Saturday, 4 April 2015


“Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you’re listening. Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time.” - Kelsey Grammer

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov - Born: April 1, 1873 - Oneg, Novgorod, (or Semyonovo) , Russia. Died: March 28, 1943 - Beverly Hills, California, USA.

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov (Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor, one of the last great champions of the Romantic style of European classical music. He came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergei’s mother fostered the boy’s innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg, where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory.

As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: Piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov’s cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.

As Rachmaninov’s conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory’s gold medal in composition for his opera “Aleko” (1892). Early setbacks in his compositional career - particularly, the dismal reception of his "Symphony No. 1" (1895) - led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis.

With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem “Isle of the Dead” (1907), and the “Piano Concerto No. 3” (1909).

On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina. By the end of the decade, Sergei Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the USA. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the USA between extensive European and American tours. While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities that won him his greatest glory.

Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist’s hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span (he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G) and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as “cosmic” and “overwhelming”. He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition, which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.

Fortunately for posterity, Sergei Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943.

Here is his glorious Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B (I mov.) and A (II & III mov.), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, solo piano, and strings. It is written in three-movement concerto form. It is performed here by Evgeny Kissin with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. A dazzling performance!

Friday, 3 April 2015


“The sea hath fish for every man.” - William Camden

In Australia it is a tradition for many to eat fish on Good Friday. Here is a recipe for baked whole red snapper, which we have every now and then.

One 2 kg red snapper, gutted, gills removed, not scaled, washed
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh thyme, rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil
Juice of two large lemons
Sea salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Place a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary in the abdominal cavity of the fish. Rub the fish with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season well with salt and pepper.
Place fish in an oiled oval pan or baking tray.
Bake for about 15 minutes per 2 cm of thickness at the thickest part of the fish. Baste with the pan juices every now and then.
Check to see if the fish is cooked by carefully sliding a paring knife in its back at the thickest part, gently lifting the top filet, and peeking inside to make sure the fish pulls away from the bone and the flesh is opaque (but still moist) rather than translucent and raw.
Prepare the dressing by beating together equal quantities of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil seasoned with sea salt.
Take fish from oven and carefully remove the skin (and scales) from both sides using two forks. The two large fillets of the fish should be easily removed from the bones. Serve the fillets with the dressing poured on top.
Accompany with a fresh green seasonal salad and crusty bread.

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Thursday, 2 April 2015


“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.” - Craig Claiborne

A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that she went to look at some new apartments that were being advertised for sale in the City. To her surprise, there was no kitchen to be seen anywhere in the flat. When she asked the estate agent showing her the apartment to show her where the kitchen was, he smiled and opened a cupboard, and pointed to a tiny galley with a microwave oven, a metre-long bench, a tiny bar fridge and an equally tiny sink. He explained to her that most people who chose to live a “downtown lifestyle” rarely ate in. As a vast selection of eating places of all kinds were within a few hundred metres of your apartment, why would you want to cook? My friend was not impressed…

Nor would I be! One of the most cosy and homely places in the house is the kitchen. There is always something happening there, always someone around, and many-a-time the delicious smells of food being cooked and the clatter of pots and pans are enticing calls to attention and draw everyone in the house to this happy place. Our kitchen is not overly large, but is well designed and merges with the family room and meals area, so that quite a spacious area is perceived when one enters these “three rooms in one”.

Whoever is cooking or working in the kitchen can converse with the others sitting in the family room and meals are easily passed from the cooking area to the meals area. Close friends gravitate to this part of the house, whereas acquaintances or work colleagues can be entertained away from this private area, in the “public” lounge room. Making a pot of coffee in the kitchen while one is conversing with close friends sitting in the family room is one of the pleasures of this arrangement.

My favourite times in the kitchen are weekend wintry mornings, when I wake first, turn the heater on and start the coffee going. Making hot toast with lashings of butter, while some baroque music is playing in the background sets the stage for the making of more serious breakfast fare, later on when everyone is awake. Scones, pancakes, porridge, eggs or on rare occasion a full, cooked breakfast are special treats, especially in winter. There is a wonderful smell that comes to mind when I think of such winter mornings. Freshly brewed coffee blending with hot buttered toast, ground pepper on hot, steaming scrambled eggs and green tender chives chopped on top.

A galley, indeed! Hrrrrrrrrrrrrrmph!

A recipe for Eggs Benedict
Split some English muffins in halves crosswise, toast them without allowing to brown. Place a slice of cooked ham on each muffin half. Heat in a moderate oven and put a poached egg on each muffin half. Cover the whole with Hollandaise sauce and garnish with finely chopped chives. Keep warm until served, but don’t dawdle in serving them!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


“Love cannot endure indifference. It needs to be wanted. Like a lamp, it needs to be fed out of the oil of another's heart, or its flame burns low.” - Henry Ward Beecher

This week, Poetry Jam wants participants to write about “the flame”. A broad topic to be sure, and whether one chooses to be literal or figurative, there are countless possibilities. Here is my contribution:

Our Love’s Flames

In the depths of my abyss
And my endless, lonely night,
I remember a sweet kiss
And the flames of love’s delight.

In the desert of my strife
In the coldness of my soul,
I recall our happy life
And the warmth that made us whole.

In the roiling seas ice-cold
And the Winter’s howling storm,
Long past Spring of old
I yearn, and the fire of Summer warm.

In a dark, dejected place
Hungry, thirsty and forlorn,
I seek you, of endless grace,
Come, remove my heart’s deep thorn.

In the Autumn greyness drear
And my freezing blood’s despair,
I await you to come by near
All my damage to repair.

Come again, and heal my pain,
Blow the ash off my cold grate;
Light my fires, fan my flames,
Tell me all was not in vain;
I was right to hope and wait,
Let us play our old love games.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it” – Confucius

Venus Anadyomene

As from a green zinc coffin, a woman’s

Head with brown hair heavily pomaded

Emerges slowly and stupidly from an old bathtub,
With bald patches rather badly hidden;

Then the fat gray neck, broad shoulder-blades

Sticking out; a short back which curves in and bulges;

Then the roundness of the buttocks seems to take off;

The fat under the skin appears in slabs:

The spine is a bit red; and the whole thing has a smell

Strangely horrible; you notice especially

Odd details you’d have to see with a magnifying glass…

The buttocks bear two engraved words: CLARA VENUS;
And that whole body moves and extends its broad rump
Hideously beautiful with an ulcer on the anus.

Venus Anadyomène

Comme d’un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pomades
D’une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;

Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates
Qui saillent; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort;
Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l’essor;
La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates:

L’échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un gout
Horrible étrangement; on remarque surtout
Des singularités qu’il faut voir à la loupe…

Les reins portent deux mots gravés: CLARA VENUS;
Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d’un ulcère à l’anus.

Arthur Rimbaud – (Translated by Wallace Fowlie and revised by Seth Whidden)

The 19th century poet, Arthur Rimbaud (born October 20th, 1854, Charleville and died November 10th, 1891, Marseilles) was a leading proponent of the Symbolist movement and his poems are wonderful vehicles for his magnificent, opulent, iconoclastic visions. Rimbaud saw himself as a prophet, a visionary, or, as he put it, a voyant (“seer”). He had come to believe in a universal life force that informs or underlies all matter, which spiritual force Rimbaud referred to simply as “l'inconnu” (“the unknown”). He maintained that this force can be sensed only by a chosen few, he himself of course being one of them.

Rimbaud set himself the task of striving to “see” this spiritual unknown and allowing his individual consciousness to be taken over and used by it as a mere instrument. He should then be able to transmit (by means of poetry) this music of the universe to his fellow men, awakening them spiritually and leading them forward to social progress (being a socialist). He coined a famous phrase to describe his method of achieving his ideals: “le dérèglement de tous les sens” (“the derangement of all the senses”). In a voluntary martyrdom he would subject himself to fasting and pain, imbibe alcohol and drugs, and even cultivate hallucination and madness in order to expand his consciousness.

His poems manifest these visions sometimes in terrible and weird, bizarre and repulsive images, other times in delicate, water-coloured dreamlike trances. His works are often fiercely satirical, often sarcastic, attacking the hollow, petty values and customs of the bourgeoisie. He has been described as an anti-Christian poet because of his attacks on the church, but it is the clergy and their corruption he objects to rather than a genuine spirituality, which he often exhibits. However he is deeply critical of Christianity’s rejection of the sensual and particularly of female sensuality, which he elevates by his frequent references to Venus.

His use of slang and the “mots bas” (“low words”) rather than the “mots propres” (“proper words”) brings his poems to a level accessible to everyone. The poem given here, Venus Anadyomene (Venus rising out of the waves) mocks the traditional description of the goddess Venus, which formed very much part of the aesthetic tasteful verses of the Parnassians (Rimbaud’s contemporary neoclassical poets including Banville, Gautier, and Leconte de Lisle). Rimbaud's Venus, an ugly fat woman getting out of a dirty zinc bath, is a direct parody of the poetic conventions of these Parnassian poets. The poem's final rhyme of "Vénus" with "l' anus" completes the act of poetic subversion.

The poem to me suggests also the love-hate relationship Rimbaud had with the idea of the “female”. He was bisexual and his self destructive life is told in the indie film “Total Eclipse”, directed by Agnieszka Holland. Leonardo Di Caprio in a master-stroke of casting plays the poet Rimbaud. David Thewlis plays fellow poet Verlaine and Rimbaud’s mentor (10 years older and eventually shooting Rimbaud in a crime of passion). Rimbaud survived to renounce his gift, run guns in Africa and die in agony…

For more of his poems visit:

Monday, 30 March 2015


“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” - Albert Camus

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski has quite a few films in his portfolio, but the worldwide success he deserves came in the mid-nineties with his trilogy “Three Colours”. It is not surprising that he chose the three colours on France’s flag, blue, white and red and the country’s national motto of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” with which to construct his trilogy, as Poles have had a special bond with France for quite some time.

Last weekend I watched again Kieslowski’s 1993 film Three Colours: Blue,which I consider to be the best of the trilogy. As I expected, I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time I had watched it when it was first released. “Blue” concerns itself with the life of Julie, the wife of a famous and successful composer, who survives him and her young daughter, both of whom are killed in the car accident that begins the film.  The film is very much a study of Julie’s character and how she copes with her manifold losses.

If you have not watched it, I will not spoil for you, but suffice to say that it concerns itself with the theme of “liberty” on a personal level. Julie has been so scarred by her loss that she becomes an emotional cripple, chained to the past simply because she will not acknowledge it. Her grief is so immense that she chooses to black it out, ignore it and live a life free of emotional involvements, free of love, friendship, commitment. The theme of freedom is turned in on itself when Julie discovers that her strategy is failing and she has to redefine her life and her concept of “liberty” according to new parameters, as life intrudes into her self-imposed emotional isolation.

Juliet Binoche delivers a tour de force of acting brilliance in this film, and her dazzling depiction of grief in all of its manifestations is quite an amazing achievement. Her suffering through most of the film is linked of course to the loss of her family, but also she evinces from the role the nagging survivor’s guilt.

Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s camera captures images of peerless beauty in this movie and frame by frame, a complex painting is constructed, like the artist’s canvas is completed by brushstroke upon brushstroke. The musical score of the film composed by Zbigniew Preisner is magnificent and complements the images admirably. As a composer of music myself, I found the process of musical composition portrayed in the film accurate and illuminating for myself also!

If you have not seen this film, I strongly recommend it. It is slow-paced, confronting, disturbing, challenging, but also very rewarding.

Sunday, 29 March 2015


“For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honour the truth first.” - Aristotle

Fra Bartolommeo, (also spelled Bartolomeo; also called Bartolomeo della Porta or Baccio della Porta) is an Italian artist born March 28, 1472, Florence and died Oct. 31, 1517, Florence. He was a prominent exponent in early 16th-century Florence of the High Renaissance style. Bartolommeo served as an apprentice in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli and then formed a workshop with the painter Mariotto Albertinelli.

His early works, such as the “Annunciation” (1497), were influenced by the balanced compositions of the Umbrian painter Perugino and by the sfumato (smoky effect of light and shade) of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1499 Bartolommeo was commissioned to paint a large-scale fresco, “The Last Judgment”, for one of the cemetery chapels in Santa Maria Nuova. Influenced by the preaching of the Florentine Dominican religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, Bartolommeo joined a convent in 1500, and in 1501 he gave up painting and joined the Dominican order.

He began painting again in 1504, producing devotional paintings mostly at the service of his order. His “Vision of St. Bernard” (completed 1507) shows him achieving the transition from the subtle grace of late Quattrocento painting to the monumentality of the High Renaissance style. In 1508 Fra Bartolommeo visited Venice, where he assimilated the Venetian painters’ use of richer colour harmonies. Back in Florence soon afterward, he painted a number of calm and simple religious pictures in which monumental figures are grouped in balanced compositions and portrayed with a dense and somewhat shadowy atmospheric treatment. Among such works are his “God the Father with SS. Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene” (1509) and the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” (1512).

Bartolommeo visited Rome in 1514, where he saw Raphael’s mature work and Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In response Bartolommeo’s art took on a greater power of dramatic expression, as in the “Madonna della Misericordia” (1515) and the “Pietà” (c. 1515; see above). Also in this vein were his large frescoes of St. Mark and St. Sebastian on the wall at San Marco in Florence. The St. Sebastian, an ornamental pendant, was later purchased by King Henry I of France.

Despite Bartolommeo’s assimilation of the progressive currents of his time, his art is restrained, conservative, and somewhat severe, and he painted religious subjects almost exclusively. His production of drawings and preparatory sketches shows a delicate sensitivity and technical superiority. His landscapes are among the most notable of his time.