Archive for August, 2010

Life with remorseless forceps beckoning

August 26, 2010

I found myself murmuring this line recently.  For a moment I thought it was a fragment of my own poetic juvenilia. On further consideration, I realised that though a little mawkish and decidedly purple it was far too good for that.  Of course [Ah! Of course!], it comes from Kenneth Slessor’s Sleep – a poem I studied for the HSC, so the juvenile association is not entirely amiss.

I’m conscious my memory is getting worse.  As the water-table of my pianistic competency recedes, I find I can read through Beethoven sonatas, including ones I really learnt quite thoroughly at one time or another (OK, OK: it’s volume 1 on the piano, not the wilder reaches of volume 2), and enjoy them virtually anew, albeit with some fudging of the more demanding technical passages.  And what a wonderful body of work they are! When I read recently of a dementia crisis projected for the future in Australia, it reminded me of the old jokes about the benefits of the condition, though I couldn’t actually remember any of the actual jokes.

Earlier this year, visiting my father, I was affronted on his behalf that my stepmother, who had gone away, had stuck up a number of prominent signs about the house reminding him to turn the hotplate off and shut the fridge door, or somesuch. Not that my father was affronted: he accepted these tokens of care. I told D about this. Recently, D left the country for a few weeks. His flight left in the afternoon and I was unable to see him off. On my return, I found the following stuck up inside the front door (another copy, sans the handwritten “car” was put up in the kitchen):

The plea is justified: a couple of months ago my mobile phone and camera were both stolen from my car in the small hours of the morning when I neglected to lock it: it’s probably as much a question of carelessness as forgetfulness. To decode and explain the remainder, “over” probably means “oven” and quite often I leave the key for the back screen door in the (inside) lock.

Recently, it took me about 24 hours to summon to recollection (eventually, it came all of a sudden, quite unbidden) the word “shibboleth.” I knew the bones of the story: if (when challenged as a sort of password) somebody pronounced the initial consonant the wrong way, they were of the wrong ethnic group, and were slain. I tried googling “old testament” and “slew” but, for fairly obvious reasons, that wasn’t sufficiently discriminating and as it turns out I probably needed to search for other forms of the verb. To save you clicking on the link, here is the relevant passage from Judges 12 (in this case, apparently the New Jerusalem Bible translation):

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

Well, the 42,000 must be an exaggeration, like Methuselah’s 900 years.

All of this is a meander (the real title should probably be just “life”) brought on by dinner with an old friend and former pupil, back in Australia for the European summer. He has had a brilliant career but by now it is not as brilliant as once he hoped. Most of us have been there and almost all will eventually get to that point, because though hopes may be dupes, the possibility that fears are likewise likely to be liars is no proof against disappointment, even if life is really still going quite well, or well enough, all things considered.

And in the long rung run, we are all dead (as has famously been observed).

Time to go to sleep, I guess: I shall counterfeit beneath my counterpane.

What I’m reading right now

August 17, 2010

To be precise, what I have out from the University of Sydney library:

Die Walkure [videorecording] / Richard Wagner. DUE 27-08-10 VR792.542 WAG 28 c.2
The Golden ring [videorecording] : the making of Solti’s Ring / [a BBC music documentary made in coo DUE 27-08-10 VR782.1092 WAG 1
Streichquartette Nr. 1 & 3 [sound recording] / Robert Schumann. DUE 27-08-10 CD6F SCM 2
Der Ring des Nibelungen [sound recording] / Richard Wagner. DUE 27-08-10 CD7A WAG 37
Die Walk�re [sound recording] / Richard Wagner DUE 27-08-10 CD7A WAG 11
Das Rheingold [sound recording] / Wagner. DUE 27-08-10 CD7A WAG 17
The Rhinegold = Das Rheingold / Richard Wagner. DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 X 19
Siegfried / Richard Wagner. DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 18
Das Rheingold [music] / von Richard Wagner ; English translation by Frederick Jameson ; version fran DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time M 782.1 W134 48
The Valkyrie = Die Walk�re / Richard Wagner. DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 21
Twilight of the Gods = G�tterd�mmerung / Richard Wagner. DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 22
A ring for the millennium : a guide to Wagner’s der Ring des Nibelungen / by Peter Bassett. DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 X 27
Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung : a companion : the full German text / with a new translation by Stewa DUE 12-10-10 Renewed 1 time 782.1 W134 56

For the most part, then it would be more accurate to say this is what I’m listening to or could be listening to right now.  Right now, Siegmund has just told Brunnhilde to give his regards to Valhalla, but he won’t be going there without Sieglinde, thanks very much.

The ones due on 27 August are from Fisher, the others from the Con library.  Sadly, I have come across in both collections remnants of the now-dispersed Music Library (rationalised out of existence from its own little world on the top of the Seymour Centre).  I wonder what happened, in particular, to its battered but not inconsequential collection of LPs?

The solitary Schumann aside, I guess it is pretty clear what I’m concentrating on just now.

Naturally, I’ve also been taking in the broadcasts from this year’s Bayreuth Festival on Sunday nights on ABC “Classic” FM.

Touring party

August 15, 2010

ON THURSDAY night, after a very difficult three days or so professionally, to hear the SSO conducted by Mr Ashkenazy playing Dvořák, Edwards and Scriabin.

I mention the difficult three days not to elicit sympathy, but to explain in part why I sadly heard the Dvořák from the foyer, the 6.30 start for the Meet the Music concert defeating me (I think for the 3rd time in 7 concerts: an ominous portent when I am considering renewing, or which more anon). It sounded pretty exciting from outside (via the speakers) and the audience was obviously responding warmly as I threaded my way through it to my seat (quite a nice one: good seats are easy to get if you are a grown-up on your own at the 6.30 series). I see that it is listed for the SSO’s final European tour concert at Grafenegg, and I expect it may get a guernsey as an encore if one is called for before then.

Andrew Ford does some onstage patter at these concerts.

We had Dene Olding, the original soloist for Ross Edwards’ Maninyas (first performed, Andrew Ford told us, at a Meet the Music concert). The orchestration has been touched up this year for the second time (the first, I read in the program, was when Barbara Jane Gilby performed the work with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra some time in the 1990s). I saw it described as a “new work” in some version or other of the orchestra’s program for the Edinburgh Festival.

Mr Ford is a composer. He rather solemnly pronounced (in relation to Edwards’ own abandonment of modernism in favour of his post-Maninyas style) that if you can’t write something original, there’s no real point much after the HSC. (Shades of the schoolroom do hang over MtM concerts: it comes with the territory.) I’m not so sure about that. What about Gebrauchsmusik? Should that just be left as an employment opportunity for (otherwise original) composers when they are having an unoriginal day?

After interval, the Scriabin Symphony No 3, ‘The Divine Poem.’ Mr Ford told us that until Wednesday, of all the large number of people on the stage, only Mr Ashkenazy had performed it before. We owe that extreme rarity to the crowded musical marketplace of the BBC proms, where the orchestra is slated to play it.

From which you will see that the whole concert was something of an in-town but really out-of-town tryout – and none the worse for that. With few exceptions, there was a double deck of principals. For the Scriabin, Dene Olding returned to sit behind Michael Dauth (who had some rather nice solos of his own as concertmaster) and Julian Smiles took over from Catherine Hewgill as (guest) principal cello.

Walking back to the office down Martin Place, wearing the scruffier of my winter jackets and a beanie, I was offered a coffee at the St Vincent de Paul homeless persons comfort wagon. I think it was the beanie that did it.

Marcus Westbury

August 15, 2010

Is to speak at the [so-called] Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

This is how it’s billed:


It is easy to agree that public financial support for the arts should follow artistic excellence and support those who can bring this to broad audiences.

So why does so much financial support go to opera and its wealthy patrons? Why should the vast majority of public subsidy for the arts be spent on art forms like symphony and opera, where the audiences are small, white and wealthy?

Meanwhile, the plight of so many other art forms that Australian’s [sic] passionately love, respect and want to experience are ignored.

How dangerous do they really think it?

Not too dangerous for the Opera House to make money out of by charging me to go and hear him talk. I’m not sure I’m prepared to spend that penny.

Marcus has been pushing this theme, which is, indeed, hardly a novel one, for some years – at least since his 2007 piece Mozart cover bands rake in the moolah and he’s trotted it out a few times since (I hope for a fresh fee) – for example, at the end of last year when Lyndon Terracini got the top artistic job at Opera Australia, and elsewhere.

Naturally, I am jealous of the support for my own favoured high art forms, so my response is hardly disinterested. I often say to friends that I go to the opera rather than (say) unsubsidised musicals because at the opera I get more of the government’s money. But there’s the rub, because the most I get is the money’s worth – assuming it is worth it or to the extent that it is. I (and other members of the audience) do not get the money: the money of course goes to the company and ultimately (in large part: there is admin, Adrian Collette is doubtless well paid and an enormous amount goes to publicity and advertising) to the artists it employs. Opera Australia’s figure is so high (and higher, for example, than any of the Symphony Orchestras) because it receives money to support the very high fixed costs of supporting two sizeable permanent ensembles – the chorus and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra – as well as the infrastructure of backstage staff. So one way of thinking of it is to say that the real question is whether those people should get that money.

I’m not saying the answer is simple, but that also means that for a complete picture one might need to look at the other money which the state provides to struggling artists who receive their de facto subsidies from Centrelink or from the higher education system. Of course, they are getting less than the pampered jades of the opera, but the total amount and its distribution between artforms is not to be equated with the funds disbursed by the Australia Council or the Major Performing Arts Board.

Money is incredibly important for art. For individual artists, whether they persist in their endeavour mostly depends on it. It is not, I think, a coincidence that many visual artists of the mid-twentieth century, for example, were able to continue at the very least at the beginning of their careers, because of family money behind them. That’s apparent, for example, from the diaries of Donald Friend (I recently read the first and last volumes of these). Brett Whiteley, Martin Sharp, even [as a pundit rather than an artist] Robert Hughes all started from a favourable position. Others just went and got a job as a clerk in a government department (see, eg, DR Burns, Early Promise) or became school teachers. Isherwood started out with a hundred pounds a year (on which he could live in Germany) which was, along with the room of one’s own, Virginia Woolf’s vital prerequisite to the literary life. (I think she had rather more than that.) Charles Lamb may have rejoiced when he could pack his job in at the East India Company, but hard though his early life was, the job made quite modest demands on him and even if begrudged was a sinecure. Those charming Tales from Shakespeare were subsidised by the sweat of the Indian.

That’s a scatter-gun and wide and wildly-ranging paragraph: as you can see, I’ve broadened the scope from performing to visual and literary “arts.”

But I suppose I shouldn’t ignore the headline question. What’s so special about opera?

Even Marcus Westbury knows that there are lots of things that are special about opera. I think the hidden assumption in the question is that so long as those special things are aesthetic they are a question of taste which should be put aside: the obligation of the state (which is what he is talking about) is to take a neutral view towards the tastes of its various citizens, just as, for example, one religion is not to be preferred over another. Marcus’s real question is what is so special about opera when we come to consider the question of government money for the arts?

It’s a tricky question, especially when it is posited on the assumption that any aesthetic views about opera’s value are to be put to one side.

A full answer would delay this post for ever.

I’ve already indicated above that the big share going to the opera is a bit of a trick of perspective: the opera is not in a much different position to the symphony orchestras. The distinctive feature of both is the retention of a permanent ensemble, and, in particular, the economical obsolescence of live and acoustical performance.

Opera and Symphony are the calcification of a high water mark in musical economics [musicians poor or pro-am; audiences or patrons, simply by reason of ordinary middle class respectability, very very rich comparatively; the prosperity and concentration offered in a few key metropolises] which was reached in the years immediately before 1914 but which has since survived only by the intervention of the state – either in substitution for the monarchy and aristocracy or in substitution for the support of the very high bourgeoisie.

Over the same period the economics of music have been profoundly affected by the development of amplification and electronic distribution.

The retention of permanent ensembles is a relatively recent development in Australia (as, for different specific reasons, in the USA and, for that matter, everywhere else). In Australia this has always been a matter of government subsidy. Along the way, “classical music” has exponentially professionalised: people expect higher standards and, as I have read somewhere in relation to the US (I will try to track it down, but this is a quick-found snapshot of the current general position there) there has been an enormous supply-side expansion in the availability of technically proficient and highly-trained players. The very few who end up getting a job are, in historical terms, well paid.

Subject to the obvious point made in association with the last paragraph that all government subsidy of the arts is relatively recent phenomenon, that just leaves us with what at first may seem a pretty piss-weak argument that opera is special because its preservation is a heritage issue. On one hand, that is not as trivial as it may seem: what it means is that, if opera and symphony orchestras are not given special treatment, they won’t survive.

Marcus is more concerned about the art forms which are struggling to come into being. These unborn babies are the opportunity cost of the state’s support for opera. That may or may not be so. But is every sperm sacred?

Thinking of Lord McNaghten

August 10, 2010

On Friday night to hear Simone Young conduct the SSO. Baiba Skride was the soloist, replacing Andrea Steinbacher.

The program was:

Wagner: Lohengrin overture (or rather, Vorspiel) to Act III
Szymanowski: Violin concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No 7 (Nowak)

The house was not packed (eg: choir stalls were not filled out to the top corners), but was comfortably full.

Simone Young was given a warm reception. This was so literally, in the warmth of the initial applause greeting her, and literally for the duration of the concert as a steady stream of warm moist air was pumped in through the air conditioning above and just to the left of the stage. This produced a constantly furling and unflurling plume of steam as if someone had left a very large kettle on just out of sight. Because of the Lohengrin theme it rather fancifully brought to mind the operatic feudalism of the first act of that opera with banners fluttering above the gathered knights of Brabant. My first hypothesis is that they are putting more moisture into the air just there in a bid to ward off the problems which the organ experienced just after winter last year on account of dryness.

Simone is a hometown hero. My Hungarian neighbour Z, who appears to have made a permanent switch to my side as a result of the concert-rage she provoked the concert before last, enthused to me: “Simone, that’s a good Jewish girl” – not in fact the case so far as I am aware. It is funny but maybe not so surprising in the scheme of things how I find myself amongst Jews at both of my regular SSO subscription series.

It was a bold act to begin with the Lohengrin Act III overture. I’ve heard orchestras play this as an encore; in the opera it is the champagne opener (assumption is that the audience will already have had their champagne and probably even dinner in the dinner interval) to the last act of a reasonably long opera. In either case, musicians and audience alike will already be well warmed up. It’s a harder piece to jump into from, as it were, a cold and standing start.

For me, Szymanowski is a composer more known about than really known. I’ve liked what I’ve heard, and the violin concerto (which I thought I might know bits of but found that I didn’t really) was no exception. It was a bit more modern than I expected (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but that was a misleading first impression as some of that turned out to be a kind of folksy-modalism rather than anything more acerbic. The real modernity (and that is just on the cusp) was the use of a large, post-Romantic orchestra. Baiba Skride pulled off a wide range of heavy-grade violinistics with apparent success. I would like to hear it again, so it’s a pity to see that the program was broadcast live on its first outing Thursday afternoon.

The real business of the evening was to follow after interval: the Bruckner.

One of the reasons proffered by the SSO for starting with the Wagner was the link between Wagner and Bruckner, including in the inception of the 7th Symphony. To my mind, they chose the wrong bit of Lohengrin to demonstrate this link. Notwithstanding the presence and use of Wagner horns/tubas and the odd touch of Fasolt/Fafnerish kartoffeln, Bruckner’s Wagner is much closer to the magical/chivalric romanticism of the Vorspiel to the first act. Perhaps that was suggested but got edged out by the Act III Vorspiel because it is a showpiece and, of course, much shorter at only about 3 minutes.

I first remember encountering Wagner tubas when the SSO played Bruckner 8 conducted by Pinchas Steinberg in 1979. That time it seemed that the players hadn’t seen the horns for much longer than I had. That’s all changed now and it is amazing how evocative (of Wagner) they are. The moment I hear them, I feel myself plunged into a darkened forest somewhere.

There was a bit where the horns and Wagner horns built up a Rheingold-ish horn chord which was very much a reminiscence of the scene at the beginning of the last act of Gotterdamerung where Siegfried declines to return the ring to the Rhine maidens.

It is too late for me to give a more detailed assessment of the concert (and of course I am not a critic) other than my recollection that the ending somehow stole up on me rather briskly. I still can’t work out whether it was really brisk or that was the impression given by Ms Young from atop her (now safely infilled with perspex) trademark stiletto heels.

On a completely different track, I came across this quote, from Lord McNaghten, in the landmark passing off case of Reddaway v Banham.

In that case, Reddaway had established a reputation for their machine belting which they sold as “Camel hair belting.” Banham had worked for them, and then set up on his own account. At first he just called his product “Arabian Belting” but eventually he grew more bold and started selling camel hair belting. Reddaway sued him, saying that “Camel hair belting” was their own distinctive fancy name (ie, not actually descriptive) and that Banham could not use it when customers might associate the name with Reddaway’s belting. In a stunning forensic coup, and contrary, it seems, to what Reddaway at least previously thought, Banham established that the belting of Reddaway and Banham were, in actual fact, principally made of camel hair. (The evidence included an analysis of hair taken from a camel at Manchester Zoo.) Who would have guessed it?  The court held that if Banham wanted to advertise his camel hair belting, he had to make clear that it was not Reddaway’s product, already well-known to the market by that term.

Along the way, Banham said, in effect, “Why should we not call our product camel hair belting? It’s the simple truth.”

Lord McNaghten was having none of this.  To say it was the simple truth was begging the question.  At Banham’s factory they might know this, but what about “abroad, to the German manufacturer, to the Bombary mill-owner, to the up-country native.”  There “it must mean Reddaway’s belting; it can mean nothing else.” (There was a jury verdict by the Lancashire jury to that effect.)

Towards the end of his judgment, when discussing the cases dealt with in the court below, McNaghten offered the following flourish:

“Fraud is infinite in variety, sometimes it is audacious and unblushing; sometimes it pays a sort of homage to virtue, and then it is modest and retiring; it would be honesty itself if it could only afford it.”

It’s a famous purple passage but I had forgotten the last bit about being honest “if it could only afford it” which I particularly like as a characterisation of the combination of greed and cunning. I have a case for which that is so apt – from which you can guess that I represent the plaintiff.

Lord McNaghten was an Ulster unionist conservative baronet, so hardly my type of person really. The picture at the top of this post is of Runkerry House, which he built on his family estate in the 1860s. Shortly after the death of the last of Lord McNaghten’s daughters in about 1950 one of his his successors as baronet gave it over for public purposes and it was used, amongst other things, as an old people’s home. More recently, it was sold off and converted into apartments.

Winter sun

August 3, 2010

Not that there is too much of that around just now. Outside the wind is whistling and the rain rattling in the proverbial dark and stormy night in Sydney. D drove into town after 11pm to fetch bike and me. Me, a coward?

Missing link

August 2, 2010

On Saturday night to hear David Robertson conduct the SSO with soloists Orli Shaham (piano), Amelia Farrugia and James Eggelstone (singers) in a program of Bernstein.

The program was:

Candide: Overture and suite (this was an arrangement)
Symphony No 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”)

West Side Story:
Symphonic Dances

My neighbour to my right was a charming young (possible pleonasm here) Frenchman posted in Singapore who had extended a business trip to Sydney over the weekend. My neighbours to my left were a couple whose incapacity to keep still suggested boredom while their enthusiastic applause (muted a little for the Symphony) proclaimed otherwise. He endlessly read the program and shuffled about in his seat; she (my immediate neighbour) couldn’t keep her hands still – endlessly biting fingernails and nibbling at her cuticles or rubbing ruminatively about her eyes. It was a struggle for different reasons to keep my eyes front and full attention on the music, though the restless couple was by far the greater distraction.

This was one of those lounge-suit SSO concerts. The singers were amplified (James Eggelstone took to this better than Amelia Farrugia though neither needed as much amplification as they were given) and, even before that, David Robertson jumped up with a microphone.

At interval, briefly, and at slightly greater length after the concert, I caught up with JR, whom I first met in fifth class, Mz, her husband, whom I first met in Canberra, Jz, a colleague of mine who first thereby met JR in Canberra in 1982, her husband, C, whom Jz first met in the European capital where I last saw Jz in her diplomatic digs in 1987 (they now live in another), and 2 children from each couple, all born since then.

As JR observed, though not quite in these terms, it was an awesome moment in “but-for” causation. But for me, JR would have met neither Mz [with a knock-on “but-for” consequence vis-a-vis their 2 children] nor Jz [and hence their all knowing each other]. The funny thing is that this consequential generation and connection has been going on behind my back all these years, basically because I left Canberra but all of JR, Mz and Jz remained for longer.

David Robertson does like to talk to an audience. C was very keen on this and remarked that it was particularly appropriate in a concert of Bernstein numbers, given Bernstein’s own role as the great on-air communicator about music in his famed television broadcasts. C had keen memories of these as his only exposure to music in his youth (in the then very impoverished European country from which he hails) which he had recently been reliving by watching practically all of these broadcasts (I suppose on DVD) in the company of his and Jz’s younger child.

Quite a lot of what Robertson said was interesting, and particularly the emphasis on the constraints of commercial music making (multiple rewrites and no violas in the pit orchestra) as well as his comment that no great gulf divided Bernstein’s popular and “high art” music.

In a variant of Victor Kiam’s claim that he so liked an electric razor that “I bought the company,” Robertson explained that he had been introduced to Orli Shaham when he was musical director of and she was a soloist with the St Louis Orchestra. The implication was that he thought so highly of her that he married her. It’s a natty line, even if it was his third marriage. Conductors seem to be a bit more prone to that sort of thing than ordinary mortals.