Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The former ages of Gänzl (illustrated)

Today, I was asked for pictures of myself as a young man.

Well, I've looked and I've looked but I haven't got many. Funny that. I suppose in my mother's things, on the other side of the world in New Zealand, there are heaps. But I didn't have camera until digitalia came in, so other people's snaps are all there are.  So, here they are. Firstly, my beloved Ian and I in France. We lived many happy years there ..

And here we are, lolling on the mini-lawn at my house in Rothwell .... that's my father in the middle, so I guess its mid-to-late 1970s.

Here are a couple from even earlier, my days on the dear old Northern Star. That must be about 1972. Which makes me twenty-six.  Tiens, over forty years ago ...

Goodness, I wonder where Sarah and Joan and Linda and Josie are forty years on! And who took these pictures ...

Ah well, I'll have a look next time I'm in New Zealand ...

Hey, I was quite cute, wasn't I  :-)

Post scriptum: I found this. I didn't remember I had it. My whole young (love) life in one picture. Alison (here in the later stages of MS) who was succeeded in my life by Ian ...

Sigh. Is it good to look back? Ian has been dead seven and a half years this week. Ali much, much longer....

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Gerolstein goes racing ... without me!

Just getting a horse to the races is a victory. During the summer, only Mikey made it, then eventually Agnes. Fritzl was to have been next, but at the last moment he got a bug. So it’s still just Agnes. But reinforcements are coming!

Agnes, after her really tough second at Rangiora, was entered for a race at Addington. Well, it was the only one possible: all the other clubs had scheduled nothing but those sissy mobile starts. She’d missed a bit of work thanks to the bad weather, but we HAD to go, or there would have been no race for her in April.

She drew eight. Thank goodness, front row. The tipster even picked her first! The public didn’t. She went out sixth favourite, behind a first-starter and one of mate Gav’s horses which has been trying to win for quite a time.
The start was a bit odd. Far from the horse next to her playing up, it charged the tape at exactly the instant that they flew. So Agnes didn’t make the front. She popped into the favourable one-one. But the damned leader went off so fast that a gap developed behind it, the parked horse slotted into the trail, and Agnes – once again – was stuck out without cover. Grrrr. And good friend Gav, who knows his onions, was right behind her!
Never mind!
The leader imploded after the half-mile, and Agnes went easily to the front with Gav close in pursuit. Round the bend, anything looked possible… the commentator called her as leading to within metres of the line, as Gav laid into his horse, but her lack of condition told. Not only did Gav edge her out, but some horse that had never done anything sprung out of the ground and nicked them both.
So Agnes was a very close third. Third? I would have paid for that a fortnight ago! A grand confirmation for the girl!

And now, we’ve got to search for the too rare stand-start races in the next weeks, or else Agnes’s five-year-old season is over. After five starts. And unspeakable expense.

While Fritzl is at home, taking his medicine and hopefully getting better quickly, a new babe has stepped in to take his place.

Thomas is a three year-old son of our dear old Sally, thus a half-brother to the fabled Mikie. He’s only been out on the track once before, but Saturday was his second go. A limited-speed learners’ heat at Motukara. A nice way to ease an inexperienced horse into racing.

Huh! Want to bet! We drew a heat with an evidently non-learner horse which obviously had something to prove or show off. It set off like the clappers, ran the distance all the way in front, and all the poor, real ‘learners’ behind the hideous thing could only chase.  The Thing ran seven seconds faster than the allowed time. What vanity! Well, Thomas chased pretty well. He finished about 5 lengths behind it. And he ‘learned’ nothing. I felt like asking for my $20 entry fee refunded, on the basis of the jobs description act.

We’ll put him in a heat with adult drivers next week, and he should do fine on today’s showing. And he’s got plenty of time … Wendy doesn’t have to ‘prove’ anything or ‘show off’ to her owners … because they’re me. Or us.

So, find a race for Agnes, more workouts for Thomas, get Fritzy off the sickish list … Gerolstein may have a fun season without me!  I’m sure Wendy and Yoshie will care for that!

Stop press: and meanwhile, over in deepest Tasmania, dear little Livia ran second for new trainer Natalee Jayn Emery! Hurrah!

Sweeney Todd: der teuflische Barbier von Freak Street


I’m just back – exhausted – from Magdeburg. Yes, I didn’t know where it was either. But I do now, and I’ve had a nice time. Enjoyable red-train trip, excellent comfy Ratswaage hotel, delicious dinner at the Lago di Garda … but I didn’t go there for those things. I went because I’d been invited to the Opernhaus’s production of Sweeney Todd.

Yes. Well, Sweeney and I go back a long way. To the first week of its official life on Broadway, actually. And I’ve seen it in all shapes and sizes since. With very varying degrees of enjoyment.

The original, I didn’t find attractive. The piece was smothered in ‘meaningful production’ (oh that awful organ!) and – well, I wasn’t quite sure whether we were supposed to be taking this for real, or whether it was a good old Tod-Slaughteresque burlesque. Mrs Lovett and the juves seemed to be playing the second, and Todd and the chorus the first. No, I said to my boss, don’t buy this one. London knows its String of Pearls, we’ve had Sweeney Todd musicals before, and this fancy lot don’t seem to know what they’re trying to do.

But I was to, sort of, eventually, change my mind. Some time later, after the egregious flop of the ‘big’ show at Drury Lane, I went to the little Half Moon theatre and saw a cut down (if heavily left-slanted) version with Leon Greene as a hugely charismatic and gloriously vocal Sweeney. Small was good. Yes! Cut, pruned … cast well … I’ve no remembrance of who played the other roles. This version was all about Benjamin Barker.

I next saw an excellent production at Northampton Opera House with Michael Heath and Susan Jane Tanner … yes, this time, like the first, I remembered Mrs Lovett  ..

Since, I’ve not seen one production to equal those two. But I remember my feeling on the original: I came out liking Mrs Lovett, Toby, the ensemble and chorus music and …

But on to Magdeburg. Lovely little Opernhaus (with an inattentive barman!), grand seats, fine orchestra, and an opera company. Hmm. I was a little worried. Opera? Well, yes, the music needs singing. But much of the piece is burlesque. We don’t want a po-faced opera performance. So what did we get …?

I don’t quite know where to start. So, why not start with the good and the fine things.

The scenic concept was grand. I loved Anthony and Sweeney coming ashore on a real ship. There were many pictures of past productions in it, which all worked adequately, but alas there was one horrendous failure, to which I will come later.

The highlights of the night, for me, were two performances. The same as on my original experience of the show: Mrs Lovett and Toby.

I have seen Australian Gaye MacFarlane before. In Sydney, when (as casting director of the London show) I saw her play the best ever Chairy Barnum (opposite the worst ever Barnum) in the musical of that name. Never did I think to find her in Magdeburg 30 years later!

Well, it was a ‘bonzer’ revisitation. She is even more dazzling as Mrs Lovett than as Mrs Barnum.  And, in this production, that is a hard job. It’s implacably operatic. Under a direction which, as so often with this piece, doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether to be melodrama, burlesque, comedy or a mixture of all, she encompasses the whole field. She is pretty and coquettish enough to make her flirtation with Todd seem real rather than grotesque, her duets with him were vocally outstanding, and oh! the highlight of the show: her ‘No one’s going to harm you’ with Toby. That wasn’t any kind of burlesque. But it slayed the house. This was a performance of choice. I think, perhaps, sorry Angela and Sue Jane, the best Mrs Lovett of my career.

Then Toby. Michael Ernst.  A grateful role, but one full of traps. He started a bit coarsely and finished ott (director’s and dramaurg’s fault), but his ‘No one’s going to harm you’ was quite, quite superb. Although I’m not sure why he was still wearing his Act One wig. But, anyway, that was my moment of the night.

Then, of course, Sweeney. Well, Cariou was masculine, and not vocally impressive, but he did dominate the show with his presence. Hearn was and did more so in both ways. Greene utterly outdid both, in triplicate. Powerful, looming, ‘this man is dangerous’. And with a huge ex-English Opera voice.

Tonight we had Kevin Tarte. Not of the operatic company but, like Ms Macfarlane and Mr Ernst, a guest. Mr Tarte has a really splendid baritone voice which he uses to great effect, he acts with enthusiasm and intelligence  ... OK, so, what am I holding back on?

How one department can ruin a performance and a show.

Mr Tarte was dressed and wigged ... no, I forbid myself the obvious. He looked like Veronica Lake’s 25-year-old daughter, in his straggly ash-blond wig, and his green dressing gown – with, Lord forbid, a wholly un-Victorian train – which together made him into the campest, most un-masculine, powerless-seeming Sweeney ever seen. This Sweeney was clearly more than just pals with Anthony. And he certainly didn’t loom for an instant. Well, you can’t when you look so ridiculous. Dangerous? Haha! The Demon Barber? More like a Wizard of Oz, or an inhabitant of Rivendell. Horror!
Tarte’s fine singing and acting could not erase his hilarious visual image ... and then, after displaying himself in King’s Fool tatters, in act two, he appeared looking like the easter bunny, in candy-stripes, or the frog footman from Alice in Wonderland ... oh! how to kill a performance and a show! Crucify the costumier!
Mr Tarte, let me see and hear you henceforth as Onegin or Figaro … but, please, not ever again, Miss Sweeney Todd from Melbourne! What a stupid, damned shame.

The rest of the performers, from the resident company, I pass by with a nod. All (with one exception) had fine opera voices, finely used. Good luck to them in Der Rosenkavalier. Barely a one – I except Beadle Bamford (Manfred Wulfert) – knows much about acting. Joanna and Anthony (aberrantly cast with a baritonic Siegfried Jersualem of 40) seemed to think they were singing Lakme: not a spark of personality or humour, the Lucy – with a glorious mezzo – did frizzy wig acting, and the judge – handicapped by the restoration (why?) of that boring flagellation aria, which helps make the show far too long, looked altogether younger than Anthony!

But that’s opera house casting. Cast for the voice, and expect the rest to follow. Oh, we’ll be OK.

I’m grumbling a lot. But I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t feel the production could have been so easily so much better. The raw materials were there … but, well, if you’re NOT doing burlesque … what are we doing with beach-ball babes, with that ghastly parade of chorus pie-fodder, a pinch of the Hunyak episode from Chicago, and with above all the candy-striped pie factory (in Fleet Street?) with Lucy falling embarrassingly around everywhere … and if you ARE …?

One more and a weighty complaint, Mr Director. The most important of all. Where was the oven? The furnace? The witch’s oven? The pits of hell? As in Don Giovanni, the most important image in the whole show? CUT?!  Might as well cut Tosca's leap or Isolde's death. Germany has a bad record for mutilating classic shows, but this was too much. We ended up with a Hamlet pile of corpses instead of a Tod-Slaughter cataclysm …

Well, one thing that this production has left me pretty sure of, is that Sweeney Todd is absolutely unsuited to an opera house. The lovely choral and ensemble sounds (Sweeney’s letter was a joy!) just don’t make up for the losses in style and coherence and drama. Sigh. Sweeney Todd seems somehow to resist a coherent production.

But if we could take Leon Greene, Ms MacFarlane plus the best of the rest from the last 30 years, plus a trimmed up script and score, and put then into a pie together … we might indeed have ‘the best pie in London’.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Liberace on the Blue Danube

I don’t think I have been to a solo piano concert since I was at school. Julius Katchen. Lili Kraus. But, since I seem to be doing all sorts of things this season that I haven’t done for a long time: why not! Johannes and Luisa were going, Paulie said the pianist was grand, the programme was deliciously NOT Bach, Beethoven and Buononcini … and the concert was at the Piano Salon Christophoroi, where I had such a grand time last year. Go for it!

It was perhaps not the ideal evening to choose: straight after my introduction to Lily and her knuckles (see previous article) … but after a spinach and chickpeas supper, and a walk (another one) to the Pankufer … I was ready.

The first act was made up of pieces by Rameau, Bizet, Granados and Schultz-Evler, two composers whom I know only from their operas and Schultz-WHO? Arabesques on Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’? Are they serious?

Well, serious was the last thing this selection was. Mr Kotaro Fukuma had chosen the perfect programme for me. The Rameau was an utter surprise. Nothing like his gloomy monumental operas. Crisp and tinkly, quite lovely. Then Bizet. Well, I’m no German linguist, but these six pieces were born as ‘Chants du Rhin’ which I don’t think is the same as ‘Bilder von Rhein’, and songs – without words – were exactly what they were, with their solo voice careering along above the twiddles. I have to admit that I was irresistibly reminded of ‘The Dream of Olwen’ and ‘The Glass Mountain’ of my childhood piano days! And jolly good fun too.
A little bit of Goyescas was predictably enjoyable, and then came Herr Schultz-Evler. Well! I don’t think I’ve had such pianistic fun in years! It was pure Thalberg: little bits of the stated theme drowned in gallons of trills, twiddles, arpeggios, scales, flourishes, the more extravagant the better, all concocted simply to show off the pianist’s technique.  And Mr Fukuma kept a straight face throughout. The audience loved it and so did I. I laughed right out loud.

At the interval, things changed. First, the star came back with a change of costume. Secondly, the funnies were gone and we were into the more serious stuff. Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. The trouble was … well, the costume replaced the original modest black, with .. with .. well, the most Liberace outfit you can imagine. White scarf and shawl attached at the elbows … it looked totally impracticable and unsuitable for playing anything but Schultz-Evler. But play he did. The lovely sounds of Ravel and Debussy swept indiscriminately around the room (well, they can sound rather similar), and we finished on two Liszt ‘legends’.
I suppose Liszt worked on the same principle as Thalberg and co. Terribly technical stuff to show off the composer’s ability for getting as many notes into a second as possible. But where the ‘Blue Danube’ drew great fun from the idea, Liszt … well, I don’t think I care deeply for his music.

I know Mr Fukuma is a widely-known and successful artist, and I guess it would be a bit lese-majestical to expect him to play music like that of part one to the exclusion of more substantial pieces, but … I did so enjoy the first half … I was a little sorry when it turned into Liszt.

But all in all, another first-class night out at the Piano Salon. I must get there again before they close their season ..

PS I find that Mr S-E’s ‘Blue Danube’ piece has remained popular with pianists for more than a century. Well, it was new to all of us …!

A Guinea Kiwi in Potsdamer Platz

It’s three years now since my fall from health. My friend Judy had a stroke at about the same time, and she’s worked like mad to get her mobility back. Quite successfully. I’ve done nothing, except take regular acupuncture and massage. I, who used to be ‘Mr Walky-Walky’ in the Pacific Islands – 20 or 30km at a time – now go along, when on unfamiliar ground – with a stick.

I look fair enough for 68. But my right arm and hand are pretty useless (and covered in blood scars), and my right leg is not to be trusted. My speech sometimes slurs too. So for three years I’ve largely sat inside, writing my magnum opus, and going physically to pot.

All this to say, I’ve finally and tentatively done something about it. Paulie says it was my idea, insidiously planted by him. So. Yesterday I went to a ‘Wellness’ institution: the local branch of the Holmes Place Health Club and Spa near Potsdamer Platz. On Paulie’s arm, and with my stick! I don’t think ‘Wellness’ places do damaged folk (except for sports injuries) and elderly folk: the clientele seemed to be mostly strappingly fit young blokes, and I got one or two sideways glances. But they are going to give me a go. A sort of guinea pig. Or guinea Kiwi.

I had a chat with Nik, the personal trainer, and explained what I’d been, what I’d lost … and what I’d like to try to regain. Specifically, the ability to handwrite, strength in right arm and leg, balance … it’s a rehab job. So we’ve got a date for next Wednesday, when I ‘audition’ for him, and then (presuming I’m not irreparable) start the course.

While Paulie had his session – chucking 12 kilo weights around – I went downstairs and met Lily Shi. Lily is one of those slight young ladies who can pack a real punch: she gave me 45 minutes of super-strong massage, and found sore bits I didn’t even know I had! No wonder they call her the ‘treasure hunter’. We didn’t get through all my twisted bits, so I’m back … on Monday. I’m glad I got a season S-Bahn ticket!

On from the massage to be initiated into the mysteries of the sauna. Phew. I must have sweated out a gallon of red wine in five minutes! Shower down in a cubicle which sings bird-songs to you while it rains. More sauna. More bird song. Then relax in a comfy chair with delicious fennel tea. Why didn’t I find this sort of thing years ago?  Work? You mean I’ve got to WORK next time I come?

Can’t wait. Watch this space! And keep your fingers crossed …