Archive for June, 2007

I remember, I remember…

June 30, 2007

the house where I was born.

In fact, I was born at Royal North Shore Hospital, at St Leonards.

However, the house I was born into was in West Pymble.  When I was born, it was called 1 Yanko Road, though later renumbered 37 Yanko Road.  Here is an aerial view filched from Google Earth:

My place (once)

My parents were married in Perth at the end of 1950.  The final year of their engagement had been spent apart because my father had left WA and gone to Melbourne to work.  They then lived in Melbourne and Adelaide before coming to Sydney.  The last place they lived in before they moved into the house was a flat in Ashfield which they had taken over from friends, also from WA.  Housing was still tight in Sydney at this time. 

My parents had the house built in 1956 by the father of a university friend of my father’s whose then wife is now my stepmother. I think my parents chose West Pymble because it was close to North Ryde, where my father then worked at the CSIRO.  Ironically, within a few years he took a job at the University of NSW, then at Broadway and shortly after at Kensington, where he worked until he retired in 1986.

Opposite the house was Lofberg Oval, now part of Kuringgai Bicentennial Park.  Like many ovals in suburban Sydney, the oval was built on an old rubbish tip.  The old incinerator remained as a ruin but seems now to be gone.  I think there had also been a night-soil depot, and the night-soil men had been known as “the Lofbergers.” There was also a disused quarry, ostensibly fenced off but easy to break into.    

The house was a three bedroom weatherboard house.  Two of the bedrooms were “double” and one was a single one. 

Some aspects of the building of the house speak of a time which is perhaps now past.

To save money, my parents undertook to sand and varnish the floorboards themselves.  Most of these were sanded by hand by my mother.  The house was built on a sloping lot, with a garage underneath.  My father subsequently excavated beneath the house and dug out a cellar which extended under the entirety of the house.  Over the years my father constructed an enormous number of built in cupboards, in every bedroom and also in the long hall-way which ran the length of the house.   

The house had two toilets (one in the bathroom) and a second shower recess (which was never used) in the laundry, which as well as a double laundry tub and a washing machine, was equipped with an electric copper.  Against the wall in the toilet was a piece of sheet metal which had been fitted to lodge in the laundry window so that my father could use it as a darkroom: the enlarger would then rest on the washing machine and the developing trays be deployed in the tub.  There was no gas in West Pymble, and the house was as a result an “all electric” house.  This was thought to be very modern in the 1950s. 

The living room had a fireplace for winter.  In the 1970s, an under-floor oil-fired heater was installed in one corner of the living room, which resulted in constant tussles with my father about the thermostat setting.  The official maximum setting was 20 degrees celsius, but we were always surreptitiously turning it up (not permitted), or tapping it to rouse the heater to action. 

Until the mid-1960s, the lot was unsewered, and we consequently had a septic tank.  Some older houses in the suburb also had rainwater tanks.

The garage was considered to be a “double garage,” though not really so in the modern sense, as it was double in length rather than in width.  By the time I can first remember it, my father’s 1948 Rover, was parked in the front half of the garage.  My mother’s car, a 1951 Renault, which was my parents’ first car, bought because of the many-months’ waiting list for a Morris Minor, was  parked outside.  The back of the garage was my father’s workshop.    Later, when I started to practise the piano more seriously, the piano was moved down into the garage.  About 100 egg-cartons were then glued onto the ceiling to reduce the resonance and provide some marginal acoustic relief. 

My parents were playing tennis with friends when my mother went into labour with my older sister.  Presumably only my father was playing and my mother was merely in attendance.  They went straight from the tennis court to the hospital. 

I imagine life was more tied down with parenting obligations when I came along, two years later.  My mother told me that when push came to shove at my birth, it was 5 minutes to midnight.  After the final excitement (or perhaps initial excitement for me) the obstetrician, Mr MacDonald (later a president of the AMA) asked my mother “Well, which day shall it be, Mrs [Marcellous]?  My mother told me that she chose the first day because she thought I would always be looking forward to my birthday, and that way it would come earlier.  I have sometimes wondered about what might have happened if there had been a ballot for national service and it turned out that she had picked the wrong day. 

Two and a bit years later, my younger sister was born.  In the course of my mother’s confinement, my father was left to look after my elder sister and me.  He and my elder sister both were ill.  My father may not have been very skilled in detecting symptoms, as my elder sister almost died of pneumonia.

In about 1971, my parents had the house extended.  This was done by the original builder.  They enlarged the verandah on one side of the house by adding a concrete terrace (which itself also had a cellar), and added a second living room (grandiosely called the “drawing room”) and two small rooms, intended to be studies for each of my parents.  This time the builder took responsibility for the various built-in cupboards and desks, and the extension was carpeted, which was thought to be a great luxury.

My mother’s study was also designated as the spare bedroom, in particular for when my grandmothers (both widows) came from Western Australia to stay.  You might wonder at the implicit sexism of that, but in any case, it did not last.  Both my parents, having grown up in the country, had gone away to school as teenagers, and in any case they grew up at a time when shared bedrooms for children were taken for granted.  But children’s and, in particular, teenagers’ expectations in the 1970s were higher.  My mother soon had to relinquish the study, which became my bedroom.

When the house was built, the block still had a number of remnant gum trees.  My father was an advocate of the “bush garden” and over time even more trees were planted, which is why the house itself cannot be made out in the above picture.  A few forlorn friesias planted by my mother occupied the sole sunny spot, and virtually the only other flowers were a boronia nearby and some Sydney Rock Lilies (a kind of orchid) planted by my father in his “Society for Growing Australian Plants” (he liked to call it the “Society for Grabbing Australian Plants” because of their modus operandi for gathering material from the wild) phase, which struggled to flower in another intermittently sunny spot.  In the bottom corner of the block, my father constructed an incinerator out of bricks and the household paper waste was burnt in that.

My elder sister moved out of home to the inner city in about 1977, one or two years after she finished school and started tertiary studies at the Conservatorium. She did not entirely give up her bedroom straight away, as she had to return to West Pymble to teach her flute students.

I moved out in 1981 in the final honours year of my arts course at Sydney University.

My mother died in 1981.

My younger sister moved out in 1984 to live in Forest Lodge while she was finishing her degree at Sydney.

Shortly after, my father remarried.  The house was remodelled a little in the following years at the instigation of my stepmother.  In 1989 my father sold the house and moved to Canberra where, prior to their marriage, my stepmother had lived for about 30 years.  They still live there, although they have moved house three times since.

A question of style

June 27, 2007

Just recently, I took a brief in a matter where the opposing solicitor (let’s call him A)  has in the past briefed me a few times.

I drafted a long and fairly careful letter for my instructing solicitor (let’s call him B) to send to A, explaining the usual sorts of things – why A’s foreshadowed submissions were misconceived, the perils to A’s client of running up costs should B’s client be put to the expense of preparing evidence to meet them, and inviting A’s client to adopt a more sensible approach.  B sent the letter to A.  There is to be a hearing very soon. 

I saw a missed call on my mobile phone and rang the number.  A’s secretary answered and I had a momentary crisis of embarrassment: was A going to ask me to appear in the same matter? So far as I was aware, A did not know that I was involved.

Fortunately that was not the situation.  It turned out that A had already spoken to B.  At B’s suggestion he was ringing me to discuss the case.  But it wasn’t B who told him that I was involved.  A had already divined that I wrote the letter: the first thing he had said on the phone to B was “I’ve just received [Marcellous’s] letter.”

There are over 2,000 barristers in NSW and this case is a different type of case from those in which A has previously instructed me.  Naturally, I have since pored over my letter trying to identify just exactly what were the tell-tale signs which enabled A to identify my authorship, although I am aware that I am probably the person least equipped to identify them.  Were they good points or bad points? (Quite possibly they were both.) Or were they simply neutral but distinctive points?

Whichever way, it was pretty funny.

On an unrelated topic, comical spelling error of the day yesterday came in another opposing solicitor’s letter, asking for information so that he could determine “the voracity of your client’s claim.”

Queen’s Birthday Holiday

June 24, 2007

This is a delayed journal entry.

The second day of fine(ish) weather after the great storms of the previous two days.  Like many others in Sydney, I guess, I did some washing and hung the clothes out to dry.

PP, an old friend who now lives in Melbourne, came round in the afternoon.  I would have proposed a walk in the sun but she had already been for a half-hour stroll with her mother that had stretched to 2 1/2 hours.  PP is an old friend of J, whom I first met when I shared a house with J in Lewisham in 1984.  Actually, I think she knew of me a bit earlier than that, because we went to brother/sister schools, but she is a few years younger than I so I wasn’t really aware of her then. 

As old friends do, we talked about a lot of things.  Recently, PP has a new “boyfriend” (we’re all getting on a bit for that).  She had known him before for some years, but one or other of them had always been involved with somebody else.  Finally they were both “free” and something happened.  Last November she travelled to Germany, where he lives, and has only recently returned.  She has returned because there is a limit to how long she can keep her life in suspended animation while she is in Germany (where she cannot work and scarcely speaks the language), and she had work and other commitments (principally debts) to return to here. 

In the evening, D and I went for dinner at E and R’s place. They are J’s parents.  E was my high school music teacher and our connexion has continued in many ways since then.  I knew J through E.

On the way, I dropped off an (overdue) book at Fisher Library.  I was surprised how many other cars were driving through the campus at this hour on a public holiday.  After I put the books in the chute, we listened for a short time to the carillon.  It was slightly gothick (and not just neo-gothic) to look up at the single lighted room in the clock tower where I knew the carillonist was playing.

Originally, we had planned to eat out, but R did his back in in the morning, so we took some takeaway food to their house (as well as flowers and wine).  E has just had shoulder surgery.  She had been relying on R to shoulder the burden of household tasks, but now they are both hors de combat. D very constructively did a bit of washing up for them after dinner and we also took the garbage out with us as we left.

With old friends of mine like PP, E and R, D has a little track of turning the topic of conversation around to me.  I think he thinks he can enlist my friends’ support for whatever point he wishes to make.  I don’t always find these conversations very comfortable.

After dinner (which was pretty early) we went home. The big achievement of the evening was that I “fixed” our gas heater by the simple expedient of connecting it properly to the bayonet fitting, from which it had become disconnected.  I wonder how much gas had been leaking out into the room  before that.  It is possible that we are lucky not to have blown ourselves up. 

Pussy porn

June 23, 2007

Pussyporn

This is our cat.  We call him “The Monster.”  I was given him as a kitten by a man I met at the Midnight Shift who led a rather unsettled life and couldn’t keep him so brought him round on the train in a canvas shopping bag.  He is now 10 years old.

He was desexed when he was about a year old, but from time to time there have been manifestations of sexual behaviour towards various soft furry-ish objects.  Recently, after a break of some years, this has started again.  I have no idea what has triggered this.  I have governed my distaste on being satisfied (on the basis of observation) that there is no risk of any actual ejaculate.  Nevertheless, he seems to be aware we are not keen on this behaviour, and will desist guiltily if interrupted.

If you accuse me of making a cheap bid to increase my hits with the title of this post, I may have to plead guilty.  In my defence, that is what I have always called this picture.

Family Provision

June 23, 2007

Years ago I read a comic legal novel where a character, in a struggle against impure thoughts, tried to govern these by thinking about “Testator’s Family Maintenance” (or TFM).  The assumption was that this was the most unsexy aspect of law imaginable, and that contemplation of it would inevitably subdue any incipient concupiscence.

TFM is now known in NSW as the Family Provision Act (FPA).  It may not be sexy, but it brings people to court who, absent divorce or some tortious misfortune, would never expect (and could never afford) to be there.

And what usually brings them there is fighting with their siblings over their parents’ estate.

Prior to the nineteenth century there were legal restrictions, at least in relation to land, to how you could leave your property by will, although these were relatively easily circumvented by the wealthy with proper legal advice.  In English law these were then replaced by absolute freedom of testamentary disposition.  The original impetus of Family Provision legislation, which was first introduced in New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth century and spread to Australia and elsewhere shortly after, was to protect widows and children against the testamentary caprices of the husband and father.  Its motivation had something in common with the first-wave feminism which underlay temperance movements of the period.

As recast in the present law, if you are an “eligible person” you can apply to the court to:

“order that such provision be made out of the estate … of the deceased person as, in the opinion of the Court, ought, having regard to the circumstances at the time the order is made, to be made for the maintenance, education or advancement in life of the eligible person”

In effect the court can rewrite a will in favour of “eligible persons” according to what it thinks a person’s will should have said if it were being written now (bearing in mind that wills are often made many years before a person dies and by the time the court considers the order the situation may have changed even further).  If there isn’t a will, it can do the same thing to vary the distribution which the law otherwise provides for in that case.

At first, courts operated according to a relatively narrowly defined orthodoxy as to what provision should have been made, using as their yardstick the “just and wise testator.” In general, the concentration was on provision for widows, children, and unmarried daughters. Even as the classes of eligible persons expanded, they took into account that the paterfamilias was entitled to use his will making power to reward the filial and to admonish or rebuke (and hence hopefully to keep in line) the unfilial or black sheep who had commited “disentitling conduct.”

Gradually, the classes of eligible persons and the range what is encompassed by “maintenance, education or advancement in life” have expanded. Judges are liberally less inclined to take any view on filial or unfilial conduct and in particular are reluctant to wade into the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of competing claimants. However, this disdain for moral minutiae is not shared by family members themselves for whom these matters are hardly minutiae and whose views are also naturally affected by their interest, one way or the other, in the outcome.

Because the discretion of the court is so widely cast, it can be difficult even for lawyers to predict the outcome of contested claims for family provision. Even if a prediction can be made, it will be even more difficult for family members to accept this. Children who have cared for their parents in their old age find it hard to accept that other, often long estranged, children will get an order in their favour. Children who have never caused their parents grief will rankle at the thought that the improvident or incompetent sibling who has only ever caused the family grief or who has, in their eyes, spent a lifetime sponging off the parents, will get yet more from the estate at their expense.

In these cases, one party will be defending the status quo and hence the interests of the principal beneficiaries. Unless that party behaves unreasonably, they will usually have their legal costs paid in full out of the estate. The claimants, if they are successful, will also probably have their costs paid out of the estate (though not necessarily in full). If claimants already have an entitlement to the estate, in effect they will end up paying their costs and possibly the costs of the person defending the status quo out of that entitlement if they lose. But even if they win, the pot of what will be left will be depleted by costs one way or the other.

The situation is ripe for a try-on by almost any family member with any kind of need. As parties run up legal costs, they can actually strengthen their claim that they need to be provided for simply because they now have to pay these costs – a bit like that scene in “Blazing Saddles” where the sheriff takes himself hostage and threatens that if he is attacked “the nigger gets it.” In the case of a typical small estate (just mum and dad’s house) there could well end up being very little left for anybody if the parties cannot step back from their views of what is right and wrong and settle the case so that, rather than the lawyers, someone in the family at least will get the money.

There have been some attempts to reform the law, and I think there is some new legislation on its way, but I am not sure if they will ever succeed.

The reason for this post is that recently I participated in a mediation in an attempt to settle a dispute over what, in the eyes of the lawyers, is a “modest estate.” It didn’t settle. Now I ask myself, did it fail to settle because I was not nasty enough to the other side? Did it fail to settle because I didn’t do enough to scare my own client about what my client stands to lose if the case goes ahead?

Of course there were other lawyers involved, and there was a court-appointed mediator who was the worst mediator I have ever seen (he was a court officer and at least he was free, but the parties got what they paid for), and there were the parties themselves, so I’m not the only one to blame. Still, it’s disappointing to see these people heading for a train wreck which is going to cost at least one of them and probably both of them quite a lot more money when neither of them has any money to spare. Even though some of that money might be coming my way, I wish I could have stopped it.

Gerhard Oppitz – codetta

June 21, 2007

I don’t always agree with what Harriet Cuningham (the SMH’s second string music critic) says, but I did like this final paragraph of her review of the Mostly Mozart concert which I attended last week.

“Oppitz has many talents: his biography says that he speaks seven languages and is a qualified pilot who flies himself to concert engagements in Europe. Knowing this, and after hearing him play Mozart and Beethoven, it is easy to imagine him making reassuring in-flight announcements of the “we’ll be cruising at 30,000 feet” kind. You know you’ll get there with Oppitz Air.”

I think this neatly sums up the sense of competence and experience which Oppitz exudes when he plays.  I was trying to make a similar point when I talked about Oppitz not being a flamboyant player and the performance being about the music rather than the performer, but Ms Cunningham has said it much better.

Gerhard Oppitz – Beethoven piano sonatas

June 19, 2007

Last night I went to Angel Place for this recital. Herr Oppitz played the following Beethoven sonatas:

Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.2, No.1
Sonata No.4 in E flat, Op.7
Sonata No.22 in F, Op.54
Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57

The last of these (posthumously nicknamed Appasionata) is the most well-known, but almost every pianist has probably learnt at least the first movement of Sonata No 1: it was certainly the first “real” sonata movement I tackled, after the two mini-sonatas of Op 49.  Of the four, the E flat sonata is probably the least often heard in recitals.

Oppitz is not a flamboyant player, notwithstanding the occasional stamping of his feet at a big finish and a mannerism where he lifts his hands rather suddenly from the keys after an emphatic end to a phrase. Even in the fast movements, his performance eschewed superficial excitement. Some of his passage work sometimes sounded a little lumpy or clumpy (delivered in handfuls of notes rather than the proverbial row of pearls), but his technique is very secure so that even this slight clumpiness must have been a matter of stylistic choice. There was little sense of virtuosity, even when he was doing some extraordinary things: the focus was on the music rather than the performance.

As I mentioned in relation to his performance of the Mozart Jeunehomme concerto last week, more gravely eloquent music is his particular forte (not that I mean, haha, that he plays such music loudly.) I wonder if this is a question of temperament, because something of the same aspect presented itself in his approach to Beethoven, especially to the minuet movements, which he played a little more slowly than I have heard them played by mony. This was particularly notable in the minuet of Op 2 No 1, which seemed to just glide into being.

The really distinctive thing about Oppitz’s style was his control of sonority. He was very sensitive to the sonorities of different registers of the piano, but could also create beautiful effects when the whole box of strings was set into vibration. I also particularly liked some of his fast but soft playing (which I would think of as texture rather than sonority). This focus on sonority may well be associated with the “clumpiness” of his runs which I referred to earlier (and I have to stress that it was a very slight thing) because both speak of Oppitz’s desire to take the music as a whole, or at least in handfuls, rather than simply note by note.

All of which just shows how inadequate words are to deal with musical values, and especially my words.

The concert was well attended, though I thought it might (after the Beethoven bonanza) have been even fuller. Angel Place has started selling little sandwiches at the refreshment bar. Parking was a breeze and the drive home was quick and easy. After the turbulence of The Paper will be Blue earlier in the day, this was all very consoling.

The Paper will be Blue

June 19, 2007

Fall of Icarus

Today I skived off work (not that I had much) to see The Paper will be Blue at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Rather than offer my own synopsis, I shall quote from the film website:

Lieutenant Neagu’s armoured unit is ordered to patrol the suburbs. The unit’s radio functions intermittently and communications between the different armoured units and fragments of radio and TV broadcasts give vague reports of “terrorist” attacks on the national television station held by anti-Ceausescu forces. The members of the unit are thrown into confusion.

Costi, a conscript who has managed to do his military service in Bucharest thanks to some wrangling by his well-connected father, believes that it is the duty of every Romanian, after so many years of dictatorship, to fight the supporters of Ceausescu, irrespective of the orders of his superiors. His arrogance and stubborness brings him into conflict with Lieutenant Neagu and he takes advantage of an altercation between his comrade and a group of demonstrators to flee.

Despite the Lieutenant’s threats and pleas, Costi heads for the television station to fight for the revolution.

The young soldier only makes it as far as a house near the TV station, where in the confusion he is arrested as a terrorist by the mixed group of soldiers and civilians who are defending the building. Meanwhile, the rest of Costi’s unit is taking risks to try to find the deserter. At the TV headquarters, Neagu is disarmed and humiliated by an overexcited Colonel, then finally heads to Costi’s home, where the mother and girlfriend of the young soldier are anxiously awaiting his return.

It’s a night of madness in which soldiers receive orders via television from poets and actors, radios transmit garbled signals, arms are distributed to civilians and gipsies are arrested as Arab terrorists

In case the reference to Ceausescu and Romania isn’t clear, here is a little further background:

The original inspiration for the film is a tragic incident which took place in the Romanian revolution in 1989, in which two armoured squads of Interior Ministry troops that went to protect a military unit were accidentally butchered. This episode received considerable media attention.

In the days following the departure of the Ceausescus, when the Romanian people had no clear enemy, over 1,000 people died in such accidents and personal vendettas.

Like Ghosts, the film starts at the moment that catastrophe befalls its central characters, and then fills in the back story. You would think that this grim dramatic irony would totally overshadow both films, but it doesn’t. I think this is because, in each case, not only is there humour, but there is human detail which I can only sum up in the sense of that much-hackneyed word, humanism.

The Paper will be Blue shares an apparently improvisatory and quasi-documentary style with Ghosts, though it is less didactic and I suspect that the improvisation is more apparent than actual. The theme (a very reductive word) is the way in which, even when a big Historical Event is occurring, the continuities of everyday life (and of course, especially, the hope of staying alive) persist. A lot of this involves the dynamics of the group of militia men at the centre of the story as they move around Bucharest in their armoured vehicle. Much of the action takes place in its claustrophobic cabin.

We have all seen those shots on the news of gunmen firing from windows. When Costi, the central character, leaves the unit and gets involved in the street fighting, the film gives the most graphic (and scary) sense of what this must be like that I have seen. You don’t realise when you watch those newsreel shots framed by voice-over just how loud and terrifying gunfire can be.

The subject of trying to live an ordinary life in times of war is one which is famously dealt with in Brecht’s Mother Courage, and this film made me think of the production I saw of that play last year by the Sydney Theatre Company Actors’ Company. The film brought to life the fearful sense of disorder and chaos of such times. While I was watching the film, I wasn’t even sure on which side Costi was fighting, and although a Romanian watching the film would definitely know, I think that was still very much the point. Who was the “government”? Who were the “terrorists”? What choice you had and what side you were on could very much depend on who you were with.

I was reminded how, after the English Civil War/Revolution, Thomas Hobbes was so keen to emphasise the importance of social order at all costs. Without it, life can be frightening, nasty, brutish and short. This may sound tritely modish, but there must be at least food for thought here about what has been unleashed on the people of Iraq.

The film also made me think of W H Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, though I think Auden tackles the question from the other end, or at least a different angle. Hence the picture above.  This painting and this one (sorry about the terrible ads on that) are also referred to in the poem.

If you are in Sydney, you can see the film on Friday at the Dendy Opera Quays. Its impact will be less in a smaller cinema but still greater than on the television, which is otherwise likely to be the only other opportunity to see it.

After the film was over I went home for a short nap before going to see Gerhard Oppitz playing Beethoven sonatas at Angel Place, but I was too stirred-up to sleep. I’ll have to post about the recital later.

Mozart in the City

June 17, 2007

On Thursday I went to this concert in the SSO’s Mozart in the City series. On the menu was:

IBERT Hommage à Mozart
MOZART Concert-Rondo in D, K382
STRAVINSKY Octet
MOZART Piano Concerto in E flat, K271, Jeunehomme

This series is held at the earlier-than-usual hour of 7 pm at Angel Place City Recital Hall. The idea seems to be that everyone will be out again by about 8.15. In this case, it was closer to 8.30, probably because of a late start (the city was wet-weather gridlocked) and the need to reset the stage, including wheeling out the piano, wheeling it back, and wheeling it out again for the two concertante works.

I held off going to this series until this year, mainly out of a snobbish resistance to Mozart-kugel marketing. Despite the cut-down program, a tendency to economise on the selection of soloist and conductor, and the use of a smaller orchestra and small ensembles, the SSO still charges a healthy price for these concerts. $64 for 65 minutes of music (that was the B reserve price for me for the first of these concerts I went to back in April) seems pretty steep. So I was surprised and grudgingly happy for the SSO when I found how well patronized the series is.

Aside from the Mozart angle, I think there are two reasons for this.

The first is that in fact a lot of people like early and short concerts. If you work in the city you can go straight from work with a lesser struggle against work-day weariness and without the quandary of deciding to struggle home and then back again. For everyone on public transport, and especially for women and older people, there is a big difference between getting on a train (even worse, a bus) from the city at 8.30 and doing so at 10.30.

The second is Angel Place City Recital Hall itself. Apart from its meanly-proportioned foyers and not steeply enough raked stalls, it is an excellent venue where there are very few bad seats. The horse-shoe layout means that, even if you are up high, you are still close to the action, and the acoustics are excellent.  But once again, I think it is the logistic element which is most important. The Opera House may draw in the tourists (up to about 20% of every performance) but for Sydney residents it is much more convenient to get to Angel Place than to drag yourself out to Bennelong Point. And most people will save at least half an hour if they are going home by public transport afterwards. If you drive, you are not held to ransom by the incredibly expensive Opera House parking.

Back to the music.

Ibert’s Hommage à Mozart is essentially a short festive overture commissioned in 1956 for the Mozart bicentenary. Dene Olding, who is the musical director of the series and was the conductor for the evening foreshadowed in his pre-concert chat  that this would be “champagne music.”

I have the greatest admiration for Dene Olding as a violinist but less for his conducting prowess. Like much such “champagne music,” the élan of the performance is essential, but the the violins, which should have sparkled, were simply scrappy. Of course, that wasn’t all Olding’s fault, but it was disappointing.  This showed exactly why artists should not make such such speeches or such predictions. 

It was good to hear the Stravinsky Wind Octet, which comes from near the beginning of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. I can’t say that I was really grabbed by it though, and I sensed some restiveness in the rest of the audience. Its cool objective style came through as just a bit too matter-of-fact.

The innovation which drew me to the concert on Thursday is that this year the SSO have ramped up the quality of their soloists in the series by including two of their higher-grade touring pianists. This time it was Gerhard Oppitz (here for their Beethoven Festival) and in September it will be Roger Muraro.

Oppitz brought the scores with him to the piano. I am always disappointed when this occurs.  It is not as if Oppitz needs to look at his fingers when he plays, but in my experience pianists always play better (provided they are not plagued by memory anxieties) if they don’t use the music.  They don’t necessarily play worse because they are using the music, but if they can do it without they are usually playing better.  In this case, I suspect Oppitz was playing these works as a “special request” from the SSO rather than as works drawn from his established repertoire.  He certainly didn’t use music for the Beethoven concerti and I would be most surprised if he were to do so for the four Beethoven sonatas which he is playing in recital on Monday.  After the best bits, I noticed Oppitz turning over many pages at once, which means he wasn’t using the music for those passages.

The orchestra, led by Olding from the first violin desk, was more comfortable in the Mozart than in the Ibert and the violin sound and ensemble were much improved. The Rondo is perhaps Mozart at the Amadeus end of his palette, but the Jeunehomme concerto has a wider range. I particularly liked the moment in the last movement when Mozart interrupts the busy finale with a something altogether more courtly and elegant. This was right up Oppitz’s street.

As for the convenience of an early finish, I went back to work to complete some submissions for court the next morning.

The Barber of Seville or The Useless Precaution – Homage to John Reichard

June 16, 2007

Backstage at Marian Street

The impending Opera Australia production of The Barber of Seville has reminded me of when, in 1992, I was one of three musicians in a production of the original play by Beaumarchais at the Marian Street Theatre at Killara on Sydney’s North Shore.  The above picture is of me camping it up backstage.  I had graduated in law that morning, so I donned both costumes at once for the photo-opp.

The translation was abridged to allow for a cut-down cast (Marian Street, which subsequently went broke, was not a large theatre). The cast was a strong one. It included:

Figaro: Jonathan Biggins (see also here)

The Count: Tony Harvey

Rosina: Jacqueline McKenzie  and

Dr Bartolo: Bruce Spence.

Don Basilio: John Dicks

Other characters were written out, some of them in the course of rehearsals as the director, Peter Kingston, realised that we musicians were not up to the job.  Two of us had a walk-on role for the denouement: I played the notary who solemnizes the wedding at the end of the play (and is hence indispensible).

Until we slipped around to the back of the set for the final scene, we musicians sat at the side of the stage for the entire performance, wigged and stockinged in period garb (as you can see above):  Sally, the flautist; John Reichard, cellist; and me, pretending to pay harpsichord on an electric keyboard (the most unsatisfactory part of the arrangement).

There were musicians because the play includes a number of songs. The Count, disguised as Lindoro, serenades Rosina and later insinuates himself into the house of her jealous guardian on the pretext of giving singing lessons.  The music was specially composed by Stephen Rae. In addition, in a kind of backwards tribute to the opera, I had to improvise Rossini-esque quasi-recitative accompaniments under the numerous soliloquies and occasional pieces of action.

It was a pretty amazing experience, working with a bunch of very interesting and funny people.  Amongst this crowd Jacqui McKenzie was the most subdued.  She might just have been tired: for most of the run she was also filming Romper Stomper. 

We did 8 performances a week from Tuesday to Sunday with two shows on Saturday and Wednesday.  The Wednesday matinee was at 11 am and was always the hardest.  At the time I was attending College of Law 9.30 to 3.30 daily at St Leonards and also had some music teaching work at the school where I had been teaching part-time when I did my law degree.  I don’t think I would have the strength or stamina to do so much today.

I had to wag class to do the Wednesday matinee (“wag” is the appropriate word because College of Law was very much like school), except for one unavoidable assessment task where the Stephen Rae (who is also an actor) took my place.  I was a little miffed to be told how much funnier he was than I.

But it shouldn’t have been surprising that he was. One of the most instructive aspects of this experience was the moments when, at the end of the play, I was centre-stage with the actors, and could experience up close their quivering with larger-than-life comic charisma. We musicians were inevitably pallid by comparison.

The play was not a runaway success.  Eighteenth century-comedies, even if abridged, tend to be wordy, and the comic plot is, to modern tastes, fairly trivial. This inevitably had an effect. At one point midway through the run our stage manager, Libby, gathered the cast together and delivered a little “get your act together” speech about how things were slipping and that she felt it had reached a point where people might notice it out front. I wondered if she had been taught this this as part of the stage managers’ course at NIDA.

Towards the end of the play there is a storm scene.  This is a famous instrumental interlude in Rossini’s operatic adaptation. We had a backstage wind machine, and also had to improvise suitably manic music. To add to the wildness I had prerecorded (as you can on an electric keyboard) part of the music to which I would then further add in real time. Imagine my surprise one night, when I pressed the button out came The House of the Rising Sun.  Imagine how shamefacedly Libby confessed that, fiddling around on the keyboard in the course of the day, she had been responsible for this.

Most nights John Reichard, the cellist, gave me a lift back to the city. Since we sat through every performance (there were 58 in all as well as the preceding rehearsals) our conversation on these trips inevitably became infused with dialogue from the play. It is amazing how a play can furnish lines for every occasion.

One of the classical admonitions to musicians and I suppose to other performers who might be tempted to treat a performance of a familiar work with less than total respect is to remember that you never know who might be hearing the work for the first time.  I recently read in our local rag that some young up-and-coming actor determined to tread the boards after being taken to Marian Street as a child to see Bruce Spence in The Barber of Seville.

Of the three musicians, Sally was possibly the most proficient. John’s playing could be very variable.  This seemed to relate to fluctuations in his temperament. He had a rather unusual appearance, having had in his teenage years some primitive and radical brain surgery. He also had some infirmity in his legs which may have been from a childhood soccer injury. His career in music was a latish-in-life one and it wasn’t going so well. He had not been re-engaged for a scratch orchestra which from time to time gave concerts at the Opera House. Early in 1994, just before Francis Giacco’s Homage to John Reichard won the Archibald Prize, he hanged himself.

I dedicate this post to him.