Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Gehry here, Gehry there

Having promised more Gehriana, I think the photos serve the connection as well as I'd hoped. The sharp angles of glass and timber announce the new style of the Serpentine pavilion, which I've observed with fascination since the first beams went up earlier in the summer. The gleaming splendour beneath reflects the more familiar curves of earlier Gehry - in this case a known and loved quantity to me since I first wandered through the oaks of the Bard campus up the Hudson from New York four years ago, and almost burst into tears at the beauty of the sunset reflected on the panels of the Fisher Center.

So here I was, delighted to be back again in one of the most beautiful natural spots on earth (quite something to follow the Maiella, the Beare peninsula, Savonlinna and the Malverns - what a summer!) My first visit was thanks to Shostakovich, whose world this most enterprising and concentrated of festivals happened to be exploring in 2004. This year was Prokofiev's turn, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of leading light Leon Botstein and the special pleading of scholar-in-residence Prof Simon Morrison (see the Romeo and Juliet entry back in May). The whole organisation, I should say straightaway, is as smooth as any I've ever encountered, and all my demands were obligingly met by Irene Zedlacher, Raissa St Pierre and Christopher H. Gibbs (one of the three artistic directors).

I determined to take more time than I had four years ago, stopping off in New York for a night and a morning on the way, where I was generously hosted in the very comfortable apartment of John Morris between West 85th and 86th Streets. Here was a chance to explore the Upper West Side, and it made me fall in love with NY again after a more ambivalent visit in 2001. Everything gleamed in the sharp sunlight of a perfect (and not at all humid) August morning; having bought an emergency shirt supply in Filene's Basement and consumed a potato and garlic knish from Zabar's emporium, I strolled up Riverside Park from 80th to 108th streets and back down Broadway. Then came nearly two hours of one of the great train journeys, along the banks of the Hudson from Penn Station to Rhinecliff, transfer to cosy comfort in the 1844 Germond House of Rhinebeck's Delamater 'zone' and an evening trip, through the bucketing rains of a fierce storm, to the second theatre of the Gehry complex to see Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing.

Perhaps because I'd spent so much time wallowing again in the genius of G&S, it seemed like thin stuff: too many sub-Savoy choruses, too little lyricism (though 'Love is sweeping the country' and 'Of thee I sing, baby' made little islets in a rather grey sea). They chose it because they thought it was topical in election year. The dialogue, by Kaufman and Ryskind, ain't half bad, but Ira's lyrics are toe-curling and the plot really oughtn't to outstay an act: a would-be president, Wintergreen, plans to get elected on the love ticket, a beauty pageant is fixed to find the ideal Mrs Wintergreen and then he goes and falls in love with his secretary. Thwarted Diana Deveraux makes trouble, but the new Mrs W's corn muffins triumph at the end of Act 1, pictured here by Stephanie Berger with Amy Justman's Mary Turner on the chair and her adoring Wintergreen (John Bolton) centre stage.

In Act 2, Deveraux's French ancestry threatens a diplomatic incident - quite funny, that bit - but Mrs W again upstages the vengeful scion of Napoleon by going and having twins. Though the choruses remained cheesy, the three leads were absolutely what you'd want and expect on Broadway: funny face Bolton for President, perfect lyric soprano Justman as sweet Mary and Andy Gale as goofy Vice-President Throttlebottom. But don't expect Of Thee I Sing on the London stage any time soon.

By the time Prokofiev kicked off the following evening, the skies were clear over Bard, so here's the hall from the meadows: as in Kensington Gardens, the natural setting assists with the magic.

The mammoth programme was merely the shape of things to come. Excellent pianist Jeremy Denk kicked off with the Three Oranges march transcription, and just about managed the ferocious Suggestion diabolique, but poetry is his element and in that he was soulfully partnered by Soovin Kin in the arrangement for violin and piano of the winsome Five Melodies. The First Quartet wasn't quite up to scratch as the Chiara String Quartet's first violinist had just gone into labour and had to be replaced by a perfectly competent player; and I pass over the playing of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata (ditto the same pianist's Three Pieces from Petrushka the next day). Song-wise, baritone John Hancock performed two numbers from Kije as if they were by Wagner, but there was a transcendent mezzo interpretation of the Akhmatova Songs (usually soprano territory) by the wonderful Irina Mishura, well partnered by Julia Zilberquit. The Overture on Hebrew Themes sounds better in its chamber original, and this Classical Symphony from the American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein needed a bit more buoyancy to be welcome at the end of a long programme (by then it was 3.30am UK time for me).

Saturday was the working day, but huge fun. My fellow biographer Harlow Robinson, film music expert Kevin Bartig and I all breakfasted under the trees on campus. Then Harlow and I joined the utterly charming Caryl Emerson, Princeton Slavic languages and literature doyenne, and Marina Frolova Walker, my esteemed colleague and long-term double-acter from Cambridge, for a panel on 'Prokofiev: The Man and his Music'. I 'did' the first 27 years in 20 minutes, ending up with Nina Koshetz singing the Chopin Etude which Prokofiev so admired a few days before he caught the last Trans-Siberian Express out of Moscow in 1918. Harlow covered America and Paris, while Marina ended her session on the Soviet Prokofiev with a hilarious transcript of a committee on the Seventh Symphony, in which the ghastly Zakharov harps on the fact that the finale is in his opinion a picture of disorderly Soviet children 'poking their tongues out'. Here we all are as snapped by Christopher - Caryl, a moderator who was biding her eloquent time until her more extensive appearance on the Sunday, on the left and Marina on the right:

Then, with less than an hour for lunch, I was back on to talk about Prokofiev's teachers and influences before a bumper afternoon recital. This was much less heavy-going than the previous evening's concert and started amiably with Nikolay Tcherepnin's Six Quartets for Four French Horns. Pleasant if inconsequential Gliere and Medtner (not his best stuff) paled alongside a gem of a miniature by Taneyev, his Andantino semplice, beautifully nuanced by Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute. But the highlight of the concert, and possibly for me of the four concerts I heard, was Denk's incredibly fluent and increasingly darker threading-together of the Visions fugitives: such fun he had with 5 and 6, inspired, he later told me, by SSP's own recording, and there was such wistful poetry in the later stages. I was delighted to be able to give him my prototype copy of Richter's 1961 British debut including 18 of the Visions, for which I've just written the notes. After the interval soprano Dina Kuznetsova articulated the not very memorable Op. 9 songs beautifully and to conclude - again the punters were flagging - came a sunny, if overlong String Quintet by Glazunov, obviously modelled at times on Borodin's Second Quartet, though nowhere near its equal.

Two hours later, we were back again for an apocalyptic evening programme in the Sosnoff Theatre. My heart sank when Simon announced as we shared a pre-performance drink that Russia had invaded Georgia: the finale of Prokofiev's Third, described by Richter so vividly as an end-of-the-world picture of gaping, toppling masses, was going to be rather evocative. So unreal, too, to be surrounded by all this beauty on a perfect summer evening with all those horrors to the east: Auden's 'Out on the lawn', my favourite poem, came to mind throughout. Just juxtapose in your mind with the below an image from war-torn Gori, if that isn't spelling it out too much:

Anyway, the concert began with Rimsky-Korsakov's inventive tone-poem Sadko, which I've never heard in concert, followed by Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy capped by a brilliant Broadway trumpeter, the slight overkill of Achron's sub-Scriabinesque Epitaph to the master in 1915 and Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto, dominated by a live-wire jazz-and-classical pianist, Blair McMillen, who did very fresh things with the cadenza especially.

And that was only the first half. Watching Lyadov's Enchanted Lake made me realise that he achieves his magic without trumpets and trombones (though I should have noticed that in the score). Back they came to shatter in the Prokofiev Third. Botstein made it flow very vividly, better than Gergiev in the first movement and highly effective in scherzo and finale. And could I find out anything about Russia and Georgia on the 90 channels of my hotel television when I got back? Not a thing - only the 'second', parochial CNN's obsession with the death of comic Bernie Mack and the murder of a couple of Americans at the Beijing Olympics.

The New York Times filled me in on Sunday morning - as John had said, the press is better than ours in the UK, the television a great deal worse - and the subject sparked a lively two-hour conversation on the terrace of the Delamater breakfast room with the nicest pair of Bard visitors, anthropologist Andy Manzardo and his wife Lora from Baltimore. I shan't forget the time we spent together. Then John arrived in his car from New York. Our plan had been to hike in the Catskills, but violent thunderstorms were forecast and duly materialised. We were standing outside Olana, the Moorish folly house of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, when the storm broke. So forked lightning and terrifying overhead thunder dogged us as we sat beneath the awning of the house's stone terrace eating our sandwiches (a Fellini and a Montessori) from Leonardo's Italian deli .

So much for substituting a hike with a walk of Olana's grounds. Instead we poked around an excellent second-hand bookshop in Hudson, got stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway of the other side of the river and so missed seeing John's barn, and came back to Rhinebeck only just in time to set off for the evening concert. I missed meeting Michael York in person, a heartthrob from Cabaret days - he was also staying there, and John encountered his big smile while waiting to drive me back - but I did love his spirited reading for Poulenc's Story of Babar in Bard's 'Cult of the Child' programme. Lucille Chung played the pastiche, which could have outstayed its welcome in other hands, with such sonority and poise, and better still was the true masterpiece, Ravel's Ma mere l'oye pieces, in which she excelled as Beast to Alessio Bax's Beauty.

This jam-packed children's playground, with the orchestral works tautly conducted by Eckart Preu, gave us the chance to hear Carpenter's Krazy Kat ballet; Prokofiev hit the nail on the head in his diary by remarking on Carpenter when he heard a performance 'he is technically proficient, and he knows how to orchestrate, but sadly often strays too close to bad taste for comfort' - I'd substitute 'thematic poverty' for 'bad taste'. What stole the show? Peter and the Wolf, of course. I fell in love with it again when I saw Suzy Templeton's genius animation film, and I haven't heard it 'live' for years. How generous Prokofiev is with his gestural writing, his themes and his symphonic development; what a brilliant idea to let the Huntsmen's tune - my godson Alexander's favourite when he was four and would strut to it, and mine, I think, too - out of the bag at the three-quarters mark. York loved it, too, but this time was outstripped by the clarinettist and bassoonist.

I've just (20/8) discovered a much more focused review of the long weekend's events. Having been underwhelmed by the dutiful New York Times write-up, even as I was mildly flattered to be mentioned, I discovered that Ross Amico, WWFM Classical Network presenter who was one of the many interesting folk I met during the various intervals, has written up his Bardian experience on his blog and, boy, has he style (and again, I say this not because I was tickled at being depicted as 'in quintessential Brit-scholar mode', but because his crits hit the various nails eloquently on the head - which means I agree with him). Read more about it, if you want to, on Ross Amico’s blog.

As coda to the jamboree, six of us dined at Rhinebeck's Beekman Arms. We laughed until we cried at the tales of Byron Adams, a born raconteur as well as a passionate advocate in the States for VW and Elgar. You can imagine the fun we all had when he talked about his time as a teenager in Paris when he met Germaine Tailleferre and repulsed the unwelcome attentions, he says, of Henri Sauguet (say it aloud with an emphatic American accent and you get the gist of our hilarity).

Storms dogged the return journey along the Hudson to NY, which I very happily shared with Harlow and Texas Professor of History Joan Neuberger. The elderly couple next to us, returning from Niagara Falls, seemed amused rather than horrified at our comments on another name which causes mirth when spoken, the Hudson village of Coxsackie. 'Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way before', said the old lady, 'but now you come to mention it...'

My NY afternoon before the flight at 9pm was as perfect as the Thursday morning. I tried Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King for lunch but found him closed for the day, so consumed popovers and scrambled egg next door (with the added embarrassment of having to cart three more popovers. donated by the waiter when I expressed an interest, back to John's charming cleaner). Then there was time for a quick excursion around central Central Park, taking in Shakespeare's Garden and a zoom downtown to catch Olafur Eliasson's New York Waterfalls from Pier 18 of the South Street Seaport. Eliasson wowed us all in London with his Weather Project at the Tate, which turned into a kind of New Age cult happening in 2004:

And here he constructed four large structures for waterfalls at strategic points around the harbour and the East River, including one on Brooklyn Bridge:

So, farewell to New York on another thundery evening, and hello again, gorgeous London on a bright summer day. After going against received wisdom and napping in the afternoon, I took myself off to another Prom which I wanted the younger children of Claire Suthren and Howard Lane, Rowan and Luke, to enjoy. We swapped seats for Arena between halves, and I think they enjoyed it. Here, again, was the answer to my American friends' pessimism about the age and size of audiences: a packed Albert Hall, yet again, for a concert with no obvious stars. Sinaisky and the BBC Phil made lovely work of Elgar's In the South, focused in its swagger and most touching, as such quiet moments usually are in this giant space, as the viola's sweet Italian song died away. I blush to say I didn't know the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto, and thought it would be light and snazzy in the line of Britten's specimen. Hadn't bargained for the usual 1930s dialectic between war and peace: the finale, which only eventually finds peace after a turbulent fugue and German waltz, is stunning. Also hadn't come across Ashley Wass before, another poet with the necessary big guns. Shall we ever forget the thunder and torrential rain overhead (yet again, after Savonlinna and Bard) as the pianist struggled to find peace of mind in the slow movement?

And finally, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, not quite with the wealth of idiosyncrasy a Gergiev finds in this dazzling score. But the flashing images of the last movement were brilliant, as ever, and I loved BBCPO leader Torchinsky's beguiling solos. One final comparison, then: from the big-circus effect of Bard's Spiegeltent, imported from Belgium, where a parallel new-music mini-festival was going on which, alas, clashed with the Prokofiev events... the bigger dome of the Albert Hall, splendidly lit this year. As I revise this, I've just been to what will unquestionably go down as one of the Proms of the year, Dudamel conducting my friends of old the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Ravel, Hillborg and Berlioz. I want to write about the Dudamel phenomenon when I have time, but the point is to show Claire's daughter Carla, now a canny 18, beside the giant bells used in the Witches' Sabbath of the Symphonie fantastique:

All a far cry from the first ballet I took Carla to see when she was four, Adventures in Motion Pictures' Nutcracker! ('and it was only a dream after all', she said loudly but sadly just before the end - except that in Matthew Bourne's choreography, it wasn't quite a dream, for the Nutcracker pops out of Clara's orphanage bed to lead her to freedom). As for Tuesday night's Prom, we could, of course, have gone on to hear Rowan Williams speak - an anti-Archbishoper suggested perhaps pelt him with rotten eggs - and then enjoyed Estonians in Rachmaninov's Vespers, but all were too weary, if quite happy with what we'd already had.

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