I can’t think of a better way to spend a wet June evening in Brisbane than with the Doric String Quartet, brought to us by Musica Viva as part of the 2019 season.
This world-acclaimed foursome – Alex Redington and Ying Xue (violins). Helene Clement (viola) and John Myerscough (cello) – exudes youth both in appearance and in the freshness with which they tackled each of the pieces selected for the Australian tour. I can only assume that these four do not comprise the original quartet, formed in 1998, because they all look far too young to have been playing together for 21 years! The Doric has won many international awards and performs in all of Europe’s great concert halls so we are lucky to be able to enjoy them in Australia. And they were so full of verve and obvious joy in their music – strings can begin to sound a little weary at the end of a gruelling tour but not this bunch!
In fact I haven’t had so much fun since Musica Viva brought the Goldner Quartet and my favourite violinist Dimity Hall to Brisbane some years back.
The enthusiastic Brisbane audience in the Queensland Conservatorium on June 26 was entertained (and enlightened) by three very different work; Haydn’s B-flat major op. 33 no. 4, former Brisbane hometown boy Brett Dean’s five-movement Hidden Agendas and the Big B of string quartets, Beethoven’s no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. A treat indeed for chamber music fans!
All three works offer very different challenges which this quartet raised its bows to meet with an unfussed technique and elegance of tone. Haydn’s not-so-well-known number 4 of the six opus 33 string quartets can be a tough way to begin a concert because it frisks into life without preamble and tends to take the listener by surprise; it’s a light hearted piece altogether, albeit with a heartbreakingly lovely largo, then ends with a touch of typically Haydenesque quirky wit. The Doric captured it all. And it’s wonderful to see a viola that was once played by Benjamin Britten in the slender hands of Helene Clement. I have a personal fondness for this work and have not often had the chance to hear it performed live.
Brett Dean, who now lives and works mostly in Europe, composed his third piece for string quartets to celebrate his relationship with the Doric and the 2019 Musica Viva touring season has been its premiere. It is inspired by today’s socio-political events and we are told in the program notes that while the quartet was very excited by this five-movement work, members were at first a bit “scared” by it. No surprises there – it’s full of sound and fury and shocking contrasts and in one movement the musicians even have to wipe the rosin from their bows to create a “whispery” sound that comes close to silence.
Hidden Agendas challenged the audience almost as much as it did the players – but it’s a mark of Brisbane’s increasing sophistication that this composition was greeted by warm applause. In truth this is not a string quartet which I would buy and listen to at home. In younger years I determinedly embraced all things new in the arts – from the novels of James Joyce to cubism to Philip Glass’ minimalist melodic pulses. Today I need music to charm, soothe, stimulate, excite, exalt – with melody and harmony. I ask myself why it is that pretty well all serious music since early in the last century has to make a socio-political statement. And, when it does, why it can’t do so as beautifully as Beethoven did it! Of course I understand that music must move on and change, or we’d be stuck with Monteverdi forever! And I would not deny the right of any composer to take us to new places – just as I would not deny myself the privilege of not having to go there if they don’t appeal! So many of today’s composers use their talents to vent their anger and show us how ugly the world is – the antithesis of what music means to me, and to many others. Which is why La Traviata packs houses today and the Australian bicentennial opera Voss does not, despite its undoubted musical virtues. And why Mozart sonatas are as popular today as they ever were and will remain so for the next couple of hundred years – and longer. Assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then! (Small wonder, now I come to think of it, that today’s composers seem so angry. Those of yesteryear lived through far tougher times but they were free to seek inspiration from a natural world that seemed eternal; not faced with its exponential destruction as we are today!).
Anyway, back to Hidden Agendas and an admission that when I read those words in the program I inwardly groaned! Oh, one of THOSE titles, I thought! However – and this is admission number two – on stage, live, Brett Dean’s five-movement string quartet was certainly an experience I wouldn’t have missed. At times, an exciting one, though if the charming cellist John Myerscough hadn’t told us what it was all about I doubt many of us would have known just from the music! Visually, it held interest because of the physical demands it made of the performers…the two women have long hair, one dark, one very blond and I found myself mesmerised by all those flying tresses! And the four bows, likewise flying and flowing from the highest shriek to the merest whisper. I thought of the horses’ tails from which hanks of hair were carefully selected to become the vital touchpoint between stick and string. Thought of those horses galloping in the wind, tails streaming. This is not what I was supposed to be thinking about while Brett Dean’s earnest and disturbing work was in progress but perhaps he wouldn’t mind because though his music appeared to stretch all that compacted horsehair to its limit it did, I believe, show a wonderful confidence that the Doric four would be able to take what he had heard in his head, and written into his score, and bring all its edgy extremes to dynamic life. As indeed they did! And the audience loved it!
Finally for the night came the Beethoven which has posed a very different sort of challenge to string players since 1826, because of its revolutionary seven movements without a break between. It’s a mighty work with much delightful musical conversation between individual instruments. And so “modern” in parts that you can scarcely believe it was written nearly 200 years ago. It takes, I believe, four very mature and assured musicians, fully confident in one another’s skills, to perform this well. Somebody compared it to a tapestry but it makes ME think of the beautiful hand-loomed carpets crated by a friend of mine, rich with texture and colours that ought to clash and yet don’t because they are so skilfully woven together. There is one little bit that I especially like, where the cello and viola exchange a bit of dialogue that is like the warm exchange between two friends who are surprised and pleased to see each other after a long time apart.
Altogether a wonderful evening of chamber music with four splendid performers able to give us something new in their interpretation of familiar works while also helping us come to grips with something new.
Last night we said goodbye to Seamie Keane.
His wake was held in the home he created with Margy and there were so many of us packed in there that it was hard to count them – but it was well over a hundred of us who gathered in his name.
Though he spoke with an Aussie accent Seamie was Irish-born and Irish of soul; a character out of Behan or O’Casey – a big man who was larger than life in other ways too. That’s why it’s so hard to think of him gone, and only 58 too.
Seamie was many things and some of them most of us didn’t even know until we heard about them last night. A bricklayer-cum-sound engineer who could turn his large hands to most building tasks, a champion cyclist, fine banjo player, kind friend And though he had no children of his own, he was a much-loved surrogate dad to some. Not one to suffer fools gladly, he was also wonderfully affectionate. Many a hug in the street I’ve had from him and his “hello my dear” could illuminate your day.
Tamborine Mountain will miss the sound of his banjo and also his generosity in giving his services as the soundman for so many community events. Music was his great passion and he played when and where he could, sometimes with Margy, sometimes with others, travelling to gigs in his van full of amps and mics and cables.
Actually, some of us said goodbye to Seamie twice this week because poetry night at Clancy’s last Monday was full of his presence. Margy, brave-hearted as always, emceed the event and read a couple of poems. Others recited poems with Seamie in mind. And the guest poet, the wonderful Gary Fogarty, had been invited by Seamie when they met at some event or other. Poor man, he arrived that day on Seamie and Margy’s doorstep only to find that the man who had brought him there had been felled by a massive stroke – it would have had to be massive to knock flat a man as strong as Seamie.
Last night we heard about Seamie’s sad and often brutal early life from his sister Josephine, and there were other eulogies too, and we understood better why Seamie always put a high value on peace and kindness. He’d had little enough of these things in his childhood. Margy, when she spoke, made it clear that there was to be no hagiography – in life he was not a faultless man but he was certainly a much-loved one.
I looked round that folk-filled room seeing sadness everywhere, and not just for the man we’d come to mourn. I saw those who had lost husbands and partners and in one case a son. I saw those suffering from terminal cancer and those still battling it with hope. I saw those whom I know have suffered other hardships and losses. Yet by the end of the eulogies we all had smiles on our faces and were ready to feast and frolic because in the midst of death we are in life and the power of it always vanquishes sorrow.
Good man yerself, Seamie Keane, you are already much missed. Like me, you didn’t believe in Heaven. Pity, really, because I’d like to think of you up there on a cloud, playing your banjo for all those hopeful eejits coming through the pearly gates!
Is the story behind Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung merely silly or is there a deeper meaning?
Critics, ring fanatics and those who hate every note have been arguing this since the cycle was first produced in 1876. Even some of those who love the music dismiss the story.
Which to me rather misses the point. Because though the music tells the story, without the story there is nothing to tell. If you see what I mean. When the giants stride the stage the music swells gigantically. When the dwarf Mime is being particularly sneaky and malicious there is a certain snide pizzicato. When the lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, Brunnhilde and Siegfried sigh ecstatically and burn with passion the music sighs and burns with them. And even those who don’t know another note of Wagner know what those boisterous Valkyries sound like.
Nobody doubts that The Ring is one of the most remarkable musical achievements in history. But does it also have social significance?
I think it does. And I try to show this, as humorously as possible, in my book Ringtones.
Here, the Gods are the social elite, not without a sense of responsibility for the worlds they rule but also arrogant, capricious and blind to the discontent of those below them. Behind their magnificent façade they are as flawed and vulnerable as the Mortals and Dwarves they so despise.
The Giants, with their disconcerting habit of turning into reclusive dragons, are a looming threat to the power of the Gods but they are slow of wit and easily beguiled by baubles. They have their counterpart in the real world; those who conquer and rule by sheer weight, mindlessly cruel as bad children, fearful, mistrustful, suspicious and yet full of shallow sentiment. The Roman Emperor Nero appears to have been such a man and we have some modern equivalents too. Giant are too thick and gullible to maintain power if challenged by those more cunning than they.
Such as the Dwarves, who would appear to represent True Evil in the Ring. Alberich and his brother Mime forever plot and contrive, driven by greed and envy. Yet their malice is fuelled by a cruel self-knowledge for they are pitiful creatures; ugly, misshapen, despised by all. Small wonder they lust after what they cannot have, as Alberich lusts after the Rhinemaidens. Small wonder he decides that if he can’t have love then gold is the only acceptable substitute. Some have attributed anti-Semitism or outright racism to Wagner’s dwarves but I see them more as representing those underclass types who, perceived as hideous by those more fortunately-born, scheme and agitate for a revolution not for any ideal of freeing oppressed humanity but to satisfy their unappeased hunger. I always feel a bit sorry for Alberich who is not without courage and a sense of beauty. And Mime, for all his spitefulness and ulterior motive, is treated abominably by Siegfried.
The Gods are a motley crew. There’s Wotan, striding around Heaven and Earth to no good purpose and with incomprehensible motives, thundering away like the bully he is. Not much of a husband and a pretty awful father, too, putting Brunnhilde in a coma and sticking her on a cold rock for YEARS! What he ever did to earn his title as Chief God is anyone’s guess. His sidekick Loge, God of Fire, is a nasty bit of work and envious as any dwarf. He is the chief manipulator throughout and represents, I think, those senior bureaucrats who are the true and sometimes insidious power behind politicians and leaders. Loge is the Sir Humphrey Appleby of The Ring.
A more noble character is Fricka, Wotan’s much-abused wife, who just wants the Gods to behave nicely. Mind you she doesn’t seem to care much for Mortals; like any society hostess she thinks the hired help are okay as long as they do as they are told and know their place. That her godly husband should stoop so low as to bonk the maid, so to speak, comes as a terrible shock. Fricka represents those high-minded characters in our society whose own behaviour is exemplary and are capable of great kindness but who have little understanding of the darker urges that drive others.
Most of The Ring’s Mortals are bastards. Literally. And Wotan’s bastards at that. Which actually makes them slightly more than mortal, driven by the same feelings of love, passion, anger, revenge and so on as the Gods but without the power and privilege. ALL the Valkyries are bastards which may account for their general boisterousness. Their mother, Erde, is a right old misery which is not surprising as Wotan left her with all those illegitimate daughters to raise and she is also a sort of Minister for the Environment which as everyone knows is a lowly and thankless job in any government. The doomed lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde are also Wotan’s progeny and seem like decent types though we never really get to know them well enough to find out. Their mortal side appears to predominate and we can see them as those perennial favourites of fiction, couples who love not wisely but too well and end up paying the price for it. And, in sad truth, they ARE a bit soppy! As well as incestuous.
Sieglinde’s husband Hunding is one of only three Mortals in the story and he is hardly a role model for the race. Despite his (grim and gloomy) ancestral hall in the middle of a (grim and gloomy) forest he is a true bogan and you can see him at the footy on a Saturday, swilling beer and bashing his mug about the table and generally being one of the lads. Then reeling through the streets looking to give a good kicking to some perceived racial inferior before heading home to give the wife a quick howsyourfather and a black eye. A nasty bit of work, is Hunding. Domestic violence personified.
Now we come to the stars of this show, Brunnhilde and Siegfried. One is Wotan’s daughter, the Head Valkyrie. The other is his grandson. Not that this fazes anyone; Wotan, like many an aristocratic father in the old days, is far more enraged by her disobedience than by her cohabiting with her nephew. And you can’t blame her for that; he is her rescuer and the first man she has seen for simply yonks! As well as being marvellously handsome and heroic. Brunnhilde is my favourite Ring character because she is brave, kind, true-hearted and feisty and the only one in the whole drama whose motives and behaviour are in any way exemplary. I mean she has a rotten job when we first meet her, carrying corpses away from the battlefield and up to Valhalla but does she complain? No, she yodels cheerfully away and when she falls from grace it is through compassion for another. Brunnhilde represents all that is best in human society, and how too often that best is undervalued.
Siegfried, by contrast, is a shit! A cad, a bounder, a louse of the first order. Sure, he is brave and handsome but, in the words of the immortal Anna Russell, he is also stupid! Thick as! Also arrogant, insensitive…oh why go on, I’ve said it all in an article on Siegfried on this website (see the Wagner bit). If this is the composer’s idea of a hero then it says a lot about Wagner if you ask me! There are a lot of Siegfrieds around today.
So yes, to reiterate, I do think The Ring can be interpreted as social critique though whether that’s what the composer intended nobody is really sure. Beneath the wond’rous music and the florid drama with its Gothic cast of characters lies the basic human conflict of good versus evil leading up to what both religious fanatics and the gloomier environmentalists (among which I count myself) see as the inevitable apocalypse. You’ll see this more clearly if you read the articles and – better still – buy the book (on Amazon download, e-book only, cheap as chips, see link on this website).
If you really want to spice up your garden this summer then now is the time to plant a chilli bush or two.
Maybe you don’t much like the hot taste of chillis? Then consider this – there is more vitamin C in a chilli than in an orange and other health benefits besides. Chillis are also rich in vitamins A, E, potassium and folic acid. And, despite their fiery flavour, they are (used in moderation) very good for stimulating digestion.
The hot zap is all in the seeds and the secret is all in the cooking. If chillis are cooked long and well they lose some of their fire (and also some of their vitamin content). If you want to reduce chilli heat in a recipe, remove some of the seeds. Or buy one of the several less fiery varieties.
Chillis are dead easy to grow, in the ground or in the pot. They will tolerate poorish sandy soil but not heavy clay. The best growing environment is an improved, loamy soil and a sunny position. Water well every day or so for the first month after which a chilli bush will only need watering a couple of times a week. Feed with blood and bone or an all-purpose fertiliser though for best fruiting results I recommend using a special fruit and/or vegetable fertiliser. Cut the bush back once fruiting is finished.
The peppery fruit is, not surprisingly, repellent to most pests – but not all! Birds will take the fruit so your plant/s may need protection. Caterpillars and grasshoppers will eat the leaves and if this starts to happen use a spray or dust recommended by your garden centre. Chillis are in the same genus as tomatoes and though less susceptible are still subject to the same wilt diseases. So make sure the ground or container is well-drained and always use a good quality potting mix.
Chillis today come in large and small fruit sizes, long or round or “udder” shaped and in decorative colours from white to purple as well as red and orange. All can be used in cooking and green, unripe chillis are better than mature red for some dishes. If you have a large crop you can freeze or dry them and then use them whole or ground to make you own chilli powder. Crushed or powdered chilli spread on the ground around plants makes an effective slug and snail repellent.