Thursday, 11 September 2014

Between the James Plays

Though I may not have seen a single thing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, three days in or near my Alma Mater gave as good a panorama of events as any I can remember. Central, of course, were Rona Munro's three wonderful James Plays: enough said about them already on the blog except to note that seeing them on consecutive evenings was a real festival experience, with much musing between.

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock cheered us after a dreary first afternoon in Edinburgh; J had been up since the weekend and it had been unremittingly cold, drizzly and grim. Then off he went back to his tiny cubby-hole in the otherwise spacious New Club, still in the thick of his conference, I to our dear friend Ruth Addinall's in Gilmerton (no further from Princes Street than Belsize Park is from the centre of London). Waking there was bliss. Ruthie had gone off for her early morning swim, so I padded around snapping. Here in quick succession are glimpses of the space where she teaches her lucky pupils, looking out on the wee garden she's always coveted,

the studio

and the desk beyond the kitchen, quite a picture in itself.

Avian activity in the garden continues, despite the loss of a favourite blackbird to a sparrow hawk. The Putins are still here, Mrs P always eager to take berries from the lady of the house's hand.

Wish I'd been here when a flock of waxwings* landed early in the year. One is preserved in an Addinall special.

After a typically generous and healthy breakfast, I took the bus to the Queen's Hall for one of the best recitals I've ever heard, friendly cellist Alban Gerhardt and a pianist who should need no introduction, the versatile Steven Osborne in Britten, Tippett and Beethoven (with a melting Schumann encore). No need to reduplicate anything on the Arts Desk review here. Then lunch up the road at Mother India, a Glasgow branch of which I'd taken the student godchildren to recently, and to the nearby Dovecot Studios, a favourite venue since the discovery of both it - no longer the Infirmary Baths of old, which I well remember - and the work of the wonderful John Burningham.

Before we hit the studio proper, J wanted me to see what he'd already watched - four very beautiful films featuring the special Harris Tweed designs of Dalziel + Scullion, immersing the models in four different Scots landscapes for the exhibition Tumadh (publicity image pictured above). I have to go to Lewis with its inland beaches, and the river-valley setting for Recumbent, allowing the wearer to lie down boulder-like with its pads on the back, was so evocative. I'd have liked a Recumbent myself, but at c. £3,000 for a tailor-made commission it's a bit beyond my budget. Sadly there are no available images of the tweedwearers in landscapes beyond this one.

Upstairs, on the balcony of the main studio where the Burninghams had been hung, the space was shared by a delicious selection of Craigie Aitchison paintings, etchings and tapestries, and a celebration of the links between Dovecot Studios and the Australian Tapestry Workshop. A few of them appear below, above work in progress on Magne Furuholmen's Glass Onion design.

I'd forgotten what a strong painter Aitchison was. This showcase from the Timothy Taylor Gallery included several of his Crucifixions: apparently his Slade tutor had told him that the subject was 'too serious' for him, prompting the devil of opposition.

Over the road in the Talbot Rice Gallery of Old College, the show Counterpoint was more variable -  a selection of eight artists representing '25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland'. Most topical was Ellie Harrison's installation After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?

On 18 September, 'the four large confetti cannons installed inside Talbot Rice's Georgian Gallery will only be detonated in the event of a YES vote'. Which, of course, is coming to seem increasingly possible, and all the very best to the idealists and their unknown future if that happens.

The one exhibit I'd like to follow up is Alec Finlay's Global Oracle, much preoccupied with the future (futurist fantasy) of bees. The book produced on the subject, with a fine compilation of poetry and prose, is one I have to get. Below, Navstar Satellites.

The calm of Old College, with only a lone seagull for company

was in marked contrast to Potterville (see It's a Wonderful Life) down in the Cowgate. I guess it was always a mass of drinking dens - we used to enjoy frequenting Bannerman's, especially around concerts in St Cecilia's Hall, but now, or at least in festival time, the street has a daytime reek of beer and is lined with big pubs offering multiple screens (and free fringe events - godson Alexander and his new band Tumfy and the Deecers played a gig at 2am after I'd left. He says, none too approvingly, that the Fringe is really the Edinburgh Festival of Drink).

Time out in the comfort of the New Club quickly yielded to Sister Marie Keyrouz and the Ensemble de la Paix in Greyfriars Kirk. The chief virtue for me was getting to hear music inside the Kirk for the first time ever. I never went in during my university years, even though my most regular haunt in first year, the Bedlam Theatre, is as close as could be, and only once or twice walked through the extraordinary graveyard. Anyway, quick shot of the done-over interior

and of the Greyfriars Bobby merchandise.

The faithful wee doggie's grave is close to the main entrance

keeping most tourists away from the fascinating decrepitude of the rest. I don't have any details about the chapels abutting the houses to the south, but admire how buddleia and ferns thrive.

This ensemble on the north-eastern side struck me as so quintessentially Scots.

So to James II: Day of the Innocents, a late-night drink in the astonishingly transformed space of the Dick Vet College and back to the Lambtons' at Chapelgill, Broughton-by-Biggar, where we've seen the godchildren grow up over the years. Here's the beauteous Kitty, sweet 18 and soon off to Aberdeen Art College, with her new kitty Milo (I could bore you with some very cute solo kitten shots but let's leave it at this).

The next morning was taken up with review writing and other chores, but we afternoon excursion to one of my favourite botanic gardens, or rather arboretum, nearby Dawyck. I always like to head up the hill via the mossy stone terraces of Sir John Naesmyth's commissioned 1830s stonework

and the view towards the (private) house, designed by William Burn to replace the one that burnt down in 1830

towards Heron Wood and the cryptogamic sanctuary. The beeches were looking lovely as ever - father Lambton is inspecting a grey squirrel in a trap at the foot of the nearest, part of a campaign to save the reds -

but there was little sign of above-ground fungal activity other than these young 'uns barely visible.

I love the mosses and lichen wrapped around, or dripping from, the silver birches at the top of the garden, but I've already shown them in all their glory in a mycological post as well as one from 2009, so here's a record of one of the oldest trees, a European larch (Larix decidua) planted in 1725. I like the idea of Naesmyth going round planting this and its like in the company of the great Linnaeus.

Nearby is the peeling bark of Betula chinensis, the Chinese dwarf birch, looking in both layers like a pianola roll (aren't the dashes purely ornamental?)

One conifer I should have noted down the name of really does boast blue cones

and the variety of greens across the valley was especially stunning at this time of year.

Must go back at the right time in spring to see the amazing blue meconopsis, which I've failed to grow down here. But that will depend on the future of Chapelgill; by then, Christopher may have moved back to Edinburgh.

After tea and cakes from Dawyck back home, it was time to catch the bus from Peebles for James III: The True Mirror and excellent fish and chips next door. This time J accompanied me back to Ruth's afterwards and we had another sunlit morning in her ineffable company before heading back for the train via lunch with Alexander in the superb Cafe de St Honoré. It won in two categories this year at the 2014 Catering in Scotland Awards - 'Sustainable Business of the Year' and 'Chef of the Year' (Neil Forbes, who uses only sustainable local produce). Check out the website, a beautiful piece of work. Over two days, J could attest to the restaurant's excellence across the board, though I'd have liked more spice and/or seasoning on my risotto. Since the diplo-mate does not permit any but the most remote of shots, here's a severed shot of our boy, much in demand now as a saxophonist, at lunch with J's hand to the right.

More on Alexander 'Betty' Lambton and Kurt Vonnegut in a post to come.

*Thanks to Sue below for banishing the 'lap'.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Deep opera at the Frontline

25 years of loyal service and, until recently, happy collegiality at the City Literary Institute are now to be followed by something partly different, partly the same. When relations with my line manager from Visual Arts (go figure, it's a long and unedifying story) went sour, and in the bigger picture the institution betrayed its socialistic ideals by axing or severely cutting back on core courses for the deaf and unemployed, I decided enough was enough (chapter and verse in the now-open letter at the foot of the post). The prospective stress of next year wasn't an option, and so I searched around for alternative venues to teach an opera course along similar (but not, to avoid any accusations of poaching, the same) lines.

The venue I fell instantly in love with isn't cheap to hire, but it has a lecture room/theatre on the top floor which includes my vital requirements - a big screen for DVDs and an excellent sound system. The Frontline Club in Norfolk Place, several minutes' walk from Paddington station - website here, with details of the course to go on there soon - was warmly recommended by a wonderful woman at whose behest I gave a series of private lectures earlier this year, Wendy Steavenson (she and her husband David live opposite).

Earlier this summer I went to see the facilities for myself, and had quite a frisson as I sat waiting in the handsome club room, half-overhearing the other occupant on the phone about Damascus and Istanbul, and browsing through a gritty book of Syrian images just donated by the photographer, a club member.  The Frontline was set up with a very serious purpose, as a charity to help the families of those reporters who'd lost their lives in the cause of telling the truth about war zones. It's full of interesting memorabilia and clean, handsome design.

So from 6 October I'll be running a course I've called Opera in Depth, and a year dubbed War and Peace: the nature of the venue drove me back for the planned first term to a work which isn't being performed in London this season, but which should provoke plenty of interesting questions about Russia in the 19th century, the 1940s and now: Prokofiev's flawed but most encyclopedic masterpiece, Voina i Mir to the Russians. I didn't see the livescreening of Graham Vick's second production for the Mariinsky Theatre - I was there before and during the first back in 1991, when I first met and of course then very much warmed to an inspirational Valery Gergiev, shame on him now - but I hope it will be available to see. It looks very different from the oak-tree-dominated vision of 23 years ago, not to mention the more classically handsome Konchalovsky production which followed that ten years later.

Second term will be devoted entirely to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, since Richard Jones will be rethinking his original Welsh National Opera production, featuring Bryn Terfel's role debut as a Sachs to match Norman Bailey, for ENO, and the summer will feature a new one for me in terms of lecturing, Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Normally there would be six operas a year, but these are all epics which need time. Below: the fabulous collage drop-cloth lit during the Prelude for Jones's view of Meistersinger as embracing the full breadth of German, or Germanic, culture to the present day. How many creative or recreative artists can you name?

I now have enough students to run the course and cover the costs of the venue, but I'd welcome more (the space seats up to 100). I've kept the rates to City Lit standard last year - £180 per term, which works out at £9 an hour - and the day, Monday afternoon, with a slight shift in time, owing to the Frontline's schedule, to run from 2.30 to 4.30pm. You can buy drinks at the bar and bring them in, and the restaurant on the ground floor is excellent. If you fancy any or all of the terms, or simply want to know more, I'm going to do that taboo thing of giving my email here: contact me at I can also send a pdf flyer with more details.

One shame is that the 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' course has bitten the dust, at least temporarily. What I want to do there is run six classes over the year linked to the works I was most looking forward to talking about, the Nielsen symphonies, with contemporary Sibelius for comparison. Student numbers depending, these will be at the church around the corner, St Andrew's Fulham Fields, which has a lecture space upstairs for rent much cheaper than the Frontline (here, of course, I wouldn't need the screen). More details likewise on request.

It saddens me, of course, to say farewell to the City Lit, which initially brought me together with The One (we met at City Lit Opera  28 years ago, singing in Act One of Bohème - he as Colline, I as Schaunard - and our relationship first flourished when we went up to Edinburgh to perform Gianni Schicchi on the fringe: thank you, godfather Giacomo). Several years later, thanks to Ma(rgaret) Gibbs, who ran the opera group, I came into the orbit of the wonderful music department: how I loved working with the three successive heads, Graham Owen, Moira Hayward (where are you, Moira?) and Janet Obi-Keller, who was effectively driven out by the changes. Julia Williams was, and is, the best and most dependable co-ordinator I've ever worked with.

I've been privileged to be able to invite great musicians to both classes. I count Richard Jones as such since he was an accomplished jazz pianist for many years (in effect still is). He came twice, first to talk about Meistersinger between the production and the Prom, and then last year to discuss Gloriana. Both these events I recorded, but for private use; I need to transcribe them. He's very funny and an accomplished, light-of-hand tease. We laughed a lot and on each visit I gave him a gift for giving of his time: initially Journeying Boy, the diaries of the young Benjamin Britten, and at the time of Gloriana, tongue in cheek , the kitschy Britten and Pears cufflinks issued for the centenary. ' I don't suppose you wear such things', I said. 'I will now', he replied. Here he is looking at them in some bewilderment.

More recently we had the generous and easy Mark Wigglesworth come to talk about conducting Parsifal.

Again, too many revelations and perceptions to summarise - a full transcript is needed - but it was also a happy occasion. I like Mark so much and I hope the feeling is mutual. If the troll known as 'AndrewandJoshua' is still lurking, here's a gift of Bad English Teeth (mine, not MW's) for him/her.

The book I gave Mark was the most painfully truthful autobiography I've ever read, Behind Closed Curtains by the great Isolde of the 1980s (and, I think, one of the best of all time), Linda Esther Gray. Linda has become a good friend since moulding the diplo-mate as a Heldentenor; we love her very much. She, too, visited the class twice. I might have used this shot before - haven't looked back - but here we are at the end of term class meal, to which of course she was invited.

While I'm on the subject, a gallery of some of the many wonderful and modest players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra who've visited the Tuesday evening class seems in order. Sadly I didn't take snaps of visiting composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir (whose visit I missed owing to illness), but many of the orchestral musicians are here. First, the only one of the four quartets I photographed - others were two sets of violas and the Merchant Quartet. The Helikon Quartet have had to put their playing on hold due to the great news that Rachel Samuel and Graham Bradshaw, to the right, got together (married? I hesitate to assume) and had a child. To the left are Patrick Wastnage and Nikos Zarb, who've visited on other occasions too.

Other string combinations were a duo, Mark Sheridan and Donald Walker with his lion-headed double bass

and a trio who gave us such rich programmes (Martinů, Dohnányi, Mozart): Anna Smith (whose grin I love in the Arts Desk photo of Elektra between Goerke's heroine and Felicity Palmer as a manically triumphant Clytemnestra), Kate Read and Michael Atkinson.

Not pictured, but no less treasured among other string players are brilliant youngster Peter Mallinson, Celia Waterhouse and Danny Meyer, who introduced me to Igudesman and Joo (don't miss their Barbican appearance on Monday week); among brass players, several visits from horn doyen Chris Larkin and trumpeter Martin Hurrell, who could have an alternative career as a standup comedian and who has often come with his lovely partner Liz Burley, the BBCSO's consummate resident pianist and celesta player; among wind, shakuhachi and flute exponent Richard Stagg, my oboe hero Richard Simpson and a wind trio of young clarinettist James Burke, Alison Teale whose cor anglais solos have been so melting a part of the concert scene and long-serving bassoonist Graham Sheen. The ones I can show you are erstwhile contrabassoon principal Clare Glenister*

and our most recent visitor Katherine Lacy, who played amazing rep on several clarinets including the solo movement from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (here she's holding the bass variety in the company of the most delightful if small class - half aren't present in the pic - I've ever had the pleasure to teach. Two, by the way, are budding composers).

Last but not least came Sioned Williams, one of the world's great harpists and also the most sincere and compelling of speakers. I've already written about her most recent visit here, and rather than repeat the images, here's another of composer Paul Patterson with Sioned trying to persuade husband Ali, her 'tecchie' for the evening, to come in to the picture. Don't miss Sioned's Southbank recital on 14 October of works she's commissioned for her big birthday. She's offered to come and talk about it/play a bit after the event at St Andrew's. If I can get the numbers for it, this could open the door to more player visits.

Those are the happy memories, as are all the classes and the countless students who have become good friends, among the departed, Trude Winik, Martin Zam, Elaine Bromwich and Naomi Weaver. The writing was on the wall about the changed City Lit when I wanted to have tributes to Elaine and Martin on the website to show what adult education was all about, and was told this would be 'sending out the wrong message to students'. Nothing has been too much trouble in honour of them and their kind (and yes, I've had a few pains, but they've always been a very small minority).

The grim note is something you don't have to bother with, but should you have the patience to read on, just for the record this is what I wrote as a letter of resignation. I see no reason why it shouldn't be public knowledge. I got a curt 'thank you for your service' reply from the offending tutor, and nothing from any of the other City Lit staff I ccd, including the principal and the acting head of music. The final death-blow to the likelihood of returning came this week when I found out from another tutor that in mid-August the music appreciation courses had  returned to their rightful home - and nobody told me. The new opera course is a done deal, but I could have reinstated the BBCSO course as I said I'd have been willing to do under these very circumstances. Too bad. Anyway, here's the resignation letter.

After 25 years, 23 of them in very happy harmony with the administration of the music department, I have come to the painful decision to leave the City Lit. In the past two months especially I have found the situation unpleasant and stressful with what from my perspective feels like bureaucratic bullying.

There is no point itemizing here why I feel I have been so badly treated. I have already responded in detail to several emails from you which in my opinion were unacceptable; if anyone ccd wishes for further chapter and verse, I am happy to provide them. Those earlier responses, like many others when I had a criticism to make in return for what I felt were unjust conclusions, were ignored – one of them not only by you, but also by your own line managers. 

It was never satisfactorily explained why the incredibly popular music appreciation courses were moved from the Music D. epartment, where they so obviously belong, to visual arts. The whole thing began with a falsehood, demonstrable in the email exchanges: you claimed the superlative Head of Music, Janet Obi-Keller, needed help with the burden of the courses she was dealing with, while she strenuously fought against the change. The way she was pushed out of the City Lit, whoever may have been responsible, was a disgrace.

In my opinion these courses need to be returned to the Music Department as soon as possible, in which case I would certainly consider teaching at the City Lit again. As it is, our email correspondence has escalated from being a cause of irritation to an untenable feeling of anger on my part – hence the belated decision to withdraw.

The latest wrangle began over what I perceived as mishandling of the blurb I sent for the opera courses. What you, or the City Lit admin, came up with - composers' names, not the titles of the operas - was indeed 'nonsense' as it made no sense. But you objected to my tone.

The last straw for me was the e-mail you sent on 23 June listing points which you expected me to abide by were I to teach next academic year. There were reasonable as well as unreasonable expectations, but even the former were insulting. What do my years of service and the glowing reports of the majority of students mean if not that I am already carrying out what you expect on the quality front?

You need to treat lecturers with decades of experience more respectfully. As I wrote before, we should be working together, not as inflexible boss and humble employee.

Perhaps you should pay more attention to what the students think. Mine were very emotional yesterday when I told them I would not be returning; two were even in tears. Students' voices in general have not been sufficiently heard in the current unhappy situation. It's time to shift the focus.

Yours very regretfully,

David Nice

*From one of the many supportive emails sent by BBCSO players, I learn that Clare has just complete her UCLA Scandinavian studies (BA in Norwegian) and is writing a Nordic crime novel. All the very best to her.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Roaring our heads off

...for these two, Nina Stemme and Donald Runnicles (which also means the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra), in a shatteringly great Proms Salome. No need to add much to the rave over on The Arts Desk but I wanted to include a few more of Chris Christodoulou's photos, which arrived as usual punktlich not long after I got back from the Albert Hall last night.

The above came from him after I'd asked for a landscape of Nina, preferably with Donald, to lead. Before he fired them back, I'd already cropped the money shot, and unless he objects don't want to replace it. Hence the second home. There were also others I couldn't use over there. Doris Soffel, having made little impression on us as the Countess in the Zurich Queen of Spades, really had a ball with Herodias, and Runnicles let her hold on to her top A at 'schweigen!' for what seemed like an infinity. Here she is with Stemme.

I mentioned the shame about the slight dependence on scores and music stands from most of the men - Samuel Youn's Jokanaan honourably excepted - but this shows that character tenor Burkhard Ulrich wasn't beyond acting it out as Herod.

Cheers, too, for the Narraboth, Belgian Thomas Blondelle

and Ronnita Miller from St Petersburg, Florida, now a Deutsche Oper principal, as a lustrous 'Page'.

It was a company show, no doubt about it: what a team Runnicles has in Berlin. But ultimately it had to be Nina's night. Doesn't she look, in relaxed mode, like our own intense non-singing (as far as I know) actress Olivia Colman?

Oh, and if you're curious to know who the boors were behind us, shouting 'sit down!' when I rose unhesitatingly to my feet after the shield-crushing, I'll go so far as to say that the only one of them I recognised - and they were all obnoxious in their self-expression before the invisible curtain rose - was a distinguished and, by all accounts, Mensch-like singer who must have welcomed a few standing ovations himself in his time. Shame on them.

1/10 As outlined in a comment below, this was everything the following (last) night's Elektra was not. Ed Seckerson expresses everything I felt in his review for The Arts Desk, not least so eloquently nailing the problem of Christine Goerke's upper register. And he's also right to say that Felicity Palmer's Clytemnestra was the star of the evening. What's the caption here? 'Yes, I'm still better than you, my girl, even at 70'?

Even so, in an ideal dramatic world, Clytemnestra shouldn't be either so old or so visibly raddled. After all, she's the mother of a 20 year old girl, and her decay is inner. Which is why you'll never see a better portrayal than Waltraud Meier's in the great Patrice Chereau's last stand. In fact this is one of the most riveting opera DVDs ever made, and Evelyn Herlitzius - slight of frame, searing of voice - IS Elektra as far as I'm concerned. For some reason my BBC Music Mag five-star review isn't up on the erratic website, but need I say more here? Don't waste time on the iPlayer broadcast of the Prom; buy the DVD.