Sunday, 25 June 2017

Music for a few

Not that any of these fine performers would have had any objections to playing and singing to as many folk as possible. But I count myself immensely privileged to have been among a select crowd for three heartwarming events over the past month-and-a-bit. First came my young friend Ed Picton-Turbervill performing Bach's Goldberg Variations in the comfortable surroundings of the Master's Lodge within St John's College Cambridge prior to the launch of a beautiful and original book (more on that anon).

Then I was in the lucky position, following our very own Europe Day Concert, of hearing four more extraordinary musicians from the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in a Nordic programme at St Clement Danes' Church, starting with American soprano Francesca Chiejina accompanied by Artistic Director David Gowland (photos of this event courtesy of Roger Way).

Last week, on a hot evening, a standing crowd mostly made up of so-called 'classical industry' folk was supremely responsive to the irresistible exuberance and art-concealing-art sophistication of Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike and his 'Alehouse Boys' in another evening of hyper-crossover at the very highest level (photos in this instance by Matthew Long).

Ed had already played the Goldbergs once already before a packed house on the previous evening. This one was for friends and family, lucidly paced so that brilliant fanfares really did steer us towards a natural ending. He speaks so well on music too, and justified prefacing the Bach with the favourite piece about which he'd written the dissertation which went towards his double first. It's one I love to bits too, Brahms's A major Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2 and with a flair for potent programming, EPT went straight on to the Bach, having asked us not to applaud.

We left the family to a picnic which eventually got broken up by a heavy downpour and went for sausages in a nearby pub, then I to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, about which I should write more, but here in the meantime - in case I don't - is a view from above of the totem pole and other ethnographic treasures in the MAA's big upstairs room.

Back to the Master's Lodge for a reception and presentation. Facsimiles were generously provided for those of us who didn't have the dosh for either version of the big specially-printed original. Which was open at the end of the dining table where our copies were also lodged for collection.

Talking Through Trees is a free ramble - mythos rather than logos, the author tells us - around the splendid specimens, great and small, of St John's substantial territory by the Cam, with which EPT as arborialist supreme (climbing included) entered into intimate communication while an organ scholar at the college (he's now studying in Heidelberg and debating whether to go into environmental work or train as a doctor).

Each short paragraph has a number by it indicating its place in the chronological order of writing  (beginning, consequently with 219 followed by 79, 179, 80 and so on. I believe this was a hint taken from How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence by Christopher Potter, who came to lunch at our place with Ed and his then partner Kristaps). What kind of a work is it? 'As a book is to a booklet, so this "treetise" is to a pamphlet. It is therefore a "pamph" '.

EPT is often poetic. I give you a brief sample, about the Wordsworth Oak: 'The finest feature of this Oak is undoubtedly its bark. Under tremendous pressure as it expands outward from the cambium, it buckles and snaps into rocky canyons, rivers of clefts that spread across the smooth surface of the tree'. But he can also be witty - having quoted four lines of Wordsworth which, after lofty inspirations by Gerald Manley Hopkins and Ovid via Ted Hughes, made me titter, he comments 'If it were not by Wordsworth, I would never have put that nasty piece of doggerel into my pamph'. Here's the author alongside his original benefactor Lady Margaret Beaufort.

When six years ago (ouch!) I went to Eton to talk on Prokofiev at this enterprising scholar's instigation - his father told me at this meeting that he'd pushed him forward after my Salome talk at Covent Garden to make the invitation - he told me he was saving his pennies to buy the very special books produced by a press in Wales. This was The Old Stile Press, and this is his first publication in conjunction with them, generously funded by the moneybags college and illustrated with woodcuts by Angela Lemaire, a regular OSP collaborator.

The perfect excursion ended with a special Evensong in St John's Chapel. As I've remarked before, the choir and its director are infinitely superior to those of King's College (sorry, Father Andrew). Once in a while they incorporate a Bach cantata with college instrumentalists into the service. This time we got not only 'Bleib bei uns', BWV 6, but also Vivaldi's Magnificat and, to frame the service, the Adagio from Bach's Concerto for Three Violins, BWV1064 and the Overture from the Orchestral Suite No. 4. Then we left the young 'uns to their parting and went over the road for a cheap and cheerful Chinese with Fr Andrew (who's just, incidentally, been filmed singing with Courtney Act. You'll either know that name or you won't. Suffice it to say that Season Nine of the series in which Australian drag superstar Courtney was a finalist way back when has just come to an end. I can't say I cared who won this time, but certainly the best lip-syncher took the crown).

The profane was the order of the afternoon at St Clement Danes on 9 June, though the power of love is well expressed by Sibelius and Grieg, among others. And how rapturously through the lyric-soprano gold of Francesca Chiejina, starting the programme with songs from  Grieg's gorgeous Op. 48.

Any fast vibrato here is offset by luminosity; I can't wait to hear her in Strauss. And as the picture tells us, she really engages with the audience. It's something that Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim and Ukrainian baritone (or so he now advertises himself; I would say the near-miss with 'Erlkönig' and the lower-register beauty of his Lange Müller 'Diset hede' suggests he's still very much a bass-baritone) Yuriy Yurchuk have yet to do (Yurchuk pictured below). Augen! Eyes, please, gentlemen!

But that's why they are, or in Yurchuk's case have/has been, on the YPYAP programme, to develop their performing skills. And facing an audience at closer range in a song recital is perhaps more daunting than acting on stage. The quality of their instruments was never in doubt for a moment, and even if Kim's 'Ich liebe dich'/''Jeg elsker dig' seemed a bit stretched out for the spontaneous effusion of rapturous love it ought to be, the climax was pure operatic-tenor bliss. Here he is with conductor-repetiteur James Hendry, who made exquisite work of two Aquarelles by Niels Gade.

Gowland was impressive, too, in Stenhammer's epic B minor Fantasy, though the sound of the piano made me guess either Yamaha or Fazioli; Yamaha it was. Never understood why Richter favoured it for Rachmaninov. The rebuilt Wren church acoustics are over-reverberant, too, but it's a splendid place to be with its RAF accoutrements and what I also guessed correctly to be a Grinling Gibbons pulpit (sadly not quite visible here).

And so to a venue with which I fell in love immediately, the Bush Hall, a converted Edwardian dance venue on the Uxbridge Road which I have my eye on for a future party. The ensuing photo courtesy of the BH website.

Not only was this the perfect place for Bjarte Eike's blissfully unamplified 'Alehouse Boys' - in other words players from his Barokksolistene and friends - but the atmosphere was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in any sort of concert. I've heard them in action twice before, and each time - at the Spitalfields Festival and in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse after Barokksolistene's The Image of Melancholy programme - it was wonderful, but this rose if possible even higher.

First, let it be said (again) that all the artists are not only at the top of their game but absolutely charming - and not just the Norwegians (I have to say that for me the cherry on the cake this time was the absence of a certain English vocalist who is not quite in the same league and lacks their total ease. Note to players: stick to the unique vocalising of viola-player Per T Buhre). You do wonder whether a woman or two might join the boys, but as they're all in touch with their feminine side there are no worries about it being just a 'blokey evening'.

Add to that an audience of folk in the know, ready to go with anything, and you had the most amazing symbiosis - we 'Prommers' knew when to clap along, when to keep silence on a moment's notice, how to respond so that the 'magic triangle' Britten talks about of composer, artist and listener really was at its most magnetic.

The basic numbers were the mix as I've experienced it twice before, but the special charm and 'liveness' is in the improvisations. I well remember how Fredrik Bock can turn his guitar flamenco, what artistry we get from double-bass player Johannes Lundberg, the exhilarating foot-stamping and leaping of genuine oddball Steven Player.

I'd hoped to take along two of the godchildren, who couldn't make it in the end, but 17-year old Lucien with his mum Clare, who's disappointed to know that Bjarte is a married man, along with the two very switched-on sons of my friend Joe Smouha, left me in no doubt that this absolutely works for everyone. A stunning evening. The band is back at the Globe in October, this time in the big O rather than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but they also need and deserve a late-night gig at the Proms. In the meantime, do buy their CD. I have certain reservations about the vocals for reasons stated above, but I've made my own mix with soulful numbers from Eike's CD masterpiece, The Image of Melancholy, and that to me is perfection.

What better way to end than with a YouTube 'taster' for the disc which includes several very typical improvisations? Obviously they have to issue a DVD next. But being there's the thing.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Ramadan at the Fatih Mosque

Last June in my longest stretch of time free from the 2016 Istanbul Music Festival I started a slow progress along the hills and mosques above the Golden Horn away from the main tourist zone - which stops around the Grand Bazaar - and devoted a couple of bewitching hours to the Süleymaniye complex. I still think that should be everyone's first stop for its combination of beautiful gardens, stunning views, iznik-tiled türbes (mausoleums) and fine vast interior - not to mention the most perfect tea-garden over the cobbled street from the main entrance - but this year's subject, prior to an afternoon concert in the bazaar which proved an apt finale to my weekend of unusual events, was no pygmy either. The Fatih or Mosque of the Conqueror is named after Sultan Mehmet of said sobriquet and was the largest in the Ottoman empire at the time of its construction by Sinan the Elder (something of a mystery figure compared to the famous Sinan) between 1463 and 1470. It still remains among the giants of the Islamic world.

I understand the dates are given on the inscription over the entrance portal here. But the mosque proper was destroyed in the big earthquake of 22 May 1766, reconstructed on the orders of Mustafa II to a different plan and completed in 1771. According to the indispensable Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, 'what remains of the original complex is most probably the courtyard, the main entrance portal [note the boy on roller-skates],

the mihrab, the minarets up to the first serefe, the south wall of the graveyard and the adjoining gate; all the other buildings of the complex were badly damaged but were restored presumably in their original form'.  In addition to the mosque, courtyard and graveyard, 'the külliye consisted of eight medreses and their annexes [the southern group included here, still under renovation],

a tabhane or hospice, a huge imaret, a hospital, a kervansaray, a primary school, a library and a hamam.'

Inside the walls, all human life was there, and enjoying itself - but of course not eating or drinking. My approach was via the Atatürk Bridge - not as pedestrian-friendly as the parallel new train/walkway bridge nor with the interest of the fish restaurants below the otherwise not very attractive Galata Bridge, but with similar numbers of fishermen. I rather like the industrial semi-wasteland on the messier Pera side

but clearly the skyline across the Golden Horn is more attractive, and though the cityscape isn't quite as magnificent as what it becomes towards the peninsula (this taken from the roof of the hotel earlier that morning, with the Galata Tower in the foreground)

this will do. You can just see the Fatih Mosque on the far right.

One of the great pleasures of strolling in Istanbul is walking through the districts climbing up the hillside. The Fatih area is no exception

and has its good share of old wooden houses,

some painted in unusual colours.

I came across the entrance to the complex from a lively shopping street; some shopkeepers had taken advantage of little patches of earth to grow plants and vegetables in front.

First apparent, on the approach from the south east, was the türbe complex built in 1817-18 for the wife of Abdul Hamit I, putatively one Aimée Dubuc de Rivery, cousin of the Empress Josephine and captured by pirates. In the last stages of renevation, like the medreses, its style is appropriately Baroque-empire.

Then there's the Çorba Kapisi, the Soup Gate so named from its proximity to the public kitchen.

Sumner-Boyd and Freely ask us to 'notice the elaborate and most unusual design in porphyry and verd antique set into the stonework of the canopy, as well as the 'panache' at the top in verd antique'.

I sat for a while in the shade by one of the fountains on the south side

looking over to the flags and the main mosque building

before approaching the aforementioned main gate from the west. More 'verd antique' here, with the first Surah of the Quran written in white marble letters on six lunettes. The calligraphy, according to Sumner-Boyd and Freely, is unique.

It seems appropriate to quote from the second Surah - I blush to say I haven't got much further in my reading - since I was accepted both in the courtyard and inside the mosque; no-one stared or suggested the slightest hostility. And since so many were on their mobile phones and/or photographing, it seemed it was fine for me to do that too. Here are lines which, having accepted that 'Jews, Christians and Sabaeans - all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds...will be rewarded by the Lord', go on to state (v.84): 'Remember when We made covenant with the Children of Israel, "Worship none but God and be good to your parents and to relatives and orphans and the needy. And speak kindly to people. Attend to your prayers and pay the zakat [prescribed alms]" '. Seems very even-handed to me, even if my idea of being 'religious' is a good deal looser.

You'll see that it's a lively scene. A girl on a scooter in the distance here,

that boy on roller skates whizzing past the woman and children washing or sitting at the central şadirvan with its conical cap roof resting on eight marble columns.

The portico's marble columns are just beautiful.

This man of God is perhaps reading, but on his smartphone.

Sumner-Boyd and Freely are not complimentary about the interior, though its reproduction of the standard format, four semidomes flanking the central one, gives the appropriate sense of grandeur

while the human scale is amply represented by boys half-reading,

a chap lying and talking into his mobile phone

and others just sleeping.

More reading and praying at the east end here.

Exiting by the south portal, near where I'd laid my shoes, in the company of a venerable elder being helped by another,

I walked along to the graveyard with its assemblage of cats

and flowers between the türbes - jasmin with its heady scent

and roses.

From a brief glimpse inside, the main türbes didn't look up to the standard of the ones in the Süleymaniye - which are? - but there were lively crowds around them.

Much attention was paid to a seagull feeding her young on the top of a nearby tomb.

Then I made my way out, alongside bustling Fevzi Paşa Caddesi and past the Medrese of Feysullah Efendi, where I dropped my camera trying to poke it through the railings.

The memory card was damaged in the process, so I was unable to take more pictures that day (you may be relieved to know). A pity for me, at any rate, since the red-backed lunette designs in the courtyard of the beautiful Şehzade Mosque would make a nice complement to the larger-scale wonders of the Fatih. But there's always next year to return and spend more time here...

In the meantime I wish my Muslim friends and acquaintances a happy Eid al-Fitr when Ramadan comes to a close tomorrow (Saturday) evening.