Wednesday 31 March 2010

Sibelius at home II: swan songs

This atmospheric gouache on paper by Lennart Segerstrale hangs above the entrance to the Ainola dining room. It has a special meaning for curator Hilkka Helminen, who always watches out for the migrating swans flying south in the autumn and back to the lake near Jarvenpaa in the spring; in fact several of her neighbours had reported isolated sightings, but in the protracted winter those had up to now been few and far between. One recent development has been that the migratory paths are now almost exclusively over Finland, and not Russia, because the fields lie fallow there.

That the swans, and the singing variety especially (the laulujoutsen), were of profound significance for Sibelius can be heard in his music and read in his diaries. There are two crucial entries as he worked on the Fifth Symphony in April 1915:

[21 April] Just before ten-to-eleven saw sixteen swans. One of the greatest experiences in life. Oh God, what beauty: they circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon, which glittered from time to time. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as the cranes but without any tremolo. The swans are closer to trumpets, though there is an element of the sarrusophone. A low suppressed memory of a small child's cry [probably a reference to his daughter Kirsti, who died in infancy]. Nature's mystery and life's melancholy. The Fifth Symphony's final theme.

[24 April] The swans are always in my thoughts and give life its lustre. It is curious that nothing in the whole world, be it art, literature or music, has anything like the same effect on me as these swans, cranes and wild geese. Their sound and their very being.

Hilkka reminded me that Einojuhani Rautavaara, a composer very much loved by her and many other Finns, incorporates recorded swansongs into the final movement of his Cantus Arcticus. The Italian posting on YouTube rather bizarrely calls it a 'concerto for birds', but I like it because of all the photos of swans in flight.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Swapping angels for balls...and sunflowers

Until I had a closer look at it with my BBC Symphony class, I'd been sad at the prespect of missing Friday's Barbican concert performance of Peter Eotvos's operatic Angels in America. I did somehow doubt that Tony Kushner's seven-hour millennial work of genius could be distilled into two hours of singing featuring less than ten per cent of the text. And I was right - though the big set pieces could have had really inspired treatment. The jangling celestials of the portentous angel conjured up by much-drugged HIV-positive Prior Walter, the trips taken by neglected Mormon wife Harper Pitt, scenes of love and tenderness in hard times; all these might work in more inspired hands. What I guess I most resented in what I watched - a really rather awful Chatelet production - was the proportion of cop-out spoken dialogue delivered over minimal mood music.

The students, an open-minded and diverse bunch, confirmed my doubts last Tuesday. I only had to show them fifteen of the opera's best minutes and then a stretch of Mike Nichols's masterly movie for them to wonder what they'd let themselves in for and whether it mightn't be better to stay at home with the DVD. Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted that such a hard-hitting subject has made the operatic stage. But after you've had Meryl, Em, Al Pacino giving the performance of a lifetime, the wondrous Jeffrey Wright and an unbeatable team of young actors scouring your soul, the opera does seem third best, stuffing in as much of the plot as possible when it could have been something completely different.

All this, anyway, is just preliminary to relating what I did see on Friday night at the Finnish National Opera. The Finns I'd met told me to expect a serious new slant on Verdi's Ballo in maschera from all-rounder director Vilppu Kiljunen. The idea of a Berlusconiesque Italian reality-TV setting isn't necessarily bad in principle. But it turned out to be a bit of a muddle, with confusion over what's supposed to be private and public in the drama, and, worse, Kiljunen didn't get the cast I saw to relate to each other. The ball was fabulously, gaudily costumed, and the lady string quintet shone, but Kiljunen desparately needed the kind of movement co-ordinator/choreographer we take for granted in the UK.

The men, apart from the house Sam and Tom, were disappointing, and that includes the erratic conductor, Alberto Hold-Garrido. A useful but hardly poetic Riccardo, Giorgio Cascarri, simply stood and delivered, though at least all the top notes were totally secure; Hannu Niemala's Renato had the right Verdi-baritone colour but belted, rarely phrased.

It was worth seeing, though, for the revelation of Chilean mezzo Isabel Vera, one-time Cardiff finalist and born to play Ulrica, Amneris, Azucena and Eboli.

Also very much the real Verdian thing is our Claire Rutter. She was pretty good when I saw her as Amelia in Bieito's diminishing-returns shock Masked Ball at the Coli. Now she has an absolutely secure spinto technique, ringing top and artistry with melismas, messa di voces, you name it. She didn't look great in power suits, it has to be said, and like the other singers was more or less left to her own devices, but the rapturous ovation she richly deserved shows that this isn't the famed Britcentricity so derided by La Cieca on Parterre (and it was good to hear her singing in Italian). Wouldn't mind hearing her as Brunnhilde in due time. Here she is in the 'Truth Time' section of 'Il Nido d'amore' with Niemala's Renato:

Anyway, the aria and duet in Act 2 caught fire, which was quite enough. And I'd already had my vision when charming press officer Heidi Almi took me to see a children's opera performed before parents and friends. I know from the Savonlinna premiere of Markus Fagerudd's Seven Dog Brothers how seriously Finns take these more-than-merely-educational projects. Auringonkukat (Sunflowers), composed by the prolific Atso Almila and led by repetiteur Kari Hänninen at the piano, used the life of Vincent Van Gogh to involve the children not just in some very hard to memorise, sometimes rhythmically complex choruses but also in issues around art and mental health.

It was all very responsible, unpatronising and musically memorable. I couldn't understand much of the Finnish, to say the least, but I did grasp that the children dressed in capes with Van Gogh's night picture on them played not only disapproving forces of society but also Vincent's dark side, repeating a haunting ostinato as he sinks in to depression. The ending, too, was far from blandly celebratory. The three adult singers involved proved immensely sympathetic, though I reckoned the Vincent in the cast I saw, Ville Salonen, was probably a baritone rather than a tenor. Company member Olli Tuovinen, playing Theo Van Gogh, had one of those Finnish oaky voices we all know and admire so much - surely he'll make an excellent Renato in time. Here he is with the other Vincent, Tero Harjuniemi (also pictured above), and the kids.

Finally, no visit to the Finnish Opera would be complete without an interval mustaherukkaleivos or blackcurrant pastry (if you think that's a mouthful - and of course it is, in reality - I reeled at a 27-letter Finnish word in the leader of a newspaper the man in front of me was reading on the plane. Which beats my favourite, the Russian for highly-qualified, which is viisokiqvalifikatsirovaniye).

My good friend Anneli, holding one of these sinful creations above in the first interval of Ballo, says she can't find them outside the hallowed sanctum of the opera house. A weird Google translation tells me that the mustaherukkaleivos consists of 'mustaherukkainen cream pastry, which tastes like lemon humidification' with 'blackcurrent jelly cakes on the surface'. Never mind, it tastes wonderful.

Monday 29 March 2010

Sibelius at home

200 words in a BBC Music Magazine article on my top composer houses won't do justice to the four-plus wonderful hours I spent last Thursday at Ainola, the home of Jean and Aino Sibelius just outside Jarvenpaa, half an hour's commuter train journey from Helsinki. So I thought I'd expand on the house, the paintings and some extraordinary tributes from Sibelius's confreres in several blog entries over time.

Hilkka Helminen, the house-museum's director, met me on an icy Jarvenpaa station platform in clear blue skies - the last day, as it turned out, of the extended Finnish winter. Her love and enthusiasm for the spirit of place seemed to be reflected by the other Finns I met - with one exception, who found the house 'oppressive'. I couldn't have disagreed with him more. On a sunny winter day, with the snow gleaming outside, light flooded in from all the big windows of Lars Sonck's humble national-romantic construction.

You approach the house up a snowy track through the wooded hill - or rather I, and a few privileged others, did at this time of year because it's only open to the public from May to September (the last visitors to sign the guest book were Olli Mustonen and his family). Without the cordons that marshal the many visitors in season, and with only Hilkka to guide me, it was just like being welcomed into someone's home by the housekeeper when the hosts were absent. Because Sibelius and his wife lived here from 1904 until his peaceful death in the downstairs bedroom on 20 September 1957, and because, following Aino's death at the age of nearly 98 in 1969, the descendants - who still visit and celebrate on birthdays - passed it on to the Finnish state with all contents intact, it has more the feel of a great artist's living home than any I've visited.

The drawing room is a homely mixture of inherited antique furniture, striking paintings and, crucially, the Steinway grand which replaced an upright in 1915, when 144 admirers of Sibelius clubbed together to buy it for his 50th birthday.

Curiously, the keyboard faces a grim painting, Rukous or Prayer by Oscar Parviainen, in which a young girl is claimed by death just as in Kuolema - and in real life, though the Sibeliuses' third daughter Kirsti was little more than a year old when she died. He claimed that he needed the reminder every day when he sat at the piano. No photograph was taken, so upstairs in Aino's bedroom, part of the house not open to the public, Kirsti is represented above the five daughters who lived by a Van Dyck child.

I'll mention some of the other pictures in a later entry. Now we move into the dining room, pictured with Hilkka in the foreground.

The great green fireplace is one of only two features on which Sibelius himself insisted. Apparently he 'heard' its colour in F major - I didn't know about his synesthesia - just as another Parviainen of a funeral cortege to the left apparently resounded in D major. The dining table is seen below with more treasure paintings behind lining the staircase wall

while a small table and a window seat helped me to place that 1915 photo I posted back in 2008 when I was working on Sibelius 6 for Radio 3's Building a Library.

Off the dining room is the big kitchen and the room for the two servants who stayed with the Sibeliuses for most of their time here and the bedroom in which Sibelius died with his second study (the first was upstairs), his familiar hat and cane on a chair in the corner (pictured above).

Adjoining bedroom and dining room is the comfortable library, converted from children's rooms in 1935.

I could hardly believe I was seeing the original of the triptych with the missing third panel by the great Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

It contains his symbolic (mis)interpretation of Sibelius's 'fairy tale' En Saga with the tousled, attractive portrait and the empty panel which Sibelius refused to fill with a quotation from the tone poem. More anon on the books and the gramophone collection.

We spent the whole morning there, and I was very surprised when Hilkka offered a return visit after lunch at the excellent catering school nearby. This was when we went through the contents of the 78s and I discovered still more wonders. She was also game enough to accompany me through the thigh-deep snow to the site of the graves of Sibelius and Aino, covered at this time of year, of course

and the sauna, designed by the multitalented Aino (whose gardening skills were not, of course, evident at this time of year).

It wasn't until 3.30 that Hilkka dropped me back at Jarvenpaa station.

I was rather amused by this quartet - the old stationmaster and his wife in the photos on the wall, the new generation beneath - in the comfortable waiting room.

Then I labelled my thoughts on the crowded train back, Luonnotar once again running through my head as it had on the outward journey, before stepping out at Helsinki's famous Central Station, designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919.

To help plan your essential trip to Jarvenpaa, there are further details and photos on the Ainola website. More can be found on the individual artworks at

Saturday 27 March 2010

Roaring Rhine, frozen Baltic

It's been a confusion of seasons, highlighted by the coincidence of spring gently breaking in Switzerland when I paid my visit to the Lucerne Easter Festival last week, and the Finns' toughest winter in 40 years just about holding on with the last of the dazzling sunny days up north in Helsinki, from which very lively city I've just returned. Above are the Rhine falls near Schaffhausen, ozonous clouds of spray chilling the mild air down by the river banks, and the harbour of Finland's capital through which the ships to Estonia and Sweden ice-plough their way.

I've now a plethora of overwhelming impressions to digest: Abbado, Dudamel, Harnoncourt at Lucerne; Sibelius's home of Ainola in deep snow, the most emotional four hours I've ever spent at a composer's house; the breadth and intensity of the Finnish musical and cultural scene, the easy charm of all the people I met there. More here and over on the Arts Desk anon.

Then it was back to London to see once again the Volga into which Janacek's and Ostrovsky's Katya Kabanova - commandingly sung and characterised by Patricia Racette, pictured below by Clive Barda - finally plunges in David Alden's ENO production.

Musically, it was all there on the first night, as I tried with some struggles to articulate in my Arts Desk review. But throughout this evening's final performance, the extremes of the score as devotedly rendered by the ENO Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth's electrifying baton, from the tenderest pianissimos to the most scary-exultant lovesurges, registered even more viscerally (J said this was all very purple. I've cut out a few adjectives and an adverb, but it still is. Shows how tough it is to do justice with words to something truly numinous in music).

Anyway, I've never heard Janacek more searchingly conducted, and that includes by Mackerras (whose last Katya at the Royal Opera felt a little low key to me). Well, we'll see how the great Janacekian fares with Vixen later this week. London is so lucky, though, to hear two such different Janacek masterpieces cheek by jowl.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Remembering Dover

Professor Sir Kenneth J, that is, news of whose death last week reached me via The Spectator, which I picked up on the plane to Zurich. I can't think of much to say about Wolfgang Wagner or Lady Susana Walton, except that their deaths mark the ends of two very different musical reigns. Dover is different, and I'm glad I read a mag I usually avoid. My usual tirades against Tory raggery and the in-club melted when I encountered two articles pages in - one by Andrew Gilligan, eloquent on the pros and cons of the east London mosque, and the other by Peter Jones in defence of Dover, who it seems has had a rough time in some of the obits.

At university, we enjoyed his deBowdlerised, pithy, scholarly-salacious commentaries on Aristophanes - I just found my copy of Clouds and searched for a characteristic insight into bottoms like peach-fuzz. I didn't find it, but this is a flavoursome sample on l.1014. Forgive me if I don't spend time formatting the Greek words:

Muscular young people are commonly depicted in vase-paintings with buttocks jutting out above massive thighs, and apugos is a derogatory word. It was a standing joke against the Athenians that they wore down their buttocks by rowing, and in Frogs 1070f we encounter the idea that too much sitting around and talking 'wears down the buttocks' Posthen mikran: An abnormally small penis is characteristic of gods, heroes and youths on vase-paintings, an abnormally large one characteristic of barbarian slaves and of some kinds of satyr. Possibly the Greeks shared the common popular belief that there is a correlation between size of penis and sexual appetite.

Even this doesn't quite give the sense of what a marvellous stylist Dover was. He's quoted in the Spectator article, which I recommend you read in full. But I can't resist repeating a few words from the Preface to his, forgive the word, seminal Greek Homosexuality, published in 1978: 'I am fortunate in not experiencing moral shock or disgust at any genital act whatsoever, provided that it is welcome and agreeable to all the participants (whether they number one, two or more than two) ... no act is sanctified, and none is debased, simply by having a genital dimension.'

He sounds like the model of a humane being. I'd love to have met him.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Hoffmann loses the plot

He usually does, owing to the labyrinth of plans and alternatives for Offenbach's problematic Venetian act. I count myself lucky to have heard the Kaye/Keck 2005 performing version live for the first time in Zurich last Thursday, and with three very fine singers (two of them, the Hoffmann of Vittorio Grigolo and Michelle Breedt's Nicklausse/Muse, pictured above by Suzanne Schwiertz, who also took the two Opernhaus Zurich photos below).

Yet the show was not what it might have been, owing to the kind of musical chairs I've only come across at the Met. The original director pulled out at an early stage, leaving house director Grischa Asagaroff to fill in the gaps; and then, following the final rehearsal, Elena Mosuc - whom it would have been quite a treat to see and hear as all four of Hoffmann's loves - developed a throat infection. Three ladies of varying abilities were flown in to plug the gaps.

More problematic than any of the above was the Zurich Opera debut of Tonhalle principal conductor David Zinman. We like his Mahler and adore some of his Strauss tone poems, but he showed not the slightest instinct for co-ordinating between pit and stage - did he once hold up his baton for the singers? - going his own way with often sluggish tempi that were the opposite of what this, of all works, needs: opera-comique buoyancy.

Under the circumstances, there was still much to enjoy. I've no idea what half the symbolism in Bernhard Kleber's sets was supposed to mean, but the stylish theatre-bar for the first scene looked good, and what went on behind the ugly sub-de-Chirico panels surrounding each tale could be interesting. The chorus, though, seemed under-directed both as stiff, unrowdy, tuxedoed 'students' in the Prologue and as the pallid, quite unsensual decadents of Giulietta's entourage. They came into their own in the a cappella musings and the magnificent Muse-led curtain which really should be the only possible ending to the opera.

Grigolo is a real stage animal, sexy and very expressive with his hands. A brilliant director might do much with him, but here he suggested none of Domingo's rivetingly portrayed decline from wide-eyed youth to shattered drunk. The voice has ping and elan, but he's essentially a lighter, Donizetti tenor and came under cruel pressure in 'Ah dieu, de quelle ivresse' and the shadow-duet. Dominating the stage in the right way was another singer with real sex-appeal, Laurent Naouri. A better four-in-one-villain I don't expect to see, and unlike Grigolo he never overdid it (except for a justified touch of humorous melodrama when Coppelius threatens 'je vais tuer quelqu'un').

Of course he doesn't get the Diamond Aria we all know and love, a pinch from another Offenbach work, singing a weaker original to similar words, but Naouri, Grigolo and Breedt made the trio before the central Olympia shenanigans work well. Here are all three in the act's tragicomic denouement.

That trio is one of several rediscoveries which have to become fixtures of any 21st century Hoffmann. Most ravishing of all is Nicklausse's ode to music in the Antonia act. I fell in love with it on Garanca's arias disc, and if Breedt - a fine if unglammy Octavian and Composer - wasn't quite the match there, she acted almost as deftly as Naouri and shone in the final apotheosis.

The loves? Well, passons - or, rather, let me be brief. Sen Guo did the doll stuff perfectly mechanically, which was fine; Raffaela Angeletti, though with a none too attractive basic tone and a tendency to sing sharp, carried off some of Antonia's pathos; Riki Guy should never have been singing Giulietta - and in any case, what a dud is the reinstated finale. I still think we need the interpolated septet and a quick curtain, whatever an ailing Offenbach may originally have thought best.

Anyway, it was all an amiable curtain-raiser to the real jewels ahead: the Simon Bolivar Orchestra at the Lucerne Easter Festival with Abbado - a dream come true to so many of us - and then with Dudamel, and then in a family concert with the usual Latin American fiesta plums. I'll have more to say about those privileged hours on the Arts Desk, and - if there's time in the next chaotic few days - I'll add something here too.

Suffice it to say that the upbeat and the plunge into Prokofiev's Scythian chaos made for the most exciting start to any concert, the throb of twelve double basses at the end of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique the most sobering of any conclusions. You'll get to see it, eventually, on DVD, and you'll be amazed: though I suppose nothing should surprise us from the man who is, for me, so many musicians and all the Venezuelans, the world's greatest living conductor.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Queen Odetta

It's wonderful to come across a great artist for the first time, but I blush to say that until our friend Juliette in Jerusalem told us we must hear Odetta, I'd never heard of the woman Martin Luther King called 'the queen of American folk music' (Odetta joined him as a self-styled 'private' in the Civil Rights Movement's marches and campaigns). She was a huge influence on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte among others, and I like Maya Angelou's poetic tribute, even if I don't entirely understand it: 'If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.'

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta would have been an opera singer if her mother had prevailed, but, we read, she 'doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera'. Touring in Finian's Rainbow, she met a group of folkies in San Francisco and turned to the style that made her famous. This incredible little film shows her earlier heart and soul. It's out of synch for the first ten seconds but rights itself so that you get the full audiovisual impact of the guitar thwacks.

So thank you, Julie. I look forward to the CDs I've ordered up, and we need immediate release on DVD of the complete concert from which that deeply moving 'House of the Rising Sun' is taken.

Of course on YouTube one thing leads to another, and in discovering Odetta performances of spirituals appropriated by the Bible belt, I also came across Marian Anderson, Odetta's mother's idol, in a full symphonic treatment of 'Deep River'. What control, what vocal colour and range.

Anyway, I imagine 'world music' pioneer Charlie Gillett, who's died at the age of 68 and whose programmes on the BBC World Service I so enjoyed, must have been wowed by Odetta (how could he not be?) I was amused to read that his own label had a success with Lene Lovich's 'Lucky Number', hit of our youth. And so from the sublime to the enjoyably ridiculous...

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Backstage at St Paul's

The higher the church, it seems, the more all they say and do is theatre. So it did feel like going behind the wings on Saturday when, in honour of goddaughter Evi's latest state visit, friend and succentor Father Andrew took us into the hidden places of Wren's vast masterpiece. We started at William Kempster's geometrical staircase in the south-west tower, where a Gormley has recently been unveiled

and then toured the storage spaces on the same level as the whispering gallery. Plans are to turn this into a museum, though I like its spooky improvised air. Here's masonry from old St Paul's which fell, according to John Evelyn, 'like grenados' in the Great Fire of 1666, 'the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness'.

Sitting idle are the massive marble font cover and two pulpits, this one regarded as too Romish.

The second, and favourite, of Wren's three models for the new cathedral, which cost the price of a small townhouse to make, is still to be seen in the Trophy Room, along with a splendid series of drawings.

To move from the south storage space to the north, you cross the west end on a level with the organ trumpets

and get a good look at some of the glorious stonework.

Then it was time for Evensong, where we sat in splendour under the Gibbons woodwork while the men's voices of the cathedral choir treated us to Matthew Locke's expressive setting of Psalm 102(Purcell's 'Hear my prayer', though, has to be the apogee of chromatic grief, one of the most perfect anthems ever written). Don't miss the free St Paul's performance of Bach's St John Passion with the London Mozart Players on Wednesday 24 March.

Anyway, if that wasn't enough to set Evi's head spinning, we whizzed up to Kings Place for the eighth concert in Martino Tirimo's series presenting the complete Chopin - a real epic in two parts, each taking us on a long journey from innocence to experience, which I'm pleased to have given some much-needed coverage in my Arts Desk review. Afterwards, Tirimo's fellow Cypriot Niki Katsaouni wanted us to meet her thoughtful and modest compatriot. Here he is with Evi in front of one of Norman Cornish's scenes of colliery drinkers.

The Cornish exhibition is a treat for the interval. Cornish laboured down the pit for 33 years before putting his art first. His work is a record of a vanished community, but much more than that in its wonderful compositions. I especially coveted a frontal drinking scene with pints lined up on the bar - not for sale, but many of the works are, around the £10,000 mark. Go have a look, anyway.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Stars and shoes of the BBC

Strictly speaking, every player of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a star, but we've been privileged to discover how many of these modest souls shine in chamber music thanks to my BBCSO course at the City Lit. Following top soloists, two string quartets and two different viola ensembles, we had a visit on Tuesday from one of the orchestra's two leaders, Stephen Bryant, along with viola-player Mary Whittle and cellist Mark Sheridan, regular course visitor (pictured above Emily Kershaw's shoes, of which more below).

After a long rehearsal sawing away at Wolfgang Rihm, whose taxing, tiring music I couldn't quite face yesterday, and a couple of hours' practice in a Keeley Street rehearsal room, these dauntless heroes of the musical world treated us to two movements from Mozart's E flat String Trio. They were tackling it for the first time and it was tough work, they told us, playing in E flat, though the key does bring out special qualities and certainly Mozart at the peak of his powers would have known what he was doing.

All three had interesting things to say about playing Rihm and his colleagues, who interfere with the line they need for the classics. I think they were just as interested to know what the students thought; it turns out these players really want the feedback, and even intend to set up a BBC Symphony club with two of their number taking the initiative. Self-effacing Stephen is, I'm told, as adored and respected a leader among his fellow musicians as Andrew Haveron. And just as Andrew had the chance to shine in Korngold's Violin Concerto a couple of weeks back, his colleague will be giving the UK premiere of a new work by Detlev Glanert in the 2010-11 season (curiously, he did exactly the same for the Korngold). He's promised to come back and take us through its demands, so we'll hold him to that.

Over at the Barbican two nights later, Sir Nick Kenyon and colleagues unveiled plans for their forthcoming season, which means more of the same with a few new superstars thrown into the mix. I have to say I was most intrigued by the shoes of a very glamorous lady standing in front of me, before I realised she was that vivacious Radio 3 producer Emily Kershaw. I explained I was no foot fetishist, and the name 'Manolo Blahnik' meaned nothing to me until I watched Sex and the City, before snapping at her heels.

The fluorescent lighting of the Fountain Room showed them up in their best possible light. The above, ever so slightly fuzzy, was taken senza flash; using it reveals a still quite colourful reality. Em has just pointed me in the direction of many more shoes of this ilk and others in quite a different style on the United Nude website. May come in useful if I seek presents for the goddaughters (though haven't even glanced at the prices).

Oh, that Barbican carpet. Anyway, Emily's shoes were the highlight of the evening along with sparky Jeremy Denk in the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind. Denk-by-nature's durchgespielt Prokofiev Visions fugitives had been the highlight of what I heard at the 2008 Bard Festival, and this was no less challenging.

A shame the baton of John Adams, photographed above by Margaretta Mitchell, is not as accomplished as his poetic pen, and really doesn't need to be used to beat time so much. But his City Noir was entertaining and luminous enough; it's more of the same, but with Adams that's usually a beguiling same, as I wrote in my Arts Desk review.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Spirit of '76

Referring not to the presidential plane which lands in Beijing near the start of Peter Sellars' durable staging of John Adams's resplendent Nixon in China - ENO production photo by Alistair Muir - but to nine-teen seventysix. Sing it, Louise, in the manner of the catchy refrains in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.

In the booklet accompanying the 1976 release of DG's Kurt Weill box set, much-missed 'Phil' Langridge and the thankfully still very much with us 'Ben' Luxon sported flowery shirts and very of-the-time hairdos.

I was always amused by the fashions, shared above with Nona Lidell and Mary King, even at less of a remove in time, ever since I bought the treasurable set of Weill miscellanea (some of which has, alas, never made it to CD).

January 1976 was the month in which a Harburg/Arlen number from a 1939 Marx Brothers movie was remade, to achieve immortality in Episode 102 of The Muppet Show. We've been watching this over and over, and mindlessly humming the refrains, since I stumbled across this on YouTube. Pig Lydia made only one more outing, but apparently she was one of Jim Henson's favourites. Enjoy: we need a bit of lightening up after all these deaths and this endlessly prolonged winter. Do hang around for Miss Piggy's reaction.