Archive for July, 2007

Il trovatore

July 30, 2007

The flu has been hitting Sydney.

I have mentioned earlier the short-measure performance of Company.  On Thursday, I received a call at about 3pm to tell me that that evening’s performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (to which I had a ticket) had been cancelled.  So I knew what was coming when a fellow jumped up on the stage with a microphone just before Il Trovatore started on Saturday night.

Michael Lewis, who was to play the Conte di Luna (the baritone and baddie brother) was indisposed; Barry Ryan, his understudy, was also stricken.  Opera Australia was pleased to announce a “two for one:” a director’s assistant would walk through the part “in his opera debut,” whilst Jonathan Summers, in Australia for the upcoming production of Il Trittico, and who had last sung the role in 1983, would sing the part from the side of the stage.

I’ve seen this singing-from the-side-of-the-stage solution before, but this was the least-dramatically convincing version of it.  Usually it is coupled with a singer who mimes and acts the part; the director’s assistant did not know the words or the music, and (wisely, I think) confined himself to jutting out his chin in an assertive way and casting the odd expressive glance.  From time to time heard I Elke Neidhart, the director, whispering (in a shouting kind of way) from the wings the odd direction, though mostly not so audibly as to be distinct (just one: “Kneel!”). 

It says something for the power of the work that, by the end, I’d adjusted to this device.  I also think that Summers (who was no inadequate substitute in vocal terms), warmed to his task from the side of the stage: what is often overlooked in opera is how important the acting through the singing is, and by the second act you could feel him getting more into that side of things and becoming involved in the action from his peculiar vantage point.

This production updates the story to civil-war Spain (that’s the most recent civil war).  Manrico (the troubador, tenor and goodie) is on the Republican side; the Conte di Luna is a Nationalist. 

The Act III scene i chorus saw some new recruits changing out of their civvies (facing upstage) and being given a quick medical before donning their uniforms.  This entailed full dorsal nudity (I hesitate to say rectal nudity despite our position in the front row).  Fortified by interval drinks and perhaps a little restive at the dramatic Verfremdung of the stand-in device, the audience responded rowdily with some applause (for chorus-member Jin Tea Kim who engaged in some dramatic press-ups) and a slow clap for the strippers.  I saw this production in Perth a few years ago, and I don’t think that would have ever happened there.  Before he slipped his boxer shorts on, the front stripper gave a few cheeky buttock clenches in acknowledgement.  You had to be near the front to catch that!

The gentleman making the pre-show announcement on Saturday said that he had already done the same for the Saturday matinee of Die Entführung. I now have a ticket for Wednesday’s performance of that. I guess I am taking a risk, but it is the only night I can get to it.

Monkeys with a word-processor

July 29, 2007

Last Friday, discussing the breaking news about Dr Haneef with some colleagues over an after-work bottle of red, I predicted that Haneef would be pressured into going home quietly and that, given that he would obviously want to go home now, he would do so. That is not necessarily the end of the story, but the way it has played out so far shows how the government can play the cards it holds, even when it is losing. Being at the heart of a cause célèbre, as Haneef has been, is no fun at all. Moreover, in immigration law, the usual vulnerability to exercises of discretionary power is multiplied many times.

One of my colleagues wondered how Andrews could have got it so wrong.  Leaving aside the point that he probably thought he was on to a political winner here (and in non-chatterati Australia he may still be) my own feeling was that he was just acting as he has become accustomed to act.

This has been confirmed by Nicholas Poynder, who says that [partly as paraphrased by the journalist from the SMH]:

the “toxic cocktail” of anti-terrorism laws and unchecked ministerial powers in the Mohamed Haneef case has finally shone a light on the Government’s misuse of character provisions in the Migration Act.

The minister’s power not to reveal why he had ruled someone was of bad character had always been an issue for migration lawyers, “but it is difficult to get public sympathy for treatment of non-citizens.”

….

The discretionary powers under the Migration Act were introduced in 1998 by the then minister, Philip Ruddock, with assurances they would be used sparingly. “What’s happened is they have been used regularly … to overcome a decision the minister doesn’t like, such as Haneef’s bail case,” Mr Poynder said.

“This power has … been misused for a long time … It’s only the toxic cocktail of anti-terror laws and extraordinary migration powers which has shone a light on these provisions now.”

This partly explains why the minute to the minister which ostensibly formed the basis for Mr Andrews’ decision is such a lengthy document. 

The minute sets out the various statutory provisions and ministerial directives.  The threshold question was whether the Minister “reasonably suspects that the person has or has had an association with someone else, or with a group or organisation, whom the Minister reasonably suspects has been or is involved in criminal conduct.”  If this was the case, the Minister had a discretion to revoke Haneef’s visa if he considered it was “in the national interest.” 

The directive and most of the minute and the minister’s statement of reasons related to this second limb. 

These documents are really designed to prevent the decision from being set aside because of a failure to take into account a relevant consideration. In general terms, a court is powerless to revisit the merits of the decision, as opposed to the way it was arrived at.  One can reasonably infer that the department has a “boilerplate” document for such cases.  The individual factors merely need to be slotted in. So long as they are addressed, even if perfunctorily, the document is likely to survive this limited judicial scrutiny.

Laughably, the material provided to the minister included a few, extremely out of date, press cuttings (none dating from after 8 July). If there was any discussion of the strength of the case against Haneef, it wasn’t in the open materials. A large part of the materials related to the bombings themselves – whereas the real issue in contention was Haneef’s link to them.

The key factors as set out in the Minister’s statement of his reasons were:

  1. That the offence with which Haneef was charged was very serious (para 13);
  2. That Haneef was a person of interest to the British police (para 15);
  3. That the Australian Government has a strong interest in deterring non-citizens from providing support to terrorist organisations/networks (para 19);
  4. That “based on the materials provided to me, including section 503A protected information I found that the ‘Protection of the Australian Community” weighed in favour of visa cancellation.  I gave this consideration significant weight.” (para 20) [this was essentially a summary of the factors referred to above]
  5. That the Australian community would expect that a non-citizen, who has had an association with persons suspected of involvement in an act of terrorism and who has been charged with an offence of providing resources to a terrorist organistion, including those persons, would have their visa cancelled.  (para 21).  Andrews gave this “moderate weight.” (para 22) [only moderate?]
  6. That the best interests of the child (ie, Haneef’s infant child) would not be harmed by Haneef living with his wife and child in India (paras 23-26).
  7. That the fact that Haneef had not previously been warned, and had been granted bail, and had been working as a doctor weighed against visa cancellation, and he gave that moderate weight. (para 31).

Mr Andrews has said in relation to Haneef that “ultimately, this can all be tested because there can be reviews in the courts, and the courts have the ability to test the information.”  This is only true up to a point. 

As the SMH story from which I have been quoting points out, Section 503 A (2c) of the Migration Act says the minister must not be required to divulge or communicate to a court, a tribunal, a person, a parliament or parliamentary committee protected information (that is, information provided on a confidential basis from and Australian or overseas law enforcement or intelligence agency which has been specified by a notice by the minister published in the Government Gazette) on which the Minister based his decision.

This doesn’t just apply to suspected terrorists: it applies to information about a whole range of people whose visas can be rejected on the quite widely-drawn grounds of the character test set out in section 501.

Even if the minister were to choose to provide the information to the court, he could ask the court to make orders keeping it from Dr Haneef and his advisers.

The SMH reported:

Mr Poynder said he had had experience with protected documents affecting cases. “I have had several, and know of several more, where under freedom of information or through error, the documents [used in the case and] protected under s503 A (2c) have come to light. When you see [them, they are] nothing. All the minister has been doing is protecting a weak case from disclosure.”

It is very hard to work out what, if anything, could have been in the protected information, contained in the not-disclosed schedule 3 to the minute.  It is difficult to disagree with Mr Poynder’s comments: 

The case of the Gold Coast doctor has brought ministerial decision-making to the fore. “Haneef’s case is the perfect storm. In all probability, it appears this guy is innocent, so we see the migration powers misused – not to make a proper decision as to whether he’s of good character, but to hide behind a weak case,” Mr Poynder said. “There is always a risk broad discretions with no accountability will get misused.”

The monkeys with the word-processor who helped the minister reach his decision were Peter White, Assistant Secretary, and Zoë Clarke,  Character Assessments and War Crimes Screening Branch.

Barbara Bennett

July 25, 2007

Barbara Bennett
Under the guise of an “information campaign” about its industrial relations laws, the Commonwealth government is running television and print advertisements which feature a public servant, Barbara Bennett, who has previously been engaged in clipping the entitlements of injured workers to compensation for their injuries. (See also the second link in the update below.)

As the Sydney Morning Herald reports (referring to the tv ad):

The advertisement begins by saying there are a lot of myths about workplace relations. Ms Bennett then appears and says: “The biggest myth is that employees are alone and unprotected and that’s just not true.” She goes on to speak on the role of the authority while footage depicts her and other officials carrying out their duties. It is believed to be the first time a public servant has appeared in a television commercial promoting government policies.

As that story and other stories (including in The Australian) relate, Julia Gillard has denounced the advertisements as “an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money and an “arrogant abuse” of the public service for a political campaign.” Ms Gillard says that the advertisements “might breach public service guidelines requiring bureaucrats to be apolitical.”

Ms Gillard is careful not to criticise Ms Bennett personally for the advertisements, preferring to lay the blame on the government and to question whether Ms Bennett had a choice in taking part in them. Personally, I think that is too kind to Ms Bennett, and I’m not alone.

I suspect that Ms Gillard may also have views which go beyond those which she has expressed on the record. It will be interesting to see what happens to Ms Bennett if there is a change of government at the next election.

Update:There is more on Barbara Bennett in various editions of the SMH this week, including:

Comcare boss changed evidence to Senate; and

Sworn to secrecy to save us from confusion.

As Matthew Moore comments in the second of those stories, referring to the assurances that Ms Bennett offers in the advertisement, “Bennett’s assurances are worth checking.”

,

Company company in trouble

July 25, 2007

Kookaburra, the producer of Company has got into trouble.  The company does not employ any understudies.  Last week, when one of the actors, who plays one Robert/Bobby’s girlfriends, fell ill (the term of art is “indisposed”), the show went on omitting the scenes crucially involving that actress without any announcement.  The whole show ran about 20 minutes short.

Apart from the short-changing of the audience, this was also also contrary to the terms on which Kookaburra was licenced to perform the work. It was an infringement of the right of the authors to have the show performed without unauthorized cuts and to be experienced by the audience and judged accordingly.

The decision to go ahead with the performance with these cuts was made by Peter Cousens, founder and managing director of Kookaburra, despite opposition from Gale Edwards, the director, and of cast members. It seems that fear of disappointing Alan Jones, who is a “benefactor” to the company and was due to attend the performance that night, may have played a Jonestown-type role. The Sydney Morning Herald has run a welter of stories about it and, to make things even worse, someone in the company has dobbed Cousens in to Stephen Sondheim. Despite the Australianism of the word, I find that deeply un-Australian.

Cousens, who initially denied ordering that the performance go ahead with the cuts, defended his decision on the ground that most of the audience would still rather see the show than not at all. Were it not for the authors’ rights (and, it must be said, the failure to make any announcement to give individual ticket-holders the choice), there is much to be said for this. Kookaburra is a not-for-profit company, and the economics of this production are pretty tight: there was only a three-week rehearsal period, and the run is not very long. Ticket prices have been kept low in comparison to the price-gouging engaged in by profit-seeking blockbusters like The Producers and Priscilla: the cheapest seats were $28 and most were $65 and $75, which is very reasonable for a show with a cast of 14 and an orchestra of (I think) 8 in a theatre with a capacity of about 800.

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision not to have understudies.  This is just a matter of risk assessment and expense. In some respects, it is a more honest approach than that taken in the blockbuster musicals, where understudies are routinely substituted for the headlining stars in mid-week performances with little if any advertisement.  However, if you don’t have understudies, you need to be prepared to cancel the performance if illness strikes, as happened the night I tried to get to see Keating, the Musical, and not to put too much pressure on artists to “soldier on.”

Cousens and Kookaburra have apologized. The price of their infraction is that they have been obliged to mount an additional, charity benefit performance, although I presume the artists will still be being paid. Given that Kookaburra itself is a quasi-charity, this seems a high price for them to pay.

A sad case

July 21, 2007

Yesterday, judgment was published in MacKinnon v Bluescope Steel Limited (Formerly known as BHP Steel (AIS) Pty Ltd) [2007] NSWSC 774

The judgment commences:

1 This is a sad case; it concerns a medical practitioner who, at the height of his career nearly eleven years ago, exhibited florid symptoms of mental illness. He has since been unable to pursue his profession and that situation seems unlikely to change.

2 At the time, he was employed by the First Defendant, then called BHP Steel (AIS) Pty Ltd but now called Bluescope Steel Limited. …For some years he received payments under the Workers Compensation Act but in this action sues BHP for damages at common law, claiming breaches of its duty of care towards him.

3 At the hearing, which commenced on 22 May last year, the Plaintiff was represented by Mr G Miller QC with Ms L McFee and (from 13 June) Ms E Beilby. On 13 June it was announced that Mr Miller’s instructions had been withdrawn. Subsequently, on 26 June, Mr H Marshall SC announced that he appeared as senior counsel for the Plaintiff.

4 Throughout the hearing, BHP was represented by Mr M Joseph SC with Ms V Heath. Two cross defendants, were joined as such by BHP. Draft One Communications Pty Ltd, for whom Mr P. Blacket SC appeared, and McKenzie & Associates Pty Ltd for whom Mr A Colefax SC and Mr P. Gow appeared.

5 The hearing occupied some 89 days of evidence and there were in all 196 exhibits. Subsequently, counsel provided many hundreds of pages of written submissions which were supplemented by oral submissions in the week commencing 16 April 2007. I reserved judgment shortly before 4pm on Friday 20 April.

The judgment does not really expose the details of all the claims and cross-claims, but in extreme summary form, in 1996, Dr McKinnon, then aged 35 and a doctor employed by BHP (now called Bluescope Steel), attended a residential leadership course run for employees of BHP. The course was a fairly intense experience. At some stage during the course, McKinnon suffered something which in lay terms might be described as a nervous breakdown, from which he has never recovered. The case concerned whether BHP, or possibly the people who ran the course breached some duty towards Dr McKinnon and so caused this breakdown so that they should be required to compensate him for the consequences.

The amount at stake was substantial. The lost earning capacity for the rest of his working life of a doctor aged 35 is a considerable amount of money. Altogether there were 93 hearing days: 89 in which evidence was heard and a further 4 days for closing submissions.

You can do the maths as to the costs. The plaintiff and each of the three defendants or cross-defendants who took part were represented by senior counsel (let’s be conservative: $5K per day) and two parties also had junior counsel (again, conservatively, $3K per day). They were being instructed by solicitors (say, 1.5 solicitors on average per party per day at $3K per day). Just calculating on the basis of hearing days alone, that gives, per day:

Senior Counsel – $20K
Junior Counsel – $6K
Solicitors – $18K

That’s $44K per day x 93 hearing days: all up, $4.092 million.

The true figure must be more than that.  On hearing days the lawyers are likely to have worked longer hours (and hence been more expensive than I have allowed for) and as a rule of thumb you can assume that for each day of hearing there will have been at least another day of preparation, pretty much across the board.

And then there was the expense of running the court itself, not to mention the fees to be paid to the numerous expert witnesses.

Dr McKinnon lost.  With so much riding on the costs alone (the judge has not yet ruled on these), there will surely be an appeal because an appeal will be cheap by comparison.  I predict we will hear more about this case.

Postscript 2016: There was a successful appeal by Dr McKinnon. A fresh trial was ordered, though in the course of the appeal concessions were made by Bluescope/BHP which the Court of Appeal seemed to think would have shortened any retrial somewhat. I’m unaware of a retrial taking place.  That probably means that the matter eventually settled.

The slightly-too-loud commuter

July 21, 2007

On Thursday night I took the train home.  I was in the end compartment of the carriage, where the seats are against the walls and facing in, with two other passengers.  In one corner, opposite me, sat a man reading the Daily Telegraph.  To my left, in one of the end corners, sat a young woman (mid-to-late late 20s, I guess) engaged in a long and fairly detailed conversation with a female friend.  It was difficult to ignore: I didn’t bother to take out anything to read, and I doubt if the man opposite was making much progress with the Tele.

The conversation (or at least, our end of it) went something like this:

Did he treat you well? He treated me well…he gave me nice presents…I liked the way he looked after himself. I like a bit of a metrosexual…I just can’t understand…if he was so angry, why didn’t he?….[and much more of the same]….

I’m OK. I have my flat. I go to see my family. They just say “get over it, get over it”

At this point, I caught the eye of my neighbour opposite, and rolled my eyes and my head to the rhythm of “get over it, get over it.” He cracked up and immediately had to hoist his newspaper to conceal this from our companion, even though she was oblivious to our reactions. It was almost time for me to get off, but for the next minute or so he and I kept exchanging grins and glances as the woman on the phone went on and on. Once outside the carriage, I was free to exchange one more and less discreet grin as the train moved off. I guess you had to be there, but it was very funny and also one of those nice moments of bonding with a total stranger.

On Friday morning, D and I took the bus into town from Annandale. Also waiting at the bus stop was Craig Reucassel of The Chaser, with a kid I assume to have been his son, aged about 3.

After the usual double-take, D and I studiously ignored them whilst a woman who came a little later to the bus stop engaged the smaller Reucassel in the usual “aren’t you sweet” small talk.   D (who, for those who came in late, comes from China) observed to me “That’s Australia. He’s famous. Why can’t he take a taxi?”

The bus was crowded, and more by the accident of having got on at the same stop than any design, I eventually found myself sitting next to Mr Reucassel, who was sitting at the window with his son on his lap.

D, who had remained standing, got off the bus and turned to wave at me from the street. Reucassel fils, accustomed by his age and cuteness to friendly greetings from strangers and unaware that D’s wave was aimed at me sitting in the same line of sight just behind him, waved back at D. His father and I exchanged a little chuckle at that.

The title of this post is thus my tribute to my small brush with fame.

“Freedom”‘s just another word for nothing left to lose

July 21, 2007

It now appears that reports of Hao Wu’s “freedom” were exaggerated.

Company

July 17, 2007

Company

Last Wednesday D and I went to Company with MX.

It was at the Theatre Royal.  Amazingly, I have only been there twice, first in 1978 for the first Sydney season of The Club and secondly in 1984, to see Nicholas Nickleby.  That’s because the theatre’s usual fare, of musicals and commercial touring shows, is not my cup of tea – though I regret not having seen Titanic late last year, which closed early.

I went because I have recently acquired a taste for Sondheim: last year I saw Side by Side by Sondheim, which was basically a medley of his best songs to an extremely thin dramatic pretext, at the Seymour Centre; earlier this year I enjoyed Opera Australia’s Sweeney Todd more than I expected to.

To quote Wikipedia on Company:

Originally entitled Threes, its plot revolves around Bobby (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship, let alone marriage), the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Unlike most book musicals, which follow a clearly delineated plot, Company is a concept musical comprised of short vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, linked by a celebration for Bobby’s 35th birthday.

Company was among the first musicals to deal with adult problems through its music. As Sondheim put it, “they are middle-class people with middle class-problems.” It is also one of the first musicals where the songs commented on the characters in the play instead of furthering the plot, a device which became a Sondheim standard.

These days, notwithstanding Jane Austen’s “truth usually acknowledged,” it is more likely that a single 35-year-old man is likely to be thought to be gay than merely in want of a wife.  Company was the Broadway hit of 1970.  The book and (I think) some lyrics were updated for a revival in the 1990s.  As a result, it is difficult to historically “place” the show’s treatment of this issue.  The three girlfriends seem to forestall that particular line of inquiry in relation to Bobby, but because the show is about marriage and male-female relations, it is a question that is touched upon.

In the first act, to quote again from Wikipedia, Robert visits his friends, Peter and Susan,

on their apartment terrace they can sort of almost see the East River from. They seem like a perfect couple, apart from her frequent fainting spells. He’s Ivy League, she’s a southern belle, and they love each other very much. Robert innocently flirts with Susan, telling Peter that if they ever break up, he wants to be the first to know. Well, they reply, he’s the first to know. They’re getting divorced.

In the second act:

Robert takes another girlfriend, Marta this time, to visit Peter and Susan’s terrace. They’ve gotten their divorce. Peter flew to Mexico to get it, and it was so nice there he phoned Susan and she joined him there for a vacation. They’re still living together. They have too many responsibilities to actually split up, and their relationship has actually been strengthened by their divorce. Susan takes Marta inside to make lunch, and Peter asks Robert if he’s ever had a homosexual experience. They both admit they have. Robert asks Peter if he’s gay, which he denies, but Peter questions if mankind wouldn’t prefer to just “ball it” if it weren’t for social norms and wonders if he and Robert could ever have something. Robert, clearly uncomfortable, laughs the conversation off as a joke as the women return.

In his review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bryce Hallet criticises this scene:

There is a fleeting moment in the love-crazy puzzle when Bobby confesses to having had a homosexual experience. He quickly laughs it off as though such a revelation hardly matters. The scene is more comical than convincing, and a little jarring.

I’m not sure that the scene is comical, but I agree it is not entirely convincing and also rather jarring. My interpretation of the scene (oh dear, here we go again, speculating about fictional characters!) is that Peter is the one who is gay, and that the phenomenom the script is ever so lightly touching on is the position of married men, circa 1970, discovering they are gay.  Along the way, homosexuality is seen as a field of freedom and lack of commitment – two aspects which AIDS and the current embourgeoising enthusiasm for gay marriage have historically overwritten.

Throughout the show, I did find it odd that there we were (a gay couple and a woman friend) watching a story about male-female relations and a straight third man.  MX, who is a few years older than I, is a confirmed single woman.  After the show she was complaining about social prejudices in favour of marriage.  As we dropped MX off on our way home, she thanked me for arranging it all.  I only just bit my lip in time (although probably not in time for her not to notice) to stop myself making some light remark about how of course it was easier for me to arrange because there were already two of us.  Instead I mumbled something about working close to the theatre and the box office (it’s a Ticketek show, so that’s pretty lame). 

The funny thing is, the remark I suppressed was not even true.  I am quite happy to arrange to go to a concert or an opera on my own, if need be: it was small talk which brought out the socially conventional.

The show was good, apart from the prevalence of string synth sounds in the economically small orchestra and some problems with the sound mix and approach to amplification, particularly in ensemble numbers.  There’s quite a lot of food for thought, and some great songs.  I’m really warming to Sondheim.

Haneef: it’s not what he did, it’s who he knew

July 16, 2007

Dr Haneef‘s visa has been cancelled, with the consequence that, although granted bail, he apparently needs to be detained, under section 501(3) of the Migration Act – a provision to which natural justice expressly does not apply.

(3) The Minister may:

(a) refuse to grant a visa to a person; or

(b) cancel a visa that has been granted to a person;

if:

(c) the Minister reasonably suspects that the person does not pass the character test; and

(d) the Minister is satisfied that the refusal or cancellation is in the national interest.

A person does not pass the “character test” if:

“the person has or has had an association with someone else, or with a group or organisation, whom the Minister reasonably suspects has been or is involved in criminal conduct.”

Dr Haneef no longer has a visa.  He is now a “criminal justice visitor” (believe it or not).  It appears that the Attorney-General (or, as Mr Andrews said, the AFP) will issue a “criminal justice certificate” (actually a “criminal justice stay certificate”). This means (combined with his bail conditions) that he must stay (he also cannot be removed [from Australia] though it is not quite clear to me whether that means he couldn’t leave), and, because he doesn’t have a visa (actually, he could apply to the minister for a criminal justice visa), he must be detained because you are only a lawful non-citizen if you have a visa, you are an unlawful non-citizen if you don’t have a visa (actually, if you are a non-citizen who is not a lawful non-citizen), and unlawful non citizens must be detained.

Eisteddfodau

July 15, 2007

This is one of those weird plurals from another language, in this case Welsh.

The whole concept of musical competitions is a fraught one, partly because it is a little discomforting to confront the reality that although the moment of musical performance is not (unlike sport) itself a competition, in terms of getting work and attracting audiences, music is competitive, and brutally so.

As a child pianist, I had my own experiences of Eisteddfodau.  I still have my first trophy, won at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod when I was 12, though this proved to be rather a flash in the pan and I did not keep on competing in the followng years.  I changed in year 10 to a teacher who was something of a tiger of the eisteddfod circuit, and in year 11 I must have done almost every eisteddfod in Sydney.  We were her team, often all turning up together in her car, and were usually pretty successful.

Sometimes there were some internal upsets.  I particularly remember when, at the Warringah Eisteddfod, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue I beat her then prize student, K, who played the Shostakovich “Youth” Concerto. K had already played this with some success with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the state final of the piano division of the ABC’s then Instrumental and Vocal Competition.  The adjudicator at Warringah was John Champ, a pianist and ABC radio personality of minor renown.  My teacher sniffed something about how I had won because Mr Champ wore his jacket over his shoulders.  Even at the time I thought that very unprofessional of her.

Last night, at the instigation of a friend who was one of the adjudicators, I returned to the City of Sydney Eisteddfod, now known as the McDonalds Performing Arts Challenge, for the finals of the John Allison City of Sydney Piano Scholarship.

Some things about the Eisteddfod haven’t changed: it is still run almost entirely by volunteers, who prepared the refreshments which were served after the conclusion of the final. The session was also almost unbearably long (2 hours without an interval). The audience was made up of parents and family members, teachers, hard-core eisteddfod supporters and pianistas. Afterwards, there was some gossiping about one young pianist whose personal problems had apparently prevented her from fronting even for the preliminary round.

John Allison, who some years ago donated the capital whose income accounted for half of the $10,000 and who clearly does not confine his support for the eisteddfod to turning up at the final of this scholarship, gave a rather good speech at the end. The high point of this (for me) was a slightly recherché joke about attending the modern dance finals with Gough Whitlam (who was also there on the night with Margaret) the punch line of which referred to John’s (and by implication, Gough’s) appreciation and enjoyment of “all the wonderful bodies writhing about on the floor, and then there were the women.”

The standard has definitely risen. Each of the four finalists (all on this occasion male; three from Queensland; aged from 16 to 23) played formidably difficult pieces: Brahms’ Paganini Variations (both books); Schumann’s Études symphoniques; Chopin’s Sonata No 3; Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The winner, Jason Gillham, who played the Chopin with a glorious sound and at a level that I would be prepared to pay reasonable money to go and hear, has previously been a finalist in the Sydney International Piano Competition. At least 2 of the others show every sign of being able to reach a similar standard. But where will any of them find an audience or a career, other than, eventually, joining the terrible pyramid-marketing scheme of teaching further young pianists themselves?