blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Australian National Maritime Museum

Back to November and Australia!

On Monday Nov. 18th, we went to visit the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, a fine piece of architecture with a roof that looks like sails. I took this photo on a clearer day than the 18th, when we had to shelter in a business district bar for lunch on the way there or we'd have been soaked to the skin in a torrential burst of rain. We sat watching people's umbrellas blowing inside out before venturing over the footbridge.

The museum was excellent and deserved a whole afternoon; we could have explored all the ship replicas and the submarine outside, had we wished.

As in the art gallery, I learned an enormous amount. Near the entrance is the fastest boat in the world, the Spirit of Australia, as driven by Australia's Ken Warby in 1977 (511.11kph). He had built it in his backyard (which reminds me of the entertaining film The World's Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, a New Zealander who'd built the world's fastest motorcycle in his backyard. I first watched that film on board our container ship, the Flottbek, half way across the Atlantic).

As you walk further into the museum you see a mural showing the Sydney wharfs and the union of "wharfies" in the 1930s, during the world wide Depression before World War II. On another wall is a series of "Saltwater Visions": Aboriginal bark paintings, some of which have been used as evidence of indigenous rights in court cases over the ownership of saltwater lands. They depict turtle fishing from dugout canoes with sails. It seems that Australia's first peoples learned their boat building techniques from Indonesian sailors. The artwork also represents the crocodile eggs and dugongs found in the mangrove swamps of the Northern Territory. Fish or sharks are carved from branches.

The old maps of Terra Australia (New Holland) show how little white men knew or understood about this part of the world before the expeditions of Captain Cook. When the white men took over though, they were arrogant about it. From 1901 a racist "White Australia" policy forbad any non-European immigrants, especially Asians, from settling here and after the 2nd World War the situation changed only gradually. British immigrants were positively encouraged to come, especially solitary but healthy war orphans, teenage boys, 7000 of whom had been dispatched overseas, care of the Big Brother Movement, to be met by Australians and put to work on Australian farms. During the long weeks on board the ships they and the immigrant families from Britain were entertained by Poncho and Bubbles, clowns.

Another part of the museum was dedicated to a collection of famous surf boards and yachts including the yacht belonging to Kay Cottee who was the first woman to sail round the world single handed in 1988. The vessel's appropriately named First Lady and you can clamber over it in the museum.

The first warships of the Royal Australian Navy were built in 1913 to accommodate the men who responded to the wartime appeal for service, as illustrated on a typical poster, saying:
It is nice in the surf, but what about
Nowadays the RAN is more involved with peaceable activities such as a hydrographic survey from the Torres Strait to Antarctica.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Singing, then more singing

At the carol party (me conducting, with Jennie on the left)
Photo by Chris.
I am hoarse. On Saturday night we sang for hours at Bill's and Jennie's Christmas carols party, some of the diehards still going strong at 11pm when most other guests had left. Then we were so tired that we left too, driving carefully through the blizzard down the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway (Ottawa River Parkway, as it used to be known). There'd been a blip last year when Bill and Jennie were away living in France, but normality has resumed and we met the usual people back at their house; all of us had remembered Bill's warm up round (I heard the Bells on Christmas Day from The Canadian Pub Caroler) pretty well, and it sounded harmonious! We didn't have a pianist for the harder carols this year so had to tackle them a cappella. I did a bit of conducting to keep the pace going.

When we took a break I chatted to a gentleman who used to run the Ottawa Kiwanis Music Festival, a music competition for about 10,000 local students young and old. He'd been Vice Principal of an Ottawa high school too, where he'd encouraged the music to great effect. That school still has a reputation for excellence which I'm sure is no coincidence. Another person I talked to at the party was Tina Fedeski, mentioned in my previous blogpost! She comes from Bedford in the UK.

Yesterday evening in imitation of the Kings College Cambridge Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which I'll hear on the BBC tomorrow, Christ Church cathedral on Sparks Street offered its own service, the choristers carrying candles and starting their processional not with Once in royal David's city (that came second) but with Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, very well sung. I liked that.

I thought the whole thing a considerable improvement upon last year's service, after which I'd made a few criticisms––maybe someone had noticed my blogpost!––though they still had a choir boy read the first Lesson in unnecessary French, and still wanted us to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church" all the time.

Never mind. I do like the way that Matthew Larkin, the cathedral's Director of Music, chooses unusual items for his competent choir to perform (the long, mystical and complex Seek him that maketh the seven stars, by Jonathan Dove, for example, by which I was utterly enthralled despite the restlessness of some of the people in the nearby pews, or an African one, a Yoruba carol with drum accompaniment, Betelehemu). Even the more familiar ones are sung to in unusual arrangement, such as I saw three ships, arr. Simon Preston, and Il est né, le Divin Enfant, arr. Paul Halley, which cleverly combined chorus and verse melodies together in the last verse and served as a very bouncy introduction to the first chapter of St. John's gospel, which followed, solemnly read by the Bishop.

The congregation joined splendidly in the hymns. We did all the verses and descants were added by the girls' and boys' choirs. After a final Hark the herald... , Mr. Larkin repaired to the organ seat to give us the closing organ voluntary, full throttle: the last movement of Louis Vierne's Symphonie 1. Those of us who stayed till the last ringing chord applauded.

Afterwards I put my hood up against the freezing wind that funnels down Sparks Street in our winters, passing the trees with their beautiful blue Christmas lights around the war memorial, and met Chris for a rather too substantial but tasty pub supper on Clarence Street.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The OrKidstra's great success

I don't just mean this week at their end of year concert, I mean altogether! Since 2007 when the initiative began with 30 children, they are now making musicians out of 300 of them. Those 300 come from 42 different cultural backgrounds, a colourful crowd in every sense as they stand there in their bright T-shirts, radiating enthusiasm.

awesome, fantastic, wonderful, cool, special, great, soooo fun...
teamwork, harmony, smiles, perseverance, family, love, life...

These were some of the words used by the children themselves to describe how they felt about being part of it––pictures of the Kids holding up their words were projected on a screen the audience could see, as we waited for the performance to begin. The excitement was palpable. A large proportion of the audience was of course parents, siblings (some of the tiny ones very keen to join in themselves) and grandparents. The rest, well wishers like me.

In the foyer a string quartet of Orkidstra players was welcoming us with arrangements of Christmas carols. Inside the auditorium at the Bronson Centre, the other performers were still rehearsing. I went in. Tchaikovsky's Trepak, the Russian dance from the Nutcracker, was being conducted incredibly well by a young boy in a yellow t-shirt, 13 years old. Wow! Then the little ones (Kiddly Winks) finished practising their song and recorder piece, Fais dodo (my son learned that one at the French school in Berne when he was 4). It's easy because it only has 3 notes in the tune. In the actual performance their conductor and her assistants sat on the floor to direct them, so that they wouldn't hide our view of the children. Some are as young as 5.

As the concert finally got under way, the wind players processed in, down both sides of the auditorium, to take their seats in the orchestra, playing Deck the Halls from memory. This was an impressive feat but the audience was too distracted to pay them enough attention, parents still leaping up out of their seats to take pictures of their children up front. Things calmed down as we all stood up for O Canada. Then came the Tchaikovsky piece I mentioned, followed by an arrangement for strings of Jupiter from Holst's Planets Suite, performed by the Senior and Intermediate Strings who got two thumbs up from their conductor Margaret Tobolowska. She, along with Tina Fedeski, co-founded the Orkidstra projects.

The children––singers and instrumentalists––are mentored by a team of professional musicians along with young and old volunteers. I really like the fact that high school students and university students are involved in this way. The youngest violinists, Kid Players who aren't yet advanced enough to play in the Orkidstra, gave us a three-part piece in the mixolydian mode called Old Joe Clarke. After the beginner violinists came a small group of children playing a Song of the Wind on violas and the 'cello, assisted by two of their mentors. I wondered if one of the violas was the one I used to play, that I donated to the foundation. Someone was playing it somewhere in this concert.

As well as Fais dodo, the Kiddly Winks managed a syncopated song for spoken voices (whispering, chanting, shouting!) in 3 parts. It takes a considerable amount of effort and discipline to get little children to do this sort of thing; I was impressed.

10 Leading Notes was another inspirational shouting song involving everyone, with a tap-tap-clap-fingerclick accompaniment from the audience. Then the Kid Singers (middle school age) sang a two part song with a solo cello obligato. Heartwarming story: the 'cello was played by a young man who had come to Canada as a 7 year old refugee, had heard and seen the 'cello at an OrKidstra event and had demanded to learn it. He's now the leading 'cellist in the OrKidstra. The Singers also sang an African song to a drumbeat, Zulu Mama, with the children doing dance actions as they sang, especially the little boy in the Afro haircut.

A 14 year old girl (the one whose word for the OrKidstra was "life") introduced the next two items, one of which was an arrangement of the theme music by Klaus Badelt to Pirates of the Caribbean, challenging music––I wrote on my programme: "Well done!" It was rhythmic and dynamic. Having accomplished musicians in the orchestra to help the children make a good noise makes a difference, eggs them on and masks their hesitations and mistakes.

"Energy and joy happen here," said the Executive Director Tina Fedeski. The whole team, all 200 of them or so, then performed a sloppy number called We are the World which I didn't think much of; they followed it with Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the 9th symphony. "Everyone -- please join us!" so I sang along to the words on the screen, definitely not Schiller, but still. Last of all "Everyone" sang Jingle Bells as well, the orchestra being conducted by one of its chief sponsors, but this lady had been outshone as a conductor by the little boy we'd seen earlier.

In the foyer as we came out little boys were already tucking into the chocolate cakes on the table with as much enthusiasm as they'd had for the music, and older people were dropping cheques into the donations box. I hope they raised loads of money. The Kiddly Winks were getting tired. "It was long," said a little girl. "It's past my sleeping time!"

Here's a recording of the OrKidstra and singers made in 2012. Read the "show more" notes to see what they were doing (I was there on that occasion too):

"I believe in the power to change things. I believe in power of youth!"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Persian meal and tombak solo

We were invited by a very gracious Iranian couple to share supper with them at the weekend. They have a huge hammock hanging in their living room, from which the gentleman likes to watch TV. His nephew from Tehran lives with them at present, studying aeronautical engineering at the university and playing the piano and the tombak (a Persian drum) at home for relaxation. He demonstrated on the tombak, our host singing along, Persian style, in the background.

Black tea was handed to us on our arrival, with bowls of sugar crystals, to warm us up on a cold evening. Chris drank all of his without complaint (he doesn't usually touch tea)! Four other people had been invited, besides: one was a retired Professor of Philosophy and another was the CEO of an Ottawa company that, to quote from the website "manages a large portfolio of accessible taxicabs, airport transportation cars, executive black cars, limousines, shuttle buses and tow-trucks." We had a wide ranging conversation, talking about Wittgenstein and Aristotle, the analysis of 'plane crashes, the enjoyment of crossing Canada by train, various interpretations * of Schubert's Ave Maria, how to make hummus, how to give children their freedom, linguistic pedantry, etc., etc. It was that kind of dinner party. Chris and I were charmed by the company and ate a delicious Iranian supper of that homemade hummus and pita, chicken with apples, saffron rice and crispy slices of roast potato, served with a casserole of celery, onions, mint and parsley (Khoresht karafs). Small cakes topped with creamy yoghurt and dates, along with a plate of big grapes, were served for our dessert.

*Helene Fischer's version uses neither the original script nor harmonies!
Ave Maria. / Heut sind so viele ganz allein. / Es gibt auf der Welt so viele Tränen und Nächte voller Einsamkeit / Und jeder wünscht sich einen Traum voller Zärtlichkeit. / Und manchmal reichen ein paar Worte, um nicht mehr so allein zu sein. / Aus fremden Menschen werden Freunde und große Sorgen werden klein. / Ave Maria. /
Ave Maria, weit ist die Reise durch die Nacht. / Es gibt so viel Wege zu den Sternen und jeder sucht eine Hand die ihn hält. Vielleicht ist jemand so traurig wie Du. / Komm und geh auf ihn zu. / Verschließ heut Nacht nicht Deine Türe und öffne heut Dein Herz ganz weit. / Und lass den andern Wärme spüren in dieser kalten Jahreszeit. / Ave Maria. Ave Maria.
Fashions change, don't they? (although sentimentality remains). The original Schubert Lied went like this:
Ave Maria! / Jungfrau mild, / Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen, / Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild / Soll mein Gebet zu dir hin wehen. / Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen,  / Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind. / O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen, / O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind! Ave Maria! 
and so on for two more verses. This was the German translation of a hymn to the Virgin, extracted from The Lady of the Lake, a long poem by Sir Walter Scott.
[...] Ave Maria! undefiled! / The flinty couch we now must share / Shall seem this down of eider piled, / If thy protection hover there. / The murky cavern's heavy air / Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled; / Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer, / Mother, list a suppliant child!  / Ave Maria! [...]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Talking about New South Wales in French

It's La Nouvelle Galles du Sud, in French.

This post is intended as an aide-mémoire for when I next want to talk to French speaking persons about my recent trip to Australia. Today I gave such a talk at Danielle's house, and showed the ladies there some of my photos on the iPad. I had to prepare for this by looking up the following vocabulary:

Poteaux funérailles (tutini) indigènes
la Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée ... à travers le détroit de Torrès (whence the original Aborigines may have come)
l'art indigène
poteaux funérailles

espèces indigènes
pin de Norfolk ... conifère endémique de l'Ile de Norfolk dans le Pacifique Sud
zone pluviale
climat subtropical humide
la brousse ... feux de brousse
une canicule (= heatwave)

l'arrière pays

Île aux Cacatoès (I should pronounce the S)
camp pénitentiaire ... cellules aux fenêtres barrées
chantier naval
grue à vapeur
les premiers colons (= settlers)
une ruée vers l'or dans les années 1860 (= gold rush)

affleurements rocheux (outcrops) ... grès d'un brun rougeâtre (red sandstone)
cacatoès soufré ... à crête jaune 
mésanges bleu vif (= fairy wrens)
loriquets arc-en-ciel

un koala ... un kangourou
bébé dans la poche

planche de surf ... surfer ... surfeurs ... école de surf
les brisants (= breakers)
flots de retour (= rips)
lagons / lagunes d'eau salée
forêt de palétuviers ... la mangrove 
navires sabordés

Ned Kelly, un hors-de-loi

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A peaceful afternoon in Bourget

Chris having given a short lecture at the Aviation and Space Museum about a pilot's "Envelope of Ability" versus "Envelope of Comfort" this morning, we drove east to Bourget along the 417 and Russell Road. Bourget, is where Tracey and Bob live. They have a fir tree plantation and each December we're invited to help ourselves to some Christmas trees or decorative branches from beside the snow covered drive to their house, while pots of soup and chilli warm up in Tracey's kitchen. It is a warm, welcoming, attractive house, built by Bob himself, with huge, south-facing picture windows overlooking the fields and pond (all white today).

Don trundled down the drive on the little sit-on truck, branches piled up behind him, and pulled up, saying "I'm covered in trees!" The boot (trunk) of our car is still full of them.

Before setting off home towards Ottawa in time to avoid the forecast blizzard, we sat round the fire on the TV-screen and ate our late lunch / early supper in good company. Another tradition is that Tracey gives us each a Christmas decoration and a hug as we get up to go, stumbling over the great pile of boots, hats, mitts, scarves and other winter paraphernalia that we've left at the door.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas coming

Australia feels a long way off in time and space, now, although I haven't finished blogging about it and have promised to give a talk about it in French on Tuesday. The sky is dark and clear tonight, all the coloured Christmas lights are shining in the trees, downtown, and tomorrow we're due for an intensification of the wintery weather. We're driving to Bourget and back in the afternoon to visit our Christmas tree friends, and we must get back home before the blowing snow starts to reduce visibility and hamper the wheels.

Last night I walked to the Château Laurier in the bitter cold wind to attend a crowded reception for supporters and friends of Palestine and its diplomats, the General Delegation of Palestine in Canada. I had a glass of wine and some roast lamb with mint jelly. The Chief Delegate, Mr. Said Hamad (whose wife I know her through our Spanish conversation group) made an excellent speech announcing that next year, 2014, is officially designated The Year of Solidarity with Palestine.

Listening to the Hungarian choir.  The empty seat in the picture was mine.

Today I was at the banquet room of the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club for an elegant and tasty Christmas lunch with some more diplomats, about 100 of us altogether, where we were entertained by a choir of Hungarians, the ladies dressed in Hungarian blouses. They sang advent carols in Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, English and their own language (Mennyből az angyal) and wishing us Boldog Karácsonyt!––Merry Christmas––at the end of the performance. We all joined in Deck the Halls, an old fashioned British carol which must have absolutely flummoxed the Vietnamese ladies at my table. I mean, what on earth must they have thought of these lyrics?
...Don we now our gay apparel, fa, la, la ... 
Troll the ancient yuletide carol, fa, la, la ...
See the blazing yule before us, fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la! ...
I told them these words were very old.

At this party I had an interesting chat with a lady artist, Fortunée Shugar, whose paintings and wearable art ("fused" glass jewelry) were on display at one end of the room. She told me she was rethinking her past, her childhood, through abstract paintings which I thought very good. She'd also done a series of mixed media paintings in response to her visit to Giverny in France, to see Monet's garden. Her husband was at the party too, taking better photos than I.

While all this was going on, the snow-covered golf course outside, seen through the windows, looked very peaceful and inviting.

The artists of New South Wales

What do you do if you want to understand a nation better? Sitting in a café and watching people interact is one way, or walking round the residential areas to make further observations, or riding on the slow, suburban trains, ditto, but the most direct way to the heart of things is to read their novels and stories (I bought a copy of Tim Winton's The Turning when I was in Australia, for that very purpose) or to see what they have painted and drawn.

On Sunday 17th November we had a walk before breakfast through the Lane Cove park and on our way back up the hill saw two wallabies in the wild, a mother and a young one. They were either swamp wallabies or rock wallabies, I'm not sure, but when they sat still they were well camouflaged against the sandstone outcrops. Then it started to rain heavily again, so we decided to go into town by train from Macquarie University in order to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The picture above shows it in sunnier weather a few days beforehand.

We have visited this place before. It hasn't changed; it's still marvellous ... and free, and very popular. Other countries can take a lesson from that.

The Golden Fleece
Once inside Chris and I made arrangements to meet at a central point in an hour's time, and went off to explore in separate directions because we are interested in different things. I made a leisurely tour of the Victorians before homing in on the art that really grabs me, the mid-20th century canvasses. It's not surprising that the early Australian art is really homesick British art or documentary in style. There were paintings of settlers receiving letters from "home" in a "distant land," one portrait by Gordon Coutts of a decorously posed girl in a pink dress sitting in an outback railway station (the model actually posed in a studio and the background was added later)––this was entitled "Waiting"––and several large canvases depicting the NSW scenery, the creeks and beaches, the sheep shearers (Tom Roberts' "The Golden Fleece", 1891) and the gold prospectors. "Bailed Up" (1895) was another big painting by Roberts depicting an encounter with highwaymen in the outback. All somehow noble and grand. The artists who came fresh off the boat to this country were full of enthusiasm for it: "Sydney is an artist's city," said Arthur Streeton, "––glorious!"

The bridge in curve,
G. Cossington Smith (1926)
The next generation of Australian artists are the ones who impress me, their styles changing as they developed, Roy de Maistre in particular (he was the mentor/ close friend / platonic lover of the novelist Patrick White, whose books have a powerful effect on me, too); on this visit I was also struck by the versatility and forcefulness of a woman artist, Grace Cossington Smith––The sock knitter (1915), Bonfire in the bush (1937), etc.

The Aunt
Roy de Maistre works that I want to remember:
The boat sheds in violet red key (1919), an example of "colour music"
Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) (ditto)
Botanical Gardens, Sydney (1918)
The red boat (1934)
Deposition (1952)––crucifixion picture, a masterpiece!
Figure in a garden (The Aunt) (1945)–– this faceless figure inspired Patrick White's novel "The Aunt's Story."

Then came the idiosyncratic school the 1930s to '50s painters: Arthur Murch, William Dobell, Margaret Olley, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd, visionaries all. The famous Sydney Nolan is in a class by himself!

(I'll add more to this blogpost when I have time.)