Saturday 13 March 2010


“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” - Leopold Stokowski

Some quintessential musical passages remain with us since the first time we hear them. They touch us and stir emotions within us with a force that other stimuli fail to do. Claudio Monteverdi is one of my favourite composers and his “L' Orfeo” is a masterpiece amongst masterpieces. Here is a piece that introduces the opera and is sung by Trudeliese Schmidt with Nicolaus Harnocourt leading the Monteverdi Ensemble of the Zürich Opera House. Although her singing is faultless, and the aria marvellous, the instrumental introduction (at 1:58 after the bashy Toccata), which recurs as the mellifluous ritornello every now and then, is a bewitching piece of pure music that always wrings my heart every time I hear it. A sublime few bars of genius that were penned by a master, whose art is ever-fresh and relevant even though several centuries old.


Thursday 11 March 2010


“It is, in my view, the duty of an apple to be crisp and crunchable, but a pear should have such a texture as leads to silent consumption.” - Edward Bunyard

For lunch today I had a couple of new season’s apples. They tasted delicious – fruity, sweet, crunchy, juicy and they were beautiful to look at also. The introduction of new season apples into our greengrocers’ shops ushers in autumn for us of the southern hemisphere. The humble apple is the archetypal fruit par excellence, and its history goes back to palaeolithic times with preserved specimens being discovered in a variety of locations around the world. This fruit not only has been enjoyed as food for millennia, but is also the source of rich legends and myths in many cultures.

From the very beginning of history ancient people adored fruit. Except perhaps for honey, fruit is nature’s only pleasure-laden natural food. Apples (or to give them their botanical name Malus domestica) have been associated from ancient times with love, beauty, luck, health, comfort, pleasure, wisdom, temptation, sensuality, sexuality, virility and fertility. Myths about man’s origins connect him to a garden of paradise filled with fruit trees. The stories are essentially the same whether we consider the Semitic Adam, the Teutonic Iduna, the Greek Hesperides, or the Celtic Avalon. Human beings have paradise with an abundance of cultivated fruit.

In Greek mythology, Gaia (Mother Earth), presented a tree with golden apples to Zeus and his bride Hera on their wedding day. Guarded by Ladon, a serpent that never slept, the apple tree was in the garden of the Hesperides, daughters of the Evening Star. These golden apples became involved with many tales of love, bribery and temptation ranging from the abduction of Helen of Troy to the defeat and marriage of Atlanta. The sexual and romantic connotations of the apple were powerful reasons why apples came as dessert at the end of the meal. They not only tasted heavenly and were good for digestion but were regarded as a cunning transitional aphrodisiac for the pleasures that followed. Is it any wonder that apples became the most sought-after fruit on earth?

Apples, have been described as a “cleansing” food and contain fibre, which encourages good gastrointestinal system function. After all, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away, two apples a day keep the gastroenterologist at bay!” Although apples can be eaten freely, more than two or three a day does not increase the health benefits. Furthermore, large quantities of apple juice can encourage tooth decay and diarrhoea.

The nutritional value of apples is well known and for every 100 g of apple flesh, there are 10 g of sugars, 3 g of fibre, 120 mg of potassium, 10 mg of vitamin C, 2 mg of Vitamin A, 0.6 g of vitamin E and about 200 Joules of energy (≈50 calories). They contain no fat or cholesterol. Apples also contain antioxidants and fruit flavonoids. The most important of the flavonoids contained in apples is quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory as well as anti-cancer actions. Apples can reduce blood cholesterol levels, counter constipation and diarrhoea, help joint problems and help prevent diseases in general. Apples are best eaten raw, as cooking them can reduce the flavonoids by as much as 70 percent into the cooking water. It is also a good idea to eat the apple unpeeled as flavonoids are contained in or near the skin.

Antioxidants are chemicals that reduce or prevent oxidation, thus preventing cell and tissue damage from destructive free radicals in the tissues. Antioxidants are chemical substances that donate an electron to the free radical and convert it to a harmless molecule. Fruits, vegetables and grains are rich sources of antioxidants.

Flavonoids are defensive plant chemicals found in apples, along with other fruits and vegetables. There are a number of different types of flavonoids with each having a protective health effect. Over 4,000 flavonoids have been documented to have antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour and antioxidant activities. The term flavonoids represents all of the following subclasses: Anthocyanins, Flavanols, Flavanones, Flavonols, Flavones, and Isoflavones.

Pectin is a natural fibre found in many fruits with apples being the richest source of pectin among all the fruits. Recent studies have revealed many health benefits from consumption of pectin. Of note are studies that show Pectin:
• Acts as an antioxidant against the bad cholesterol in the blood stream.
• Decreases the chances of large bowel cancer.
• Works well as an anti-diarrhoea agent.
• Reduces high blood pressure.
• Is effective in the regression, or prevention of, gallstones.

There is also recent evidence to suggest that taking Apple Pectin everyday over time can lead to a reduction in insulin requirements, which may lessen the severity of diabetes.

Further research suggests that phytochemicals may help slow the ageing process and reduce the risk of many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cataracts, osteoporosis, and urinary tract infections. "Phyto" is a Greek word that means plant and phytochemicals are usually related to plant pigments. So, fruits and vegetables that are bright colours - yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and purple - generally contain the most phytochemicals and the most nutrients.

Quercetin may be a major reason why the old saying about “eating an apple a day” has been associated with good health. Quercetin, primarily found in apples, onions, and black tea, belongs to a group of plant pigment flavonoids that serve as a building block for other members of the flavonoid family. It combats the destructive “free radical” molecules that play a part in many diseases.

Specifically, quercetin may help to:
• Reduce cancer risk
• Prevent heart attacks
• Ward off eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration
• Control asthma
• Maintain health when suffering from Crohn’s disease
• Prevent recurrent gout attacks
• Speed up healing of recurrent heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)

Tannins are substances that tan hides and make apples rust when exposed to the effects of the air. True tannins produce both tanning and puckering. The amount of tannin in an apple, especially in the skin, may differ not only from variety to variety, but also from tree to tree and even from year to year for the same tree. Research suggests tannins may help prevent periodontal or gum disease.

Apples: Delicious, nutritious, auspicious, propitious, healthful, delightful, flavourful and colourful!


“No good opera plot can be sensible: People do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” - W.H. Auden

Last night we went to the Opera and saw Rossini’s masterpiece “The Barber of Seville”. It was a Melbourne Opera Company production staged at the Athenaeum theatre and we had a delightful time. Melbourne Opera prides itself on its commitment to producing high quality, accessible performances for the benefit of audiences and performers. It has an ensemble of dedicated performers and administrators, and they aim to provide opera of the highest standard to audiences of all ages and backgrounds at affordable prices. The company was only founded in 2002 as a non-profit public arts company dedicated to producing opera and associated art forms at realistic prices. At the performance last night, the company’s patron, Lady Potter announced a partnership with Monash University, which will no doubt greatly stimulate this company to go onto bigger and better things.

The Athenaeum Theatre is a Melbourne institution, founded in 1839. Originally it was called the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute. This was expanded in 1846 to the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution and School of Arts. The building on Collins Street was completed in 1842. The Athenaeum played a role in the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria. The Institution changed its name to the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873. At that time, as now, a major activity was a library. The theatre in its present form was created in 1921. The theatre was the first venue in Australia to screen talking pictures. It is an intimate theatre, which nevertheless retains a classic appearance with stalls, dress circle and upper circle, quite commodious in its entirety. The stage and orchestra pit have been recently refurbished and renovations are now in full swing, made all the more urgent by the flood damage from last Saturday’s storm (the show did go on, however!).

“The Barber of Seville” is derived from a play by Beaumarchais and introduces the likeable rogue, Figaro, who is a barber and general factotum of the city. He aids the Count Almaviva to win the affections of Rosina, the pretty young ward of Dr Bartolo (who lusts after her and wishes to marry her himself). The music of “The Barber of Seville” is too well known to require me talking about it at length here. It shows the composer in his most brilliant, amusing and most exhilarating mood, and sparkles with wit and fancy. Amongst his most familiar numbers are the Count’s serenade, Figaro’s celebrated description of his various duties, Basilio’s plotting aria, Rosina’s chamber aria, the ingenious dragoon finale of first Act, and the music-lesson. The well-known overture, as now played, was not originally composed for the opera, but had done varied service in other works.

Rossini wrote “The Barber” to the commission of the manager of the Argentina Theatre, at Rome, where it was first produced in February 1816. According to contract, it had to be finished by a very near date, and for thirteen days poet and composer had scarcely time to eat, while they slept (on a sofa) only when they could no longer keep their eyes open. Although the opera was not successful on its first few performances, within a couple of weeks it reaped the success it deserves. Before long it had spread all over Europe, with performances from London to St. Petersburg. In 1825 it became the first opera ever sung in Italian in New York City, and Rossini was arguably the most popular composer in the world. Rossini’s masterwork is still indisputably the most popular opera buffa (comic opera) of all-time.

The cast comprised international star Sally-Anne Russell stars as Rosina, with the dashing Phillip Calcagno as Figaro and Margaret Haggart as Berta; Operatunity Oz star Roy Best as Count Almaviva, popular baritone Ian Cousins as Dr Bartolo and David Gould as Basilio. The small orchestra was competent enough (except for some initial jitters from the brass section in the overture) and the harpsichordist did a marvellous job the whole performance through.

We had a delightful evening and enjoyed the performance very much. If you are in Melbourne do go and see it, it’s a good night out!

athenaeum |ˌaθəˈnēəm| (also atheneum) noun
Used in the names of libraries or institutions for literary or scientific study: The Melbourne Athenaeum library and theatre.
• Used in the titles of periodicals concerned with literature, science, and art.
ORIGIN mid 18th century: via Latin from Greek Athēnaion, denoting the temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Here is a clip with Figaro’s famous aria “Largo al Factotum della Città” sung by Pietro Spagnoli in the famous production of Teatro Real in Madrid.

Wednesday 10 March 2010


“It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” - Mark Twain

A very full day (and evening!) today, so for Poetry Wednesday, a Ko-Uta or “Little Song” of the Japanese Geishas. These marvelously lyrical songs are sung by the geishas while they accompany themselves on the shamisen (a three-stringed, fretless, long necked, banjo-like instument). They are called little songs as most of them take a minute to be performed, none being longer than three or four minutes long. The singer and shamisen take two different threads of melody and wind them around each other to give a harmonious whole.

This Ko-Uta is dedicated to all my northern hemisphere friends who are awaiting spring:

A Single Plum Blossom

A single plum blossom, then another
Opening one by one,
And the first plaintive notes
Of the bush warbler’s song,
Harbingers of the coming spring.
To tell the truth,
They only make me long
To see you again…

And in Japanese:

Ume ichirin
Ichirin zutsu ni
Uguisu no
Utai some soro
Haru no keshiki mo
Totonou mama ni
Jitsu wa aitaku
Natta no sa

Jacqui BB hosts Poetry Wednesday

Monday 8 March 2010


“Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes, and adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” - Francis Bacon

I am thankful I have a job. I am thankful for every day that I go to the train station and am able to travel to work in public transport in safety and relatively cheaply and reliably. I am thankful I have a house to live in with reasonable comfort. I am thankful that I live in a country where I can expect a certain level of social welfare, relative safety and where my interests are looked after by laws and a political system that is there to serve my interests. I am thankful for my ability to have freedom of speech. I am thankful for not being discriminated against because of sex, age, politics, sexuality, religion, etc, etc.

What has prompted this outburst of gratitude? Well, firstly one of my colleagues at work was bemoaning the fact that we had to come back to work after the Labour Day holiday. Secondly, the angry comments of an irate fellow passenger this evening on the commuter train because the train was five minutes late. Third, was a news item that I read in the paper about a stampede in India where a young man died tragically and 11 were injured. The incident occurred in Mumbai where 30,000 young men were assembled ready to lodge a job application in an attempt to become part of the Mumbai police team (3,250 newly created positions). When the gate of the police camp opened, the 30,000 applicants gathered outside camp gate rushed in to allow submit their applications.

The victim was 22-year-old Ramesh Gopinath who lined up from the previous night, with all of his hopes collected on an application form. A young man who competed with the other 30,000 hopefuls in order to find a job, make something of his life and support his family. Instead of a job he found a horrible death as he was trampled. His grieving family that was depending on him for their daily bread is now left bereft and without any income. The recruitment process was resumed a few hours after the stampede…

Last week, 63 people died in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in another stampede outside a Hindu temple. They were women and children, and the cause of the deaths was lax safety and overcrowding in a confined space. In the absence of safety regulations in congested spaces, as panic spreads quickly, the resulting stampede is often lethal. These events are not isolated occurrences. They have occurred with amazing regularity in the past and will continue to happen unless serious changes in Indian society are put into place. No mean feat for one of the most populous countries in the world (1.17 billion people, as estimated for July, 2009; more than one-sixth of the world’s population), and a land in which great poverty abounds.

When I visited India several years ago, I was astounded. It is a country of immense contrasts, a long history, an amazing civilisation and an extremely diverse population. I saw great riches right next to the most abject poverty. The glory of the Taj Mahal coexisting with the misery of shanty towns. And everywhere crowds and crowds of people. The people I met were gracious, courteous and possessed of a gentle nobility even if they were the poorest of the poor. In their poverty they were happy with what little they possessed, and generous of spirit to share that little with complete strangers.

I am distressed by this news from India, but even closer to home, the plight of some Indians who are living here in Australia and who are experiencing difficulties or violence concerns me. The latest news relates to the poor young Indian child of three years who was found dead in an outer Melbourne suburb last week. The toddler was visiting Australia with his parents and a 23-year-old Indian man who had been living in the same house has been arrested and charged with the child’s death. The case is a puzzling one and all is not what it appears to be.

We have many Indians living in Australia and many who are studying here, many who are hoping to immigrate here, or gain permanent residency. The links between our two countries are many and there are many factors that should unite rather than divide. Social conditions in India are more difficult than in Australia and the attractiveness of Australia as a destination for economic refugees is great. Australian society, which is generally tolerant and accepting, and quite cosmopolitan, also has some elements within it that are xenophobic and resistant to further immigration. Tensions develop and there are sometimes outbursts of violence and hate. A balance can be achieved. Our society has the capacity to accept more immigrants and still preserve all of the things that I am grateful about. The trouble is in finding that balance and convincing all concerned that Australia’s lifestyle and social conditions will not suffer as our population expands…

Sunday 7 March 2010


“One man gets nothing but discord out of a piano; another gets harmony. No one claims the piano is at fault. Life is about the same. The discord is there, and the harmony is there. Study to play it correctly, and it will give forth the beauty; play it falsely, and it will give forth the ugliness. Life is not at fault.”

Today is International Women’s Day, which had its origins in 1908 when 15,000 working women went on strike in New York. It was a struggle calling for electoral rights, improved working conditions, a shorter working day, and the same salary as men. In 1910 an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day (a Women’s Day) to champion their causes. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval the result being International Women’s Day. Women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education and health is worse than that of men.

A hundred years later, Amnesty International reminds us that women’s rights are basic human rights and violence against women remains one of the most serious barriers to equality. On average, women still earn almost a third less than men and face many obstacles in advancing their career, especially if they interrupt it to have children. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on member states to proclaim a day for women's rights and international peace. Following the United Nations’ lead, many countries around the world chose March 8th as International Women’s Day.

For our Movie Monday today, a film written and directed by a woman about a woman. This is a film which I first saw when I was living in Holland as a new release in the early 90s. I had really liked it then and on viewing the film again at the weekend, I was able to appreciate it once more. It is the now classic Jane Campion 1993 movie “The Piano”, a New Zealand, Australian, French production.

The film is set in Victorian times in New Zealand, a colony of the British crown. The Europeans and Maoris live in a fragile peaceful co-existence and the Europeans rapidly develop the pristine land that they obtain from the Maoris by exchanging it with manufactured goods and guns. Two land owners, the well-to-do Alisdair Stewart (played by Sam Neill) and the more easy going and frugal George Baines (played by Harvey Keitel). Alisdair has remained very much a Victorian gentleman farmer, but George has a good relationship with the Maoris and his sojourn in New Zealand has changed him psychologically and behaviourally. Alidair has a clutch of horrible relatives, upon whose insistence (one supposes) arranges for a bride to be sent to him from the home country. This is Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a Scottish mute woman who has not spoken since she was six years old, but who can hear. Ada has a young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), with whom she can converse in sign language.

Ada’s voice is her piano, with which she cannot bear to be parted, and so it accompanies mother and daughter to the colonies. The film is the story of Ada and her liberation. Liberation from people’s expectations, from her confining, strait-laced Victorian morality, from society’s stranglehold on what a woman has to do, what she can and what she cannot do. It is about Ada’s discovery of her sexuality and of love.

The film is poetic and brutal at the same time. Its images are suffused with a wild beauty and the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. The raw sexuality that the film exudes is more akin to passionate love rather than a simple carnality. Ada’s discovery of herself through her love for her music and even more so her love for a man who loves her back and desires her for herself, is a powerful statement of feminism and self-determination. Ada’s sensuality is mirrored by her lover and the final scenes of the film when Ada chooses between her piano and her lover are stunning.

One of the strong points of the film is the music by Michael Nyman. It is amazingly apt and enhances every scene by touching the appropriate heart strings so that they resonate with the emotive force of the images and the story. The film won three Oscars (Holly Hunter – Best actress; Anna Paquin – Best supporting actress and Jane Campion – Best screenplay) as well as numerous other awards, and rightly so!

If you haven’t seen this film, watch it, it’s fantastic! Here is a short trailer with my favourite piece of music from the film:


“Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.” - Roger Miller

The full effect of yesterday’s storm has become apparent around our City. Many millions of dollars of damage, many homes, cars and other property destroyed and a massive clean-up operation that started today. We had more heavy rain this evening and we kept thinking of the poor people who had lost home and possessions in the fury of the storm. Many others were knee in mud and water, trying to clean and dry up the flood damage.

Here is an apt painting for today, “Noah's Family Assembling Animals before the Ark” by Jan van Kessel II (Flemish, 1626-1679).  It is after a painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger (Flemish, 1601-1678), painted about 1660 in the Baroque period. The animals gathered by Noah's family to take on the ark in the distance reflect both the amazing variety of nature and man's dominion over nature. The majority were considered exotic by 17th-century Europeans: For example, parrots, the rare purple gallinule, and turkeys from the New World, African ostriches and porcupines with their incredibly long quills raised in defense, as well as lions and leopards. The painting could be enjoyed like a visit to the menagerie or zoo.

This is a descendant of a painting from 1613 by Jan Brueghel the Elder (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), the composition was also painted by Jan Brueghel the Younger. Here, the groupings of animals are distinct, encouraging viewers to study them separately. This is characteristic of animal paintings by Jan van Kessel, nephew of Jan Brueghel the Younger.