Archive for October, 2007

Jobs 10

October 29, 2007

Law Teacher

After 2-3 years as a solicitor, I had an early mid-life crisis and went back to university (again!) to study something totally different.  This was Quixotic but probably emotionally necessary at the time.

To support myself, I obtained part time work teaching law at various universities.  In my time I taught at Sydney, UNSW, UWS and UTS, though mostly at Sydney.

Most of this was casual teaching, either as a tutor (correct term: Associate Lecturer) or lecturer.  It wasn’t that difficult to obtain such work at the time.  Law schools were expanding, but they were doing this on the back of a lot of casual teachers, and it has always been easier to obtain university teaching posts in professional faculties where there are other real and paying jobs out there to be had for the adept.

The subject I taught the most was Contracts.  This was relatively easy, especially as, when I taught it at Sydney at least, I was teaching almost exactly the same course as I had relatively recently studied myself.  Contracts is a relatively “black-letter” subject, though not perhaps as black-letter as students like to think it is or they are usually led to expect.  “Black-letter,” for the unitiated, is a term which is used to describe law or ways of teaching law which concentrate on it as a body of positive rules, as opposed to approaches which concentrate, for example, on the merit or otherwise of those rules, or their effect in actual operation, or a whole range of other possibilities.

The other substantive subject I taught was Equity.  This was much harder, or at least was so for me.  I won’t even try to encapsulate here what Equity as a subject is about.  It is sometimes said that whereas law (such as contracts) has rules, Equity (almost always with the capital “E” because it is not the same as “equity” as commonly understood, notwithstanding the maxim: “Equity is equity”) has principles.  I have now come to the view that, whilst you need to learn Equity at law school, it is not really a subject which can be taught because it requires a lot of experience and (for hard cases, at least) an up-to-the-minute acquaintance with prevailing judicial temperament.

I also taught more than my share of legal foundations/introductory jurisprudence courses.  Mostly, and especially when taught before students had any acquaintance with any body of substantive law, these were in my opinion a bit of a waste of time other than as a process of legal acculturation.  Jurisprudence, like youth, is wasted on the young.

In all this time, the biggest joke to me was the respect I would receive when people learnt I was teaching at a university.  The job didn’t feel like that at all.  The one thing I was acutely conscious of was how hard it was for me, as a part-time and indeed casual teacher, to match the expertise of salaried teachers who were paid much more (even allowing for their commitment to research) and who had the comparative luxury of researching in and teaching the same syllabus (marginally adjusted) for year after year.

Compared to school teaching, discipline was no longer an issue and one had the luxury of teaching relatively capable students.  Even so, there was a noticeable difference as a group between UWS students (selected from the top 10% or so of school leavers) and Sydney and UNSW students (selected from the top 1% or so).

Four years later, I returned to practice as a solicitor.  I almost landed a permanent teaching job at this time, but one of the members of the selection committee had been one of my teachers at College of Law a few years previously.  As a sometime teacher, I had noticed that the class was transfixed by a terrible pizza-grease stain on his trousers – boredom and the general structure of College of Law had this infantilizing effect on us.  When he became aware that something was wrong and asked what it was, I told him.  It just goes to show you should never be too careful whom you offend: I was told that the selection committee had been evenly divided and I harbour a strong suspicion that, even if not consciously remembered, this slight swung the balance against me.

Once I was back in the profession, I soon found I had neither the time nor the energy (nor, financially, the incentive) to undertake part-time teaching work, and my teaching career shortly after came to an end.   

Gay Marriage

October 28, 2007

Jim Belshaw has touched on this issue in a recent post.

He sees the “gay marriage” issue as one where “symbolism interferes with real discussion,” much in the same way (in his opinion) as the recent brouhaha over issuing penalty notices for a whole range of minor offences which has led our beloved Daily Telegraph and its kind to accuse the state government of being “soft on crime.”

First, it is far from apparent to me that the issuing of penalty notices for minor offences will lead to any softness on crime.  For example, when a system of penalty notices for cultivation and possession of marijuana was introduced in South Australia, my recollection is that the number of recorded infringements actually went up rather than down.  That is, once the police can start issuing penalty notices, they issue them to more people because it is easier to do, and people will probably not contest them for the same reason.  So the effect may well be, in at least some areas, that a whole range of offences which were simply too trivial to be worth prosecuting and hence mostly went unpunished unless committed by somebody against the police had some other reason for taking action will now be punished. 

My own view is that we can expect to see the police throwing their weight around and issuing notices for a whole range of minor street offences committed by the usual suspects.  In due course, when the fines aren’t paid, this will then mature into a secondary crop of unlicensed drivers, because that is the way the state chooses to enforce fine collection these days, even if the cause of the fine has nothing to do with your driving record.  Too bad for you, incidentally, if such a driver’s insurance is void because of this when your car is damaged in an accident and that driver is the one at fault, even if (to be realistic) you probably shouldn’t count on many such drivers being insured for third party property damage at all.

Still, Jim’s argument, as I take it, is that the “Laura Norder” bunch, who want to see the full panoply of criminal punishment visited on minor offenders, are allowing their enthusiasm for the symbolism of such punishment to cloud their view of what is really an efficient solution to the allocation of policing resources.  If they could look past the symbolism, they ought to realise that they will get better value from police if the police are out and about policing rather than dealing with the paperwork and court appearances for relatively minor charges.

But back to “gay marriage.”  Jim writes:

I grew up in a period when homosexuality was both a moral sin and a crime. I am very glad that we have a more tolerant attitude now. I support civil unions that will give same sex couples the same legal rights.

So far so good.  He continues: 

 I do not support gay marriage.

Jim is a careful writer.  I do not read this as meaning that he opposes gay marriage, merely that he does not support it.

Civil unions give gays rights without hurting anyone else. With the exception of a few bigots, I think that most people would accept a properly argued case for civil unions.

Now, I agree with the first sentence.  I’m not so sure about the second, and the fate of the recent attempt in the ACT to enact civil unions is what immediately springs to mind.  What was not properly argued about that case?  And what is the importance of “proper argument” anyway?  And finally, what does what “most people would accept” have to do with a question of equality of legal and (just to be tendentious, though it amounts to nothing more) human rights?

Well, of course, quite a lot actually, and certainly quite a lot when it comes to questions of strategy and tactics.  I think that Jim is wearing his “philosopher-king” (or benevolent mandarin) hat here. As a wise and just ruler for a day (notionally) his assumption of an essentially political position is not something I hold against him personally, even though I think he is wrong, and probably because of his instinctive conservatism.

Jim’s position is not so different from that which was adopted until very recently by the GLBT Rights Lobby.  The strategy was that first priority should be given to obtaining equality for gay and lesbian (etc) relationships with de facto relationships.  This has almost entirely been achieved at the state level.  Such equality however, would not be complete equality, because heterosexuals in de facto relationships would always have the choice of becoming married de jure.  Accordingly, so the theory went, the next step would be to agitate for some means whereby, like heterosexuals, gay and lesbian (etc) couples could take some formal juridical step which would confer on them presumptive status as a couple, just as marriage does for heterosexuals.  In time, as people grew accustomed to this, such “civil union” could and probably would become assimilated to marriage.

This softly softly catchee monkey approach has stalled.  It has stalled at the federal level with the intransigence of the Howard government which despite former political promises now insists that it can only consider the rights of people in gay etc relationships at the same time as a whole raft of other amorphous (but sexually innocuous) interdependent relationships.  Along the way, the Commonwealth has thrown up a few other roadblocks, such as the statutory entrenchment of the traditional common-law definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and foreshadowed bars, so far as it is within the Commonwealth’s power, to gay or lesbian adoption. The lowest point of this was Ruddock’s rejection of the ACT civil union, because (although I take it that it would pass Jim’s test of conferring the status of marriage in all-but name) it looked too much like marriage.

The problem is that the religious right have seen civil union as the stalking horse which, aspirationally at least, it is.  It is not just the name of marriage which they object to conferring on non-heterosexuals, although that is not to deny the considerable power which they hope to derive from preserving the heterosexist monopoly on it.  Every slight to the equal rights of gay and lesbian etc people is another legitimisation of the thousand playground taunts and hidden shames and guilt.

To return to Jim’s post, surely gay marriages, just like civil unions, give gays lesbians etc rights without hurting anybody else.  A man and a woman will not be any the less married if some men are married to men and some women are married to women (which funnily enough, has already happened where one partner has subsequently changed sex).  OK: that “surely” betrays that I anticipate resistance here.  As Jim puts it:

Marriage is a different issue. Marriage is a religious sacrament with strong traditional meanings in a number of faiths. Those who try to take the word marriage and apply it in a way that is anathema to many cause hurt and resistance.

 Of all the possible arguments, the reference to marriage as a sacrament seems to me to be about the weakest: marriage was a latecomer to the canonical sacraments, only really being established as such in parts of the Western church in the 16th century.  It seems a tall order for the state to shut gays and lesbians out of marriage because it is an institution which is necessary to teach the faithful about the relationship between Christ and the church – which in itself suggests a view of the institution which is somewhat at odds with modern marriage.  And sacramental views of marriage must vary broadly across religions.

I expect Jim isn’t so concerned about sacraments per se – after all, there are plenty of other sacraments on which the state takes no fixed position: his point seems to be that marriage is a widely distributed cultural institution which has attracted deeply held feelings.  And these feelings will be hurt if men are allowed to marry men and women are allowed to marry women.

And this is where my temporizing “surely” comes into play.  I do not accept that the state should pander to such “hurt.”  It’s the sort of hurt which is in truth only offence, and is not harm.  It is just an extension of the widely held hurt about people being gay or lesbian (or whatever) at all, or being in relationships based on this.  Our legal system and our state have got over this, so far as sexual activity is concerned, and in the end they need to take the same step for relationships of the same ilk. And to bring religion into it only exacerbates my view.

Jim concludes:

So using the word “marriage” detracts from the immediate real issue, the resolution of existing legal inequities.

It will follow from the above that I don’t agree with him.  Why should gay or lesbian people who wish to enter legally into a formal exclusive (to other formal exclusive relationships at least) and life-long (subject to the Family Court) relationship be confined to a kind of Clayton’s marriage?  The word “marriage” is symbolic but it is not emptily symbolic.  That’s why I support gay marriage, even though, God knows, I’m not in any great hurry to marry myself.

Of course I would also be happy if some steps were taken to resolve existing legal inequities, and providing a means for people to formalize their relationships by means of a civil union would, in the present circumstances, be an enormous and progressive step.  But the time has passed when we can pretend it will be the end of the road.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 3

October 27, 2007

Tonight for the third and last time this year to Angel Place to hear the TSO.  The program was:

Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 2 (actually his first) and
Mendelssohn: “Reformation” Symphony No 5 (actually his second).

The house was better than Friday, though still healthily leavened with comps and relatives.  A friend claimed he could spot the Poles, who had presumably turned out for the Chopin.

Ewa Kupiec played the Chopin competently, though without quite the hairpin crescendo sparkle at the top of decorative figures which I think can add the necessary elan to Chopin: this is a hard thing to reduce to words, but I could have done with a bit more of Chopin’s Roman nose.  I thought her choice of encore (Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks”) rather odd.

I enjoyed the Reformation Symphony.  It gets better after the first movement, though my favour for the Scottish was not dislodged. 

Afterwards (drinks and light refreshments were served) I buttonholed Mr Lang-Lessing (the conductor) and gave him a (polite, I hope) earbashing, particularly about the publicity for the concerts.  As one of the few people to go to all three concerts, I felt qualified to do this, and he didn’t appear to resent it.  Mr Lang-Lessing commented that the Sydney Symphony had not been helpful, and I can well believe that.  This is one of the downsides of the dismantling of Symphony Australia and the corporatisation of the individual orchestras – that now (even though the TSO is only here for three nights) they jealously guard their own turf. 

I also mentioned my reservations about next year’s drive to the lowest common denominator with a surfeit of Mozart (which I presume to have been marketing-driven).  Mr Lang-Lessing let slip that he had wanted to do Schubert, which would indeed have been much more consistent with the orchestra’s presentation of itself as an early Romantic orchestra, and also the logical place to go after last year’s Schumann/Beethoven and this year’s Mendelssohn/Chopin. 

I am keen for the TSO to keep coming to Sydney.  In the Australian classical music scene, the different states might as well be continents apart, for all the artistic interchange which occurs between them, and some relief from orchestral monoculture is surely welcome.  However, I am seriously concerned that, unless they can make a better fist of it, the TSO will not be able to maintain their present loss-leading streak.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 2

October 26, 2007

Tonight again to hear the TSO.  The house was a bit better than last night, and I got the feeling that there were more genuine paying concertgoers, but my earlier comments still stand.  And this time I heard the whole program.

The program was:

MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides (Overture)
CHOPIN Allegro de Concert
CHOPIN Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No.4, Italian

The two Chopin works were played by Ewa Kupiec.  The first is a rarity and probably justly so.  The Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise was pleasant enough, but I will save any critical appreciation until I hear the 2nd concerto tomorrow night.

I have enjoyed and admire the orchestra’s and Lang-Lessing’s approach to Mendelssohn.  It is clear that they have done a lot of work in approaching the style and it has paid off.  The overwhelming impression you get is just how well Mendelssohn structured his works: he really was a supremely ingenious craftsman.  If I found the Scottish symphony last night more heart-warming than the Italian tonight, I think that is because the brilliance of the Italian is familiar and expected, though the orchestra certainly gave a sizzling account.   

After the concert, I chatted briefly with the pianist Philip Shovk.  He asked after my elder sister, who was at the Conservatorium High School with him.  He is possibly the only person in Sydney whom I would meet (apart from old family friends) who remembers her from that time, or remembers that she used to dabble in the visual arts.  Whilst in year 12 at the Con High, she illustrated a piano beginners book by Warren Thomson and Miriam Hyde which I still see in music shops (or at least saw relatively recently) , and for which she received absolutely no monetary payment, but merely a copy of the Oxford Companion to Music. 

That’s one of those funny things about life: that we lodge in the memories of others as we were at the time, and that others can often remember things we ourselves have forgotten or moved on from.  At least I was able to disabuse Philip of any preconception that my sister might have settled down with kids: although she has to an extent now settled down, her life remains pretty bohemian and decidedly childless and she works as a musician in London – any settling down involves the inevitable supplementation of playing gigs with an increasing amount of teaching work – this is part of the life cycle of the musician.

Oddly, whilst I was speaking to Philip, Ross Cameron, former member for Parramatta, rushed up to say hullo.  We were colleagues many years ago, though not in circumstances where he could have thought I would ever be particularly happy ever to see him again.  You have to admire some people’s nerve.

Tomorrow night I shall go for drinks with the orchestra after the concert: I was invited by one of the double bassists at interval tonight at smokers’ corner who recognized me as having come for a second night in a row.  So now I am a groupie! 

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney

October 26, 2007


Tonight I only read my ticket on the way to the concert, which turned out to have begun at 7.00 pm, which was after I left home.  Angel Place management love to go home early, and they had obviously persuaded the TSO that 7.00 pm was a normal concert time.  I hate 7 pm concerts, because it is a difficult time to get into the city and an impossible time to park and doesn’t leave time for the indispensible afternoon nap.  Anyway, that’s my mistake and my loss.

So I missed Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture. I only heard the latter half of the Chopin 1st piano concerto from the foyer, in the company of the TSO’s front-of-house manager (who, I notice, left with a date before the second half of the concert – is this poor form or what?).  Never mind though, because Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, which made up the second half, quite restored my good humour, and more.

There was lots to like.  The orchestra played much better under their chief conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, than they had in the Federation Hall in Hobart back in September, and the acoustic was incomparably better.  What I particularly liked was the opportunity that this gave them to play extremely quietly when called for.  Lang-Lessing also did not drop the baton (so to speak) between movements: the spell was held without yielding to the usual tedious coughing and shuffling, and the violins even had a bit of their part photocopied to enable them to go straight into one movement without turning the page.

With so much to like, there is still one thing that I must grumble about, and that is the size of the audience.  You can’t blame the audience for this – after all, they are the ones who have turned up, but you can ask what the management are doing about it.  It was the same when the TSO came to Sydney last year: houses were pitifully small.  So what did they do about it this year?  Well, for the first place, they didn’t sell any tickets in the second gallery at all.  The stalls were two-thirds full, but of those about half were invited representatives of hoped-for corporate sponsors, and I guess a good number of the remainder will have been relatives or people who won some free ticket giveaway on ABC Classic FM.  The first gallery had a scattering only of patrons, mostly (including me) in the cheaper seats. I would be surprised if more than about 150 of the (generous estimate) 600 in the audience were genuine, paying punters.  And with so many empty seats going begging, the cheapest tickets were still about $65. 

This wouldn’t annoy me so much, except that it is such a waste, and because the TSO management are happy to proclaim their Sydney tours as a great success (which they might be, artistically) when, from a management and box-office point of view, they are a total failure.  Clearly the price-points are totally wrong, the publicity is going nowhere, and they could learn a lot from airlines about ways of filling empty seats.  Public money has been spent: if they can’t sell seats, they should be giving them away.

The TSO is coming back to Sydney again in 2008, but I am not convinced that their approach (which is largely Mozart and more Mozart, plus the Mendelssohn piano concerti and violin concerto) will prove any more successful without some more fundamental rethink about these matters.

Perhaps the houses will be better tomorrow night and on Saturday. I shall report here in due course.  Unless things are much better than tonight, you would be fulfilling a public duty even if you turned up at interval and snuck into the second half for free.  This would at least ameliorate the waste of public funds which every empty seat represents.  Providing I don’t miss the first half again, I am prepared to “spot” for anyone who chooses this course of action, even though (regretfully) I doubt if this will require any particular skill or finessing.


October 25, 2007

On Tuesday D and I went to see Opera Australia’s production of Tannhäuser.

We sat next to a delightful older couple whom I last sat next to earlier this year at Alcina: that time they had driven up from Lake Bathurst (just past Goulburn) and would drive home afterwards, but this time they had arranged to stay “in walking distance” on Macquarie Street.   

I saw this production the first time round in 1998. There was a prominent falling-out between the director, Elke Neidhardt, and the conductor, Philippe Auguin, which went so far as writs being issued.

Elke Neidhardt has had a long and interesting career. Much like Carlo Felice Cillario, who seems to have made a career as an export-only Italian and especially in Australia, Neidhardt has been a German in Australia since at least 1966, when she first appeared as Dr. Anna Steiner in Skippy. More recently, she has become an opera director, specialising in productions of the German auteur-Regisseur type: that is, where the Konzcept is the thing. She was the director of the second Adelaide Ring cycle, which most famously featured the Valkyries refreshing themselves at the Wunderbar – a joke which goes back at least to Cole Porter’s Kiss me, Kate (“Something about a bar – Wunderbar [cue music]”).

I heard part of Philippe Auguin’s side of the story at the cast party after Götterdämmerung which he conducted (along with the rest of the Ring) for the Nürnberg Opera at Beijing in 2005. The gist of this was that if you knew, as he did, a number of other productions (and one production in particular) of Tannhäuser, you wouldn’t consider Neidhardt’s approach to be so original at all.  Since I don’t know as Auguin said he knew, I’m not in a position to judge, other than to say (unoriginally) that there are few things new under the sun.

This includes Wagner’s opera. 

If you take the main east-west train which runs through the middle of Germany from Frankfurt to Dresden (or drive on the Autobahn) just after the former Grenze between West Germany and die ehemaliger DDR, you pass through or (in the case of the Autobahn pass by)  Eisenach, birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach.  On the right is the Wartburg, the castle of the Landgraves of Thuringia where St Elisabeth of Hungary lived (and died at the age of 24 in 12 something), Luther sought refuge (improbably disguised as Junker Jorge) to complete his translation of the Bible and there was a bit of “young German” political agitation leading up to 1848. On the left a little further is a hill (actually a number of hills) called the Hörselberg[e], with a cave historically associated with the Venusberg, a grotto where, it is said, the goddess Venus entertained the Minnesinger (a kind of German minstrel), Tannhäuser.

Out of this antithesis between Venusberg and Wartburg, throwing in Tannhäuser, Elisabeth and a host of other historical characters, Wagner stitched together an opera which is sometimes said to be about sacred and profane love.  It is also said to be about quite a lot of other things, including (as quite often with Wagner) wild artists and respectable society, censorious morality and redemption through forgiveness and love.  Quite frankly though, seeing Wagner for the philosophy is much like reading Playboy for the articles, though that doesn’t stop directors from having a go.

In his article in a recent edition of ABC’s Limelight magazine, Robert Gibson comments that  Tannhäuser was a “critical work” in “the groundbreaking function of Wagner’s works for many opera-goers in the 19th century; namely, their capacity to tap into and liberate erotic desire.”  Notwithstanding the opera’s “utterly conventional” moralising, Wagner subverts this himself by, amongst other things, ensuring that “the sinners get the best music in the opera.”  He points out that “No other opera by Wagner received as many performances in the 19th century.”

The problem these days is the first act.  Nothing very much happens.  There is an erotic ballet in the Venusberg, which  Tannhäuser tears himself away from, coming to on a hillside to the strains of pilgrim choruses (though not the pilgrim chorus: that comes later) – this reminds me of the Easter Hymn in Faust.  After an odd pastoral interlude (cf Tristan und Isolde Act III), Tannhäuser encounters his former companions from the Wartburg who have come out on a hunting expedition.  They persuade him to return there where, he is informed, Elisabeth misses him.

You know things are going badly when, in order to indicate decadence, a director has to resort (as Neidhardt did in the Venusberg scene) to a few languidly flourished cigarettes.  Instead, Neidhardt works at the opposite end, satirising the hunting party and (a sure sign of desperation) including a fussily queeny character and bringing on, as the coup de theatre, a group of (real, live, audience murmers and gasps!) dachshunds.

Acts II and III, where more happens, are relatively straightforward.  Even depicting the returning pilgrims as self-satisfied tourists bearing “I [heart] Roma” duty-free shopping bags and proudly displaying their papal indulgences is entirely consistent with Wagner’s argument: the Pope has refused to forgive Tannhäuser  for his trip to the Venusberg and his outburst in the song competition (something rather akin to offering condoms on World Youth Day) and he is only redeemed by the intercession of the saintly Elisabeth.

But back to the Venusberg.  The truth is that our tastes are these days so jaded that it is difficult to provide an erotic scene with sufficient “kick.” 

Or so I had thought. 

Throughout the opera, Venus’s side-kick, Amor, appears: a grotesque over-aged putto with (when not modestly obscured by a loincloth-nappy) a very large strap-on artificial and erect penis (or semi-erect: its angle is a bit horizontal, but then, he is no longer so young).  The next day, I read in The Australian:

Keith Windschuttle, scourge of leftist historians, will campaign against decadence in the arts when he takes over as editor of Quadrant magazine next year.

Consider Wagner’s Tannhauser, that myth of the sacred and profane now on show at the Sydney Opera House. “There’s a guy painted in gold (who) stands there with a giant erection – symbolises lust or something,” Windschuttle said yesterday. “That kind of gratuitous offensiveness is almost everywhere.” 

I guess people who are offended always find it gratuitous, though both the ticket price and the theme of the opera suggest otherwise to me.  Our neighbours did not seem particularly alarmed.  If that’s the best Quadrant can manage, I’m personally pretty relaxed and comfortable.

Four last songs

October 21, 2007

Last night with my friend, P, to the Australia Ensemble at UNSW.  The program was:

Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Divertimenti for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Piano Quintet – 150th anniversary of birth

Thomas ADES (b 1971) Catch, Opus 4, for clarinet, piano, violin and cello

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) arr James Ledger Four Last Songs for soprano
with flute/piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet/b clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and piano

The Frank Bridge had its moments, but was not wildly engrossing. The best bit about the Elgar was the middle movement, which displayed his gift for long long melodic lines. The program notes kept referring to reminiscences of Franck and Brahms, and rather damningly, after the concert I found myself humming not Elgar but the movement from Brahms’s Piano Quintet Op 34 which he was all-too-clearly “reminiscing” in the final movement. Roger Covell’s program note also referred to Elgar’s own idiosyncratic style of playing the piano, and quoted a letter from George Bernard Shaw to Elgar which commented:

“There are some piano embroideries on a pedal point that didn’t sound like anything else in the world, but quite beautiful, and I have my doubts whether any regular shop pianist will produce them: they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself and which struck me the first time I hever heard you larking about with a piano.”

Talk about schmoozing!

I think I know which passages Shaw was referring to, and I thought Ian Munro realised them quite well. Otherwise, my own surmise is that Elgar wasn’t much of a pianist: he wrote hardly anything at all for the instrument, and the writing for the piano in the quintet was for the most part stunningly stodgy.

The Thomas Ades was a striking work, and always interesting: P and I talked about this at interval – what is it that enables some composers of modern works to write interestingly, when others can be a bit boring? Of course, if we knew this, we could bottle it and be geniuses ourselves. It may be nothing in comparison to prodigies such as Schubert, Mendelssohn or Mozart, but by modern standards the Ades was a very creditable piece of work for someone who was only 20 at the time.

The highlight of the evening was the arrangement of of the Strauss Four Last Songs, sung by Yvonne Kenny.  It was a coup for the Australia Ensemble to secure her services. 

If you saw any of that Operatunity program last year on the ABC, you will know that Miss Kenny is very much the diva.  She has gone on record as saying her art required her to remain single (this is Vissi d’arte territory).  I assume it was the wishful thinking of a fan which resulted in my post about Streetcar Named Desire, in which she appeared as Blanche, attracting a hit on the search terms “Yvonne Kenny lesbian.”  God knows, I’ve done plenty of “NN gay” searches myself in my time.  (If Yvonne is a lesbian, she is definitely of the lipstick variety.) 

It is perhaps ungallant of me to observe that Miss Kenny must now be pushing 60 (I have since discovered: “b. 25 Nov 1950″), but aside from one attenuated high B natural, she is still in fine vocal form.  Nevertheless, watching her sing was a reminder of just how defenceless singers are: they have no instrument to hide behind – they are their instrument.  It was also a reminder that nerves never go away: in the first song, she was afflicted by a most alarming tremor in her left arm which seemed like an extension of her vibrato and which even caused P to wonder if YK was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  I very much hope she isn’t.  Though I am not a doctor, I doubt if she is, because it all came under control in the succeeding songs.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear her sing them all.

The arrangement, by James Ledger, was an ingenious reduction of piece originally scored for very large orchestra.  Only one effect seemed misjudged, which was when the pianist was directed to play directly on the strings with timpani mallets: this simply could not be heard.

At the end of the concert, Roger Covell introduced next year’s season.  He spoke very well, but predictably (for the author of the longest and most comprehensive program notes in the world) for too long. 

Roger, too, is not getting any younger: as I watched him speak (and he did flag from time to time), I felt like the proverbial undertaker measuring people up for their coffins, only in my case it was for his obituary (remember, I’d just heard the Four Last Songs, which conclude: “Wie sind wir wandermuede – ist dies etwa der Tod?).  P mentioned to me that when her late mother first knew of Covell, he was the sports editor for the Courier Mail.  He was also an actor in London in the early 50s moving in Australian expatriate circles.  And now he is an Emeritus Professor of Music! 

It may sound carping of me to say, based on Covell’s performances as director of the UNSW Opera, that he was a better organiser than he was a conductor, but actually I don’t want to belittle his organizing skills at all. The things he has organized have nearly all been things which, if he hadn’t organized them, probably wouldn’t have happened at all. 

That includes the Australia Ensemble.  Given UNSW’s recent travails, including the Singapore disaster, one has to wonder if the Ensemble will continue.  At least for one more year it appears it will, and at $176 for 6 concerts (less for concessions), it is a bargain.   

P and I also discussed the recent excitement involving Kim Walker, the dean of the Conservatorium who was stood down, apparently on account of some pretty spectacular plagiarism, but has now been reinstated. 

This is a difficult one: P thinks that Peter McCallum, music critic for the SMH and (I had previously thought but mistakenly: see his comment below) disappointed applicant for KW’s job, is behind all of this, and undoubtedly he has been involved.  P is also inclined to think that P McC is being a bit of a snake in the grass, and that KW has done much good work, even if she is a great self-promoter who is probably unbearable to those who have to suffer in her shadow up close.  On the other hand, Rowena Danziger, former and monstrously masterful headmistress of Ascham, has come out in KW’s support.  P and I both know something about Rowena, and only space and (to a lesser extent) the libel laws prevent me from saying something more about that here.  Suffice to say that if Rowena is for Kim, that inclines me to side against her.

Not that my opinion counts for much.

Jobs 9

October 21, 2007


When I finished my law degree, and after the requisite ordeal at College of Law, I was admitted as a solicitor.  I started work at the big law firm in the sky where I had previously been a summer clerk.

Altogether I worked for about 6 years as a solicitor, first at the big law firm, then, after a break for 4 years, for a small law firm for about a year, and then at the same big law firm again, but this time in another state on a big law case where I was contracted for the duration, though I ultimately went to the bar as the duration became increasingly protracted.  So one way round you could say I was a solicitor (though not always practising) for 10 years all up.

College of Law was a foretaste, not to say a forewarning, of what it would be like to be a solicitor. We sat around in classrooms pretending to buy and sell houses and businesses and to commence and settle personal injury claims and file for divorce, as well as writing pretend cheques and running pretend trust accounts and office accounts.

When non-lawyers think of law, they inevitably think first of criminal law, but most lawyers’ work does not (or should not!) involve crime. Crime aside, you can divide it into compliance work (filing returns with ASIC and the like), transactional work (contracts, conveyances and, in a sense, will drafting) and dispute resolution (at the pointy end, litigation).  A lot of it is about filling in forms.

Even with the most open-formed forms (wince! but I’m momentarily too lazy to negotiate a more elegant expression), the solicitor’s role is to marshall the relevant facts and the client’s instructions into categories which will be recognised appropriately when some subsequent legal mechanism is brought to bear on the contract or  will or statement of claim or whatever. Of course, it is always helpful when you fill in a form to know the rules according to which that form is going to be acted on, and that is where your legal training as a solicitor comes into play, though when you first start practice, the level of legal conceptualisation is not always very high.

Law firms are commercial enterprises.  Enter the bane of the employed solicitor’s life: the time sheet and the billable hour.  I was never good at this.  This was partly a matter of lacking the necessary good habits, but also because, conscious of the enormous hourly rate at which my labour was to be charged out to clients, I was constantly embarrassed at the amount of time it took me to do what I did.  Could it really be worth that much?  You have to get very tough-minded about this if you are going to make your way or a living in the law. 

In a law firm, the organisation is everything.  Letters are written in the first person plural (on behalf of the partners, even if there is only one of them) and signed in the name of the firm – in the big law firm, the office copy of the letter would indicate which partner (by number according to seniority) or senior associate (by initials) had actually signed the letter. 

We were firmly told by a senior partner that letters were to be signed “Yours faithfully” because we were faithfully carrying out the instructions of our client – which is not what the recipient of such a letter might have apprehended.

After rotations through various parts of the big law firm,  I settled into litigating, mostly on behalf of banks and other financial institutions against hapless defaulting borrowers for business loans, who had given security over either their homes or their farms and were facing the forced sale of these.  It was not a particularly gratifying job, though, owning nothing myself, I took a meagre fortification from being, in Julius-Caesar terms, a lean man.  

A high (or low) point of this was one evening when I went to the Henry IX bar at the Hilton Hotel to serve a Creditor’s Petition (the initiating process for sending someone bankrupt) on a man who was playing the squeeze-box in a band there.  This was necessary because he had frustrated all more regular attempts of service by refusing to acknowledge his identity to the process-server, whereas I knew who he was.  He was a stereotypically blarney-charming Irish man, but when I stepped up  to him at the end of a bracket and handed it to him, he went a ghastly grey.  – I wasn’t overcome by any pangs of remorse, because he had ripped quite a lot of people off in his time, but it was still a sobering moment.

On my last day at the end of my first stint in the big firm, a business man who had simply failed to respond at any point to demands for repayment was finally being evicted from his house.  I knew where the house was because it was on my childhood bus route from Gordon station to my home in West Pymble.  I was called to the phone from my farewell morning tea.  It was the private detective/commercial agent, who was in attendance to change the locks whilst the sheriff’s officers enforced the writ.  She put the beleagered debtor on the phone and he sought one final postponement: his elderly mother-in-law was ill, in fact she was in the bathroom right now.  I asked: “So she can walk, can she?”   The eviction went ahead. 

Surprisingly perhaps, that was the only sheriff-enforced eviction which I set in motion, though I do remember that prior to sending the jolly squeeze-box player bankrupt, the sheriffs were sent around in an attempt to execute the judgment against him.  They returned an inventory of the contents of the house, over which, not surprisingly, his wife also asserted a proprietary claim.  The inventory included 5 doonas.  Thenceforth my slogan became Carpe doonem – Seize the doonas!

As a matter of karma, I hope I made up for this when, at the small law firm, I later acted on behalf of the little man (or at least the farmer) against the banks.  If you couldn’t knock a quarter to a third of the debt with a good Contracts Review Act claim, you weren’t really trying, though this really only ever involved stripping out the banks’ profit component of the transaction.

At College of Law I was at first shocked at how long it took for legal cases to come to trial.  I now realise that this is in part because solicitors will typically have many cases to attend to, and there are many pieces of information which need to be assembled and little steps to be taken in each case.  The partner I worked for explained the secret of managing a litigious practice: always put the ball into the other person’s court. 

There is much more I could say about being a solicitor, though there is a limit on the anecdotal detail which I am free to disclose. 

Once, somehow, we (yes, “we”) at the big law firm were retained by some Indian diamond merchants who were embroiled in a dispute over some diamonds they had sent to Australia.  Their correspondence was delightfully old-world, typed on flimsy paper with an ancient typewriter, and on one occasion concluding with the wonderful phrase “Please do the needful and oblige.”  Comfortingly, they weren’t short of the necessaries themselves – they sent us the requested thousands of dollars to pay into trust on account of our anticipated costs twice.

For a brief moment, for complicated reasons to do with lease-back financing and stamp duty or other tax, I was the proud owner of a Tangara railway carriage. I then magnanimously gave it away by making an oral declaration of trust.   I may even now still be the legal owner.  Sometimes, late at night and rattling home with a train full of weary and mostly these days subcontinental office cleaners, I entertain myself with the thought that the carriage is mine before humbly and anonymously returning to my copy of MX magazine.

Jobs 8

October 18, 2007


My work as a musician obviously intersected with my work as a music teacher.  It falls here in my sequence of posts on jobs because of my stint in the production of The Barber of Seville whilst I was studying at the College of Law after I finished my law degree, which I have written about previously.  But what I want to write about here is my last paying gig.

On 12 April 2003 I accompanied the choir of the Malek Fahd school at a dinner of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils which was attended and addressed by Mr Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia.

I got this gig through a former colleague who had become the music teacher at the school. Islamic education does not place a particularly high value on music – along with the visual (or at least representional) arts. It is probably fair to say that music (or at least secular music) is traditionally considered to be one of the sins of the flesh or closely associated with them. The school had to have a music department beause that was a syllabus requirement, and my friend was it. He had established a choir, mostly made up of year 7 and 8 students. (Incidentally, most classes and other activities in the school are run on a gender-separated basis: the choir was one of the few which was mixed.)

Initially, the dinner was to be held on Good Friday in the school hall which doubled as a gym. A grand piano was hired for this (the school only had an electric keyboard). Ultimately the date and venue were changed to the Saturday on the eve of Palm Sunday at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel in Elizabeth Street in the city.

All of this was very hush hush: because the Prime Minister was coming, security was involved, but more importantly, so was politics. Whilst the arrangements for the dinner were being made, Australia was taking part in the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s statue was famously toppled on 9 April 2007. That military adventure had been objected to in the biggest demonstrations in Australia since the Vietnam war, and the spooks who surround the PM feared that his attendance at the dinner would also provoke more of the same. Consequently, the hotel was swarming with plainclothed security agents (you can recognise them by their earpieces and triangular lapel badges) and SWAT-team-type para-militarily clad police (about 50 discreetly hidden in the hotel basement). All of this was the usual self-glorifying overkill: there was no sign of any demonstration as I walked down from my office carrying my music.

Both sides in this encounter had something to prove. AFIC wanted to demonstrate its normality as a part of Australian society in the face of the usual anti-Muslim scares and waves of vilification; the PM wanted to justify himself and reach out to a not insignificant part of the electorate.

The choir’s choice of songs was part of this. These included “Botany Bay,” Click Go the Shears,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “I still call Australia Home” and “I am, you are, we are Australian.” Musically things were a bit scrappy: some of the boys’ voices had broken, and there was a penumbra of semi-pitched vocalisation which wandered up and down in parallel with the tune but without any precise relationship to it. Obviously there was a mix of non-English-speaking backgrounds, and my friend the choir master himself came to Australia from Eastern Europe. In the strophic songs the arrangement of syllables to fit the tune in the later verses was at times idiosyncratic and often diverse.

The kids were very enthusiastic, and not just because of the excitement of the occasion.   The impression of aspiration to dinky-di Aussieness given by the choice of repertoire was sincere: kids are sent to such as school, after all, by their parents, and whatever the sectarian atmosphere of the school, the kids didn’t seem much different from any other kids out Greenacre way.  Not that I go so far west very often myself.

After the songs were sung, the kids filed off the stage.  Mr Howard shook all their hands, as politicians love to do.  I sneaked off the other way to avoid this, but I needn’t have worried: Howard was only interested in sucking up to the kids and didn’t bother with the choirmaster and so presumably would likewise have given me a miss. 

Howard’s speech was classic “fistful of dollars” stuff: he reminded the audience that Islamic schools were great beneficiaries of his government’s generous approach to all private/sectarian education, and that is true: Malek Fahd school receives more than any other private school, at least in NSW (or so I recently read).  Ameer Ali (I think), the president of AFIC, responded with a speech which touched on the then topical foreign affairs matters.  It was a polite speech but a firm one: Islamic people were interested in seeing resolution not just of the Palestinian issue, but also in relation to Kashmir.  (That is of course where David Hicks first went: his then lawyer, Stephen Hopper, was also present at the dinner.)

The best music of the night was a year 7 or 8 boy who chanted from the Koran quite brilliantly, though I expect most who were there thought of it as Koran first and music a long long way second.

That was my last gig, and so the last tax year when I have been able to claim either a tax deduction or a GST input credit for having my piano tuned.

Sir Charles Mackerras – Sydney Symphony Orchestra

October 15, 2007

On Friday night to hear the SSO, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

After a sleepless night on Thursday followed by a torrid day in court I had tried to snatch an hour’s nap at home before going back into town, but I was still too wound-up to sleep. Consequently, I wasn’t in my best listening condition.  This impaired my capacity to respond to the first half, which was the in parts rather sombre Dvořák 7th Symphony. 

After interval and a drink, I perked up for Vltava from Ma Vlast and the Janáček Sinfonietta. I wondered if it was just the drink that did it, but I heard my neighbours (and I doubt that they had a drink) also saying that they enjoyed the second half more – perhaps because the pieces are really party pieces for Mackerras.

The concert was almost full. Despite an explicit request (because a recording was being made) not to applaud between movements, there was still a smattering in the breaks in the Dvořák from (mostly) the cheaper seats.  To be fair, some of these people would have been non-English-speaking visitors – so I suppose I have to take it as a pay-off for the inbuilt subsidy that tourism provides.

As is well-known, Mackerras belongs to one of those amazing families which hold well to one day being identified as members of an Australian intellectual or cultural aristocracy.  In his own generation, quite a lot of this must be put down to the influence of his mother, Catherine, a descendant of Isaac Nathan and Sir Normand MacLaurin (a surgeon, company director and one-time chancellor of Sydney University). Catherine converted to Catholicism in the 1920s. 

I mention the conversion, which is said to have caused something of a rift in the family (Mackerras pere came from more Scottish enlightenment stock) because this seems, at least in part, to have been responsible for the political direction taken by Sir Charles’s younger brothers Neil (google hits refer to his involvement with the DLP, though my recollection is that he was also involved in Aboriginal rights) and Malcolm, the psephologist, who also started on the conservative side of politics. 

Sir Charles’ brother, Alastair, now deceased, was the head of Sydney Grammar (the school run by Catholics for the benefit of Jews and Asians, to trot out an old line), and that school’s undeniable excellence in music owes much to his enthusiasm and support.  There is to me some irony in the fact that Sir Charles suffered a major falling out with Benjamin Britten in the 1950s after some snide remark made by the young (and reputedly rather abrasive, though this may be an English stereotype about brash colonials) Sir Charles about Britten’s enthusiasm for the lads got back to Britten.  Though married briefly around about the time he became headmaster, Alastair was an avuncular character.  Not that I am saying that Alastair shared Britten’s predilections (whatever they were), but he was certainly something of a king of the kids.  Alastair was famous for his habit of handing out chocolate frogs to any boy whose name he could not remember.  As he reputedly had a very good memory, this does not seem to have led to as many pimples as you might expect.

Another brother, Colin, is a sinologist who early in his career published quite a bit on Chinese Opera.