Archive for February, 2010

Good living

February 28, 2010

My blogging rate is right down. Is the craze subsiding? Here, for at least journalistic (ie, as in a diary) reasons are some recent events in my life.

I saw Opera Australia’s Manon twice (and the last two acts one more time from the foyer after the Mahler 1). I went the second time (I did post about the first) to defend the production against its detractors, but in fact I ended up realising that, so far as the production was concerned, I largely concurred with most of what Peter McCallum had said. It was the music I loved. In my experience, most productions directed by Stuart Maunder are a bit boring, and Manon ultimately confirmed this.

At the Enmore Theatre I saw The Dirty Three supported by the Laughing Clowns. This was part of the Festival of Sydney. It was a bit left of my usual concert-going field, but I did enjoy it. The Dirty Three is a kind of rock equivalent of a piano trio – drums, guitar and violin. The focus of the performance is the violinist, who cuts the most extraordinary figure as he plays, back to the audience, facing the drummer with whom he spends most of his time interacting, though in fact the guitarist, who stands rather out of the limelight at the side of the stage, is also essential if less conspicuously so. They played for over an hour and a half but it didn’t feel long at all.

I went to the SSO’s Mahler 1 and Mahler 8 concerts on consecutive Saturdays. It’s great to hear Mahler 8 but I’m with Wanderer in taking more home from the Mahler 1 concert than the Mahler 8. Perhaps it is my fault for not preparing enough for the Mahler 8 (my turntable is out of action), but there is simply so much going on in that work that it is almost impossible to absorb it all, and I was too self-conscious of feeling “omg, I’m hearing the Mahler 8!” to be able really to take it in. Of the soloists, I liked Simon O’Neill the most, though it was hard to take him seriously, even in a concert work, as “Dr Marianus” when at every turn I was reminded of his insouciantly swaggering Sergei in last year’s Lady Macbeth of Mstensk

Lured by a personal connection, I went to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble playing at the Delmar Gallery at Trinity Grammar in Summer Hill. The occasion was an apparently annual concert in connexion with a touring show of entries to the Blake Prize for Religious Art. There were readings of Blake poems.

This was an odd event. The Delmar Gallery is a fundamentally unsuitable venue for any acoustic performances unless the weather is sufficiently temperate to do without its extremely noisy air conditioning. If the exhibition is anything to go by, religious art is, in this day and age, as problematic term as military music or, to borrow a riff from Shirley Hazzard in A Transit of Venus, Bankers Trust.

I’ve also been to see 6 films at Queerscreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Attendances seemed down this year, though this may in part be because I avoid the crowd pleasers which are generally films about rent boys or porn stars. I shall try to post separately about this festival.

Finally, I’m not much of a diner out, but I have been to two restaurants recently which are a cut above my usual fare.

The Friday before last, a former colleague, PG, visiting from Brisbane with K, his new-to-me boyfriend of a year, suggested we meet for dinner at East Sydney’s Universal Restaurant. PG is a bit of a reader of lifestyle magazines of a certain up-market type. When I first met him, just a decade ago, it was Wallpaper*, but apparently that is now quite passé. That’s a long way round of trying to explain why PG had more definite and more glamorous ideas than I as to where we should dine in Sydney, even though I am the one who lives here.

When, running late after rushing home for a shower and fresh clothes after a long day in Manly Local Court, I told him that I had left my wallet and money at the office, he gaily announced that dinner would be his treat.

The restaurant’s concept is that you should have about 3 approximately entree-sized courses, as well as (should you choose) pre-dinner drinks and dessert and coffee. At about $25-27 per course and with commensurate liquor prices, this turned out to be a more generous gesture on his part than he had realised when he first made it.

The remarkable aspect of the evening was the leisurely pace at which the food was served: we had booked for 8.30; I got there at about 8.45; the third course cannot have been served until after 11 and it was almost midnight before we were finished. As I’m a late diner anyway, this didn’t concern me, though I think PG and K, who are earlier risers and had Sydney bars to check out afterwards, might have wished things to move along a little more briskly.

I should add in fairness to the restaurant that we were the very last to leave, and that this leisurely service was apparently out of consideration to us or respect for the concept of the restaurant rather than because of any kitchen tardiness. Indeed, maybe it was my fault: I talked too much. I had had such a triumph at Manly , and my opposing counsel [small world] was even known to PG from the distant city where PG and I had worked together almost a decade ago.

The Friday just passed [past?], I went to Azuma, in the Chifley Centre in town, for my very old friend Mk’s fiftieth birthday. Once again, this was a glimpse of a life I do not really lead – a private room, and conversation which included references to an apartment (rented, though annually) in Italy, rare wines (including one procured from the up-market wine shop in Ultimo by selling another rare wine to them which they sought for another customer), going to “the farm” and (and hence the choice of restaurant) skiing in Japan.

Judging at least by the restaurant, this sort of thing is a taste I could definitely acquire, were it not that I could just about get a B-reserve seat at the opera for about the same amount (I don’t know for sure because although we covered the birthday boy between us I suspect the person who collected from us understated the true tariff). It is vulgar of me to be concerned about such matters, I know.

The picture at the head of this post is of one of the courses on the degustation menu which we had. The picture at the foot is of the sweets.

Reading the fine print

February 28, 2010

A week or so ago, cycling home on a muggy afternoon, I pulled into a liquor shop.

In the display fridge I spotted this handsome and at the time beaded with just a little condensation and hence all the more inviting can:

What a marvellous design! What a great chunk of aluminium! You have to hand it to those Japanese. What an excellent brand!

I wanted to taste that Japanese beer.

I bought it.

I had neglected to read the back of the can:

Who would have thought it? Sapporo Imported Premium Beer, Japan’s oldest brand, is in fact imported to Australia from Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

With the benefit of hindsight (and this is an important qualification) I probably should have thought it. A brand is just that: it is just a label. It’s not as if I have ever succumbed to the mystique of other international brands – LV, D&G, Prada etc. In principle, at least, I’m only interested in the brand when it is likely to carry some incidental guarantee (or track record to my knowledge and hence indication of reliability) of the physical quality of the good being sold or the likely reliability of the service provided and likelihood of recourse in the event of any shortcoming (as, for example: if you buy it from a big name store, they are more likely to give a refund if requested without demur). After all, if a brand is worth money to its owner, it must be in part because it enables the owner to sell something for more than it would otherwise be worth.

But it’s easy to slip up.

I can’t say if the beer tasted any different because it came from Canada rather than Japan. I just don’t know. It was sweeter and more malty than I anticipated (I was probably thinking of Asahi Super Dry, though I have now seen claims that this beer comes to Australia from Indonesia). But it definitely wasn’t cheap. I would not have bought it at all had I known I was just buying a Japanese brand beer and chunk of aluminium all the way from Ontario, Canada. I admit that’s partly a matter of an entirely irrational “idea of the beer,” but it’s also a question of what sorts of beers generally find favour in North America and whether that was the sort of beer I craved at the top of the Annandale rise on a sticky ride home.

I definitely think this particular invocation of the brand was misleading and deceptive. It certainly deceived me.

Così 4

February 17, 2010

On Saturday, en route to the SSO’s Mahler 1, I received an sms from my OA-insider friend, Ry: Così fan tutte was to be broadcast on Sunday on ABC1 at 2.30pm.

I have yet to enter the digital TV age so I had missed the live broadcast last year on ABC2.

I watched on Sunday and enjoyed it, though as I texted back to Ry, “What kind of a loser am i watching school for lovers on my own on valentine’s day?”

It probably helped that I knew the production well: thanks to Ry, I saw it three times (well, two times thanks to him and one time on my own account).

The TV version cuts down the Japanese wedding thang and the back projections of the live footage from the wedding video maker. We were given some video feed as the main broadcast image just very occasionally, but it wasn’t really the same effect and was pretty inexplicable because there was so little of the wedding mise-en-scène.

I thought it was pretty ungracious of them to devote the overture to credits – why not some live orchestra footage? The only saving grace of this was that in the video-over we see the original Japanese groom, who apparently broke contract on pretty much the eve of the broadcast. He was more handsome, charming and slim than his replacement, though presumably not suffficiently paid to induce him to stay when he got another offer [in lawyer talk, this is embraced or decried as part of the theory of efficient breach].

Otherwise, the TV presentation (Ry said the sound was better than on the original live broadcast) captures pretty well the strengths and also weaknesses of the performance and concept. Some of the orchestral playing comes through as rougher than it seemed live, and I was reminded of a recurrent intermittently unsatisfactory state of affairs in the cello section which I noticed again recently in Manon.

This production received a much less favourable review from Michael Shmith in the Age [“Not one of Opera Australia’s greatest nights.”] than it did from Peter McCallum in the SMH [“Opera Australia’s Mozart productions have been mixed in recent years, and this one deserves to endure.”].

Some of this is a question of a difference of approach (they do stand on their critical dignity in Melbourne, even if the sub-editor can’t spell the title of the work correctly). There is also an ongoing resentment in Melbourne over the demise of the old Opera Victoria and its “takeover” (actually: taking over the business only and paying its debts) by the then Australian Opera, now Opera Australia. Opera Australia never seems to get an easy run there these days, which is a bit of a vicious circle. Shmith wasn’t keen on Cuneo’s conducting in Melbourne, which going on his work last year in the Magic Flute is understandable.

However, I’m prepared to guess that a big reason for the less favourable reception in Melbourne is that they didn’t have Rachelle Durkin and Shane Lowrencev as Fiordiligi and Guglielmo. The video reminded me what a good job they did. Inevitably, this is a reflection on Hye Seoung Kwon and Luke Gabbedy, who took their places, but RD’s and SL’s shoes would have been big ones to step into.

For the next 10 days it’s on the ABC’s iview thing. You can see and hear for yourself if you have 3 hours or so to spare.

I’m not sure that I would have found it particularly riveting television if I hadn’t already seen the production and been able to treat the broadcast as a reminiscence. The main problem would probably have been, not so much ironically as predictably, also its main strength: that contempo-opera-in-English approach. That’s what makes some of the acting so direct and genuinely funny, but it definitely chops up the vocal lines and hence musical “beauty” something terrible.

All the same, Tim Mortimer’s tweet: “fat bogans in tracksuits singing cosi in english on ABC1” seems both harsh and superficial, even if the latter can be accounted for by the medium and its formal constraints.

What I did in the Holidays, or Estivation 2

February 2, 2010

My sister, YY, came (from afar) to stay with me about a week before Christmas. I stopped work in honour of this.

We spent the week about Xmas in Canberra with the older generation, then some time back in Sydney together including a trip up the Putty Road to spend two nights and the new year with a not-so-often seen cousin with whom we nevertheless get along very well. We spent a memorable day floating down the Colo on lilos and other inflatable objects. On other days YY and I went together to Wylie’s Baths (Coogee) – depending on the weather – or she visited very old friends. YY then spent a bit more time in Canberra (river swims a feature both times) after which we spent another week together in Sydney in like fashion whilst she gradually got caught up in the professional commitments which had paid for the ticket which brought her home, culminating in a flurry of travel and finishing on Australia day.

Inspired by the Schumann bicentenary, I assayed a little Schumann on the pianoforte. Thomasina has invoked two things which, in music, lead to madness. The original last movement of Schumann’s Piano Sonata Op 22 is arguably another and must at least be a straw in the wind. The 16-year-old Clara told him it was too hard and he wrote another.

In a momentary lull in hertravel frenzy, YY came with me to see Opera Australia’s Manon.

Absence truly can make the heart grow fonder (I would not go so far as to account this an absolute rule). Rather as [or as I fondly imagine] my cat’s displays of affection are refreshed whenever I return from a time away, I feel my being purring with delight at the return of the opera after an absence. It’s always a pleasant surprise.

The usually mild-in-reproof Peter McCallum in the SMH doesn’t appear to have been of the same view , concluding (after an opening reference to “a proficient although not stellar cast”) that
“one was left at the end wondering if it shouldn’t be quietly allowed to fall off the repertoire to make space for more works of our time.”

Whew! And that’s not all.

I found the music utterly beguiling and I am a bit alarmed at the realisation that this might easily be thought of as a dismissive evaluation.

The last opera YY saw was Hansel & Gretel with me in 1992 so it’s been a while. Before that, “some Wagner” (she can’t remember which) when she was a teenager put her right off the form. She said she enjoyed the Massenet but she’s still not prepared to risk another Wagner.

YY and I did exchange drop-jawed gulps of mock horror/astonishment at a couple of the more melodramatic diminished-chord moments.

Australia Day is a traditional marker for the end of summer in the work sense. I had gone into work to gnaw at one particularly intractable problem before that, and managed to keep my resolve of a return to work for one day after Australia Day before YY and I travelled together for another short visit to Canberra, then to stay at another old friend’s new place down the South Coast. YY lives so far away that I must count my remaining time with her as significantly finite. This is called life work balance. I hope I will be able to afford it.

Another factor in the plan was that I was invited to a birthday party in Berry. I left YY with the old friend and set off. It’s very scenic down there.

There was no such address in Berry: the party was actually at Bexley.

YY’ s time with her old friend was cut short a little. We got to the party very late but not too late. Everybody was very amused.

Now YY is on the plane home. It will be cold where she is going.

Summer ends now. [This is a facile allusion rather than an endorsement of any theological sentiments.]