Archive for July, 2010

An American Streak

July 29, 2010

I am having a bit of an American streak, culturally speaking.

On Tuesday, I went again to see La Fanciulla del West. The excuse was an old friend up from Canberra for the week.

It didn’t bewitch me quite so much the second time around, though I could certainly go again, were money no object, to lap up the beautiful song and chorus in the first act about missing home.

The last act is set in a forest. There is a kind of conversation pit downstage right. This time when the curtain came up, there was a blazing fire in it. Neither D nor I could recall seeing it on our first attendance, though I’ve heard it was definitely there on opening night. What a trainspotter that makes me, or alternately, a hopeless observer. Even on the second occasion I went, I didn’t notice when the fire was extinguished. I suppose it must have been by the time of Minnie’s arrival to claim her man.

On Wednesday, D, my sister and nephew (visiting from WA) and I went to West Side Story at the Lyric Theatre. D judged it by the movie, so had to make some adjustments. I judged it more by my recollections of playing in the orchestra for a neighbouring girls school’s all-girl-cast performance when I was in about year 10. The main thing which I had not really absorbed at the time was how young the Jets and Sharks are meant to be. I guess I thought of them as young adults (and older than I) when I first encountered the work. My perspective has changed.

The alternative might have been to take my nephew to see “Wicked.” He would probably have enjoyed that more: he’s only 9 (or nearly 10).

It’s an honest production, subject to a budget sized orchestra and the usual evils of amplification, which had a deleterious effect on the style in which the part of Tony was sung. It seems we just don’t do Broadway tenors like that any more.

The streak continues. On Saturday, I go to hear David Robertson conduct the SSO in a concert entitled “Best of Bernstein.” So it’s a Bernstein streak as well.

Tale of two cities

July 25, 2010

On Friday night I listened “blind” to the broadcast by the MSO from the Melbourne Town Hall of Britten’s “War Requiem.” That is, I came in just as it started and only found out who it was at the end. I can’t say that I listened to all of it with equal concentration – I had a bath and did a few other pottery things of varying incompatibility with devoting my full attention to it.

The performance was billed as the MSO’s third only of the work and the first since 1974 (it seems the first was in 1968) which is surprising. I wonder how often the SSO has done it – more I think, though some Sydney performances were probably under the auspices of the choir responsible or even the AYO, as may well have been the case in Melbourne. It was also presented as the inaugural concert for the MSO’s move to the Melbourne Town Hall for the duration of renovations to their usual principal venue, the Hamer Hall.

An international cast (in the proper sense, inter se, and not merely “non-Australian”) had been assembled, mimicking the plans for the first performance, with one significant substitution: the Japanese principal guest conductor, Tadaaki Otaka, for Oleg Caetani, the former chief conductor, who it seems to me could have claimed any one of a range of world-war-participant nationalities.

I really appreciate that you can hear a live (or recorded live) concert from Australia 6 nights per week on ABC Classic FM. Live concert recordings are special, and a distinctive contribution that radio stations can make – so much else is mere disc-jockeying.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but that’s what live performances are about. I’m not sure that the recording technicians have quite got the hang of the Melbourne Town Hall yet, though the forces involved for this work probably presented particular challenges. The juxtaposition of the ethereal (and intended to be distant) boys’ voices with the contending tenor and baritone facing off death, came off all wrong because the men’s voices were still mixed up loud to match the full orchestra. This was one case where the distant element needed to be brought forward in the recording.

The work itself, received by me in my youth as the epitome of earnest, eloquent and ethical music, now seems to me just a little melodramatic, and even its ethical component (the pacifism) seems about as bold as, today, expressing an admiration for, say, Nelson Mandela. If I’d been there, or even given it less divided attention at home, I doubt if I would have felt the melodrama, and indeed by the end I was drawn into it and the occasion.

In the wake of the concerns du jour, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the thought that those ethereal treble moments (and indeed Britten’s entire oeuvre for the treble voice) would today be liable to be led as Exhibit A: grooming behaviour. That highly reductionist notion is a thought for another day – to be addressed along with Wagner’s antisemitism, perhaps…

On Saturday afternoon, I listened (subject to hanging out the washing, etc etc) to two thirds of a program which I heard in the 6.30 series last year of the SSO conducted by Richard Gill. If anything, the radiophonic realisation of the SOH acoustic is an improvement on what you can actually hear from any spot in the hall (mostly a question of clarity or rather its lack) but the acoustic which comes across, subject to this refinement and the usual balance tweaks, is recognizably how it sounds when you are there.

Life goes on

July 20, 2010

It’s striking what a well-known artist and a popular program can do to the attendances at the SSO’s “International Pianist” series of recitals.

Last night, for Garrick Ohlsson playing an all-Chopin program, the hall was packed to the rafters -well, the girders – comfortably full in all three levels. It’s a good feeling even if it ups the number of coughers and sweetie-paper rustlers.

The couple next to me said that they had come to see if Mr Ohlsson’s playing would have the same effect as an LP by him of Chopin polonaises which they swore had broken a glass at their home many years ago. That’s what a long track-record as an performing artist can do for you.

The SSO now wipes from its record programs past [well almost wipes: removes from access, see comment 2 below] and my machine is not co-operating in copying from the PDF of the printed program, and I can’t be bothered typing it out.

For my money, Mr Ohlsson took a while to warm up. The Ballade in A flat (third piece) seemed oddly slow at the beginning for Allegretto and then inexplicably sped up a notch just when the composer had done all the work by a composed-in quasi-accelerando by moving to semiquaver figuration. Ohlsson’s characterisation of each little section seemed to break up the continuity. Things really got going for me two items later when he reached a set of three mazurkas, partly because (I now think) the characterisation of shorter sections paid off better for these pieces. I felt as though we were in some little log cabin surrounded by Polish snow. – Hang on! Maybe I was still thinking of Minnie’s log cabin just down the road from the Polack saloon from Saturday night. After that, the Scherzo in C sharp minor was a sure-fire first half closer and crowd pleaser.

The second half (Barcarolle, another Mazurka and then the sonata in B minor) continued the good form. Lx, my former high-school drama teacher, thought the Barcarolle was the best performance he had ever heard. I didn’t have the same feeling, but Lx has in my experience a fine discriminatory sense for that sort of evaluation, so it’s an opinion worth recording. Three encores were a the Grand Waltz Brilliante (Op 18 No 1) with stylishly delayed second beat in some sections (and I loved the pedalling in the acciaccatura bits), then the C sharp minor waltz and finally etude. This started a bit gracelessly but with a dazzling display of chops (metaphorical: it’s surely wind players only who have these) at the end.

Another inconvenience was that Simon Tedeschi and Kevin Hunt’s head-to-head comparison of the Stuart and Steinway pianos at the Conservatorium (7pm; admission by gold coin donation until the Verbrugghen hall was full, they said) had to be missed. I’m not sure if I would have gone anyway, but that seems like spectacularly bad scheduling.

People talk occasionally about teh Gays at the opera, and there is a big crowd of a certain type of gay man at the Australian Brandenberg Orchestra, but in my observation the piano series is one event which brings out every (well obviously not literally every) delicate youth who once (and possibly still) plays the piano. There is something rather charming about seeing all those baby gays, as well as the older. Maybe that’s my place in the world, too (though as a baby no more). Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a case of any numerical preponderance: as with all minorities, the presence of even a small number creates an observable effect. I think it’s rather sweet.

I continue to find 7 pm performances very inconvenient. I hate going straight from work and it really requires a train trip in and home. Fortunately, on this occasion Rx, who lives just up the road, was determined to take a taxi home, and I went along for the ride. About half an hour after I came in the door, I said to D “The concert was really very good.” D laughed. I nearly always say that. And he nearly always laughs.

Another chance at the last-chance saloon

July 18, 2010

Tonight with D to Opera Australia’s La Fanciulla del West.

This is the first time I have seen this opera. I don’t know when it was last done in Sydney but not, I think, in my active opera-going years.

I guess it just gets crowded out by the more well-known Puccinis (say, Tosca, La Boheme, Madam Butterfly, Turandot, Manon Lescaut and even Il Trittico and (in a concert performance only) La Rondine in my experience. It is charming, if a bit mawkish. Musically, it doesn’t pack quite the punch of the more famous ones, but there are definitely moments. I was absolutely seduced by the melancholy song sung by the “camp minstrel” as the men all thought of their loved ones left behind. This is a miners’ wild west rather than a settlers’ one – the only Indians are peaceful and hoping to get married the new-fangled way.

Minnie is the eponymous “Girl of the Golden West” – the only [white] woman at a miners’ camp, where she is loved and respected by all – she even runs a kind of Sunday school (text from psalm 51). As somebody else has tweeted, this provides one of the key lines of the libretto: there is no one who cannot be saved (or words to that effect).

Minnie falls for a bandit, who has come, disguised as “Dick Johnson,” to rob the miners of all of their gold. This has been entrusted to Minnie for safe keeping at the Polka Saloon when the sheriff and a posse of miners have gone out to hunt the bandit down. “Dick Johnson” falls for Minnie and doesn’t take the gold. Is he a reformed man?

Though loved by all, Minnie has never been kissed. She has repelled the (fairly repellent: he is John Wegner) advances of the sheriff. He still has a wife back home, though he says he was not missed when he walked out on her. Minnie says she is saving herself for the one lifelong true love. She gives her first kiss to Dick Johnson when he comes later to see her at her little house on the prairie (so to speak).

Minnie hides Johnson when a party come looking for him but tells him to leave when she discovers he is indeed the bandit (and he has another lover). After he leaves, he is shot by the sheriff and she gives him refuge. This is the next key line: “You can’t die; you are the first man I have kissed.”

The sheriff returns and detects Johnson’s presence (blood dripping from the roof where he is hiding). Minnie challenges the sheriff to a game of poker (if she loses he can have Johnson and her) which she wins by cheating. Oddly, the sheriff honours the deal (a surprise because it’s an untwisting of Tosca and Scarpia).

Johnson is nevertheless apprehended and is to be strung up. Minnie bursts in armed and demands justice. This is the third key moment in the opera, because justice is not simply punishment for Dick, but also something owed to Minnie (mercy for Dick) on account of how much she has done for all of the men at the camp. (Remember, they all love and respect her.) Of course, he still has to leave town, and they head off into a technicolour sunset. THE END.

This is an unusual opera and different in one vital respect from the more famous Puccini operas. First, aside from Minnie and her native indian servant, the characters are all men. And nobody dies.

D probably experienced it the best way. Not having read the synopsis, he was convinced at the second interval that Minnie and Dick would both end up dead (remember: Tosca). When it all ended happily, he was moved to tears of relief.

The production has been billed as a bit of a spaghetti western. Diana Simmonds’ write up gives an accurate summary of its principal aspects. I especially liked the ingenious fusion of back-projected and leaf-blower-projected snow flakes (the latter coming in through the door of the little house), and the way in which, when back projected in faint and contrasty black and white at certain points of the action, Minnie and Dick looked just like silent movie hero and heroine.

Opera Australia made a bit of a thing of inviting a posse of twitterers on free tickets. I haven’t followed up the fruits of this, though it was evident from the state of the house that they didn’t suffer any shortage of seats to give away (they were offering up to 9 double tickets). If it continues so empty, I shall certainly endeavour to see it again. I was utterly beguiled. Which is not to say that the first act, amidst the sentimentality, did not also set up the Western premiss of a near-Hobbesian state of nature – lonely men, far from home, desperate for gold and jealously guarding it in a lawless territory. Minnie’s beauty and kindness are the men’s relief from hardship, and so the impetus for the reward her love is granted.

Carlo Barricelli as Dick Johnson came across better than he did in Cavaradossi in Tosca. D said “He’s got a big voice but he’s not all that good a singer.” D is a harsh judge – he expects perfection. It may partly be that, not knowing the work so well as Tosca, singerly shortfalls didn’t trouble me,. though even I noticed a few hairy moments, particularly his final vocal pas-de-deux with Minnie.

John Wegner possibly over-used his repertoire of villanous baritronics: the backward and upward tilt of the head and roll of the eyes to show the whites; the lecherous slouch. I’m not sure if the sheriff really needs to be as bad as that.

It’s really Minnie’s show. Anke Anke Höppner acquitted herself well in a role of her own at last, even if this was owing to the indisposition/incapacity of Lisa Gasteen and despite a short-sleeved outfit when receiving Dick at her little house which, what with the snow and the Ansel Adams-ish mountainous backdrop, made me chilly just to watch her. It remains a bit of a mystery to me why Opera Australia has for some time only seemed to use her as a high-quality cover.

Orchestral playing was lush under Arvo Vollmer (it helps that I sit very close) with Debussyish sinews of paired oboes and other wind instruments reminiscing Pelleas & M. I always like Barry Ryan (Sonora, a miner). In his baritone mode he seems to be working up a type of rather grave gent.

I haven’t dared tell D that we missed A Little Night Music a couple of weeks earlier owing to a terrible oversight on my part (I spent the night at home boning up on Die Walkure). This last happened to me with the MTC Cherry Orchard for which, in a burst of sophistication, I had bought myself and my elder sister tickets at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown in 1973. It’s never a nice feeling. I thought of getting back on the horse this time and buying fresh tickets (there was still time) but in light of the lukewarm reception (at best) from others I decided it might be more a question of rolling another cheese down the hill, and let it pass.

So this evening marked the resumption for me of the Opera’s 2010 Sydney season. It was good to have them back.

Sir Charles Mackerras

July 15, 2010

Has died, aged 84.

Blog somnolence

July 12, 2010

Has descended upon me, despite my rather long-winded outburst about Justice Palmer and Jim Byrnes last week.

I have been to some concerts, which I didn’t blog about. D and I saw a Uruguayan gay film in the Spanish Film Festival at the now sadly closed (but parking had become a difficulty) Academy Twin: we sat behind the Uruguayan consul and his family. I saw some other films in the German and Sydney film festivals. I haven’t blogged about these.

On the June long weekend D and I drove to Dungog, Gloucester Tops, Stroud (a terrible night in the pub in a room above the bar and, when the bar closed, next to the compressor) then home down the Putty Road from Singleton. Strolling into the bush just off the Putty Road on the eastern fringe of the Wollemi National Park we met an old friend (before that, a long-ago student) Db driving out with his wife and children after a camping weekend. Total coincidence! Well, I’ve blogged about that, now, but only just.

Stretching at the gym (and I haven’t blogged about that) I sustained an annoying nerve injury in my lower back which disabled my right calf, plunged my foot into pins and needles and weakened my ankle reflex. Things seem to be returning to normal on that front.

There have been other things happening in my life, but mostly pretty quotidian: nothing to trouble the world or even my few actual readers about.

Last week I finally held in my hand 2 sets of tickets to see the Ring Cycle in Shanghai in September. That’s twice through with just one night off in the middle between the cycles. I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning this as a reason why a matter could not be set down for trial in the first half of September, including that I was seeing it twice. “Well, your ears will be ringing” the judge wittily replied. I’ve started some preparatory listening and score and libretto reading to make sure I am up to speed for then, particularly as I am not sure whether there will be English as well as Chinese captions/surtitles.

Papers referred 3

July 9, 2010

I’ve written before under this title about cases where judges get a whiff of something irregular. The driest judges just decide the controversy according the strict but minimum of law and don’t concern themselves about iniquities disclosed on either side. On other occasions, as I have explained before, judges can refer the papers to appropriate authorities for further investigation.

Whether they do seems (to me) to depend on how moralistic they are, though it can also be affected by how pompous, quick to jump to conclusions and vindictive they are once their prejudices are confirmed. (And yes, I’m thinking of one judicial officer in particular but no, even writing pseudonymously I won’t identify him.)

I would describe Justice Palmer as a judicial moralist. This is a difficult thing to pin down, and in some ways more a matter of flavour than anything more specific, but you can see it sometimes in arguments he is receptive to or not. I put it down to his Catholicism, but hell, Tony Abbott’s a Catholic of sorts and we don’t suspect the same of him. It must really just be who Justice Palmer is.

In Modena Imports Pty Ltd (in liq), In the matter of: Leveraged Capital Pty Ltd (R&M app) (in liq) v Modena Imports Pty Ltd (in liq) [2010] NSWSC 739 (what a lengthy title!) his Honour was faced with an application to bring the liquidation of a company to an end and to put it into administration under a deed of company arrangement (DOCA).

Described as simply as possible, what this means is that instead of leaving a company to be wound up by the liquidator, an administrator is appointed and (usually) somebody tips in a fund to be shared out amongst all the creditors of the company or certain classes of creditors (often related party creditors are treated differently from true external creditors). The creditors vote on the scheme and you are bound by that as a creditor even if you opposed it. That means that your only chance to be paid is according to the terms of the DOCA. You don’t get paid a proportionate share of whatever assets the company has divided out amongst all creditors after the liquidator’s expenses have been paid, as you would in a liquidation, and once the company limps to its feet you can’t come back and claim repayment of your old debt.

This is a strategy favoured by directors of companies which they want to keep alive and immune from the investigation that a liquidator might make about the company’s affairs. It usually happens because creditors can be persuaded to take a bird in the hand (the fund offered under the deed) rather than the bird in the bush of their prospects of recovery after a long and drawn-out liquidation, especially in cases where the company otherwise looks so hopeless or its affairs are so obscure that the prospect of any return from a dividend in the winding up seems remote. Although the liquidator doesn’t vote on the proposal, the attitude of the liquidator is also relevant because the liquidator must provide a report to the court and the liquidator will, as a practical matter, need to be paid something for his or her fees and expenses. Sometimes there can be something in the DOCA for the liquidator as well and hell, something is often better than nothing. Whilst an ethical liquidator should not lie to the court, it can be easy to persuade a liquidator whose costs are being met but might not be met otherwise to consent to the application or at least not oppose it. Where things get more tricky are what relatively brief assessment the liquidator gives of the affairs of the company and what has happened during the liquidation.

It is also a strategy open to abuse, since the directors (rather like Alan Bond when he was bankrupt) can make things difficult for the creditors and the liquidator, and then offer to cut a deal which is attractive precisely because of the directors’ success in concealing or covering things up or otherwise making the liquidation an unattractive prospect. And any situation which depends on votes of creditors is always vulnerable to rigging of voting in favour of creditors (genuine or not, arms length or friendly) who may well be insiders to the whole deal.

Probably because of that, it is a strategy which requires approval by the court. It was an application of this sort that came before Justice Palmer in this case. As he says at the beginning of his judgment:

1 This is an application under s 482 Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) for the termination of the liquidation of Modena Imports Pty Ltd (in liq), conditional upon the implementation of a Deed of Company Arrangement (DOCA) which has been approved by creditors. The DOCA is funded by a company called Australian Corporate Restructuring Services Pty Ltd (ACRS).

2 ACRS is, in truth, a front for Mr James Warren Byrnes. Mr Byrnes has a notorious reputation as a stand-over man and associate of major criminals. In an inquest in 2008 into the murder of one Max Gibson, the coroner described Mr Byrnes, a named “person of interest” in the inquest, as “untruthful” and “manipulative”, who had been “caught lying to the Court on more than one occasion”.

3 This is not a trial of Mr Byrnes. I do not have to determine whether or not Mr Byrnes’ reputation is deserved. I merely state the fact that Mr Byrnes has a reputation of which no judge in this State could be unaware.

4 Awareness of that reputation led me to enquire more closely into this application. It was, at first, presented to the Court as a bland, run of the mill application, not opposed by the liquidator or ASIC and having nothing remarkable about it so that it should be granted almost as a matter of course. As soon as I detected the involvement of Mr Byrnes, I determined that I could not treat the application in that way.

Jim Byrnes’s greatest moment of fame was probably when he was engaged as Alan Bond’s “bankruptcy advisor” in the early 1990s. But he had a reputation even then. Suffice to say that the association was not one which did Alan Bond any credit, to the extent that he still had any by then. As Palmer J goes on to relate, Byrnes is presently disqualified from acting as a director and has been disqualified before. He has been named by the coroner (admittedly, it was the slightly ott J Milledge) as a person of interest in an inquest in relation to the death of a person accused of the arson of a house which he was purchasing (he subsequently beat down

A director of the company, Peter Trad, was cross-examined by counsel appearing for ASIC (the generally rather toothless corporate watchdog). Numerous questionable aspects of the conduct of the company’s affairs and the involvement of Mr Byrnes came to light.

The court did not approve the application. The proposed scheme involved Mr Byrnes’s company putting up a fund of $50,000 to pay out the liquidator and the creditors receiving nothing, but it emerged that he was funding this by selling two Maseratis which had been given to him with backdated and apparently undervalued invoices which had the effect of concealing their disposal from the liquidator and cast some doubt over the genuineness of the transactions at all.

It’s a ripper of a read, though I think it might have been better for his Honour to have toned down his opening character assassination of Byrnes and just got on with the concrete reasons which were unearthed once his suspicions were aroused. Still, as Byrnes isn’t a party, it will be difficult for him to appeal it, and the more so because the judicial discretion is broad and there was ample evidence to support his Honour’s attitude.

Here are the last few paras:

52 In short, Mr Trad has failed to persuade me that the true nature and extent of Modena’s creditors have been fully disclosed. He has failed to show how the company can trade solvently. He has failed to provide any adequate explanation for the failure by the company’s directors to ensure that the company’s financial records were properly maintained. He has failed to explain how Modena could lawfully and properly assume liability for debts which had nothing to do with its own trading activities. He has failed to explain why those debts should now be extinguished by the DOCA, for no consideration or dividend.
53 Finally, I am satisfied that it would be contrary to the interests of creditors and an affront to commercial morality for Modena’s liquidation to be terminated and a DOCA given effect in accordance with a scheme devised by Mr Byrnes whereby he is to receive the benefit of assets of Modena to the value of $500,000, if not more, while Mr Hall [the liquidator] is out of pocket for his remuneration and expenses, and the creditors of Modena receive nothing. If Modena has assets worth $500,000, they should be realised for the benefit of the company’s creditors and to enable Mr Hall to investigate fully the company’s affairs. I place no weight on the fact that those creditors who attended the creditors’ meeting on 23 March 2010 voted in favour of the DOCA. Those creditors comprised Mr Byrnes himself and four others for whom he was proxy, including ACRS.
54 I conclude that it would be contrary to the public interest to enable Modena to be released into the marketplace to conduct its affairs under the control of Mr Trad and, probably, under the control of his brother Carl, both of whom are prepared to engage in dishonest practices such as the transaction with Mr Papas and the falsifying of evidence of sale of Modena’s assets to Mr Byrnes.
55 The application is dismissed. I will hear the parties as to any costs order which may be sought by ASIC and Mr Hall.

I like the bit about “affront to commercial morality” because funnily enough that is the one kind of morality which is sacred to all equity judges, even though, if you think about it, the risks of judges dabbling aren’t so different from the risks of their dabbling in other morality (in the sense of non-legal or extra-legal values). His Honour didn’t actually refer the papers. Given that ASIC and the liquidator were there and they are probably the people who should take any next step he probably didn’t need to. All the same, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for any ill-consequences to catch up with Mr Byrnes.