Jig's Up

Jig’s Up, February 2024

Today with friends and a superb sound system, Jig’s listened to the black American singer Jessye Norman sing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.

Listening to anything else – doing anything else – is by comparison pretty much a total waste of time. Is to be barely alive.

For me, at least when close to the experience of hearing Ms Norman sing those songs, simply to hear her voice sing a single pitch is to linger at the edge of an echo of heaven.

And yet, when a few years ago, my family gathered at a mortuary to farewell a recently deceased aunt, there was a very different response. It was a small, private gathering and our provisions were private. We were each invited to bring a recording suitable to the occasion, one that through music might bring a last fond message to aunty. Mrs Jig’s and I brought Jesse and the Four Last Songs and through the less than heavenly sound system in the chapel played number 1.  It was the deepest gift we could conceive.

-o0o-

The other members of the family were unmoved. I mean entirely unmoved. It was both inconceivable and embarrassing. We expected the music to draw us together and instead it drove us apart.

Music is NOT a universal language. We should have remembered that. We were so embarrassed to bring discomfort to our family members.

-oo0oo-

Our big end/beginning of year holiday was taken in New Zealand. We landed in Auckland in the north of the north island and drove, and drove and… to Queenstown near the bottom of the south island.  Much of it is very beautiful. The comment I most want to make is that we both found the New Zealanders to be wonderfully kind. Gesture after thoughtful gesture…

From Auckland we drove to Rotorua and its mud pools, hot springs, geysers. Of these strange phenomena, the most evident for us – “in your face”, perhaps – was  the ubiquitous smell of the sulphur springs. They really stank. Not a pleasure. Given this curse it was strange to discover that the town is pleasantly laid out on the shores of a lake replete with black swans and gulls. One of the best experiences of the trip was here – a performance and dinner from a Maori concert party in a Maori village. The singers were both male and female and the singing was in many ways of a piece with the ‘war chants’ performed by the football teams. The voices of both genders were very robust and so was accompanying dance. Some of the voices were really excellent, as we have discovered elsewhere with Maori opera singers.

We drove to the charming capital at the very foot of the North Island. Wellington is built on steep hills, has a lovely harbour, the national Symphony, good eating. There we boarded a ferry (could have but didn’t take the car) and sailed to Picton on the South Island. Beautiful journey of some hours, threading through islands. Drove a little bit inland to Blenheim, across plains that were visually the closest we saw to an outback Australian landscape. From Blenheim we drove down the coast to a beach town, Kaikoura, went on a whale-watching boat, and watched a single stationary whale forever, occasionally squirting water, or taking a nap.  Momentary excitement when she slapped her tail. Once. Then, on to chch, as the locals abbreviate Christchurch.

Chch suffered a large earthquake about a decade ago.  And some COVID. Much of it was destroyed, including in part its treasured cathedral. The city is still being rebuilt and so there are many empty spaces, many new buildings, older buildings, parks old and new… It has a lot of character, a population of 400,000 – largest on the South Island.  It has a full-time small orchestra similar in size and operation to the Tasmanian Symphony, Chief Conductor Ben Northey (also Resident with the Melbourne Symphony), CEO Graham Sattler (former Director, Orange Regional Conservatorium, Bathurst Regional Conservatorium). Very proud of their hall: the Town Hall is the main concert venue and seats 2,400 in the main hall, cf. 2,800 in the Sydney Opera House (Sydney population is about 12.5 times larger). A second space seats 600. We later revisited chch and spent time with Graham who is managing the orchestra in an innovative and imaginative way, with the main emphasis being to build a strong community identity between orchestra and town. This has been a very effective strategy. (See his article, this edition.)

From chch we drove to the magnificent, snow-topped Mount Cook and from there down an enormously long slope to one of the most southern cities, Queenstown. On and on, down and down. Half way through this descent the car cut out on driver Mrs Jig’s. She pulled aside onto a rest spot and turned the engine off. As you would. The Jeep hybrid (no kidding) sent a message saying if you turn the engine off probably you won’t be able to restart it.  This indeed was the case. We were stuck. Not only that, the doors would not lock. And we were out of range for the phone.

We were saved by a lovely young NZ woman who pulled over behind us and offered to help. Our Jeep was inert – we could drive neither forward or backwards. Help ended up meaning her driving us back up the hill to the town at the top where we could rejoin the human race. In a coffee shop. New Zealand kindness again. We then managed to get the car-hire company to send a taxi to drive us to Queenstown, collecting our luggage on the way – for NZ$170. We never saw the Jeep again and don’t look at the photos.

Queenstown is a very pretty lakeside city with beautiful parks and a sophisticated downtown, edging a lake surrounded by 4,000m hills (characterised as ‘mountains’ in ahem some places). We walked around beautiful lakeside parks with tall trees and brilliant flower gardens. We took a steam ferry to a lakeside farm and an elaborate meal followed by a floor show: seated at the bottom of a high 45 degree slope akin to a cinemascope screen, we watched a border collie round up sheep, flashing across the slope with amazing virtuosity in response to barely audible whistling from the MC. Golly, collie, better than the teev.

We found the coffee in NZ to be rather unpleasantly bitter; it was in Queenstown that we had our best coffee. Try a place called Urban Botanicals, or another a couple of blocks away, Odd Saint. If you come from SE Oz, you may think this important.

It’s taken us a long time to buy the fares to NZ. Very pleased to have done so.