Sunday, 16 October 2016

European gardens, American nightmares

Asking around about good Edinburgh exhibitions over pasta and pizza at the excellent Bar Italia after Robin Ticciati's Scottish Chamber Orchestra Mozart over the road at the Usher Hall, I found my friend Julie passionately recommending the careful selection of Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson's American photographs at the Scottish Parliament. Further consultation revealed that Painting Paradise: the Art of the Garden, drawn from the ever-amazing Royal Collection, had moved on from London - where I missed it - to the Queen's Gallery at the entrance to Holyrood Palace just opposite. So that sorted my free afternoon for me.

Having done some of the tourist things I mostly missed in my four years as a student - I feel a Calton Hill chronicle may be in the pipeline - I descended into the valley and headed first for the Queen's Gallery. Greetings and farewells here were very personable, and I ought to briefly mention my post-exhibition chat with a Hungarian postgrad classics student - working as attendant here, undertaking very specific study on the nature of the ancient Greek koinoi within a narrow timespan - about the whole Brexit disaster, how much freer I feel up in Scotland, as I did just after the Referendum, and how none of the European employees without whom nothing would function seem to have had any of xenophobic grief I've been so horrified to report in north London.

Exhibit 1 isn't European at all, but in the first place it refreshed my memory about how 'paradise' comes from the Greek, coined by Xenophon to describe the wonder of Cyrus II's desert oasis, and in the second the image has as its centre what I'd regard as essential to every garden - and what we briefly had in our back yard until the management destroyed it: a fish pond. It's an exquisite miniature by  Hamse-i-Neva'i from around 1510, added to a manuscript when it was transferred from Herat to Bukhara.

From these beginnings you can move on within the exhibition either to some fine paintings illustrating the Christian imagery of the garden (the 'Hortus Conclusus') or to the more realistic images for the late 16th century Renaissance garden. The work of art used on the poster is Isaac Oliver's miniature A Young Man Seated Under a Tree, with the exhibition poster closing in on the knot garden in the background, drawn from the age's leading manual on garden design.

There's a touch more fantasy in the garden maze placed, by its background, in Venice. This comes from the imagination of  Lodewijk Toeput.

Needless to say, the Royal Collection is rich in paintings of the royal gardens. Most fascinating to me was what part of Bushey Park once looked like

as well as Kew, a couple of centuries later 

and it's fun to see the gooseberry trees in the plantations at Windsor.

Close-up details of plants and flowers come among others from Leonardo, no less, who needless to say took a scientific as well as an artistic interest in such marvels as the seed-heads of two rushes. If he planned a botanical treatise, as seems likely, it was left unfinished at his death.

Alexander Marshal's 17th century watercolours, pictured up top as placed in the exhibition around Adriaen Kocks' two pagodaesque tulip vases. Here are an (unspecified) tulip with common milkwort and white buttercup.

Detail is more witty and accurate than elegant in mid-18th century specimens from the Chelsea Porcelain Works 

and I liked another indoor oddity, the Vincennes Sunflower Clock of c.1752, acquired by who else but George IV in 1819.

There are token nods at the landscape garden, a fine high background to Gainsborough's painting of the Cumberlands and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell.

and one of Victoriana's most Biedermeierish images, by Landseer, focuses on the Queen, Prince Albert and the Princess Royal with selected animals and the East Terrace of Windsor Castle beyond, along which the Queen Mother is being pulled along in a bath chair.

The last swagger exhibit shows how Buckingham Palace's garden parties were conducted in 1897, when this one was painted by Tuxen, the exhibition disdaining to bring us up to date.

The 20th century takes over with more than a bang or two in Harry Benson's photographs of the American great and good, humble and dispossessed. His career properly took off on the wings of the Beatles' big success as American No. 1 in 1964, and there are plenty of fun, if posed images, like the famous pillow fight sequence

and their meeting with Muhammad Ali.

Two years later Benson was among the few photojournalists to accompany James Meredith on the March Against Fear, encourgaing African Americans to vote, and he has photographed all the leading political figures since. What's especially fine about this (free) exhibition is that both good and bad things come in twos and threes. The following pictures I went round taking at the end because there are no catalogue or postcards (copyright issues, apparently, but the warden was encouraging of my snapping). Compare young Hillary and Bill - the hammock image on the right is justly famous as a symbol of youthful idealism and love

with Donald and Melania. On the left he's holding up wadges amounting to a million dollars in one of his casinos, on Benson's suggestion, and the right image is pure trophy-wife-ism.

The tragedies and horrors are especially potent. Benson was there on the Robert F Kennedy campaign event which ended in assassination. Stunned like everyone else, he hung around to catch the horror of the event and the aftermath. The centre photo, of a bewildered young supporter at the end of a terrible day, really got to me. I found myself in tears more than one walking around.

The funeral of Martin Luther King shows the bewilderment of children

and there's a chilling contrast between Benson's photograph of Lennon's killer in jail and the protest against the murder.

Anti and Pro Vietnam War protesters in very strong juxtaposition: 

The three photos up top were taken at a Klu Klux Klan rally. The queasiness of the 'madonna and child' image has made it a classic.

Time and again idealism meets a terrible end, a paradigm of American history repeated again and again. But the showbiz side of the Presidency gives us some wonderful portraits; you can't hate the Reagans when you look at them in the picture on the left.

Troupers include Liza Minnelli,  Truman Capote, Sinatra and Farrow at the masked ball he organised,

Warhol and Bianca Jagger together, Dolly Parton in superb silhouette.

Two northern shots set the seal on Benson the photographer - one which captures the visionary side of Solzhenitsyn, and the other of Bobby Fischer among Icelandic horses on a lavafield  in between chess bouts in Reykjavik.

In such carefully chosen portrait scenes, Benson shows he's not just a photographer of circumstance. A true artist, I reckon.

All Queen's Gallery images - deemed as non-commercial fair use  - from the Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Harry Benson main images © Harry Benson

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Citizens of this mad, mad world

...unite! Give 'em hell, fellow Remoaners, Bremoaners, whatever the ghastly falsifying right-wing press which was largely responsible for getting us into this mess cares to call us today: it's our turn to be the gadflies now that the lunatic fringe of the Tory Party, having waged a war of attrition for years, has got what it wanted.

Of course the Conservative Party Conference was just an orgy of self-congratulation and puffery, destined to smash against the rock of reality this week. No way was Amber Rudd's 'policy' for getting companies to register their 'domiciled foreigners' going to pass muster in the outside world. But still they managed to alienate a whole raft of doctors and nurses without whom the NHS couldn't function* - and who have been helping it to function at least since I was a child - as well as 'loony lefty' human rights lawyers ('hands off our boys!'), the 48 per cent who voted Remain as a sneering metropolitan elite and, indeed, all those who had previously thought of themselves as citizens contributing in so many ways more than just the mere financial to a society that's still worth fighting for. I've already heard of the personal impact from Brexit's licence to hate - which this Conference will only have stoked - from my Polish friend Magda, as reported here. The current leadership must now be held to account for this.

As for Bray (= Brexit May), good luck all those people around the country whom she encouraged to 'take back control' at a local level when at around the same time the government overruled Lancashire Council's rejection of local fracking. Reports on the subject are helpfully rounded up here.

Like many of her colleagues, this woman with her 'Born Again' credentials no longer passes muster as a politician of conviction. Say what you will about Corbyn - like many, I left the Labour Party in consternation at his deliberately poor show during and after the referendum - but he seems consistent. Of course it sticks most in the craw of us liberals (not neoliberals, please) to be told by our unelected Prime Minister that we're actually 'citizens of nowhere'. I was reminded shortly after spluttering that the negation is even more offensive to those who've crossed half the world under impossible conditions now that there's no home for them in the country of their birth.

Alongside typically firm statements emerging from Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon - how I breathed more freely up in Edinburgh last Thursday - less familiar champions have emerged, too. LBC chat-hosts never used to be as articulate, in my experience, as a new hero of the day, James O'Brien. Having caught us all out by claiming to read out a couple of lines from Rudd's speech, only to tell us that they were from Mein Kampf Chapter Three, he was on top form pursuing Ashley, an amiable enough sounding electrician from Plymouth, on which EU law he didn't like. Couldn't name one, of course. And what didn't he like? Packs of immigrants wandering around the centre of Plymouth. But then packs of Englishmen were just as bad. Of course it was an unequal match; I'd like to see O'Brien's relentless logic versus the Three Blind Mice aka Brexiteers Johnson, Davis and Fox. But nailing the total lack of facts behind the average entirely delusional Outer's vote to leave is just as useful. Not on YouTube yet, but here it is on LBC in the meantime.

In the meantime, Blind Mice One, bumbling Boris, showed his usual diplomacy by recommending protests outside the Russian Embassy against the destruction of Aleppo. Protesters are not, in our democracy at least, liable to follow instructions from government, though God knows something has to be happen as the Russians ruthlessly target hospitals. Which is indeed a new depravity which the UK and America cannot be blamed for in Syria (what's Stop the War up to, making equivalence between the two?) It was not widely reported that at the weekend Russia again vetoed halting the attacks and returning to talks in the UN. Obscene. I want to hear from our valiant doctor in Aleppo again, and hope he's still able to function in some way.

As for the cesspit into which a man not fit to be called a politician - though still supported here by several extreme Tories who should know better - has tried to drag American politics, the entertainment aspect has vanished and all but the most diehard Trump supporters who steeled themselves to watch the second debate with Hillary saw the fangs and the male space-invading monster, not Farage's fine silverback. Still, though, there can be some innocent relief and of all the creative responses, this one I adore:

Preserving the link/embedding as much for myself as for anyone reading, since these are tonics to which I'll be happy to return in the future. And please, America, though a Trump presidency now begins to seem as unlikely as it has always been incredible, don't make a mistake which would be on an even more colossal scale than the UK's.

 Rant over. Not checking for grammar - let it be a spontaneous snapshot from this very strange time.

14/10 From the worst to the very best: here's the lady I hope will be the next President-but-one of the United States at her emotive best, remarkable not so much for her attack on Trump as for the way she uses it to follow her reactions to participating in Day of the Girl, for young women's education all over the world. I love that couple, even if Obama failed in one grave area - acting strongly enough when he could on Assad's use of chemical weapons. On the home front, I have nothing but praise. This speech is impressive for the way the whooping crowd goes silent with intense listening in the middle - something unthinkable at a Trump rally. Make sure to watch it all.

*Update - 13/10:  I met and chatted to quite a few, the salt of the earth, when I had my stent removed this morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. No need to ask if they're UK citizens or not, but the entirely delightful and friendly nurses were, inter alia, from the Middle East and what I guess to be Indonesia and my doctor told me he goes to North Kurdistan a lot. I'd like to have talked to him more but then the procedure - quick, weird and only briefly painful - went ahead.  This is the good side of our International Health Service, and there's no way we could do without these people.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Cellists at lunchtime

Steven Isserlis (pictured pulling a Harpo face, if not quite a 'gookie', in the second picture above with my friend the wonderful pianist Sophia Rahman, who knows him well from Prussia Cove, and Kazakh cellist Bulat Tynybekov) and Olli Mustonen may be the better-known names, and their Wigmore lunchtime programme of Schumann and Prokofiev much more familiar, but Richard Harwood in his solo recital on the last day of the Music@Malling Festival had equal ingenuity in his concert planning and no less soul in his playing. 

He's pictured up top with the indefatigable driving force of Music@Malling, violinist and conductor Thomas Kemp, on the right and a film composer they both know well from session work, Frank Ilfman, outside the converted 1942, Deco-inspired Control Tower of what was once an important airfield for bomber pilots in World War Two and is now Milton Keynesesque Kings Hill. The development is ambitiously managed by the American property trust Liberty, under the aegis of which Martin Apps took all the performer photos here and which also looks after the art gallery in the converted building where the recital took place.

Attempts to get to other events of music@malling were foiled by Chelsea and Westminster Hospital messing me about midweek regarding preliminaries to my stent removal post-hospitalisation (it's happening now early on Thursday morning). So getting to hear Bach in the chapel of the marvellous West Malling Abbey will have to wait until last year. But this belated expedition was totally worth it. Failing a talk on Peter and the Wolf (too many unruly schoolkids), Tom had asked me to compere the recital, but I felt I didn't know enough about the music and didn't have enough time to mug up. So I got to enjoy it as a spectator instead.

Richard has already recorded some of the pieces he included in his programme for Resonus, Composing Without the Picture: Concert Works by Film Composers. Some were in existence already, but he also had the ambition to commission new works, working as he does with many contemporary figures in the business. Personably introducing the ones in the recital, he pointed out the interest and challenge in getting musicians used to working with sound decks and/or big orchestras to focus their creativity on one instrument for a 'serious' concert context. Frank Ilfman was there to prove the point, talking about his Walking in a sea of sands with Tom (pictured above) before Richard gave the premiere. Circling high from a low point featured in several other works, chiefly the first of Ennio Morricone's Riflessi (1989-90). Interesting technique here: Morricone writes out all the notes without stems or anything else to indicate the length - that's up to the player. Richard held up the score to show us.

For me, the absolute highlights of a never less than engrossing sequence came at the beginning and end. Having only just got to grips with Ernst Toch's Speaking Music of 1930 in the uncannily flexible throats of the Theatre of Voices at this year's East Neuk Festival, I found the three-movement Impromptu from the end of his creative life (1963) a revelatory contrast. The first movement is airily diatonic, like late Prokofiev, the second pure scherzoid entertainment, the third deeply personal and troubling. It's marked Adagio, con espressione - quasi der Letzte Kampf. Toch's own 'last struggle' was with cancer - he died not long after completing Impromptu - and the war between serenity and sheer pain is well expressed here.

In a kind of ring composition, Harwood played another diverse three-movement work by way of finale: John Williams' pieces reflecting on the Afro-American experience. In 'Rosewood' there's the crack of the whip and -according to Williams' enticing note reproduced in the recording notes - 'the sound of the old steel-fronted guitar played by some of the early workers as they tried to ease the pain of their long hours in the field'; 'Pickin'' embraces with taxing virtuoso writing for the cellist the 'side-slap' and 'shoe-slap' dances; while the slow, inward finale reflects the lullaby of Rita Dove's poem 'The Long Way North' - an eloquent way to end. I'm going to download the tracks of the recording, and I hope you might do the same.

By the time we came out of the recital, the morning rains had cleared and the sun was shining on the Control Tower and the arc of rosebeds around it.

Strange to find this contemporary way of housing thousands in deepest Kent just down the road from West Malling itself, which still feels like a pure country town, meeting the fields and woods at various points. We had a very good lunch in The Swan before abandoning the plan to walk the Pilgrims' Way - the erratic pain which can still dog me from the stent manifested itself at just the wrong time - and strolling gently around town instead

It was good to see the church in daylight, and especially the glory in the chancel which I hadn't been able to note at last year's music@malling evening event - the Brett monument, of alabaster with black Ionic columns and a rather striking shrouded skeleton

as well as a creepy black Batman-style winged skull on the wall behind the recumbent couple

and (also creepy) a kneeling child behind their heads.

The repainting is gaudy but presumably not unfaithful 

and there's a fine sedilia to the right.

I couldn't find out much about the arms in the glass of one of the chancel's north windows - update: Tom tells me they belong to the Douce family who lived in a big house close by - but I like it anyway.

The light between the rains drew attention to the church tower (Norman base, attractive spire dating from 1837)

and its graveyard's situation on a hillock with the North Downs in the background.

No visible rainbows then, though we saw plenty amid downpours on the train journey back. But the sun held for our strolls down lanes

and around the Abbey, a very historic institution founded by that same Bishop Gundulf of Rochester responsible for the White Tower. In the 18th century Frazer Honeywood incorporated a new home into the ruins, and since 1916 an order of nuns has been established here. Which means that you can only go in during festival specials, but it's fun to glimpse the tower

and walk around the perimeter, which includes a handsome barn (where Sophia, Tom and another cellist, Adrian Bradbury, had performed as Chamber Domaine the previous afternoon)

and a fine fringe of beech trees

while walking back into town along Swan Street you pass a fountain where the abbey stream emerges.

Turner depicted this and other abbey views. The tower to the left of his image, courtesy of Tate Britain, is now more or less concealed by trees (maybe we'd better come here in the winter).  

The 15th century exterior of the gatehouse is fine too.

My dawdling meant we just missed one of the every-half-hour trains back to London, but sitting on a platform bench in the sun wasn't a hardship, and the Spanish chestnuts above were showering down their riches.

Monday afternoon's delights I've recounted in full on The Arts Desk, but it's good to be able to note the serendipity of Sophia's having performed the astounding Prokofiev Cello Sonata with both Steven and Bulat, and to record how well the Schumann strand tied in with a little book of deep thoughts and practical advice, namely this:

It's hard to choose my favourite nuggets - Steven selected several of his own in a neat little preview, also on The Arts Desk - because everything's good here, not just Schumann's maxims but also Steven's footnotes, which of course are a lot longer but manage to be personable and witty without ever tipping over into the arch. The keynote is immense personal affection and admiration - 'I'm writing this book because I need to profit from Schumann's wise advice as much as any other reader!'. It should be a well deserved moneyspinner and a perfect stocking-filler, and Faber's presentation is delectable, but there's plenty of profundity and knowledge lightly worn. To be re-read at regular intervals.