Monday, 6 July 2020

Zooming the woods with Siegfried

This should have been the third September of taking my Ring course to the amazing Gartmore estate in the Trossachs near Stirling, courtesy of the Wagner Society of Scotland. For obvious reasons that won't be happening. How I shall miss the possibility of waking up to misty mornings like this

followed by days of blazing sunshine. Well, that was last September, and Scotland's second heatwave of 2019, so probably it won't be repeated. But I would have been swimming regularly in a pool of the Forth I discovered on my last day.

No matter; next year is already booked, though whether it will be for Götterdämmerung - probably most participants are more likely to want to join my autumn term Opera on Focus course, since that will almost certainly revert to Zoom , too - or Tristan und Isolde remains to be seen.

In the meantime, though it's run under the aegis of the Wagner Society of Scotland, anyone can still sign up for the Zoom Siegfried course, due to start this Wednesday afternoon at 2.30pm, running until (approximately, since Zoom time gives us luxury to over-run) 4.30pm, and then for nine more Wednesdays. It's a bargain at £100 for the whole term. If you'd like to join, just email me at

Who knows whom we will be able to entice as special guests this time? My summer courses have been on such a roll. Cue namedrop: Ermonela Jaho, Sirs Antonio Pappano and Mark Elder for Madama Butterfly (Tony, as we can call him, had so much of wondrous interest to say that I didn't get my stint in, so am more than happy to offer an extra class this afternoon) plus Susan Bullock on Elektra; for the symphony classes, Vladimir Jurowski, Paavo Järvi, Vasily Petrenko and Mark Wigglesworth among the megastars plus equally fascinating contributions from conductors Catherine Larsen-Maguire, Kristiina Poska, Jonathan Bloxham, Andres Kaljuste and Ian Page. This Thursday Elizabeth Wilson of the superlative Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and violinist/leader/conductor Peter Manning join us for thoughts on the master's Fifteenth Symphony. This has been a rare time, and the fact that I've been able to live and breathe the music of both courses in between classes has been an extra boon,

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Preaching to the fishes (again in vain)

It's not the first time I've referenced the quasi-folk poem from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) 'St Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish', set to slithery music by Mahler (the original legend illustrated above by Tiepolo). But never has the parable of preaching to deaf ears - namely the fish at Rimini who in this treatment enjoy the words but go back to doing what they did before - seemed more appropriate as, after a brief change of lifestyle during lockdown, most fish in human shapes resume their senseless round of environment-destroying, consumerist idiocy. With a government of criminal incompetence and wilful, profit-bent malignity such as we have now, how could it be otherwise? The only hope is, as before, grassroots action; there are a lot of us who will NOT follow bad advice and will keep up responsible distancing and all that goes with it as before.

The above is by the pier for the houseboats near Hammersmith Bridge; the park behind it on this north side of the Thames had young picnickers in groups of 20 or so the weekend after people started losing the plot on VE Day - because the media told them that lockdown was at an end.

Here's one of the best performance I know, this time with a great mezzo rather than a bass baritone. The English translation is below (crucial for the point of this post if you don't understand the German).

St. Anthony arrives for his sermon
and finds the church empty.
He goes to the river
to preach to the fishes;
They flap with their tails,
and glisten in the sunshine.

The carp with their roe
have all congregated,
their mouths all gaping,
listening attentively.
Never did a sermon
so please the fishes.

Sharp-snouted pike
that are always fighting
have swum up in a hurry
to hear this pious one;

Also, those fantastic creatures
that are always fasting -
the stockfish, I mean -
they also appeared for the sermon;
Never did a sermon
so please the stockfish so.
Good eels and sturgeon,
that fine folk dine upon -
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowcoaches,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.
Never did a sermon
so please the crabs.

Big fish, little fish,
noble and common,
all lift their heads
like intelligent beings:
At God's command
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon completed,
each one turns away;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still go backwards,
the stockfish stay fat,
the carps still gorge themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Elektra's death-dance, Butterfly's flight

For much of my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on Richard Strauss's Elektra - three out of five - we have been incredibly lucky and honoured to have the insights of Susan Bullock, one of the world's great performers of the role (pictured below at the Royal Opera by Clive Barda), who's since entered what she calls 'a whole new world of weird' - the strange territory of mother Clytemnestra's suppurating conscience.

And now, on the Monday after next, Ermonela Jaho will join us for the third class on Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Ermonela was to have repeated her triumph in the role at the Royal Opera (pictured above by Bill Cooper) this summer, but sadly it's not to be; though you can catch her equally heartbreaking Suor Angelica in the screening of the Trittico as vividly realised by Richard Jones in the company's next weekly offering. She'll be there next Monday to talk about the challenges in the first part of Act Two, Puccini's longest and most intense psychological study (and it includes 'Un bel di').

Sue was there throughout our second and third sessions (there she is on the first of two screens above, second row down on the left. You may need to click to enlarge). When she wasn't able to attend the last Elektra class - online coaching has now taken over at the Royal Academy of Music's request - she sent what amounted to three wonderful essays on the Recognition Scene, Elektra's encounter with Aegisth and the turbulent finale. It made me think she should write a book on, say, five or six heroines she knows inside out - Brünnhilde, Isolde, Salome, Elektra, Madama Butterfly, perhaps Katya Kabanova - from her performing perspective. Always going in-depth with the marriage of words and music, text and dynamics - what she had to say about Schoenberg's Erwartung in the second class was fascinating - she could fill a real need, and weave in the crucial autobiography around it. Any publishers out there? I'll do some canvassing.

I am also indebted to Sue for putting me on to her admiration for a great (the greatest?) Elektra, Astrid Varnay. My allegiance, recordings and performance wise, has been to Nilsson (of course), Behrens,  Ibge Borkh,  Erna Schlüter, but now I'm a convert to Varnay's recordings with Mitropoulos live and Richard Kraus in the studio (where her sister Chrysothemis is sung by Leonie Rysanek, later Elektra in the Götz Friedrich film to Varnay's Clytemnestra).

The Mitropoulos experience is a live 1949 New York concert performance which plonks an interval at the end of Clytemnestra's short-lived triumphal interlude and goes on to omit the second Elektra-Chrysothemis scene. The sound is fairly dim for the orchestra, but what pacing and textural clarity! The end is wackier than usual; Varnay decides to go up to a top for her final note (tan-zen, a B, not a low F sharp) and the woodwind hang on before the final two-note thwack.The Kraus sounds much better, and he was a good conductor, but it doesn't quite have that level of visceral excitement. But it is complete.

That final scene wasn't the only end-of-class experience to leave me all worked up and discombobulated. It wasn't until we had the introductory class to Butterfly that I realised we'd left a suffocating, brilliantly-lit house for the open air and a chance to soar into blue skies (for at least the first act and half of the second).

I loved excursions into Saint-Saëns's La princesse jaune and Messager's Madame Chrysanthème (I've just started reading Pierre Loti's memoir-novella which was the basis for that pretty operette); and only just realised what really connects Madama Butterfly with The Mikado beyond the use of the same folksong and the japonaiserie - Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Coasting with Pavarotti, Robert Kerns and Karajan from 'America for ever!' to the arrival of Butterfly put me back into that peculiar lyric ecstasy in which Puccini is unsurpassed. And he was, of course, just as consummate an orchestrator as Strauss. Happy days ahead.

Meanwhile, the course on the symphony from Haydn to Adams has taken on a hue I hadn't anticipated, which is to say distinguished guests on a weekly basis; not sure I can keep it up for every class. I mentioned in the introductory post (all 11 classes duly listed there) having the gift of Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page to comment on Haydn and Mozart, then Mark Wigglesworth with Jonny for Beethoven. It was a real bonus that Nicholas Collon was able to join us for half an hour at the beginning of the class on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (his performance with the Aurora Orchestra from memory is still there on their website, as is their 'Eroica' and now their 'Pastoral').

On Thursday I made the acquaintance of Berlin-based conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire (pictured above by David Beecroft), 15 years a bassoonist with the great orchestras and under the best conductors (Abbado, Haitink, Kirill Petrenko, Rattle, not a bad list). I'm so grateful to Aude-Marie Auphan of Victoria Rowsell Management, with its roster of selectively excellent artists, for putting us in touch.

Catherine (top row centre above; as with the Elektra class Zoom image, click to enlarge) was brilliant and vivacious on every point, and she induced in me a Sehnsucht to go and live in Berlin. Heck, what a dream: a country where music, and the arts in general, matter to so many more people than they do here, where the orchestral musicians are still on full pay, where there's been a civic and governmental responsibility to the C-19 crisis lacking, at least from our disastrous leadership, here. As our stumbling, irresponsible government in Westminster, in marked contrast to the real leaders in Scotland and Wales, plunges us into another vortex, the thought of joining a responsible society has become very pressing. There have been serious discussions at home; watch this space.

In the meantime, this coming Thursday's class has a double whammy: Paavo Järvi to discuss the unique finale of Brahms's Fourth, Vladimir Jurowski on the endgame genius in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Musicians on the continent are now beginning to go back to their full schedules again - for Vladimir it's a series of challenging programmes with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (listen here to the first), for Paavo work before the second season with his Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and, yes, the Pärnu Festival in July. which I hope and pray to attend because it's my favourite in the world - so we're very lucky to have had this window of opportunity.

UPDATE: I must write more about this anon, but Paavo is joining us this coming Thursday for Mahler 3, Vladimir Jurowski was with us for two hours on Brahms 4 and Tchaikovsky 6 - revelatory - and Ermonela Jaho for two and a half hours yesterday, including a full hour-long masterclass on 'Un bel di'. These are such exceptional human beings as well as top musicians.

SECOND UPDATE (22/6): This is going to look like bragging, but I'm very proud and happy about the latest developments. Vasily Petrenko joined the symphony class last Thursday to talk about Mahler, Elgar, the musical philistinism of British politicians and adapting to smaller forces post-crisis. Mark Elder is visiting the Butterfly class today, while Antonio Pappano has pledged to Zoom in for our grand finale next Monday. More developments expected...

Friday, 22 May 2020

50 days of London spring

It's been much remarked upon how our one-a-day exercise since semi-quarantine has opened so many people's senses to the wonders of nature. I like to think I've always hymned the praises of London's parks and gardens, but never as much as now, when I make sure to see the seasonal changes on a daily basis. My last post on the subject ended with the closures of Kew Gardens and Fulham Palace; but there's been no shortage of discoveries since then. The grounds of Chiswick House remain for me the most magical, especially a path up to the glasshouses rich in birdlife and plants, with just the right degree of natural profusion; but I never quite appreciated Holland Park as much as I do now.

So the rule here is an already over-indulgent aim of posting a photo from each day, with the excuse of occasionally featuring two or three to make up for the dates when I don't have a pic. The splendid stag in a stream up top is the official starting-point - 25 March, and my longest bike-ride yet, up to Richmond Park via the Thames path and Sheen, where I wanted to kick over the traces of Thomas Cromwell and have a look at the church (closed, but with a pretty cemetery. I dimly remembered I needed to see a tomb in Sheen, but it turned out to be Richard Burton the explorer's Arabian tent, and that's in the Catholic Cemetery which I haven't discovered yet). The park roads had been closed to cars, so cycling was bliss (but subsequently they closed the park to bikes too). Willows leafing along a stream were the first glory, then the deer.

Kensington Gardens on 26 March was suitably blossomy. I met a friendly American couple around Albert's memorial - keeping our distance to chat, of course - who thought my daily phototask was an excellent idea.

For the next few days, I stayed close to home, and the river around Hammersmith. One of several cormorants was at its usual post mid-river

while in the back yard the blackbird couple were back, Mr B enjoying the ivy berries

and Mrs B here snapped before taking a dip.

Then on 30 March I extended the spin around Old Brompton Cemetery - cycling down the central lane, walking the side routes - to head down to Cheyne Walk and the Chelsea Physic Garden (closed too, of course, but at that stage the foliage was in its infancy, so you could see much through the Swan Walk gate and riverside railings. There was plenty of good blossom heading west, not least the trees in the forecourt of the house where George Eliot lived for a year.

31 March saw my second Kensington Gardens circuit on foot, here looking across the Serpentine to The Arch by Henry Moore, in his eighties when he created it.

My dear friend Sophie Sarin, in a phone call, said how much she was enjoying daily perambulations around Holland Park. 2 April marked my rediscovery of the place, not least the woods behind the formal gardens. On the first excursion, though, I sought out the ubiquitous peacocks, whose screaming punctuates the summer operas (not this year, alas). I thought the tail of this one went rather strikingly, if clashingly, with the first of the spring plantings.

3 April was a day of rare cloud build-up in a mostly blue-sky spring. It meant that Chiswick House looked rather striking at sunset with the moon already up, and here I allow myself a classical trilogy including sphinxes and a herm.

Next day (4 April) marked my first distance walk, with Sophie. We met at Queen Victoria's statue (sculpted by her fourth daughter, Louise) in Kensington Gardens - here is La Sarina is showing off how fit she is, with the Round Pond beyond -

and headed down to the Serpentine, where we had a distance sit on a bench by the Peter Pan statue. A Judas tree was flourishing in the statue's enclosure on a second visit (I allow myslf a jump forward here)

and a lone Egyptian goose (they have become numerous in recent years) sat on a post in the water, showing off its beautiful feathers.

Sunday 5 April was ripe for another bigger excursion - up to Regent's Park. Even before I took a step inside, there was splendour to be found in the blooming Pawlonia alongside

Just within, the usual heron, king of social distancing, was found at his usual place.

The magnolias I featured flourishing so gloriously in Kew on the last rus in urbe post were also doing fine in St John's Garden, moon beyond. I was surprised to find this not-so-secret space open (it isn't now because the distancing rules have apparently been broken there).

Back at Holland Park on 7 April, one of the peacocks was showing off, though not to any peahen; but the only-just-distancing group of people loved it, and it was so exciting for children who'd never seen a peacock before, let along one displaying.

It was J who, walking more locally, alerted me to the wonders of Margravine Cemetery, our nearest open-air space. I've only ever walked along the central paths to get to Barons Court tube or Charing Cross Hospital, but the wonders are off-piste including 60 different species of tree and a rich birdlife.  I first began to explore on 6 April. Surprised on my second visit (8 April) to not only hear but see a Greater Spotted Woodpecker.

Cherry blossom - this is one of my favourite trees, with bluebells beneath -

and Good Friday signs were much in evidence just before Easter.

Even the road to the south cemetery gate has a surprise - the council estate here is surrounded by well-planned green, and along the verges were more of those snakeshead fritillaries I'd been over the moon to see in Kew Gardens.

9 April, and westwards to Chiswick House Gardens again. Took pleasure in an interlude of pleasant distance chat with strangers at Chiswick Mall, waiting for very high-tide Thames to recede from the road. A dog and more reckless cyclists than myself were enjoying it,

 and ducks were competing for a drake in one of the riverside gardens that belong to the houses on the other side of the road. Later the Thames Path route would be closed to bikes until 6pm.

On Easter Saturday (11 April) Sophie and I distance-convened again and took almost the same route as before, sharing our meeting place with a couple of mandarin ducks

and passing the noisy zone which is obviously listed in some tourist guide or other as a place to feed the parakeets who have spread here from the Thames near Richmond. Some people think of them as pests, but I never fail to find them exotic.

Blooms were coming on apace on Easter Sunday - the first decent planting by the estate gardeners I've ever seen in the front yielded these tulips beneath the London planes

but we can't boast a lilac as lovely as this one in the forecourt of otherwise undistinguished housing on the way to Barons Court tube.

Lilacs also fringe the west wall of the Margravine Cemetery, heavily scenting the way, and framing cherry trees within the grounds.

Laburnum also joined the spring parade alongside the lilac around this time. Here's one near the cascade at the north end of Chiswick House's lake,

On 14 April I decided to add another park to the list - Ravenscourt, just off the main road from Hammersmith. Not up to the standards of the others, though there was a grove of leafing trees of different species, and these virgin copper beech leaves were being lit up by the late afternoon sun.

Cycling on to Chiswick House Gardens righted the sense of disappointment, and the wisteria along the glasshouses where camellias thrive was in full bloom.

Holland Park put on its best show the following day (15 April) with lavish tulip plantings

and one of my favourite copper beeches in full spate (this ensemble is just beyond the Japanese garden, which is closed for now).

Time to zoom in on the back yard again, where the German tulip bulbs I planted were yielding good results

and the lady (or young?) blackbird rootled for insects among them

along with a number of great tits, this one consuming its catch on the weeping mulberry.

On 18 April, I returned to Chiswick Mall to take a closer look at some of the houses with lavish blooms. Gold medal goes to Swan House with its huge wisteria.

Back by Hammersmith Bridge, a cat was enjoying the warm if slightly murky evening, looking towards Chiswick.

Another early purple/mauve bloomer, the ceanothus, was at its best in Normand Park just down the road. This one fringes the Pear Tree pub, now reopening for the sale of beverages to take away and holding a Saturday market. I liked the owners but I'm now a little dubious since the Union Jack bunting is still out long after VE Day.

In the week of the 20th, I made several excursions up to Notting Hill to collect and return a vital document from my friend Edward Mendelsohn, careful to observe all the rules at the age of 94, and met Sophie for another distance walk around Kensington Gardens. This time I managed to catch the solitary Crested Grebe on the Serpentine who'd dived down every time I tried to take a snap on the previous occasion.

The 22nd marked a new departure - I thought I ought to try and explore the interior of Battersea Park, since I'd only ever cycled around the perimeter on my way to or from the centre of town. These silver birches by the lake could be a Scandinavian summer scene.

I was also happy to discover the English garden (closed) and the Sub Tropical Garden (busy). Folk all out in abundance but observing rules of distance.

Two novelties in the garden on 23 April. Hearing a melodious birdsong I didn't recognise, I poked my head out of the bedroom window and discovered what was soon identified as a dunnock.

It's still around, splashing in the water bath while I sit and read or eat lunch. And the patio quince flowered at last - not for long, but rather exquisitely.

Back to Holland Park on 24 April, on the return from Edward's, and these bracket fungi look rather splendid against a woodland background with borage.

J and Sophie joined me there on the 26th; we sat at a good distance, tried to dodge some careless folk - on a previous expedition I told a guy who wanted to pick what he called 'a rose' (a tulip) for his wife not to - and did a good circuit. I'm going to slip this one in - until J asks me to remove it - of them demonstrating social distancing among the tulips.

29 April - one of two super-idyllic return to the glasshouses of Chiswick House Gardens. The wisteria was already fading, but the giant geraniums in front of them (Pelargonium maderense, from Madeira as the name suggests) had come on massively, and bees love 'em.

The mother moorhen who always builds her nest in the middle of the Long Water just below James Wyatt's beautiful bridge had chicks - two, but a girl and her mother nearby said that she'd produced six, and these were the only survivors.

Heavy rains might have washed away some of the nest, because dad was constantly returning with new material and it all looked a bit provisional.

For some reason I've nothing on the camera or in the diary for a few days, so time for another back yard interlude: lavishly flowering pelargonium in one of the window boxes - never died down in a mild winter -

'Joe' the viburnum, named in memory of Edward's partner who died aged 70,

and some of the wonders that grow up in the cracks of the ugly concrete paving when the gardener doesn't come round with herbicide (after several years' battle I got them to stop using Roundup, but they won't embrace steam like Hammersmith Council); a lone forget-me-not when none have popped up in the pots -

and a viola (likewise, none floweing in the pots).

This was also the time of first sighting of swifts skimming and diving outside the front of our block. Not the greatest picture, I know, but a record all the same.

Next excursion recorded: 4 May, when yet another heron - Chiswick Park's Henry, by the way, has long since disappeared (update - I saw a heron on the last visit who might be he), but we've got them on the Thames and the Serpentine - stood very ornamentally in the water basin of one of Holland Park's formal gardens, occasionally dipping to take a gulp.

Anothe enchanted evening along the river and at Chiswick revealed the first of the floral visitors I love the best, a tree peony (the rest have been elusive and will wait on another post),

and a full moon above Chiswick Eyot and the Putney side of the Thames nearby (barely discernible in the size of the photo below, but it's there).

On regular cycles/walks through Old Brompton Cemetery, the highlight for me is always the copper beech with the kneeling maiden beneath it, just off the main thoroughfare before the south gate. I call her 'patience on a monument', viz. Twelfth Night, though she's not exactly 'smiling at grief'. But from behind, with the light doing pointillist things through dappled leaves, you can't tell.

I distance-walked there the following day with J and friend Adrian Arena - only the second I've seen in person since lockdown -

before going down to the Chelsea Embankment again. Here I saw the fronds of a Dicksonia antarctica tree fern unfurling in the lovely and exotically planted Paultons Square (some compensation for missing the ones in Chelsea Physic Garden)

and my first foxgloves of the year in the garden around Chelsea Old Church.

There are also foxgloves alongside Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the zone subject to the most rapid seasonal change,

and the lake perspectives are now country-lush.

Ma and Pa Egyptian geese ma and pa carefully mind their chicks

while the solitary heron hangs about at two favourite spots on the Serpentine

and I caught an unabashed rabbit on the Hyde Park side.

Let's end with a few more back yard shots. The blackbirds are no more regular visitors, but I hear the male nearby and he sometimes comes to splash in the water bath

while the dunnock is still very much present, and has no problem bathing while I'm sitting out there. Here you get a shot of his (or her) spotted back.

The acquilegia flourished this year, after succumbing to a comon disease in 2019

and I only discovered by chance, on a windy day, two irises under the mulberry.

Meanwhile the pelargoniums in the window boxes flower ever more abundantly

and bumble bees love them.

I even think I caught one doing what the media latched on to yesterday - pinching a bloom to make it flower. So, onwards in a future post to the quest for the elusive peony. Summer's now here, no doubt, and with lockdown slackness many more cars, planes and people in picnic parties of up to 20. The honeymoon stage for those of us in a luckier position than many is over.