The @ASQuartet Announces a 2015 Program. Of a sort.

Today another chamber ensemble 2015 brochure hit your correspondent’s mailbox. Late, you say? Yes. But with reason. The letter and brochure came from the Australian String Quartet. Please ignore the sad past year and “irreconcilable artistic differences”. The ASQ board and management have been presented with one massive dilemma: how to create a string quartet program for their thirtieth year with a busted line up.

Management assures us they are doing everything possible to locate two new violinists. But in the interim, what have we got? The offering is Stephen King, Sharon Draper and Friends. Friends? Well, only “first violinist” friends. For the three tours proposed there is no mention whatsoever of the players who will take on the second violin role. Are they unimportant? Are they not yet contracted? Has management no idea? Has the board no idea? Oh, well, we all know: second violinists don’t exist. Or do they? Remember the wise words from the Julliard: the second violinist has to be able to play everything the first plays, and in a much more difficult register.

Not that your correspondent has any problem with the first violinists contracted by the ASQ to play in 2015. They are session instrumentalists of the first order: Wilma Smith, recently departed from the concertmaster chair at the Melbourne Symphony; Susie Park,, a soloist of growing stature; and then Sophie Rowell. Alert readers will recall that Sophie was, just a couple of years ago, first violinist of the, wait for it, Australian String Quartet. But, whatever your point of view, a string quartet consists of four players. They need time to build a mutual understanding and a musical soul. So the ASQ has a 2015 program of music to offer. But it is not a string quartet program.

This begs the question: what do you do if two members of your quartet resign? Your correspondent is of the view one player is replaceable, two probably not. The last time the ASQ board was placed in a similar position and came up with a sound plan, they determined to replace the busted line-up with an established quartet (The Tankstream). Brilliant. The next time they screwed up. Why have they not taken the sensible approach in 2015? Is there no one available? Then perhaps, rather than offering a festival lineup of session musicians, the board should have bitten the bullet and canned the whole program year. Find your quartet. Build it. Then introduce it to a waiting public. Your followers deserve better than the current debacle.

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“We are what we eat”. What is your gut reaction to this?

Your correspondent is not generally considered a food faddist, nor a health nut. Just an ordinary, healthy individual who, nevertheless, can consume a packet of biscuits at one sitting, has a predilection for chocolate, and maybe, just maybe, drinks a little too much whisky. So, why, in the last couple of weeks has he been hit by the proverbial train? Not a wreck, mind you. Rather a vehicle moving towards an amazing new world of physical and possibly mental understanding.


By way of further preamble there is a little story of a man who came, a few years back, to buy a used car from your correspondent’s son. An entrepreneur, this used car buyer regaled us about his new passion, probiotics, which, he claimed, could cure all manner of diseases and conditions. He was, in all probability, a nut case. But perhaps there was some truth in what he was postulating. After all probiotics work in the gut, and that is what this blog post is all about.


Gut bacteria is the issue, and the complex interplay between bacteria in the intestinal tract and its effect on the host. The host? That’s you and me. Consider this:


“Microbes in the gastrointestinal tract are under selective pressure to manipulate host eating behaviour to increase their fitness, sometimes at the expense of host fitness. Microbes may do this through two potential strategies: (i) generating cravings for foods that they specialize on or foods that suppress their competitors, or (ii) inducing dysphoria [a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction] until we eat foods that enhance their fitness.” [i]


There is more: “mechanisms for microbial control over eating behaviour [include]…microbial influence on reward and satiety pathways, production of toxins that alter mood,…..and hijacking of the vagus nerve, the neural axis between the gut and the brain”[ii]


So what, you may ask. But think for a moment what this could mean, if indeed it is true. Perhaps the response to the current epidemic of obesity should not be more self-control and less fast foods, but rather a simple dietary shift to allow a different balance amongst the bacteria in the gut. And the thought, first expressed to your correspondent by his wise and diligent daughter: “When they find a cure for obesity, they will have found a cure for all eating disorders”.


While it may be early days in pursuing this general hypothesis, there is incredible evidence in other medical fields that a relatively simple change in gut bacteria can have outstanding results. There is another epidemic going on, of which this non-medico was not aware: severe Colitis, known as Clostridium difficile infection (CDI). The usual treatment practice with antibiotics is no longer working as drug resistant strains have developed. Happily an “inexpensive, safe, and highly efficient treatment” has emerged “which achieves results current pharmaceuticals cannot achieve.”[iii] The treatment? Infusion of a fecal suspension from a healthy individual into the gastrointestinal tract of an individual with colonic disease, also known as Fecal Microbiota Transplantation or even, colloquially “a transpoosion”.


Readers who wish to get some insight into these developments could do worse than view two recent episodes of the ABC TV program “Catalyst” Series 15 Episodes 5 and 6 both available currently on iView (


It seems as if the world may be on the brink of some amazing new developments in the field of health. The work on gastrointestinal microbiota has potential ramifications for a wide spectrum, including autoimmune disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, eating disorders and even mental health. Let the research roll. It seems we are only at the beginning of what was known to Hippocrates more than 2000 years ago: ”Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Wise words indeed.



[i] Bioessays 36: 1-10 by Alcock, Maley and Aktipis. Pub. Wiley Periodicals.

[ii] Op. cit.

[iii] Fecal Microbiota Transplantation, Techniques, Applications and Issues. Borody and Campbell, Gastroenterol Clin N Am 41 (2012) 781-803

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Musica Viva Launches: 2015 Program

Musica Viva has launched its 70th Anniversary Season. Unlike some larger organisations who have to consider attracting a conservative audience base Musica Viva has eschewed, in the main, the bland populist approach and brought together an eclectic selection of ensembles and individual musicians which cannot fail to find favour with a wide range of audiences. And there certainly can be no quibble about quality. You like Baroque? Tafelmusik returns. It may be hard for them to repeat the incredible impact of The Galileo Project so impressively performed on their last visit. But their planned “House of Dreams” project, taking audiences on a tour, musical and visual, of the worlds of Bach and Vivaldi sounds impressive. It will take great skill to raise such a performance above the mundane of a European tour video. Tafelmusik has the artistic clout to do this.

Did your correspondent mention quality? How about Steven Isserlis, this time with Associate Artist Connie Shih? Or Paul Lewis? Isserlis will play some Ades along with more popular fare by Saint Saens, Faure, and that old favourite Franck Sinatra (sorry, Sonata). It may not have been written for the cello, but it sure sounds like it should have been. Lewis will play standard repertoire: Beethoven and Brahms. Sorry, contemporary piano music fans. This does seem to be unimaginative programming, but piano lovers are funny people.

Two quartets underline quality further: Goldner and the Modigliani. Both will play Beethoven, while the Goldner, bless their hearts will open with Ligetti and a newly commissioned quartet by Paul Stanhope. The Modigliani, not to be outdone, will play some Westlake for Australian flavour. The two Haydn quartets announced, from Op 50 and 54, are perhaps not amongst the most often programmed. Which is excellent. But your correspondent must beg your indulgence on this. He is away and without his usual cribs.

The Eggner Trio returns yet again. These three Austrian guys are known crowd pleasers, and their programming tends towards the popular on this visit (the “Dumky” yet again). (Memo MVA: Dvorak did write other works. His Piano Trio in F Minor Op 66 is a beauty.)

The newcomer in next year’s line up is “a cappella” group Il Fagiolini. This continues Musica Viva’s long history of bringing the best vocal groups to Australia. This started with the Deller Consort so far back not many of us can remember. Il Fagiolini’s repertoire will include a new commission by “Schultz”. One assumes this is Australian composer Robert Schulz. The MVA program pages do not run to first names, and your correspondent, having dropped off the MVA press list, has no media pack to consult.) Talking of first names the Eggner will play a work by Hollan, or alternatively Holland, depending on which program list is referred to on the MVA website. Again one is left to assume this is Dulcie Holland. She did write a couple of works for piano trio. The longest runs about 15 minutes so it is a pretty slight obeisance at the altar of Australian music, but we should be thankful for small mercies.

There does not appear to be a featured Australian composer next year. This is a pity. There is little enough music by living Australians being played and that MVA initiative was one to be applauded. Perhaps it will return next year.

There is a Gala Special next year to mark the seventy years: virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov will play a program of finger breakers including Kreisler, Ysaye, Wieniawski and Paganini with a little Bach, Prokofiev, Brahms and Dvorak besides. You’ve picked it already. This is the short form programming style much loved in the early 20th century, but now most appropriate for galas (that almost came out as Galahs) and drive time radio. You can buy a cocktail party with your ticket should you feel the need for a drink after all those notes.

To round out a full year, the Musica Viva Festival also returns in April. This is a happy blend of chamber music with a stellar cast of Australian and international musicians. It is run at the Sydney Con in association with the Australian Youth Orchestra whose players get tutoring from some of the best in the world. You can take it as you wish: a program of concerts of international standard, watch the young AYO talent in masterclasses, or take in the lot. It is full on, but for chamber music lovers it is a feast of dreams.

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An Occasional Review: “Cadence” by Emma Ayres (@emmaayresviola), published by ABC Books

What’s in a sub-title? What is to be read from “Travels with music – a memoir”? The full title of Emma Ayres’ recent book is equally inscrutable: “Cadence”. Is this a travel book? A book about music? The cover pic suggests something to do with cycling. That too? So it was with some uncertainty that your correspondent, using up a generous ABC Shop Birthday Gift Card, and having placed two Amy Dickson saxophone CDs in his basket, paused in front of the display table where “Cadence” was being promoted. Along with a companion CD.

Had Emma not been a favourite voice on ABC Radio’s Classic FM breakfast show, and a familiar face from various festivals and events, the book may have remained on the shelf. But that morning voice, with its quirky sense of humour, sometimes polarises opinion. And the occasional casual meeting has presented your correspondent with something of an enigma. What is she? Who is she? A musician? A journalist? And what lies beneath the radio presenter’s calm, articulate presentation?

So, with a nagging suspicion that this might be a rather boring traveller’s tale, your correspondent made the purchase; without the companion CD. How wonderful it was, then, to discover that “Cadence” is a most remarkable book. It is all those things mentioned, but then so much more. There are a number of threads running through the book: a personal and family story; a musician’s tale; an obeisance at the temple of cycling; an insightful exploration of musical keys, which might have been a disastrous ploy were it not so skilfully interwoven into the writer’s emotional journey. But above all the book is a paean to that country of contradictions, Pakistan.

In a world of blogs, Facebook and Twitter, where exchange of personal detail seems everyday, it should perhaps come as no surprise when authors give freely about themselves. In “Cadence”, Emma Ayres reveals much about herself in an open, yet intimate portrayal of a tough early family life, the rigours of becoming a professional musician, and, in a sometimes amusing and other times chilling way, the androgynous trials of a lesbian on the sub-continent. Meanwhile the main theme of cycling, alone, from England to Hong Kong. presents a wonderful casserole of adventure, thickened and spiced with history and stories of individual contact with people who, in the main, would help to reawaken a feeling of trust and generosity in the most jaundiced reader’s faith in humanity.

The writing, for a woman of words and music, is clear and easy to absorb. Sure, there are times when an over-emphasis grates, or an amusing aside is overplayed. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK” is one such example. Certainly the circumstances were dire, but the reader already understood this from the narrative. A vigilant editor should have saved Emma from these, admittedly few, discords. On the other side of the literary coin is some delightful writing: “…like a velvet chador”. Could any other simile recreate this word picture?

Some of the incidental stories are incredible gems: who knows of Jiri Dinshaw, her history and lifetime’s work with young musicians of Mumbai? And the reflections on Emma’s own time working with Afghani musicians are, frankly, beautiful. Just read the story of Isaac Stern’s violin bow.

Your correspondent knows Pakistan and Iran, having worked and lived in both countries. Knowledge of Afghanistan came only from tales from a father-in-law who travelled there with UNESCO in the late 1940’s. If these insights have underscored appreciation of Emma’s observations, then so be it. But for the general reader this book is a treat in waiting; for the general reader as well as cyclists, lovers of the travel genre, and musicians and music lovers alike. If your musical knowledge is limited you may benefit by purchasing the companion CD. But don’t skip over the story of the keys. To do so would be inimical to total enjoyment of this wonderful work.

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A reaction to @operaaustralia’s Eugene Onegin

Last night your correspondent saw the last night of Opera Australia’s Eugene Onegin. It was, personally, a special occasion, but that is irrelevant, other than to say the production matched the occasion. Nicole Car was magnificent. The orchestra played with a special feel that reflected a fine controlling instinct from conductor Guilliaume Tourniaire. While Tchaikovsky’s music would alone be enough.
But there was something else alongside the operatic, and that was dance. It may be telling that mental anguish, dopamine, seratonin, left brain and right brain have been high in your correspondent’s mind recently, along with the recognition that we are all, nearly always, of two minds. Mostly in benign debate, but sometimes in a fight for supremacy. Two individuals in one, wrestling with issues and demons, illusions and reality, love and life. So it was, after dozing through the first scene, an electric impulse hit in the Letter Scene: the presence, the actions of the dancer were no simple ‘could haves” or “would haves”. Raw metaphor indeed, but the reflection was that of the mind in turmoil. The rational, calm, singing Tatyana battling with an unruly id that demanded she express her deepest feelings, irrespective of the outcomes a clear head, even a young woman’s clear head, knew would result. The dancer was in control. She who wrote the words. The Tatyana in control while the “other” Tatyana succumbed, without so much as a fight. It was a fine exposition of what was, in fact, going on in a scene of little action: a mental battle. How better to represent it than with two representations of the one personality. If one has not, personally, known the battle, or has not seen it in someone close, the reality may pass over us. For your correspondent it was conceptually brilliant.
Onegin’s danced alter ego was less intense but nonetheless real. He was one who had succumbed in the battle in his mind. Truly a lost soul. Indeed his weary reaction to the dancers in the Polonaise reflected his inner state. The narcissist at the end of the road.
If this be the future of dance in opera productions, then let it continue.

(This is an edited version of a comment made on A Cunning Blog

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“The Saturday Paper” Hits the Streets

Friday afternoon your correspondent was passing through Martin Place, minding his own business when a young lady thrust some printed white paper into his hands. Seeing the masthead, The Saturday Paper, he enquired politely “A Saturday paper on Friday?” This elicited but a smile, and we passed on.

It was not until Saturday that time permitted a review of this unexpected journal. The twenty-first century is not the best time to launch a newspaper. Who are the brave souls and what their purpose? A new front by the Australian Communist Party? A new initiative of the H R Nicholls Society perhaps? Or a new type of Mx, published by the last of the remaining press barons?

None of the above, it seems, and thankful we should all be. It seems the initiative is that of one Morry Schwartz, who, according to a launch address by none other than Malcolm Turnbull, is a radical, an idealist, born in Hungary, a Jew and has ink in his veins. The Internet tells us he is also a property developer and publisher. It is a sign of your correspondent’s cloistered existence that he did not know Schwartz publishes The Quarterly Essay and The Monthly. Clearly the guy knows what he is doing.

Some feel for style can be gleaned from the quality of contributors. David Marr is there with a fine piece on Cardinal Pell. Christos Tsiolkas does film. Novelist Richard Flanagan writes fine satire on the “Comment” page and the co-owner of Melbourne’s fashionable Cutler and Co does food. A crossword from Mungo MacCallum is there for those of cryptic persuasion. It seemingly has it all: Comment, Culture, Business, Film, Books, Food, World, Sport, Interiors, Fashion. Something for nearly everyone. No music performance criticism however. That is an egregious omission.

But who is the everyone at which this august journal is pitched? A clue can be gleaned from the ads. Rolex, and Harrolds, the up-market gents outfitter, have full pages. ABC Books and the Australian Ballet are there, as is a full page pushing luxury homes in “Melbourne’s Prestigious Alphington”. (Nobody lived in Alphington when your correspondent was a boy in Melbourne, but that was an age ago.) Academy Travel is there too pushing English summer music festivals. Opera and chamber music festivals of course. You get the idea.

The Leader say it all, of course: “A young paper with tenacious vision”; “no agenda and no single view”; “knowledge that is broad and deep”; “defiant of trends and conventional wisdom”. Your correspondent rather likes the final words: “We promise to be a small but handsome mongrel, a blue heeler cross of the press.”

A salute to the ideals, and a loud, resounding “Chookas” to Schwartz and his crew. Do you suppose, though, that SportsBet is running a book on how many years the newspaper will last?

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Gran Turismo: Are you sure you want to make that trip?

Your correspondent has just had a weekend of Gran Turismo. For the uninitiated “Gran Turismo” does not, in this context, mean the fine vintage vehicles of the days when motoring was a pleasure and the pastime of the well to do. No, Gran Turismo refers to those travels, in the company of many others, organised and structured to a degree only known to graduates of 21st century hospitality colleges, to visit “cultural” or other natural or man made icons, together with milling hordes, steeped in the belief that travel broadens the mind. Perhaps, in truth,travel broadens the mindless, when the purpose appears, in many cases, to be to check off against some personal list : “been there, done that”. The flock-like herding hither and thither, onto buses, into queues, over to “cultural centres”; walks with trite placards declaiming the importance of this piece of harsh desert dust or that. (And yes, your correspondent knows that there are insects and reptiles hidden away in the dusty plains, never to appear when the punters are abroard, searching for goodness knows what revelations).

Quickly now, back on the bus everybody. “Hello. My name is Fred but my friends call me Shorty. Can’t imagine why. I’m your driver today to take you all of five minutes drive back to your hotel”. Well, he didn’t actually say the “all of five minutes” bit, but you get the point.

The only redeeming feature of Gran Turismo is that it is usually possible to find a comfortable bar or restaurant at which to slake the desert dry and take nourishment of a less academic kind, at, of course, a price pitched to have you wondering if the cost of transport, storage, wastage, petty pilfering and everything else can really justify the exorbitant cost. The onslaught on the wallet is unremitting. A visit to the icon, sir? Of course. Just a fifteen minute drive in our, usually, air conditioned minibus. We then leave you to walk around in the desert heat for two hours before we hope to pick you up again, assuming of course we haven’t miscounted, in which case you’ll have to wait for the next bus. How much? Fifty-five dollars, and oh no, that doesn’t include the park entry fee of twentyfive dollars. No, you can’t pay by card. It must be in cash. (Insert your own developing country joke here). But, stay the starting tear, a lot of people make a very good living out of Gran Turismo. It is just not immediately clear who.

Indeed, the question to whom the spoils are accumulating is surely moot. The subject location prompting this epistle is owned by an indigenous land corporation. So was an expectation of evidence of some local people too much to expect? Sadly, few, if any, were to be seen. Checking the punters in? No. In the kitchens? No. Driving the buses? No. Bell hops? No. Selling in the souvenir shops? No. Waiting at table? Well, a couple of indigenous wait staff were in evidence one lunchtime. But that is all. Sure, there was one woman doing dot painting outside the Cultural Centre, in the so often demeaning “native reserve” sort of way. Perhaps the locals were all beavering away in the administrative offices. Perhaps, indeed. The only positive local aboriginal interaction in the whole experience was a truly inclusive “Welcome to Country” by an inspirational local elder (who also played a mean guitar). This in the context of two concerts which had been the prompt for your correspondent’s investment in the tourism sector. But let’s be fair, here. There was one other intervention of genuine aboriginality, in the ample form of William Barton, didgeridoo player and musician extraordinaire who can single handedly evoke a spirit from the most barren social environment.

But these two exceptions simply serve to underline the problem with Gran Turismo. It is ersatz. Even if the landforms can be viewed in theIr raw, unedited, state there is this terrible realisation: the view, the impact, is better at home, via David Attenborough.

And the $50 bottle of wine consumed in front of the TV is real quality, not some heavily marked up supermarket plonk.

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