Dilettante's Diary

May 18/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: City Life (Montreal) First, Second and Third Nights of Jeunesses Musicales International Vocal Competition Finals; Crash (Movie); The Kite Runner (Novel); Aquavision 2005: Metamorphosis (Art Show); OCAD Graduate Exhibition (Art Show); Metamorphosis: Ontario Society of Artists (Art Show);  Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects (Novel)

Last Night of the International Vocal Finals

It has been a long and exciting night, what with four more singers and then an hour's wait for the jury's decision. It's midnight now, but I might as well get on with this review, since I have a cold coming and the night threatens to be much longer.

First, tonight's singers.

Phillip Addis -- Baritone (Canada) He's certainly the best looking of the four men in the finals: tall, thin, strong jaw, flashing smile, thick shock of black hair. A tremendous performer too. He put across all his songs with terrific feeling, from the comic "Largo al factotum" (Rossini's Barber of Seville) to the the lugubrious "It is enough" from Mendelssohn's Elijah. For a baritone, Mr. Addis has an incredibly bright ringing voice; his high notes sound like a tenor's. But I missed the rich, velvety low notes that you want from a baritone; they simply weren't there. Mr. Addis is only twenty-eight years old, though, and his voice certainly will deepen with time.

Elena Xanthoudakis -- Soprano (Australia) Another very accomplished performer, looking very striking in a crimson dress to go with red hair. Her techique is formidable but it struck me that her whole performance was a bit pushed. Not much subtlety. In "No word from Tom" (Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) it struck me that her style was almost more suitable to the musical theatre genre. What bothered me most about her performance was her constant acting out of scenes. She appeared to be trying to create whole operas in the tiny space alloted to her. Apparently juries go for this but I prefer a more restrained presentation in the concert format.

Anna Kasyan -- Soprano (Georgia) At first,  I thought this lady's high notes didn't have a very solid core, a bit too breathy. Later, they sounded harsh. Her "Chanson triste" by Duparc never really got off the ground; the sound wasn't lush enough. But then she sang "Comme autrefois" from Bizet's The Pearlfishers and it was ravishing, almost the whole aria in pianissimo. If there were a prize for the best pianissimo singing, I would award it to her. Her voice did crack in the fiendishly difficult -- because so soft -- final phrase, but who would hold that against such a beautiful performance? And it didn't hurt that she looked a lot like Maria Callas: black hair pulled back tightly, dark eyes, very white skin, red lips and strong jaw. Some people thought her black flouncy gown with white silk flowers was too Eastern Europe but I thought it very dramatic. I also loved the fact that she was one of the few women to give a deep curtsey at the applause.

Chantal Dionne -- Soprano (Canada) A very dignified, more mature-seeming singer, in an understated grey gown, with sparkly stuff on it and a matching shawl. She sang virtually perfectly. Her "Chanson triste" (Duparc, again) was lovely and her "Se come voi" (Puccini's Le Villi) was very touching, real Puccini quality emotion. In her final selection, "Klange der Heimat" (J. Strauss' Die Fledermaus), she sounded a bit tired to me and she short-changed us on the final high note.

And now for the decisions. First my marks. You have to understand that I'm working without a net here. I don't read anything in the papers, don't discuss the singers before posting my reviews, and know hardly anything about them. This is all stricly my personal reaction. So much for the disclaimer. Now I have to admit that my marking scheme (see the explanation of it in the first night's review) didn't work terribly well. I ended up with five people tied for second place. So I had to fiddle the marks a bit when it came down to the wire. Let's say I invented a new category: just how did Patrick feel about this singer overall? Believe me, it wasn't easy juggling everything without a calculator, trying to keep track of my slips of paper while wanding through the crowd in the lobby waiting for the annoucement of the judge's results.

But here's what I came up with:

Lauren Skuce: 98

Peter Mc Gillivray: 90

Sin Nyung Hwang: 86

Simon Bailey: 84

Chantal Dionne: 82

Phillip Addis: 80

Shannon Mercer: 80

Anna Kasyan: 78

Peiyi Wang: 76

Shadi Torbey: 72

Christina Selmacovich: 72

Elena Xanthoudakis: 72

The judges were  to award only six prizes and you'll notice that I had a tie for sixth. But I mentioned to someone (there's a witness) that if I had to choose between them, Phillip Addis would be the one to go into the winners' circle. I have a three-way tie for last place but that doesn't matter since the ranking only concerns prize winners.

The judge's choices (they don't award marks):

1st prize ($25,000): Sin Nyung Hwang

2nd prize ($15,000): Peter McGillivray

3rd prize: ($7,500): Elena Xanthoudakis

4th prize (a tie, $4,500 each): Phillip Addis and Anna Kasyan

No 5th prize awarded because of the tie for 4th.

6th prize ($3,000): Chantal Dionne

So I had four of the six official winners among my chosen six. The two that the judges ranked higher than I did were Elena Xanthoudakis and Anna Kasyan. I take a little pride in having nailed Peter McG for 2nd place precisely. And, from what I can gather, few audience members had picked Sin Nyung Hwang as one of the winners. She was the first of the twelve to sing and I loved her. Later, I wondered if it was just the excitement of the opening night that had affected my judgement, but I had to go with my gut feeling about her. The judges didn't include Simon Bailey among the winners, although I did. To me, his high spirits were infectious but it's possible his clowning was too much for the jurors. My big goof vis a vis the judges was Lauren Skuce. Everybody was saying that she'd had a bad night, but I still think hers was the best voice, the most professional, the most truly world-class. So maybe she was a bit flat. Are we going to be all retentive and nit-picky here? Not me. In any case, my openly acknowledging my choice, in the face of pretty formidable opinion to the contrary, proves just how honest I'm being with you.

It was lovely to see the jurors come on stage, lead by Carlo Bergonzi, walking with a cane and getting a very affectionate ovation from the crowd. (He sang Rhadames in the Met's re-broadcast of the 1960s Aida with Leontyne Price this past year.) Other big names among the judges: Shirley Verrett, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Tom Krause, Joseph Rouleau, Mario Bernardi. Ms Hwang's entrance when called from the wings as the first place winner was very touching. She was overcome, and she virtually stumbled into the limelight, wiping away tears, pushing back her thick hair and trying to get control of herself. You kinda got the feeling she hadn't been thinking she had it in the bag. And Peter McGillivray, who was already on stage as the second place winner, was very gracious and chummy towards her. He was demonstratively jolly and magnanimous, just like any good-ol Canadian boy. 

And now to bed for this old and not so jolly -- but very satisfied -- Canadian boy.


City Life (Montreal)

This marks the first installment in a new genre for Dilettante's Diary. We've never talked about city life here, but it's an aspect of our culture as much as any other, isn't it? And culture is what we're all about. So here goes.

As my last visit to Montreal was years ago, it seems a few fresh impressions might be worth noting. The main thing about Montreal, of course, ce sont les patisseries. People used to say Montreal was the city of churches but, no, it's the city of bakeries. So many fabulous pastries on offer. In a visit of just four days, it's impossible to sample all of them, even for one so dedicated to the task as I. In the end, I will have failed miserably but, believe me, my efforts have been sincere. In fact, I've been so dedicated to the pursuit that I've cut out meals for the most part, so that the pastry tastings could be spread throughout the day, with just an occasional hamburger, a banana or a bit of cheese between times. So far, the best thing I've discoverd is a sugary almond croissant, very flakey and loaded with almond, from a bakery on Sherbrooke, near Claremont. (As I wasn't planning to do a review, I didn't note the name of the place.) The eclairs I've sampled have been very good in terms of lucious whipped cream but the bun part hasn't been as light and delicate as those of the late lamented Little Pie Shoppe in Toronto (it was on Yonge, near Eglinton).

About Montrealers, themselves: it strikes me that, compared to Torontonians, they're more interested in living than in acquiring. Why? More bicycles ridden by apparently middle class people downtown. You get the feeling that it's not so important to have the luxurious car. More prosperous looking people on the subway too -- all day long, not just at rush hour.  All the funky old apartments around -- not everything torn down for upscale condos.  As for the old problem of what language to use, I usually address people in whatever language they have been using before my approach. Usually that's French, and our exchange continues accordingly. If they sense that I'm not following something, they switch to English briefly. But if someone is speaking English to start with, it seems silly for me to address them in French, not just because their English is probably a lot better than my French, but English could very well be their first language. Montrealers may not be as polite as Torontonians, but they're friendlier -- ie. less uptight, formal anglo..


Vocal Finals: Second Night (If you haven't read about the first night, skip to the entry below.)

There continues to be an incredible aspect to this experience. Here we are again, for the second night, people from all over the city and the world, gathered for another feast of opera singing: all for twenty bucks. There's a good freel about this audience. You know everybody's keen, not because their wife dragged them or because their mother had season's tickets and she couldn't make it tonight. You begin to notice the same people each night and you start comparing notes with complete strangers. On the way out, you may be walking beside somebody who's congratulating a couple of parents on their daughter's stellar performance. And standing over to one side, in his jeans with his cap on backwards, is the guy who was so heroic on stage last night in white tie and tails. So you go up to him and discuss his performance. (No picket lines tonight, glad to say.)

Next time they have this competition -- and (Hallelulia!) they tell me it's going to be in 2007 rather than 2008 -- I'll have to come for the semi-finals too. That way you can have more fun sorting through the wider range of ability (about 50 singers, I believe). In the finals, with just twelve, they're really all winners. So it's very difficfult to make choices among them.

Which brings to mind certain questions about such competitions. While judging a journalism award recently, it struck me that competitions are comparative -- and that's all. In other words, if you didn't win, it doesn't mean that you didn't sing/write well; it only means that, for some reason or other, this other person sang/wrote in a way that seemed somewhat better. If that person had stayed home, you would have won. And you would be on top of the world. But does that really mean that you're "the best"? As for that person who did win this time, maybe there's somebody at home who, had he or she shown up,  could have beat that person. So what does it really mean to win? Well, I guess in a general sense the striving to win raises the standards and makes people do their best.

By the way, the order of the singers is chosen by lottery, in case you're wondering. Tonight they were all women. One person scored in the very high nineties (according to my system) but I'm not telling who it was -- not until the final results.

Christina Stelmacovich -- Mezzo-soprano (Canada). She has a lovely voice and she uses it well. Her "Lachrymoso" from Haydn's Stabat Mater made me think what a rare treat it would be to hear that voice coming from your choir loft some Sunday. But the voice did not come across fully in the concert hall.  Her performance fell short (for me) in the presentation. The most bothersome thing was her moving her body in time to the music. At times, she was more or less conducting herself with one hand. Is this nervousness or is it just a personal way of singing? It appeared to be an attempt to put across the song but it actually got in the way of the music.

Shannon Mercer -- Sooprano (Canada). An excellent voice. She sings almost perfectly. One or two of the very top high notes weren't totally secure. "Rejoice Greatly" from Messiah taken at such a terrific clip that it was very exciting. WIth a complete change of mood, "Adieu notre petite table" from Massenet's Manon was very touching. And lots of humour in "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Barber of Seville. The one thing I think Ms Mercer needs is an acting coach who can get her to stop the grimacing -- what we used to call "face acting". In this department, less would be more.

Peiyi Wang -- Mezzo-soprano (China) One of those very lush, velvety mezzo voices (think Marilyn Horne). The top notes don't have much brightness or ring to them but maybe that's ok in a mezzo (?). However, the voice doesn't have much punch to it in any register, with the result that there is a kind of lulling sameness to all the pieces, lovely though the singing is, almost a blandness -- even in Mozart's "Ch'io mi scordi di te" which should be firey.

Lauren Skuce  -- Soprano (United  States) Think of that scene in the movie Amadeus where Salieri has composed a little piece to welcome Mozart to court. After hearing the lovely composition, Mozart says, "Shouldn't it go like this?" and he sits down and plays a much more interesting version. That was more or less my feeling about what was happeing when Ms. Skuce began to sing. Everybody else had been singing very nicely but here was somebody who showed how it can be done ideally. What a glorious voice. From the tiniest sound, it opens out into a gorgeous, ringing, golden tone. And the interpretation is great too. Two old favourites "Dove Sono" (Mozart) and "Sempre libera" (Verdi) got nailed with spectacular perfection. Ms. Skuce's singing even made me fall under the spell of Carl Orff and Richard Strauss -- which I would never have thought possible. Between selections, Ms. Skuce was coughing and blowing her nose. (By the way, there is no applause until the end of a performer's five pieces -- which must be maddeningly difficult for the singers.) People say she had a cold. A cynic might have said the coughing was just to scare us -- you know, the way an acrobat will pretend to be losing balance on the highwire. It cerrtainly did scare me. She's such a fabulous singer that you couldn't bear the thought of her taking a fall.  I'll accept that the cold was real but the only effect on her singing that I could detect was occasional shortness of breath where a phrase got broken. But are you going to let such miniscule slips spoil such a beautiful achievement? We're not talking about horse racing here.


Jeunesses Musicales International Vocal Competition: First Night (Theatre Maisonneuve, Montreal)

Standing on stage and singing opera is the most sublime thing a human being can do. So I'm doing the next best thing -- sitting and watching these young people do it. I've always wanted to attend this event and it only comes up every three years. It suddenly appeared that this might be the year I could do it, if I just reneged on all my Toronto commitments and responsibilities for these four days. No prob!

The first night (Monday) was thrilling beyond belief. I was sitting third row centre; the hall was only two-thirds full. Don't ask me why. Tickets are only $20. Culturally speaking it's the best deal ever. Each contestant sings five arias, in at least three languages. You really should drop everything and come.

I won't give my final scores until the judges reveal theirs. In the meantime, just some remarks on the singers. Here's my scoring system, though, so you can use it yourself if you're following the concerts on CBC Radio Two. There are five categories, with ten marks for each category (double the total to get the mark out of 100): A: beauty of voice; B: Musicality, emotion (did the singing move me?); C: Accuracy (pitch, phrasing, etc); D: Style (an appreciation for the different types of music); E: Presentation (demeanour, personality, etc.) Hint: generally, the marks are quite high (otherwise the singers wouldn't be here). The purpose of the scoring system, really, is just to see if there is any area in which one singer might be marked down slightly.

Monday night:

Sin Nyung Hwang, soprano (South Korea): This lady is a star. She could hardly have won me over any more effectively than she did -- starting off with Mozart's "Allelulia". A beautiful voice, used excellently. At first,  the very top notes were not quite as bright and true as one might wish but, by the end, they were glorious. Wonderful change of feeling for the Ernest Chausson aria. In the orchestral introduction to the final aria from Donizetti, I wish the radio listeners could have seen her laughing, and apparently singing along to herself.

Shadi Torbey, Bass (Belgium): It seemed to me that he didn't really get a chance to show himself at his best in the first part of his program. But once he got to the fourth aria, a real barn-burner from Rossini, I wanted it to keep going and never stop. He wisely ended his program with Aaron Copland's goofy "I bought me a cat" which allowed him to cut loose and brought a tremendous ovation.

Simon Bailey, Baritone (England): When this fresh-faced lad with the short brush-cut bounded on stage, you'd have thought he was going to launch into something from the Barenaked Ladies -- except for the white tie and tails. What a performer! Take that aria where Figaro taunts Cherubino about going into the army. Mr. Bailey put it across with so much elan that you understood more of the Italian that you thought you did. In his comic piece from Rossini, he was leaning on the conductor's podium at one point, singing directly to the conductor "I can't get any peace", then he pulled a Union Jack out of the pocket of his dress trousers to wipe his eyes. Oh, by the way, he has a very beautiful voice, perfectly handled.

Peter McGillivray, Baritone (Canada): This baritone is a very different matter. Not relying on charm at all, he appears to take himself very seriously. And with good reason! This was the most intensely communicative singer of the evening. His aria from Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was like one, sustained clarion call that grabbed you by the throat and didn't let go until the final note. Wagner's "Hymn to the Eveningstar" (as we know it) was meltingly lovely, thanks in no small part to the pickup orchestra under Daniel Lipton (see note below). His final number was another tour de force,  Ford's aria from Verdi's Falstaff. When the roar of approval broke from the audience, Mr. McGillvray's face relaxed into a surprised, boyish grin that seemed to say: Gee, did I really do it?

Note on the orchestra: The members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were picketing Place Des Arts in their white ties and tails. I know they have issues with the management of their OSM and, given their strike, I would not attend an OSM concert. But I do not feel that they have issues with Jeunesses Musicales or with the many young singers who have come from around the world for their big chance at this competition. So I wasn't going to let their labour dispute interfere with my getting this once-in-three-year opportunity to attend the competition.


Crash (Movie)

The movie opens with a guy reacting to a car accident. He says people don't touch each other in Los Angeles. That's why they crash their cars: so that they can feel something. If you can buy that line, maybe this is the movie for you. Me, I could only stick it for half an hour. The experience marks a milestone for me. For the first time ever, I asked for a refund.

It wasn't the violence that got to me. Or the gratuitous meanness, or the sexual assault. Or the scuzzy people. Or the swearing, although it was getting tiresome that the script couldn't find any way for people to express strong emotions other than the word "fuck" (about 100 times in the first 15 minutes).

What did me in was the phony writing (check that fatuous opening gambit). Every scene crackles with so much over-the-top speechifying that it feels like a screenwriting class. Most of the verbiage attempts to come at racism from various angles but, as far as I could tell, it doesn't have anything to do with real life or real people. Or, is there a certain night in LA when everybody goes at their partners, with eyes bulging and teeth bared? Maybe it has something to do with the lunar cycle. With all the over-acting going on, the many big stars in the cast are mostly at their worst, but you can't blame them; they're only giving what's asked of them.

I know writer/director Paul Haggis is from around these parts and I feel you should root for the home town boy -- especially since his script for Million Dollar Baby lost out at the Oscars this year. But he's trying too hard here to hammer home the message, "Hey, Toto, we're not in London, Ontario now!"

Rating (for first half hour): G (i.e. "Gawdawful")

The Kite Runner (Novel) by Khaled Hosseini, 2003

The question is: can a best-selling book be any good? Probably not, I'm thinking. To be really popular, a book has to give people what they want without any struggle. People like their entertainment to be obvious and accessible. God forbid that there should be any heavy-lifting in the mental department.

Mind you, a hit book needs some special hook, some bit of arcane knowledge that will flatter people by making them think they're learning something. What would work really well would be something like, let's say, secret messages hidden in the works of one of the world's most famous painters.

The main thing that The Kite Runner has going for it is the setting -- Afghanistan. For most of us English-speaking readers, learning the history of that blighted country qualifies as educational. Onto this fascinating background, Mr. Hosseini has grafted the product of a software program on how to construct a novel. Make that two such software packages. There is here enough coincidence, parallelism, symbolism, imagery, conflict and outright melodrama to make Charles Dickens blush. Love and marriage, illness and death, right and wrong, justice and revenge are dished up with the insight and sophistication of the writing on a fortune cookie.

Except for the friendship between two young boys that lies at the heart of the story. Showing an unexpectedly dark side of the psyche, this relationship intrigues -- up to a point. For my taste, the narrator indulges in too much breast-beating. So much death and tragedy, so many lives ruined as a result of one moment of weakness when he was about twelve years old. Enough already! But maybe I am more forgiving than Mr. Hosseini's narrator -- at least when it comes to my own failings.

That raises another question: are jealous critics especially hard on really popular novels?


Aquavision 2005: Metamorphosis Toronto Watercolour Society (Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery until May 23)

If you’re wondering about all these "Metamorphosis" shows, they’re part of a city-wide festival on the theme, initiated by Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. Several arts groups have become involved. It would be immodest of me to review this show since I have two pictures in it, but I just wanted to let you know about it. And while we’re at it, I can’t resist mentioning a few favourites. If there could be more prizes, my choices would be: Shelly Beach’s luminous, shimmering underwater scene, D.D. Gadjanski’s wonderful, bright green organic shapes swirling on a dark background, Charline Gardhouse’s delicate, loose flowers in "Tenderly", and Virginia May’s stunningly simple (but fiendishly difficult to execute) composition of a lump of sail caught up in a halliard.


Graduate Exhibition Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto, May 6-8)

After the TWS opening, I hurried over to OCAD for a quick look at what the young art grads are about to unleash on the world. With not much time to find my way around the bewildering four-floor building, I confined myself pretty much to the painting and drawing on the fourth floor.

My favourite pictures of those that I had time to see -- Paul Aiello' cityscapes. Great, messy concoctions with all kinds of scraping and splattering, they're almost abstract, with just enough realistic detail to let you know they're about cities. In some cases, it looks like he used bits of photographs in the paintings. I had to love Braden Labonté's painting for it's title: "Dean Thought He'd Be Making A Positive Impression on the Ladies by Arriving at the Box Social Casually Underdressed." The picture shows rather aloof women and, watching them from across the room, a shy, naked young man. Jennifer McGregor has arranged a charming series of twenty or so tiny squares (about two inches on each side) in a long horizontal row. I guess you'd call them collages: each of them has little chunks of colour in abstract patterns and they have wacky titles like "Lion's Breath in Winter".

Straying briefly into other areas, I was struck by Lisa Whitelaw's close-up black and white photos of the handles of gas pumps: what beautifully sensuous lines, such dramatic use of negative space. Some video installations were visually brilliant but the verbal content tended to be the ramblings of young men who didn't have anything  interesting to say. One video in the award winners' section on the second floor offered a strange mixture of droll domesticity and foreign tragedy but, after five mintues  of watching, I couldn't figure out what it was about. So I came away assured that the art of the future will keep me guessing.


Metamorphosis Ontario Society of Artists, Aird Gallery, Toronto (to May 27)

The trouble with edgy, "out-there" art is that it often feels as though you're not part of the conversation. Like, these hip artists are having this really cool dialogue with each other but you just don't get it. But I think you should always give it a try because, like, where would we be if we didn't have artists to do crazy things that, left to ourselves, we might not think of doing?

Which brings us to Metamorphosis the Ontario Society of Artists 131st annual juried show. First of all – the relief. Some of the stuff’s not that hard to get at all. Like Ottawa artist Sheryl Luxenburg's large acrylic painting of stacks of squashed cans ready for recycling. (Sher and I have become friendly after my mentioning her work in my review of the CSPWC show last fall.) It's great to have an artist pointing out beauty for us where we might have overlooked it: all those shimmering, shiny metal surfaces in myriad shapes, interspersed with bright, pop art colours and the occasional dark mysterious gap.  While it's intricately executed in terms of detail, the overall impression is nearly abstract. So it’s quite different from the photo realism for which Ms. Luxenburg is becoming famous. (Check out the feature article on her in the May issue of the prestigious magazine American Artist.)

One of my favourite pieces in the show is "Another Pensionable Day" by Andrew Benyei. A sculpture, it features a put-upon office worker (about 30 cms tall) in white shirt, with red tie dangling over his pot belly. He's leaning out of a box-like construction. The expression on the poor man's face is hangdog, fatigued beyond speaking, and yet somehow mutely hopeful. No problem getting this one.

In terms of pure painting, nothing pleased me more than Lillean Blakey's "Garden of Eden": a long assembly line of water bottles snaking down out of the sky to be filled by a tap in the foreground. There's probably some ironic humour there if you want to think about it, but mainly what strikes me is the stunning painting of the gleaming tap.

When it comes to recycled materials, nothing could be more beautiful than Ian MacKenzie's "Half Full/Half Empty": three clear plastic bottles that have been treated (don't ask me how) in such a way that they've become lacey, gossamer contructions, like something a sharp frost might have created overnight. And I loved Richard Preston's triptych "Experience": three old baking trays hinged together, with a heart shape (presumably a cake tin) soldered onto the central one. From a distance they might not make much of an impression but when you come up close and see all the rust and the evidence of years of loving use, they're enchanting.

Laurie Zinkland-Seles' "Absence" spoke volumes to me: mostly a study in light and dark, with a person-like shape, where the head is pretty much wiped away in smear of haze. In a similar vein, David Griffin's "Nobody" features some well-dressed human figures without heads.

I liked Valentina Churilova's "Dream", a large abstract, with cloud-like swirls and white drips on a dark background. Another abstract, a smaller one, with a more geometric look, Laurie Jones' "Comfort" has a very different appeal with its black lines, grooves and smudges.

Cynthia O'Brien's "Pop" is fascinating in a creepy way. A clay sculpture in two segments, with bright red pointy things at one end, it looks like one of those unmentionable things that gloms onto some part of your body when you're not looking and sucks the life out of you. Kids would love it, I expect. As they would Heather Rigby's "Snakespade": a thick, snake-like thing that twists across the gallery floor and ends in a shovel head. Then there's Sarah Badran's bar stool bristling like a porcupine with thousands of wooden matches. (Please tell me they were treated to make them non-flammable!)

And who could not like Francis Muscat's first-prize-winning sculpture? A series of frosted glass sticks (or tubes) arranged in rectangles and stacked against each other in sand. Something very Canadian and chilly about that glass with the faint bluish tint, it seems to me, very Lawren Harris iceberg-ish, if you know what I mean.

Hey, maybe I'm getting the hang of the conversation after all?


Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects (Novel) by Christopher Miller (2004)

The main reason for bringing this book home from the library was the picture of a grand piano on the cover. The grand piano is humanity's most beautiful invention and any book cover that acknowledges that deserves a closer look. Also, how can you not want to love a book with such a title?

Inside, the book is less endearing. It purports to be the life story of a contemporary composer told in the form of liner notes to CDs. The composer comes from a horrible family and he and his repellent compositions fully live up to that promise. The author of the liner notes is a hapless young man hired to write the composer's biography. You can’t help wondering whether this is anything other than an attempt by Mr. Miller to show how well he can mimick a certain pseudo-intellectual kind of writing, I find that kind of empty exercise sophomoric and tiresome.

But I kept reading in the hope of finding some point to it all. Is it a spoof on contemporary music? On the self-indulgent, misunderstood artist? On music and/or art criticism? On biography-writing? When you're reading Stephen Leacock's The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias, you don't keep asking yourself what the point is. You're too busy laughing. There wasn't much of that going on here. Not even a hint of a smile, mostly just a puzzled frown.

Occasionally, the novel strays into interesting territory .The narrator talks about his relationship with his father and about his attempts to make friends while writing the composer's biography. But these moments of genuine human interest quickly pass and we're dumped back into the inane world of parody (or something).

This is Mr. Miller's first novel. (It was originally published as Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano.) According to the cover blurbs, it got tons of critical acclaim. I congratulate Mr. Miller on his extraordinary success. May he have a long and very satisfying career as a writer. And may he find something worth writing about.

You can reach me at patrick@dilettantesdiary.com