2011

Film

State of Siege, a New Documentary on Sydney’s Destruction

Having spent the afternoon before this one-off screening at the Nicholson Museum of ancient art, in their new re-presentation of their Egyptian collection through the eyes of Herodotus, I came across this quotation: "Cheops brought the country into all sorts of misery. He closed all the temples, then, not content with excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labour as slaves for his own advantage. Some were forced to drag blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the Nile, where they were ferried across and taken by others, who hauled them to the Libyan hills. The work went on in three-monthly shifts, a hundred thousand men in a shift. It took ten years of this oppressive slave-labour to build the track along which the blocks were hauled — a work, in my opinion, of hardly less magnitude than the pyramid itself. "The Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention the names of Cheops and Chephren [his successor], so great is their hatred of them; They call the pyramids after Philitis, a shepherd who at that time fed his flocks in the neighbourhood." Will we still despise the New South Wales government in 2000 years? It doesn't seem so very far fetched. At least Cheops had a sort of vision, the pyramids have a certain stark beauty of their own and they draw many wealthy tourists. The eagerness to destroy and thugishness of the current NSW government is extreme and is it really so much worse to steal people's labor than their homes? For that's what we witness in this new documentary. As the environmentalist, bushwalker and businessman Dick Smith points out in his interview, rezoning a person's land is tantamount to stealing it because they will have no choice but to sell to the developer who puts up two ugly apartment blocks on either side of them. After food and water (and nowadays we are forced to add) clean air, shelter is the most basic human need. Interfering with people's homes thus pokes even deeper into the human psyche than the layer where Freud put his conception of the libido. The lower levels of government (state, province, local) affect our lives directly in a way the feds cannot. The wonder is that many in NSW aren't angrier.

Architecture | Urban Design

A Better Barangaroo (Updated)

In this town called Sydney there is this crazy idea that wrecking a beautiful city in the name of economic growth somehow makes the city big time, that slippery oxymoron, a 'global' city. Instead of building places which promote beauty, sustainability and public participation we get the kind of 'built profit' which is too witless to even be kitsch. It's the Australian Ugliness on steroids, everywhere, as charmless and unimaginative as it is profitable. Even the greediest New York developer would never expect to build a forty five storey hotel in the East River, let alone the Hudson, and yet exactly such a monstrosity has been approved for construction in Sydney Harbour, at Barangaroo, the ne plus ultra of Sydney urban planning disasters. Now a group of over fifty eminent Sydney architects, planners and academics has produced an alternative design for the site.

Music

Ray Chen, Peter Oundjian and the Sydney Symphony

It can sometimes seem like a scalping to play an opera overture as a concert piece, but Maestro Oundjian's apparent delight in Berlioz' music overcame any such qualms. They played the piece as if it were self-contained with a closer-than-usual study and without the anticipation or apprehension of the visual elements of theatre. It can be nice to hear an overture without the distraction of a rising curtain. It also served nicely as a relatively lighter prelude to the Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The precise stops and timing of the silences were very satisfying (and provided an interesting test of the hall's acoustical decay time — the sound taking about 3 seconds to decay but fairly evenly across the pitches). The Sydney Symphony brought across the vivid orchestration as effortlessly as singing.

Architecture | Urban Design

Tangled in Webs

For a long time I was afraid of spiders. My arachnophobia was only cured by moving to a Sydney, a place where some spiders can actually kill you. With the potential of an evil looking funnel web spider under the refrigerator, it seemed silly to recoil at a daddy longlegs. At this time of year — mid-late summer — nonlethal arachnids begin to dominate the bush. With a copious supply of rain earlier this summer, the spiders got an early start. Going down to pick up the paper in the morning means coming back with a web across your face; the same encounter on a bike ride or run is even more unpleasant, especially if you end up eye to eyes with the angry arachnid and its demi-deliquescent protein breakfast. It is one of those moments when you wish nature spoke English — “I’m sorry, but it’s not like wrecking your web gave me any pleasure...”. As the summer progresses we adjust to one another, or they to us; the smarter spiders learn to build their webs up high, with the greatest eight-legged engineers weaving the lowest edges of their webs just above the head of the tallest human.

Music

Mozart and Britten by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

I have heard it lamented "O, if only Mozart had written 25 violin concertos in the 1780's and only 5 piano concertos." Notwithstanding the alternate universe where Mozart lived to 89 and wrote many of each, the D major concerto for piano and violin, as Philip Wilby reconstructed it in 1985, goes some way to consoling the lamenting violinist. Mozart began composing the fragment (which W. J. Turner in his 20th century biography, disappointed not to have more of it, called a "remarkably fine work") sometime during his month-long stay in Mannheim in 1778 on the way back to Salzburg from Paris. Whereas Mozart wrote the 5 violin concertos for himself to play, this concerto he intended for another violinist, Ignatz Franzl, probably intending to perform the piano part himself; he wrote to his father just before leaving Paris that he wanted to give up playing the violin. This was at a weighty juncture, or at least a phase change, in Mozart's life often implicitly or explicitly considered the fulcrum between "early Mozart" and "late Mozart." Indeed the double concerto shows some of the Mozartish profundity and ecstasy of the later piano concertos while still having much of the humor, play and levity of the young Mozart.

Film

Re: Incarnation – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The first Thai winner of the Palme d'Or after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and so far seen mostly in Europe, Uncle Boonmee is about to get a limited release in New York City, while the Region 2 DVD is released in March. Here in the UK it was first shown at the London Film Festival in October 2010 before going on general release (i.e. in London and perhaps a few other big cities) a month later. I belatedly caught up with it on the day it was excluded from the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, a decision that I can now say seems quite understandable – for reasons not of quality, but of cinematic style.
Music

Beethoven makes an all-too rare visit to San Francisco: Marek Janowski leads the San Francisco Symphony in the Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto No. 3, with Juho Pohjonen

It was good to have Beethoven back, last week at the San Francisco Symphony. Marek Janowski, like Kurt Masur before him, brings the German repertory to San Francisco from an authentic sensibility and a lifetime of devotion. It was a pleasure to hear our orchestra — so vibrant in Mahler, American music and the Russians — snap back into the German sonority on cue and play convincingly the music that most groups once considered their bread and butter.

New York Arts in Australia

Carmen in a Sydney High Summer

If Carmen is a femme fatale, then her opera could play as a kind of hybrid of an Anthony Mann western and film noir. It has the gun runners and even a climactic fight on a rocky crag, but also the weak man haunted by his past, falling in love with the woman he later remembers he doesn't particularly like. Micaëla would be the innocent girl he really loves, but in trying to protect her from himself, just draws her into his disastrous life. This production, however, is different. Carmen becomes as sympathetic as one could imagine, with no material desires, she loves only freedom but to the point of self-banishment, to paraphrase John Donne. At least, she is sympathetic in contrast with a Don José who is an extreme introvert, more haunted and broken than weak, who eventually succumbs to insanity. Carmen is a rather extreme extrovert which brings its own problems, and the concept of opposites attracting is played convincingly: the pair's initial mutual fascination and affection becomes binding and they continuously rub each-other the wrong way until they mutually annihilate.

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