription to this is remarkably good value, probably because its Editor, Mary Kay Willmers, has financed it for most of its 30-odd-year existence by a loan from her family trust which now amounts to about £27 million (that figure’s from memory).

The days of the magazine’s famously quirky personal ads are now over – killed I guess by the internet but possibly also by the increasing difficulty of surpassing previous efforts. At one point, the magazine’s display ads were conspicuously (or so it seemed to me) peppered with ads dealing with psychoanalysis of one sort of another. Maybe this was in the wake of a memorable article from 2001 Saving Masud Khan. A number of other “house” authors have given accounts of their own psychiatric/psychoanalytic travails.

There is something a bit out of the ordinary, even in this vein, in the latest issue.

It is given the internet equivalent of a front-cover title The Belgrano and me and is a “Diary” entry (there is one in each issue) by one Stephen Sharp.

The source of the title can be seen from the opening sentences of the first paragraph:

My problems began in 1984 when I wrote letters to Francis Pym and Sarah Kennedy about the Falklands War and Sir Robin Day’s part in it. Sarah was presenting a radio programme and I thought she was talking about me when she spoke of a young man who had just lost his mother. Francis Pym said, ‘Guns fire from Number 10’ on the Sarah Kennedy show. I took this to mean the PM had given the order to sink the Belgrano. But Mr Pym was speaking in a different context. Paul Daniels, who was also a guest, said: ‘Something strange is going to happen.’ From that day on all the radio and TV channels seemed to be talking about me.

That’s just the beginning of a long saga of unusual beliefs and various confinements in mental institutions and medication regimes and their consequences. It’s obviously a well-rehearsed tale, but there’s a twist in the end which I don’t want to steal from Mr Sharp, described in the sidebar as

a former post office clerk. He attends groups run by the mental health charity Rethink. He has left his diary to the LRB in his will.

I recommend it.


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