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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Brahms and list

Cruising from San Francisco to Sydney seemed a fine way to arrive at the Opera House. In my 60th year I was delighted to find myself in the bottom decile of the age distribution of the 1,800 passengers. The ship’s disco had 60s, 70s, and 80s themed evenings whose descriptions referred not to the musical era but to the age of those invited. No, not really! – but the presence of so many condom dispensers in the men’s toilets seemed an extreme example of the triumph of hope over experience. My holiday reading was Bleak House in which Mr Turveydrop, that ‘model of parental deportment’ bemoans his falling ‘into the sear, the yellow leaf’ (Macbeth 5, iii, 23). I was engulfed by an ocean of withered autumnal colours and tempted to muse how Dickens would have portrayed the characters about me. I abandoned this idea because, for some reason, I kept being reminded of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves and, most particularly, Sneezy, Grumpy, and Sleepy. It was the seaborne equivalent of Budleigh Salterton, God’s Waiting Room, and it was fun.Entertainment on board included a clarinet duo, Geoffrey Haydock with his wife Penelope Smith on piano, who gave well-trodden and polished recitals. The high spot was the Brahms E flat clarinet sonata and the audience for this was larger than I expected because of a clever ruse. They had advertised a Benny Goodman evening and I suspect many attending anticipated popular and jazz clarinet pieces. In fact, they played music from Goodman’s last UK recital which included this same work. We had some strong winds at the time so it was very much Brahms and list. The problem was after four of these evening morsels I had the same emptiness as after a meal of tapas – I was replete but still hungry for something substantial. Fortunately, a production of La Traviata in Sydney provided real nourishment.

Landfall Sydney-sideThe world of the demi-monde fed the creative appetites of many a French author and in turn inspired Puccini, Verdi, and other composers. I have always been fascinated and repelled by the very Gallic style of living portrayed in La Dame aux camélias or Nana. Verdi’s version of the former is stuffed with great tunes and the great danger in performance comes from humming and foot-tapping in the audience. The sets and costumes in Sydney were gorgeous (overtones of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Lord Frederick Leighton), which meant that there were no distractions from the action on stage; this turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand we could enjoy magnificent singing and acting from Joanna Cole as Violetta, as all her set pieces came off well and she was very moving. The bad news was the Chinese tenor Ding Yi as Alfredo Germont. His singing was of the trapeze-wire variety, and my heart was in my mouth willing him to hit every note. In the first act he followed the conductor’s baton so closely I feared he would become hypnotised. Perhaps he was, because his acting was from the Nelson Eddy school which is described succinctly in two words, wooden and over-earnest. Thank the heavens Miss Cole was generous enough to smother him with enough passion for both of them when necessary. Germont père was played well by John Bolton-Wood whose name had been left off the programme, poor chap.A bonus of the trip to Circular Quay was a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art where there was an exhibition of works by Tracey Moffatt. Her photos and videos are disturbing in many ways and I was distinctly uncomfortable wandering around the gallery. She is provocative and questioning about thorny issues in modern life and culture and does not shy away from relations between black and white Australians. The sequence of 19 images from 1998 called Laudanum was interesting enough but a later work called Invocations used a complicated photo silkscreen process to produce a series of 13 dense images rather like Arthur Rackham on opium. They were unique, stimulating, and very scary.