Friday 22 October 2010

Mellow fruitfulness

We all know it's a spectacular year for scrumping and fruiting - the warm, dry early summer followed by the rains has brought a profusion in the orchards and hedgerows. Quinces, for instance, in a Sandwich garden, with apples, plums and spiders' webs along the wall

and yet more on the fringes of Port Meadow, Oxford, which we walked around last Saturday, and about which I want to write more in due course

as well as fallen cookers in the Woodstock Road garden of friends Juliette and Rory:

Couldn't think of a better musical accompaniment than the second of Strauss's Four Last Songs, sung by the soprano I now listen to most in these desert-island pieces, Anja Harteros. I like her earlier recording with Fabio Luisi better than this, since Jansons doesn't support in quite the same ideal way, but it's still impressive. And bearing in mind Strauss's September would have been the equivalent of our October or even early November, it's not past its sell-by date.

You might need the Hermann Hesse text, since it's not subtitled in English above. Here's my own literal translation:

The garden mourns,
Cool sinks the rain into the flowers.
The summer shudders,
Silently meeting its end.

Leaf on leaf drops golden
From the high acacia tree,
Summer smiles, wondering and faint
In the dying gardendream.

Long by the roses
It lingers, yearning for peace.
Slowly it closes its [great]
Wearied eyes.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Trio for the end of plenty

In a week where we all found out how much we're going to suffer from the cuts - the poor more than the rich, as usual*, the arts, adult education - we had three distinguished visitors from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the course at the City Literary Institute, hotfoot from the meeting in which they'd learned how they might be affected.

How we adored violinist Anna Smith, viola-player Kate Read and Michael Atkinson, cellist of the suspended-due-to-pressures-of-child-rearing Merchant Quartet (one of four from the orchestra which had already been to play to us). I hasten to add, by the way, that I took the above not great photo while they were warming up, not during their performance. Might not this be the best possible advertisement for these non-vocational, purely appreciative courses which could be the first to fall under the axe - despite the fact that, filling up as we do on the first day of booking, we more than pay our way?

Which they won't if hard-campaigning City Lit Principal Peter Davies has anything to do with it. And we've been through worse with a previous Tory government which threatened to close us down altogether. I'm still not clear on what future, and what cut-percentage, adult education faces, as it's low down the list on the reporting. Watch this space**.

In the meantime, the BBCSO trio - believe it or not, the second group of its kind that's come to the course in less than a year - played us a work I'd never heard, Dohnanyi's Serenade.

Like Korngold, young Erno was a prodigy who kept on ploughing the same late-romantic furrow, and rarely sounded the native woodnotes like fellow countryment Bartok and Kodaly. Yet within those bounds the Hungarian can surprise. The Serenade of 1902 starts in orthodox if piquant fashion, bringing the viola to the fore in the lovely second movement. But the scherzo and finale run chromatically wild, and the heart of the work is the Theme and Variations, ending ethereally as the viola floats between violin weavings and cello pizzicati. We loved that movement so much that I cajoled the trio into playing it again at the end.

In between, we asked the usual probing questions, and found out that Anna and Mike were in two different minds about the Roxburgh premiere the other week (Kate had taken the week off, which may have been as well as it was one of the hardest the other two had ever experienced). Good to hear a detailed defence of certain aspects of it from Mike, when all we've had so far are invective and abuse on the Arts Desk site. He added that they'd found the Elgar Falstaff, which has been out of their rep for some years, much harder to play.

All three enthused about the winner of the Besancon Conducting Competition they'd been the resident orchestra for: not since Bychkov at the 2009 Proms had a conductor so amazed them, along with judges and audience, as Japanese newcomer Kazuki Yamada. You heard the name here first, and don't miss his first concert with the BBCSO on 4 March 2011. Here, sure enough, is the performance they especially raved about - the first movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique at Besancon (UPDATE: removed from YouTube by spoilsport Yamada).

Talking of astonishing young 'uns, BBC New Generation Artist Khatia Buniatishvili, a 23 year old Georgian pianist and protegee of Martha Argerich, will be playing the Chopin Second Piano Concerto at one of the orchestra's Maida Vale concerts (as well as a Wigmore lunchtime on 1 November which I'll have to miss).

She stunned some of us, and infuriated others, at Stephen Kovacevich's 70th birthday concert on Sunday evening. True, the Liszt sonata was tumultuous and very fast - a criticism of Buniatishvili's playing generally, I've noticed - in the demonic torrents. But she makes such a full, rich sound and shows such painful sensitivity in the few moments of redemption that I was won over with tears in my eyes - and a pain in the gut from the way she seemed to be punching it, not unpleasurably (masochistic me). And I was right at the back of the hall...well, these are exciting times, and Buniatishvili is going to be around for many years to come. Here's another YouTube clip from the BBC, of Khatia playing the finale of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata:

Finally, there's something to celebrate tomorrow when the BBC Symphony Orchestra marks its 80th birthday with a megaconcert including two new or newish works (by Saariaho and Stephen McNeff. Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, which launches the programme, was the first work in the BBCSO's inaugural concert under Adrian Boult on 22 October 1930; early the next year Stravinsky came to play and Ansermet conducted the orchestra in his Rite of Spring, ending tomorrow's proceedings.

Fascinating to read, in Nicholas Kenyon's hopefully to-be-updated history of the orchestra, of wartime musical policy. In 1941 its credo was headed, albeit somewhat pompously, by 'Creative Principle: Music is an ennobling spiritual force, which should influence the life of every listener'. A message that needs to be reinforced, perhaps differently worded, today. Here's a bit of elegiac respite after all that hectic music: Elgar's sad little Sospiri, Boult conducting the BBCSO in Bedford during the war (UPDATE: also removed, who knows why, as it's out of copyright).

*compelling piece here by Johann Hari in today's Independent. If you haven't the patience to read it all, how's this for clarity: 'There is one stark symbol of how unjust the response to this economic disaster caused by bankers is. They have just paid themselves £7bn in bonuses – much of it our money – to reward themselves for failure. That's the same sum Osborne took from the benefits of the British poor yesterday, who did nothing to cause this crash. And he has the chutzpah to brag about "fairness." '

**Second footnote courtesy of Peter Davies: 'we will not know the actual implications for us until 21 Nov, when the Department issue the "grant letter" spelling out their exact priorities and funding for next year.'

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Ice cream or Sandwich?

Bit of a dilemma on the Sunday morning a week ago following Mirabel's christening in Wingham. We'd only just enjoyed a peaceful night in the row of cottages where we'd been put up in the heart of Sandwich; there was a delicious breakfast featuring bacon and scrambled eggs with the other odd couples, all of whom we liked enormously, on the lawn. And then the proposal was to meet up with Edsy and the others at the famous ice cream parlour at Deal (the one, as she later told me, where the matron of St Bartholomew's friends had met their future husbands in the 1950s).

Well, I don't eat ice cream, much as I'd like to, but I did want to see the gang. Unfortunately I wanted still more to see the churches and buildings of England's 'completest medieval town' (Pevsner). Must have come here as a kid: what I do remember is the excitement of the toll bridge, charges abandoned in 1977 (that dates me). So I let them all drive away, vowed to meet them in Deal by walking along the coast, and strode off to explore with various guide books in hand. I never got to Deal; after three hours I was still exploring this loveliest of the Cinque Ports, brought into sharp focus in the October sunshine.

Sandwich's fluctuating fortunes were in a sense its salvation. Its rich haven silted up in the late 13th/early 14th centuries, draining prosperity and pickling the medieval town; later Elizabeth's protection to Protestants brought Flemish and French craftsman - including my ancestors the Huguenots - to revitalise trade, after which Sandwich slid graciously into relative obscurity as a market town.

It has three huge churches, two of them kept going by the Churches Conservation Trust, hurrah (St Mary's is a lively arts centre). St Peter's feels like the parish church, bang in the centre of town, but that honour shifted to off-beam St Clement's after the merging of three parishes in 1948. That's the only one of the three with its original Norman tower (currently under scaffolding). St Peter's tower collapsed in 1661 and the building was handsomely repaired by the Dutch settlers. Its former churchyard is now a picnic spot and looks over to the church and its attached priests' lodgings at the south-east corner, as well as across to St Peter's Street.

The inside is impressively bare, following the CCT brief (not sure why the fire engine is stuck in there, though).

It has several fine monuments, including one of a 13th century knight

and two tomb chests

as well as another effigy of a 1360s couple, their heads turned outwards to peek at the altar.

St Clement was buzzing with a flower festival when I arrived there. Nothing outlandish, as is often the case with the artistic ambitions of parish ladies, but plenty of adornment, including this one in the central tower looking west towards the angel roof.

The doorway to the north west stair turret has a tympanum with a stag and fantastical Norman decoration.

There's another leafy and extensive churchyard surrounded by streets, and this time venerably headstoned.

So I strolled around the very quiet eastern zone and Lutyens's not especially impressive neo-Queen Anne house The Salutation, where I found some pretty painted maracas for Mirabel in the shop, and then along Strand Street with its wealthy 15th century merchants' houses

and the opulent King's Lodging with the gaol gate reassembled as a garden entrance

to St Mary the Virgin. Again, a tower fell and the interior was patched together to form a colossally wide nave and a north aisle.

There's a monument to Solomon Hougham with a quirky poem and, on the facing north chancel wall, several more including what Pevsner's John Newman describes as a 'heavy tablet with sobbing female' of 1850.

That was as much as I dared have time for within the town walls, but I hadn't bargained for the excursion to St Bartholomew's Hospital and Chapel, which is what stopped me striding off to Deal. There was another effigy of a medieval knight to be seen here, angels supporting his canopy.

The chapel, which turned out to be subject to a heavy Victorian restoration, was locked when I got there, but one of the incumbents of the houses ringing it, still charitably-funded refuges for what a 14th century record describes as 'old and decayed people not under 50', sent me in the direction of the matron's house to get the key.

She was a charming lady, constantly telling me not to rush, and she filled me in a bit on the site's long and continuous history. Before it became a shelter for sixteen Sandwikian 'hospitallians', as they're still called, it provided accommodation and shelter for pilgrims who either couldn't get in to Sandwich after dark, when the gates were shut, or couldn't be admitted for fear of spreading infection. Every St Bartholomew's Day - in 1217 it marked a victory over the French - local children run around the church and are given a special bun.

Well, I should have made haste to Deal, but I suspected the party might be dissolving around 3.30pm, so I phoned Merrie, who picked me up and off we drove to Canterbury to catch the train back to London. So much still to explore, though, in this historically rich part of South East England.

Monday 18 October 2010

Light of the world

Heck, you might think, that's a bit steep as an epithet for young talent. But I challenge you to find a curmudgeon who didn't come out of either of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela's concerts last week floating on air. The photos by our top man Chris Christodoulou catch it all very well, as usual.

Was a bit surprised to see nice Fiona Maddocks's qualification in yesterday's Observer that normal standards didn't apply, given the huge size of the orchestra, whereafter - it may have been subbing - she added no word about their Tchaikovsky Fifth under Christian Vasquez. The point is that, as I wrote in my Arts Desk review, I found it stunning by any standards - disciplined, flexible, profound and, of course, thrilling with all those strings including the much-mentioned 13 double basses going full pelt at Tchaik's finale battle-drill. The TCYO is heading in the direction of its big brother, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is now one of the great orchestras of the world, under Abbado at least, but it need have no fears of feeling inferior, just a desire to aspire to the same extraordinary standards.

Some folk moan that we get the same old Ginastera and Bernstein Mambo encores, that the chucking of the jackets and the conga-ing around are routine. I'd argue that it's the ritual party the kids need after working so bloody hard on their very tough programmes. That's a joy you can't fake.

How I wish I'd heard their Prokofiev Fifth on Tuesday, too (I couldn't: I was taking the BBCSO students through Grainger/Delius/Joseph Taylor and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring). There they'd already had the advantage of Sir Si taking them through it in Berlin. But don't underestimate Vasquez: he's more self-effacing in demeanour than Dudamel, but seems just as sure of what he wants and how to get it. Indeed, as Rattle famously said a few years ago, this is the most important thing going on in the world of music, and by inference it's up there with the most positive things going on in the world, period. The potential for good is limitless, and look at all the kids who've been inspired already.

More background on the Carrenos, and the Sistema experience, from my Arts Desk colleague Kate Connolly.

Friday 15 October 2010


I've got it back to front - having been deprived in my childhood of Tove Jansson's extraordinary Moomin books, and reading the novels Jansson began to write in late middle age first. But now that I've started on the saga of her best beloved creations, I understand that the same wisdom, spareness and clarity connect the two worlds. Just one thing troubles me in the Moominprefaces: it says 'she lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland'. She didn't; she lived with the love of her life, long-term partner Tuulikki Pietila.

Anyway, I AM the Hemulen, that frowning big-nosed creature who always wears a dress, no-one knows why. He's certainly supposed to be a bloke, because women don't collect in that obsessive way. I was a bit surprised when he just cropped up in Finn Family Moomintroll, which I thought was supposed to be the first in the series. But that, as it turns out, is Comet in Moominland, in which Moomintroll and acquisitive wee Sniff collect their future housemates - the Hemulen, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork Maiden - on their travels.

Be that as it may, the Hemulen is caught 'wandering along with his hands behind his back and his eyes on the ground' by Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden as they float along on clouds made by the eggshells in the Hobgoblin's hat (don't ask).

What troubles the Hemulen, they ask? Has he lost a rare stamp?

'On the contrary', answered the Hemulen. 'I have them all: every single one. My stamp collection is complete. There is nothing missing.'

'Well, isn't that nice?' said the Snork Maiden, encouragingly.

'I said you'd never understand me, didn't I?' moaned the Hemulen.

Moomintroll looked anxiously at the Snork Maiden and they drew back their clouds a little out of consideration for the Hemulen's sorrow. He wandered on and they waited respectfully for him to unburden his soul.

At last he burst out:

'How hopeless it is!' And after another pause he added: 'What's the use? You can have my stamp collection for the next paperchase.'

'But Hemulen!' said the Snork Maiden, horrified, 'that would be awful! Your stamp collection is the finest in the world!'

'That's just it,' said the Hemulen in despair. 'It's finished. There isn't a stamp, or an error that I haven't collected. Not one. What shall I do now?'

'I think I'm beginning to understand,' said Moomintroll slowly. 'You aren't a collector any more, you're only an owner, and that isn't nearly so much fun.'

'No,' said the heartbroken Hemulen, 'not nearly.' He stopped and turned his puckered-up face towards them.

Well, they find a solution. 'Nature study!' declares the Hemulen. 'I shall botanize'.

So he does, but that causes quite a bit of trouble...

Thursday 14 October 2010

The Oxendens of Wingham

They took over a whole transept in the light and airy Kent church of St Mary the Virgin Wingham, encased it on the west and north with wrought iron screens, paved the floor with marble and stuck a great big obelisk-monument in the middle so that, as the present priest lamented to me, you can't really fit a congregation in if you want to hold a service there.

Well, they should be so lucky. Folk come from far and wide to see the Oxenden memorial of 1682, celebrating a family of lawyers and landowners. The obelisk itself with its tumbling fruit is a wonderful piece of work; 'at that date', opines the often rather sneery John Newman in the Pevsner guide to North East and East Kent, 'who could have carved it but Arnold Quellin or his pupil, Gibbons?' Certainly Grinlingesque are the fruits.

But the base is also very individual, with ox heads punning on the family name

and four putti in various poses - two with shields of arms, one clasping the helmet, another a skull.

There's also a fine monument in the chapel to Charles Tripp flanked by mannerist angels, but alas my photos - taken in natural light because flash flattens sculpture, as you see from the one non-natural exception above - are too camera-shaky. We were fortunate to see into the north transept, now the vestry and usually locked, housing another good piece of work, the tomb of the Palmer family (1624).

Another Palmer is high on the opposite, west, wall, with a rather amusing and poorly-executed bust of the mustachioed dedicatee.

St Mary has another major treasure, not indigenous and described by Newman as 'very bad, but extremely rare in England': a 15th century stone reredos, donated by a local worthy in 1934 and thought to be from Troyes in France. We begged to differ with our architectural guide about the poverty, at least in terms of the well-characterised invention. Among the upper five panels is a flagellation

and the lower row features the Adoration of the Kings and the Last Supper.

The very zealous and enthusiastic sacristan, proudly wearing the outfit she sports around the village, also drew our attention to the misericords, including a fine green man in the centre of the block.

The overall impression of St Mary inside is a little strange, since some of the pillars in the nave are timber, of an obviously very durable local chestnut wood, rather than stone. Apparently this is because during the rebuilding of the mid-16th century, the man responsible for collecting the money, one George Ffogarde, brewer of Canterbury, embezzled the funds.

And all this was extra, because we'd come for the christening of Mirabel Dora Alice Ashton Poulson. As her adorable and very talented artist ma Edwina/Edsy/Edna has featured here before, I'm sure she won't mind one occasional photo:

Mirabel's pa Kit read from the end of Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, which made me wonder why I haven't acquainted myself with more by that marvellous poet. The service was well attended by the Ashton menagerie - strike, family:

The odious Mr Pantz, arrogant star of a celebrated movie by Edwina and Matt Rudkin, was excluded from the service, but muscled in to the reception over the road, where he could be found sticking his proboscis into the christening cake.

Mirabel loved her Russian apple, a temporary gift via Maggi Hambling who'd been given a bag by her taxi driver on the way to Moscow Airport last week, courtesy of his mother's dacha orchard. The babs also strummed a bit at a piano session. And then it was back to our dinky little cottages bang in the centre of Sandwich, a town chock-full of medieval wonders which I must return to in a not-too-distant entry.