Archive for March, 2019


March 30, 2019

A bare record:

16 3 Australia Ensemble

I missed the beginning of this concert as I had to attend a surprise 70th birthday party.  I got there half way through the Dvořák violin Sonatina – a piece which I realised I must have played in my past life as a school pianist.  I was let in between movements upstairs at the back.  I normally sit right up close in the front row, but sitting way back does have its charms.  There’s something peaceful about sitting all on your own without neighbours and acoustically distance, though it reduces the volume, clarifies the perspective.

Inexplicably, almost all of the core members of the ensemble weren’t playing in this concert: only clarinetist David Griffiths and pianist Ian Munro were there.  The next concert will also be without the same members, and the flautist Geoffrey Collins doesn’t appear before September. What’s going on? Is this a question of long-service leave? I think an upfront explanation should have been proffered rather than leaving things to the fine print of guest artists for each concert. We have the unedifying example of the Australian String Quartet before us when management presume to think that the identity of an “ensemble” is their own brand rather than the players which make it up.

The other items I heard were:

Steampunk by David Bruce and Saint-Saens’ piano quartet No 2 (No 1 is a posthumously published juvenile effort).  As ever with S-S, the piano part had lots of notes.  I thought I would be familiar with it, but found that I wasn’t.  It’s a strangely Bachian number – in that respect a bit like the first movement of the second piano concerto – with Mendelssohnian aspects.

25 3 Alessio Bax recital

I was too late to the party to get to AB’s Mozart concerto performance the previous week which had the added attraction of Beethoven 8 at Angel Place.  I went to the recital after a torrid day in court but managed to stave off drowsiness.   The program  was mostly in d or D. I was disappointed with the second section of the Dante Sonata (roughly speaking, pages 3 and 4) which didn’t feel despairing/dolorous  enough, but AB was saving more for later.

After the concert, the mother of one of those long-ago youthful violinists (he is now a violist in a UK orchestra) by pre-arrangement gave me some discs of video recordings of some performances from that era which she has recently transferred from videotape.  I haven’t been able to find a means of playing the discs yet.

26 3  Salome

My fourth time.  I swapped a row D seat for a marked-down front row one.  Lisa Rindstrom terrific still in the title role.  My neighbour, who had engaged in a little discreet lap-conducting throughout, was astounded to hear it was my fourth time – he said he was exhausted after just once.

29 3 SSO Barry Douglas, Laurence Renes, SSO – Sibelius 7, Brahms piano concerto No 2 

Also an opening number  by Richard Mills, who was present.  A babe in arms and/or a toddler also made their presence known.  Why are infants admitted?

On Saturday afternoon I caught most of the live broadcast of a repeat of this program.  The Brahms is much more splendid when the engineers can give the piano a hand; ditto for the assistance offered to the woodwind (always hard to hear in the SOH stalls)  in the Sibelius.

Decision restricted

March 21, 2019

The unsatisfactory thing about the internet is that nothing is permanent.

If you really want to keep something you should copy or download it while it is up.

History is constantly being rewritten.  (Let’s not get started on links, which on many of my own older posts on this blog no longer work, even for things such as judgments which you might think should keep a permanent place.)

Yesterday I noticed that a decision of Magistrate David Heilpern from September 2017, [2017] NSWLC 19, had been amended.  Specifically, the text of the decision, including the name of the parties, is “restricted.”

What could possibly be so explosive or sensitive about an almost year-and-a-half old Local Court judgment that we should not be permitted to read it?

Wonderment increased when I discovered that the original decision, Commonwealth DPP v Adam James Easton, had been overturned on appeal by the DPP before Justice N Adams in Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions v Easton [2018] NSWSC 1516 .  Actually you can read quite a lot of the original judgment there.

Magistrate Heilpern’s (overturned) decision had dismissed charges against Mr Easton for failing to vote at the July 2016 Federal election.  Mr Easton had claimed he did not vote for conscientious grounds which would have excused him.  On appeal Justice Adams held that Mr Easton’s claims did not cut the mustard, or, rather, that Magistrate Heilpern’s consideration of them did not.  The matter was sent back to the Local Court for rehearing.

According to quite a good summary here at Buzzfeed, it was probably the publication by Magistrate Heilpern which provoked the appeal.  The Commonwealth couldn’t stand the publicity.

So why has the judgment been suppressed now?


Schlock, horror

March 15, 2019

I’ve been to Opera Australia’s revival of Salome three times.

As an opera it is said to be Strauss’s breakthrough work, and together with Elektra, one that took opera up a modernist (more like: Jugendstil) step before Strauss himself stepped back. Yet what impressed me most this time was, especially up to the point where Herod comes onto the stage, how much of the musical material came from Strauss’sprior tone-poems, especially the quasi-Valhalla-ish John the Baptist music and the lower brass of death.  The orientalist exoticism is not particularly outlandish and the meteorologicalism (the wind of the wings of the angel of death) is more a matter of instrumentation.   The most outrageous bit – what I think of as the double-neopolitan, an A7 chord as a meta-dominant in D flat major – is very near the end, though you can’t assume he wrote the work from start to finish.

Strauss writes for an enormous orchestra and because the wind and brass parts can’t easily be reduced (though I saw some substitute pages brought out in the winds near the end), the string complement takes the main hit in order to squeeze into the SOH opera theatre pit.

The limitations of the small stage are met in this case with a single set which doesn’t seem to leave all that much acting area.

There have been criticisms of the production.  They most repeated ones are:

    1. the suicide of Narraboth lacks impact;
    2. Salome gets too physical with John the Baptist;
    3. the “chthonic cistern” (thanks to Peter McCallum for “chthonic”) emits light when the libretto stipulates it is dark.

Other ones are:

4.  Herod says his glass is empty when he hasn’t even got a glass;
5.  The five Jews are instead  a mixture of religions.

At the end Herod orders Salome to be killed.  The executioner brings a knife to her throat. Squeamishly, I was about to shut my eyes but the executioner stayed his hand until the blackout.  Zoltan Szabo confirms my recollection that things went further last time.

For Artshub, David Barmby, described in his bio as former practically everything (though he doesn’t include “chorister at St Andrew’s Cathedral”) , gives the most critical review – all 5 of the above points plus.  He also:

6.  doesn’t like Lindy Hume’s “feminist flip” of Oscar Wilde’s “misogynistic” opera; and
7. Wonders how come Herod et al are feasting in full view of the released Jokanaan when that is against Herod’s strict command? and adds
8. “I could go on.”

As to the  enumerated objections above, my own view is:

  1. Agreed; it’s a bit pathetic; not even a credible dagger;
  2. I don’t mind Salome’s physicality; in fact I like the suggestion that Jochanaan is tempted even a bit.  Incidentally, I love Jochanaan’s make-up six pack! (It’s done with some dark shading on the sides to slim him and some horizontal white bars to synthesise the muscle lines.   He’s quite sexy for a singer, which takes up the libretto statement that he is a young man (as he should be: only a bit older than JC, at this stage not far from Jerusalem).
  3. I take the light emitted from the chth.c. as symbolic of Jochanaan’s  prophecy.  It’s not always on.
  4. Minor: and in this production the suggestion is perhaps that Herod is dazed/deluded after Herodias has slipped the death ring off his finger.
  5. I expect Barmby is right that the expansion of the range of guyed religions is partly an attempt to dodge the Beckmesserish/Alberich-ish anti-semitism of their musical depiction – see, it’s not just Jews.  I too, in 2012, pointed out that the Nazarenes shouldn’t be crossing themselves when we haven’t had a crucifixion yet, so we can all take these points if we must.  I quite liked the attention to individual detail in each of the religious figures – for example in their reactions to the dances.
  6. This time round, I found it worked quite well – and it’s not as if there aren’t hints from the start with Salome complaining about Herod looking at her “like that.”  I was less impressed by it back in 2012.
  7. Too literal.  We can see them, but it’s night and they’re behind a kind of window and show no sign of being able to see out (though later the spectators for the dance take up the same spot)
  8. No comment.

All are agreed that  Lisa Lindstrom is terrific as Salome.  The one spot where something seems to be missing is the lower/mid-register demands for “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan“, but a richer sound might sound less petulant/adolescent and too middle-aged.  Lindstrom gives it a vicious growl the last time before things move into the upper register and back to capital S singing.

The dances are a set of male fantasies of womanhood.  Lindstrom does 1, 4 and 7.  7 is a bit tame (but really is a segue into her easy-wash head-cradling black slip); 1(moppet with teddy bear)  is a great start; using the grill above the cistern as a substitute for the grill above the ventilation shaft for No 4, when she appears as Marilyn Monroe, is a brilliant touch.  The others, shared between 2 real dancers, are (3)- dominatrix pole dancer and (6) Acrobatic scarf dancer who might have wandered in from Shen Yun; and (2) Naughty Maid and (5) Virgin Mary who turns into a go-go dancer with sacred hearts for breast and crotch pieces – which is the best of the lot.

I guess that’s a plot spoiler but too bad.

On the first night my friend MK told me he was in the pit [see comments: actually in the Concert Hall so no pit] as an extra horn player back in 197-something.  He claimed that Marilyn Richardson, as Salome, went “all the way.”  Not that he could see that himself but others in the brass section could.  That might be a bit of an urban myth.  Another friend recalled on the way home that when he went as a youngster (with his mother, natch) she (Marilyn, not his mother) had a body stocking.  That was probably a different occasion.

The issue about the source of Jochanaan’s singing seems to have been solved since 2012 and it plausibly sounded as though it comes from the cistern.

I still find the bit where Herod attempts to dissuade Salome from asking for Jochanaan’s head the weakest point.  It’s hard for the tenor to carry the drama here so I don’t blame Andreas Conrad, who was also pretty good, for that.

I’m not a critic, so I won’t pick out anyone else except for Gennadi Dubinsky.  Because he mostly sings “character bass” parts no-one ever says much about him in reviews.  I always enjoy his vignettes – not only is his singing at a high level in OA terms for often a small part, but there is something really solid about his stage presence.

But back to Barmby.  He accurately diagnoses the problem with the reduced orchestra – but what else does he propose?  I’d rather have an orchestrally reduced Salome than none at all. 

More generally, Barmby complains about a lack of grandeur and spaciousness.  Some of that is the stage for which similar factors apply as to the pit, but I don’t think that’s all he takes exception to.  Barmby writes “Opera Australia’s production team could have done a lot better had they been less focussed on sensational effects.”  That’s a kind of counter-factual isn’t it?  We’ll never know.  How unsensational should a woman kissing the lips of a severed head be?  You could say that it should be able to speak for itself, but  I was happy with the schlock. 



To die for

March 12, 2019

Yesterday I got an sms out of the blue:

[Md] has passed away in Thailand.

As it was an international SMS from Malaysia I knew it had to be from H, whom Md and I had both taught in 1996-97 when H came to Sydney from Malaysia on an obscure music scholarship offered through the school where Md and I worked.

I replied by text and then H rang from Malaysia.  He explained that Tx had been posting updates on Md’s condition on Facebook which were “tagged” to Md.  Md’s Facebook friends™ could then read them.  The messages were in Thai but you could click “translate.”  There were also hospital pictures which hardly required translation, but no-one ever looks good in those, do they?

I’m not on Facebook so all of this came as a shock.  I’d sent Md an email at the beginning of February and was beginning to wonder/worry when he hadn’t replied.  I now see that he was in the hospital by then.

In a way this was the end of a journey that D and I helped set Md upon.  In about 1998, Md had just broken up with his partner of about 15 years.  D and I suggested he come along to the Katana Club to cheer up.

The Katana Club was an on-again-off-again night-club which operated within other licensed venues, aimed at the then fairly ghettoized “gay asian” scene.  It features in Tony Ayres’ film, China Dolls.  It was in its final throes at this stage, operating in the Globe Nightclub in the former DSS premises in Newtown opposite the Greek Orthodox Church and the Performing Arts High School.

D and I arrived to find that Md had been there pretty much since the doors opened at the beginning of the evening.  Inevitably, his companions had been the oldest “western” men and the youngest “Asian” men.  Md, who was a large man and whose recently ex boyfriend had also been a strapping specimen, was uncomfortable with this.  “I feel like Dolly Dunn,” he said.

But a spark had been lit.  Quite soon Md was spending every available holiday in the flesh pots of SE Asia.  Once, Md showed us some trophy snaps of sexy young men he had met.  “To die for!” he exclaimed.  D could not bear the Pinkertonism.

Md made two attempts to import suitable partners.  The classic way is for the love interest to come on a student visa and do a Uni or TAFE course (TAFE is cheaper) to enable the relationship to be established, and then the application to be made with a bridging visa until it all comes through.  These enterprises are notoriously beset with opportunism and heartache, and not always because canny sweet young things have taken love-sick oldies for a ride.

The first was Nx.  Nx became a permanent resident and is probably now a citizen.  There were two little dogs.  Md continued his SE-Asian excursions.  Eventually Nx found someone else.  Nx and his new partner minded the dogs when the now-single Md went away.

The next, Ox, did not last as long.  Md could not accept that Ox was having daytime threesomes just up the road when Ox should have been at TAFE.  Not that skipping class was the problem.

In 2011 Md, who had finished working, sold up and went to Chiang Mai to live with Tx.  Nx and his new partner took the dogs.

Foreigners cannot buy land in Thailand, apparently, and so at some point Tx became the legal owner of Md’s townhouse. Money was lost on various business ventures that Md tried to set Tx up in.  Eventually the townhouse was sold and a smaller place bought.   By about 2014-15 health problems had emerged, including impaired mobility as a result of an injury to Md’s foot.

There was much tsk-tsking amongst Sydney friends, some of whom had become ex-friends in the wake of bitter words typed by Md, probably with a drink by the keyboard, when requests for quite sizeable loans were rebuffed.  I hadn’t come under much pressure in that department, probably because Md didn’t consider me such a close friend or prosperous person.

Quite a lot of tsk-tsking focused on Md’s relationship with Tx and what it had cost Md. Md, who must have complained about some of this to the friends at times, nevertheless insisted to me that Tx was a great help to him.

I cried a bit yesterday afternoon. After work I had a drink with PP at the spot where we lunched with Md on his last return visit to Sydney. PP brought me up to speed on the Facebook stuff. It turns out that a blood infection from the foot injury finally did for Md. You have to wonder if that could have been treated better in Australia or even in Thailand if Md had more money. The latter was H’s view. H sells life insurance these days so probably has a professional predisposition to see things that way.

Md was PP’s music teacher for 5 years of high school, and PP had only good memories of Md’s kindness. Grief is a hard thing to do alone and I felt a lot better after our own mini-wake.


March 9, 2019

This is a belated post.

Opera Australia has just mounted Alban Berg’s c 1920 opera, Wozzeck.  The big selling point has been the direction and characteristic projected animated visuals by superstar artist William Kentridge.  (Actually there is a whole design team involved  but their names can’t really squeeze into the headline.)

I went three times.


First night.  I sat upstairs on the left.  I could see the surtitles and all but the back left and left top corner of the stage.

I was distracted throughout by the noise from the projector mounted not so far from me on the front of the circle which was the source of most of the projections.  From where I sat it was almost as loud as quieter orchestral details which were consequently lost to me.

I struggled to take in action, words, the orchestral commentary in the music and Kentridge’s constantly changing visual commentary.

Kentridge’s visuals are based on an apocalyptic vision of the Western Front in WWI, with dirigibles, aircraft, maps of Bullecourt and frequent invocations of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s up-pointed moustache.

Various reviewers who ought to know better nod seriously and draw a link to Alban Berg’s experience of war horrors in the trenches.

As far as I can tell, Berg’s only military service was training in Hungary in 1915 before he was invalided out.  He was then consigned to a desk job in Vienna.  It was the humiliations of military life in the ranks rather than the horrors of war that he complained about and found a resonance of in Wozzeck.

And what’s all this about the Western Front and the Kaiser?  That’s a bit like reaching for the Hitler toothbrush or the swastika for WWII.  What about Franz Joseph?


On the second night I sat upstairs at the right front corner.  This gave relief from the projector fan and a good sound from the pit at the price of missing out on the surtitles and an overall view of the stage.

Leaving the second performance I overheard a North-American –accented woman saying:

“The one thing I remember about the production I saw which was realistic is the boy at the end.”

In this production, there is no actual child on stage.  Instead, a gas-masked puppet.  Kentridge has justified this with  something not unlike the usual complaints about appearing on stage with animals and children.  But surely Berg put the kiddie in for a reason?  Kentridge doesn’t trust this and wants to run his own concept.  OK, that’s his prerogative but something has been thrown away with the bathwater.


I wanted to give the whole thing another chance where I could be exposed roughly equally to all the elements of the production.  A seat in the middle of the front row for the third night was marked down from B to C reserve.  D has gone to China which meant I could snap it up by exchanging his ticket for Werther.

I couldn’t see the surtitles but I knew the libretto reasonably well, falling back on the gist for some of the more wordy parts such as the Doctor’s lists of medical symptoms or the drunken speechifying/sermons in the tavern scene.  After listening to a recording numerous times and following bits of it in the score, I can’t say I had unravelled all of the mysteries of the various musical forms employed or worked out all the things the commentators find exquisite, but I’d assimilated enough of the musical language and material to be able to respond to more of the threads than when I started.

Ironically, sitting up the front meant that I could focus much more on the singers.  The relative impact of the projections was much less and no longer overweening.  For me they worked much better that way.

The whole thing was utterly compelling.

My favourite scene is the Tavern/Inn/Wirtshaus scene.  Berg writes for the main orchestra, a chamber orchestra (within the main orchestra) and an onstage band  (banda) of  clarinet, fiddles, accordion, guitar and bombardon –which is basically a marching-band version of the tuba. Berg says a tuba may be used provided it can be muted. Part-way through the scene the player is directed to insert the mute.

We had a tuba.  I loved the moment when, instead of an ordinary mute, a pillow was tossed into the bell of the tuba by a fellow inngoer from his would-be-sleeping spot just above.  Turn that music down!

Internet resources:

There is a great little selfie-video of the tuba part here.  (If a mute went in it must be out of shot.)

At the Berlin 1925 premiere, the part of Marie’s son was performed by Ruth-Iris Witting.  Her father, Gerhard Witting, was Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier.  You can hear Ruth-Iris, I’d guess about 8-10  years older and in quite different repertoire, here .


Werther 2019

March 5, 2019

Last night for the third time to Opera Australia’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Massenet’s Werther.

There was a time when French opera was more prevalent – I guess because of the cultural prestige of Belle Epoque Paris at the height of opera’s boom years.  My grandfathers’ generation went off to WWI singing funny words to the soldier’s chorus from Faust,  then the most-performed opera at the Met.

Tastes have changed, in the Anglosphere at least.  Apart from Carmen and Australia’s idiosyncratic obsession with The Pearl Fishers, Opra Straya has difficulty enticing audiences to the French repertoire.  So it was that I was able to secure at D reserve prices a spot in the middle of the front row for my third performance.

I’ve seen this production in at least two previous stagings – in 1999 and 2009.  I have a memory of feeling in 1999 that it was familiar, which would mean I also saw it in 1989 or 1990.

At the beginning there is one of the longest-fuse setups ever as for no other apparent reason there is a kind of Christmas-in-July as Charlotte’s father teaches her younger siblings a Christmas carol.  We will hear this again offstage for ironic pathos at the end when Werther returns at Christmas and kills himself.  Act I also sets up the domestic idyll which on the one hand so attracts Werther to Charlotte and the conformity to which by Act II he is a doomed outsider.

At the second interval on the first night I found myself between 2 older (than I) women. Each fumed – B, to my left, at the choice of work and the other worthier works therefore overlooked, but also at the production (“wasting my time”); the other at the “stilted acting.”

I tried not to let it dampen my own enjoyment.  Massenet’s music is so agreeable.  I think of him as being a later equivalent of Schubert or Rossini (and lesser lights of that period) composers who have at their disposal a kind of settled musical language which is immediately accessible.  It’s kind of middle-brow but it is very fluent narrative music.

Act III opens with Charlotte rereading letters from Werther.   She reads three, and each has its own orchestral sound world – my favourite is the wintry first – set off against her impassioned outbursts after reading each.  Even B was mollified by this, proclaiming of Elena Maximovaat the end “she’s the star.”

That’s a bit rough on Michael Fabiano.  The problem is that in the opera (as opposed to the novel where you get to know him through his letters) Werther is a hard character to warm to because he comes across as a bit of a gloomy creepy stalker. He has such a lot of big singing to do (which MF was absolutely well up to) that his vulnerability is overshadowed by his desperation.

My golden rule about revivals is that things always get a bit coarser.  Luke Gabbedy’s Albert was a bit in this territory.  I don’t recall Albert being quite so boorish in earlier iterations and I don’t see why he should be.

Charlotte’s younger sister, Sophie, has to carry the most of the burden for light relief with some fairly cliched coloratura-soubrettish stuff..  That, and their father’s drinking chums, are the low point (for me) of Massenet’s musical invention.

There are some other oddities in this production.  Why does Charlotte’s father, Le Bailli, so fall out with those chums between Act I (when he goes off to join them at the Golden Grape) and Act II, when with a disapproving look he hurries his children past them on the way to the service to celebrate the pastor’s 50th wedding anniversary?  Could it possibly be because they are Catholics?  One of them makes a mock sign of the cross, which seems odd for a little village near Frankfurt where the pastor is married.

Then there’s the newspapers:  in Act I Le Bailli was reading Pravda.  In Act II one of the drinkers took La Stampa, from which he looked up, seemingly surprised but also informed, to announce “C’est Dimanche.” – I suppose the director thought that was the best that could be done with some pretty clunkily expository libretto.

It’s a great night for a big orchestra.  There were lots of exchanged smiles: they obviously enjoy playing this stuff.  Principal cello Teije Hylkema had many eloquent moments. A quartet of French horns did more than invoke lusty drinkingness.  At the third performance I realised Robert Johnson was in the pit.

Between first night and second night,  Michael Fabiano’s acting improved (I’d say he just relaxed a bit into it) and Stacey Alleaume toned down the perkiness, which was a relief.

I enjoyed the second night the most.  I’m glad I went for a third time but I’ll probably stop at that.