Monday, July 25, 2016

Becoming an addict, or, Masterchef Australia


It’s silly to say ‘I don’t watch television’ as if that were something to be proud of. I’ve been guilty of saying it, in the past. But, nowadays, I watch my share. When I’m in New Zealand, I watch some sport and the races, the very, very occasional bit of fiction (Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple), some of the travel and cooking shows (Rick Stein is my favourite) and some of the other programmes that Wendy likes, and which play between 5.30 and 8.30 pm … 

Here, in Australia, I am inclined to listen to the races on Trackside computer, as I don’t have Foxtel, and of the two TVs supplied with my flat, one hasn’t yet been turned on yet (3 months) and the other is keyed to the one programme that I watch without fail. I don’t shift it off that setting for fear I can’t find my way back! After our last power failure, it took me ages.

Oh, my unmissable show is, of course. Australian Masterchef. No, I don’t care for the uncharismatic English equivalent or any of the other like-style ripoffs. Just this one. Why? I’ve no idea. But the first year we watched, I got hooked by one contestant … she (she was Italian, and I think called Luisa) came second, I was indignant and shocked … but I had got hooked by the style of the show, and the people involved, and I just returned and returned and simply got addicted. Even though there are things that really irritate me … I can’t stop myself. I, a professional showbiz critic of some 30, oh Lord is it 40?, years standing, and a sometime food writer, go back nightly, in season, for more.

So why am I commenting on this? I couldn’t cook one dish that is displayed on the programme, I am amazed how these youngsters have acquired such knowledge … but, then again, I couldn’t sing Pamina or Rosina or Scarpia, and I’ve been telling people how to do so, for half my life. So here goes!

I can’t rightly explain what gets me. The presenters-judges are a good combination and good fun – unpretentious, normal and pretty darned credible – anyway, kilometres above the types who ‘judge’ all those singing Talent Quests. The competitors actually have skill (unlike most of the Talent Questers) and we see them displaying it. There are no camp Cowell-esque pauses before announcing the winners. There are very few fake errors and breakdowns and dramas. We are allowed to explore these young folks’ talent unshowbizzed … 

So carried away was I with the show in that first year, that the wrinkles didn’t start to show till year two or three … and then the joins … and then ... other things.

I don’t know when it came to me that, as well as being cooks, the people involved aren’t bad actors, either. But the first thing that dawned on me was … the ‘judges’ taste, before the cameras and us, cold food. It is not possible for every dish to retain its heat through fifteen, twenty minutes. And once you see through the first bit of fakery, you look for others. And either I’m getting cannier or they’re getting careless, but this year the ‘joins’, the huge amount of editing that goes to making up the finished programme, has been more and more obvious. I suppose it has to be, but it is disappointing when you realise that what is supposed to be spontaneity is nothing of the sort. I’ve only done continuity on a film once, and it’s a stinker of a job … but it matters. Never mind. I try to ignore it.

So when I rule the world, what would I change about the show? Very little. But. First the opening of the programme. Far too much of the content is shown as a taster. I sometimes feel I don’t need to watch the show proper. Second, the opening titles, with the eliminated contestants greeting you every week. Update them.

The format of the contest? To me, it is almost perfect. Mystery Box/Invention Test ..  Team Challenges … Masterchef kitchen, on location … However, there are getting to be, I feel, too many ‘immunities’ and ‘powers’. I would cut the cook-off against the professional who has been previously asked if he would be willing to lose. These folk are competing against EACH OTHER. Not against the outside world. Yet.

The guest chefs. Yes, fine, great for recognition factor. Some are good value, some less. Some are more credible than others. Lovely Nigella was really there for her face. Then there is Marco Pierre Whites’s faux-fierce act with its ghastly crying of ‘yes, Marco’ which has me reaching for the mute button. That’s a nono. When he is normal, instead of acting, he is most enjoyably cuddly. Heston Blumenthal was my least favourite: until this year, when he put on a dazzlingly fun show and rose to Undisputed Number One on my hit-parade. His week of pop-up restaurants was, for me, the best week ever on Masterchef.

The contestants? The ’lingo’ bothers me. How come they all learned the same modern kitchenspeak, at home, in Cairns, Adelaide and Towoomba. Caramelised? You mean ‘browned’? Blast-chiller? Every country kitchen has one. Do they all, perhaps, go to Masterchef pre-school? And one really maddening thing, kids (and judges). Kill the pre-commercial break standard: ‘and if my parfait doesn’t set (gasp) I’m GOING HOME’. It’s become a bad giggle.

But in the end, it all comes down to the three anchor men, who make the show run on spiced olive-oiled wheels. I have to pause to recall their names, because unlike their vainer colleagues of the Talent Quests they don’t paste themselves in spangles and tinsel over the titles. Gary, little George, and the grand and glorious funny one. Matt. They just work together perfectly, like poached peaches and clotted cream and some divine liqueur, to drive along a splendid programme. If they are also responsible for the concept and the layout, I hope they are making (more) fame and (more) fortune than ever ..

One request chaps. When your editor is sticking the voice-overs and things together, DO stop the writers from making a contestant say ‘Oh dear, I think I put one drop too much rose water in my soup’ only to have the judges come out later on and say ‘very nice, but there’s one drop too much rose water in that soup’. Giggle. See what I mean about the joins showing?

OK. I’ve got to go. Its 7.32. The teaser and the credits will be over. Time to put the TV on. Last three tonight. Sound still on MUTE, because the three are doing some too repetitive heartfelt chat. Open some Aussie bubbly. I’ll switch on the sound when the action starts. My favourite is still there. She’s the best. But can she outglam the pretty boys …

Let’s see. Gooo Elena!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

'Watching Little Things Grow'

It’s nice, isn’t it. That’s why we have gardens. Until I came to Gerolstein, aged 55, I had never really had a garden of my own. The only places I’d stopped long enough to grow anything except roots were either in the heart of London, or in places which hired a gardener to look after their exteriors. The very occasional window box was my limit.

 When we arrived, Gerolstein had a rose garden and lots of trees. Then, thanks to Wendy’s work, it had several rose gardens, several other gardens and lots of trees. 

Then, thanks to bad-tempered grandmother Nature, half the trees got blown over and/or died, the gardens got flooded, diseased and, well, now it’s a work in progress all over again. And I have only half-an-arm and have gone back to one pot plant.

But when I arrived in Yamba, I discovered that, as well as having the beautiful gardens of the complex, the terrasse outside my bedroom had a little garden of its own, which my predecessor had tried to set up in herbs. Only a healthy parsley and a struggling bay seemed to have survived. So I thought I’d try to fill in the gaps. I tried the market, but alas very little in the way of herbs.

So I just planted what came along. Including my kitchen rubbish. And just when a lovely basil bush was flourishing and other herby things were peeping out, along came Yamba’s winter, both days of it in succession, and all my little things died.

So I paused, and watered, and while I paused some of the things started to respond. But what were they? Parsley, OK. And I know tomato when I see one, from school-holidays spent pruning and picking the things.

I know this is oregano because I bought it for $1 at the market

 But what is this? Decorative or edible?

And all this?

This is the bay tree, which has responded at last to my care, and is sprouting new bright green shoots, but don’t bays grow huge?

Similarly, I’m sure this is avocado stone I buried a couple of months back, and he’s growing at a rate of knots

Ah well, we’ll see if they survive the summer which starts as I leave town. (Yes, it’s WHY I leave town). Then review the situation next Easter. In the meanwhile, I'll try not to get particularly attached to any single one ...

Adventure Two: Beethoven amid the breakers

Adventure Number Two was a thoroughly scheduled one. In fact, the Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival is partly responsible for my ending up in this part of the world. Last year – my first visit – I came to north to hear Paul play Haydn and, most particularly, his own original piano quintet, the delicious ‘To Cross the Bay’. This year, he was ‘taking it easy’, performing ‘only’ Beethoven and Britten. The particular charm of this Festival is that – amid a glorious ocean setting, and with a team of superlative international artists -- it gives you a chance to hear lesser-known (to me) music. I remember so fondly last year’s Frank Bridge.

 Anyway, that time of year came round again. Paul had been up at ‘Straddie’ for a week rehearsing and working with local students, so Veronica and Rod picked me up at Yamba and we headed the three hours north into Queensland. Very pretty drive. But unfortunately punctuated by volleys of sneezing from Kurt. Bloody hay fever.

We crossed by the ferry to the Island – it was lovely to be ‘at sea’ again, even if only for 40 minutes. The ocean was such a big part of my life and I miss it – and drove to the Samarinda apartments, where we had stayed last year. Comfortable enough, but the wifi and phone reception are horrendous. Never mind, we weren’t here for work but for the music.

 But on Friday night we had no music. Concert One had been sold out for months! Well, if one can’t music, one can eat. And last year that had been a huge problem. Not a proper restaurant to be found anywhere on the isle. Ugh! But our Harry had done some research. And there was a new place, the Whale’s Way … So that was the way we went. And mighty glad we did! Very nice indeed! Straddie is no longer persona non grata on the foodie trail. It has a Restaurant with a capital R. I had a delightful swordfish carpaccio with scallops (two), and then the newly fashionable pork belly. Very happy, though I had to extricate the capers from my fish (my fault, they were on the menu) and my teeth couldn’t manage the stalk of the rather aggressive greenery. Anyway, it was delicious and I determined right on the spot I would eat nowhere else during my stay!

The Main Event began at lorikeet-breakfast time on Saturday morning. The audience (full house 268 people) assembled at Point Lookout Hall for coffee and yummy cheese muffins, and then squeezed into the hall proper for the concert. The programme started with a little Britten. Now, I’m not usually in favour of rescuing the contents of the waste-paper basket of celebrated composers, and these two Insect pieces for oboe and piano were an obvious part of a larger group that never got written. But the Grasshopper and the Wasp deserve to survive, even if they seem (contrary to what we would soon hear) a little cut off in their prime without their unborn entomological counterparts. Anyway, it was as if two fun creatures had escaped from The Carnival of the Animals (I actually liked them better than Saint-S’s animals) and perched on the sunny seascape that is Lookout Point. And Diana Doherty’s gloriously rich oboe and Paul Hankinson’s busy, laughing piano made the little exercise a total success.

Then came the centrepiece of the morning: Beethoven’s early Piano Trio in G major, played by Festival Director Rachel Smith, her husband ‘cellist Eric de Wit and Mr Hankinson, piano, working overtime. And it was overtime: the trio is a Big Piece, and like last year’s Haydn, seems thoroughly centred on the pianist who has pages black with thousands of notes to play from. I’m not going to be bold enough to pontificate on Beethoven. The work is a glorious piece, and I have to say it got a glorious performance. For 268 people on an island in Torres Strait. London, Edinburgh (where the de Wits are based) or Berlin (where PH lives) should be so lucky.
The final piece of the sensibly not-too-long concert brought the oboe back (with Sophie Rowell violin, Caroline Henbest viola, Louise King cello), and brought Benjy Britten back, for the performance of a quartet entitled Phantasy. I don’t know why it was called Phantasy, but it was very agreeable. And the players were just superb. Ah! I see in the programme note that Britten was a pupil of Frank Bridge and this is influenced by that under-remembered composer. Well, Benjy was 19 when he wrote this, so he still had time to catch up to his master!

 Back to the digs for a much-needed lie down, and to cough and sneeze my chest out. I hadn’t sneezed ONCE in the half-hour of the Beethoven. I was sitting right next to the recording gear and had to stifle myself once or twice! I was feeling a little shattered when we assembled for episode two at 2pm, for one of Straddie’s nice, adventurous programmes. The piano had already left for his annual tour of the island, so we had two violins, viola, two cellos, oboe and flute. Lovely.
The first piece was Prokofiev for two very energetic violins (Smith, Rowell). Four movements. The first two were splendidly flamboyant and beautiful, the latter two fine, and anyway just listening to those ‘fiddlers two’ was a joy. Then came a flute/oboe duet, written almost when I was born, by Alberto Ginastera whom I know only through guitar music (unless that was a relative). This one, I didn’t care for at all. I found it characterless and ultimately dull, and way out of its depth in the company it was keeping. OK, win some, lose some.  Next came Villa Lobos. For flute and cello. Villa Lobos can be fun, he can of course be extremely characterful. But either my ailment was getting to me or this wasn’t one of his best. A one joke piece which meandered on ..
And finally, Arensky. String Quartet for violin, viola and two cellos. Nice. And I’d be safe with Arensky. But there was no pleasing me today. There appeared to be no shape to the piece. It wandered hither and yon, stopping for a breather every so often (‘they’re what? They’re variations? Why?'). The wandering produced some lovely bits (played, it goes without saying, splendidly) but I felt as if I were listening to an integral film soundtrack, background music included … and nothing seemed to be GOING anywhere. Am I getting hyper-critical, or just a bloody awful cold.

I hadn’t planned on taking in the evening concert (5.30pm), by a vocalist of not-my-kind, so I had another lie down, a couple of glasses of wine on the terrace, watched the whales spouting and playing at being dolphins, out in the Pacific Ocean, and then we all headed back to Whale’s Way for a little supper. I, of course, repeated my previous night’s menu and … Matt the chef must have noticed the side of my late plate: the carpaccio came without capers! And the pork belly was even better than the night before. But I was weakening sadly. I tried. I slipped up to the lovely wee bar and ordered a big whisky. That would perk me up. And maybe get my ears back into gear. A table for eleven, and I can’t catch a word anyside …
No use. I was simply a death’s-head at the feast. Rod sussed my distress, and took me home.

The next morning, Sunday, was scheduled to be a Luke Styles piece Bodice and Ribbons, and a little Mozart. But I didn’t make it. Harry was driving back to University in Coolangatta, Renee to Grafton, and I was their luggage. Fragile. Deliver to Yamba. Please Keep Right Side Up. Or Danger of Implosion.

The trip started with a hiccough. We arrived at the ferry station for the 10.25 water taxi to the mainland. The ferry came in a little late, disgorged its passengers, turned round and departed. While we stood on the bank, awaiting our turn to board. A few minutes later, the ‘connecting’ bus arrived with more passengers … gone. The stupid taxi-driver obviously had a beer warming on the other side! But … his inefficiency was to have a silver lining …

 We cruised down the Pacific Highway, had a little lunch at a truly superior café called Ambiente on the Coolangatta waterfront (best toasted sandwich I’ve had in years!), dropped Harry, and then on to Yamba. Renée was taking me to Cole’s to stock up my empty larder and cellar. We arrived at Cole’s to find a crowd of people outside. Electrical failure: everybody had been ‘out’ for 30 mins. But as we arrived, the doors opened … so, Wally the water-taxidriver, you saved us half an hour in an arcade.

 Home. Home! When you’re feeling ‘crook’ there’s nothing like home. And the good fairies of the Cove had been in and cleaned and tidied Number Seven to perfection …  the blessed Renée departed for Yamba, and I collapsed. Shower. I’ll shave in the morning. Bottle of high-class Shiraz. Crumpets. Teeth out.

And so my cultural weekend ended, naked on the couch, glass of shiraz in hand and Masterchef on the telly (no, I don’t have a selfie stick). I just made it to the end of the show and to my bed. Not even to the end of the bottle. ‘Tomorrow is another day, and I will face the day tomorrow’.

Adventure One: Fine Horses and Fashion in the Field...

When I came to Yamba and the Australian seaside, it was my intention to do nothing. Just sit in the sun and write, spoil myself with food and drink, and be a thorough Lotus Eater. Well, I have indeed done a lot of that, and I can recommend it most enthusiastically as an existence, but I have just occasionally broken my self-imposed idyllicness.

First, I went to visit Rod and Veronica in Grafton on the occasion of the Grafton Cup. I used to be a hugely enthusiastic race-goer, but after twenty odd years in harness racing with its horrid night meetings and ridiculous rulebook, the joy has slipped away. But the Grafton Cup … it isn’t really a horse-race, it’s an Occasion. Like Royal Ascot. And they gallop. In the daytime. So off I set, in my only pair of slacks, my BOMAC veston and my favourite shirt… and definitely with my stick. Crowds (and the crowd was huge) and my wobbly-man status do NOT mix …

We waved to Rod on his camera tower, and then Renée and Joe installed me safely in a nice corner of the grandstand, supplied me with a glass of wine, and there I spent the afternoon watching the horses and the world go by. The horses were splendid, although I do think 35 minutes between races in excessive (they don’t even have to be geared up!), and the grass was green, while the racing was tight if a tiny bit predictable: nothing came from behind in the straight, inside was the place to be. The Cup itself was a treat. I was chatting to a young lady whose 23 year-old school-friend was the trainer of a 33-1 outsider. I now have a perforated eardrum. When Rednav squeezed down the inside to snatch victory, she went off like the five o’clock whistle!

During my 6x35 minutes, I amused myself with perusing the ladies and their clothes. These ‘fashion in the field’ competitions are a source of great hilarity to me, so I played my own. Rule one: the lady must look comfortable in her outfit. She must be able to walk freely about without exposing bits we really don’t want to see, and without displaying great fabric stretch marks across the abdomen and back. What looks nice in a shop is no use if it doesn’t fit correctly. Two: the outfit must be suitable. This is the races. You are on grass and in the open air. Which brings me to Three: Shoes. I don’t think I have often seen such ugly, impractical shoes. Shoes are meant for walking. Not for teetering, tottering, getting stuck in the grass, nor for going walking on the moon. Some of the ladies were forced by their footwear to walk with bent knees and looked exactly as if they needed a lavatory. Some clodhoppers looked completely unbalanced sartorially: all shoes. And that goes for the other end too: Hats. If you can’t wear a hat … don’t. I you can, then wear a HAT. Not a bath scrubber. Or wear just a hair ornament. And don’t wear the eiffel tower if you’re 5ft1 … I could go on and on. But suffice it that ‘clothes maketh the woman’, though it certainly helps if the lady inside the clothes has a notion of how to move in unison with her dress.

Anyway, I found four finalists amongst those who passed by my perch. A glorious full-length split away number in white dashed with brown and black, sported by a slim, 40ish Asian lady; a sweet knee-length light maroon patterned handkerchief dress which looked as if the wearer had been born in it, and this little pair of damsels who caught my eye instantly as they strode and gambolled across the lawn. An object lesson in pretty and practical dressing. 

And after a couple of glasses of champagne they still strode and gambolled, while a lady near me abandoned her monkey-feet for a comfy pair of pretty flatties. Why didn’t you wear those from the start? I questioned gently. She grimaced and nodded.

I ventured $10 on a horse named ‘Hello Schumann’ (he finished 4th), had another glass of wine … Renée and Joe backed nice winners … and a really grand time was had by all. I think I’ll be back next year.

Oh, that night of the telly they featured the winner of the Best Dressed Lady. Her main selling-point apparently was that she wore a home-made ‘hat’ fabricated from scarlet place mats. Well, she seemed like a nice lady. 

PS Would someone care to the define the word ‘hat’?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Liverpool prima donna for the people ...

SMART, Laura (b Plymouth 4 July 1857; d 3 Mount Street, Liverpool 11 October 1913)

This article started out to be a little piece on Miss/Mrs/Madame Smart, generally recognised, in the 1880s and 1890s, to be the outstanding soprano in the Liverpool and Manchester area. But then it grew, to take in her husband and his/their musical world, and it has ended up as a glimpse at a whole home-grown part of that world and its music-making population. But let’s start with Laura.

She was born in Plymouth, but I think that may just have been because her peripatetic parents were passing that way. Her elder sisters were born in Leamington and Canterbury, and her younger brother in Chepstow. And why were her parents peripatetic? Well, father Fred (b Brighton; d Shaftesbury Rd, Allerton 12 July 1888) was ‘a professor of penmanship’, and I guess he went where the business was. Fred and Fanny Smart seemingly decided, in the late 1850s, that the business was in Lancashire, and, soon after, they set up house in Chorlton upon Medlock. By 1859, ‘Smart & Co’ ‘of London’ was in action at 18 Victoria Street, Manchester, giving tuition in writing and book-keeping. The history of Smart & Co is a long and successful one. It spread to branches in Liverpool, Blackburn et al, Mrs S came in to teach the ladies, and it seems to have survived, under Fred’s son, ‘Professor’ Ernest Smart, up till the Great War. By which time it was teaching typewriting, rather than handwriting. The girls in the family apparently didn’t go in for calligraphy. Clara began teaching piano from a young age, Florence married (13 November 1878), and Laura … well, she did both music and marriage. To their mutual benefit.

I first see Laura singing in public in February 1875, in Staffordshire, then in 1876 at the Kirkburton Band Concerts. She is billed as being ‘of the Liverpool and Manchester concerts’, so I imagine she’d put a quiet toe into the pool somewhere. She sang a vocal waltz (unnamed) and a piece called ‘The Ray of Hope’, previously favoured by local soprano Mrs Billinie Porter, but otherwise unknown (to me). Shortly after, I spy her at Golcar, going the whole hog: ‘Bid Me Discourse’, ‘The Nightingale’s Trill’, ‘Il Bacio’ and at the National School Room, Meltham, with local Tom Law, repeating ‘The Ray of Hope’. Over the next couple of years, I spot her occasionally in the surrounding counties (repeatedly at Simpson’s concerts at Hanley, ‘sang very well’), ‘Bid me discourse’ at Burslem, Longton, Tunstall and Stafford, The Creation at Preston with Bernard Lane, and at Harrogate Spa, while at least one of the (other, presumably) Misses Smart was temporarily looking after the handwriting ladies at 2 Brown Street, Manchester. Mrs Fanny Smart, previously her husband’s assistant, had died at Grafton Street 24 May 1877, aged 47.

In 1879, Laura’s career and life took a definitive turning. The man who entered her career was Mr William Lea, son of the schoolmaster at Harthill, Cheshire. The young William was apprenticed to a gardener, but took a bent for music and set up as a music teacher in Liverpool. From teaching, it was but a step to buy and selling musical instruments, and Mr Lea took that step, in 1871, with great success. In the 1870s, his depository at 56 (and then 56 and 58) Melville Place, Myrtle Street, for the sale of harmoniums and pianofortes, flourished. So Mr Lea took the next traditional step: into concert management. On 11 July 1877, he presented the musician W H Jude at the second-level Hope Hall, in the ‘east end’ of Liverpool. Mr Jude was a triple-threat performer. He played serious music on Mr Lea’s harmoniums and pianos, he sang comic songs, imitated Henry Russell and John Parry, and he was, as they say, ‘a host in himself’ for an evening’s entertainment. This experience of management was obviously a positive one, for 23 September 1877 Lea launched a series of Saturday Nights at the same Hall. Jude was the centrepiece, whether singing, playing, conducting, or all three at once, but Lea filled his bills with local artists, professional, semi-professional and barely professional: the Misses Harriet Leders, Marie Ternan, Laura Jane Haworth, Lily Moulsdale (once the juvenile ‘Nightingale of the North’), Linda Cuthbert (‘pupil of Schira and the London Academy’), Alice Jackson, the Messrs George Barton (tenor), T J and J L Hughes, Emmanuel Spero, ‘Sydney Gladwynne’, Inman Moore, J Busfield, George A Paris, T H Harrison. And the result was highly successful.
On 21 September 1878, he and ‘W H Jude’s concert company’ began a second season, and in week two he scored a major hit by introducing into the programme a large selection from the latest London comic opera hit, HMS Pinafore. Jude was Sir Joseph Porter, Marie Ternan was Buttercup and Miss Moulsdale sang Josephine. This seems to have been Liverpool’s first hearing of the Pinafore music, and the fame of Lea’s concerts was sealed. He repeated Pinafore to a ‘crammed hall’, then mounted The Sorcerer with Jude in the title-role, alongside Miss Moulsdale (Alice), Miss Jackson (Constance) and Gladwynne, then more Pinafore, No Song No Supper plus Romberg’s Toy Symphony in which the singers played the ‘toys’, then more Gilbert and Sullivan. The company remained largely the same, but in the listings for the performance of 28 December (52nd concert) a new name appeared. Mr Josef Cantor.

Mr Cantor was a young Jewish gentleman from London, who had just arrived in town. He was the son of a Rotterdam-born market porter and his English wife, Charlotte Solomons, and he had worked until recently as a cigar-maker. Unfortunately he had got mixed up in some neighbourly brawling, which had ended in his killing his aggressor with a poker. Justice gave him one month. After which he left town. Maybe they didn’t make cigars in Liverpool, but Josef decided on a career change, and when Lea found that he, like Jude, could play, accompany, sing and put over a comic song, he was hired for the Hope Hall company. His solo, on this first occasion, came after the comic opera selections: he gave Mendelssohn’s ‘O give one tender token’. Next up, The Spectre Knight was given, with Josef as the Lord Chamberlain and Laura Haworth as Rita, then, at the 58th concert Princess Toto.

Then, at 61st concert, on 1 March 1879, there was another cast change. Miss Moulsdale having sadly seceded, Harriet Leders returned and a new soprano was hired. Miss Laura Smart. She sang ‘Bid me discourse’, ‘Il Bacio’ and Wade’s ‘The Wanderer of Dreams’ with the experienced George Barton, and promptly took her place at the head of the Hope Hall’s bills. At concert 62, she ventured ‘Al dolce canto’, the famous Rode’s Air and Variations of Catalani, and Josef played the accompaniments.
The ‘comic opera selection’ made up the whole of the first half of the evening, while the second half was given over to a more straightforward concert, so when The Sultan of Mocha was given, Laura Haworth sang Dolly, while Laura Smart gave ‘L’Ardita’, but when, at the 65th concert, Il Trovatore was selected, Laura S sang Leonora to the Manrico of David Inman Moore  and the Azucena of Miss Ternan, while Laura H joined the father and son Hugheses in the concert. At number 69, the two Lauras shared the soprano music of Princess Toto and Josef sang the show’s comic hit ‘The Pig with the Roman Nose’, and when (11 April) Edith Wynne, Liverpool’s prize vocal export, visited, and took pride of place for one Saturday, Laura S still sang ‘Bid me discourse’.

The Lea concerts being only on Saturdays, there was opportunity for other dates in the week (Bootle, Blackpool, Birkenhead &c) but it was the suddenly glorified Hope Hall that attracted the attention and audiences with its stout repertory team and its excellent programming. During 1879, The Lily of Killarney, Robin Hood, Maritana, Princess Toto. The Spectre Knight, Il Trovatore, and The Bohemian Girl were selected, and a Bishop concert was given in which Laura gave two pieces from Henri IV. At Christmas, the Hope Hall team gave The Messiah and Laura sang ‘Rejoice Greatly’ and ‘I Know that my Redeemer Liveth’.

When the Hope Hall season was finished, Mr Lea was decidedly not, and Mr Lea’s concert parties and their members voyaged to Manchester, the Isle of Man or Wales, when the season was ‘on’ they, including Laura and Josef, were back in Liverpool, he now being effectively a mini-Jude and she singing selections from pieces from Lurline to Les Cloches de Corneville.

Laura and Josef were married in 1881 in, of all places, Birmingham. I suppose there was a reason for it’s not being Liverpool. Probably because the bride was largely pregnant. Josef Eugene Francis Cantor was born, at Liverpool’s 84 Edge Lane, a few months later. After which Laura was promptly back on the platform.

On the occasion of Lea’s 150th night, she topped the bill at Hope Hall with a now largely unfamiliar cast, singing ‘Bid me discourse’ and Ganz’s ‘Sing, sweet bird’, at no 156 she is there doing the Miserere with Howard Welch, but the original repertory idea which had been so successful had dissolved somewhat. In the months in which she would normally have been resident at Hope Hall, I spot Laura at Morecambe with the Paggi Family, at the Sunderland People’s Concerts, at Chester for the Cricket Club concerts, at Hull for Holder with the Grenadier Guards Band, at Ripon with an umpteenth cricket club, at the Blackburn Pops … more often than not with Josef in support. At Christmas, she gave Messiahs at Hope Hall and in Douglas, Isle of Man. Now billed as ‘Madame Laura Smart’.

The 167th concert took place 7 January 1882 and there was again a guest. But Signor Foli had to take place behind Madame Smart, billed in the biggest type and singing Balfe’s ‘My task is ended’ (The Enchantress) and Bevignani’s ‘The Flower Girl’. Josef sang comic songs and threatened to steal the show. At the 200th (30 December 1882) Laura sang Les Cloches de Corneville and Josef sang the ‘Modern Major General’. Inevitably, Lea’s concerts, bit by bit, changed their original character. By the 220th concert Sims Reeves was the guest artist, and Lea was now giving monthly concerts at the more upmarket Philharmonic Hall (Laura sang). The ‘repertory’ feel had gone.

Laura (and Josef), their reputations made (‘our best local singer’, ‘beautiful voice and cultivated style’), performed far and wide in the early 1880s.  During 1882-3 I see Laura at Preston (‘It was a dream’, ‘Sing sweet Bird’) with Joseph Maas and (‘Angels ever Bright and Fair’) with Herr (!) William Ludwig, then at Darwen, Mold with James Sauvage, Cleckheaton (The Creation, Lobgesang, Stabat Mater), Matlock (Judas Maccabeus, Elijah), Liverpool (Samson), Wirksworth (St Cecilia’s Day), at the Morecambe Winter Gardens with Josef ‘the celebrated buffo vocalist ... every afternoon and evening’, at the Wrexham Corn Exchange Horse Guards Concerts, at Garston for the Mayor of Liverpool, at Burnley Mechanics’ Institute, at Warrington, at Nottingham (Messiah), at Manchester for the Philharmonic Society, at the Sabden Ballad Concerts, Chester and Salem for The Messiah, Birmingham for the local Pops, heading the bill for the Liverpool Rovers Bicycle and Tricycle Club concert, and singing for what seemed like every tiny cricket club concert in the county.

On 26 February 1883 the couple topped the bills at the Wrexham Music Festival alongside a new baritone, Mr Eaton Batty, RAM. Robert Eaton Cordeux Batty (1852-1908), son of a well-known late clergyman of the area, would be a colleague for much of his and their career.

William Lea, however, was still going strong, and Mr and Mrs Cantor were regulars on his bills at the Philharmonic and at Hengler’s Circus, where he staged a series of Proms. I spot them at the Philharmonic Hall a number of times in 1883 and 1884, Laura singing her Enchantress aria, and a Pinsuti piece entitled ‘We’ll gaily sing’, which introduced ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, Serpolette’s song from Les Cloches de Corneville, ‘When the Heart is Young’, Jude’s Milkmaid’s Song, the Esmeralda Swallow Song, ‘Sweet spirit hear my prayer’ etc, and Josef specialising in the Bumpti ra-pa-ta from Boccaccio, the Major General, Princess Ida’s ‘The Ape and the Lady’. The Philharmonic programme of 19 April 1884 was entitled ‘Gems from the Operas’.

Laura largely disappeared from the bills for a considerable while in 1884-5, and produced a second son, but Josef beavered away, spreading himself around with amazing vigour. He performed, he conducted, he played, he was a judge at the Mold Eisteddfod, he fixed orchestras, he was appointed conductor of the Wrexham Philharmonic, he supplied concert parties, instrumental and vocal, he returned to Hope Hall, he played and organised countless masonic musical dos, and finally all his tentacles came together in one octopus. On 11 April 1885 he produced his own ‘Gems of the Opera’ programme at Hope Hall. Laura topbilled alongside Edith Eborall, Emilie Young, Kate Nono, Jessie Annie Breakenridge, Mary Ellen Cottier, and the quartet (or quintet!), Messrs Samuel Kirkham, Edward Edwards, J A Muir, Nathaniel Frederick Kirkhoff Burt, and Batty. It started slowly, but Cantor’s ‘Gems of the Opera’ were to become an institution.

He brought his ‘operatic concert company’ out again at Leeds on 9-10 May with Laura as the star of the troupe (Pinsuti, ‘Banks of Allan Water’) and the Misses Eborall, Nono and Breakenridge and Eaton Batty leading the rest. Josef sang Trial by Jury, Miss Nono sang the popular Olivette song ‘The Torpedo and the Whale’. Come summer, it was the Llandudno Pavilion with another change of cast: but Laura still, of course led, and Messrs Kirkham, Batty and Edwards were joined by Mr Edward Grime. Grime would go on to have a career in provincial opera.

Next, Laura went off to sing Acis and Galatea in Macclesfield, Josef to conduct at the Wrexham Festival for Georgina Burns and Leslie Crotty, but the click was coming. J A Cross hired the ‘Gems of the Opera’ party for his Manchester Popular Concerts, and Laura and Josef, accompanied by Annie Hallwood, Lucie Ann Jones, Kate Nono, Emilie Young and the Kirkham/Edwards/Burt/John Peate team appeared on 31 October with a programme featuring largely the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. This time, at last, they played to a crowded house and the ‘Gems’ was launched. The team was re-engaged by Cross, booked for Preston, and in the new year for the Leeds Coliseum …  ‘Gems from the Opera’ was still alive and booking, with Laura and Josef at its head, into the 20th century, and Cross was still booking the outfit as late as 1901, and Laura, after her husband’s death, as late as 1907.

In between the bookings of the Cantor company, from the Isle of Man to Manchester to Worcester to Blackburn, Leeds, Huddersfield or Preston, and while the Cantor quartets racked up further engagements, sometimes with Laura making up the bill, she continued with the more normal life of a Lancashire concert prima donna – The Messiah at Wrexham and Mount Pleasant, Samson at Brighouse, St Paul at Huddersfield, The Rose Maiden at Everton, The Creation at Bootle, a jump-in for Alwina Valleria with the Liverpool Philharmonic Society (‘With Verdure Clad’, ‘The Bird that came in spring’, ‘It was a dream’). ‘She has made gigantic strides in her profession of late’ judged the press at the end of 1886.

In 1887, she had time out again for the birth of her third and last child, and when she returned she largely limited her appearances to engagements with the ‘Gems’ company.  In the latter part of the year, I spot the troupe playing several dates at Leeds, at Huddersfield, Preston, Blackburn, Worcester, then in early 1888 more repeated Leeds (where they took advantage of the release from copyright of Maritana to give a large selection), more Manchester (the local The Sultan of Mocha) including a first booking at the Botanical Gardens, a date which would be much repeated, Blackburn … Laura sang everything from I Puritani to Les Cloches de Corneville, Josef gave Balfe’s ‘Travellers All’, the Boccaccio, General Bangs’s song from Polly …

In 1889, she visited the Glasgow Saturday Concerts and reverted to ‘Bid me discourse’ and ‘Sing sweet bird’, she sang Elijah at Douglas and The Messiah at Burnley, in 1890 it was Elijah at Burnley in 1891 St Cecilia’s Day and The Bride of Dunkerron at Leeds, The Creation at Mount Pleasant, the Lobgesang and The Revenge at Liverpool … and all the while the ‘Gems’ played on. ‘Casta Diva’ and The Enchantress for her, ‘From Rock to rock’, ‘Non piu andrai’ for him, and The Sorcerer duet for them. In January 1892, when the ‘Gems’ fufilled an umpteenth engagement for J A Cross, Laura was ill and could not play. It was ‘like playing Hamlet without Hamlet’ sighed the press. There was, however, another to-be-celebrated name hidden among the company: the clarinettist of Cantor's band was Frederic Norton, two decades later the composer of Chu Chin Chow.

Illness got in the way later in the year, and Laura took time out in Madeira to recover from a bronchial ailment, but she was back in town in October, heading the ‘Gems’ round the usual dates (the company numbered 20, so small dates were out of the question!). At Leeds she gave ‘Al dolce canto’, so her voice must have thoroughly returned. Then at Manchester ‘Non piu mesta’ and ‘Son vergin vezzosa’, and at Tom Barrett’s concerts ‘L’Ardita’ and Sullivan’s ‘Let me dream again’ …

But Josef was not eclipsed, and when they visited Glasgow for the Saturday concerts in January 1893, it was he, with Andrew Black, who got the star billing.  When they returned with their company, the next month, Laura was back on top of the list of 13 singers and 7 instrumentalists, and Josef was listed just as ‘pianist’. He wasn’t, of course, ‘just’ anything of the sort. He was the life and soul of the party, just as his wife was the star – except on the occasions when Josef stole the starlight with his Gilbert and/or Sullivan (‘Ribbons to sell’, the Grand Inquisitor’s and Lord Chancellor’s songs, ‘The Beautiful English Girl’) and buffo songs. ‘Her vocal powers show no signs of decay’ confirmed Manchester in 1894 after her Enchantress aria, while Josef tackled ‘Largo al factotum’ with delight.

Through the 1890s, they continued their concerts round and round the main centres: why should one pay 7/- to hear Madame Jeanie Sadler-Fogg give the first act of Walküre at the Free Trade Hall, when up at the Association Hall, for a shilling, you could have a numbered chair to hear ‘the beautiful soprano voice and admirable style’ of the best soprano in the district plus nineteen others, including an hilarious buffo…

Laura still trotted out ‘Bid me discourse’, ‘It was a dream’ and ‘Sweet bird’ at will, and gave the Miserere with yet another tenor, but there was plenty of fresh material. She sang in C T Reynolds’s new cantata The Childhood of Samuel at Birkenhead, Josef added another string to his lute with a translation of Cesare Ciardi’s ‘The Nightingale’ with flute obbligato, which Laura gave with the troupe’s flautist, V L Needham, she exhumed ‘Bel raggio’ and ‘The Mocking Bird’ and gave a song from the musical Kitty Grey … as they went from the Tynemouth Proms to Blackpool’s Victoria Pier, to the Isle of Man and the Cross concerts, to Wrexham, to Darwen …

Inevitably, the pace slowed, as the new century arrived. And then, in early 1903, Josef fell ill. He died a year later. Laura continued to give the odd performance – J A Cross called upon her again and again – but, at the age of fifty, she called it a day.

Laura Smart Cantor died in 1913, at her home in Liverpool. If her name was wholly unknown south of Watford, it assuredly meant plenty to a generation of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Welsh concert-goers. She had been their popular Queen of the Operatic Gems for more than two decades, and at the centre of both William Lea’s and Josef Cantor’s ‘local’ concerts, which, in their turn, had done much to provide a superb shillingsworth for the people of the Midlands.

None of Josef and Laura’s collaborators at Hope Hall and in the Gems would merit an article in this collection along with the century’s great and grandish. But they fascinated me, so I dug just a little… and I’m going to put the results here. In no particular order, as they say on the TV …

NONO, Kate [NONO, Catherine Mary Theresa] (b Lancashire 27 May 1859; d Waterloo, Lancs 22 June 1929) was, for much of her local career as a singer, a ‘Madame’, the wife of Irish borough clerk David W Cangley. I spot her first at Lea’s 125th, in 1880, and for the last time as a member of Josef Cantor’s Opera Concert at Glasgow in 1895.

HAWORTH, Laura Jane (b Liverpool 1 October 1856; d 32 Buckingham Avenue, Sefton Park 4 May 1943)
A professional soprano vocalist, she married ship’s store dealer Edwin Thraves, but continued a career in the Manchester and Liverpool concerts from 1876 up till the end of the century.

MOORE, [David] Inman (b Old Church Yard, Liverpool 1853 x 8 May; d Wavertree 13 October 1902)
Mr Moore (originally billed as D I Moore) sang tenor for half a dozen years in the Liverpool concerts while pursuing a career as a banking clerk. He was one of Laura’s partners in the Miserere.

MOULSDALE, Sarah Elizabeth (‘Lily’) (b Everton 1857 x 25 October; d Liverpool March 1880)
Lily first emerged in 1868 as a child soprano, labelled ‘The Nightingale of the North’, under the tutelage of a frightful fraud of a musician (?) calling himself Henri Cardini Cole. Then she re-surfaced as leading lady at the early Lea concerts, only soon to vanish. Lily died aged 22. Later, her younger sister, Clara (Mrs Hawkins) became a member of the ‘Gems’ company.

GREENWOOD, J[ohn] H[enry] (b Manchester 1846; d 11 Lime Grove Oxford Rd Chorlton  20 September 1909)
Organist and choirmaster who made a name as a buffo vocalist: ‘the eminent Pianist and Buffo Vocalist. The only successor to the late John Parry’.

TERNAN, Marie (Mrs Mary Elizabeth [Thomas] Partridge) (b Franklin Place, Everton 8 September 1852; ?d 1926)
The first contralto of the Lea company, a pupil of Edwin Reeves of Liverpool, she sang everything from Azucena to Little Buttercup. She was still to be seen in the ‘Gems’ in 1884, and my last sighting of her is in 1885 singing The Messiah in Llandudno.

HUGHES, Thomas Jones (b Stanfyllin, Montgomeryshire 1831; d 72 Queensland Street, Liverpool 26 October 1880)
HUGHES, John Lot (b Myrtle Street, Liverpool, 1855)
Father, T J Hughes, was a pupil of Mr Saqui and a bass-baritone soloist with the Liverpool Harmonic Society and in local concerts, while holding down a day job as the collector of Liverpool’s sanitary rates. He appeared beside Edith Wynne, Eos Morlais, Lewis Thomas et al in Welsh concerts (Y Tylwyth Teg) and Eistedfodds, and in the Hope Hall concerts up to his death.
His son, J L Hughes, began performing as a boy soprano while working as an apprentice grocer. As an adult, he sang tenor at the Lea concerts' while conducting the choir at St Cuthbert’s Everton' until 1883 when he apparently left the area.

BREAKENRIDGE, Jessie [Annie] (b Seaforth 28 January 1866; d Hampstead 1952)
For several teenage years, a featured mezzo-soprano in the Liverpool and Manchester concerts, 19 year-old Jessie also sang in the choir of Trinity church, Eccles. Until she eloped with the (married) Rev William Mules, allegedly to America. But I spy the couple – the Rev is now a golf club maker – in Wales in the 1901 census, and in Kensington in 1911. Jessie stayed in the music business: she is, in both censi, and in 1939, a‘teacher of singing’.

COTTIER, Mary Ellen (b Edge Hill, Liverpool 4 March 1866; d Bootle 1943) An intermittent member of the Gems troupe between 1885 and 1889, Miss Cottier worked otherwise as a servant girl. She became a mother and then a wife (Mrs Patrick Neary).

JONES, Lucy (‘Lucie’) Ann (b Liverpool 22 May 1865; d Liverpool 14 March 1939)
JONES, Dora [Helena] (b Liverpool 6 June 1868; d Holywell 31 December 1944)
JONES, Ethel (b Liverpool 24 November 1871; )
Three of the daughters of Liverpool Welsh coal merchant, Thomas Jones, and his wife Dorothy, each of whom took a part in the Gems. Ethel (Mrs William Francis Collins) became a primary school teacher, Dora a nurse, back in Wales, but Lucie carried on a while as a professional singer before marrying bank clerk Charles Edwin Gill in 1897. A daughter was born deaf and dumb, Gill died in 1909, and Lucie went to live with schoolmistress sister Sarah Jane in Wrexham ...

Miss Meredith ‘of Birkenhead’ was one of the durable members of the Gems team. A multiple Eisteddfod winner, she brought her rich contralto voice to the ‘Liverpool and Manchester concerts’ and surrounding cities from the mid-1880s, and to the Gems in the later 1880s. Apparently wed in the early 1890s, she continued to sing as ‘Madame Kate Meredith’ round the north of England into the new century. My last sighting of her is in 1910 in Birkenhead.

ROLAND, Amy (‘Aimée’) Theodora (b Liverpool 3 March 1869; d San Mateo, California 16 June 1957).
A prominent member of the Gems from 1887 until her marriage to African trader Thomas Scott Rogerson, contralto Amy would seem to have been one of the last survivors of the company.

GRIME, Edward (b Wigan 24 May 1857; d New Ross 3 October 1907)
One of the most widely seen concert basses in Lancashire from the 1880s to the 1890s, Grime latterly sang both in musical comedy (A Trip to Chinatown) and in opera, with F S Gilbert’s company (Don Jose, Arnheim), (briefly) the Carl Rosa (Arnheim), and later with ‘Madame Marie Elster’ (Mary Violetta Riddle, b London 8 December 1863; Mrs Dougal Larnach), late of the Australian stage, with a fit-up of his own. 

HALLWOOD, Annie (‘Annetta’) Jane (b Appleton, Cheshire 1858; d 1933)
Annie Hallwood appeared both at Hope Hall and with the Gems, and married the widowed Nathaniel Frederick Kirkhoff BURT (1843-1910), a longtime member of the Cantor quartet, and by day an electrician and telephone engineer, 8 October 1891.

KIRKHAM, Samuel (b Liverpool 9 June 1849; d Birkenhead 16 March 1912)
Kirkham grew up as the neighbour of the Ternan family in Liverpool’s Coleridge St, and went to work as a clerk in the sanitary department of the council, with T J Hughes. He also became a member of the Liverpool Dramatic Lodge, along with Cantor and most of his merry men. He sang with Jude’s Sacred Harmonic Society (with the Hughes) and at the Concert Hall in 1876, and he was, thereafter. one of the longest-serving singers in the Lea and Cantor teams, topping the male-voice quartet for most of its existence.

Samuel Kirkham

LEDERS, Harriet [Neale]
(b 62 London Rd, Liverpool 23 May 1848; d Sidcup, Kent 1923)
A leading local soprano in Liverpool from the mid-1860s (‘decidedly the first among local artists’), Harriet Leders sang in some of the earliest Hope Hall concerts. She taught singing for many years thereafter, latterly in Sidcup.

SPERO, Emanuel (b Denmark 1854; d Gloucester Place, London 25 September 1927)
The son of a Russian ‘clothes-broker’, Emmanuel Spero spent the first part of his life in Liverpool, where he made good use of his fine tenor voice, singing in concert, during 1878. He moved on to London thereafter, and became chezan in a synagogue, and then chief precentor in the Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street. He composed music for the services and intoned the solos ‘exquisitely’ on occasions such as the funerals of aristocratic Jews … and it was all a long way from the Hope Hall and its ballads and operatic selections. When he died, ‘the Sweet Singer in Israel’ was commemorated in the press from the Solent to Shetland.

BARTON, George (b Cockermouth, Cumberland 1843; d 83 Riley Street, Blackburn 16 May 1926)
Barton began singing in Liverpool in the late 1860s and established himself as one of the best tenors around – although he apparently retained his day job as a printer and compositor for some time. But by 1871 he was already bannered as ‘the eminent tenor of the Manchester concerts’ and by 1875 ‘now our most popular tenor’. Over the next two decades he sang round and round the area, including stints in Lea’s and Cantor’s concerts, while teaching music from his base in Blackburn.

There are more, of course, where those came from -- Belle Pride, Eaton Batty, David Williams &c. But these are doubtless enough to show where ‘local’ music-making made its home in Victorian days … with folk like Josef Cantor, Laura Smart and William Lea to lead the way.

Those of you who have read right to the end ... if you have any additional information, please do get in touch ..
And photos! I've pinched Laura, Josef and their three children from a rather iffy family post on the web, but can I find anyone else? Not even the Rev Spero. And the Hope Hall? circa 1875? Even Wikipedia ignores its heyday and says it turned from a chapel into a cinema to a playhouse. And then got knocked down. Bah! There's a shiny new theatre now where the prima donna of the people used to sing to her shilling audience ...