Thursday, 23 June 2016

Remain with Tillmans



24/6 Any updates in the comments (do add if you feel like it). I haven't the spirit to put up another piece on this craziest of days.

My New Best Friends in the Gildas Quartet reacted with this photo to the Wolfgang Tillmans-designed T-shirt I wore at a fascinating mini-conference on press and young artists organised at the Goldsmiths' Centre in Farringdon by the City Music Foundation. I could only stay for an hour because I had to rush to get a tube, bike, train and bus to Garsington for what turned out to be a first-class Idomeneo (an opera, incidentally, by an Austrian about Greeks and the forerunners of the Turks with an Italian libretto, performed by Brits and one Australian, with a Swedish conductor, and I'm making a guess, though I can't find it confirmed anywhere, that vivacious assistant conductor and chorus 'master' Susanna Stranders is Danish).

That was a shame, since the CMF artists seemed like a lively group, and I know and admire several, like the pianist Samson Tsoy, already. The panel consisted of lovely Maddy Castell from the BBC (below, foreground left), Kimon Daltas, Editor of Classical Music and sometime contributor to The Arts Desk (right) and myself. The Gildas Quartet are on the left.


It was a rush beforehand, too - had to go and pick up two of the T-shirts designed by Tillmans by cycling via the Serpentine Gallery, where I had a lively chat with the very nice woman in the shop. She thought I should flout the 'antiquated dress code' of Garsington by displaying one or t'other, but of course in the end I didn't have the nerve, merely opening my white shirt to reveal the message to selected punters. Here are the shirts sported by model, the simpler message first


and the one I really like, which - since I took the shot in the mirror as the others didn't work well - needs interpreting: 'No man is an island. No country by itself'. I hope to get to wear it after today by simply adding a 'd' to 'Vote' at the bottom.


Worth adding a few more of Tillmans' manifestos to the ones I've already posted. The list of hostile names on the Brexit side has become more piquant, though of course Trump with his unequivocal support for Out - is he really coming to the UK today? - isn't there yet.


and the messages crystal-clear.



As a recent reminder of the darker forces at work, just read this on my main source of information about Russia, The Interpreter: some vile misfit has been insinuating to a state-owned TV channel that the murder of Jo Cox might have been a put-up job. Negativity knows no bounds. Yet in all the nastiness of the past weeks, there's been more resourceful humour. This one I like


as well as one aimed at the oldies who are most likely to vote Brexit - 'Vote Leave on Friday'.

But enough - though it'll be on my mind all day, and at the first night of Jenůfa at ENO before we go on to some gathering or other. A few calming floral scenes from Garsington, which obliged with sunshine after the rains and before the big storm last night.




Finally, one good piece of news: Jonathan Bloxham, very talented cellist and conductor, and my guest at Garsington last night, has just been appointed Assistant Conductor at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. What a wonderful time to start, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla taking over as Principal Conductor; sure she'll be a wonderful mentor, too. Nice to end, as I began, with a take on the young musicians who give us such massive hope for the future.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Reykjavík, Aldeburgh, Snape: sunsets, sunrise



It's been the most discombobulating and wonderful four days, with obscenely early rises made more than bearable by stimulation of mind and heart. I managed only one full day and three concerts at brilliant young pianist-animateur Vikingur Ólafsson's Reykjavík Midsummer Music - feature due on The Arts Desk this coming weekend - because I knew I couldn't miss an Aldeburgh event equal to the ambition of Peter Grimes on the beach, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's journey through Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux from sunrise to midnight. And I'm overjoyed with what I savoured of both.

First night in Iceland did not deliver a midnight sun since the sky remained overcast. But by early evening of the next day, the clouds had cleared. Above and below are Reykjavík scenes at around midnight - the fabulous Harpa where two of the three concerts took place, the central lake (Tjörnin)


and the spire of the ever-impressive Hallgrimskirkja, by which time I think the illuminated clock face was reading 12.40am, from near my hotel past the domestic airfield (full of bird interest, as a future picture-blog will show).


And yes, I and the delightful Samantha Holderness did get out of town for a trip I've been wanting to do for ages - to the old parliament site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart in a spectacular rift valley, Þingvellir. More on that and the birdlife in all three places anon.

So, a 5am rising to get the plane back to Heathrow, a couple of hours' kip at home and then up to Aldeburgh on the eve of birdday. Arrived about 9pm, found the famous fish and chip shop closed and wandered the beach with a nearly full moon in the offing, just about visible in the below picture


though not looking northwards to Thorpe Ness


and plants still providing colour including these yellow horned (sea) poppies.



In bed by 10.30pm, up at 3am to be driven by Rebecca Driver, for whom nothing seems too much trouble, to the Snape marshes to catch the dawn chorus.


It wasn't quite as bird-loud as I'd expected, but my recordings - maybe I can download them as sound files some time - reveal more than I heard. It was good to learn retrospectively, since Messiaen features it in a high clattery trill, that the stridulation I heard was that of the Grasshopper Warbler.

The Alde glinted in the pre-sunrise glow


looking somewhat different to how I'd seen it in post-storm late afternoon light on a flying visit the previous Wednesday (review of the very impressive ENOA opera I saw here).


By the time Aimard's 4.30am recital was over, the sun had risen spectacularly, visible through one of the Oyster Bar windows, and moved upward through cloud to leave only a different sort of glow.


Other Tagesszeiten less well documented, not least my afternoon bathe in a far from freezing North Sea, but vivacious Lucy Cheung sent me this shot of my ascent from the Minsmere bird hide to Aimard's al fresco dusk concert on Whin Hill.


Dark clouds gathered for that, but the rain had the decency to hold off; three hours later, near midnight back at Snape, it was pelting down and continued to do so on the journey back to London early the next morning.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

To honour Jo Cox


Only four days now to a referendum which may change our lives more profoundly than any general election has. With one of the most sickening murders I can remember symbolising the outcome of Brexit's more toxic side - for, regardless of the fact that the killer was obviously mentally ill, that movement's representatives may have smiled and smiled and yet been villains all along - the unease I've been feeling for weeks turned to physical nausea. And here I am in Aldeburgh, where despite the applause that greeted the sign of the European Union's Culture Programme supporting the Euro-opera I saw on Wednesday at Snape, Vote Leave and Give Us Our Country Back signs are everywhere*. In London we're living in a bubble. Much of the rest of the country thinks otherwise - and if it's Out on Thursday, sposo and I are out of Little England too, sooner or later, moving either to Scotland or Ireland.

Just a few reminders, then, of what's at stake. It's a unique case where negative campaigning is essential. In the short term, we'll get a Tory government that's more right wing and even less concerned with statesmanship than this one. Click on any of the photos for a larger image if the text is too small.


 It's worth ramming home who some of the other spokesfolk are


and who in Europe would like us to leave, for no honourable statesperson in the entire world does.


Not to mention the two biggest bogeymen, Putin and Trump. This, the excellent Wolfgang Tillmans' poster campaign, has also been positive


and so, too, funnily enough, was one Boris Johnson in his book The Churchill Factor (including the fact that, yes, much DOES still need to change about the institution of the EU, though one can quote plenty of facts to gainsay the 'inflated bureaucracy' charge).


Unelected officials? Try Nigel Farage, the Royal Family and the House of Lords, for a start.

Dark moments along the way, one loosely connected and, thank God, that hurdle overcome,


the second just vile from a supposedly intelligent journalist at the time of the Brussels bombings


 and the third magnificent timing from UKIP on the day of the killing


with its unequivocal links to a Nazi propaganda film. Update: someone recently pointed out that the band on the right above is plastered over the one obviously white face in the procession.


Among about a hundred things that are good about the EU, let's emphasis the human rights


not to mention clean beaches and, more generally, the best environmental rights programme in the world.

Jessica Duchen has a very eloquent piece on her blog about what Brexit might mean to musicians. I'm disappointed that so few voices in the classical and opera world have made their feelings felt - especially in the light of their being ignored by the Remain campaign's very selective list of artists and writers. Anyhow, lest I weigh you down with too many cut-and-pasted facts here, go across to 'Elgar the European' on the blog for further links lower down that page.

And remember - though I fear that, like The Guardian, I'm preaching mostly to the converted here  - 'not everyone who wants to leave the EU is a racist, but all racists want to leave the EU'. Please let's not wake up to the possibility of a bunch of liars, careerists and psychopaths running the country on Friday morning.

Those of us whose natural home is not professional comedy, and who feel it's all beyond remedy now, should leave it to the superb Stewart Lee to inject some wit filled with savage indignation here. For anyone who can't be bothered to read the whole thing, this will do:

Leave had no arguments or facts, just pornographically arousing soundbites and lies they knew were lies, but which they calculated might stick to a wall in a depressed town somewhere, if flung with enough force, like compacted pellets of Priti Patel's shit.

Now I'm back to more Messiaenic birdsong at Snape. Good luck to all those kissing for Europe in London and other capitals: I'm with you in spirit.

Oh, and one good thing has just happened which I never thought I would live to see: our affable Prince Wills appearing on Attitude magazine's cover to stand up against bullying of young gay people. Kudos.


STOP PRESS (21/6) Amnesty has just announced an event to celebrate Jo Cox's life in Trafalgar Square tomorrow afternoon (Wednesday 22 June) at 4pm. More details here.

*I have no idea on which side the owners of the Wentworth Hotel, where I stayed in Aldeburgh, might be, but it's worth noting that this very comfortable hotel priding itself on traditional values overlaid with modern conveniences employed the most delightful Eastern European lady on reception, who could not have been more attentive. What would happen to the hotel trade without the Poles and other workers moving freely between EU countries who staff the establishments and usually turn out to be the most polite of people?

Monday, 13 June 2016

Süleymaniye the magnificent




The epithet was actually applied to the Ottoman Sultan Süleymān who ruled from 1520 to 1566 and who ordered the building of this beautiful mosque complex, but the credit really goes to the mighty architect Sinan. On my four visits to Istanbul to date, the Süleymaniye has always struck me as the finest of all Istanbul's mosques for its position on the third of the Second Rome's seven hills, with splendid views over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus (this from the roof of our Pera hotel);


for the grand scheme which embraces the many buildings around it, in as perfect a symmetry as possible; and for the two mausoleums or türbes I hadn't been able to get inside before this trip, which came courtesy of the Istanbul Classical Music Festival. I've written about the musical side of my experience over on The Arts Desk.

Let the introduction be given by the authors who guided me this time, Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, celebrated professors at Bosphorus University (the beautiful waterside grounds of which, more like Harvard or Princeton than anywhere in Turkey, I saw for the first time on this visit, courtesy of Idil Biret's recital in the Henry Long Hall. A digressive image, for I can't think of where else I could use it and I like the idea that if you asked most people to guess where, they'd not say Istanbul. Well, it seems that this essentially left-wing set-up is under threat, like so much else, from Erdoğan's ever more alarming government* No headscarves here that I saw, and only a couple in the concerts.


The one hour 20 minute drive through thick traffic from the centre was certainly worth it). Back to Sumner-Boyd's and Freely's summary in Strolling Through Istanbul:

The Süleymaniye is the second largest but by far the finest and most magnificent of the mosque complexes in the city [quick switch to the Blue Guide for a list; 'it consists of a mosque, medreses, a hamam, a library (currently under restoration), a junior school, an imaret (public kitchen), a hospital and mental asylum, and several türbe)'].  It is a fitting monument to its founder....and a masterwork of the greatest of Ottoman architects, the incomparable Sinan. The mosque itself, the largest of Sinan's works, is perhaps inferior in perfection of design to that master's Selimiye at Edirne [not been there, alas, except passing through on the train Interrailing in 1981], but it is incontestably the most important Ottoman building in Istanbul. For four and a half centuries it has attracted the wonder and enthusiasm of all travellers to the city.


This time I approached the complex from the south-east, climbing up from the Rüstem Paşa mosque (closed to worshipper and tourists alike for restoration, but I saw its Iznik glories in 1986). The first thing that amazed me was the pristine quality of the Süleymaniye's wide open spaces, the greenness of its grass (no need for human watering; storms were frequent), both from beyond the wall of the cemetery where the important türbes are located (pictured above) and on the north-east terrace, with its trees for slumbering and picnicking under and its superb views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn




The second and third of the above images are taken from the second visit on this trip when I brought J and our not very mosque-interested guide Basana, after a terrific thunderstorm during our visit to the Chora Church (in the middle shot's distance is an enormous new mosque on the Asian side of the Bosphorus). Happy on the first visit to be on my own; that way you're the outsider, rather than one of a group commenting on the strangeness or 'exoticism'. Of course the Süleymaniye operates very much like our own great cathedrals and their precincts, though the worshippers are more prolific.


I first visited the türbes which I hadn't seen on other visits; maybe they'd been shut or under restoration.


Süleymān's octagonal resting-place with its columned porch and double dome is crowded with other cenotaphs alongside the big cheese's (centre)


but still they don't take the eyes away for long from the inner dome, still in its original colours of 'wine-red, black and gold'


nor the abundance of Iznik tiles between and below all the marble, granite and porphyry - 'twice as many in this small room as in all the vastness of the mosque itself'.




To the east lies Süleymān's 'powerful and sinister' chief wife, Haseki Hürrem, known in the west as Roxelana and infamous for getting him to kill his eldest son on false premises so that her own would succeed to the throne. The mausoleum has an inscription around the cylindrical dome on the outside, set back slightly from the octagonal cornice.


Roxelana has a better cenotaph than she deserves


and an even more substantial array of Iznik tiles on the walls than in Süleyman's türbe.




I shared both türbes with only a handful of pious visitors until a horde of noisy but pleasantly spirited schoolchildren arrived,


tearing down the cordons and charging around. The guard was absent.

Took a pleasant walk around the cemetery and its rose garden



before heading for the mosque along its handsome north-west flank


and more shady green space


and entering the courtyard via the western portal.


Rumour has it that the four great minarets banded near the top with turquoise


represent Süleymān as fourth sultan of Turkey, and 10 balconies denote that he was the tenth sultan of Osman's line. The courtyard was all the more overwhelming for being well-nigh deserted in the mid-afternoon heat, both in shadow and out. It was fresher after the storm two days later.



Around the infidels' entrance to the nearly-square room, though, many were clustered - though western tourists seemed remarkably few everywhere up on this third hill; J told me the Aya Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque experience was very different.

Polite girls were on hand at the bar between the public walking space and the area of worship 'to answer any questions you might have'. I joined a trio of Indian Hindus and we three religions - you can call me a nominal Christian - engaged in a dialogue on what (so much) we all have in common. Wasn't sure whether the girls really wanted to proselytise or not, but I took their leaflets and a Quran from the stand of free literature (time I read it all rather than the selected wisdom quoted by Karen Armstrong in her excellent A Short History of Islam).


At any rate I was delighted that we were welcome and we talked about how some Muslim countries welcomed visitors to their mosques (Syria when I went there, Lebanon, Iran up to a point) while others were exclusive and hostile (I remember a bad experience in Hyderabad, in Mali you're expected to pay quite a lot to see inside the Djenne Mosque and the Maghreb, surprisingly, tends to keep its mosques out of bounds).

No point in regurgitating all the facts and figures, let alone some interesting stuff on Sinan's buttress-masking, in Strolling Through Istanbul; you can get some sense of the size, the light and the interaction of the main dome with lesser curves (not least up top), very beautiful.




I strolled back out to the main front,


envied the families picnicking and/or snoozing under the trees - notice the difference in generational activity here -


and so was delighted to find that the Imaret across the cobbled street, another caravansaray type construction in a line of three, was now run as a cafe and restaurant, the Darüzziyafe, complete with bad art on the walls. Its welcoming space is the icing on the cake of a a visit to the Süleymaniye.


Thus it had returned to the more exclusive of its original catering purposes: built as a kind of soup kitchen offering sustenance not only to poor pilgrims but also to several thousand people dependent on the Sülemaniye, it had served as a banqueting hall in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Then it was turned into an Islamic and Turkish art museum, then nothing, until 1992 when it became a plush centre for Turkish cuisine. The menu didn't seem expensive; but all I wanted at 3pm were a rice-and-onion stuffed aubergine, water and a Turkish coffee


which I enjoyed so much sitting in the arcade looking across to the fountain and main entrance. I brought J and Basana here on the day after my visit, and we had a similarly easeful time among the trees and the domes.


Then, on the initial visit, I passed Sinan's tomb in a triangular space



and descended the hill to make my way back to Pera. We'd crossed the Galata Bridge, of course, earlier in the day - J had to start there, and the fishermen did not disappoint -


and I returned via the new bridge with its rather handsome pedestrian walkway by the metro line. looking towards Pera and Galata.


Cormorants were sitting by the water's edge on the Süleymaniye side


and at the midpoint, feeling the space and light in what is often a crowded and traffic-choked city with an ever ballooning population, I heard all the muezzins commence their polyphony. The whole of the northern shore of the old city stretched ahead, terminating in a last view of the Süleymaniye.


And so to a very short rest before the drive to the Bosphorus University and the revelations of the great Idil Biret.

*I couldn't think of anything valid to add to the horror of the Orlando shootings, but preparing this article I came across a headline declaring that a Turkish right-wing newspaper with links to Erdoğan had celebrated the killing of '50 perverts'. Please remember that this great city has as wide a range of opinions and as strong an intelligentsia as any of the other great capitals, and note how popular the rainbow umbrella is. J bought one in the Chora Church during the storm and we'd earlier walked through a street in the Fener district where that Byzantine glory is to be found where the brollies were rife. Of course I'm not claiming that the sellers are aware of what it means to many of us, but let this be used as a mark of colourful solidarity in grief.


14/5 And just when you thought all this couldn't get more hateful, there's news from The Interpreter that two men laying flowers outside the American Embassy in Moscow to show their solidarity with Orlando were arrested and are to be charged for 'holding a public action without a permit'. The police were summoned by an ultra-Orthodox group,  Bozhaya Volya (God's Will, what a joke), attacking the mourners with mockery and jeers.