Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

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.

Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, Melbourne Theatre Company

When I was attending my privileged independent school in Melbourne I genuinely thought that it was good to make toffees to sell at our stall to help support a mission school for poor Aboriginal children up in the Northern Territory. I thought that we should try to give them something that approximated our own education. It didn’t strike me until decades later that we could learn a huge amount from the First Australians — indeed, their relationship with and knowledge of the land is integral to our attempts to understand and try to navigate the world out of the disasterous consequences of climate change.

Joshua Harmon

Members of the Melbourne Theatre Company audience are very much a replica of the people this play is about: mainly white, well educated, middle class, with ‘progressive’ opinions. Indeed, in the play all of the actors are white — we never see the people of colour who are, we are told, a significant part of their lives.

Admission Manager’s Office

The setting for the play is Hillcrest, an elite, New Hampshire boarding school. The stage set shows a library of oak bookshelves holding 19th century tomes and the admissions manager’s office has solid antique furniture. In the first scene, a teacher is reprimanded by the admissions manager for producing a prospectus that ‘looks too white’ — she is trying to build up ‘diversity’, which means attracting more students of colour. But as the play progresses we come to realise that it is the ‘look’ that is important rather than the values.

Charlie argues with his parents

Everything blows up and truths seep out when a Hillcrest student of colour is accepted into Yale and the admissions manager’s son (who is white and got good grades) is not. Charlie, the son, brilliantly played by William McKenna, is initially put out by the news — in the usual rivalling way when a friend wins something and you don’t. But then he decides that he doesn’t want to go to a prestigious college and he wants the money his parents would have spent on his Yale education to go towards a scholarship so that some less privileged student can attend Hillcrest. His parents absolutely refuse. There is no way that they will accede or even listen to their son’s arguments. In a typical privileged way the mother starts to make enquiries and pull some strings totally against her son’s wishes. It is far more important to the parents that their son go to Yale than that a student of colour get a scholarship to Hillcrest.

William McKenna

Would I do the same thing if I had a son who didn’t get into Yale? I hope not — but I have a sneaking feeling that I might be torn towards such behaviour, or I might just offer some token donation to salve my conscience. Altogether a brilliant play.

Emily Bitto: Wild Abandon

There really is a city in Ohio, US called Zanesville and sadly it is now remembered for a horrific massacre of exotic animals that occurred in 2011 when Vietnam Veteran Terry Thompson allegedly set free fifty of fifty-six animals he had kept in a private zoo, before he shot himself. The fifty animals who’d been released ended up dead, killed by local police to protect the public. Emily Bitto has made this incident a focus of her latest novel, Wild Abandon, that as well as being a tribute to the fate of those innocent animals is a kind of coming-of-age story.

Will leaves Australia, a twenty-two year-old, adrift in the world, fleeing from the failure of his first love (Laura) and also from the person he fears he has become — to a large extent he blames the cultural cringe of growing up in what he sees as a ‘backward’ country town. Away from the constraints of home, Will can experiment with different ways of being and at first he throws himself into the New York art scene — that is, the art scene available to him through a friend of his older brother, who has lived in New York for a few years. And so follows a brief time of nihilistic hedonism — a few beers for breakfast is nothing, he is constantly drunk and high. Bitto has said that she wanted this writing to mirror excess and she seems to have achieved this admirably: ‘He passed a group of young black guys with a portable speaker playing Kendrick Lamar and he drifted through chained pools of scent — dog pee and sullage and sweet weed smoke — fingering constantly the ziplock edges of the baggies in his pocket. / At the corner of his overhyped ebullience, he knew, hovered the threat of despair…’ [pages 10 – 11]

The people Will meets in the New York art scene are desperately trying to prove themselves — the only way to escape is to get high. Fortunately, before he becomes totally unaccountable for his actions, Will decides to hire a car and set off on the inevitable road trip. He ends up in Littleproud, Ohio where a girl he knew at school (absolutely no romantic interest) now lives with the husband, JT, she met on line and she’s about to have a baby: a domestic scene very different from Will’s experience of New York.

Will badly needs to earn some money, but he doesn’t have a Green Card. Through JT Will meets Wayne, who seems to be modelled on the Vietnam Vet Terry Thompson. Wayne needs help with feeding his exotic animals. Initially Will is scared of many of the animals — lions, tigers, bears — but he loves some of the baby cubs who are still being bottle-fed. At Wayne’s we are thrown into a sweaty, undomesticated life: chicken nuggets are the main food, dirty feet, I could smell the carpets… Wayne comes to like Will and the two work together feeding the animals and gathering huge supplies of chicken meat from a rather dodgy processing place.

People who know the story of the Zanesville massacre can probably anticipate what will happen in the story. It came as a shock to me. Reports of escaped animals and then, Wayne’s dead body found. But the horror above everything else is the fate of those exotic animals innocently foraging outside the fence because Wayne had opened their cages. Those animals were used to kind treatment from humans and wouldn’t attack unless provoked. But a large proportion of them were slaughtered.

Will returns to Melbourne and, without using cliché, Bitto describes how life goes on, the world keeps revolving, ‘he would at last stop thinking about Wayne, and Laura too…’. And then there is a coda, where we see Wayne years before in Vietnam — one of the many traumatic experiences he had and the solace he found in feeding a little monkey.

Syzygy Ensemble: a concert of four world premières

I’ve written a post about the Syzygy Ensemble before, but that was back in March 2020, the last concert they gave before we plunged into the thick of Covid-19, lockdowns, and very little work for artists. How exciting to attend this concert two years later — to hear that their superb music-making is as good as ever inspite of the drought of performance opportunties, and to experience four world première performances, all composed since that concert of two years ago.

The concert was entitled ‘Revive’. As pianist Leigh Harrold says in his program notes, ‘We’ve been here before’. In other words, the ensemble has been trying/ hoping to put together a concert for some time and with so many set-backs — new strains of the virus, new regulations, there’d been a feeling of cynisism as to whether the concert would ever eventuate. Congratulations Syzygy — it was a memorable evening.

Zinia Chan

Recently I’ve been fascinated by writers and composers I’ve come across who draw their inspiration from the study of plants. In this case, in Weaving Threads, composer Zinia Chan draws parallels between the relationships of fungus and plants and the symbiotic nature of human relationships. Chan says, ‘I wanted to explore the current time and also the importance of human connection and to draw the comparison between the Mycorrhiza network and humans; how although trees are seemingly separated and distanced, they are in fact connected through a mass of thin threads, known as mycelium (fugus).’ Her music explored these connections. It had been commissioned for Melbourne Recital Centre by Jane Kunstler.

The piece that bowled me over for the evening was by Australian/ British composer Keyna Wilkins. The program notes told us that Keyna’s music is characterised by a fascination with astronomy, First Nations culture, jazz, dance forms and intuitive improvisation. Her piece, Virago(meaning female warrior), celebrates women leaders. Keyna had taken four contemporary leading women and short sound bites of their speeches were incorporated into the composition: Greta Thunberg ‘We will not let you get away with this…’,

Greta Thunberg

Grace Tame ‘Share your truth it is your power…’,

Grace Tame

Jacinda Ardern ‘It takes courage and strength to be empathetic and I’m very proudly an empathetically-driven leader…’

Jacinda Ardern

and Angela Merkel ‘Anything that seems to be set in stone or unalterable can, indeed, change…’ The music reflected the energy and wisdom of these words.

Angela Merkel

Another favourite for me was a piece that had been especially composed for Syzygy and commissioned by the Echo Commission, founding donor, Dr Rosalind Page. Composed by Anthony Moles, The Tower, celebrates Sydney’s inner west, in particular the Petersham Reservoir, which is an interesting structure where a kind of nested tower structure is built over the old, covered, reservoir of 1888. The tower also depicts a tarot card — a tower with no obvious entrance. There was vibrancy and energy in the music — strength in the face of adversity — destruction of the old and emergence of the new. The piece is written in memory of composer Louis Andriessen.

Anthony Moles

The final item by Cyrus Meurant was also a memorial, commissioned by writer and former ABC producer Mark Wakely for his dear friend Steven Alward. To me, the music was a little more conventional than the other items but was nevertheless a beautiful tribute, with inspiration from Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, each movement depicting the crossing of a sea: The light that glows on the sea waves — Love, Amduat — Loss and Our different worlds — Transformation.

Steven Alward
Cyrus Meurant


Dmitri Shostakovich

This concert was performed in the Adelaide Town Hall as a part of the Musica Viva program. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Shostakovich programming seemed highly appropriate. More poignant when the brilliant Russian pianist, Konstantin Shamray, gave a short opening speech saying that whereas some of his fellow countrymen were afraid to speak out against Putin, he was not.

Konstantin Shamray

The programming seemed appropriate to me because I associate Shostakovich with quiet, underlying rebellion. In 1934 he wrote an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite early success, Lady Macbeth became the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich’s music  by the Communist Party in early 1936. After this, much of the music he wrote seems superficially celebratory – supposedly celebrating the great success of the Soviet government, but there is underlying discord. For me, this is the case with Shostakovich’s one piano quintet. The program notes state that this piece ‘lacks the autobiographical references and the touches of irony which can be identified in many of his other pieces’. I disagree. The third movement is a Scherzo – which suggests ‘playful’. But this is not entirely in joyful major chords – every-so-often it is slightly off key.  It is, in fact, one of my favourite pieces of music. The same happens in the energetic finale. It was wonderful to hear this executed by the Australian String Quartet and the fantastic technique of Konstantin Shamray. The program was rounded off with the Third Razumovsky Quartet of Beethoven.

Australian String Quartet

Le Coq d’Or

Composer Rimsky-Korsakov

The opera, The Golden Cockerel, was performed at the Adelaide Festival. The music is by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). It was directed by Barrie Kosky. How could anyone have known, when programming this opera, of the present situation in Ukraine? Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – it is a political satire about Tsar Nicholas II, who was deposed in 1917 and assassinated in 1918. Tsarist censors forbad performance until 1909, so Rimsky-Korsakov died without witnessing a performance of this work. And further irony – the part of the Tsar on this occasion in Adelaide was sung by Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka and other lead characters, such as the tsarina he falls in love with, are Russian.

The ineffective tsar goes off to war

The music reminded me of Scheherazade, with melodies wafting like those from one thousand and one nights – many beautiful woodwind themes. The libretto was inspired by a Pushkin tale. The main focus is a stupid old tsar, who falls in love with the tsarina of one of the countries he wants to conquer – she makes fun of his bumbling love-making.

The one set was stunning. It reminded me of the Sorrento surf beach – no sea but what seemed like sand dunes with tussock grass, a driftwood-like tree at the top of which perched the silvery golden cockerel who warns the tsar when his country is in danger. I’ve never before seen a performance of this opera, but I expect that the chorus of soldiers is usually outfitted in colourful military uniforms. In this case, the soldiers wore horseheads – all dark grey. There was little colour, and this was effective reminding us of a sombre side as the tsar made his foolish and ultimately abortive attempts to rule. I was surprised that over the two hours (without interval) the set didn’t change. But I guess there was no need for anything more than an oppressive backdrop.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan

I admit that I can remember when, 50 years ago, a homosexual university lecturer drowned when thrown into the River Torrens. No one has been convicted of this crime. It was whispered that he was on a notorious gay beat – I’m not even sure that we used the word ‘gay’ then. Now there is an oratorio commemorating this event. The music is by Australian composer Joe Twist and the libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas.

An oratorio rather than an opera is appropriate (quite apart from requiring less stage space). It provides a certain reverence and restraint – there’s some action, but also the Adelaide Chamber Singers who, in a subdued choir-like way sing: ‘The night’s offerings are of sweat and spit and cum’. In those days gay sex was illegal, all very hush hush. Dr Ian Duncan (he used the name Ian, not George) was a quiet, studious loner who had recently taken up a post at the Law School of the University of Adelaide. The curtain rises to an ingenious set with a foreground of water and a screen onto which are projected appropriate images – photographs of the scene and newspaper accounts. A Jesus-like man descends on a cable – crucified, I wonder?

Back in the 1970s, even the New Scotland Yard Report describes the incident as a ‘frolic’ gone wrong. And there’s some lyrics about whether or not ‘faggots’ can float. There seems to be absolutely no respect for queer love.

I left the Dunstan Theatre thinking, on the one hand, of how far we have come from those days of clandestine whisperings: Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, etc… and that Dr Duncan’s death – the death of an academic – at least motivated these developments. But then I was absolutely gutted to think of all those young men who drowned in the river in complete anonymity. As the lyrics say, only the river remembers their names.

My only reservation about this oratorio is that it is very localised. It has a message that is pretty much universal, but would it work in Melbourne or Sydney, let alone New York or London?

Leopoldstadt: A National Theatre film of the play by Tom Stoppard

Leopoldstadt is about a Jewish family in Vienna across six decades, it has been filmed live on stage in London’s West End.

Although he had always known he was Jewish, Stoppard found out only in the 1990s that he was ‘fully Jewish’ and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps. The play is not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play. In an interview with the director, Patrick Marber, Stoppard says that it felt like ‘unfinished business’.

Tom Stoppard

Stoppard’s mother died in 1996. The family had not talked about their history and Tom didn’t know what had happened to the family left behind in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, he found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in TerezinAuschwitz and other concentration camps, along with three of his mother’s sisters.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a factory owner and baptised Jew now married to a Catholic, has moved up in the world. In the play we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews, those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust.


Rather than a play with a plot, this is a narrative of a Jewish family group in Vienna over the period 1900 to 1955. The main set is the drawing room of a well-to-do family. There are five acts, occurring in the years 1899, 1900, 1925, 1938 and 1955.

  • 1899 This is the family Christmas (complete with Christmas tree).
  • 1900 One of women takes an unrequited fancy to a cavalry officer whom she meets at tea with a family member. And that family member succeeds (secretly) in having an affair with the officer, subsequently producing a son.
  • 1925 Post-war conversations and circumcision celebrations (the mother vacillating between whether or not her infant son should be put through this rite – ultimately it is carried out).
  • 1938 The year of the Anschluss. The family’s home is requisitioned by the Nazis and the family must leave to be transported the following day, taking limited possessions.
  • 1955 Post war gathering, with a diminished cast, many having died in The Holocaust.

I had been unsure of how I would cope with this film of a play, having been put off by early (1950s) films of Shakespearean plays and films of opera where the camera is aimed fairly statically to the centre of the stage. A movie of The Magic Flute where these constraints are thrown aside (I think it was the one directed by Ingmar Bergman) proved to be an exception. For some reason that I find hard to articulate (Stoppard’s brilliance, probably) I feel that the filming of this play was superb. To have conceived this as a film where we might see the family in all appropriate contemporary trappings moving through the first half of the twentieth century would have had far less impact. We are with the (changing) family in their living room for over two hours, from the children’s excited preparations for Christmas in 1899 (the family’s liberal blending of Judaism and Christianity conveyed brilliantly when a young child places a star of David at the top of the Christmas tree), to the diminished gathering in 1955. When necessary we are reminded of significant events such as Kristallnacht with sound effects.

According to Stoppard the play ‘took a year to write, but the gestation was much longer. Quite a lot of it is personal to me, but I made it about a Viennese family so that it wouldn’t seem to be about me.’

Quo Vadis Aida?

I write this on the second day of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians, described as potentially the worst European conflict since World War II. Quo Vadis Aida? dramatises the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the genocidal  killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica, during the Bosnian War.

I must confess that my knowledge of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in the mid-1990s is shamefully limited. Shamefully, now that I have seen the movie Quo Vadis Aida?, (brilliantly directed by Jasmila Žbanić ) and realise what horrendous slaughter was taking place then under labels such as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Prior to the massacre, the United Nations had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, a ‘safe area’ under UN protection. However, the UN failed to demilitarise the Bosnia-Herzegovinian Army within Srebrenica and were unable to prevent the town’s capture and the subsequent massacre. In the movie, the UN personnel are shown to be inadequate and powerless – some of them very young men in short trousers.

Aida is a Bosnian Muslim former school teacher, working as a translator for the Dutch-run peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica. The Muslim majority town is soon overrun by the Bosnian Serb army and people flee desperately to the UN safe zone – but there are scant resources and there isn’t room for everyone. Aida desperately tries to save her husband and sons who have not made it to safety. The UN facility is grossly under-resourced and the UN soldiers resorted, pathetically it seemed, to procedure. The Bosnian general (Ratko Mladić, later convicted of war crimes) demanded that the Srebenicans be bussed to ‘safety’: the men and women were separated, and my stomach churned as I was immediately taken back to WWII movies I’d seen of Jewish people being marched onto trains destined for concentration camps. In this case, the women survived but the men were shot and buried in unmarked graves – so reminiscent of the Nazi brutality.

At the end of the movie we see that, some years later, the Srebenican women were able to return to identify the bones of their loved ones. And, amazingly, Aida, having lost all of her family, returns to teaching and to the apartment where they lived – the wall clock still ticking as it had all those years ago.

Aida in her apartment

Millions were killed in the holocaust. Over 8,000 were killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand too many. And as I write, there is war in Ukraine.

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