littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Cow: A film directed by Andrea Arnold

What is it like to be an animal? This film takes us a long way from anthropomorphic attempts to assume that animals have feelings like human beings. But what is it like to be a cow? Luma, who lives on a state of the art dairy farm in Kent, England stares at us (or into the camera) with what has been described as ‘mysterious placidity’ https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jul/08/cow-review-andrea-arnold-first-documentary-is-meaty-slice-of-bovine-socio-realism.

The film runs for well over an hour and during that time we are with Luma as she goes about the routine of her life — her raison d’être is to provide milk. We first see her giving birth — the film was made over a four year period. The calf is pulled out with rope — this seems to be standard. There is a touching scene where Luma licks her calf clean, the calf tries to suckle, but is taken away and hand fed and, the after-birth still trailing, Luma is encouraged into the electric milking machines.

Cruel? Probably not as large-scale dairy farms go. Extraordinarily, there is no narration, although we hear the farm-workers talk to the cows in a kindly way (even if ‘girlies’ is a bit inappropriate). Luma is called by her name and on the whole gently enticed into the milking machines and the pen where, a few months later, she is mated again and there is another pregnancy. In spring, the cows spend time in lush green fields and they trot willingly (of necessity?) back to be milked. My sense was that they know what is going on. When her calf is taken away from her, Luma’s mooing is plaintive — the calf calls out and she answers — this goes on for some time, some days, I think. Of course we immediately transfer this experience to the thought of a human child being taken from its mother — but Luma was upset. Distraught, one might say.

In an interview, the director Andrea Arnold said, ‘They say the difference between humans and animals is that we can see the past and think about the future, but I could see that Luma knew what’s coming when she’s pregnant. She got particularly mad when she saw the farmer taking away a calf from another cow.’

The film is said to follow the approach of the cinema vérité of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) about the life of a donkey who ends up with various owners most of whom treat him callously. Andrea Arnold says that the film is not intended to be political, but ‘a presentation of life’. She chose a cow because they work so hard. However, as we left the cinema people were proclaiming, ‘I’m never going to drink a latté again’. I had feared that there would be scenes of slaughter, but Arnold chose a dairy farm. Luma worked until she had provided pretty much every drop of milk possible. By the end of the movie she is old, having had at least six calves. Her udders are grossly enlarged from so much milking — to the extent that she has trouble walking. A humane end? She is taken into a reasonably spacious pen, given a bucket of what I presumed is pleasant food, and quickly shot.

My feeling is that this film will be viewed in a political light by many — even if this isn’t the intention of the director. Luma’s life may well have been better than that of many cattle (in a Q & A after the film we were given some insight into an appalling situation in India — home of the sacred cow). For how long can the world justify industries of this kind? Luma couldn’t have escaped — she was enslaved, albeit in a kinder and gentler fashion than in some other areas of the cattle industry.

Astra Concert: 21 Rational Melodies, 14 instruments, 7 composers

I remember being taken to Astra concerts when I was in primary school — a string orchestra of old ladies playing works such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Apparently the orchestra started officially in 1951, but there were concerts earlier than that. A little later, Astra was taken over by George Logie Smith — it was then a choir and orchestra, and by the 1970s I was playing oboe in the orchestra. I remember the music as fairly conventional, but perusal of Astra’s extensive archive suggests that this was not always the case https://www.astramusic.org.au/archive/browse/. In 1978, John McCaughey became director, and his vision has led the organisation into exciting territory and has brought to Melbourne leading-edge works and concerts such as the ’21 Rational Melodies…’ we heard on Saturday 27th August.

Andrew Byrne

The Church of All Nations was set up for a concert ‘in the round’, with chairs grouped around an assortment of keyboard and percussion instruments in the middle. The concert was curated by composer Andrew Byrne, who has worked in New York and Australia and is known here in Melbourne for his work with Chamber Made Opera https://chambermade.org/ . Indeed, as he said, the array of keyboard and percussion instruments provided ‘a glittering palette of sound’.

Tom Johnson (b 1939) is one of the American composers who founded ‘minimalism’ — perhaps better known through the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is believed to have coined the term. One of his compositions dating from 1982, but not performed before in Australia, is Rational Melodies, which, according to Andrew Byrne’s program notes, ‘offers a compendium of minimalist systematic procedures in 21 pieces’.

During the course of the evening we heard these twenty-one melodies, though not in numerical order but, perhaps more interestingly, five Melbourne composers had been invited to write responses to these melodies. For example, David Chesworth wrote two irrational melodies, surd 1 and 2 — an ancient mathematician had called irrational numbers ‘inaudible’. In phonetics, a ‘surd’ refers to voiceless consonants, uttered by breath and mouth: f,k,p,s,t. The program notes informed us that ‘Surd 1 combines phonetic surds with the expulsion of air from various organ bellows to create a subtle force that aerates the performance space, temporarily blowing away any residual pitches and patterns from Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies‘.

Quite different was Warren Burt’s electronic piece, Through the Studio Door, a reponse, he said, to the general permutation process used by Johnson, rather than to any one particular ‘melody’. As a piece of music I found this more satisfying than some of the other responses. I very much liked Catherine Schieve’s reponse: Three Foghorns for Rational Melodies. She describes her composition as ‘a performed soundscape surrounding a segment of Rational Melody performances… The foghorns appear “out of the mist” and create an ambient environment’. Each of the three pieces was aligned with a particular foghorn — for example, Foghorn 1 was Heceta Head, Oregon USA: ‘During obscure conditions, the horn will blast 3, over a slow count of 6, followed by a count of 7 rests’. The foghorns were performed by organs.

The concert was book-ended by Johnson’s melodies (as well as a scattering throughout the body of the concert). The final piece we heard was rational melody 15, played on the amazing array of harpsichord, organ positiv, celeste, regal, toy piano and qanun. The performers did an amazing job of switching from one (often obscure) instrument to another, they were: Alexander Meagher, Kate Tempany, Kim Bastin, Jennifer Yu, Vahideh Eisaei, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee.

Childless, by Sian Prior

I was attracted to Sian Prior’s memoir for two main reasons. My experience is a little different from hers (Does anyone have exactly the same experience?), but, like Sian, I have no living childen. In my case, I gave birth three times to premature boys. Secondly, I learned oboe from Sian’s mother, Margot, not long after the tragic time when Sian’s father drowned rescuing two young people in the surf. I had oboe lessons at their home and the children must have been young toddlers — there were often toys scattered on the living room floor and I used to think how desperately awful it must have been for the young mother and her three children — but I was too awkward and clumsy to say anything or even to acknowledge their situation.

Margot Prior
Sian Prior

Like so many of us, Sian assumed she would have children one day. Her descriptions of her relationships with other people’s children suggest she would have been a wonderful mother. She questioned her desire for motherhood in a world we are destroying through climate change — but her drive to have children eclipsed her perhaps more rational beliefs.

Remarkably, this is not a book of anger. And it is not a book of asking, why me? Sian investigated every possibiity. She weathered the heartbreak of miscarriages of babies conceived with her loving partner, and later, stoically, perhaps, she undertook IVF solo when her new partner had a large family of children already and didn’t want to produce any more.

Intertwined with Sian’s story of trying to have babies is her trying to know her father who drowned when she was only three months old, and wanting to produce a child who would carry some of his genes. She shares various traits: her father’s blond hair, his love of music… how wonderful to perpetuate these things through children.

Each time Sian loses a child is unique. Each time is a particular loss. I remember when I wrote about my experience a friend said ‘That’s probably helped you get over it.’ I expect everyone who has suffered a miscarriage or desperately wanted to conceive would agree, it is not something you ‘get over’. I still find it very difficult to answer the question ‘And do you have children?’

Sian has a special affinity with the sea. Surely it brings her closer to her father. Maybe now that there is no hope of becoming a mother, life has become bittersweet. At the end of the book, we leave her in the sea catching the waves: ‘I catch wave after wave, tasting my fifty years there in the sea. Clean, neutral, bittersweet.’

An evening with the Z.E.N. Trio

What is the magic that binds a chamber music trio – that causes three individual musicians, on different instruments to play as one? Maybe the answer is love. Each member of this trio lives in a different country – so it is rare to have the opportunity to come together to rehearse. Violinist, Esther Yoo says, ‘Regardless of how little or how much time has elapsed in between our meetings, we are always able to pick up right where we left off. It is quite easy for us to talk for hours, so we have to keep track of time – especially in rehearsals!’ Even with time together being so precious, just like good friends, the trio makes time to go to movies or shopping together and, each being a solo artist, to attend each other’s performances. ‘Z.E.N.’ is an acronym formed with an initial from each trio member, and a philosophical statement about their performance style.

Above everything else, at the concert I attended last Saturday, I was blown away by the music-making of this trio – a combination of utterly brilliant technique (I’m not sure I have ever heard such clear, crisp, brilliant piano work, or such mellowness on the high register notes of the violin) and breathing and performing as one.

Pianist Zhang Zuo is known as Zee Zee. She started her piano studies in Germany at the age of five, then returned to her native China, completing her studies at the Shenzhen Arts School. She was then invited to the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School (New York). She continues to receive guidance from Alfred Brendel. She has made recordings with prestigious orchestras such as the Philharmonia.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan seems to have played with most of the major orchestras of the world. His list of recitals and orchestral performances is most impressive. He was mentored by the late Rostropovich. He has won many awards, including First Prize at the Aram Khachaturian competition. Narek was born in Armenia and in 2017 was awarded the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’.

Violinist Esther Yoo’s interpretation is widely praised. She was born in the US, then was educated in Belgium and Germany – her heritage is Korean. She made her concerto debut at the age of eight.  Esther has performed concertos with celebrated conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. She featured prominently on the soundtrack of the film On Chesil Beach.

Thus each member of Z.E.N. is a virtuoso soloist. I think it’s quite exceptional that as well as being brilliant solo performers they can meld together to create the sublime music we heard on Saturday night.

The first item was a trio by a composer new to me: Arno Babajanian (1921 – 1983). He is Armenian – hence the interest of Narek, the cellist. The piece seemed to me a mixture of some familiar Russian music – Rachmaninoff, for example, although some of the folk melodies captured in the music are, apparently of Armenian origin. I particularly enjoyed the lively third movement, reminiscent (to me) of Kossak dancing.

Matthew Laing

We then had a world première performance. Australian composer Matthew Laing (b 1988) had been commissioned by Musica Viva – Graham Lovelock and Steven Singer – to compose his piece Little Cataclysms. Matthew Laing (who was present at the concert) was able to explain: ‘Piano trios naturally lend themselves to large-scale works, so I wanted to try and recreate that, just in small timeframes’. He said that the music is about ‘intimate, personal disasters in miniature form – like a deep-seeded memory awoken, reimagined changed or unchanged, then gone, where the reimagining informs the memory in the silence that follows’.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Z.E.N.’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op 90, ‘Dumky’. I am familiar with the trio, but this performance brought out aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. So poignant, so majestic and at times, so lively. I wanted to go away with the themes singing in my brain and was momentarily dismayed when, after much applause, I could see that the trio planned to play an encore. I didn’t want to tarnish the beautiful memory of the Dumky. The encore was the well-known Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d never heard it played like this. Such rippling joy! It was a fitting end to this memorable evening.

Z.E.N. Trio with Matthew Laing

American Writers Review 2022 is here!

Barry Lee Thompson

My contributor copy of the latest American Writers Review arrived yesterday. San Fedele Press has done it again, and produced a beautiful piece of art – a treasure trove of writing and images. I can’t wait to delve in.

American Writers Review 2022 | The End or the Beginning? (San Fedele Press)

To find out how you can lay your hands on a copy of this terrific literary journal, visit the link below:
American Writers Review

Happy reading and writing, as always.

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Kelly Rimmer: The German Wife

Kelly Rimmer was inspired to write The German Wife after a visit to the Parkes Radio Telescope Observatory, New South Wales. In the back of her book she is quoted: ‘I visited an exhibit about the US space program.  I saw how there was a line that said how German and US scientists worked together starting in 1950 in Huntsville Alabama to help the space program. I was determined to learn how that could happen and wanted to know about Operation Paperclip.’ Operation Paperclip was a controversial secret US intelligence program that employed former members of the Nazi party (some, members of the SS) at the end of World War II. Instead of going to trial at Nürnberg, Germany, where former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal, these men were quietly transported to the US where their experience and skills could be put to use building the Space Program.

Operation Paperclip

In Germany, these scientists had been working on ‘rocketry’ – the rockets they designed for Hitler were used as weapons. The design of these ‘weapons’ had been possible before the declaration of war because of an omission in the Treaty of Versailles, which forbad the development of weapons, but did not mention ‘rockets’.

Probably the most famous of these Nazi scientists is Wernher von Braun – whom I am ashamed to say, I mainly remember in the comedy Dr Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers.

Kelly Rimmer has developed a character, Jürgen Rhodes, who in some ways resembles von Braun, although the story of his wife and family life is fiction. By using this device, Rimmer can draw us into the situation that may have been faced by Nazi families and can show the degree to which they may have been compelled to carry out the instructions of the Führer.

Records tell us that at the Nürnberg trials, many of the Nazi officials pleaded that, in relation to the abominable crimes they were accused of, they were only carrying out instructions. I have always thought this unspeakably weak. On their shoulders is what is probably the worst genocide known to humanity. They witnessed the killings, the cruelty, the starvation… Kelly Rimmer’s book gives us a moment when we can experience what it may have been like to be under the pressure of the Nazi regime – watching as your children were brainwashed at school, believing that they would be orphaned if you stepped out of line. Indeed, in the last days of the war, Jurgen and Sofie’s son, Georg, an ardent ‘Hitler Youth’ is killed, ‘defending the Fatherland’, at the age of fifteen.

My view, at the end of the book, is that Jürgen and Sofie Rhodes were surely intelligent enough to sense that, given their beliefs were contrary to the Nazi party, they should have left Germany in the mid-1930s. But they didn’t. By 1938 it would have been practically impossible to leave. Sofie was used to an almost aristocratic lifestyle and Jürgen was comfortable only in academia.

1930s Dustbowl

I found this book a compelling read. The heading of each short chapter outlines which character’s point-of-view we will have, the year and the place. We move deftly, but not necessarily chronologically, from Berlin in 1930 through to Huntsville Alabama 1951. We learn essential background details of the characters: the 1930s Dustbowl experience of Lizzie and Henry who will become key characters in the Huntsville population that initially detests the Germans who have come to work in their town, particularly Jürgen and Sofie because rumour has it that Jürgen was a member of the SS. Henry does service in World War II and sees evidence of the Nazi atrocities – his experience summed up by the US authorities of the time as ‘combat fatigue’.

Does everything end too happily? Maybe more should be made of the terrible memories that will haunt Jürgen and Sofie all of their lives. Is that sufficient punishment for putting self and family first – going against what one really believes to be right?

When von Braun died in 1977, it seemed that his Nazi background had been forgotten. President Carter eulogised Dr. von Braun as ‘a man of bold vision’ and said:

‘To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.’ [Wikipedia]

Kelly Rimmer’s book encouraged me to stop and contemplate what it must have been like trapped under the Nazi regime and forced to act against one’s beliefs. I don’t think that my views have changed, but I appreciated being dropped into the lives of Jürgen and Sofie and being put in a position where I had to try to take stock of just what that experience was like.

Come Rain or Come Shine

This play, based closely on a short story of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, was performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It received mixed reviews. I liked it very much.

Ishiguro’s story is in an anthology, Nocturnes, published in 2009. The stories all have musical themes. The text of the play follows the short story almost punctiliously — much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the story. Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, reviewing in The Guardian, summed it up: ‘an entertaining, if occasionally disappointing, way to spend a couple of hours’. She found the songs ‘unmemorable’ and the play ends ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/jun/27/come-rain-or-come-shine-review-a-fine-cast-shines-in-tim-finns-clunky-musical

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and I obviously have very different musical tastes. I find American jazz songs such as ‘Georgia on my Mind’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ some of the memorable, most beautiful music I have ever heard. The title of the play (and story), ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ is the title of a song (the theme of which is, I’ll love you forever, no matter what) and when they are at university, friends Ray (played by Angus Grant) and Emily (played by Gillian Cosgriff) argue about whether Ray Charles’ version of the song is superior to Sarah Vaughan’s. And I think this is what Ishiguro is saying about friendships forged during the formative undergraduate years of university — no matter what you do in life, that bond of friendship will be there. Ray and Emily, as undergrads, seem as close as close can be — they dance to the music, they argue about it, they love it — and (although this isn’t said in the story) maybe the friendship would be sullied if it were to become sexual — maybe Ray senses this. He looks at Emily as though he is in love with her. They dance, they snuggle together on the sofa.

Ray and Emily

As happens, Charlie (played by Chris Ryan), Ray’s flatmate at university ends up marrying Emily. There is a poignant song, written by Tim Finn, which Ray sings as best man at their wedding. All of the music is brilliantly handled. It is a combination of old recordings of Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland and music composed by Tim Finn, played by an on stage band. As Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in The Guardian acknowledges: ‘The small band, under the musical direction of Jack Earle, is terrific, supple and evocative; their presence is glimpsed rather romantically through the slats of an apartment upstairs’. What no one else mentions is that the performed music segues seamlessly into the recorded music and vice versa — it must have been so difficult for the on stage band to be perfectly in tune with the recordings of Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles — but they are.

In my experience, those friendships made at university are lifelong. Inevitably, everyone turns out differently — the corporate lawyers in their BMWs, and writer/ researchers like me on their bicycles. But there is a lasting understanding — and even after years apart the friendship picks up and continues. By the time they are in their late forties, Emily and Charlie are consumed by the corporate rat race — they see Ray (who is an ESL teacher) as a bit of a loser and they imagine that they can reform him. Charlie imagines that if Ray stays with Emily for a few days she will come to appreciate that, in comparison, he is a great success and their marriage, which is shaky, will blossom once again. But these things won’t happen and no matter that Emily might write ‘groan’ in her notebook when she knows Ray is coming to stay, we know that in the longterm, nothing will change.

For me, what is perhaps intended to be the climax of the play, is maybe its weakest point. Ray finds it hard to stand up for himself and when it is going to be clear that he has been sneaking a look at Emily’s notebook that she left on the kitchen table, he goes, with Charlie’s prompting, along with what they hope will be an elaborate cover-up. He has to end up wrecking Charlie and Emily’s pristine London apartment pretending to be an unwelcome dog. Of course, Emily arrives home before the act is complete and assumes Ray has ‘lost it’. But they are soon relaxing with glasses of Bordeaux and then, prior to much tidying up being done, they are in each others’ arms dancing…

The Guardian review sums this up as: ‘What’s meant to be absurd realism plays out as a confused and confusing comedy of errors’. No — I expect the dog-wrecking routine (also in the short story) is there to add some drama and some humour. It helps to highlight weak aspects of Ray’s character. And Giselle says that the play ends, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. How does it end? I don’t have before me the exact words of the play, but it faithfully follows the short story, where Emily and Ray are arm in arm dancing to Sarah Vaughan’s version of ‘April in Paris’. And, in Ray’s voice: ‘for another few minutes at least, we were safe, and we kept dancing under the starlit sky.’

I believe that says a great deal about friendship. Ray and Emily will always have that bond, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’.

A CONCERT: SOUNDS OF WAR

This is, sadly, an appropriate time for a concert entitled ‘Sounds of War’, which opened the Australian National Academy of Music Chamber Music Festival on Friday 24th June.

Three works were performed. I was familiar with two of them: Stravinsky, L’histoire du soldat (a Soldier’s Tale) and Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The other work, Janȧček’s Capriccio, chamber music featuring piano written for the left hand, was new to me.

The Stravinsky is written with a libretto, based on a Russian folk tale where a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil in return for wealth. The piece was premièred near the end of World War I. On this occasion it was played purely as a piece of chamber music for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass. The strange combination of instruments (strings at either end of the pitch range, one single reed and one double reed wind instrument) gives a devilish timbre to the music. The ANAM students performed this superbly, without a conductor — the clear, precise rhythms brilliantly executed. The playing was so expressive that there seemed no need for a narrator or an outline of the story.

I’ve never been drawn to Janȧček’s music, but I can only say I was gobsmacked by the Capriccio. In the end Janȧček wrote it for pianist Otakar Hollman, who lost the use of his right hand during World War I. Hollman joined left-armed pianist Wittgenstein in seeking the composition of more works that could be played by unfortunate victims of the war. Apparently Janȧček was initially reluctant to oblige, saying it would be like creating a dance for a person with one leg. He apparently labelled this resulting work Vzdor, meaning ‘defiance’ and although there are various ways this might be interpreted it did seem to me that the work is so fiendishly difficult that Janȧček may have intentionally placed further barriers before the aspiring pianist. To his great credit, ANAM student Leo Nguyen played the part superbly. The piano doesn’t always have the lead but when it does, the left hand must execute rippling arpeggios, scales and trills over the full compass of the instrument. The extraordinary instrumentation adds to the uncanny, at times spine-chilling outcome: flute, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone and euphonium.

The final work, Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It is believed that these were the instruments available to Messiaen when he was in a German prison camp during World War II. The lack of solo piano parts in the piece may be because the Germans provided a poor quality piano. In 2014, at the Edinburgh Festival, I had attended a talk by Peter Hill, an emeritus professor and well-recognised interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music who worked closely with the composer before his death in 1992. Hill suggested that Messiaen wrote a work to transcend war, looking to eternity and the life beyond. Before his capture by the Germans Messiaen was a medical orderly at Verdun. (He had poor eyesight and was therefore assigned a non combative role.) He chose to go on watch at an unpopular time, the early hours of the morning, so that he could hear the bird call, which he transcribed. The third movement of this piece is: Abîme des oiseaux. Peter Hill pointed out that in this work the end of time is literal as well as figurative. In the final movement, as the piece slows to the end, it becomes so very slow that it kind of runs out of rhythm. It is infinite slowness. Thus, the end of time.



Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger

It’s unlikely that you’ve read many books by Ulrich Boschwitz. He died in 1942 when he was twenty-seven years old. The Passenger, which he wrote partly during his time interned in Hay New South Wales as an enemy alien — along with the ‘Dunera Boys’, has been revived recently. He had sent the manuscript to his mother, interned in England, saying further revisions were needed. The book was published in England in 1939, to no great acclaim. But now, well after World War II and the Holocaust, there is a great deal more interest.

Boschwitz was born in Berlin. His father, who died when Ulrich was a baby, was Jewish but his mother was not. Ulrich left Germany in 1935 for Norway, and then to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. After internment when war broke out — and being shipped to Australia — he was permitted to return to England, presumably to rejoin his mother. But his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and all passengers were killed.

Ulrich Boschwitz

The Passenger is set in Berlin in 1938, just after Kristallnacht. The protagonist is Otto Silberman, a well-to-do Jewish businessman — some years older than the author. We see how this man, used to a comfortable existence of eating well, taking taxis everywhere, living in a pleasant apartment with his non-Jewish wife, gradually becomes desperate — turned away from establishments where he’d long been welcomed, betrayed by friends and colleagues. Otto escapes out of the back door of his apartment when the stormtroopers call and from then on, he is on the run with nowhere to go. You have to register to stay in a hotel. Trains are his best bet, although he can’t cross the border because he’d have to show his papers. He catches train after train, backwards and forwards across Germany — mainly travelling second class so as not to attract attention. One time he bribes a chauffeur to show him across the Belgian border, but after a few moments of freedom he is caught by Belgian guards who escort him back to Germany.

The book was written very quickly after Kristallnacht and the frenzy of writing captures Otto’s desperate travels. The translator says that a sense of motion is embedded in the rhythm of the original language. The book captures propulsion, yet Otto is really going around in circles — going nowhere.

The reader doesn’t necessarily like this rather toffy businessman, but we are sensitive to his plight. He is being ripped from his culture: ‘As of yesterday, I am something different because I am a Jew.’ In the end he seems to be driven to madness. He has himself arrested and his prison companion (who is about to be sterilised) ultimately concludes that Otto is pretending to be a Jew.

The book, for me, provided moments of immersion into the frenzied, desperate experience of people on the brink of that abomination wrought by humans on other humans — the holocaust.

Macedon Music in Late Autumn

I have written before about the beautiful setting of Lowland Farm Mount Macedon for chamber music concerts. Yesterday we had the first concert for about 2 years, thanks to Covid. A tranquil, crisp late autumn afternoon and beautiful music from the Seraphim Trio (Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayers and Tim Nankervis), joined by violist Christopher Moore.

The first item (for piano, violin, viola and cello) was by a composer I hadn’t heard of, Dora Pejačević (1885 — 1923) who in fact was a Croatian countess: Countess Maria Theodora Paulina. Her landmark composition seems to have been her Symphony in F sharp minor, considered to be the first modern Croatian symphony. She was also the first Croatian composer to write a concerto (for piano). A film has been made of her (partly fictionalised) life: Countess Dora, 1993.

On this occasion we heard Pejačević’s Piano Quartet in D minor, Op. 25. Four fairly conventional movements: Allegro, Adagio, Minuetto/ Allegretto/ Trio, and a final Rondo/Allegro. From the opening strains of the first movement this was clearly a late Romantic piece — lyrical and contrasting themes, returning from time to time so that they sang in my head as I was transported to my imaginary early 20th century aristocratic Croatia — a drawing room after a dinner of several courses. The liveliness of the final movement was conveyed by spirited pizzicato. Pejačević also wrote many lieder, piano solos and chamber music, mainly for strings and piano.

Dora Pejačević

My favourite work on this program, by Brett Dean (b 1961) had been commissioned by the Seraphim Trio. Dean seems in touch with and able to express significant elements of our present lives, such as climate change, palliative care, and now Covid. This piece of nine interconnected short movements was written in London when Dean was recovering from and sheltering from Covid, having caught it in the relatively early days of the pandemic (March 2020). Most of the short movements of this piece were characterised by a bouyant rhythmic drive — energetic and optimistic, but there was also a stillness, shade and depth, such as in a middle section that was a tribute to Dean’s teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, John Curro. And in another of these sections of quieter profundity we had the chilling confrontation of playgrounds without children.

Brett Dean

The final item on the program was Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor K478 and as we listened, we could see, through the expansive windows, a golden autumnal sunset.

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littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

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