Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto

I first heard the remarkable Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, in 2001 at a Huntington Music Festival – he was then in his early twenties and I remember being amazed by his versatility: dynamism coupled with tenderness. Also at that festival was a young Benjamin Martin – now a leading Australian pianist. As a part of his diverse career as soloist and composer, Pekka is Artistic Director of the ACO Collective – described as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ‘regional touring and education ensemble’ of ‘emerging’ professional string players.

Pekka and ACO collective

Pekka Kuusisto leading the ACO Collective

Pekka is a good friend of composer Nico Muhly (who worked as an editor of Philip Glass), and the two came together last December to present a memorable concert.

Pekka 2

Pekka Kuusisto

After a five minute ‘Drone Meditation’, which maybe served as a kind of warm-up, we heard a duet for two violins by Steve Reich, played by Pekka and Harry Ward, which demonstrated the idea of canons ‘drifting out of sync’ while the ACO strings shimmered away in the background. There was then an arrangement for strings of Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here. Originally a string quartet, the piece depicts a couple’s long-term relationship. After interval we heard Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise. The piece depicts the many colours of Birds of Paradise and large sections of the music were bird calls.

Pekka 4There was a world première of Welsh composer Alex Mills’s One is Fun, which was described in the program notes as ‘a constant state of intrigued stress’ – a push and pull effect created by the two violin soloists (Pekka, and Liisa Pallandi). The final programmed piece was another world première of Nico Muhly’s, Shrink: Concerto for Violin and Strings, which had been commissioned by the ACO and Melbourne Recital Centre. As the composer tells us, each of the three movements ‘obsesses’ over certain intervals – ninths in the first movement, sixths in the second and in the final movement ‘a tiny set of anxious intervals between unisons and fourths’. He describes the unisons as ‘coming in and out of focus’.

Nico Muhly 2

Nico Muhly in his studio

This was indeed a mind-blowing concert. But it didn’t end with the final programmed item. The concert program invited audience members to ‘please get a drink and join us back… for Breaking Ground, a special duo set that will include improvisation and Finnish folk songs’. What generosity! After their demanding concert program, Nico Muhly played piano and, as well as improvising on his violin, Pekka, at times, sang and whistled. One could sense the pure joy of music-making shared by these two extremely talented musicians.

Nico Muhly and Pekka 1

Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly







Little Women: ‘Moral pap for the young’?

Why have so many movies been made of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? The latest, directed by Greta Gerwig, was released in Melbourne cinemas on 1st January. I haven’t seen all of the other four movies: the first was made in 1918 and has, unfortunately, been ‘lost’. There was one, directed by George Cukor, released in 1933 and I think as a child I was taken to the 1949 movie, billed as ‘The world’s greatest love story’ — which would surely make Louisa May Alcott writhe in her grave. Another version was made in 1994.

Little Women 1949 the world's greatest love story

Little Women is closely autobiographical and it is fascinating to ponder how Louisa May Alcott’s feminism in the 1860s still resonates with issues faced by women today. But why not tell Louisa May Alcott’s story — minus all that wholesome do-gooding that presumably helped to sell the book in the mid nineteenth century?  Louisa May Alcott seems to have seen the book as geared for the contemporary public appetite and is said to have described the book as ‘moral pap for the young’.

Jo is recognised as Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego. In the 2019 movie much is made of Jo being told by her publisher that, for the book to be published, the heroine must either marry or die at the end of the story. Hence, the rather implausible marriage of Jo at the very end, although Louisa May Alcott never married. According to a wikipedia entry she once said: ‘I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body… because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man’.

Louisa May Alcott

Some great actresses have played Jo. As a child when I saw June Allyson as Jo I thought of her as rather ‘boyish’ and was surprised that she was so upset about cutting her hair, which she did to raise money to help with finances when her father was wounded in the Civil War. (Elizabeth Taylor was Amy.) The various ‘Jos’ reflect the contemporary conception of an 1860s feminist.

In 1918 it was Dorothy Bernard:

Jo Little women 1918 Dorothy Bernard

In 1933 Katharine Hepburn was a fine choice for Jo, although she looks more ‘feminine’ than in some of her later roles:

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933 Little Women

Then, as mentioned, in 1949 Jo was played by June Allyson who, perhaps ironically, was pregnant at the time:

June Allyson as Jo in Little Women (2)

In the 1994 movie Jo was played by Winoma Ryder:

Denise Di Novi as Jo Little Women 1994


In the latest movie, Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan:

Saoirse Ronan as Jo Little Women 2019


There does seem to be a progression from 1918 to 2019 towards a Jo who is freer from feminine constraints. But do we now know more about 1860s feminism than we did in 1994? Excellent acting. Maybe greater emphasis on Jo’s mission to be a writer: the 2019 movie starts in the middle of the story with Jo visiting a prospective publisher. (Another big name actor is Meryl Streep, in the role of Aunt March.) I did find the skipping around with chronology a little challenging — the scenes are so short,one hardly has time to orient oneself before we’ve gone back (or forward) in time.

Little Women 2019 1

I’d like to know more about the life of Louisa May Alcott. She died in 1888 — a time when what I had thought of as a first wave of feminism was emerging: women threw themselves in front of horses, burnt letters in pillar boxes and went on hunger strikes to assert the need for their independence to be recognised. But Louisa May Alcott was asserting her own independence at least 20 years earlier.


Her family moved about a great deal when she was young: 22 moves in 30 years. Her father sounds like an idealist — hoping to establish a utopian community, setting up an experimental school — nothing that brought in money. So Louisa and her sisters worked to support the family — at times Louisa was a teacher, a seamstress, a governess, a domestic worker and, ultimately, a writer. She wrote a lot of pieces for magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly. She was determined not to be poor (Jo expresses similar views). Louisa was the first woman to register to vote (in a school board election) in Concord Massachusetts. Through Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, Louisa found parallels between her life and Charlotte Bronte’s.

When the American Civil War broke out Louisa served as a nurse and contracted Typhoid, from which she recovered, although it may have contributed to her early death at the age of 55. During her illness she wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals using humour through a character, Tribulation Periwinkle. Her father wrote a poem that warmly expressed his pride in her.

Apart from Little Women and associated books, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott wrote twelve novels under her own name, three more as A.M. Barnard, one anonymous and many other short story collections and ‘novelettes’. What a fascinating life!

Little Women 2019 2
















Adam Roberts

I discovered Adam Roberts this year and so far have read two of his books, The Snow and The Black Prince. This year Tony Thomas gave a comprehensive talk about Adam Roberts to a Science Fiction group, the Nova Mob, and I will draw on  Tony’s talk in this piece.

Adam Roberts 1

Adam Roberts is an extraordinarily prolific writer, as Tony describes:

Adam Charles Roberts was born on 30 June 1965, which makes him 54 now. He apparently spent his early life reading sf and then his twenties pursuing his academic career while still reading sf. In 2000 when his first novel Salt was published and he was 35 he was a lecturer at the University of London, specialty 19th century literature, thesis on the poet John Clare. Later he was a Reader and now he’s a Professor of 19th Century literature – his day job he calls it – at Royal Holloway, London University and lives in Berkshire with his wife Rachel and has two children. The Professorship he holds apparently is the same one formerly held by J. I. M. Stewart, better known as crime writer Michael Innes.

Adam Roberts Nova Mob

So, as well as being a Professor of 19th Century literature, Roberts manages to consistently produce a couple of very good novels each year.

The first Adam Roberts book I read was The Snow.  As Tony Thomas says,  it begins as a standard disaster novel in the mode perhaps of Wyndham or early Ballard: The Day of the Triffids, or The Wind from Nowhere. Here the snow comes from nowhere, and continues to fall each day, and continues to fall. London streets and houses are gradually covered, with inhabitants moving to upper stories, and travelling by rooftops. Eventually the snow is three miles thick over the whole earth, billions have died.

Adam Roberts The Snow

All forms of communication cease. We don’t know exactly why this has happened: maybe an experiment gone wrong or maybe it’s the extra-terrestrials? Somehow Tira and a few other (total 150,000) people survive by living underground in airlocks – such as an abandoned office building. Tira is rescued by Americans who have established a military society, in a place called Liberty, above where the US is located (‘NUSA’, the New USA). The survivors are all military minded — most Democrats don’t make it. Tony suggests that Roberts was imagining something like Donald Trump’s current cabinet. They somehow have sufficient drones and aircraft for this society but it is, apparently, never possible (or else they keep it secret) to explore the rest of the world – is Australia under 3 miles of snow? One of the things I liked about this book was the writing style. At first it is conventional narrative, but then there are bits written as legal documents – confessions. People’s names are blanked out, as they might be under a repressive regime. This device helps to make the whole extraordinary idea more plausible.

Tony points out that most reviewers didn’t like the novel, finding the snow bore too much allegorical weight – ‘veering dangerously into allegory of darkest entropy: personal, political, planetary’ – writes John Clute, but Roberts is more subtle than this, and as usual too there’s quite a lot of relieving humour, which many reviewers also didn’t like.

The second Adam Roberts book I read this year was The Black Prince. I’ll hand over to Tony Thomas for a full description:

The Black Prince is Adam Roberts’s first historical novel, and it’s great. It was commissioned by the Anthony Burgess estate based on an unpublished script by Burgess left after his death. Just a shortish script, which Roberts (a great admirer of Burgess) expanded and embellished to make a novel. He originally incorporated quite a bit of Burgess’s dialogue, but lost most of this in subsequent revisions as the dialogue didn’t seem suited to the novel he was creating, so we’ve ended up with a work much more Roberts than Burgess. It was published by the crowd funding publisher Unbound, with the help of 434 supporters …  Once the required amount of money had been accumulated, the book was able to be published, and contributors received a signed copy of the first edition hard copy, plus, depending on the amount of their contribution, various other gifts such as signed earlier books by the author. The contributor giving the most got copies of all the Burgess books Roberts had read before launching into the project, ie the whole of Burgess’s rather extensive oeuvre, sf, novels, non-fiction and all.

Adam Roberts 3

But back to The Black Prince itself. And first a little historical background. Edward, the Black Prince (1330-1376) was the eldest son of King Edward III of England, and thus heir and Prince of Wales, but he died before his father and so his son Richard succeeded to the throne instead, as Richard II. Edward, the Black Prince (black for his armour) was an important commander in the hundred years war, mainly in France, but also in Spain, where he was involved in the important and still remembered battles of Cressy, Poitiers, Najera, and Limoges (in this latter case the town was besieged and sacked and everyone in the town, on Edward’s orders, was slaughtered. This very bloody encounter forms nearly the final chapter of the novel, probably the point at which reviewer Margaret Drabble had to stop reading, as she suggests in her favourable review in the TLS.) Four or five hundred years later, England was still doing the same thing to France. Many of these names will be familiar to students of history, not to mention readers of Shakespeare, whose second historical tetralogy begins with Richard II (the Black Prince’s son), and in which John of Gaunt, Edward’s brother and fellow campaigner in France, is an important character. Richard II is deposed by John of Gaunt’s son, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the man who became Henry IV and featured in two further Shakespeare plays.

So Roberts had to write about a world somewhat familiar to us in broad outline, but very unfamiliar in its day to day details. It is hard for us now to know what life was like for those living, fighting, and dying in it. Clearly research will fill some of these holes, and fantasy authors have similar issues to face in creating their worlds. But as  Roberts writes in a blog on this subject in June this year, there’s more to it than this:

Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I’d argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.

Adam Roberts 4

Roberts goes on to say: A historical novel doesn’t have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: world building an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn’t estrange has failed, I think.

Tony Thomas then asks: So what does Roberts do to achieve his estrangement? He adopts some experimental techniques copied from Dos Passos via Burgess… Interspersed with the more usual prose sections are, firstly, twenty short Newsreels, modelled on the old Pathé Newsreels, just headlines and a few words, widening the narrative so we get some potted history, some trivial events of the time, songs, some feeling for a wider world – but in a very deliberately fragmented way. The other interspersed sections, Camera Eye, mimic what a camera might see in the hands of an expert director, cutting from one view to another, revealing a character’s thoughts and memories in broken stream-of-consciousness half sentences. But the main part of the novel is carried in the sections given to individual characters, with two of them reappearing several times at different stages of their lives: Edward the Black prince himself and a commoner and sometime soldier in Edward’s army, Black George. The woman who becomes Edward’s wife (in her third marriage), Joan, called the Fair Maid of Kent, in her reappearing sections introduces the only element of fantasy into this novel, as she is a wise woman who can to some extent see the future. Little however is made of this, except for the effect that it has on her own actions, and the need for her to be careful not to be called a witch, a danger for even a high-born woman like Joan. The multiple sections allow Roberts to introduce a wide range of characters from different classes, and have them speaking in their own voices, which he writes was “fun” – but more than this, I think, it expands our vision to a whole world, and a very unfamiliar world.

I loved the way that Roberts showed us 14th century vistas, swooping over scenes of 14th century France like a film camera.  The writing made this time come to life, for me, even more than Hilary Mantel has done. The descriptions of bubonic plague and bloodthirsty battle are horrific – we feel what it was like to be in a suit of armour when suffering from dysentry. And we even hear the arrows whistle through the air in battle.

Thanks to Tony Thomas for the excerpts from his Nova Mob paper on Adam Roberts.


A Symphonic Universe

Brian Cox 4

Most of us are familiar with Professor Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics at The University of Manchester, The Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society. We have seen him in many TV programs. Professor Cox has the enviable ability, shared with my hero, the late Oliver Sacks, to speak about complex aspects of science in a way that is intelligible to a non-scientist.

Brian Cox

On Sunday 17th November (and the performance had also been given two days earlier) there was a remarkable coming together of science and the arts — in this instance, the art form of music. As Professor Cox said, ‘You will not find meaning at the end of a telescope’.

While the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played, extraordinary photographs of the limits of space and black holes were projected onto a screen behind the orchestra and between the pieces of music, Professor Cox spoke in his easy, almost casual way. The orchestra was conducted by Benjamin Northey.

First we heard the Allegro Molto movement from Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5, which was written during World War I — characterised by a dramatic woodwind theme where, as Donald Tovey said, Thor swings his hammer. This piece provided an affirming introduction to thinking about the powerful and unconquerable presence of our universe.

Brian Cox 7

We then heard a world premier of A Brief History, by Australian composer Paul Dean, for violin and orchestra — the violin played by Jack Liebeck. The piece is dedicated to Professor Stephen Hawking who, during his extraordinarily productive life advanced scientific understanding on a par, at least, with Albert Einstein. Wagnerian brassy chords at the begininng acknowledge Hawking’s love for that composer and provide, as Dean says,  a sense of ‘the incomprehensible openness of space’. The piece is loosely biographical: in the early part Hawking is depicted as grappling with research of immense proportions, then there is a section reflecting his fun and sense of humour. He then confronts his illness, after which, in Dean’s words, the music combines ‘the power of the universe with his own power of survival against the odds’. There is a final soliloquy on solo violin  — a homage to the great professor to ‘wish him well as he takes flight into the unknown’.

Brian Cox 2

The musical program finished with Mahler, the Adagio from Symphony no. 10, which was composed near the end of the composer’s life when he is thought to have moved beyond a period of intense turmoil.

After the concert, there was a discussion between Professor Cox, Benjamin Northey and Jack Liebeck. This, for me, provided some realisation of the powerfulness of bringing together superb artistic creation and dazzling scientific research. Discussion, for example, about the perception of time in science, compared to its control and manipulation in music. I went away pondering Professor Cox’s words: ‘What makes life valuable is that it is finite’.

Brian Cox 5

Music and Art: Roger Kemp

Students of Australian National Academy of Music, curated by ANAM faculty member, percussionist, Peter Neville, performed a fascinating concert: ‘A Choreography of the Spirit’ in a gallery of paintings by Australian abstract artist, Roger Kemp (1908 – 1987). We sat in a gallery that displayed Kemp’s later works while the ANAM students performed music inspired by Kemp’s work.

Roger Kemp 1

Kemp was a young artist in the 1940s when the Ballet Rambert came to Melbourne — it had a tremendous influence on many young artistic people, particularly Kemp, whose early paintings are full of rhythm and some actually seem to be choreographed. It was therefore appropriate to start the concert with Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz. This was followed by a masterfully arranged selection of Bach, jazz, Mozart flute quartet, ending with Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti (1967). I never thought I would like Thelonious Monk played on harspichord — but the arrangement of Epistrophy worked well.

Roger Kemp 3

There was no break in the music — it had been arranged so that Coltrane flowed into Bach, which flowed into Monk. Kemp’s work became more abstract and the figures in his later works merge into the design itself. We sat there, listening, and taking in the abstract shapes that danced around us.

Roger Kemp 5



Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler, who wrote the play Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, claims not to be a scientist. Neither am I, but I do think that the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA — the structure of our unique genetic code —  must be one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century.  So much that we already take for granted has developed from this discovery, announced in February 1953: pre-natal screening for disease genes, ability to identify human remains and to accurately analyse evidence that can convict or exonerate criminals, to list but a few examples.

Photo 51 watson and crick.jpg

For me, the play lacked passion and energy. Maybe this was partly the Melbourne Theatre Company production — a bare stage setting, aptly introduced by Mary Finisterer’s music, written especially for the play — I didn’t notice it after the introduction, which suggests it was probably well-suited and not over-intrusive.

Photo 51 Nadine Garner

Nadine Garner as Rosalind Franklin

It is believed that scientists Watson and Crick appropriated Rosalind Franklin’s work on X-ray diffraction photography enabling them to be recognised as the ‘discoverers’ of the double-helix structure and to be awarded the Nobel Prize whereas Franklin was overlooked (not helped by the fact that she died of ovarian cancer before the prize was awarded).

Photo 51 Crick and Watson

Crick and Watson

It is said that on the day that Watson and Crick ‘confirmed’ their ‘discovery’ Crick went into The Eagle pub and blurted out, ‘We have found the secret of life!’ and the play makes much of the role of personality in scientific inquiry. The double-helix is a pairing, and Watson and Crick worked well together whereas Franklin and her work partner, Wilkins, did not.

The play refers to what is presumably a fact, that one weekend Franklin and Wilkins separately went to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, but didn’t talk to each other although Wilkins did see that Franklin was there. A shame that something couldn’t have been made about false accusation, or a statue coming to life.

Photo 51

I came away from the play feeling rather flat — had I missed something? Was it the stark stage setting? The only props were models of the DNA structure which, with lighting, blended together as did Crick and Watson, elated by their ‘discovery’. Certainly, the reserved, serious female scientist was overlooked — she didn’t attempt to ‘sell’ herself or her discovery. She died at the age of thirty-seven — possibly her ovarian cancer was caused by exposure to X-ray during the course of her work.

Discussion of Lily Campbell’s Secret on Community Radio

Here is a podcast of a recent broadcast on the 3CR program Published or Not where we discuss my book, Lily Campbell’s Secret


ANAM Concerto Competition

Today, Sunday 29th September, we heard the Melbourne final of the ANAM Concerto Competition at the ANAM ‘home’: the South Melbourne Town Hall. As the director said, in his introduction to the concert, the Australian National Academy of Music is not a competitive institution — the musicians there work collaboratively to perform at their very best. But this competition is an annual event. We were hearing the ‘Melbourne Final’, where the three finalists perform their concertos with piano accompaniment and the audience votes for a ‘winner’. In a week’s time, the same musicians will perform in Hobart with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and professional judges will decide on a winner. I’ll keep you posted…


South Melbourne Town Hall: home of ANAM

The concert opened with Cassandra Slater playing Ibert’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra Opus 37, written in 1934. The considerable task of playing a piano reduction of all the orchestra parts was performed by ANAM associate artist Louisa Breen.

ANAM Concerto Ibert 2

Jacques Ibert

Cassandra played with a beautiful ringing tone — plenty of dynamic variation and, what seemed to me, flawless technique. What I found most admirable was her engagement with the audience. Although Cassandra played with music in front of her, this was in no way a barrier between her and the audience — she looked at us frequently and she moved appropriately with the music: she seemed to ‘live’ the music.

ANAM Concerto Ibert 3

Cassandra Slater, flautist

After the Ibert we heard Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, performed by Johnny van Gend and the fearsome orchestral reduction was performed superbly on piano by  Peter de Jager.

ANAM Concerto Bartok 1

Bela Bartok

This substantial work is almost twice as long as the Ibert flute concerto. Johnny played the whole piece from memory. This should have freed him to communicate with the audience, but I did feel that it was a more cerebral performance than Cassandra’s — he played beautifully, but I felt as though he was locked into his own brain rather than sharing his musicianship with us. It is an exciting piece of music and Johnny and Peter displayed both its fiery and lyrical themes.

Anam Concerto Bartok Johnny

Johnny van Gend, violinist

There was an interval, then we were treated to a performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for ‘cello and orchestra, composed in 1950. This is one of my favourite pieces of music — a late work; Prokofiev had experienced the Russian revolutions, Stalinism, and his life had witnessed the holocaust and two world wars — much of this seems to me to be encapsulated in this work.

ANAM Concerto James Morley

James Morley, ‘cellist

James Morley and Leigh Harold (associate artist — piano) gave a fine performance. James played from memory, and he played to the audience — his sound is resonant and beautiful with an evenness that extended to some of the very high notes in the music.

Up to interval, I was giving my vote to Cassandra — she lived the music and conveyed this feeling to the audience. Johnny’s playing was technically excellent — and the piece he had chosen was challenging — but he hadn’t reached my heart. But now, having heard James Morley play, I was torn. It is difficult enough to compare two different instruments — particularly from two different families, woodwind and strings. How much more difficult when  one piece (the ‘cello concerto) is more substantial than the other. When it comes to concerto competitions, wind players may be at a disadvantage. Has anything like the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante (or, indeed the Bartok concerto) been written for flute? Some may challenge this, but I don’t think so. What does a judge do? Cassandra probably couldn’t have chosen a better piece of music (indeed the Ibert is a fine piece) but, as they say, it’s like judging apples and oranges. In the end, I gave my vote to James playing the Prokofiev. In a week’s time, we will know the result of the professional judges after the performances with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.


Astra and Inland : a pleasing mix of contemporary and medieval music

One of the first concerts I went to as a primary school student was the Astra Ladies Orchestra — probably thought appropriate because it showed that women could, unassisted, put on an orchestral concert. I remember giggling at the ladies in floppy pink dresses. I think that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was on the program. By the time I was at secondary school and during my student days, George Logie-Smith had taken over the orchestra — he added a choir (and men) — and, indeed, I sometimes played oboe in the orchestra. I recall it as fairly traditional fare, but he apparently included composers such as Bartok, Britten and Penderecki.

Astra George LogieSmith

The days of George Logie-Smith

Forty years ago John McCaughey took over Astra — he is still their Musical Director. My impression at the time was that he had vision — he could see that there were quite a few competent choirs around Melbourne — how could Astra be something special? He took on new music and encouraged commissions particularly from Australian composers. He is quoted as having said: ‘Music has to renew itself or it dies, and there is a feeling that a lot of it is dying’. Thanks to organisations such as Astra and John McCaughey, music in Melbourne is far from dying. This is apparent when we attend an Astra concert — such as the one I heard in the Church of All Nations last night, where McCaughey had deftly interposed Stravinsky, music composed within the last couple of years, and medieval music. The concert was presented by Astra and Inland, a group of instrumentalists with aims and styles similar to those of Astra, presenting new and unfamiliar music.

Astra choir at Church oF all Nations.jpg

The program flowed from one item to the next with applause only at interval and at the end of the concert.

Interposed between instrumental compositions (of 2018 and 2019) by Filippo Perocco and Anthony Pateras were  excerpts from Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, which we were told in comprehensive program notes offered ‘both a metaphor for the concert… and a musical source radiating to different forms of future and past’. Apparently Stravinsky (in his late 70s) took a long time to compose this work, reaching to medieval and folk music and the serial world of 12-tone music. The Agon excerpts were brilliantly played on two pianos by Kim Bastin and Joy Lee.

Astra Agon ballet

Dancing the Argon ballet — although the performances at this concert were purely instrumental

Between Agon Parts III and IV were two superb pieces for choir by Stravinsky,  The Dove Descending (from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) and an arrangement of Full Fathom Five from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Astra stravisnksy agon

Stravinsky at a rehearsal of Argon in the 1950s

After interval the choir and two soloists sang, in Italian, Giovanna Dongu’s Rising Through the Mellow Shade, composed in 2018. It was a first performance. The words are by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Many a night I saw the  Pleiads rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Astra quarter-tone bass flute

Quarter-tone bass flute

There was another first performance: Rohan Drape’s Chalk (2019) played by Rebecca Lane, quarter-tone bass flute, Jon Heilbron, double bass and electronics devised by Rebecca and Jon and manipulated by Rohan Drape. There was a 14th Century madrigal followed by a first performance of Riccardo Vaglini’s Ave Maria (2019) for two sopranos and choir, and a piece for double bass by Jon Heilbron, there are wild fires (2019) segued into Maura Capuzzo’s O falce di luna (1995) for choir and double bass. Then came James Rushford’s Leyning (2019) for two portativ organs and electronics (another first performance) — based on the Jewish tradition of textual chanting.

Astra Jon Heilbron

Jon Heilbron

The concert finished with a 14th century Ballata for voices and instruments, sung in Italian, Ecco la primavera, by Francesco Landini, the blind organist of San Lorenzo.

Astra portativ organ 2

Portativ organ

What a program! Congratulations to McCaughey and Astra for promoting so much new music and for giving us in the audience such a rewarding experience.


In 1962, Stanislaw Lem wrote his masterful science fiction classic, Solaris. It was the year after Russia had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

Solaris 6

Lem’s story takes place on a space station that is orbiting a planet Solaris – there is lack of progress – why? Scientist/ psychologist Kelvin is sent to find out what is going on. He finds a crew haunted by ghosts of figures from their pasts. And this soon befalls him when he is ‘visited’ by his dead wife.

Solaris 3

The planet Solaris is surrounded by a mysterious ocean that disturbingly probes the deepest recesses of the human mind. This ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is not apparent. Can the scientists understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts? As Lem says, ‘Man has gone out to explore other worlds … without having explored his own’ [page 164].

Solaris 1

A play, based on Lem’s book, written by David Greig, was staged at the Malthouse Theatre earlier this year.  The main ingredients of Lem’s novel are retained, although scientist Kelvin is a woman. Greig says of the experience of Gagarin’s historic flight, ‘It was as if, after 100,000 years of human existence, we were suddenly offered a mirror. It was a strange and disorienting experience.’ (Malthouse Theatre program notes) The realisation that we may not be alone is strangely disorienting, and, in the play and the book, the characters are confronted with the question, do we or don’t we attempt to make contact?

Solaris 5

A film has been made of Solaris, and I have not yet seen it. Film may be a more successful medium because it can be more versatile. The stage provides an excellent opportunity for conveying people confined in a space station — and this was portrayed with alarming reality. But the sea, which for me was central to the story — a constant, looming presence – could not be conveyed successfully on stage. The sea was shown by film, but the way it was done, between the many deftly executed scene changes, inevitably emphasised the psychology of the claustrophobic space station more than the powers of the manipulating and mysterious sea. Nevertheless, the central message of Solaris comes across: that humankind has ventured into other worlds without thoroughly examining its own.

Solaris 4

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