Friday 13 February 2015


“Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the Gods.” – Plato

For Valentine’s Day today, here is some lush and love-ly instrumental music composed by Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Apart from the operas, Wagner composed a small number of other pieces; this stems from his reluctance to conceive music which didn't belong to the total art of the drama, fundamental expression of his thought.

The “Siegfried Idyll” is a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra, composed by Wagner as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning, 25 December 1870, by a small ensemble on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen.

Wagner’s opera “Siegfried”, which was premiered in 1876, incorporates music from the Idyll. It was once thought that the Idyll borrowed musical ideas intended for the opera, but it is now known that the opposite is the case: Wagner adapted melodic material from an unfinished chamber piece in the Idyll and later incorporated it into the love scene between Siegfried and Brunhilde in the opera.

Here is the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan performing the “Siegfried Idyll” in Vienna in 1988.


“Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.” - Mitch Hedberg

This is a recipe I concocted when suddenly I had French guests pop in. They were all vegetarians and there was no time to do anything extravagant and I had to use what was in the fridge and in the pantry. It turned out well and the guest ate everything on their plate and rated the dish as “very tasty”! The recipe below is for two people.


For the vegetables
2 cups of sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup butter
1 small can of sliced water chestnuts
1/2 cup of baby corn
1/2 cup of sliced red capsicum
1/2  cup of cream
1/2  cup of coconut milk
1 cup of bean sprouts
2 Spring onions, chopped
2/3 cup toasted almond slivers and cashews
Ginger, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg to taste.

For the rice

50 g wild rice
150 g basmati rice
1/4 cup butter
Ground pepper

For the garnish

1 avocado
Coriander sprigs


Cook the rice and wild rice according to the directions and refrigerate until ready to serve.
In a wok, sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they are golden brown. Stir through the nuts. Add the water chestnuts and corn.  Stir thoroughly and add the spices, coconut milk and cream.  Cook until thoroughly warmed through. Keep warm. Add the bean sprouts and chopped Spring onions when ready to serve and stir through to warm them.
Melt the butter in a pan, add the pepper and microwave the rice so that it is heated right through.  Stir the rice thoroughly into the browning butter.
Serve vegetables next to rice and sliced avocado, and garnish with a sprig of coriander.

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Thursday 12 February 2015


"No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible." - W. H. Auden

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the most talented, prolific and divinely inspired composers that ever existed. Besides writing every sort of vocal and instrumental music for solo performers and ensembles, Mozart has left us with some magnificent operas. Who can forget “The Magic Flute”, or “Così Fan Tutte”, or “Don Giovanni”, or “The Marriage of Figaro” or “Idomeneo”?

Opera has been described as the ultimate art form as it incorporates literature and poetry, music and dance, painting and costume design, acting and presentation, singing and instrument playing. In order for an opera to be composed, a composer needs to have a “libretto” (Latin for “little book”, plural “libretti”). This is a specialised literary form where the librettist takes an idea (derived from a pre-existing work or an original one) and works it into the conventions followed by opera. The opera libretto from its inception (around 1600) was written in verse, and this continued well into the 19th century. Musical theatre forms with spoken dialogue have typically alternated verse in the musical numbers with spoken prose. Since the late 19th century some opera composers have written music to prose or free verse libretti.

The libretto of a musical, on the other hand, is almost always written in prose (except for the song lyrics). The libretto of a musical, if the musical is adapted from a play, may even borrow their source's original dialogue. Shakespeare’s works have provided librettists with much inspiration for writing for the operatic stage (eg: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”; “Othello”; “Macbeth”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” etc). Myths and legends are other rich sources for libretti (eg: “Orpheus and Euridice”; “Alceste”; “Iphigenia in Tauris”, etc). Novels, historical and biographical subjects and original librettos written by the composer himself (eg. Wagner) are also common.

Well-known poets originally wrote librettos in 17th and 18th centuries. Metastasio (1698-1782, real name Pietro Trapassi) was one of the best known librettists in Europe. Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) wrote many librettos, including three that Mozart used for some of his best known operatic works: “Così fan Tutte”, “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro”. Eugène Scribe was a famous 19th century librettist, whose work was set to music for the opera by Meyerbeer, Bellini, Donizetti, Auber, Verdi and Rossini.  Arrigo Boito, a composer himself, wrote librettos not only for his own use, but also for Verdi and Ponchielli. The duo of Frenchmen, Meilhac and Halévy wrote many librettos for Offenbach, Massenet and Bizet.

For the English speaker one of the most successful duo of operetta was Gilbert and Sullivan (librettist and composer respectively). They collaborated on fourteen comic operas, including such delights as “The Mikado”, “HMS Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance”. They collaborated despite their personality clash and strained relationship.

Now, back to Mozart! “Don Giovanni”  (K527 with complete title of “Il Dissoluto Punito, ossia Don Giovanni” – The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni) is a two-act opera that was premiered in the Estates Theatre in Prague on October 29, 1787. It is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent pieces of music written and certainly the best opera that is based on the life of the notorious womaniser, Don Juan. The opera is described as a tragicomedy or “dramma giocoso”.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, has written a lengthy essay in his book “Either/Or” in which he claims that Mozart's “Don Giovanni” is the greatest work of art ever realised. The finale in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent has been a captivating philosophical and artistic topic for many writers including George Bernard Shaw, who in “Man and Superman”, parodied the opera.

A useful site for finding the librettos of many operas is to be found here.

Tuesday 10 February 2015


“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” - Kahlil Gibran

Poetry Jam this week asks participants to “feel the silence, experience the emotion and write whatever you feel your heart sets you free to share”. Here is my offering:

The Ditty of April Approaching

How far from you I feel

When I am by your side.
The moon who watches me
Understands, smiles but is silent
Leaving me alone, and you!
You are so distant
Especially when I am by your side.

Too much silence

Too much darkness.
Only I, alone, and you so far away
When I need you most.
The moon so far,
Pallid, lonely and silent, like me!

Too many fears,

Too many problems.
And I so close, yet far away
I dare not speak,
I cannot risk losing you,
I cannot ask you to approach me.
It’s better that you be far
Even though only beside me.

How far away and yet so near,

So close,
So forbidden,
So silent,
So very far!

Monday 9 February 2015


“Only the educated are free.” - Epictetus

I am reading a book called “Terrors of the Table” by Walter Gratzer, at the moment. It documents the struggle to find the vital nutritive ingredients of a balanced diet, and in the process exposes the fads and quackery that have always waylaid the unwary and the foolish when they attempt to eat a “healthy” diet. Terrible nutritional illnesses such as scurvy, rickets and beriberi are described and Gratzer tells how these diseases stalked the poor in the West even into the 20th century, and remain perennial in poorer parts of the world today. Disorders afflicting the developed world in epidemic proportions (especially diabetes and obesity) are discussed. A theme running through the book is that despite our extensive knowledge of nutrition there are still many who would fall for fads and fancy diets - some dangerous, others just plain stupid.

The chapters on the discovery of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals need in the diet in minute doses) proved to be absorbing reading. Gratzer unravels information about one nutrient at a time, and provides evidence and arguments that are of a type familiar to the reader. A major conceptual barrier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the challenge to conventional wisdom of the argument that the absence of an essential factor, rather than the presence of a noxious agent, could cause disease.

There are throughout the book examples of the addition of toxic substances to pharmaceutical preparations and foods. These additives were included in the sincere belief that there would be a benefit. There is a background for the emergence later of the regulation of foods and drugs, though this aspect of the history of nutrition is not featured in the book. The author presents his own view of the harm, both ancient and modern, caused by food processing and a food industry motivated by profit. Unfortunately, the author fails to present the positive side of food preservation, year-round availability of what had once been a seasonal food supply and the benefits of modern methods of food preservation (e.g. freezing), which are better for our health than pickling, salting and smoking food.

It is the final two chapters that present the “terrors of the table”, but it is these two chapters that are the weakest and mostly coloured by the author’s own prejudices and with arguments that are not well supported by hard evidence. What is labelled as “terror” tends to be poorly documented, selection-biased sensationalism, rather than objective history. What is evident is that the apparent strength of evidence and the validity of rationalisations are in the eye of the beholder, and whatever prejudice-coloured glasses he or she chooses to wear.

The 12-page appendix, titled “The Hard Science”, adds little useful information. The brief discussion of metabolism is so oversimplified and incomplete as to be misleading. The discussion might encourage a naive reader to believe some of the rationales of weight-control diets that the author criticises in previous chapters of the book.

The book is full of colourful personalities from medical history and it highlights the brilliant flashes of insight as well as the sadly mistaken leaps of logic in the centuries-long effort to understand how the body uses food. There are interesting anecdotes from the history of nutrition and has some curious portraits of the scientists who helped or hindered our understanding of diet and digestion. An interesting book, but it should be read with a grain of salt, or perhaps a very good pinch or two of it.

Sunday 8 February 2015


“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” – Confucius

At the weekend we watched an old film, which we were unaware of until I found it in the “specials” bin of our DVD shop. It was Tony Scott’s 1990 film Revenge based on the novella by Jim Harrison and starring Kevin Costner, Anthony Quinn and Madeleine Stowe. This was a film showcasing Quinn’s veteran actor talent and providing a platform for Costner to show his developing acting skills.

Costner plays US Navy pilot Michael “Jay” Cochran who is retiring after 12 years in the service. He seems to have lost direction and wants to take some time out for himself. He plans to go and see his old friend and tennis partner Tiburon “Tibby” Mendez (Anthony Quinn) who is a powerful mob boss in Mexico. Tibby owes Jay a debt for saving his life at some point in the past. Once Jay arrives at the Mendez hacienda he meets Miryea (Madeleine Stowe) Tibby’s young and beautiful wife. Instantly attracted to one another and although initially fighting the chemistry between them, they begin an affair, which comes at a great cost.

There is a resemblance to “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and the location shooting in Mexico contributes greatly to the atmosphere and tenseness of the plot. The themes of love and forbidden love, versus friendship and loyalty are at the base of the plot, but there are also subplots relating to corruption, conjugal relationships, motherhood and pride. Tiburon Mendez  feels he has been doubly betrayed, not only by his wife, but more importantly by his friend. Despite the fact that Cochran once saved his life, he shows no mercy for him or for his wife.

There are many tense and some extremely violent scenes, which are enhanced by the background, the sets and the score. The score especially is a great plus and the use of Mexican music in moderation adds so much to the action. The acting is nicely understated, Costner displaying a barely restrained anger throughout the second part of the film and Anthony Quinn playing a role that seems to have been written for him as the superficially charming but totally ruthless mobster. Madeleine Stowe is cast well as the female lead and the chemistry with Costner is good. The cinematography is excellent and the camera is used well to the advantage of the leads.

The ending of the film is one of its strengths and after Quinn and Costner “fight it out” so to speak, Costner’s scene with Stowe at the very end is both tragic and touching. There is a lot of emotion and deep feeling that manages to come out in what essentially is a very violent and grim, western-like movie. The rating for this movie in IMDB is 6.2/10, but I give it a 7.5/10. Certainly an underrated and under-appreciated movie.


“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” - Henry Ward Beecher

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was born in Russia and brought up in a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto where he encountered community opposition for his propensity for drawing images, which contravened Talmudic law. He arrived in Paris in 1913, where he initially lived in desperate poverty. In 1915 he met Modigliani, with whom he developed a close friendship. His work was tenuously connected with the Parisian mainstream, but has a recognisable debt to Fauvism and Expressionism. Although his financial condition improved suddenly after 1923 through growing patronage, he continued to produce disturbing works in which extremely distorted images were painted with intensely heightened colours. His “Arbre Couché” (above), painted during 1923-4 is representative of this period.

Soutine’s life had changed radically after the American collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, bought many of his canvases in 1923. Having previously known poverty, Soutine now enjoyed a comfortable life and could stay at luxury hotels and spas. At Châtelguyon, Puy-de-Dôme, where he often went to take waters with his friends and patrons Marcellin and Madeline Castaing, he observed the staff and painted the well-known series of bellboys and waiters. Soutine seems to have felt a bond with these despised workers, victims of a rejection he himself had experienced. Through characteristic individuals, such as the room-service waiter of this painting, Soutine evoked the boundless mass of the oppressed.

Modigliani introduced Soutine to the art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who enabled him to spend three years (1919–22) painting at Céret in the south of France. The feverish, visionary landscapes Soutine painted there marked the emergence of his mature style. Soutine spent most of the remainder of his life in Paris. He exhibited little during his lifetime and relentlessly reworked or destroyed old canvases.

Soutine’s portraits from the 1920s, distinguished by their subjects’ twisted faces and distorted limbs and by the emphasis in each canvas on one brilliant colour, frequently red, are among his most expressive works. He seldom showed his works, but he did take part in the important exhibition “The Origins and Development of International Independent Art” held at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in 1937 in Paris, where he was at last hailed as a great painter. Soon afterwards France was invaded by German troops.

As a Jew, Soutine had to escape from the French capital and hide in order to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. He moved from one place to another and was sometimes forced to seek shelter in forests, sleeping outdoors. Suffering from a stomach ulcer and bleeding badly, he left a safe hiding place for Paris in order to undergo emergency surgery, which failed to save his life. On August 9, 1943, Chaïm Soutine died of a perforated ulcer. He was interred in Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.