Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Selby and Friends. 5pm Sat 7th Feb 2015 Burradoo, New South Wales.

Selby and Friends. 5pm Sat 7th Feb 2015 Burradoo, New South Wales
Pärt: Mozart-Adagio
Mendelssohn: Sonata for Cello and Piano No.2 in D major, Op. 58
Smetana: Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15
Brahms: Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn in E flat major, Op. 40
Dear Colleagues,
This would have been an impressive concert at London’s Festival Hall or the Lincoln Center in New York. Yet it was at Chevalier College school hall, a short walk from where I live on weekends in Bowral.
Pianist Kathryn Selby reintroduced violinist Natalie Chee and ‘cellist Clancy Newman with Aussie expat French Horn player Hector McDonald in four virtuosic chamber works for their first of five tours for 2015. http://selbyandfriends.com.au/
The concert was punctuated by detailed and fascinating talks by the four soloists starting with Ms Selby herself who discussed how the group chose repertoire. She has numerous rarely heard works in mind and then after discussions with the soloists it was usually easy to agree on pieces. They choose from the enormously varied compositions for piano and various groupings of other instruments from early baroque to modern. Despite this diversity there was nearly always a linking factor between the pieces. This time by chance she found that each piece had its genesis after a recent death in the composer’s family.
Next Mr Newman told us some stories about his composer’s many names. Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born in 1809 (cf. Verdi and Wagner in 1813). His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a major German Jewish sage and reformer. He was the first to translate the Torah into German and worked to allow German Jews to be assimilated while maintaining a strong Jewish identity. After one of his son’s successful compositions Mendelssohn’s father was quoted “Once I was the son of a famous father, now I am the father of a famous son”.
Jews often say: “From Moses to Moses there was no-one like Moses”, referring to Biblical Moses and the sage Rambam (aka Marmonides). They could have added a later generation referring to the composer’s grandfather Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn who is often quoted in Yiddish quarters to this day.
In a remarkable turn of evens it was Moses Mendelssohn who changed his name from Dessau, his birthplace, to ‘Mendelssohn’ (son of Mendel) so it did not sound so Jewish. Paradoxically, because he had become so famous in the Jewish and wider German community the name Mendelssohn was considered too Jewish-sounding hence the son’s change to Bartholdy after converting to Christianity. Felix mostly refused to use this name out of respect for his grandfather. Furthermore , he was instrumental in having Moses’ works published posthumously. The composer’s mother had died just before the sonata for ‘cello and piano was written.
Our violinist Ms Chee then told us about the Smetana connection (his surname means sour cream in Czech!). There was a deceased child, another tragedy put to music one might say. He lost three out of four daughters as well as his wife, a train of tragedy hard to imagine. In addition, Smetana had been exiled from his home town due to domination of the Hapsburg Empire, working in Sweden at the time.
In the second half our brass player spoke about the development of the modern French horn. I note from Wikipedia that despite not being French at all, the name has stuck somehow, but only in English (it is known at simply ‘cor’ in French). We were told that although the ‘modern’ horn with three valves was invented in 1815, Brahms, who played the horn himself as a young man, refused to write for it, preferring the older version. This was far more limited in the notes that it could play, especially in the lower registers as, like the cornet, it depended upon overtones to step up to higher notes. Other notes could be attempted by partially or fully blocking the horn with the fist. This increased pressure in the pipes, raising the pitch of the note by a half or full tone by careful manipulation. Yet this necessarily reduced the volume, creating a strange scale of uneven notes … Mr McDonald demonstrated, playing a scale without using the valves on his modern instrument (APPLAUSE!).
No wonder the modern instrument is preferred nowadays. We were told that horn players in the time of Mozart would arrive with a ‘baby coffin filled with different sized crooks for the different keys’. And the composer ‘usually’ left enough time to insert the right ‘crook’ for key changes between arias, choruses, etc. "Woe betide a capsized coffin!" (MORE LAUGHTER). It makes piano seem simple. Brahms had also lost his mother just before writing this sonata.
On this summer evening concert there was a wealth of musical knowledge imparted as well as numerous humorous anecdotes, introducing each of the phenomenally virtuosic pieces .. they are all available on the internet, YouTube, etc, so no need for me to describe them, even if I could do them justice. http://selbyandfriends.com.au/
Ms Selby is still the genius of this enterprise. Her keyboard playing is exemplary and she makes it look easy. For the first time at Chevalier College I moved to the keyboard side, marvelling in each of the works her stupendous talent and professionalism. Mr Newman’s ‘cello playing is phenomenal and his measured fingering and manipulation of his magnificent instrument was a marvel to behold as he stared out into the audience. Likewise Ms Chee who again showed her prodigious talents to this privileged audience. Each of the pieces was technically as difficult, if not as long, as a concerto … and there were four pieces in a row! Some feat for the ever-present pianist! Mr McDonald only played in the Brahms piece which occupied the second half. Mr Newman sat with the audience to hear the horn, piano and violin trio. One can only wonder what Brahms would have made of this piece if he had written it for the modern French horn.
The audience seemed delighted with both the pre-music repartee and the main features. For me the Mendelssohn was the take-home splendour … but others will say that I am biased.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Monday, January 26, 2015

Season greetings. Some postings FYI. Science, food, music and religion.

One of Australias great medical researchers Professor Sir Henry Harris died at his home in Oxford on 31 October 2014 aged 89.  Harris was hand picked by Howard Florey (of penicillin fame) for a career in medical research - and when Lord Florey retired in 1964 Harris was appointed to head his William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford.  … read on: (published in this week’s Australian Jewish News)

Kylie Kwong's new restaurant in Macleay St, Potts Point (opp Rockwall Crescent) is called Billy Kwong, irritatingly the same name as her other venue in Surry Hills, started 14 years ago.   … read on:

Schubert's Trout comes to the Southern Highlands - final ‘Selby and Friends’ concert for 2014.  … read on:

A Semitic learning curve - enjoyable forays with the faithful - no secrets, no conspiracies.

Since becoming secular at an early age I have always marvelled at people of faith. Some are young, naïve and gullible yet many are also driven, intelligent and mature adults. And many are respected friends of mine, although they are far outnumbered by folk who would describe themselves as agnostic, atheist and/or non-God-fearing.  … read on:

With best wishes for the secular festive season from Andrew Byrne in Bowral via Potts Point and Redfern (Sydney).  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Billy Kwong, Potts Point. Frenetic pace but fabulous food.

Kylie Kwong's new restaurant in Macleay St, Potts Point (opp Rockwall Crescent) is called Billy Kwong, irritatingly the same name as her other venue in Surry Hills, started 14 years ago.  Allan and I ate there on the spur of the moment on the evening Sydney-siders would prefer to forget after the siege in Martin Place.  We were deflated and negative, even though we were not directly affected, unlike some of our lawyer friends.  So we turned to food and this restaurant only opened its doors the week before, following several months of remodelling of the old Arun Thai premises. 
Ms Kwongs food is extraordinary!  She uses traditional Chinese cooking, Asian spices and ingredients with some Bush Tucker elements, most notably Wallaby (farmed in Kangaroo Island apparently), salt-bush, crickets and king fish collars.  Her duck was the best I have ever eaten - being soft mousse-like breast meat with crispy skinned legs.  The soft parts almost tasted as if they were poached in butterscotch!  Plenty for two with bok choi in soy and steamed rice (but at a price, see below).  We had started with a bowl of diced ocean trout sashimi - delicious. 
Billy Kwongs ambiance is more like a plane than a restaurant.  First, since half the site was hived off to become a bank, the room is long and narrow with serious background noise and indirect lighting, like an aircraft.  Then there are six or seven chefs, each wearing communicating headphones with protruding microphone.  The large open kitchen has numerous stations which take up a third of the restaurant.  About half the patrons sit up at the extended wooden bar facing the culinary masters, Captain Kwong herself amidships and in control of the entire operation.  Orders from waiters are then translated and issued by the boss on the wireless headphones: Three pork! Two sashimi! Five chicken!  A parade of plates is handed out by the boss herself, each carefully inspected, plate edge wiped where necessary and handed to a line of waiters given individual guest numbers (we were 303 and 304). 
In places 301 and 302 were the patrons proud parents at their first dinner, having had the night before cancelled due to the cordon around Sydney and closure of so many roads due to alarming events in Martin Place. 
There was a definite camaraderie amongst the staff and patrons alike but nothing could possibly be called relaxing about this eating experience. It is the opposite of the elegant and sedate Arun Thai of Kham Signavong which occupied this site for many years.  Billy Kwong is half the width with double the number of patrons.  But that seems to be what people like these days. 
A nice Spanish dry white wine sent our bill for two to $180 ... a bit OTT but thats what it costs to enjoy what the SMH called Hillsong on chop sticks!!  And they gave it a rating of 16/20 which is perfectly reasonable to my mind. 
I will have to cook at home for a month to make up for the extravagance of the evening!  But such is the price of top tucker. 
Written by Andrew Byrne .. Redfern Clinic via Bowral.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Loi Restaurant 70th Street near Broadway, Manhattan, New York City

This was truly a marvellous experience and much more than just a meal before a show (or an opera in our case). The tables and booths are well laid out to minimise noise. There were also private rooms. Two bearded waiters could have been models for the famous athletes on the Euphiletos urn at the museum. We were served by a wry witted contralto from Astoria. While she was making an enquiry about the readiness of the roast lamb we were approached by the owner Maria Loi who was delightful and forthcoming. “You must be in the fashion business you both look so elegant”. Quite a line … and she had a lot more, being the White House official ‘ambassador’ for Greek cuisine, and wearing the huge medal to prove it (and a presidential photo hung out front). The moussaka, lamb and beet salad were all delicious as was a dry Greek white recommended over the Retsina (“it tastes like gasoline” we were told). Yoghurt and honey were also very special. Next morning was Easter Sunday and they were roasting lambs on a dual spit on the sidewalk. We had been invited to come in for a champagne and some photos at 10am. One of the handsome waiters had become sidewalk cook while Maria seemed to be in three places at once as Greeks take Easter very seriously. Every passer-by was offered sweets and corn bread.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

New York - Central Park as spring 'breaks'. SECOND POSTING

Today is the day that New Yorkers first flock back to Central Park. It is the first sunny and warm weekend day since last autumn and they come in droves. They come on foot as well as on wheels. Strollers, skate boards, bikes and the rest … all out to enjoy the outdoors, surrounded by blooming gardens and blossoming trees which were all bare just a fortnight ago when we arrived. The first to come out are Witch Hazel (from whose slender branches witches obviously make their brooms) and forsythia, each small yellow flowers. At the same time willow trees are already starting to come into leaf as the last snows are melting and daffodils are pushing their buds upwards.

Fountain and boat lake.

Belvedere Castle, Central Park


Sunday, April 6, 2014

New York March-April 2014

New York City trip Thursday March 27th 2014

We had a long but pleasant flight with the Qantas A380 across the Pacific then connection with AA for JFK where we arrived on time at 8.30pm. This second flight was on a brand new Airbus A321T with fully reclining seats in business, excellent food and audio-visual. Interestingly there was no indication on board that I could see that the plane was not American. Even the emergency instructions had “A321T” but no mention of Airbus Industries, France or other indication it was foreign made. I think that Americans may be the most nationalistic people and the lack of foreign designation may have been purposeful so as not to offend some of their regular ‘travelers’. There are US flags everywhere one looks. Nothing wrong with some nationalism, yet at a certain point it evokes serious superiority, something quite unnecessary and inappropriate with one example of a country with just as many good points just to its north, not to mention all the others.

Now in New York it is almost impossible to go out for a day and not see/hear/witness something absolutely incredible. It becomes clear why photographers, poets, writers, cinematographers and others gain such inspiration from this city.

This trip has been no different … weather is an important factor and out of our first week we have had two perfect, blue-sky windless days .. with rain, wind and cold on some other days … but they have their joys too, of course. We had a nasty storm one afternoon and we noted a black umbrella lodged high in an otherwise bare tree next to our brown-stone lodgings. By the time I got the camera out it had gone, blown to another vantage no doubt.

There was a pile of remnant snow in Central Park near the main central avenue where some amateur acrobats were performing incredible feats both together and singly to a gathering crowd. They asked for three children from the crowd to volunteer for a feat of daring. Then the host asked out loud if any of the volunteers’ fathers were attorneys. Then after asking for silence, one of them took a running leap and did a massive somersault over the heads of the children … to the great mirth of the crowd (and probably terror of the petrified youngsters). See the amazing action-photo c/o Allan. 

Acrobats at work - leaping somersault over three volunteer children

 Busy market 80th St and Columbus Avenue
Grey 'Canadian' geese in Central Park

Tortoises basking in Central Park

I always marvel at the choice of foods available here. By my second trip back from the smallgoods and fruit shops I had obtained a packet of ‘duck bacon’, osso irati and izaru sheep’s milk cheeses, Taleggio chunk, black truffle and liver paté, spiced dried Moroccan olives, Niçoise olives, dried nectarines, giant roasted cashews, Tanqueray Malacca gin (in a clear bottle), Godiva dark plain chocolate bar, hot-smoked cutlet of salmon, caserecce dried pasta (gemelli), custom dried bean mix, Iberico jamon, smoked beef ribs … I could go on!  

I was waiting for the local train at 8th St on our second day while carrying my cache of cheap grog. Suddenly, the "via local" train shot through at high speed ... much to the consternation of a platform of stunned would-be passengers who had never seen such a thing. One voluble black man hooted as the train disappeared down the tunnel towards Washington Square: "So, you donna like this station, heir?" Another ten minutes and we were on our way. I felt a bit like Falstaff, lacking any assistants, carting my own sherry sack!

Being only 5 short blocks from the Lincoln Center, in the first ten days we had been to La Sonnambula twice, a dress rehearsal of Arabella and a performance of Andrea Chenier. We also heard a historic event on the radio in which an indisposed Mimi was replaced on a Saturday HD broadcast by a soprano, Kristine Opolais who had just sung a performance of Madama Butterfly the night before … a phenomenal feat in any elite athlete’s language.

It was a great pleasure to catch up with an old school friend and his wife who live in the big apple. They are on a health kick after watching a video of the benefits of a vegan diet. Everyone here has some fad or other and my delectation to gate-crashing mosques and synagogues is not as bizarre as it might be considered elsewhere (although one has to concede it is pretty bizarre - and nowhere in the world better to do so than New York).

Allan has secured some bargains in the clothing and fragrance departments while I have crammed in two specialist lectures at NYU, on ‘decarcertion’ and decriminalisation of drugs; Bellevue Hospital resident presentations and VA Hospital in Brooklyn where I gave a description of our practice and results of a recent survey we conducted concerning choice of medication and hepatitis C. Also Columbia and Rockefeller University visits.  More about them on my medical blog in due course.

More anon if anyone is interested when time permits.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Homage to a prolific Satsuma blood plum tree.

Back at home in Burradoo near Bowral: A small amount of care, pruning and fertilizing has been rewarded with a crop of hundreds and hundreds of blood plums.  Located in a narrow garden between a brick wall, a hedge and our driveway, this magnificent tree has surpassed all expectations and given us at least ten fold what it did the year before. 

Now I know why many ancient races have rites and rules about trees.  The Jews have a special day for New Year for trees as well as numerous strictures about when to harvest and never to destroy a fruiting tree, even in war. 
We have managed to harvest tens of kilograms of these beautiful, large 'blood plums' in the middle of January - some we have given away, some are now jam, compote or plum cake (see photos - recipes on request). 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jenolan Caves with spectacular new lighting.

Dear Friends and colleagues,

In order to avoid the lime-light on the surface I determined to spend my 60th birthday underground at Jenolan Caves on Sunday 19th January 2014.  The party was 'crashed' by my sisters Mindy and Marguerite with their partners Peter Hay and Cameron Elwin plus the three Elwin children.  And it was great fun for all. 

Peter Hay (green) Mindy Byrne (blue) and Andy (?focus).
Orient Cave - 'Twelve Apostles' at bottom left

The Orient Cave takes 90 minutes to see three enormous chambers from many different vantage points.  Named after the exotic points in the Orient, Persia, Egypt and India, these chasms are up to 45 metres high with magnificent adornments including stalagmites, stalactites, columns, flow stone, shawls and all manner of combinations of limestone formations.

By chance my family was visiting Jenolan Caves when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in November 1963.  As a nine year old my memory was more of the change in the adults' behaviour after the newspaper truck arrived about 11.30am when the news went around the public bar where people were having pre-lunch drinks.  The caves themselves were the same, of course, after 40 million years ... however, the new LED spotlights and stainless steel railings do make a significant improvement on the old.                                            
Andrew and Allan

Andrew and Mindy Byrne
Lilla and Audrey Elwin

Lil, Aud and Cameron Elwin
 Orient shawl, the symbol of Jenolan
Andrew Byrne aged 60
Jenolan Caves House (1904)

Carlotta Arch ten minute walk from hotel and Grand Arch.
Marguerite (Doll), Felix and Cameron back in Sydney

Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Year for 2014 to all our friends and colleagues!

This has been a good year.  Bowral and Kings Cross are such a contrast, each with their attractions. 

We have 'discovered' some new foodie places including Fu Manchu and Bourbon restaurants in Kings Cross; Exeter Studio, Biota and Burrawang General Store eateries in the Highlands.  Jamon Iberico and Tetsuya’s truffle salt have been new taste introductions.  

The surgery at Redfern ticks along with about 150 patients in current treatment.  Most are grateful and responsive people with serious problems, some now dealing with life's middle age obstacles, children, grand-children, businesses, overseas travel, arthritis and the like.  The challenges have included street drugs such as 'ice' (crystal methamphetamine) and prescribed drugs such as Xanax (which should have been taken off the market years ago in my view and has now been made a restricted drug).  Alcohol is still probably number one problem. 

Accreditation remains a ludicrous farce but cannot be criticised publicly, despite the flaws in the health care system which are documented almost daily in the press.  Since it was introduced bad clinics remain bad clinics and good clinics have either remained good or else closed down. 

Here are some photos I took from the train to show the remarkable recovery of the forest after the terrible bush fires recently. 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring was late in New York! March 2013

Trip to New York March 11 to April 6 2013

We could just see the very first hints of spring in Central Park with snow-drops and witch hazel (‘winter bloom’) starting to flower.  Otherwise bare, cold and windswept … yet the sun is out and we know the daffodils, tulips, blossom trees, etc will all have done their thing by the time we leave in a month.  There was a small pile of dirty snow on the edge of the JFK tarmac, reminder of a recent blizzard. 

On arrival at the flat with two bags of groceries I put some dried beans into water.  Once they had hydrated I cooked them up with onions, tomato, parsley and olive oil for lunch with toast.  Having the cooking urge and serious jet lag I tried to copy a 'schmaltz herring' dish using some bottled pickled herring from Finland.  It was not a success.  The original from Bondi had tasty, spiced, briny, fish pieces with red onion … but mine tasted like wet tissues mushed with fish sauce.  My boiled onion was like gyprock pieces, the sauce like spent engine oil and bay leaf turned to sandpaper.  Maybe the whole thing is a Jewish plot to fool outsiders.
Another experiment, this time with a plantain was more successful (see below). 

I have kept busy to fight jet lag.  Having arrived in the city on Monday evening I attended a dependency meeting at Columbia on the Tuesday evening regarding "Brief Treatments for Older Problem Drinkers".  It was fascinating but there was an undercurrent that older people, like pregnant women, should really not drink at all and that any reductions in alcohol consumption was necessarily good.  I reminded the meeting of the research showing that modest alcohol consumption makes one live longer.  It was received with a ‘thud’! 

Then I obtained some very cheap seats for Don Carlo at the Met for the Wednesday.  I have better seats for the Saturday when I should be more acclimatized.  Hence by Thursday I felt like I was quite exhausted and so just took a bracing morning walk in Central Park, bought some more provisions from Fairways and put on a Thai beef curry to slow cook as I took a snooze (against all the advice of the sleepologists). 

Wash-up from St Patrick’s Day at Lennon memorial, Strawberry Fields

New York is an amazing place indeed and around ten o’clock by a ludicrous chance I just ran into a close colleague amongst the hundreds streaming into the local subway.  My friend was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  We shared a brief greeting and descended to the platform whence we took different trains, myself towards Astor Place to attend to some purchases.  No less than two other occasions in the first week in New York the same thing happened as we just ran into people we knew, the latter not quite as surprising as they were opera fan friends in the vicinity of the opera house … somewhat select audience, etc.  So there are ‘small town’ things that still go on in the big apple. 

At times the Met production of Verdi’s long grand opera Don Carlo was reminiscent of the Papal voting process which was going on at the time.  Some would probably like to bring back the inquisition and reverse it onto certain members of the clergy. 

The trip from Sydney deserves a whole review of itself.  We were upgraded to first class on the A380 with Qantas … I hasten to say NOT because we paid the five figure-plus fare, but through a pre-Christmas ‘sale’ on business class tickets recommended by our long-time Jewish travel agent, supplemented by some reward points. 

The first class cabin on Qantas A380 is a very pleasant place to be compared with the 747 where I felt hemmed in.  Furthermore, on the latter, the front wheel is directly beneath the floor, making for extreme noise and vibration on take-off and landing.  And the wheel retraction makes a nasty mechanical grinding, further vexing the nervous flyer like me. 

By contrast, the downstairs front cabin on the A380 is an elegant rectangular room with a dozen or more windows, four doors, two ahead and two aft and three rows of passengers across the wide bodied plane.  Even the toilets each had a porthole … and with a mysterious optical mechanism which could instantly turn a clear view of the outside into an oval of blue opalescent light – to no particular purpose (but perhaps privacy while still on the ground or else a French practical joke).  Forward of the first class cabin is a large vestibule, bigger than on a Sydney train.  This lobby also has doors to two toilets, a staff bunk room and the flight deck up a couple of stairs to the front, opposite a grand staircase to the business class section. 

This staircase rose to a private bar with red leather upholstered bench seats for about a dozen (each with lap seat belt).  The room is shared with the adjacent business passengers. The stairs at the rear of the A380 consist of a gated half spiral curve in the economy section.  Despite numerous ‘treks’ around the plane to ward off clots, I only once saw anybody using the lounge.  My fellow insomniac turned out to be a delightful second year resident doctor from Brisbane on his way to snow-boarding in Whistler, Canada. We chatted urology while the rest of the plane was seemingly under an anaesthetic.  As we spoke, an attendant came in unobtrusively and asked if we would like some food or drink. A Valium might have been more to the point. 

But first class starts well before take-off with an on-ground hospitality experience which is hard to beat.  Just where the sign separates business and first passengers, one enters a marvellous world of food, architecture, glamour and style.  A busy kitchen can be heard (and partly seen) with a series of connected formal and casual rooms to choose from, each with its own enormous skylight and vista over the airport and city skyline.  The curved entrance corridor linking the noisy clatter of the retail terminal with the tranquil first class lounge is lined by a sandstone montage of live jungle specimens including climbers, maiden hair, tree ferns, orchids, grasses, staghorns and other species forming a tall palisade of botanical rarities about 25m long.  

      Qantas first class lounge at Mascot Airport – large and classy!

In New York I managed some more semitic wanderings – detailed elsewhere for anyone who is interested.  One of the Muslims I met mentioned that much of the present misunderstanding was due to Islamic Americans not being visible enough in the media helping with communications.  There are some staunch, conservative Americans who still find it hard to take Muslims as equals.  And even after all the ‘troubles’, few westerners comprehend the perceived and actual wrongs done in the Middle East.  Starting with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire from Baku to Palestine in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the Russian and western invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq and the rest.  Nobody expects a quick solution but some acknowledgement of our mistakes, like Vietnam and Korea, would go a long way to appease discontent amongst those in this part of the world in my view.   It is often pointed out that more in Israel might acknowledge the immediate previous owners.  Veteran Israeli statesman Uri Avneri goes further and says: “If Israel could just apologize for what we have done to the Palestinian people, a huge obstacle would have been removed from the road to peace”.  As an outsider all I can do is hope for peace and ensure facts and understanding prevail over the many casualties of war, including propaganda from either side.   

No 1 Riverside Drive Mosque - a brown-stone uniquely angled for Mecca.

On the way back from the shoe store I went past the World Trade Center site where two buildings are going up apace (and third has also started).  The Freedom Tower is truly magnificent and its companion on the diagonal corner (SE?) is also pretty smart looking.  Both are nearing completion and one might be over 100 stories.  I still personally still have problems with high rise of this size and their inefficiencies and lack of green credentials. 

                                Freedom Tower
On the subway platform where I changed to the 1,2,3 line (9 was destroyed by the 9/11 bombings) there was a man playing a Chinese violin (‘erhu’) most beautifully haunting … that WAS, until the train rattled noisily into the station.  I do not recall hearing this instrument before and it was just one of those New York experiences which come for free and to improve ones education.  I don’t think that this two-stringed fiddle will find its way into the symphony orchestra ‘any time soon’. 

Subway platform showing Chinese fiddle player with his music stand in centre.

I have now cooked my first plantain which was marvellous ... Initially I fried thick slices with butter and sprinkled with a little sukkar (‘sugar’ is basically an Arab word - and probably an Arab innovation).  Next I did the same thing with slightly thinner slices in corn oil ... until almost crisp, salt added ... delicious both ways ... and a third of the big plantain to go – maybe as filling for a crepe.  Contrary to popular opinion, they can also be eaten raw - as long as you catch them before turning black (according to a blogger from Belize).  I tried and was not disappointed. 

Other operas we are attending or have attended are Otello with Jose Cura, Francesca da Rimini with Eva-Maria Westbroek, La Traviata with Diana Damrau (and Domingo), Faust with Beczala and finally Julius Caesar with David Daniels.  These are all at the Met. 

Sunday 23rd March was a sunny if a chilly day in New York City.  My niece Tess and her fiancé are in New York for three months … I walked Tess from Strawberry Fields near the Dakota Building across to the Met museum and back across Central Park past the Belvedere and towards the Natural History Museum on 81st St.  We saw the beginnings of spring everywhere including lovely crocus flowers in yellow and purple coming up in the grass and low gardens.  At Columbus Avenue behind the museum numerous street markets were operating.  We ventured further down the avenue and Tess was last seen mesmerised by the dozens of stalls in a school yard precinct market selling clothing, glass, silver, semi-precious stones, ivory, etc, etc, etc.  Not to mention exotic foods, bakery items and more besides.  There was even one stall selling nothing but chandeliers!  We found a couple of small items and will catch up again at the opera on Tuesday at the opera.  Her fiance Lucas was up-state for the day, on business I gather. 

I reminded Tess about the Macy’s flower show which is on this week.  Due to renovations it is in the three-roomed pavilion or marquee out the front of the building in Herald Square … just another example (like our ‘opera on the harbour’) of large bits of scarce public land being given over to private use for the already privileged (but don’t get me doing on that issue!). 

We had a nice dinner with Tess and Lucas at a French Canadian restaurant, La Bonne Soupe, after a couple of other plans didn’t happen – such are the attractions of the city.  As they had left the MOMA nearby an hour before, Tess opted to read quietly in the interim while her paramour Lucas went for a walk in Central Park.  We had shared numerous phone calls and emails … I gather they are having a nice time living in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant) for the duration of Lucas's artistic assignment. 

I blithely offered to get them tickets to an opera and Tess was hopeful of seeing La Traviata.  However, having Placido Domingo in it, it was booked out.  The famous tenor is singing the baritone role Papa Germont and I gather he is rather good (people who heard the live HD broadcast said so).  Despite the difficulties, our generous opera contact managed to come by two front stalls seats (‘returns’) and so we can give the youngens our old seats in the front row of the balcony which Allan deftly obtained on the internet some months ago, knowing we would be here.  So this keeps everybody happy (and we were not disappointed – see my review elsewhere).  

There is a New York ‘institution’ being a flocking to Central Park on the first sunny Sunday of the spring season.  It can be quite a mob, but a happy one.  It might sometimes occur in early March but sometimes not until early April in bad years.  But when it happens it is like the Sydney Easter Show crowds.  After everybody has been cooped up for the winter in their apartments they just love coming out with a smile, a book, i-pod/pad, towel, etc for a few hours in the world’s greatest urban park. 

And one of the best places to start a walk 72nd Street and Central Park West, right opposite the Dakota Building.  Once in the park you can see the Belvedere ‘Castle’, Reservoir, Boathouse, Lake, “The Ramble”, Tavern on the Green, Bethesda Fountain, Sheep’s Meadow, Lilac Walk, ‘The Mall’, Poet’s walk, etc. 

If the weather turns bad, one can about-face at Strawberry Fields and head the two blocks to Broadway and Zabars, Fairways, Citarella and the other wonderful provisions stores.  There is also the oldest Jewish congregation in America on 70th Street opposite the park, the enormous Shearith Israel synagogue. 

The first warm spring Sunday is very, very special to New Yorkers. 

More later about restaurants (Jean-George's, Asiate, Cafe Luxemboug, Sechwan) and Metropolitan Museum.  Also medical events at Rockefeller University, NYU, Albert Einstein, Columbia and Bellevue Medical Centers.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cairns eclipse 14th November 2012 at dawn

The flight was booked six months ago, and at the cheap rate. It was indeed an ‘eclipse special’ as nearly everyone on the flight was keen to see the spectacle three days hence. But it was not to be that simple as our Virgin flight developed a fault after ten minutes in the air and returned to Mascot. The place was set for an emergency. Five fire trucks in attendance followed our plane at speed down the rarely used east-west runway. It was too late to get another plane before curfew so we stayed overnight at the Airport Mercure Hotel. Finally we got to Cairns 12 hours late with just one sunrise before the total eclipse.

One benefit of the delay was the opportunity to meet some of the visiting astronomy enthusiasts at supper and at the hotel bar. They were individuals and families from Japan, Bulgaria, Britain and Italy along with about 60 Americans. The latter all belonged to an astronomy club called ‘Stellafane’. To qualify for membership one had to build one's own telescope. That counts me out! I found an extensive web site proving that their members were indeed 'eclipse tragics' as one of them described themselves. Several commented on the flowering Jacarandas in Sydney as being most memorable, along with Uluru and eating kangaroo and other exotica under the stars.

We were told that a famous Italian astronomy guru was on our flight and that he had attended 12 eclipses. Later, on the Esplanade in Cairns, we met a professor of astronomy from Mexico City who had attended 20 solar eclipses. They were not all 'blackouts' as some were partial or annular while others were clouded in. He was being interviewed by a BBC team from Scotland at the time.

From numerous sources I heard that despite all the modern technological advances and high powered equipment available, the best enjoyment of eclipses was often just to use the naked eye (suitably protected until the actual totality) and take in the responses of the people and wildlife in the landscape one was in. Rather than an ordinary site like a garden, park or beach, some might rather see it from an exotic look-out, hot air balloon or other artificial vantage point. But even the greatest efforts were no guarantee against clouds and therefore disaster. Our last total eclipse in Eastern Australia was on Saturday 23 October 1976, centred on Melbourne. Most historical eclipses are flights of fantasy - such as the crucifixion which occurred during Passover, always near a full moon while a solar eclipse happens on the new moon, two weeks later. 

After a ‘dry run’ the day before, finally the time had arrived. I was woken at 4am by mine host, an old school mate from Cranbrook who now lives in Cairns. This was well before daybreak so that we could do some preliminary star gazing and possibly see some northern constellations which were not visible from Sydney. The latter was impossible due to intermittent cloud cover, street lighting and the presence of trees, houses and the mountains which surround Cairns. If we include sky gazing before bed the night before, we managed to get good views of Orion, Hyades (Aldebaran), Pleiades in the west between the clouds as well as a very low Crux (Southern Cross) and pointers to the south. Musca, Saturn, Venus, Sirius in Canis major, Canopus, the Great Square of Pegasus and circlet of Pisces with even more there for the taking. We even saw a shooting star which seemed like a good luck omen. After a cup of tea daylight was appearing in the east and the clouds seemed to be parting. We took up a position at the western end of a municipal cricket pitch and joined a dozen or so locals to await the fantastic. Dawn broke but cloud on the horizon was again obscuring our view. Drat!

Ten minutes after sunrise the new moon reached the disc of the sun and began obscuring it (behind some small clouds in our case). A short time later to our delight the clouds parted and we saw a much welcomed shaft of glorious sunlight beaming down the length of the grass field in front of us. Quickly donning the special block-out glasses we all ooed and arred at what we saw, a solar disc with a neat curved ‘bite’ taken out of it, blocking about a third of the sun. This ‘bite’ enlarged over the course of the next 45 minutes until the remaining sun had shrunk to a mere sickle shape and finally a thin sliver of light around one half of an otherwise darkened sun. Then suddenly, just an hour into the event, the lights went out.

It is not easy to describe what happened in totality but the closest might be when one turns a household light off using a dimmer dial. In about fifteen seconds it went from daylight to dark, quite evenly and all around us, including the sky and mountains to the west. Stars appeared (I think I was looking at Saturn) … but much, much more. Just as totality descended, a dog howled in the distance. A large fruit bat flapped by in front of us, obviously confused as it changed course. The incessant noise of tropical insects and birds in the early morning undergrowth had stopped and silence reigned. The mountains around us became silhouettes against an almost black sky. I had determined to close one eye for a few minutes before totality to get one eye used to the dark. In retrospect this was a mistake. Although I could see the ‘stars’ before the others, I missed that final “diamond ring” appearance before totality … but caught it on the sun's reappearance one and a half minutes later (the longest eclipse lasts for little more than 6 minutes).

Was it spooky? Yes, it was spooky! On our eclipse ‘journey’ we had numerous dogs, some delightful young children and inquisitive adults and senior citizens from the local streets with us. As totality continued, I felt some pressure to enjoy the brief ‘pantomime’ period and also to make sure I did not miss anything. During this period only we were able to shed the protective glasses and we were able to look directly at the incredible sight of the solar disc being completely occluded by the moon. The spectacular ‘ring of fire’ only provided a dim ‘night light’ to the landscape and a spectacular vision of the flames, flares and turbulence normally obscured by the intensity of the sun itself.

As totality ended after about one hundred seconds it was just like that dimmer being turned up again over a quarter of a minute, no longer. Night became day. Yet it was still ‘dim’ day, perhaps like a winter’s day in Britain. And it was cool. Not at all like the tropics. At least not for another hour when the sun returned to the searing heat one expects at these latitudes in high summer.

After totality we all looked at each other, knowing that he next hour would be a repeat of the previous hour (but in reverse) as the disc of the sun became gradually uncovered from its present 90% ‘sickle’ and moved away from the path of the sun until the next eclipse. By this time we had returned to our hosts' home a few blocks away in Edmonton where the last sighting was a mere 'button' on the edge of the sun's disc which finally 'plinked' back to the full circumference. 

There was certainly a nice camaraderie between the participants in the small suburban community which involved Aboriginal, young, old, local and visiting folk, all in good spirits. A wonderful and special event to witness. I do not feel the pressing need to see another, like some enthusiasts, but I feel privileged to have seen this wonder once in my life.
                                                                            Written by Andrew Byrne .. 
Sunrise with clouds threatening.

My fellow travellers, Gracie, Howard and DJ.

Our friendly group.

Great dividing range west of Bruce Hwy and rail.

Crescent images of sun through binoculars.

20% occluded sun.

Totality (taken by Howard)

As the light was returning.

Seesy, DJ, Andrew and Gracie (taken by Howard)

Without filter 70% occluded