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Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

A ‘Live’ Concert at Last! Music, She Wrote

The venue for this concert was a fairly new space in suburban Melbourne, The Button Factory. A pleasant place to be on a hot day with a bar at the back, plenty of indoor plants and an interesting gallery.

I had heard nearly all of the performers in pre-Covid days – often in concerts associated with the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). I had assumed that all were fully professional and was surprised to read that some of them have ‘day jobs’ such as pharmacist and physiotherapist – a sign of the hard lot of the professional musician.

The theme of this concert: ‘Music, She Wrote’ was an admirable exploration of the work of women composers of the 19th and early 20th century. The only composer I’d heard of was the most recent, Margaret Sutherland (1897 – 1984).

As I sat listening to engrossing substantial pieces of music I realised that I couldn’t think of a musical equivalent of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. In other words, in literature, although it was very difficult for women to have their work accepted, some outstanding writers managed to be recognised during the 19th century, but I couldn’t think of a female composer with the standing of, say, Schubert or Tchaikovsky.  I cast my mind to the lot of Alma Mahler, discussed elsewhere on this blog: As a young woman her musical composition was close to her heart, but when she married Gustav Mahler he announced that she was to stop composing her own music – he used her as a copyist.

The concert opened with a Little Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon by Margaret Sutherland. The piece was composed for bassoonist George Dreyfus and first performed in 1960. We were reminded that Sutherland’s psychiatrist husband didn’t approve of her composing and she didn’t receive much acknowledgment of her substantial oeuvre until after the marriage ended.

Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979) was an internationally recognised violist –one of the first female professional orchestral players. Born in England, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, but she spent most of her adult life in the United States.  Those of her compositions that were published in her lifetime were largely forgotten after she stopped composing.

Rebecca Clarke’s Wikipedia entry suggests that the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—for her work made her reluctant to compose. Interest in her work has been revived and there is a Rebecca Clarke Society that was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music. Not surprisingly, much of her work features the viola. On this occasion we heard a Lullaby and Grotesque for Viola and Cello, composed in 1916. The Lullaby explored some interesting harmonies and the Grotesque was lively, but not as discordant as I’d expected.

The next item was Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op 28, by Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850 – 1927). An only child, Le Beau received piano lessons beginning at the age of five, and composed her first piece at the age of eight. She was educated at a private institution for girls and when she left there at the age of sixteen, she devoted the rest of her life to music. The Le Beau family decided to relocate to Munich to facilitate Luise studying under composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.  Due to the regulations put in place by the Royal Music School, Le Beau was tutored separately from the male students.

In the 1880s, Luis had some success with compositions such as Op.27, Ruth – Biblical Scenes for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra, and she won the first prize for her Cello Sonata Op.17 in an international composition contest. Around this time, Georg Vierling, a member of Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts nominated Le Beau for a chair position at the Royal School of Music. But Le Beau was not granted the position, as it was never assigned to women. As well as chamber music, Le Beau wrote symphonies, an opera and choral music. The Piano Quartet performed at this concert was held together by a recurring theme. The music reminded me at times of Schubert – certainly a substantial piece of nineteenth century romanticism.

After interval we heard a Sextet in C Minor, Op 40 by Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875). Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, there were two lively movements on either side of an andante sostenuto – virtuoso piano playing was required and pianist Peter de Jager magnificently rose to the occasion.

Born in Paris, Louise Farrenc was a brilliant pianist and also studied composition with Anton Reicha, possibly away from the Paris Conservatoire where he taught because the composition class was open only to men. She married a flautist and for a while they toured together performing her works. He, however, soon grew tired of the concert life and, with her help, opened a publishing house in Paris, which, as Éditions Farrenc, became one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc’s piano playing was so accomplished that in 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the  Paris Conservatoire, a position she held for thirty years and one which was among the most prestigious in Europe. But initially she was paid less than her male counterparts. As well as piano music and a considerable number of chamber music pieces, Farrenc wrote two overtures and three symphonies. 

Sincere thanks to the performers: Bernadette Baker, violin, Lisa Clarke, clarinet, Peter de Jager, piano, Nicholas Jensen, cello, Sara Rafferton, bassoon, Ely Ruttico, viola, Phoebe Smithies, horn, Jasper Ly, oboe, and Kelly Williams, flute. It was so good to be made aware of these largely forgotten composers and to spend a pleasant couple of hours listening to their music.


syzygy 8

On 12th March, just a few weeks after devastating bushfires had destroyed much of the south-east coast of Australia, the chamber music group Syzygy Ensemble performed a concert entitled: Terra Subitis 1: Dare to Hope. By this stage, we knew of the existence of the highly infectious COVID-19, but we were still ignorant of the profound impact it would have on our lives. This is likely to be the last concert I  attend for many months.

Syzygy 2

Syzygy, an ensemble of flute, clarinet, ‘cello, piano and violin, specialises in playing new music and on this occasion the ‘oldest’ piece had been composed in 1995. The usual group of Laila Engle, Robin Henry, Campbell Banks and Leigh Harrold was joined by violinist Zoë Black.

Syzygy 5

Zoë Black

The concert opened with the Australian premiere of Greg Caffrey’s for peace comes dropping slow;  calming and fluid, the title from Yeats’ poem, Isle of Innisfree: ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ — tranquility recalled when the poet was in a bustling city.

Then a contrast. John Psatlas is a New Zealand composer with a Greek cultural heritage. His three Island Songs were full of the energy of Greek dancing, the Eb clarinet providing a shrill intensity.

Sublimity followed. Caerwen Martin’s ‘Spacious and Expressive’ The Beauty of Now was originally written for violin and piano, but in 2019 she revised it for flute and piano and Laila’s mellow playing — even in the high ranges of the piccolo — took us to an ethereal place.

Syzygy 3

Laila Engle

The final item was composed at the very end of the 20th century by Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin: Our Finest Hour. The piece celebrates the joy of creation, scientific discoveries, and then in the last movement there is a tape of Churchill from his speech made in 1940, where he was determined that England should persist in the war with Germany: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”  ‘This was their finest hour’ was deftly inserted into the music by Laila — the piece is scored for violin, ‘cello, piano and clarinet — no flute.

Whilst reflecting on the current turmoil of our world, we were left with the reminder of humankind’s achievements —  a strand of hope that we can clutch over the ensuing months as the world locks down.

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Dimanche: a brilliant depiction of climate chaos

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Dimanche has been described as a ‘family show’, but it is far more than that. I went away from the wordless performance of mime, puppetry, film and sound asking myself — why is this so much more powerful than seeing a movie? Maybe it is the lack of words. We are weary of clichés about climate change.

Dimanche was presented at the Adelaide Festival by two Belgian companies: Compagnie Chaliwaté and Cie Focus. One of the members said: ‘We want to speak about the denial in which we find ourselves, the mismatch between the extreme urgent need to act and our difficulty to assimilate this urgency’. They do this superbly well, juxtaposing scientists documenting the last living species on earth and a family trying to carry on with their usual life on a Sunday (Dimanche) against the odds of  extreme heat (the table legs melt), cyclonic winds and flooding tsunami.

Dimanche 1

Some brilliant puppetry: an almost life-size polar bear is separated from its cub when melting ice cracks.  An exotic bird seeking food for its chick is killed in the devastating winds (its remains are blown into the family’s home and they intend to feast on it). Apart from these poignant depictions of loss, a memorable piece of acting is when the three scientists are driving in polar regions in their van — simply done with a steering wheel, hand-operated windscreen-wipers (the actors take it in turns) all bouncing up and down in unison to suggest the rough terrain over which they’re driving.

dimanche 6

There are underwater scenes too, with fish puppets. Articles we recognise from the family’s house are at the bottom of the ocean — a woman in a kayak (rowing in time with the sound of the water) ‘fishes’ up some items. But she too will be taken by the tsunami.

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elderly mother puppet, whose feet are cooled in ice


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I think it was the lack of words that made this so powerful.


An extraordinary Mozart Requiem

A requiem is a mass for the dead, for repose of the soul. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor was written at the very end of his life, in fact, he did not live to finish it.  One version was completed by his pupil, Franz Xavier Süssmayr.  This extended version was used, along with additions to what is described in the program as a ‘musical montage’ performed at the 2020 Adelaide Festival by the Adelaide Festival Chorus, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Australian Dance Theatre and soloists Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco and boy treble, Luca Shin — there was also a baby, just a few months old — I hope he/ she received actors’ equity rates! The production was directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Rory Macdonald.

What can a Requiem mean for us in 2020? What kind of repose might we seek, as we face a world that is being destroyed by our own negligence, with governments more interested in narrow self interest than confronting the reality of climate change, with the likelihood that a virus will wreak havoc in populations across the globe?

Mozart requiem 1

This production of Mozart’s Requiem was certainly oriented towards a 21st century world. I was sitting too far back to see some of the detail that occurred on stage. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience would have been able to see, for example, that the person who is going to bed while introductory Gregorian plainchant is sung, is watching TV news headlines about the recent devastating bushfires. Expecting something to do with the crucifixion, I thought that the figure was some kind of modern-day Christ and that the bed from which he/ she ultimately disappeared represented a version of a crucifix. No — I was reading too much into an elderly woman getting into bed and dying.

Some of the dance sequences reminded me of pagan sacrifice (the Rite of Spring flashed through my mind) — the movements did fit to Mozart’s music, and to their great credit, the chorus sang superbly while performing folk dance-type movements and sometimes lying prostrate.

Mozart requiem 3

The idea of a 21st century requiem was captured best for me by  the projection onto the back wall, throughout much of the production, of an ‘Atlas of Great Extinctions’.  We were reminded of so many things that no longer exist: the names of flora, animal species, human species, languages, buildings, artworks, religions and finally suggestions of human abilities and traits that may become extinct: thought, tears, wonder, love… Thus we were encouraged to reflect not only on our individual lives but humanity’s destiny and the future of our planet.

Near the end of the production there is suggestion of destruction — my interpretation was destruction of our world — everything that was pristine and white is blackened. Many of the performers disrobe on a darkened stage. There are piles of dirt. A burnt out car. When the performers are off stage, the floor is tilted, so that the dirt and debris slides forwards.

Mozart requiem 2

At the very end is another Gregorian chant, In Paradise, traditionally sung at the end of a Catholic funeral. And this is where there is hope, symbolised in the tiny baby left alone for a few minutes on stage. (Space Odyssey 2001 flashed through my mind.)

Mozart requiem 5

Elements of this enormous production were memorable and moving but, for me, I would have been happy to have listened to the beauty of the music (which was superbly performed throughout). Sometimes, I think the activities on stage detracted from music which by itself has a universal message. Even for those of us who do not subscribe to traditional religious belief, Mozart’s music alone can offer at least some hours of repose.


1917 title

In the credits at the end of the movie 1917, Alfred H. Mendes is mentioned and thanked for his stories. A Wikipedia search tells me that he was Sam Mendes, the director’s, grandfather. He was a writer — he joined up to serve in World War I when he was seventeen.  This film is presumably based on stories of incredible acts of bravery and compassion during a brutal war that surely we will never forget. On 6th April 1917, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake must take a crucial message to British troops on the other side of enemy territory. This British regiment wrongly thinks that the Germans (the Boche) have withdrawn. No – it is a strategic withdrawal and the Boche are lying in wait. If the message doesn’t get there by sunrise, vast numbers of British troops, including Blake’s brother, will be slaughtered.

1917 Blake and Schofield

Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield

By making the filming appear to be one continuous take, we travel with the two young Lance Corporals on their frightening journey – the whole film is from the point of view of one or other of them.

1917 trenches 2

In abandoned German trenches

Fantastic depiction of the trenches. All we needed was the smell. Amazing scenery – particularly fiery shots in a bombed-out church.

1917 ruins

Others who have seen this film describe it as ‘nail-biting’ and that they were on the edge of their seats most of the time. Well – maybe I’ve seen too many WWI movies. So many depictions of sublime pastoral landscapes that are suddenly sullied – turned into grisly quagmires, so many brutally wounded fresh-faced, terrified soldiers with bloodied stumps for limbs.

1917 landscape

One thing that stood out in this film was the humanity of these young fighters. Blake is killed as a result of trying to assist a German pilot whose legs are still burning after his plane crashes. Schofield has managed to fill his caddy with milk found at an abandoned farm-house. He is exhausted and hungry, but gives the whole caddy to a young woman who is caring for a baby she has rescued. There are many close-ups of the soldiers’ innocent faces. Before a section of a regiment faces up to battle, a young man sings to them with superb clarity and purity The Wayfaring Stranger.

1917 landscape 2

I can imagine that all of the incidents that make up the horrific odyssey of the young men’s journey to avert catastrophe may have been pieced together from the observations and experiences of Alfred H. Mendes. From the beginning I was pretty sure that at least one of the young Lance Corporals would survive – otherwise, why tell the story?

For me, there were too many coincidences: part of a British regiment turns up in trucks and is able to give Schofield a lift some of the way after he leaves an abandoned farm house, devastated by the death of his companion, who was killed by the German he’d tried to help. When Schofield comes across a young woman caring for a desperately starving baby, it just so happens that Schofield has milk in his canteen. Schofield has used a swiftly flowing river for his escape from an occupied bombed-out village. He climbs out, a whole lot of dead bodies provide gruesome foot-holds; he has left the river at the very spot where the regiment he needs to contact is based. And the music – beautiful – at one time reminding me of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – tends to anticipate the action. As Schofield dodges his way through ruins in an early dawn, we correctly anticipate that a German soldier will be around the corner…

1917 soldiers that are saved

The soldiers who were saved by Schofield and Blake’s courageous mission

World War I is hugely significant to our modern world. So many were killed. So many social changes resulted from those four atrocious years. Some political and economic changes that were fought for were short-lasting but in other ways the world we live in was shaped irrevocably. We should keep telling the stories from it and keep making and watching movies such as 1917.

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.

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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’.

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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
















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.

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