Thursday, January 29, 2015

The armchair critic strikes again

The notes below may be of some interest to others but they are not intended to influence anyone.  They are just a reminder to me of some things I have been thinking recently.

I have always had music beside my bed but I have recently added a DVD setup so I can watch videos of opera and ballet in bed. So I am not so much an armchair critic as a bedborne one!

I usually go to bed at a routine time even though I am not yet fully tired.  That means I do have time to listen to music or watch things on video.  I have drinkies until Tanqueray carries me off to the land of nod.  Tanqueray was also the Queen Mother's favoured drop and she lived to be 101.  So let the health freaks get their heads around that one!

Two DVDs I watched recently were Australian performances of Madama Buttlerfly by Puccini and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.

I did not like the Puccini at all.  It was an extreme example of a "modern" staging -- set outdoors in some Sydney park.  I loathe anachronistic settings.  The sets and costumes are meant to help you get the story but guys in modern business suits walking around a Sydney park told me nothing.  It might have helped if there were English subtitles but there were not.  And Puccini's music is no good.  With Handel and Mozart the music is engaging throughout but Puccini's music is mostly pedestrian. He does some great arias but they are rare. I am afraid that I am not big on 19th century opera at all.  Opera/oratorio for me mostly stretches from Monteverdi to Mozart.  But in the 20th century Philip Glass also does well at times.

Swan Lake was much better.  It is amazing how well choreographers can convey a story without words.  The sets were rather minimalist but fitted in well enough.  And Tchaikovsky's music is of course always superb.  Once again the men were mostly in modern suits rather than in the 19th century garb that Tchaikovsky would have envisioned but it was not too distracting in the circumstances.

When people comment on Swan Lake they mostly comment on the dancing, not the story.  Yet the story is an engaging one.  It is the old old story of a married man and the "other" woman.  I rather related to that for reasons that are probably too indelicate to discuss.  I have been cheerfully monogamous for most of my life but there were other episodes in times past.  And I rather liked the "other" woman in the ballet.  I would have had her.

But there was some fabulous dancing.  I didn't realize the heights to which Australian dancers could rise. I found the asylum scene in Act 2 disturbing.  Knowing of the real life abuses in psychiatric institutions it was a bit too real for me.  And the exaggerated wimples on the nuns were both amusing and yet appropriate somehow.  Kudos to the costume department.

The scene when the newly-wed wife catches her husband kissing the other woman amused me.  In response to being caught the danseur does the strangest dance in order to get himself out of the situation.  It reminded me of John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks.  It rather cracked me up.  I imagine it was supposed to portray his agony of soul or some such but I could not take it seriously at all.

But definitely a credit-worthy production overall.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Will feminism produce great works of art?

DVDs are a wonderful thing.  I have a DVD recording a  performance at the Mariinsky theater in St Petersburg of the great ballet "Firebird".  The company is the Ballet Russes. I am far from a balletomane but the  wonderful music of Igor Stravinsky  gets me in every time.  And the reconstructed choreography of Michel Fokine is of course excellent too. It is no wonder that Firebird has a prominent place in the classical ballet repertoire.

And I couldn't help noticing that the chief ballerina (The Firebird) got thrown around an awful lot by the chief male dancer.  It was done with enormous athleticism and grace but there was no doubt who was the dominant character in the scenes concerned.  And it struck me that feminists would almost certainly find that repugnant -- with words like "patriarchy" and "inequality" popping into their addled brains.  Perhaps they think the ballerina should have thrown the larger male dancer about!

But Firebird is not alone in its representation of male/female roles.  A traditional representation of such roles is virtually universal in opera and in classical ballet.  So, having seen what artistic wonders traditional thinking can bring forth can we expect such art to emerge from feminist attitudes?  Feminism has been around since the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and her girls over a century ago but I know of nothing notable that has emerged so far.  The only possible candidate appears to be the disgusting Vagina Monologues and they seem to be notable only for their crudity.

So my proposed answer to the question in my heading is a blunt "No".  Most prominent feminists are radicals and seem quite deranged most of the time. They seem to have no beauty in their souls.  And they don't care about women anyway.  They ignore the terrible plight of most women in Muslim lands and content themselves with nitpicking criticisms of everyday speech in their own country.

Fortunately most women are not feminists.  They believe in things like equal pay for equal work  but have little in common with the fountains of rage and hatred who are the radical feminists.  So what I have written above is in no way critical of women generally. I have been married four times so I clearly think women are pretty good.  And plenty of ladies find my views acceptable -- particularly ladies around my own age.

Some desultory notes on the Mariinsky performance of Firebird:

As I have previously mentioned elsewhere, in all stage shows I like authenticity in the staging.  I can put up with modern minimalist staging but when directors of the performance try to be "creative" and invent very strange sets, costumes, backdrops etc. I dislike it greatly.  So I was most pleased that this performance endeavoured to re-create the original Diaghilev staging.

And at risk of enormous political incorrectness, I might perhaps note that, this being Russia, all the performers were very white -- which did of course echo the original. There is a great push to get blacks into everything these days but to revise in some way an original great artistic creation is to me just stupid.  The lily-whiteness of the skins was part of the artistic effect.

I am breathless with admiration for the dancing of (Firebird) Ekaterina Kondaurova.  She is unbelievably light on her feet. She almost defies gravity.

Ballerinas tell me that the male dancers are no good to them.  They are mostly homosexual.  So ballet is to a significant extent a homosexual art.  I have on various occasions been critical of homosexual assertiveness.  So does that lessen my regard for ballet?

I regard it as irrelevant.  I judge art by what I see and hear and  have no animus at all towards individuals who have the homosexual  disorder. I feel rather sorry for them in fact.  My late sister was homosexual and there have almost always been homosexuals in my social circle.  There were two homosexuals at a dinner I hosted recently and their presence was welcomed both by myself and everyone else there.  I certainly would not say that "some of my best friends" are homosexuals but all those I know are perfectly pleasant people.

I was sad to hear of the premature death (from AIDS) of prominent homosexual Michael Cass, with whom I got on rather well. He taught at Uni NSW Sociology, where I also did.  People who know Brisbane will not be surprised to hear that he was a former Nudgee boy.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Crepe Myrtles

I am a long way from being a nature-lover, most scenery bores me, I am not house-proud and I am no gardener.  BUT: some things in the natural world do get through to me, and my Crepe Myrtles are one such.

Brisbane people love their tropical and sub-tropical flowering trees: Crepe Myrtles, Jacarandas and Poincianas -- plus some lesser species.  They are everywhere in Brisbane.  And from childhood on I have always liked Crepe Myrtles.  So 12 years ago I had eight of them planted along almost the full length of my back fence -- some in the original crepe myrtle colour, which is lavender, and some in both white and in shocking pink.

They are now very tall trees and in full blossom at the moment.  So I have in my back yard what amounts to an enormous floral bouquet  -- a 17 meter (55 ft) wide display of massed blossom.  It is quite spectacular and and immediately invites photography.  But how do you photograph something 17 meters wide?  And if you do manage it, is there any sense in squeezing such a display into a photo a few inches wide? I doubt that there is but I have made an attempt anyway.  Below is a photo of just the central portion of the display, taken with a wide-angle lens.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A 70th

Anne is not embarrassed by her age so I guess I can mention that the dinner I shouted last night at the New Sing Sing Chinese restaurant in Buranda was a 70th birthday celebration for her.

She arrived in a black dress adorned by a big red stole and with her hair fresh from the hairdresser.  She brought her sister Merle and Merle's husband Ralph with her.  Both are in poor health so drive only locally.  Sister June was also there despite an attack of shingles.  All three of Anne's sons turned up with partners and Byron of course brought along his two delightful little sons.  I like to see children at a family gathering.

I ordered Dim Sims all round to get us started and everyone chose for themselves thereafter.  I also supplied 3 bottles of champagne for toasting purposes and they all eventually went down.  Everyone seemed pleased with their dinner. I had BBQ pork with plum sauce and vegetables.  Anne had some prawn dish.  Her daughter in law Bonnie brought along a chocolate birthday cake to the restaurant which we enjoyed in the usual way. 

I gave Anne her presents the night before and also made her -- at her request -- a Martini, which she liked.  I don't like them at all but I can make them -- stirred, not shaken.  One of the presents I gave her was a Japanese lady's insulated shopping bag.  She immediately thought of good uses for it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My past

It is surely supremely obvious that a memoirs blog should be concerned with memories.  And I have been doing a bit of remembering recently.

Some of my memories are quite sad:  Half of the persons I have known are dead. The death of  the very vital Chris Tame, for instance, I find hard to cope with.  And rather a lot of others.

But I have recently found that reaching back into my past can be very rewarding.  I recently re-established contact with Jason M.  -- from about 20 years ago in my past.  And Jason is undoubtedlty a gem of a man.

So I wonder a little about those I went to school with. I got on rather well with several of my fellow students at Cairns State High. I think I got on best with Peter Cook, Graeme Stevens and Geoffrey O'Callaghan.  But how do you contact a Peter Cook via Google?  The comedian of  that name overwhelms you.  More hope with Graeme (if that is the spelling.  Graham?) and I know his family ran Lake Placid at the time.

And what about Loren Gane  -- known by some as "Gane with the lame tame crane".  He was a bit of an outsider but I got on well with him.  He lived in Pruett  (Prewett?) lane at the time.  And last I heard he studied for a Th.L. at the St. Francis Anglican seminary at Milton and got into some trouble.

Even fellow students I did not gell with at the time would be interesting to contact --"Marble", for instance, (Keith Crosland).

Another old friend I would like to get in contact with is Michael Crowley of Tasmania, a fellow psychology student at Uni Syd in 1968. Michael is a very caring man but got into trouble over an affair with a lady aged just 15. A year later he would have been in the clear.  So I hold nothing against him.  He and I both had affairs with the redoubtable Mavis K.  And he married an ex-girlfriend of mine, the delightful Elizabeth T.!

Maybe Google will get these comments to some useful place.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne

For those who are unaware of it, Glyndebourne is a prestigious opera house in the lush South of England.  It is prestigious not only for good performances but is also socially prestigious.  A visit to Glyndebourne is part of the London "season" -- or what is left of it.

As I normally live on the other side of the globe from it, I have myself been there only once -- accompanied by the beauteous Susan  B. and her rather overweight dog Sally. Not quite sure what we did with the dog during the performance.  Left it in the car I guess. England is not a hot place so that would have done no harm.  That was back in the '70s when hysteria about hot cars had not yet been invented.

If I were in England again, however, I would be very cautious about revisiting Glyndebourne.  I have been watching a set of DVDs of a 2005  performance of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne and there is virtually nothing about the staging that I agree with.  The music was fine and the singers talented but the artistic director of the performance gave the impression of being under the spell of the deplorable modern urge to be "creative" about the staging.

And, sadly, his creativity was so impoverished that he mistook anachronism for originality.  He seemed to think that having airships and steamships in the background of an opera set in ancient Egypt was somehow clever -- not to mention the revolvers, rifles, sunglasses, cocktail dresses and pith helmets. Why is deliberate anachronism clever? I have no idea.   There was zero attempt to present the life and times of Caesar and Cleopatra authentically.

And particularly in Act 3 a lot of the arias were sung with the actors lying on the ground. How is that for moronic choreography? Most of the live audience would have been able to see nothing at such times.

Not for me I am afraid.  People go to a stage show to see the creativity of the author and that is what the artistic director should be trying to bring out -- not display some petty creativity of his own

I watched the very extensive "after-notes" on the DVD and they did feature wide-ranging comments by David McVicar, the distinguished Scottish artistic director.  And although I disagree with just about everything he did, I have to concede that he is a man of great sensitivity and sensibility, in a notably "camp" way.

He was obviously devoted to the work, which is admirable, but clearly saw his role as making Handel more "accessible" to modern audiences.  But he seems to have had a very dim view of his audience.  He seems to have seen them as simpletons who need to be talked down to, with schoolboy humour, if necessary.  At Glyndebourne??

He seems to have thought that largely Edwardian costumes, props etc. accomplished that.  And he had no idea of military deportment.  He had some soldiers moving at one stage as if they had pooed their pants! And what on earth was achieved by having pictures of WWI battleships, blimps and RMS "Titanic" in the background? Arty people just get too detached, sometimes, and McVicar being homosexual probably isolated him even more than usual.

How could he be so totally unaware of the great success the BBC has had with costume dramas?  Togas and Egyptian finery would have been both in keeping with the story and enjoyed by the audience. And there was no lack of precedent for that approach.  Aida is often done with an approach to Egyptian sets and costumes.  Most of the props and costumes needed were probably already in store at Glyndebourne.

And the voices were so unbalanced!  Maltman was the only decent male voice in the show.  The rest were females plus one counter-tenor.  Was that supposed to be politically correct, or something?  It was certainly tiring and ridiculous artistically.  I very much like soprano voices but you can have too much of a good thing.

And, sadly, that was an excellent chance to be original that was missed.  When Handel wrote the opera, castrati were all the rage so the songs of some male figures were given in a high key that only women and counter-tenors can now reach.  So Caesar was played by a woman in order to be faithful to the notes as written by Handel.  I deplore trouser roles generally but a female Caesar is frankly ridiculous.  Now that the fashion for castrati is long gone, it would surely have been desirable to drop all the male parts down an octave or two and have men in men's parts.

Can do better Glyndebourne.  Maybe they could re-run the opera (minus the anachronisms of course) with Caesar as a bass and the other males as baritones.  That alone would generate great excitement, I fancy

From the opening scene

I would be remiss if I did not record my appreciation of the performances by Christopher Maltman and Danielle de Niese in the opera.  Maltman is multi-talented.  He is a singer who is also an accomplished acrobat!  And he acts well too.  His representation of Achilla represents a military man well.  It takes a man to portray a man!  Shockingly "sexist" of me, I know.

And the unfailing energy of Australian singer Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra is also impressive. She had some long arias to sing but her rich soprano voice never faltered and her facial expressions mirrored every word she sang.  She was no Cleopatra in looks and her dancing was very basic but her singing was awesome. She is a mixed-race ("Burgher") Sri Lankan by ancestry but was born and bred in Australia.

Here she is

I particularly enjoyed Cleopatra's triumphant aria towards the end of Act 3. It is probably not one of the "great" soprano arias but it is certainly one of the longest. And with Handel composing it is superb as well as long.  The immediate and huge applause that comes at the end of the aria is amply justified.

As I write this I am listening to the energetic and marvellous brass fanfare that introduces the end of the opera. Quite incredibly good. Handel never lets us down.

There is a further excerpt from the show online here

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A visitor from China

The Sinophilic man has run out of teaching jobs in China at the moment so is back home in beautiful downtown Kirrawee (in Sydney).  He has however enlivened his enforced soujourn away  from his adopted land by making a trip up to Brisbane to visit friends and relatives.

We go back a long way so I shouted him both a lunch and a dinner -- at two Japanese eaterys.  His Sinophilia is large and encompassing however so the Japanese theme was well received.  They all look the same, you know.  It also gave him a chance to try out his scraps of Japanese language on the serving staff, no doubt to their bemusement.

The first visit was yesterday (Tuesday) to the Mos burger  outlet at Sunnybank.  It's a Japanese fast food (but not very fast) joint which makes excellent hamburgers -- hamburgers unlike anything of Western origin.  They really have umami.

Also present were the entrepreneurial man plus associated ladies.  The Wagyu burgers were praised all-round.  We had peach tea to wash it down which was also a surprise to my guests -- but again very well-received.  A hamburger lunch CAN be greatly enjoyed.  The conversation was mostly jocular but the decline of Roman civilization was also discussed -- Carthage, seafaring Germans and all

The entrepreneurial man is the one with the monkish pate

Then tonight I shouted a visit to the Sunny Doll, where I usually dine of an evening.  Present on this occasion were the three men only -- women were not invited so secret men's business could be discussed.  At the Mos burger place I had ordered for everyone but this time everyone ordered for themselves. I stuck to my usual order but the others had varieties of raw fish.  The entrepreneurial man had at one time spent a year in Japan so actually managed to place his order in Japanese, rather to the amusement of the waitress.

The conversation was again mostly jocular but doubts about the historicity of Mohammed were raised.

After the dinner we repaired to my place for a blast from the past -- a bottle of Barossa Pearl, to the amusement of my guests.  They drank it with no signs of pain, however

Entrees on the table.  Pork Gyoza in my case and suspicious-looking fish elsewhere

I thought it would be amusing to post the docket I got at the end of the dinner.

It shows an embarrassingly cheap dinner but I am not easily embarrassed.  In my  long experience, the quality and price of  restaurant dinners tend to be inversely correlated -- with the Sunny Doll being an extreme example of that.

Note from the docket what the Sinophilic man had as his main course:  Flied Lice. Considering he was at  a very capable Japanese restaurant, how Sinophilic can you get?

The last two entries were for tea. I seem to have got my peach tea (iced) for free

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Crimond and curd

When I end up in hospital, I always go to the Wesley,  Brisbane's most highly esteemed private hospital. My health insurance is generous.  And the default dinner there is meat & 3 veg. I always look at it with amusement.  It is as if my mother were still alive.  Some people are lucky enough to have a mother still alive when they are in their 60s and even 70s.  I am not one of those -- but my mother's cookery was traditional  -- probably healthy but very boring.  So I always try something different from that when I can. But for my first night in hospital, I eat it with good grace.

So I was pleased that something I acquired recently was a taste sensation: Passionfruit and mango curd.  I thought I was really onto something out of the usual.  But when I looked at the label, that thought was crushed.  It was a supermarket's own brand.  I had bought it from Woolworths so I should have known.

But the point is that house brands are usually of very popular lines.  So LOTS of people must like and buy that curd.  I may have made a discovery for me but it was evidently not much of a discovery in general.  So it was brought home to me that even in food I have a lot to learn.  I may know about kumara chips and doda burfees but something as simple and delicious as a fruit curd had eluded me.

And what has curd got to do with Crimond?  Nothing.  Both were simply things I was looking into at the same time.

The most esteemed Psalm would have to be Psalm 23:  "The Lord is my shepherd ...".  It is a wonderful psalm that has been set to music many times.  Bach even did a superb version.  But it is not only the music but also the words that changes. Hebrew poetry does not come out as poetry when you translate it directly into English.  So you have to rejig the words in some way to make the psalm singable in English.

I was not fully aware of that.  I was aware that the version in the Anglican prayer book was different from the version in the King James Bible but assumed that everybody used the prayer book version.  I could not have been more wrong.  I keep both books on my table in front of me so I checked.  The prayer book version is TOTALLY unsingable and the King James version is not much better.

So where do we get the version in our hymn books?  We get it from Crimond.  Crimond is a small town in Northern Scotland where the religion is pretty fundamentalist, meaning that they take the Bible, including the psalms, pretty seriously.  I was once one of them so I like them for that.  And they have their own Scottish psalter (book of psalms in singable form): The Scottish Psalter of 1650, to be precise.  And the words of psalm 23 in that book were set to music by a young Scotswoman who lived in Crimond. It proved a very popular setting so the tune we all now sing is known as Crimond.  Below are the words concerned:

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want.
He maketh me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again;
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
Even for His own Name's sake.

Yea, though I walk in death's dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill;
For Thou art with me; and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

My table Thou hast furnished
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me;
And in God's house forevermore
My dwelling place shall be.

I am still very responsive emotionally to the Protestant religion of my youth so it still gives me great joy to listen to that

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New year's eve

When people asked me what I was going to be doing on New year's eve, they seemed to find my reply rather pitiable. I would say that Anne was going to come over and cook me a nice dinner. So I want to say why my new year's eve was a little better than you might think

Anne did come over and cook me some nice "Italian" meatballs with salad -- to which I added Beerenberg "Diane" sauce. Before that, however we had horse doovers of fruity cheese and Kenny's Kumara chips -- "diretta importata da" New Zealand. Von brought them over for me last time she was here and I kept them for a special occasion. They are potato crisps made from sweet potatoes and are much more flavorful than the standard crisps. They are very more-ish.

For much of the rest of the evening Anne and I listened to a medley of music -- some classical and some traditional. We particularly enjoyed "Westering home", a joyous Scottish song with strongly marked rhythms. We got out the lyrics and sang along. "Westering" is a Scottish word meaning "travelling Westward". Islay is of course roughly due West of Glasgow. They distil good Scotch there, including Laphroaig ($179.00 per bottle from my local discounter)

Drinking Laphroaig at Islay

And when midnight came I was listening to "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma variations. Most people probably find it rather boring but if you have any sensitivity to classical music, I think it will transfix you. It does me. There is a video here of a Greek orchestra playing Nimrod which shows a violinist who really "gets" it. Sometimes there is a rightness in Mediterranean emotionality

Mind you, the version of Nimrod that I was listening to was performed by the band of H.M. Royal Marines -- a most distinguished military corps (Mr Obama once pronounced "corps" as if it were spelled "corpse". What a clown! It is of course pronounced as "core") -- so had a touch of the triumphant as well as being elegiac. And given that Elgar was notable as a composer of triumphant music, I think that the performance I was listening to was at least odds on to be closest to Elgar's intentions.

It is a crescendo of sorts so starts very quietly but it was in full flight when midnight struck. So I felt that Nimrod was a very good way indeed of celebrating the advent of a new year. I was tempted to call it musical fireworks but, like most 20th century English classical music, it is wistful rather than assertive -- but emotionally powerful despite that.