Isolation day 26

  • Better night’s sleep, thank goodness. Only 6 hours 11 minutes, but 1 hour 11 of deep sleep; relatively quite good.
  • We went for a walk this morning. I had been thinking about an alt route to the one we usually do. This worked very well, and was also longer than usual. (I have done 9,300-odd steps, about 6.7 kilometres.) On our way back we bought a couple of takeaway coffees on our way home, from a local cafe next to a little park, where we sat and drank them. The sun even came out, in rather mingy Melbourne fashion.
  • When we got back I made salmon patties for lunch. My beloved was hungry, and didn’t want to wait for those, so heated up some leftovers from the freezer. This filled her up, so she didn’t want any lunch. I had a couple of the patties with some burrito and a piece of toast left over from breakfast.
  • After lunch I listened to most of an MSO concert on ABC Classic. This was one which the orchestra played to an empty Hamer Hall; apparently over two thousand people registered to listen to it, greater than the capacity of the hall. The program was a work by Deborah Cheetham, the Schelomo rhapsody for cello and orchestra by Bloch, and Scheherezade. The Rimsky was very well done, with a fine concertmaster solo from Dale Barltrop, the MSO co-concertmaster. Gee, they are a good orchestra; all stood down for the duration, poor things. (You can stream this concert from the ABC Classic web site for a few weeks.)
  • After the third movement of the Rimsky I wondered if my subwoofer was working correctly. I had bought my speaker set (Dali Ikon 2, Mk. 2) from the Brotherhood store in Camberwell Junction about four years ago. They had come with no manuals, of course, but I subsequently found one online for the subbie, and printed it out. It was this that I consulted this afternoon. The manual had such a miniscule illustration of the control panel that I had to get out my big magnifying glass to read it. Of course this panel is tucked away at the back of the speaker, so the direction in which the knobs turned was reversed from the illustration. I think I improved the set-up.
  • Meanwhile my beloved was doing some work at her workstation. After that she went to meet a friend at the park at the end of our street.
  • It was quite a sunny morning, so I optimistically changed over our towels, washed the old set, and hung them out on the clothesline. They didn’t dry notably; it was really quite still, and the sun became very elusive. So I dragged the towels back inside and chucked them in the dryer. At least they are all dry now.
  • I have left my beloved watching The Little Drummer Girl for the second time on SBS On Demand. We have had quite a retro German wallow with that and Deutschland. Looking forward to a new Mystery Road on ABC TV tomorrow night.

Isolation day 25

It’s been a lot of fun for me to be writing all this stuff. Doing the more regular posts seems to have shaken a few things loose in the literary brain. However, apart from a few poems, I’m not getting much other writing done, and I need to put in more time here.

Now that we are more used to how the days are going to go, as well, things are more routine. So from now on, until the end of the isolation, I will put these updates in point form.

  • Yesterday I played one of the Super Audio CDs from the Mariss Jansons set with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra — the 5th Symphony of Mahler. I really enjoyed this reading. The SACD recording has a noticeably wider dynamic range over a regular CD — the bass drum has a real thump. All the wind solos are amazingly well balanced against the orchestra — a Janssons specialty. The famous Adagietto begins with a Mozartian delicacy, but he gets the fiddles to really dig in for the middle theme — quite thrilling.
  • My sleep was pretty crook again. My little device measured the total shuteye at 6 hours 20 minutes, which is not bad. The shortfall, as ever, is the deep sleep — only 46 minutes.
  • My beloved did another solid stint at her workstation — about four hours this morning and a few after lunch. Her work is going to be moving its catalogue and other files to another server, so there is some tidying-up to do in these files  beforehand.
  • While she did that I listened to the radio — there was a Wagner program on 3MBS-FM. This inspired me to haul out our Solti Ring Cycle set and get out the discs which explain the leitmotifs, the short musical motifs which depict characters, concepts and places in The Ring. This is a great time to play through these discs and get an overview of how these devices stitch the cycle together.
  • My main morning activity was cleaning off the boot prints our gardener had left behind on the pavers in the courtyard, following his visit on Wednesday. I did this by first flooding the area with water, giving the marks a gentle scrub with a detergent solution, then doing a final rinse. (These kinds of marks on concrete pavers can become hard to shift, if not gotten onto fairly soon.)
  • We ventured out a while after that to get some groceries and meat. Things were pretty quiet in Middle Camberwell and Maling Road. My beloved did the actual getting as usual. (No doubt people think I am being a total MCP when I stay in the car.) I was reading No friend but the mountains, when there was a thump against the rear bumper bar. I was supposed to be keeping an eye out for her return, but had become engrossed in the book — my bad! (Coincidentally, Behrouz Boochani was describing queuing up for the dining room at the Manus Prison.)
  • Lunch was some brown rice and a burrito bowl. I had made the rice a few days ago and frozen a few portions; the burrito I made yesterday. Basically a vegetable casserole, this had broccoli, celery, tomato, red onion, garlic, red kidney beans, and smoked paprika. (Like most such things  it reheats well, and the ingredients are very flexible. Whatever you use, it is a good way to get one’s veges.) It is meant to be served with avocado and a squeeze of lime juice — I only had the latter. I cooked it in the multi-cooker, so there was only one pot to wash.
  • I thought of some lines for a poem and scribbled these down. I’ll post this when I get a PhD in fiddling around to make the line indents do what I want!
  • I was going to go for a walk with my beloved, but she wanted to finish something off at her workstation. So I went by myself. The weather is quite mild, about 17 degrees, with a nice fresh breeze. I have racked up nearly 6,000 steps, about 4.3 kilometres.
  • It’s wine o’clock!


Isolation day 21

Yes, past the three week mark today.

It was a bit of a weird day, but good. I know readers find our routine as fascinating as we do, so you will remember that we normally go for a walk after breakfast — particularly if the sun is out. This morning was unusual in that my beloved wanted instead to do some weights, then some gardening. So we both did an exercise program, then some weeding and pruning in the front garden. I thought I might get the towels dry, so while we were so occupied, I put a couple of loads of washing on. Of course the change came through early,  as soon as I’d hung everything out. So I had to haul the towels back in and put them in the dryer — something we rarely use. (I generally just put them on clothes racks, which are positioned over heating vents.) 

After lunch my beloved passed out for a few hours, and I played Act 1 of Parsifal. This is obviously a suitable choice for Easter — the Good Friday music in Act 3 is one of the most beautiful passages in the opera, and indeed in Wagner overall. We had seen a concert performance of this opera a couple of years ago in Sydney, with the incomparable Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. I’m so glad we went to see him. Around that time he announced his intention to not travel so far from his base in Germany. Of course, for the foreseeable future, I won’t be travelling anywhere, so I may not get to see him again. This was one of the best opera performances I have seen. The SMH critic, Peter MacCallum, gave it 11 out of 10. (Kudos, BTW, to my former music teacher for arranging the tickets.)

Parsifal is of course Wagner’s final opera, and one that I recommend for anyone for whom the Ring Cycle is just too drawn out. Someone observed about Parsifal that it is an opera about religion, rather than a religious opera. I think that is true. It examines Christian values such as compassion and redemption, but in a rather detached way. More importantly, the music is luminous, exquisitely beautiful, and scored with great transparency. I played a wonderful recording made at the Salzburg Festival in 2013, conducted by Christian Thielemann. (This is made more poignant for me by the death a few years later of the lead, the South African heldentenor Johan Botha.) 

When my beloved surfaced, she had a late lunch, and we watched Fake or Fortune. It was time then for a drink, the ABC news, and another Deutschland 83. During the last of these the wifi started slowing down occasionally, although only for a few seconds. This was the first time I noticed this happening since we had switched over to NBN about six weeks ago. Last week the laptop in the study disconnected a few times from the wifi. After reading some Telstra discussion list messages, I went to the settings for the NBN modem router and switched off the band steering. (This allows the modem to switch between 2.4 and 5 GHz speeds. The latter is obviously faster, but can be problematic for devices further away from the modem.) I switched the setting back on again, in the hope that this will reduce these slowdowns. No doubt, with everyone staying put for Easter, everyone is streaming Stan, Netflix, and so on all at once.

Isolation diary day 11

So I called yesterday day twelve! Big deal! As most of you will have found, one day resembles another to a fair degree. Back when the isolation started, I actually cut a post-it note in half, and stuck it on our kitchen calendar to mark the current day. I stuck the other half of the post-it on the nominal last day of my sentence. Of course, the latter date, whatever it is, falls in April, so the two yellow bits of paper are on different pages of the calendar. (They will soon be on the same page, however, and start drawing ever closer.)

I slept in a bit this morning, until about 7.45. After breakfast, coffee #1, and a few other things, we headed out for our walk at about 11.00. This was rather later than our usual excursion, and had gotten quite warm by then. (On the weather report this evening, I see that was about when the maximum of 26 degrees was reached.) We did our usual route in reverse, probably just for a change. (By the way does anyone know why people have started saying “Change it up” recently, instead of “Change it around”, or just “Change it”?) Anyway, when we got back it was time for another coffee, then lunch. Coffee #2 was better than its predecessor. I still had some grounds in the container this morning, so I ground a smaller quantity of beans, which turned out to be fewer than I needed. (I am still getting these settings right; I might need to turn the quantity dial to 2 cups, and press it twice.)

We entertained ourselves during lunch with an episode of State of play on Stan. Afterwards I managed to place our second online grocery order through Woolies. For some reason, the their web site wouldn’t accept the password that I had set previously. So I had to reset it — twice, or possibly three times. Each time I was sent a message containing a reset code. I had to click on this code to be taken back to the web site, where I would reset the password. The messages were quite slow to get through, and all filed underneath each other in my email inbox. I managed to open a message twice, and click on a link I had aleady clicked on, so had to go through the reset process all over again. I finally managed to log in, retrieve the list of items I had ordered last time, add a few more, and place order #2. There was a delay right at the end for some reason I couldn’t fathom. After a few goes I worked out that I had to supply the CV code, or whatever it was, for the credit card. (This was unexpected. As far as I can remember, when I order something using Chrome, this code is usually stored in the browser.) So it all ended up taking about half an hour. Still, it is better than trooping along there in RL.

For a bit of light relief after all that, I played one of Mariss Jansens’ CDs that I hadn’t previously played: his newer recording of the Shostakovich Leningrad symphony.  This is probably the longest of the Shostakovich cycle, and undoubtedly the heaviest. I will have to go back to the earlier one, part of his complete set — I think the performance that time was done with the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. The newer one was with the Bavarian Radio Symphony; being an SACD, it is superbly recorded, if rather low in volume. I will give it another go before deciding which I like better. This symphony gets very loud; anticipating this, I hadn’t turned the amplifier up quite high enough. I will turn the wick up a bit more next time!

We didn’t get any new appliances today, but we did get some rain. Also, possibly inspired by the Shostakovich, I wrote a poem.

See them coming

During the pandemic
that everyone knew would be declared
we stayed home and cooked
watched TV
not the news.
When we let ourselves out for walks
we crossed the road when people came.
They did it too.
No-one had to pretend to be cosmopolitan
everyone was a stranger
we could avoid them openly.

A white cat hovers in our driveway
on the damp concrete
next to the nandinas
it can see the street but still
climb the fence.

It’s one of about four
which used to pace around our courtyard
then they stopped coming
it’s like the Berlin Wall dissolved overnight
and there was nothing any more to patrol.


Isolation diary day … err, 12?

OK, technically, my isolation started on Monday 16th of March — the date of my last consult with the oncologist. I have tended to think of Tuesday 17th, however, as Day 1 of the isolation proper. This is partly to do with having done some food shopping and — shock, horror — had a coffee out, both on the way home. One neither could nor would do the latter now. Anyway, for these reasons, the Monday didn’t feel like a day in isolation. But who’s counting? 

I knew that the new coffee grinder was coming today. We chose the delivery option “Someone will be home” instead of the more usual “If no-one’s home, we will deliver to the nearest Post Office”. (This was so my beloved wouldn’t have to schlep up the street and possibly break social distance at the local sub-post office.) She had a chiropractor appointment this morning, so I knew I had to be back from my walk before she left, to be home for the courier. I therefore hot-footed it out after breakfast, pacing out my usual route up the street to Wattle Park and back. (I often combine this with a turn around the oval, but there was a number of other people already doing this, so I cut my expedition slightly short. It still came to about 25 minutes.)

All this finagling was unnecessary, as it happened, because the courier left it on the front verandah anyway, ringing the doorbell to alert me to its arrival. No signature was required; times being what they are, this was fine by me. So I unpacked it from its double box packing and set it up in the kitchen, with the result you see below.


Although technically all these thingies are the same colour, the grinder proved, on first installation, a paler blue than the toaster and kettle. The somewhat sordid reason for this slight mismatch was that we have had the last two for about eighteen months, in which time they insidiously took on a faint kitchen-y patina. This in turn is as a result of being next to the cooktop, on which I make a stir fry every week. I also sit the pressure cooker right in the corner shown above, bang in front of where the grinder is now. This also gets an outing at least every week, cooking lamb shanks and so on. (Yes, we do have an exhaust fan, always switched on while any of these operations is carried out. Obviously the fan isn’t very efficient. Hey — it’s a 20 year old kitchen!) Anyway, giving the more senior appliances a going-over with Jif rendered them more worthy of sitting next to the spanking new grinder.

This gadget leaves the old Gaggia in its dust, as it were. Grinding up the first coffee was like stepping into the GT after five years trundling around in the twenty-year old Fairmont. The Smeg stores beans above the grinder. One selects the amount that one wishes to grind (determined by the number of cups one is making) and the fineness or coarseness of the grind that is desired. The grinding is started at a press of the button, at the conclusion of which it switches itself off! All that remains is to remove the (cunningly non-stick) receptacle underneath, twist off the lid, and pour the grounds into the Aeropress. So, I offer this modest palindromic caption: Smeg are now, won era Gems!

Another busy day was fitted around the installation of the new appliance. My beloved is working from home, as mentioned, and is by now well ensconced at our dining table with her laptop. A week or so of working in a kitchen chair proved hard on her back, however. (She had coincidentally strained this in a yoga class not long before the isolation period kicked in.) In one of our walks around the neighbourhood last week, I picked up a laptop stand from the nature strip(I gave this a good wipedown with bleach to keep everything nice.) In combination with a Bluetooth keyboard and a proper chair, this had the potential to make her setup more ergonomic.

To this end my beloved drove in to work yesterday, to pick up her office chair, and (she thought) a proper keyboard. She came home with the chair and keyboard, but the latter was fatally missing the USB dongle needed to connect it with the laptop. So, after another trip in today, she collected her usual keyboard. This connected mysteriously to the laptop without any apparent assistance. Bingo! The laptop stand was pressed into service, and an Instagram-worthy setup was thus created. This image, together with that of her IT in-house consultant and barista, was duly shared with her colleagues, all of whom are reinventing the wheel in like fashion in their search for the perfect WFH setup. 

Music has been something else that has been fitted around all this unpacking, installing, ergonomic and technological wrangling, and general coffee making. I did manage to play one of my favourite recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto yesterday, though, the one with Hilary Hahn, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. This is quite a stately reading, much more lyrical and searching than any of the Heifetz recordings I have heard. Hahn and Saraste might not be in any hurry, but they generate quite some tension, and are wonderfully recorded by DGG. Hahn is such a beautifully clean player, with immaculate intonation, but it is never just technique — she seems always to be thinking the music through. After that I played the Shostakovich 6th Symphony with Jansens, a different performance from that in his complete set. (In that cycle it was played by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, whereas the one I heard yesterday with with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.) In both, indeed in everything Jansens does, tempi seem just right, all the lines are beautifully balanced against each other, and the music always has a direction that seems to come from within.   

Isolation diary, days 4-5

We have just been for what seemed a mega-expedition! I had previously discovered a nice walk a couple of kilometres away, through Gardiners Creek reserve. (This walk leads to Glen Iris Road, where my beloved’s dietician has her practice. I walked to the practice through the reserve, about a ten minute walk, from Burwood Highway.) So I thought we would do a version of this today. This time we drove down to Glen Iris, parked, and walked through the reserve. On the far side of Glen Iris Road is a nice cafe, where my beloved got us a couple of take away coffees. (We had brought our Keep Cups, but had to get them in the ideologically unsound paper ones.) It was a bit drizzly, so we found a picnic bench with a roof over it and had our coffees overlooking the oval. There was quite a number of people out with their kids, walking their dogs, and so on. It was lovely to have the fresh air, and something new to look at. On our way home I went to the ATM and got out some cash.

Yesterday, it seemed a while since I had done any serious cooking. (I hadn’t been to the shops since Monday, the day on which I was confined to barracks.) So last night we had some lamb shanks, which I had taken out of the freezer yesterday. My beloved did a supermarket crawl yesterday morning, and fortunately was able to get quite a lot of what we had on that list. We will also be getting a delivery from the local greengrocer today, fulfilling an order that we texted to him yesterday. 

It’s surprising to hear that things like meat are running short — most butchers get supply every day. The one in Maling Road, Canterbury, seemed to have plenty (admittedly that was on Monday, and there were plenty of people in there then). From what my beloved said, some things are becoming easier to get: she was able to get a couple of packets of pasta and the same of pasta sauce. How much is available may vary from area to area, depending on how well the supermarkets are enforcing limits, and who is doing the kind of crazy panic buying I heard examples of. There is quite a good article in The New Daily about how to source groceries online.

Yesterday afternoon we watched Edwin Drood on Stan — I remember this being broadcast a few years ago. The service certainly works well though our Chromecast. We will possibly get Netflix as well, which is pretty cheap, about $14 a month. One can just go month by month on both Stan and Netflix, which are also unmetered through Telstra broadband. So far our NBN speed has been up to the additional demand of people doing extra streaming and working from home. (One can always download shows from Stan and watch them offline.)

Many arts organisations are throwing open their streaming doors, as it were, and making concerts available. There is a round-up of these in the Limelight article . We had tickets for Lohengrin though Opera Australia, and I had a subscription to the Musica Viva coffee concert series in the Recital Centre. All of these are of course cancelled. (I have my fingers crossed for the Brisbane Ring Cycle toward the end of the year.) The Limelight article also lists a new initiative, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. This is to sell virtual tickets for concert performances, starting on the 27th of this month. This is a really enterprising way of giving Melbourne artists an audience unable to hear them in RL. 

Of course there is more classical music (and every other genre) on streaming radio services than one could ever listen to. We have a TuneIn Radio app in our living room stereo, giving access to hundreds of stations like the ones on this list . (You don’t need a TuneIn subscription; just point your browser at any station. Or, if you have a Google Assistant-equipped device, say “OK Google, play [name of station] on Tunein”.) Some of these internet stations just play chunks, i.e. one movement of a work, then another, all from unrelated works —  a bit like community radio programming. A bit of experimentation will yield a reliable shortlist.

Mariss Jansons

Late last year I saw an obituary for Mariss Jansons, who died last November of a heart attack. I felt quite a sense of loss. He was one of those conductors whose recordings I had started to look out for. Jansons was never a household name like Karajan or Solti, but I think he was more reliable than both. (Karajan, with a few exceptions, I have always thought over-rated, while Solti could drive things along too hard — although his Ring Cycle is terrific.)

As one might expect from someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Jansons was an expert in the Russian symphonic repertoire, particularly Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. He was had great versatility, though; his Sibelius recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic are very fine, and he was at home also in the standard German fare. I have his Beethoven 3, 4 and 5, and Bruckner 8, all with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (of whom he became chief conductor in 2003). I was also able to acquire his Shostakovich cycle last year (thanks, Jane!).

Mariss Jansons studied these scores with his father Arpads, also a conductor: the latter knew Shostakovich. Mariss Jansons clearly understood that these symphonies portray the fear, anxiety and betrayal of a generation. His readings are neither flashy nor dull; even the longest movements have a sense of momentum. Climaxes are full-blooded, and there is plenty of that sense of mounting hysteria that seems peculiar to Russian music (and Shostakovich in particular). The set features the work of eight orchestras: his own Bavarians, the Berlin, London, Oslo, St Petersburg and Vienna Philharmonics, as well as the Philadelphia and Pittsburg orchestras. With the exception of the last, these are all top bands. (He was also chief conductor of the Concertgebouw.) That Jansons was able to work with all these orchestras gives you an idea of the regard in which he was held around the world. His ability to get a Russian sound from all of them is also quite remarkable.

This set reveals many of his strengths, and possibly the reason why greater fame eluded him. Maybe he became a victim of his success. Rather than being identified with one orchestra, as Karajan was with Berlin, working in so many places prevented his “brand” from being really established. I don’t think Mariss Jansons would have cared about this. For him, the music came first. 

I recently got a couple of encores to my Jansons collection. Thanks again to Jane’s generosity, I was able to get from Readings, via special order, a box set called Mariss Jansons: Portrait. This is issued by BR Klassik, a label that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra founded for the dissemination of their recordings. It is a five CD set featuring Jansons and the BRSO in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. There were not many conductors who had all these composers in their repertoire. The Shostakovich is the sixth symphony. The performance in the complete set is with the Oslo Philharmonic, so when I have time, I can compare the two performances.

I have also had the chance to hear Janson’s final thoughts on Brahms’ fourth symphony. This work is included in the Portrait box, in a recording from 2012. Jansons and the BRSO also performed this in October last year, one of his last concerts. This program was recorded by the BBC; I made a disc from this, which I played through again this evening. The timings of the 2019 performance are definitely slower than those in the 2012 recording. (The first movement is 1′ 15″ longer, which is quite noticeable.) However, the feeling is valedictory rather than sentimental. Phrases are moulded lovingly, and with tremendous insight, but very little pulling around. The orchestra plays wonderfully. No-one was going gentle into that good night. 


Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

Wagner isn’t as bad as he sounds

Anyone even faintly interested in opera will have noticed the recent discussion about addressing the racist and sexist elements in grand opera.

There is nothing surprising in this. Opera and theatre companies worldwide don’t just keep rehashing the same productions, but relentlessly re-jig them. This is done for several reasons. They hope to find find new lessons in, and possibly new audiences for, the classics. For this to occur, productions have to be recast for modern tastes. It is easy to sneer at the search for relevance, but modern audiences don’t want to come along and see a museum piece on the stage. They want the works of famous composers and dramatists, and new ones, to speak to them about their lives now.

Grand opera has come under the spotlight recently for several reasons. First, just thinking of a few core repertoire operas — Carmen, Die Walküre, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca — the heroine gets it in the neck every time. Or, as Lindy Hume puts it, ” … opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams” (Limelight In Depth: Shifting the Opera Gaze). The Conversation article “Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past” and one in the SMH “Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage” give further perspectives to this discussion. Butterfly has also copped some stick for the “ethnic exoticism” of its Japanese elements and characters, which is being portrayed as cultural appropriation.

Being a Wagner person rather than an opera person, I have no real argument with any of this. Where I do get a bit tetchy is when the old Aunt Sally of Wagner and anti-Semitism gets dragged into the discussion. This happens in The Conversation article, which takes a passing pot shot at “the lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle”.

Yes, Wagner was an awful anti-Semite — no argument there. One could be forgiven for thinking that these views were unique to Wagner. In fact, of course, anti-Semitism had a huge number of enthusiastic adherents around that time. In nineteenth-century Europe, many nationalists were also anti-Semitic. This isn’t to excuse his views; it is just to suggest that one needs to see them in the context of the time. 

Pointing to Hitler and the Third Reich is the next thing that Wagner antagonists do. Yes, Hitler was Wagner’s number one fan, and made several trips to Bayreuth. (He dragged along many other top Nazis as well, although most of them were bored rigid by the experience.) This all happened in the 1930s, long after The Master fell off the twig. So it seems a bit unsporting to lay this at Wagner’s feet. (And is the fact that someone liked a composer a valid reason for not liking him yourself?)

The other problem for people who blame Wagner for causing the Second World War is that, if he had not written his essay “Judaism in music”, we would not have known that he held these repulsive views. Why do I say this? The fact is that there are no Jewish characters in his operas. There is no discussion of Judaism in his operas. None. It just doesn’t happen.

Ah, the critics say, look at the unsympathetic characters in the operas; Alberich, Mime, Hagen, and Beckmesser. They supposedly display Jewish characteristics. In this argument, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is in his operas, if you only just know where to look. Well, excuse the hell out of me, but what, exactly, are Jewish characteristics? And how, exactly, do those characters display them? I have seen all the last seven operas either live or in the cinema, including two live Ring cycles, and I can’t see that any of the characters is in any way, shape, or form Jewish. (Bryan Magee, author of the fascinating book Wagner and philosophy, dismisses all these covert-racism claims for lack of evidence.) 

Wagner isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; I would never criticise someone for not liking him, any more than if they disliked Delius, or Percy Grainger, or Tchaikovsky. It’s still a free country! Is it asking too much, though, to expect this opinion to be based on the music? Get a Wagner opera out of your local library, grab a libretto (freely available on the web), and pay him the compliment of listening to his music with an open mind. If you still think it isn’t good music, fair enough. But I’m betting you’ll find a lot to like.

Small victories

I am now on my second laptop. They have both been Lenovos. I bought the first one while employed at RMIT. This meant I was able to salary sacrifice it, giving me a discount equivalent to my marginal tax rate, about 30%. This old one was much heavier than the present one, and was generally very reliable. (The technician who transferred the data from it to a USB stick said it was built like a tank.) Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, the fan decided to stop working. Because it was about 5 or 6 years old by then, it wasn’t possible to replace this part, and a new laptop was therefore indicated.

I got another Lenovo. Because I was, by then, a gentleman of leisure, this one was entirely on my own dime. All went well for a time, except that, a while ago, I noticed that the battery could only be charged to about 60% capacity. This didn’t matter so much because I kept it plugged in (more on this later). Then the new one stopped working altogether. While on the tram one day, I noticed a computer repair place just up the road. When I got home, I gave them a call.

They first informed me of their charges; $95, I think, for an initial diagnosis. This was rebatable if I got them to work on the machine. They had a look, and called me back. The hard drive was cactus. There were three options for replacing it, in ascending order of cost and desirability:

  1. the same kind of HDD, a mechanical one (the most old-fashioned type);
  2. a less expensive solid state drive; and
  3. a bigger and more expensive, Samsung SSD.

The last two options would have certain advantages, being much faster and more reliable. All options included installation of the drive and Windows 10, and recovery of whatever data was recoverable from the old HDD. (There wasn’t much to recover, as almost all files I create are stored in web-based applications.) I chose the middle option.

I am very happy with that choice. Now, at bootup, I don’t have to enter my password; I just have to click on the Sign in button. The machine starts a lot faster than before. Of course, I perform backups on a regular basis (yeah, right). Actually, I have OneDrive switched on, which allegedly uploads all modified files to a mysterious place in the cloud. (I accidentally wrote “in the clouds”. Is this place Valhalla? Nirvana? Atman? Is the cloud really just an expression of the collective unconscious? Time for another coffee.) 

The really good thing is that I have accidentally fixed the battery. All that was required was to use the laptop unplugged, to the point where the battery saver came on. Then plug it in until fully charged. Repeat the first measure. Now it is back to 100% capacity after charge. This is good because, in this model, a) the battery isn’t removable, so I can’t just buy another one, and b) I forgot to mention it to the technician when getting the HDD replaced.

I have the laptop now sitting on top of a wooden box about the size of a shoebox. I keep the mouse, USB light (for illuminating the keyboard), and memory stick in the box. The laptop sits on top regardless of whether it is being charged or not. The power board that it plugs into is just behind the box. I can reach everything from my chair in the study. These are small things, but it is surprisingly satisfying to have them sorted.

I also now have my power amplifier back from its second visit to the repair shop. This one was entirely my fault. I was baking some bread about a fortnight ago, and needed to raise the yeast mixture. This requires it being exposed to gentle heat for about 15 minutes. The amp gets pretty warm, so I put the bowl of yeast mix on top.  It was on a plate, and covered with glad wrap. However, I reckoned without the fact that, because that I was making two loaves at once, I was using double the quantity. It therefore expanded more, over the top of the bowl and the plate, forced its way through the glad wrap, and some dripped down onto the vacuum tubes. Some unscheduled noises alerted me that all was not right.

Several hundred dollars later, everything is fixed. It actually sounds better than before; I have also solved a minor but annoying issue with the stereo. It was making some intermittent kind of rustling, tinselly sounds through the left channel. I checked all the connections and tried unplugging various bits to see if they were causing interference. Among the bits I unplugged was the antenna — this has a little signal amplifier in it to improve the reception. None of these measures fixed the problem.

When I got the power amp back, I took the opportunity to re-site the transformer, and plug everything into a new power board. I plugged the antenna back in, and used it as intended to boost the signal from the tuner. Now the rustly-tinselly sounds have gone away. I’m not sure exactly what I did to solve the problem, but so far, so good.

Last weekend I went to the 3MBS book and record fair. Fortunately I had decided to leave the car up on Studley Park Road and walk the rest of the way to the Abbotsford Convent, where the station is located. This meant carrying a shoulder bag in which to bring back what I bought. By this means I both got my steps up, and inhibited my purchasing — knowing that whatever I bought, I would have to carry back up the hill.

I got

  • on vinyl:
    • a complete Hansel & Gretel, with Anna Moffo, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Auger, and Lucia Popp — what a cast!
    • Verdi Requiem
    • Bruckner 7 and Wagner Götterdämmerung suite;
  • on CD:
    • the complete Beethoven symphonies with Harnoncourt,
    • Songs of the Auvergne with Jill Gomez
    • Shostakovich 13 & 15 with Solti, and
    • the complete Debussy orchestral music with Boulez,

all for about $40! The vinyl is in much better condition than LPs from the op shop, some of which are very scratched. So I think I will be restricting my purchases of that format from the fair.