Friday 30 April 2010

Music by the finchload

What a weird week: paralleling the unpredictable course of bereavement, I've seen and heard Thomas Ades in fabulous recital, Myaskovsky well done by Jurowski with a dazzling performance by cellist Danjulo Ishizaka in Prokofiev's heartbreaking Symphony-Concerto, Debbie Reynolds strutting her stuff at the Apollo Theatre last night, and guitar-twanging zebra finches. As has half the rest of London by now, I know, but since it's the one I didn't get to write about over on The Arts Desk, let's give a word to these little darlings (pictured above and below by Lyndon Douglas; strictly no photography allowed in the sanctuary).

It's Celeste Boursier-Mougenot's gift to the Barbican's great Curve space, where I've never so far seen a dull happening. CBM's leads you through a strobed dark zone covered in video projections to the bit that everyone wants to see: a flock of zebra finches flitting between 'islands' of eletric guitars, basses and cymbals. As they land or perch, the sounds they make are amplified - and they don't seem to bother the birds at all, which sit there seemingly happy, staring at you and chattering away. Two have even made a nest in one of the guitars.

Seems like the perfect show for the Barbican, which of course played host to the most successful of all the BBC Symphony Orchestra's composer weekends, the one devoted to John Cage which included assorted pals and 'special guests' rotating through piano performance of Satie's Vexations in the conservatory all night long. Boursier-Mougenot, trained as a musician and composer, is very much in the Cage line, and shows there's plenty of mileage still to be got from this sort of thing. I took visiting Lottie to see it just before the Ades recital, since for the first time when I passed it there were only a handful of people queueing to get in.

And if I weren't against cageing birds, I'd want a couple of those heavenly creatures to keep me company at my desk. Here they are al fresco in a fun little film.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Springwatch III: along the river

Planes were massing in the skies again towards the end of last week, but the vapour trails didn't manage to obscure the clear blue. Interesting, ambiguous observation on the quiet time from Tim Lott in The Independent; but for me, it's back to Fotherington-Thomas land and two lovely afternoons pedalling down the Thames. I needed them after a couple of what our Viennese friend Martha would call 'stressy' encounters. Equilibrium was restored and the bright blue is back again today.

I'd left it a bit late on Thursday to get to Kew and back in time to carry out my first theatre crit in something like twenty years: I was covering the UK premiere at the Almeida of Ruined, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play about the suffering and resourcefulness of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the review is up on the Arts Desk, I don't need to say more here except praise once again the strong, ultimately touching performances from Jenny Jules and Lucian Msamati (pictured below by Tristram Kenton).

Not seen such a glitzy crowd since...well, the Prima Donna prima a couple of weeks back. This time it was Islington chic, and actors by the yard. I found myself sitting behind heavenly Juliet Stevenson, and so wanted to tap her on the shoulder and tell her what her recording of To the Lighthouse had meant to my dear Nell Martin when she lay dying, but thought it might be rather heavy weather, and anyway the opportunity passed and the quiet end of the play was not the time and place.

Anyway, having got as far as Chiswick that afternoon, I cut the Kew plan short and went to Chiswick House instead. I used to like frequenting the slightly run-down, damp cafe in the grounds, but found it had been replaced by a brand-new concrete building. The culinary contents looked a bit mass-produced at a first glance, but the suppliers turned out to be The Company of Cooks, the brilliant caterers who've transformed the Southbank. Then I took a stroll around the free-for-all park, which isn't exactly bursting with blossom but offers plenty of natural spectacles, not least coots' nests

by the beautifully restored bridge (James Wyatt, 1788)

and further down, below the Palladian villa.

On the way back, one of the Thames's regularly positioned, solitary herons was proudly perched at Chiswick reach

and the gunnera grows in one of the gardens right by the river, separated from their houses by Chiswick Mall.

Thanks to the prunus over the wall, our own back yard isn't looking bad at all.

Kew will have to wait for a further instalment.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Farewell, Noëlle

My dear, inspiring, vivacious, combative and energetic friend Noëlle Mann, doyenne of Prokofiev events and studies in recent years, died peacefully at home yesterday with her husband Chris holding her hand. There they are above. Astonishingly, I took that photo only two months ago, when Noëlle was already in extreme pain from the cancer she'd borne unknowingly for about eight years and with honesty during the shorter time she had to consciously manage it.

We realised I might not see her again, though I very much wanted to; despite her fatigue, she talked with her usual clarity and determination about tying up Prokofievian loose ends, trying to think of anyone she hadn't contacted on the organisational front, and very much wanting to know what was going on in the world. Frankly, I was expecting to be upset by how she'd changed, but she looked very much her old animated self, and the eyes had all their characteristic inquisitive sparkle. It was, paradoxically, an inspiring visit.

I first met Noëlle when I was about to embark on at least the background work for my book and she had just launched the Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths College (don't ask me which year that was). I liked her directness and her immediately engaging warmth - though I have to say that there were times in the early stages, as in any passionate friendship, where we might have hit a reef, since she could certainly give offence, and I was all too ready to take it. Once we'd overcome that, she enriched my life in so many ways: as conductor of the Kalina Choir, which I promptly joined and where I also met my Russian teacher, Joan Smith; as instigator of great confluences like the massive anniversary celebrations in Manchester in 2003; as editor of Three Oranges, a composer journal way above the usual standards, invaluable in the furthering of Prokofiev studies; and simply as a good friend, keeping me company during my big year of research at the Archive, coming to dine here with the ever-supportive and involved Chris and holding two big summery birthday parties in the garden of her son's house near Blackheath.

Later gatherings were rather valedictory, as she retired from Goldsmiths College, where she loved her students and they her, and withdrew from the Archive, handing over to the dependable and immensely likeable Fiona McKnight (it says much for Noëlle that she won undying loyalty from the people she needed around her). The gathering before the Barbican premiere of the Mark Morris/Simon Morrison 'original' Romeo and Juliet was huge fun, but retrospectively tinged with sadness: not only Noëlle but also her close friends Ted and Joan Downes, whose assisted suicide came as such a cruel shock to her, are no longer with us. But here she is on that occasion, beaming as ever with the invite for this Serge Prokofiev Foundation 25th anniversary bash, designed by the also-pictured Serge Junior, son of Sviatoslav and grandson of the composer.

As I told Chris this morning and seemed to startle him in what seemed to be a positive way, she came into my mind several times yesterday because it was - officially at least, though room for doubt exists - Prokofiev's birthday. Knowing that the end was close, I was thinking it would be rather grand if she could manage to take her leave on 23 April. And she did. Life without such a huge personality won't be the same, but now I just have to make more headway with that second volume, which will of course be dedicated to Noëlle.

I should have added when I first wrote this that my thoughts go not only to Chris but also to Julia and Tom and their families, who brought Noelle a lot of joy in recent years. There's a photo Noëlle showed me on our last visit of her with little Lina which is one of the loveliest I've ever seen.

Finally, an optional homage, encouraged by Serge's poetry below. I'd been sending Noëlle and Chris CDs of music I thought might provide some gentle support, and that helped me rediscover the wonderful Poulenc songs disc which I excerpted some way below. I think our grande dame bien-aimee would like the bittersweet levity of another great lady, Felicity Lott, in 'Les chemins d'amour'. Yours to take or leave, as you wish (though if you take it, it's best viewed fullscreen by clicking and going to the YouTube format). It's helped me to shed a few fond tears.

Friday 23 April 2010

Springwatch II: psychic garden

Which is what we whimsically call the Chelsea Physic Garden. It's one of those places, like the Freud Museum where I was an 'educator' so many years ago, where no matter how frazzled and stressed you might be when you enter, you usually leave walking on air. So it was for the rather diverse bunch of folk we gathered together for lunch at the haphazard but lovable, top-notch Tangerine Dream Cafe, outside which we roasted unprotected from the strong sunshine.

Spring has certainly burst in the Physic Garden even since I visited earlier last week. For a start, the pitcher plant sprout turned out to be a flower, not one of the carnivore's scary flytraps

while the pond and the beds are much advanced. With the late spring, stuff that's normally over by now coexists with some early arrivals, like the first peony.

I noticed for the first time, in the south-east corner, a tree the Chinese love because they believe its fruits attract the phoenix: a Paulownia, sub-categorised I believe as 'lilacensis' for obvious reasons.

Heading back to the cafe after a stroll, I found our friends Cal and Ching deep in conversation with a stylishly dressed lady who'd taken a place at the table. She was local writer Shelley Vaughan Williams, and I have to say I was a little sceptical about the poetry she bore with her in book and manuscript form. Then I opened this volume and found her attempts to express the ineffable remarkably clear and unsentimental.

SVW, widow of a relative of the composer, seems to have been through a great deal: unable to move or speak for a year after a brain aneurism, she now seems restored to health even if her memory fails her, she said, and she's probably more pass-remarkable than she would have been before. Cal thought she might try and use her publishing skills to promote the manuscript. Here's a nice shot of them together.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Elevated Martinů

Who, among 20th century composers, really solved the problem of a clinching symphonic finale? Triumph became difficult: in that respect, only Nielsen 5 is up there for me. But in terms of more ambiguous resolutions, I think of Shostakovich 8 and 15, Vaughan Williams 6 - and now Martinů 3*. It hit me with the force of revelation on Saturday, and I could hardly stop weeping.

Why? Because, having had his expected syncopated Allegro thrash, Martinů unpeels sad and exultant layers of beauty only briefly anticipated in the central Largo of this embattled symphony. It's going to sound dull if I just enumerate them, but I will: the tortured writing for the violas which climbs ever higher in search of release; the simple oboe figure - and then the above, what Patrick Lambert described to me on Saturday as 'sheer elevation' of a very transcendent kind. It's the concerto-grosso principle of bringing a solo string quartet to the fore, but having each player's section colleagues as muted back-up. You get that in a very moving passage of the Fourth's great slow movement, too. But this is even more complex, enriched by rippling harp, staccato piano and flutes, burbling clarinets.

And that's not all. It momentarily comes as a bit of a shock when the woodwind start brightly fanfaring in the symphony's goal-key, E major. But the massed triumph is short-lived, buffeted by discords. The strings hold on to the chord, but in three curt protests, the piano insists that perfect peace can't be left unchallenged.

This odd apotheosis is further complicated by personal quotations: the famous chords from the opera Julietta - by way, conscious or not, of Janacek's Taras Bulba - which mark out the hero trying to hold on to the memory of his first encounter with the voice of his beloved

and the desolation of a little three-note figure from Dvorak's Requiem, which Martinů knew through its quotation in his teacher Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony. There it marks the double loss of Suk's father-in-law, Dvorak, and then their beloved Otylka (Dvorak's daughter and Suk's wife).

I don't think it's too fanciful to hear the end of the Third as Martinu reaching out again to the great love of his life, the brilliant young composer Vitezslava Kapralova, who died all too young in the truly awful year of 1940, shortly after Martinů had come to realise that he had to leave Paris following the Nazi invasion. There he is, right, with her and her father above. It was a love of which his biographer, Milos Safranek, even if he was fully conversant with the facts, couldn't speak without wounding Martinu's long-suffering wife. The next few years gave all too little breathing-space to reflect, but out of the terrible depression of early 1944 came the Third Symphony. Its performance on Saturday I shall never forget, my first concert-hall acquaintance with this masterpiece. Attached as I am to my Bamberg/Jarvi recording, I'll be glad to hear how it emerges on the impending CD set of Martinu symphonies taken from these live performances.

On Friday, the unknown (to me) quantity of Lawrence Renes leads the currently overworked BBC Symphony Orchestra in tackling the other truly colossal memorial of the 1940s, Shostakovich's Eighth - a shattering monument twice the length of Martinu's, and very different.

I'm wary about going, because Rostropovich's last Barbican performance of it with the LSO, mercifully captured on the above CD, went as deep as it's possible to go in a symphony. Well, we'll see. What's for sure is that both symphonic endings give us some sort of qualified optimism after all that anguish.

22/4, post-midday: for those of you anxious to know about these things, the programme for the 2010 Proms is now up and running on the BBC website. I daresay I'll get into it again when it happens, but very little has me jumping up and down with excitement the way that the Belohlavek Martinů cycle or anticipation of Jurowski's performance of Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphony in the season proper have. JEG is doing Martinů's Fantaisies Symphoniques somewhere in a jampacked Czech Phil Prom but not, if you please, at the end, which is the only rightful place for it.

*an afterthought - perhaps I should have said post World War One, because Sibelius 5 provides another sturdy specimen of the triumphant, and the Sixth another example of beautiful ambiguity.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

On top of the volcano

Vivid memories have been rekindled by the Icelandic showstopper: 1984, and my night on Stromboli, weirdest of the Aeolian islands off the north coast of Sicily, with four Australian girls (can't remember their names - probably written down in an old diary. All I can recall is that two designed furniture for the parliament in Canberra). Here we are, glad to be alive after sleepless hours of darkness in the hot stone circle, exhilarated by hourly displays of red-hot lava being hurled into the air from the nearby crater, with concomitant stone falls sounding like applause in a vast auditorium, but tormented by rats. Sadly I have no photos of my own because my camera had run out of film.

Oh, the folly of it. Would I do it now? Probably couldn't: in those days you were discouraged but not prohibited from following the cinder path up the ever-active volcano, and I'm told that's been stopped. We were foolhardy to do it, especially as we began very late in the afternoon, though the risks weren't as extreme as they're made out in the not very good Rossellini film, where poor Ingrid Bergman's only way out from her unhappy relationship with a fisherman is up and over.

In fact, we got lost on the way up because we kept leaving the zig-zagging route and taking short cuts through macchia. One failed to materialise and we were reconciled to sleeping on the lower slopes as darkness fell when a German tour party appeared. They angrily told us we couldn't join their paid excursion, but we insisted we had no choice, and as they carried on over the top to descend the other side, we settled into our volcanotop cairn. The horror, the horror: as we tucked into our picnic, shadowy rodents popped up over the top of the stones. When we settled down to sleep, one of the girls later told me, a rat the size of a dog perched over my head before thinking better of it. The solution to a bit of peace, of course, was to throw out the remainder of our supplies, which had been more or less consumed when we collected the nearly empty bag in the morning.

We weren't alone. Another group joined us in a pensione down in the village for breakfast, including an assistant opera director at the Met. We were all hysterical from our experiences and couldn't stop laughing. Then we sunbathed on the black lava beach before the afternoon boat back to Lipari, and I remember the subterranean rumbles, like the tube train passing under the Wigmore Hall.

I'm glad we did it, but nowadays unpredictable Stromboli - which we were told was perfectly safe, because the hourly displays signalled safety-valve status - is probably best seen from the above distance.

Monday 19 April 2010

In praise of Percy

No innuendo is intended, though given Percy Grainger's voracious and distinctly dodgy sexual obsessions it could be. Anyway, I'm currently deep in a bout of Graingermania. This has been quite a week for hearing great stuff I've never come across in the concert hall before. Saturday was the Alpine peak, perhaps of the year: Martinu's most consistently powerful symphony, the Third, in the penultimate instalment of Belohlavek's BBCSO Martinu symphonies cycle. Thanks, Thomas and Hedgehog, for 'spreading the love around' in your comments to the previous entry. But what led to a more recent re-discovery was maverick Swede Bengt Forsberg's inclusion of Grainger's To a Nordic Princess as the first of his two encores in last Wednesday's recital.

As a result, I dug out my CDs of Martin Jones and the man himself in all the works Grainger 'dished up for piano', and I started reading John Bird's biography. Bird's prose makes for very sober reading alongside the mad screeds of Percy himself, but still, what a life! Even before he appears in the world, there's crazy Rose, the mother from hell, wishing good thoughts on her unborn child by banishing her hapless hubby from the boudoir and fixating on a statue of Apollo at the end of the bed. Whatever problems Percy subsequently had - not least the appalling flagellation which he openly wrote about wishing to apply to small children, so thank God he had none of his own - can be laid at Rose's door. Peter Carey should write a novel about the relationship between those two; maybe Jane Campion could make a film of it.

The fact remains, though, that for all his psychobluster and inconsistencies, PG seems to have been a natural man, the freshest of composers and a master pianist. I'm now listening to his performance of Chopin's Third Piano Sonata, and I reckon the slow movement is my favourite now, while the finale is the most vivacious ever. What a shame there's not more film of his playing; I could only come up with this less than minute clip from a documentary. It's worth seeing, if only for the extraordinary flying motion.

Grainger was inspired by Eugen D'Albert during his student time in Frankfurt: 'when I saw D'Albert swash around over the piano with the wrong notes flying to the left & right & the whole thing a welter of recklessness, I said to myself, "That;s the way I must play". I'm afraid I learnt his propensity for wrong notes all too thoroughly.'

As for his own compositions, I was knocked for six by the In a Nutshell Suite, where cowpat pastorale goes off the rails into Schoenberg/Ives territory, and then on for another six glorious minutes. Had a YouTube clip of Grainger's deepest slow movement in its orchestral version conducted by Rattle, but I now see that's been removed 'due to third party infringement'. Shame.

I worked out that next February will be the fiftieth anniversary of Grainger's death. I don't see his bracing and prolific output featuring in any of the major orchestras' rep, but let's see what happens.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Spring in the City

It's here at last, in bud, leaf and blossom. The skies are blue, wherever the volcanic ash cloud be lingering. Fotherington-Thomas was out and about on his bike last Wednesday, whizzing up to Maida Vale for a BBC Symphony Orchestra afternoon concert - a huge triumph for ten-year-old Lucien, if a little less so for his younger sister Jessica - then to London Bridge for a weekly engagement before wandering around to see what Southwark's been doing with the greening and on to Bengt Forsberg's brilliant, idiosyncratic recital at the Wigmore Hall.

Bengt led me on to a wave of Grainger enthusiasm, of which more in maybe the next entry, but for now I just want to expend a few pics on English city gardens. In the reclaimed zone around City Hall called Potters Fields, once a cemetery, there's been some adventurous planting, and even raised vegetable beds which seem to be respected in the public space.

So you get tantalising views of London Bridge and County Hall through trees

and beyond the herbaceous beds designed, the website tells me, by Piet Oudolf.

They have some growing up to do, but the peony shoots promise much.

Crossing Tooley Street, I was drawn to a magnolia gleaming in the sun. It's between council blocks on a patch of green before the viaduct.

Another pink magnolia in an unlikely place is on an otherwise bald road in Chelsea.

I saw it on my way back from Chelsea Physic Garden, where activity is slow; but the fruit trees begin to blossom

and I'd never seen a pitcher plant in its incipient state - just as creepy as the finished, fly-trapping monster.

Two final Spring blossoms for good measure: one by a posher Chelsea House on the King's Road

and another by the canal at Little Venice

taken on the way back from the Maida Vale concert. Effortless master Jiri Belohlavek continues his run of great concerts - this was certainly one - with the penultimate instalment in his Martinu symphonies series at the Barbican tonight. I'm talking on the Third, as well as a bit about Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, at 6pm in the big hall, so do come along and say hello.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Born to dance

First of the Bedlamites' 30th anniversary jaunts was organised by the bonhomous Andy Beale - a trip to the National to see his Less Well Known Brother Simon Russell in the irresistible Boucicault farce London Assurance. More of that in a moment. I should first report that SRB's biggest joy, when we trooped backstage to his Dennis Quilley Room, was a report from NYT ballet critic Alistair Macauley praising his fleetness of foot, declaring that his ballet steps would grace a full choreography, and that he hoped to see him as one of the Ugly Sisters in the Ashton Cinderella soon.

While, on the evidence of seeing the hard work put in by Wayne Sleep and Luke Heydon on Saturday afternoon, I think that might be beyond him unless he can afford a year off to train, I grant him superb nimbleness in the few steps, including a splendid entrechat, he claimed to know. It was clear from what he said to Giles Brandreth, apparently a pal, that he felt ready for new challenges. What more can he want? He's a superb music presenter, from the little I've seen, and one of my students was talking about 'the greatest living actor' when I entered the class a couple of weeks ago.

Anyway, great SRB certainly was. Here he is with Andy and Lord Harcourt Hartley's wig, another backstage shot from me in between Catherine Ashmore's production photos.

And the performance? Helpless laughter from a bewitched audience at every entrance, every pose and grimace, so that it was a bit tough on the other actors in the First Act when left alone. But the rest of the cast in Hytner's handsome production didn't let us down: there was a spirited juve lady, Michelle Terry, as the determined not-to-be bride-to-be, a class launch from Nick Sampson's valet Cool and two great tottering, wheezing entrances from the ineffable Richard Briers.

But of course the other star role is - wait for it, if you don't know - Lady Gay Spanker, a horsy joie-de-vivress in the sublime hands of Fiona Shaw, who even seems to have worked on an ever more resonant chest voice (apparently her singing is good, too, as those who saw her Mother Courage assure me).

What's the gist? Town meets country, Sir Harcourt can't outwit Lady Gay, young love triumphs. The plot fizzles a bit in the second half, but some of the language is Shakespeare worthy and if some of the gags feel as if they might have been added, they're fun: Sir Harcourt muses on how his wife ran off with his best friend - 'I still miss him' - and servant Pert (a witty Maggie Service) accuses the attorney Mark Meddle of hanging about 'like a stain looking for a sheet'. I'd happily sit through it all again, but I'd be lucky to find another ticket.

No real laughs to be had last night at the London premiere of Rufus Wainwright's earnest divafest Prima Donna; nor was it as bad as I'd feared. Read what I thought worked and what didn't in the Arts Desk review, which is being much 'hit'. Anyway, there's something about our boy wonder and bits of his score that I do find irresistibly touching. And there he was, canoodling with his lovely boyfriend, right in front of me, only an aisle between us. So how could I resist taking Rufus from behind?

Sunday 11 April 2010

After Bergman...

...there were a couple of astounding Dogma films to maintain the unfashionable tradition of true soul-scouring movies. But Lars von Trier is erratic, to say the least, if always compulsive (though I can't steel myself to see the latest).

Yet it struck me, watching first Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale and then working back through the other films starring the ineffable Emmanuelle Devos and sexy, compelling Mathieu Amalric, that here at last was a filmmaker prepared to plumb the depths (no idea, by the way, why he's called 'Ousmane Desplechin' on the above DVD cover). Sure enough, in interview, Desplechin invokes Bergman - Ingrid as well as Ingmar, by virtue of her fearlessness in presenting a woman who is neither directly sympathetic nor cuddly, as he maintains they mostly are in the recent movies he's seen (Notorious was the film of choice).

If this suggests that Rois et Reine, the most recent Desplechin movie I've caught up with, is grim, that's far from the case. There's an edgy humour which applies especially to Amalric's manic-depressive hero. I slightly regret having to pass over the bewitching Devos in favour of Deneuve's cameo psychiatrist, but this little scene gives a good sample of dialogue which you never know whether to laugh or shout about. Click a second time on the screen to catch the full picture on YouTube.

In addition, the lighting in the cinematography is extraordinary, the script sometimes infuriating in that edge-of-pretentious French way but always engaging, the flashback technique and a very Bergmanesque ghost visit haunting.

Who's doing this sort of thing in literature? Back into the picture comes Hilary Mantel. Since I last wrote about my discovery, I've read a few more of her unpredictable novels, including the most vivid, as-if-it-were-yesterday of historical novels, Wolf Hall. No Mantel subject is anything like the one before it, but in terms of emotional range, asking the difficult questions and weaving an elegant polyphony of voices, family chronicles don't come any richer than A Change of Climate.

I just finished it this morning, and the last twenty or so pages have to be the most poignant of crisis fallouts in any novel; I'm too close to it to say more about subject or style except that I worship this woman and I won't stop until I've read everything she's written. As A Place of Greater Safety is still on the list, evidently I have great riches in store.

Friday 9 April 2010


Just dreadful, I know, but I could think of no better way to announce an Easter weekend journey from a Sevres egg in the Gilbert collection at the V&A

to Easter Sunday breakfast at Hindringham, Norfolk

which duly nourished us enough to tramp across ovoid pebbles on the beach near Sheringham.

Contrary to prognostication, Saturday and Sunday afternoons were glorious up on the north Norfolk coast, with nothing but sun and sand on Holkham Beach and the tide retreating as we walked along cliff (yes, cliff - our first in this neck of the woods, as we've never gone so far east from King's Lynn before) and shoreline from Weybourne to Sheringham and back.

We left behind music, but not music talk, since our hosts, the delightful Susie Self and Michael Christie, are very much so inclined. Susie's a voluptuous mezzo whom J has known since Glyndebourne chorus days, and whom I first saw in solo action as Baba the Turk for Opera Factory (complete with chestwig), but she also composes, paints and teaches holistic singing in peaceful places like Skyros and Esalen, California, as well as North London; Michael's a cellist, composer, teacher and webmaster. Take a look at their Selfmademusic website, and do hear this evocative first track from Susie's latest album, Seachanges, complete with Big Sur cinematography:

More divadom: I was utterly captivated, as who could not be, by the free and easy manner of Roberta Alexander, whom J and Susie knew from the 1990 Glyndebourne Jenufa, and Claron McFadden in their Bernstein concert on Wednesday. I'd found no publicity shot of them either together or with the excellent pianist, Reinild Mees. Instead, I asked the Southbank's indefatigable classical press man, Dennis Chang, to facilitate an amateur photoshoot after the concert so that I could use one to head my Arts Desk piece. 'Fine', said Roberta, 'but on one condition - you give us a good review'. How could it not be good, I replied with no flattery, but just in case, maybe they could scowl in one photo and smile in another to cover all contingencies. Here's one TAD rejected because it was slightly blurrier than the others, but it's perhaps the best of all three ladies.

Stop press: I have a nasty feeling it's not going to be exactly Prima Donnaworthy stuff when I brave the first performance in London of Rufus Wainwright's opera on Monday. Just heard Janis Kelly on Radio 3 singing the last aria, and though she does her stylish best, what came to mind in her 'Feux d'artifice' was Anna Russell's French song spoof, 'La plume de ma tante'. Sean Rafferty effused about how terribly moving it was etc, yet I felt I might get the giggles in the performance. Which is a shame because I do so like many of the songs on Wants One and Two. But let's not prejudge...