Thursday, 27 January 2011

Forgetting to mention and omitting to name...

A couple of other v nice things have happened in recent days. Apart from being given and starting to use the Luvverly Bit Of Kit (& being inspired by it to get on with revising "Ramundi's Sisters"), I have also heard the finest Mimí of my life (likely to remain so, too, unless someone truly extraordinary comes along) and had a tour of the Orchid Nursery at work with one of Kew's many lovely behind-the-scenes staff.

I can name the Mimí - the fantastic Elizabeth Llewellyn, singing in Jonathan Miller's production of "La Bohème" at the ENO - and I'll be looking out eagerly for more chances to see her in action. Vocally she's the best Mimí I've heard since my mum's old recording of Victoria de los Angeles. Add to that the fact she can really act and she's really young and very beautiful, and whee, you have a real treat. I cried my eyes out through almost the whole of the second half of Act 4. One of those "A star is born" occasions; and what with Ms Llewellyn, Amanda Echalaz, and Clare Rutter, ENO have now introduced me to the three best young sopranos I've heard in years. More power to them all.

I'd better call Mr Orchid Nursery Mr Orchid Nursery, though. I've discovered recently that one or two people at Kew occasionally read this blog, and I don't know who they all are! - heaven only knows what they find of interest, since it's mostly burbling about ballet and concerts and whinging about being an unpublished writer. I suppose there is the odd mention of plants...

Anyway, it was as always a pleasure to get "backstage" at Kew, and Mr Orchid Nursery is a very likeable bloke and an absolute mine of knowledge. There is something great ("great" sounds a bit feeble but I can't think of the right word - pleasing? gratifying? - I want to say "happiness-making" but that's an ugly neologism if ever I heard one!) - something great about being in the company of someone who really knows their stuff and is passionate about it, who is really happy and fulfilled in their passion for it, and articulate enough to pass their passion on (& who are not nuts, which sometimes does go with all that being-passionate, after all!). Kew has rather a lot of such people and working with them is one of the fringe benefits, if you like, of working here. So more power to Mr Orchid Nursery too. And to all his team, and to all those who are passionate about working here!

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Luvverly Bit Of Kit, Missus?

I've been given a gadget, and it has made a small revolution in my life.

Normally I'm not a gadget person; my father was, Baby Bro is; I'm a bit gadget-shy and also not at all keen on the "latest must-have" side of the consumer society I live in. I would literally never have gone out and bought one of these things, because a) I'm gadget-shy, b) I would have expected it to cost £200, and I could get a long weekend in Paris for that, and c) I didn't know they existed in the first place.

It's a thing called a portable diskette drive (I think that's the right name). It's a wee black box with a bit of cable hanging off one end and a slot for a floppy disk on the other. And using it, I can take the floppy disks that are all my ancient laptop at home will use, and transfer material from them to this slightly-less ancient computer at work. So I no longer need to trail out to West Ealing to London's scrubbiest internet café in order to upload or print off any writing I've been doing at home.

This probably wouldn't mean much if I weren't steadily trickling my way through typing up and revising "Ramundi's Sisters" and working on two other magnum opuses (magni opi?). But to a writer with out-of-date equipment, being able to get those bits of equipment to talk to each other is wonderful. So I love my gadget; it's a lovely Bit Of Kit! And if anyone wants to read two thirds of the aforementioned sicilian romantic epic, or fancies about half of the very loco real-world/fantasy clash "Midnight in the Café Tana", or the first four chapters of fairly straight (if slightly talky) SF "Fortitude", just let me know...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Imogen Awards 2010

Casting my mind back over the last year, there were, as ever, cultural highlights: Ladies and gentlemen, I present the winners of the Immies for 2010!

Best concert:
LPO, conducted Ösmo Vänska: Sibelius' 4th & 5th Symphonies, Royal Festival Hall, January.
LPO, conducted Jukka-Pekka Saraste with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann: Martinu Violin Concerto no 1 and Nielsen's 5th Symphony, Royal Festival Hall, December.
Philharmonia, conducted Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lemminkaïnen, Royal Festival Hall, October.

All Scandinavian conductors and almost all Scandinavian music, which is odd; but those were the tip-top outstanding performances in a very good year.

Best Play:
Fugard “The Road to Mecca”, Arcola Theatre, June. A brilliant revival of a deeply moving play, heart-rending and thought-provoking.

Best ballet and dance:
Royal Ballet "Asphodel Meadows", May. A clear winner; deeply exciting to see such a fantastic piece from a young choreographer just starting out.
Royal Ballet New Works at the Linbury Studio Theatre, June.
Royal Ballet "Sylvia", December.
Royal Ballet "Onegin", October.

A bit of a winning year all round for the Royal Ballet. Four peaks out of a year of great performances, ranging from the high tutu'ed classical to the brand new and stunning. A ballet company on a roll.

Best Opera:
The new ENO "Tosca", directed by Catherine Malfitano; beautifully sung, played and conducted (by Edward Gardner), a well and clearly directed traditional production with good designs and no superfluous silliness.
"The Tristan Project" at the RFH. Salonen does Wagner - a knockout performance musically and introduced me to the excellent Gary Lehman. The exact opposite of the ENO "Tosca" (& not just musically!) - a weird concept production, confusingly semi-staged, with bizarre video extras; but overall it was just stunning.
Sir Charles Mackerras conducting "The Cunning Little Vixen" at the Royal Opera House. Stagewise not the best production I've seen, but musically wonderful. RIP.

Best individual performances:
No contest for the winner
Linda Bassett as Miss Helen in "The Road to Mecca". A heartbreaking performance.
and three very good runners up
Amanda Echalaz and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Tosca and Scarpia in the ENO "Tosca".
Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli as Tatiana and Onegin in the Royal Ballet's “Onegin”.
Gary Lehman as Tristan in the "Tristan Project"

Best Exhibition:
"Kingdom of Ife – West African sculptures" at the British Museum.
"Christian Købke" at the National Gallery.

First tiny signs of spring!

Today as I was drawing my curtains onto the dark pre-dawn light, I heard, as well as the usual winter chorus of robins, a blackbird. No mistaking that melodious alto flute amid all the high whistles. Robins call and sing all winter but the other songbirds don't start until in the spring a young bird's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love (apologies to Tennyson's ghost)... So a blackbird singing in the morning gloom is a sweet sign of spring. At work today I have been admiring the early snowdrops, a glorious sight especially as it is a sunny day (if bitterly cold again) and then on my way out to get a sandwich at lunch I saw the first few brave little pale crocuses. The mild weather last week must have encouraged them (and this colder patch will probably stop them in their tracks again!). It is such a cheering sight, these first little quiverings of spring, as the cycle of the seasons turns steadily on.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Heart-breaking romance

As if that glorious piano recital last week was not enough, I was able to follow it up on Friday with a tremendous performance of “Giselle” at Covent Garden… Admittedly I cry easily (it runs in the family), but I was in tears several times during the evening. At Leanne Benjamin’s subtle, beautiful performance, at the fate of poor, hapless Hilarion (Johannes Stepanek in terrific form), and at the final, utter romantic sadness of the end.

“Giselle” is one of the oldest ballets in the repertoire – I think I’m right in saying that – and is rather different from the other big classics. It runs to two longish acts instead of three mid-length ones; its heroine dies halfway through, giving the dancer portraying her the chance to do both living passionate girl and feather-light ghost; and its principal male character is totally unheroic, in fact he’s a louse.

I’m very glad to have seen Edward Watson dancing Count Albrecht. He may not have quite the technical caroumph of some of the other blokes in the company, but he seems to agree with my opinion of Albrecht’s character, and that is undeniably satisfying; seeing him played as a romantic hero has always made me distinctly uncomfortable.

Watson does nasty people rather well. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice chap, but as a performer he does seem to specialise in obsessive lovers and tormented types. His Albrecht is blithely self-centred, enjoying his ability to seduce a pretty girl with happy thoughtlessness. You can really believe, when Giselle falls dead, that this is the first time he has ever had to deal with the consequences of his actions, or had to see the fact that his behaviour is selfish – and his immediate reaction is to lash out at someone else. By the end of his night of terror with the wilis, protected only by Giselle’s unfaltering devotion, he looks a wreck, wild-eyed and half-insane, and you sense he’ll never be quite the same again – not so much redeemed by the experience of love as shattered by it.

Leanne Benjamin isn’t one of the RB’s big names, but she is a dancer who knocks my socks off. She’s into her forties now; every season I fear she’ll retire quietly when I’m not looking - and I’ll miss her combination of fiery intensity and grace dreadfully when she finally goes. She was a terrific Giselle, her tiny physique perfect for the character of the frail girl longing to live life to the full and completely in denial about her ill-health. Albrecht’s betrayal literally crushes her; she seems to shrink as though the shock actually sucks the life force out of her, and her mad scene is painfully real. Her return in Act 2 both is and is not the same girl; the same loving personality, but now with a presence of the most weightless etheriality.

The rest of the cast was, as it were, batting right down the order – Deirdre Chapman as Giselle’s anxious mother, Gary Avis a bluff, well-meaning Duke, Yuhui Choe gorgeous doubling as a Pas de six peasant girl and a wili, Itziar Mendizabal an imperious Myrtha, nailing every jump, her beautiful El Greco face frozen to a mask of icy reserve. And I was really impressed by Johannes Stepanek’s decent, honourable Hilarion. He handles the largely mime-based work of Act 1 with lovely sensitivity, then produces powerful, passionate dancing as Hilarion is tortured to death by the wilis in Act 2. Hilarion is a tragic figure; the truer lover to Giselle in some ways, but as thoughtless in his way as Albrecht, unable to see past his jealousy and the conviction that he must reveal the truth, unable to see how much harm this particular truth could do. Still, thoughtless or no, he gets a bum deal and I am always sorry for him.

Mr Stepanek is one of several young men I have my eye on at the RB (oh dear, that sounds awful!! – especially given my tendency to crow over what hunks they all are…). They have some very fine dancers but they also have an odd habit of recruiting chaps who are solid wood on stage (recalls recent sad spectacle of Tamara Rojo emoting with every inch of her body to a blankly handsome young man like a dancing brick wall). I look at the blank chaps (when I have to) and wonder why others, who have the dancing chops but can also act, don’t get to the top. Why are some people (naming no names!) company principals while others, who look just as good to my eyes, are not? I suppose there are technical issues I haven’t the know-how to spot. But I’d like to see Johannes Stepanek dancing some MacMillan leads, for example – he’d be a lovely Romeo or Des Grieux… He’s a clean, elegant dancer and a strong partner, and he’s tall and good looking and he can act. What’s not to like?

Anyway, it was a terrific “Giselle” that pulled all the heartstrings and drew them taut almost to breaking point; and where “Giselle” is concerned, that is what one wants.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

I am officially in love...

...with Nikolai Lugansky (again). By damn, he is brilliant.

He gave a recital at the Queen Elizabeth hall on Tuesday night and it is hard to put into words just how beautifully he played. Ravishingly wholehearted romanticism and absolute technical clarity and precision, held together in a perfect balance... It was simply stunning.

I know I tend to wax lyrical at the drop of a hat - my enthusiasm for performing artists I admire is probably rather comical, looked at from the outside. But Mr Lugansky reduced me to tears (and that was with the Brahms, which is quiet and introspective music in comparison with the far more obviously emotional Chopin and Liszt that made up the rest of the programme). I do not think I'll hear finer piano playing for a long time. The holy art of music is well-served in this man.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Busy weekend

On Saturday I hit the sales and bought some cheap trousers, four new bras, and a pair of garden loppers. I also ran the washing machine, did the regular grocery shopping, and made soup. Sunday, I took the loppers and I went out and lopped. I got a little lopping crazy, in fact; and then leaf-raking crazy and compost-bin-filling crazy. Four hours worth of crazy in the garden. It was glorious - blissfully mild for January, with bluetits flying in and out of the conifers and a robin dogging me looking for grubs and reminding me that he's the boss... Then I did some cleaning, ate soup and spent the evening sewing. Today I am so stiff I feel like an octogenarian. My back! My knees! I love my garden, but it punishes me sometimes. It is so good though to look out of the kitchen window and not be staring into a mass of leaves - I was able to lop all those long whippy branches that were obscuring the view. Sometimes the best thing you can do in a garden is not to nurture and encourage, but to cut things back, so that the light and the air can come through for everything, and everyone...

It was a constructive weekend, though, no?

Oh my back. Oh my knees...

Friday, 7 January 2011

Busy busy bee

Whoah - did I say Happy New year? Crikey.

It's been a hectic first week of the year, with work surprisingly busy (January is normally deathly quiet) plus several pieces of bad news - a sudden death (not in my family, God be thanked, but the sister of someone I'm very fond of); another friend v upset and stressed with a pile of cr*ppy things landing on her all at once; another friend has been assaulted and has gone to ground completely like a bear denning, so I am worried about both of them and am telling myself they are both intelligent, sensible adults who will make wise choices and take care of themselves; and then someone I got on well with at work has left very suddenly and no-one knows why, so there is an uncomfortable mixture of worry and speculation in her wake - though pleasingly as yet no nasty gossip... And on the good side, at least my cousin's folks in Queensland are not in that bit of Queensland...

Well, it's Friday night now and despite the rain I am off home. Hurrah for weekends! - & may no more disasters happen during the next two days, please...