Friday, 30 October 2009

Full Moon at Samhain

Bright-browed Lady
From whose spread cloak of light
The wild leaves fall
Rushing into the autumn’s first hard gale;
Ride with me through the ever-circling sky
As I prepare for my next pilgrimage.
Moon of the gathering dark
Be at my side tonight.
O opener of gateways,
May your powers guide
The wild hunt of the heart
With your wisdom of ending,
Your voice of summoning,
Discernment and wise dividing,
And calling of the ghosts of our honoured dead.
Through the door of the New Year,
Riding on the storm wind
In the cold-silvered night.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The darned laptop, and a bit of philosophising.

No, it was no good; that is one seriously ill laptop I am nursing there. I think it may have got a virus. I used one of those discs in an internet café a few months ago; it was a café I've used many times without trouble, but I guess that may have lulled me into thinking it was safe...

When I get my Dad's legacy in December I think I might treat myself to new laptop. A Mac laptop; the computer that speaks english instead of computerese. Now that would be nice.

It is particularly frustrating because I was making good headway on something, and am full of ideas to move another thing on. I'll have to go back to using the old-fashioned paper and pen method. Cor, real hand-made writing! - I'm such a retro chick.

Better news arrives from the box office of the Philharmonia, who, bless them, are holding three seats for me for a concert that is selling out fast, although my booking form has got lost in the postal strike. Now that is customer service! And it means I will get to worship at the altar of Joshua Bell at the end of March, and industrial action be dammed! I shall go to the ball; size eight glass slippers and all.

Had a very interesting conversation last night with my new housemate Jennifer (tall, thin, Hungarian/Canadian hybrid, a gentle rather absent minded young woman with a great sense of humour and a penchant for junk food). She had a near-fatal accident a few years ago and a near-death experience as a result, and was fascinating on the subject. She told me how strange it was trying to square in her mind the medical information about what really happens in such experiences with the overpowering vividness of what was an entirely objectively real experience to her at the time. She also spoke of how true it was for her that the brush with death gave her a strong sense of wanting to remake her life into something more fulfilling and less materialistic, and made her aware of the importance of living in the day and appreciating the moment. I still remember sitting in Christchurch on Ealing Broadway after I'd been told my ovarian cysts were normal cysts and not the pre-cancerous kind; and I agree with her wholeheartedly. Life is too precious to pass chasing after work promotions, power-based relationships, and new shoes.

So tonight I'll get out a nice, fat, clean notebook, and get on with some old-fashioned hand-made writing.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The darned laptop

Very tired and frustrated after an appallingly bad night’s sleep. My dear, ancient, antiquated laptop had a seizure last night and I’m not at all sure if it will be okay tonight. I’m going to go home after work and try switching it on, and see what happens. But it went so completely haywire yesterday – and in ways that I haven’t seen before – that I am seriously worried about it.

I had been writing for several hours, and was just going to back up what I’d been doing onto a disc, for safety – but the disc wouldn’t read. Then the next one wouldn’t, and nor would the one after that. All of them were discs I have used before, that in theory still had plenty of space on them. Then the machine decided to “rescue” the entire contents of one of the discs, without my asking it to do anything of the kind. It started making a horrendous roaring noise, and went on doing so for about twenty minutes while very, very slowly copying the disc onto the hard drive.

Then it wouldn’t shut down. In the end I just unplugged it, which is not a good thing to do at all; but the alternative was to leave it running all night, chirruping and clicking to itself at intervals, and getting hot (it gets very hot – it’s an antique, as I said). I knew I’d never sleep if I did that; so I crashed out of it instead. And then, of course, I didn’t sleep anyway.

Once I was well stuck in to the White Night thing, I began to sweat my way through a whole raft of minor concerns and worries, all of which at dead of night seemed disproportionately looming and monstrous. Would K be okay in her new flat? And has she got any bedding? – How is mum getting on as she gets over that mysterious bout of food poisoning, and should I have rung her more often, and would it help if I were to go down to Kent this weekend to see her? – Is P okay, after that odd reference to having “work done on the guts”? - Will I be able to afford the next gas bill? - Did I remember to put a stamp on that letter? – Did I remember to put my credit card details on that booking form? – Have I ever given the WWT my new address? – Have I ever given the Inland Revenue my new address? (I know I have, but once one is set on an all-night worry-fest one can get very bogged down in these irrational fears).

And, of course, round and round came the refrain – What if the laptop is permanently deaded, and everything I have on it is lost? I know I am not up to date in my backing-up-on-disc. That’s what I was trying to do last night, when it went kaput, krank unt möglich todt bin ich, bleaahh…

Woe’s me, woe’s me, I have been seduced by technology, and now it has shot me down. It was my man, but it done me wrong.

I never should have stopped writing in longhand on paper. It’s slower, true, and it has to be typed up afterwards, which is boring; but it is secure. I don’t lose sheets of paper, and they are unable to lose themselves spontaneously. The computer may facilitate, but when it goes wrong it causes far more trouble than my nerves can stand.

Friday, 23 October 2009

My "Private Passions" playlist

I've been working on this for a while; a little bit of fun. I don’t think I can cope with the eight-disc limit of “Desert Island Discs”, though, so I am insinuating myself into the far classier (& more flexible!) format of "Private Passions" instead. .

I’ll start with rock music and related areas:

Jazz/Folk: Spiro “Lightbox”. Just lately I cannot seem to get enough of this. Magical and mad, jazzy serialist versions of traditional tunes on traditional acoustic instruments - dancingly light yet rich music.
Jazz/Folk/Rock: Rodrigo y Gabriela “Rodrigo y Gabriela”. This is astonishingly high octane wow! stuff – hard to classify, though. Marvellous, rocky, acoustic Spanish guitar duets (+ a smoking arrangement of “Stairway to Heaven”); gutsy, grabbing music, totally energising and dynamic.
World/Blues: Ali Farka Touré “Red & Green”. Simply a classic. The late great AFT could do amazing things with that old steel-string guitar of his.
Rock: Channel Light Vessel “Automatic”. This is one of those “Soundtrack of my life” albums – especially it conjures a winter college field trip to Paris; sketching in the biting cold wind along the Seine, drinking cheap Sauvignon Blanc with friends in a scruffy spit-and-sawdust bar in Montmartre, and of course the miles and miles of rainy motorways in the Pas de Calais, seen from the window of the coach.
Rock: The Icicle Works “The Icicle Works". Just superb; rocking, poetic, dramatic. The crême de la crême of the eighties Liverpool scene.
Rock: Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon”. Another classic album, full of wonderful tracks that still hit the spot years after composition. “Wish you were here” comes a very close second, but is somehow, for my money, too personal; too visibly about the band themselves and their feelings for Syd Barrett, and hence in a way tangential to the listener. Whereas “Dark Side of the Moon” is rock truth for all of us.
Rock: Hawkwind “Quark, Strangeness and Charm”. There’s really nothing like the driving insanity, stunning rhythms and general bonkers wonder of this great, great album. Every track is terrific. And it has a song based on a Roger Zelazny novel. And jokes about Einstein. Visceral and yet intellectual, this is the album where Hawkwind got the balance between metal, sci-fi, pomp, psychodelia and straight-forward guitar-and-drum-driven rock absolutely right. My first ever rock concert was a Hawkwind gig; Maidstone Art College, 1979…
Rock (single): U2 “All I want is you”. Richly lifting lyrical guitar riffs, soaring and shifting; a lovely piece of complex simplicity, and great, honest, evocative lyrics.
Rock (single): Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come on, Eileen”. A bit of a frivolous addition, but any time I hear this it makes me smile. This was the soundtrack to my sixteenth summer. Need I say more?

On to classical music.

I wish, incidentally, that the two classes of music (“classical” and popular/vernacular/rock) weren’t shut apart like ferocious beasts that would devour one another if they every made contact; it is rather like the Humanities/Sciences ne’er-the-twain-shall-meet thing, only worse, despite being on a smaller scale and within just the one art.

Chamber: The three Brahms Violin Sonatas. The G major sonata especially is a piece of music I could not live without. Oh, and I’ll have the Josef Suk and Julius Katchen recording, thanks.
Chamber: Schubert String Quartet in D minor “Death and the Maiden”. Another piece of music I simply couldn’t bear never to hear again. The first variation in the second movement is heartbreakingly beautiful. Brilliant simplicity; in fact damned close to perfection.
Piano: Janacek “On an Overgrown Path”. This makes me cry. Solo piano music, and it makes me cry.
Orchestral: Stravinsky “The Rite of Spring”. Preferably in a recording coupled with “The Firebird”. The “Rite” is stunning music, as passionate as life itself, and gives me a rush like a drug with its sheer wizardry and dazzledom. A world without Stravinsky would be a bitter, dull, tingle-less place.
Orchestral: Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This is an incredibly tough one, actually; would I rather have the Barber, or the Walton, or the Stravinsky? Or the Sibelius? Or Elgar? Or Beethoven? Or should I ask for the Walton Violin and Viola concertos? On balance I’ll plump for the Barber, because I adore it, and because if I can have Joshua Bell’s recording then I’ll get the Walton and Bloch’s “Baal Shem” as well…
Orchestral + soloists: Mahler “Das Lied von der Erde”. Another very, very tough choice. Can I have a boxed set of all the Mahler Symphonies, plus a selection of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, please? If not, with tears in my eyes I will let the rest go, though 2, 3, 6 and 9 will have to be torn from my clutching hands; but I’ll hang on to the “Song of the Earth” even if you hit me. The Klemperer recording, please.
Choral: Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”. Choosing one big choral work is hard, too; if I have this, I lose the “German Requiem”, all the other requiems including the “War Requiem”, the “Glagolithic Mass” (this hurts), Beethoven’s Ninth, and “Messiah”, and “The Dream of Gerontius”…
Honestly, this process is like chopping my fingers off one by one.
Choral: Rachmaninov “Vespers”. Okay, it will have to be two big choral works, because this is indispensible. Different kind of choral, though; unaccompanied liturgical singing, in Russian, with harmonies to make your hair stand on end. You can’t praise god any finer than this.
Opera: Janacek “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (I won’t even try to write the original Czech name – it’s full of x’s and z’s even before you get to the diacritical marks). One of the greatest, saddest, most beautiful and humane of twentieth century operas. I had to have an opera, and it is hard to choose, but since I can’t download my memories of great performances I’ve been at, my brain not being a computer, I’ll go for one of my all-time favourite recordings. The last scene of this is another of those things that makes me cry my eyes out. “From the House of the Dead”, also by Janacek, comes a very close second, but I think that final scene, and the love scene between the vixen and the fox, swing it for me. Also this is a fairy tale where the main character dies, and that is unusual; and it is probably the quietest, most realistic death in the whole of opera. She gets shot, she dies; two bars at most. I’ll have the Mackerras recording, please.

And a Leviathan in action

I should have also mentioned the concert itself, shouldn't I? Slightly odd one to start with, very cool and collected, Mendelsohn and Brahms. A little too cool for me, and I was left feeling a trifle unengaged. I'm not good at engaging with music using just my mind, I'm afraid. I guess I'm too somatotonic. I want the visceral, physical oomph of the music hitting me; the sensual pleasure of it. Live orchestral music can feel like being literally bathed in waves of sound; it caresses my skin and flashes through my guts, the vibrations entwining with my heartbeat and taking life as they meld with my own living tissue.

Last night this wasn't really happening at first. But then, after the interval, although we stayed with Brahms, the temperature was shoved up close to boiling by the monumental playing of Yefim Bronfman. This is one big man. Big in every sense, ability as well as build, and more than a match for this big concerto; he looks as if he could crack walnuts with one fingertip. He was terrific. He played with drama and precision, tightly together like twins in a neck-and-neck race, both the scale and the delicacy the piece needs, and he brought the house down.

I had heard good things of him, I went primarily for this, and the man (or should that be The Man?) delivered, in large, perfectly judged spadefuls.

Eavesdropping on the great and good...

Slightly weird experience last night at the Festival Hall, waiting for the concert to start. I was sitting quietly on a bench eating my sandwiches, and a very beautiful middle-aged asian woman sat down behind me talking to a bloke I never got a good look at. They chatted animatedly and it swiftly became apparent that they both worked in the performing arts; probably in dance; probably were connected to something happening at the QEH that same evening; and the penny dropped at this point. I was snooping on the private conversation of the (marvellous) choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.

Note to self: Snooping is not nice. It is not nice even when it's snooping on an ordinary person like myself, and the Great and Good have the same right to privacy as I do. Do try to remember this, Dent, there's a good girl.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Good things - list for the day

Good things about this time of year; because I have to remind myself, being essentially a spring creature and not an autumn and winter one.

Russet apples. Picasso painted them, I eat them. Their strange, furry-looking skins and rich-flavoured, firm flesh are a joy of the season. Like the wonderful Discovery and Worcester Pearmain, they are strictly seasonal and are one of my reasons for continuing to live in the UK. Seriously – British apples are a reason to live here. Try Spanish apples if you don’t believe me.

Autumn leaves. Do I need to say more? Sheer beauty, and all the evanescence of spring with the added poignancy of fading and ending instead of new life…

Booking tickets. I’m partway through a binge of bookings for concerts and ballet and opera for the winter. As the weather gets colder and the days get darker, at least I have lots of goodies to look forward to, from Vieux Farka Touré, to two new pieces premiering at the Royal Ballet,
to this
to Stuart Skelton singing Boris in “Katya Kabanova” (can’t wait, can’t wait; have to wait, bah!).

Conifer pollen. I used to have dreadful hayfever in my twenties but it eased off gradually as the years went on, and by the time I started working at Kew it was a thing of the past. At this time of year a lot of coniferous trees are flowering, and if, like today, it is rainy (which is what they need, as it is via the action of raindrops that their flowers are pollinated), the paths and pavements around here are speckled and streaked with the pale gold dust of fallen pollen. It reminds me of the line in Seferis’ “A Word for Summer” – “A few pine needles left after the rains/Raggedly strewn, and red like tattered nets” – only with blonde pollen not rusty needles. As the rest of the northern hemisphere’s plant world thinks “Time to shut up shop for the winter”, conifers are going “It’s that time of year again – hey, let’s make babies!” On windy days the pollen dances off the trees in clouds, like millions of tiny blonde sprites leaping together into flight.

Evenings when the muse is tired, watching movies on my new dvd player. I tidied up my dvd collection last night, sorting it into feature films, opera and concerts, and ballet... In the process, whetting my appetite for a good wallow in all three categories. Next rainy evening, I think I might settle down to "Swan Lake", or possibly "The Devil's Backbone", or possibly "The Cunning Little Vixen" (which I have bought a new copy of since my old one has vanished into the unknown tender hands of someone else who likes Janacek...

Migratory birds. Redwings. Beautful geese flying in from the artic. Chilly afternoons at the London Wetland centre blowing on my numbed fingers, trying to draw Great Crested Grebes in their stark, spare winter plumage.

Winter walks in the arboretum here at Kew, listening to robins singing and nuthatches and goldcrests and long-tailed titmice trilling their signal calls, and soaking up the bleak, misty, dripping atmosphere under the dark pines.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A virtuous weekend and a bit of opera gossip

This has been a weekend of virtuous tidying, sorting out and clearing-up activities. Very tiring, and not terribly creative, and I’ve probably inhaled a lot more dust than is good for me, but I feel I’ve achieved something useful, and my conscience is now clear if I spend most of the next few weekends sketching or writing or birdwatching or baking biscuits.

On Saturday evening I flopped in front of the dvd player and gave my brain some time off. I bought several new movie dvds recently and I watched one of these; “The Red Violin”. I won’t say it’s a complete masterpiece, it’s a bit too rambling for that, but it is completely haunting. There are some odd holes and peculiarities in the plot (for example, at one point the whole story hinges on a bizarre act of grave-robbery which is completely unmotivated), and there are times when it feels a little bit rushed as the director tries to cram in all of his ideas; some of the plotlines are cramped for time and feel underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looks stunning, although it’s episodic it is very moving, it conjures the magical and transformative potency of music brilliantly, it has Samuel L Jackson in it, and best of all it has a gorgeous score by John Corigliano – I shall have to buy a recording – played, wonderfully, by Joshua Bell.

Now he’s another of my big heroes, is Mr Bell. The technique of a Heifetz and the passion of a god; delectable. I’d be happy listening to him playing whatever is the violin-equivalent of reading aloud from the telephone directory. It’s the same thing I was burbling about a few weeks ago, in re. Maestro Salonen and the Philharmonia; absolute technical mastery combined with absolute sincerity of emotional engagement.

“Emotional engagement”, nb; not emoting. No ham, please, I’m a vegetarian.

Thinking of ham, talking to my mother on the ‘phone on Sunday I learned that the so-called “Golden Couple” of the opera world are getting a divorce (I have my own views on who could be said to constitute a golden couple; not Mr Alagna and Ms Gheorghiu but Favourite Baritone and the Ballerina Missus – now that’s class).

Mr Alagna seems a nice chap, and judging by what I’ve seen of his work he can take direction (always a big help in an opera singer who is not a great actor), but Ms G has always struck me as a truly awful example of what happens if you believe your own publicity. For my money, her speciality, right from the start, was what my Dad called “ham, spam and strawberry jam”. She emotes, terribly (in both senses), but she can’t act to save her toffee. I’ve never liked her voice that much, either; I’ve heard more than one young soprano at the Coliseum in the last couple of years with as much talent in one finger as Ms G has in her whole glamour-puss person…

Now, I’m being bitchy, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m glad they’re divorcing. After more than a decade, sadly, this particular marriage hasn’t worked out. I’m the child of a divorce, and I’ve now witnessed several friends going through it, and I know how painful it can be. It is always, always sad, no matter what the circumstances, no matter who the people. I’m very sorry for the Alagnas; if the breakdown of a marriage weren’t enough pain and mess to be dealing with, they are also having to do it in public. True, they have brought their own lives, voluntarily, into the public eye; but then, as performing artists (whatever my personal opinion of Ms G’s abilities as such), they really had less choice than the rest of us about that particular issue. One cannot hope to make a career as a performing artist while shut away in a nice sealed box of privacy.

I must say, though, by avoiding Ms G I have avoided some desperately over-priced opera productions. I’d really rather not see or hear her in action. (If I ever learn that Covent Garden has a new production of “Tannhäuser” fielding Stuart Skelton as Tannhäuser, Favourite Baritone as Wolfram and Ms G as Elizabeth, I will want to jump in a lake). I think she’s an overhyped ham, and, too, rather like Callas, hearing her in action one is always aware first and foremost that this is The Great Performer, and only secondarily that this is Violetta, or Mimí, or Amelia, or whoever.

Hm; I’ve been rude about a Very Famous Singer and implicitly rude about two others, one of whom is possily The Most Famous Singer Of All Time (to my bewilderment). Will anyone now be rude to me, I wonder?!?

Friday, 16 October 2009

Mythical figures in concert

Last night at the Festival Hall was a nice concert of uncomplicated happy music; a complete contrast to “Wozzeck” last week. Just as there is a place for cartoon comedy in the world, so too there is a place for the full-on, heartily relished, colourful romanticism of Dvorak and Glazunov…

The Glazunov Violin Concerto, which I hadn’t heard before, was rather lovely, with a fast, tangy finale. It was played with delight and passion by Nicola Benedetti, in a wonderful dress that made her look like a mermaid. And conducted by Leif Segerstam, who I only knew from the radio until now. He looks like Father Christmas. So like, it’s uncanny. He stands at the rostrum to acknowledge applause, opens his broad arms and beams at us; Father Christmas, his very self. You just want to run and cuddle him. Damned good conductor, too.

So Father Christmas conducted, and a mermaid played the violin, and the Philharmonia did themselves proud with a lushly romantic programme, and I had a very pleasant evening, complete with a glass of tender, cold, liquid smoke on the balcony at the interval. I mustn’t make a habit of that, but I wanted to treat myself, and a measure of Laphroaig isn’t that much more expensive than an ice-cream.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Cultural relativism

Last night I felt really low, so I went to the cinema to see “Up”. I wanted some fun, and to be entertained. Tonight I have a concert of lush nineteenth century classical music, which will also suit the way I’m feeling just fine. I couldn’t handle anything too heavy just now. Hormones, you know?

I’m a great believer in the idea that there is a place for pretty much everything, culturally speaking. For some of it (horror movies, the more saccharine end of pop music), that place is not part of my life; but I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes. I listen to Stravinsky in the afternoon and The Icicle Works in the evening, and I love them both. I read Rebecca West, and then Anne Zouroudi, and I am blown away by “Rashomon” only to sit hooting with laughter at a Pixar cartoon the following week. Does this make me a relativist or just lacking in properly defined tastes? Do I care?

I don’t, actually. I like my tastes, and that is enough for me.

“Up” was good fun. A bit of a “switch your brain off and enjoy the ride” movie, but not totally mindless. The animation is superb and the plot although daft is entertaining, and the dog characters are gorgeously, hilariously spot-on doggy. The only problem was that getting up to leave at the end I hit my right leg on the metal drink-holder on the next-door seat so hard I thought I had cut it open. I hadn’t, but I now have one of my characteristic violet-and-rhubarb coloured bruises down my calf muscle; it looks as if I was in a kick boxing match, not out for a peaceful night at the flicks.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Trivia for the day

Totally daft factoids...

1) The average healthy human being has one hundred trillion bacteria in their digestive system, weighing around one and a half kilos altogether.

Got that from BBC News.

2) The average woman in the developed world eats a kilo of lipstick in the course of her adult life.


Got that from a less reliable source, who shall remain nameless, so it may be Just One Of Those Rumours; I certainly hope so.

And one good fact...

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have succeeded in collecting and storing seed from 10% of the world's vascular plants in the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. The official announcement is tomorrow, apparently, so I am a Very Bad Girl in mentioning it today (although Associated Press beat me to it). This was the MSB's initial goal when it opened in 2000, and they've made it on schedule.

Now all they need is the funding to go on.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Currently reading

Currently reading this:

A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest.

It seems to be out of print in the UK at the moment (I picked it up in the Oxfam shop), so I can’t give a link to the publishers, only to Amazon. Better than nowt, I suppose.

A strange, thought-provoking book. I guess it does reflect the time it was written (the mid-seventies), and I would take issue with some of the author’s views about female sexuality (can’t really say more about that without giving away half the plot!) but that one quibble aside this is haunting, weird and very, very interesting. It is SF, though, so don’t say I didn’t warn you; but what Ursula Le Guin calls “soft” SF, rather than the “hard” sort with hyperspace drives. No ray guns, no space ships. Just possible futures and mind-bending mind-games.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck (pt. 2)

Another attempt to express it; written standing on the Hungerford Jubilee Bridge last night at 9.30 after coming out of the RFH.

After Wozzeck

The water’s black, writhing
Radiance, a vile sheen,
Licking the river beach.
A white half moon
Waning, rising,
Over the city glow.
Emerging to the night breeze
I have to blink, forcing
The light to be again
No curse, a blessing.

To be flayed as I am now
Is an exercise
In considered pain.
Submitting to rape
At the hands of a god
To learn how it feels;
Broken by genius
That is itself breaking
Under the ghostly moon,
And the dead black wave.


I went to “Wozzeck” last night. Oh God. Oh God oh God.

Don’t get me wrong; Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” is a brilliant opera. Brilliant. It is one of the great fusions of music and drama – dissonant, atonal music is the perfect medium for a story of this nature. But it is so utterly, unremittingly bleak and harrowing. I am an optimistic person with an imperfect but very happy and busy life, and I came out of the RFH last night feeling as if I lived at the bottom of a mine and had never seen daylight or breathed fresh air. It was that good – ie, that shatteringly upsetting – a performance. I doubt if I can ever face it again, though.

I was once in a production of Buchner’s “Woycek”, the original play on which “Wozzeck” is based. This is also deeply bleak, yet it was one of the happiest productions I was ever involved with. The director had decided to do a Shared Experience-style ensemble production. Normally amateur drama is very straightforward; the actors learn the lines and do the acting, the backstage people move the scenery and do the lights, and so forth. Whereas this was all team work and Improv and theatre games and actors’ exercises, and crouching on the ground making odd noises, and actors being scenery, and me singing (the final mad touch – I do have a deep voice but I do not sound like Yanka Rupkina – just marginally more like her than anyone else in the company).

Working on it was fun, and stimulating, and by the end of the run had resulted in a very closely-knit team, with none of the usual stratifications of a conventional production. I suppose it was that which enabled us all to get so much enjoyment out of performing a play about a basically decent man trapped by his social circumstances in a crushingly impoverished life, bullied and humiliated by everyone around him, who eventually goes insane and murders his common-law wife because she is the only person at whom he can lash out.

When you add Berg’s music to this tragic and profoundly nihilistic story, you push up the emotional impact by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Favourite Baritone did himself proud in the lead, his human-scale, slightly husky voice and deeply inward acting style perfect for this character. Katarina Dalayman was a beautiful and sumptuous-sounding Marie. The Drum Major sounded good although he didn’t look the part (for my tastes – skinny and balding do not a hunk make; sorry, folks). Robert Murray was a lovely Andres; I am more and more impressed with him each time I see him in action.

It was semi-staged, which I hadn’t expected. The singers were costumed; they came and went, clutching chairs and props, in the narrow bit of platform in front of the orchestra. Immediately behind them, indifferent and passionate as an army of recording angels, the Philharmonia tore through the wrenchingly powerful and difficult music as if it were no harder than a nice orchestration of Chopin. Esa-Pekka Salonen leapt about his rostrum in a pool of light like a heavenly glow, while at his feet Wozzeck was beaten and broken and driven to his crime and his pathetic death. The contrast between the divine focus of the musicians and the torment of the protagonists was so intense it added an extra dimension to the tragedy. By the time it finished I don’t think I had breathed normally for at least thirty minutes, I was so swept up in the pain and the tension, so carried beyond myself by the brilliant, terrifying music.

It was great. Honestly. Just very, very depressing.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Atmospherics after dark (with apologies to Tom Robinson, who may not even like Janacek)

Last night I discovered that the concert I had been to last week was on the radio, so I settled down with my plate of macaroni cheese to listen. The reception was terrible for about the first fifteen minutes – the start of “Sinfonietta” sounded as if it were being played in the shower – and I had to keep springing up to fiddle with the tuning. Every time I touched the dial, the reception improved dramatically, only to go off again the moment I let go. It made no difference if I had actually altered the dial or not – the improving factor was physical contact with me.

I am forced to the conclusion that my body is a gigantic radio aerial, an idea I find vaguely worrying. I am not made of metal, and I am not terribly technical (anyone who does know about radios is probably laughing at my naivety at this point). Besides the slightly disturbing “radio waves are dripping all over me” feeling, this also meant I had to stand up constantly, which interfered with my appreciation of my supper.

But then, oddly, the reception suddenly improved. The shower noise stopped and I could appreciate the rest of the Janacek, and the whole of the Lindberg and the Stravinsky, in comfort. It really was an excellent concert – I hope they consider releasing it on their own recording label. After all, clearly a recording has been made, by the BBC, so why not make use of it? As well as the quality of the performance, it was a superbly chosen programme, with two modernist masterpieces and what I feel on second hearing is certainly a natural successor. The three pieces complemented one another beautifully; like one’s handsome cousins at a wedding, they were delightful as individuals and as parts of a family relationship. It was particularly good to hear the Janacek played with such clarity and what I can only call lack of sugar. It was a great illustration of just how wide is the gap between that thick viscous layer of sweetness, like cheap salad dressing, that is sentiment, and powerful feeling, expressed with sincerity and commitment but without ostentation.

The upshot of all this, though, is that I have decided to treat myself to a decent new radio. It was so much more pleasant to be able to sit and eat, and then get on with my sewing, without having to keep tweaking the tuner.

I am working my way through a large pile of items of clothing that are nice but that don’t fit me, turning them into slightly different (& sometimes slightly odd) items of clothing that do fit me. If I had a digital camera and the means to upload pictures I’d do a fashion-shoot sometime – some of the results are actually quite good, and they bring me both the satisfaction of creative needlework and that of demonstrating an efficient household economy.

After the concert I put the sewing away and sat up till 2 am finishing “The Birds Fall Down”. I’m slightly pie-eyed today as a result; and tonight I am off back to the Festival Hall for “Wozzeck” (pauses to take deep breaths). I fully expect to be pulverised, both aurally and emotionally.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Currently reading this...

I’m currently reading – to be precise, re-reading, having retrieved it and a few other things from a box at my mother’s – this:

The Birds Fall Down - Rebecca West.

I had forgotten what a masterly piece of writing it is. I have been completely gripped and cannot wait to get back to it tonight. I’m not sure I can collect my thoughts enough to explain why it is so superb.

It’s quite slow to get started, and quite a solid read; someone who disliked solid novels would find it hard going. But the steadiness of the beginning becomes meaningful as the story goes on. I won’t give away any details of the plot in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel and is intrigued, because it’s a mystery, and a thriller, in the truest sense of the words. It’s also one of the finest examples I’ve ever come across of a very tight third-person narrative; and in this case the narrator is both aware of some things that other characters are not, and helplessly unaware of other things which the reader can see – yet which we see through her eyes, aware ourselves that she is so uncomprehending as not even to see that she is missing something. In that respect it is a dazzling display of the technical craft of writing. But Rebecca West also pulls off my favourite trick of creating a balanced tension between technical genius and emotional sincerity; one suffers with Laura, with the Count, and one feels the dreadfulness of the betrayals that are exposed during the narrative, and the further layers of betrayal they provoke, and the further betrayals underlying these. And the quiet, steady build-up of tension is horrendous. Hence my desire to get to the end of the day, go home, and settle down to reading again.

Rebecca West once said something along the lines of that in her opinion Mozart was at the highest end of a scale of genius that also encompassed someone baking a good cake; in other words, talent is a continuum and is not the privilege of some tiny elite. In celebration of that honourable and democratic thought here’s the recipe for the bread-and-butter pudding I baked last night. It’s an easy recipe, great for using up slightly stale baked goods of almost any type, and far nicer than its simplicity would suggest.

Bread-and-butter pudding

A couple of slices of slightly stale bread per person. Or fruit bread, fruit cake, malt loaf, teacake. Probably good with most sorts of biscuits, too. You name it, really. Not sure it would work with shortbread, or with Mrs Crimble’s coconut cakes…
Dried fruit. I like to add chopped candied ginger or chocolate chips as well.
One egg per person

Butter the bread/cake/whatever. Make dried fruit (& ginger/chocolate) sandwiches and cut up. Put in a greased oven proof dish. Sprinkle with a little sugar – less if the bread is rich fruit bread or cake, more if it is plain bread. Beat eggs and milk together – about ½ a pint of milk to every three eggs, although obviously also bear in mind the depth of the baking dish so you don’t end up with a huge amount of excess fluid. Pour the egg and milk mixture over the bread and fruit and leave to soak for 30-40 minutes. Bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until the egg custard is set and the top is risen, golden and puffy. Good hot, warm or cold.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Erato strikes again...

At least I think it would have to be Erato - the Muse of lyric poetry. The other two poetic muses (Calliope and Polyhymnia) deal with sung poetry and epic poetry... I seem to have had an attack of poetry, anyway. The first piece is a bit ironic in retrospect, as it was written on the RFH terrace before the concert in which the lights failed; brighter dusk, indeed...

I had an encounter with Terpsichore this weekend, too, as yesterday evening was the start of the Scottish Country Dance class I have signed up for. Tremendous fun, though my legs ache horribly today. I am out of shape!

Back to Erato; thank you, dear Goddess, dear Muses!

October the First.

Nine months of the year
Gone by
Already, and I
Sit here
Under the luminous
Blue rosé wine
And cloudless sky
For the concert to start.

Trees still in full leaf,
Men still in shirtsleeves;
Handsome, some drunk
In the dusk
For the darkness to come
For the Thames to turn
Fire-red with sunset
Like my neighbour’s wine.

They shake hands, noisy,
Hearty, talking
As the evening
Draws closer in.
I rise to go.
The neighbour with the wine glass
Makes eyes.
The concert hall
Offers a brighter dusk, and I
Go in.

Saying goodbye.

Easy to let go
One who is so happy.
Your hope, your shape
Of the world
Once would have matched
So well with mine. Still
No matter. You stand
Grim with embarrassment
Admitting it – yes,
You’re happy, you have
Enough to have enough
And contentment
Has caught your sleeve
While you were planting
This garden.
I can step back
Releasing dreams,
Letting you go.
It is better so.

Sinfonietta. (for E-P S)

As autumn begins,
Cercis and sweetgum,
Cherry, rowan tree,
Also in turn begin;
Virginia creeper, berberis,
All turning, in
The light, the wind, the cold.

Autumn's brisk wind
Along the river
Slants through the trees,
Filling my mind
With light and air.
The bright leaves
Fall to the water.

The season spins
Its clear-coloured skein
On the spool
Of my mind, and rings
Bell-like, singing
With the memory
Of fanfares in the wind.

From the river
To the stars
Through the way of the leaves;
And from the music
To living heaven;
This turning world,
The light, the cold,
The fanfares on the wind.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Salonen the Golden, or, The Joy of Having Specialist Interests

I know the autumn has really begun when my Philharmonia subscription starts. Last night was the first concert I’d booked this year (I can’t afford to go to every one but I try to do six or eight in a season). It was a stunner. What with this and “Don Carlos” last week, my cultural life has restarted with a marvellous bang after the sluggish hiatus of summer.

I’m a big fan of the Philharmonia; partly for sentimental reasons – my father and my godmother both sang in the Philharmonia Chorus in their younger days – and partly because I happen to think they are a cracking good orchestra. Last night was a perfect case in point. Apart from being a breathtaking performance of three terrific pieces of music – two huge favourites of mine and something new that knocked my socks off – it was a concert marked by a rather unusual event, namely a power cut.

The band, as they say, played on.

They were only in total darkness for a few seconds, but prior to that the lights had spent about ten minutes flickering on-and-off, then dimming and brightening again, dropping to fifty-per-cent strength, and generally mucking about. Then suddenly boom! – pitch blackness. Right in the middle of “The Firebird”. After a moment, someone somewhere switched to a different lighting circuit, bringing on a very cold harsh light just on the stage and leaving the rest of us in Stygian gloom, instead of the normal soft warm ambience throughout the whole hall, and the concert finished under those conditions.

The orchestra were so unfazed one would have thought they rehearsed in darkness just for the discipline of it. I almost wonder if Esa-Pekka Salonen even noticed. I mean, he must have done; but on the other hand, he always gives the impression of being totally physically immersed in the music to the last fibre of every muscle, all of his energy swept into this one wondrous goal. Watching him on the rostrum is like watching someone dancing in a very confined space.

I’m a big fan of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Everything I’ve ever heard him conduct has come out as if new-minted; revelation after revelation. It’s thrilling. I don’t know enough about music from a technical point of view to know what it is he is doing, but he hits the spot for me. He just has the golden touch; he seems to be able to bring to everything he does that combination of perfect lucidity - so that the whole piece is explicated with absolute clarity and I sit there thinking “Of course, how wonderful; that’s how it’s put together and that’s how it works!” - with an equal and heartfelt measure of passionate feeling. That capacity to explore both structure and emotion, the interlayered play between tensioned forces, is one of my biggest delights. So many great performing artists are either great technicians or great stage animals, but not both at once. Those who are both are my big heroes.

I know, I know - it isn’t just him; there’s a big group of people down there, all of them highly skilled and at the top of their game, working with him. It’s just that the conductor is easiest to single out, for obvious reasons. To work as a united force is a significant part of being an orchestra; the conductor is the unifying factor, the wire through which all their multifarious energies are fused (not a good metaphor, excuse me). The musicians all come on quietly, and take their seats quietly, and quietly they tune up – that lovely stage when one is sitting in blissful anticipation – then suddenly this slender man with beautiful hands and hair the colour of manuka honey springs onto the rostrum, looking like a slightly wild hobbit in a suit, and everything just takes off.

Sorry, bad attack of the purple prose there. I have a bit of a crush, you will gather; if the man weren’t a) happily married and b) several inches shorter than me, it would be a huge crush, but these two useful limiting factors keep it to manageable proportions – small bureau rather than double wardrobe, size-wise.

I’m attracted to genius; and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway: They played “Sinfonietta”, with half the brass section up in the choir stalls to make the fanfares really ring out. I adore Janacek (why can I never find the right diacritical marks for Czech words? Grr…), and in particular I adore “Sinfonietta”. The end, when the fanfares and timps return, everything melding together like a triumphant yet yearning heaven, pulverises me, and this time I just gave up on being a True Brit, and sat and cried. It was wonderful. Then they played a new piece by Magnus Lindberg. I’m not familiar with his work and had come hoping not to be depressed by half an hour of atonal screeching; I was in luck, it was dramatic and lyrical and full of lovely open spaces – I think he was using a lot of very deep and very high sounds layered around the clear place between – I don’t know how to describe it, or indeed exactly what I am trying to describe – but it was one of those pieces of contemporary music that make one want to cheer and stand on the seat. And the text was lovely – Latin graffiti from the streets of Pompeii, everything from crude abuse through cries of “I love so-and-so!” and lists of market days to scribbles of incorrectly-remembered Virgil.

Then the whole of “Firebird”; absolutely gripping, dazzling, revelatory. The genius of Stravinsky, so complex, so subtle, simple and yet showy, brilliantly precise yet full of huge wallopping showstopping moments.

And with this wonderful example of group sang-froid when the lights went out, at one of the stillest and most delicate points in the score, the evening was altogether an absolute joy.

Yep, classical music may be a specialist interest, but I love it. Here’s to a good autumn. Next week I am going to “Wozzeck”; gulp. My Favourite Baritone is singing Wozzeck, and E-P S is conducting, so although I may need to take a few deep breaths, if I can cope with being harrowed halfway to hell and back it should be an impressive evening.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The date indicator

Today is Thursday
September 31st;
I am living in magic time.
No wonder the sky
Is this soft mystery of blue
No wonder the light
Is balmy with bees, the air
So scented
With the pure musks of autumn,
The sugar of ivy blossom.
On a mythical day
Anything is possible.
Still, I change my watch.

Talk about arrogant!

Have a look at this saga of horror!

An appalling story of plagiarism... Gives me the creeps just to read it, as well as making me very angry.

I do wonder, actually, if the perpetrator is not in fact an art student - the whole thing sounds to me rather like the kind of self-congratulatory bullsh*t that some of my contemporaries from KIAD would have got up to, with the long-term goal of "exposing" the whole story as a "Work Of Art"; winning a First in the process, I expect. But perhaps I shouldn't even mention such things, in case it gives this person ideas!