Monday 28 July 2014

A Bach sermon on the mount

Any priest would be glad of the Utopian congregation - young and old, citizens of many nations and thence of the world - who attended Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach lecture in the courtyard of Montepulciano's Palazzo Ricci, home to the altruistic-sounding, Cologne-born European Academy of Music and Arts. This has been the main home for the various young musicians whose training and concert-giving have been at the heart of the festival Incontri in Terra di Siena: the International Menuhin Music Academy, students from the University of California, Los Angeles and - the ones I caught, and to whom my heart went out unreservedly - the Arab and Hebrew Israelis of the Polyphony Foundation based in Nazareth.

It's not my intention to write much about the festival here, except to point out that it owes its existence to that fine cellist Antonio Lysy, grandson of Antonio and Iris Origo whose Villa La Foce is the other centre of operations. My interview with the inspirational Ashkar brothers, violinist Nabeel Abboud  and master pianist Saleem, will appear as an Arts Desk Q&A next Sunday, and a report of my festival slice around La Foce the following Saturday.

JEG's special appearance was a surprise to me. It seemed to be there not so much as a successful attempt to flog the paperback edition of his Bach book - more on that below, pictured above in the second of three  pictures by resident ITS photographer Paul Flanagan - as an education to the young musicians. They  listened intently and afterwards asked lots of intelligent questions about vibrato and pedalling as well as staging Bach: an unwanted extra dimension, said JEG, once you bring in the alien apparatus of the opera house, it takes away from the experience. I'd agree with that, and I'd add that the director's imagination stops you exercising your own in a non-operatic drama. Pictured below, kids and adults (including the hugely entertaining Laurence Vittes from Los Angeles in the hat) along the colonnade from where I was sitting on the steps.

Bach's current earthly representative is indeed an inspirational speaker, because he not only has the most profound performing experience of what he's talking about, but also the highest enthusiasm and love. All this was apparent in a documentary which marked a vital staging post on the road back to intelligent television arts coverage. I possess in handsome, beautifully produced hardback the book of which he was signing copies afterwards, Music in the Castle of Heaven, and though I've not done any more than dipped into it yet, my good friend Stephen Johnson has recently been inspired by it and made me move it near the top of the list.

Both book and talk fulfil that essential function of making you either go to or immediately listen to key passages in the cantatas. I began my big Bach Sunday pilgrimage the January before this one, only getting up to Easter before my resolve to absorb and blog bit the dust, Even had I continued, I'd still not have heard all the masterpieces. JEG added more to my enthusiasm in his illustrations of Bach's astonishingly vivid musical-theatre instincts. I knew the splendid depiction of the calm at the eye of storm-tossed billows in the tenor aria from BWV 81, 'Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen', but not the last excerpt JEG played, from BWV 105.

It instantly brought tears to my eyes - rather ready after being able to grieve for the world horrors of the last two weeks at the previous evening's concert given by the young Arab-Hebrew partnership in Citta della Pieve - with a wavering between major and minor anticipating Schubert. JEG writes in his preface: 'we want to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then at other moments so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then at others still so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being'.

That last sums up for me the aria in question, 'Wie zittern und wanken, die Sünder Gedanken', oboe as soul, soprano as human, with only light string accompaniment. How could I have lived so long and never heard it? In that self-indulgent but not I think mawkish habit I have of choosing what music I'd like at my funeral, I decided on the spot that this would have to go in. If they outlive me, Debbie York and Lysander Tennant can conduct the dialogue; three solo strings will do for the support. But then, of course, I went to hear the whole cantata on YouTube, reeling at the rich, chromatic opening chorus, the distinctive bass recitative and the tenor's aria with rushing second violins, and decided that nothing less than the whole thing will do. Here's Herreweghe's performance, lovingly put up with printed music to follow and translation of the text. The soprano/oboe aria is at 6'17 but do listen to all of it.

And since I mentioned Schubert again, let's have my current craze, a disc I can't stop playing: Sviatoslav Richter effortlessly emanating pure summer/country happiness in the A major Sonata, D664.

This warmly recorded Tokyo 1979 performance is now on the bargain Alto label. Yes, I'm still buying CDs - though mostly Schubert and JEG's Bach cantata pilgrimage series.

So much for hardly clouded skies. Just as JEG's homily came to an end, a roll of thunder announced God's judgment, as he jokingly put it. The table of paperbacks was moved under the arcade, the heavens opened and while the author was signing copies for his enthusiastic audience including prizewinning Palestinian Israeli violinist Feras Machour in the red and white shirt (third of Paul's photos here),

I was trapped not too unwillingly in the Duomo a few yards up the hill with Taddeo di Bartolo's lovely altarpiece.

Umbrellaless, three of us made it through a relative break in the torrents to a cavernous ristorante where we sat down to bowls of piping hot home-made pasta in a cavernous ristorante , but lingered there rather impatiently as the downpour increased and rivers ran down the cobbled streets, flushing out some extraordinary large beetles which made our cicerona Nicky shriek but which I found fascinatingly beautiful. The storm lasted about four hours, after which we made our way to the Castelluccio Bifolchi near Villa La Foce for the Borromeo Quartet's evening Bartok epic, which isn't my concern here except to say that the spectators to the right of JEG in the first of my own three photos below are first violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim, his wife and a very radiant, calm-seeming personage, much like the present chatelaine of La Foce, Benedetta Origo.

Yeesun is listening to music with eyes shut in the photo, not sleeping, in case you wondered. I had the serendipitous pleasure of this wonderful  couple's company on the train to Florence, and a masterclass into the bargain, but that's another story.

Let me just leave you with this Castelluccio - not to be confused with our beloved village of the same name at the head of the Piano Grande in the Sibillini mountains - in the evening mists at altitude after the rain. Locals said they'd never seen the like in July. The stupendous garden at La Foce to follow in time.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Sophie of the moment

That's not our Sophe, La Sarina, who is ALWAYS of the moment (read her very moving latest blogpost about how her father's fellow Swedish woodsmen chipped in to fund the annual trachoma operations she organises in rural Mali), but the latest singer stepping in to portray Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Mamsell Sophie Anna Barbara Faninal. Louise Alder*, pictured as Clomiri in Imeneo for the London Handel Festival, wouldn't quite dress like that for the demure but spirited teenager, unless of course Richard Jones had wanted to go one stage further for her on-the-table humiliation in a male chauvinist bidding war.

Louise has only just graduated from the very Royal College of Music where I'm talking very soon (at 4.45, to be precise, to be edited for the interval on BBC Radio 3) with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Hugo Shirley before the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier hits the Proms in a semi-staged performance. She stunned us in the cover performances of the Presentation of the Rose and the Trio in the Study Day I had the joy to take part in down at the house. It's a shame that Teodora Gheorghiu is indisposed but, lovely actress though she was, I fear the voice might have been a size too small for the Albert Hall. Let's have another shot of Gheorghiu in the show with Tara Erraught before the wig change (the audience tonight will see what a lovely colleen Erraught really is). More on the Marianne Leitmetzerin in a moment. Both Glyndebourne production photos by Bill Cooper.

La Alder will shine tonight, be sure of that, like I've seen Lucy Crowe, Lisa Milne and Marie Arnet do before her. Crowe and Arnet actually stole the show in the full performances I saw, or rather alongside Peter Rose's Ochs in LC's case.

There's another replacement: Lars Woldt, a superlative Ochs, is also indisposed and so today superseded by another, Franz Hawlata (pictured below in what I thought was a Rosenkav production picture, but the fashion-magazine advertisement behind him makes me wonder). He was so effortlessly commanding in the Birmingham concert performance that he can't fail to amuse tonight given a bit more directorial help.

I feel sorry that Woldt doesn't get another shot at captivating a large audience, as he did, of course, in the livestreamed film. Here he is once more with Kate Royal's Marschallin in Dietrich mode.

Does it sound disloyal of me to say I wish Royal's cover, too, could have a shot at the Marschallin tonight? Miranda Keys, again on the evidence of the cover performance, would make an opulent Prima Donna. She manages her moment in the sun as the Duenna, too (that's her on the left in the picture further up). She may pop along to the talk, which is good of her, and I hope she'll help us field any more boring Taragate questions (no, audience, please don't).

Finally, another Sophie - a real one, this time, Austrian Sophie Rennert, who stole the show with her interpretation, in flawless English, of Dido's Lament at the Europe Day Concert organised by J (and programmed, to an extent, by me, though this wasn't one of my suggestions for the Greek theme, as Greek it ain't) . Now that it's out on CD, we were able to confirm that there actually isn't a more poised and stylish version anywhere, though since the piece tests the personality of the singer, there are quite a few as good in their own ways. But of course we're talking Baker, Norman, von Otter, so for a young singer to be in that league is really something. Dominic Wheeler, also my suggestion, draws wondrously beautiful and authentic-sounding playing from the European Community Youth Orchestra, too.

Postlude: I've scattered remarks about the results of the Proms Rosenkavalier around the comments, but let's just say that it was very hard work to home in on the fine detail from where I was sitting. The Albert Hall may be good for Wagnerian epic, but not for Straussian comedy done at Ticciati's and Jones's level of sophistication. The real problem was that they chose to reheat a very tight production instead of adapting completely to a Proms semi-staging (as used to happen with Glyndebourne's annual visits).

Though the voices which carried best were Michael Kraus as Faninal and Andrej Dunaev's Italian tenor, Erraught and Royal were splendidly energised, Hawlata went through his own paces which seemed to bear no relation to anyone else's - he was relaxed, but I sorely missed Woldt - and Alder began a bit nervously but went on to make wonderful sounds towards the end. Here she is in one of Chris Christodoulou's photos being 'horse-dealt' chez Faninal to the aghastness of Erraught's Octavian as well as the indifference of both Sir Henry Wood and Ochs's bastard son Leopold (Joseph Bader).

*Recent news: Louise was the recipient of this year's John Christie Award. As predecessors include her Marschallin, Kate Royal, Gerald Finley and Allan Clayton, she's deservedly in very good company

Sunday 20 July 2014

Stritch in time

So here's to the girls on the go - 
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.

A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch - 
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch!
Everybody rise! Rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

Sondheim composed that mighty song in Company for Elaine Stritch, specifically for her 'acerbic delivery of self-assessment', just as he wrote Gypsy's 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' for Ethel Merman and A Little Night Music's eleven-o-clock number 'Send in the Clowns' for the inimitable short-windedness of Glynis Johns. I posted one of Lainey's many versions of 'The Ladies Who Lunch' back in 2010 here.

Now Stritch has joined Ethel in a heavenly Broadway, having lived to the age of 89 still a trouper despite four decades of heavy drinking and the rest living with diabetes. David Benedict has written a wonderful reminiscence of significant meetings with this straight-talking dame on The Arts Desk, and I hope others will come up with their Stritchstories too. But no obituary is going to match the life history, at least up to 2002, of the one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty, which I count myself hugely fortunate to have seen at the Old Vic. Nothing, I think, can beat the work you have to do to visualise and keep up with her on the two-CD set of that event, so having said, buy it, I shoot myself in the foot by putting up the entire film as it appears on YouTube.

One bonus of the CD set is John Lahr's brilliant essay about working on a show which ended up 'Constructed by John Lahr, Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch' (we both laughed out loud at what he reports she said to him when he handed her an autographed copy of one of his books: 'John, you gotta stop givin' me these books with your signature. I can't give 'em away'). I think he sums it all up when he writes: 'By revealing conflict, failure, and the emotional price of Broadway survival, the show could generate that ozone of anger and anxiety which is, finally, the Stritch climate'.

Yet let's not forget the laughs won by perfect timing, the impeccable cadencing of a very distinctive language. She's irreplaceable, but we will continue to rise for this very human legend. To complete the Liberty life story with a perfect epilogue offering some overlap, it's vital to watch this New York Times film. Only Stritch, perhaps, could back up her thoughts on the possibility of an afterlife with lines from The Sound of Music's 'Something Good'.

The other big death this week left me oddly unmoved: could I honestly recall any concert of Lorin Maazel's which has stayed with me, or even - despite praise for his early Sibelius and Tchaikovsky - any one recording? Well, maybe the Teatro alla Scala performance I saw of Puccini's La fanciulla del West, when I  found him in enthusiastic mode for the interview (for Manon Lescaut the following year he was just jaded and downright rude). When J told me the news of his death, my first thought was, phew, didn't write the Guardian obit, won't have to update - and then a lady from the obits desk rang and asked me to do just that; I'd completely forgotten. So I added a paragraph and the results are here.

Would I have forgotten the labours of love for Mackerras or Abbado? I hope not. I happened to be in Berlin in June en route for Dresden, catching an all-Strauss concert for which, I must be honest, I was pleased to find Semyon Bychkov had replaced him (with a better programme, too - out with the tacky music-minus-three Rosenkavalier Suite, in with an ineffable Schubert Nine). It was a beautiful summer evening with the moon rising over the Scharoun-designed Philharmonie in the interval.

 I come to love the building, especially its foyers and auditorium, the more I visit it.

Inside the first face to greet me was Abbado's: nowhere except perhaps Lucerne reveres his memory more than the Berlin Phil, so this little exhibition of some wonderful photos

and many of his best musical observations held pride of place.

A shame there's no English tome on him comparable to the several in German and Italian. Give it time.

On which note, I turn sourly to a conductor who could sometimes be almost as great in performance as Abbado - possibly still can be - but whose pact with the Putin devil must surely end his career in the west. If anyone still has any doubts about the unworkability of Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace at the Proms this evening - performances in Aix and Munich have already been cancelled - watch this interview in English by a Helsinki journalist (a minute or so of Finnish precedes it). My thanks to 'Boulezian' Mark Berry for drawing my attention to it.

If you can't be bothered to sit through the rather grim spectacle, I've jotted down a few choice phrases: [Eastern Ukraine] 'is not a problem of Russia - Ukrainian people kill each other'. On Crimea: 'it was not annexation, people were voting to leave Ukraine. There were too many Nazi elements...Those who killed so many people in Kiev and burnt so many people in Odessa, the east calls them Fascists, we don't want to stay with the Fascists.' Mattila, who stated that she would not work with Gergiev again, 'doesn't understand anything in politics, she has absolutely no idea what is happening in she will look into the eyes of mothers who had children killed - there are many children killed'.

He is entitled to believe all this if he wants - though of course war quickly spawns atrocity on both sides, and no doubt there are refugees pouring into Russia - and if there were no political or humanitarian aspect to his work, we could note it and move on. But following his unequivocal support of Putin's re-election campaign and his jumping to be included on a list of signatures approving the Crimean occupation, a slightly more objective stance than this would be needed to justify his post at the head of a 'Peace' Orchestra (which has suffered already from scandals of funding in the recent past). I state this here because the driving force of The Arts Desk thinks I just want to 'pick a fight' with a conductor I used to respect, and always enjoyed meeting. So no more space to sound off there. (Update, Monday: photo by Chris Christodoulou from last night. No kerfuffles have been reported so far, more shame on the British public).

I do think a valid comparison is to be made with Vladimir Jurowski. No, he isn't living in Russia and he doesn't have to work with the regime. But it was still courageous of him to address a Moscow audience back in May about the gay aspect of Britten's War Requiem, how Britten and Pears were officially criminals for many years, how even Wilfred Owen was gay. No doubt which of those two conductors these two composers, snapped after a Moscow Conservatory performance of Britten's works in 1966, would applaud. One only has to remember Shostakovich's setting of Yevtushenko's 'A Career' at the end of his Thirteenth Symphony to know what he might be thinking of Gergiev were he still alive.

My thanks to Gavin Dixon for drawing my attention to the film of Jurowski's speech (in Russian, linked on Gavin's blog entry), and also most recently for a description of a Socialist-Realist style reworking of a dodgy opera as Crimea in St Petersburg, which would be funny if it weren't so ominous a sign of history repeating itself.

On a less heinous scale, Long Yu, the conductor of last night's China Philharmonic Prom which I didn't hear, is a party apparatchik who even if he were a decent conductor already holds more prominent posts than is healthy for a man in his position. That he's atrociously poor I can attest from the worst conducted performance I've ever heard, a spectacularly testudinal Elgar Cockaigne Overture with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I have it from the horse's mouth that the players themselves stopped the whole thing falling apart as early as the tenuto in the second full bar. The orchestra petitioned their general manager to make sure they never worked with him again, but he said he couldn't guarantee it where big bucks from China were concerned.

Heigh ho, things at the Proms, which began well enough on Friday night, should start looking up again from tomorrow onwards. On Tuesday I'll be chatting with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Hugo Shirley in the Proms Plus Intro, 4.45pm at the Royal College of Music down the steps from the Albert Hall, before Glyndebourne presents its Rosenkavalier semi-staged to the South Ken colosseum (I doubt if Richard Jones will have much to do with it; he was disappointed in what he felt were the singers overdoing his WNO Meistersinger at the Proms). I postponed a work trip to Italy by a day in order to take part, and much as I keep moaning that the Proms should have done Strauss proud with more arcane semi-staged operas like the fabulous Feuersnot, of course I'm pleased to be able to hear Rosenkavalier live for a fourth time this year.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

'O's of blood, tears and delight

As in wooden O for Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and fairground circle for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, though neither the Globe nor the splendid new(ish) Arcola Theatre in Dalston were quite as I'd seen them before.

William Dudley's splendid designs for a space I thought had thrown at us all the magic it could over the years - how could I have missed this bloody shocker first time round? - swathed the stage and its pillars in black, making characters almost ghost-like as they retreated from the incense-smoked sunbeams that pierced us Groundlings on a hot summer afternoon, and strung black banners from a kind of oculus, half Rome Pantheon, half Colosseum (which I read sometimes appeared to the ancient Roman public similarly festooned).

Further north the company Morphic Graffiti achieved the impossible: staged a spectacular musical which begins with a waltz to accompany that object of childhood wonder, the carousel, by inscribing a circle in the most intimate of spaces. They stinted neither on the choruses - doubling as circus acts - nor on the dancing: imagine it, that whole Agnes de Mille fantasy ballet in Act Two complete. It may have seemed as old fashioned to us as the 'sometimes when a man punches a woman it can feel like a kiss' line (I paraphrase), but neither was passed over. Odd of me to claim delight in both cases, too, but since Shakespeare's violence is almost as strip-cartoony as Tarantino's, there was an element of ridiculous fun to it. Production photos by Simon Kane for Shakespeare's Globe and QNQ Creative for the Arcola.

Both casts were excellent, the Titus team perhaps more variably so despite obviously superlative direction by the dependable Lucy Bailey. Obi Abili as Aaron, the dodgily black-of-face, black-of-heart Moor, didn't send shivers at first with threats of what he might do, but the whole semi-farce of saving the baby Tamara has produced with him

was powerfully undercut by his hideous murder of the Nurse to shut her mouth. I can imagine a few Groundlings swooning at that. One passed out in the first half, at the point if I remember correctly when Titus chops one of his hands off, on the afternoon we went, but there weren't as many faintings as the advertised average. Me, I just looked away when I knew violence was coming and let Django Bates's use of scary percussion do its worst. Bates's score is superb, brilliantly executed by musicians wielding a range of pagan brass instruments - stunning hunt scene - and never more original than in the weirdly off-kilter banquet music, jolly-sickly-doomy, when of course we know what, or rather who, is coming to Tamora baked in a pie.

The women (Indira Varma as Tamora, pictured above right, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as the grotesquely mutilated Lavinia) both had bags of character, and Matthew Needham carried off the feat of freezing the laughter on our lips as a capricious, half-crazed Emperor (on the left above). But William Houston dominated, as he always has ever since I saw him as a spunky young Henry V for the RSC. Dare I say he's aged rather rapidly? But then roles like Titus now become him.

He sounded at first as if he'd rasped himself out - the voice so magnificently used over several octaves had lost a bit of its cut. But the madder, or the madder-seeming, the abuser abused becomes, the more did he tickle us Groundlings and make our flesh duly creep. In this he gave Anthony Hopkins, never better in Julie Taymor''s stupendous film, a run for his thespian money.

I took godson Alexander for his first taste of the Globe, and he couldn't have had a better one as the violent hordes rampaged within and around us - 'move!!' - in the Groundling arena. I put it up there with the two other best Globe experiences I've had: the all-male Twelfth Night, which we saw three times during its first two manifestations there, and Kathryn Hunter's thrilling realisation of the near-impossible Pericles, similarly imaginative in its use of the space (I shan't forget the creation of the storm-driven ship or the harpies rampaging around the netting above us).

Carousel, of course, is a gentler experience in some ways, but its tough undertow hits as hard as (presumably) did Billy Bigelow his over-patient Julie. The crucial domestic violence issue, seemingly mishandled by Hammerstein from our perspective, was given its edge by updating the action from the 1890s to 1930 for the first stage of the drama (depression-era troubles) and 1945 for Billy's return from Up There (a time of liberation for women tainted in retrospect by the impending back to the kitchen - not for Julie, of course, at least under the thumb of another man, for she ain't going to marry after Billy).

Well, I guess we still have to take it for what it is: and still, in 1945 as the year of Carousel's premiere, that was somewhat. The through-composition of the early scenes, above all the stupendously poetic 'If I loved you' sequence, still comes across as one of the finest achievements of musical theatre (and that tune is, perhaps, only matched by Sondheim's 'Too many mornings' from Follies for sheer love-duet moonshine).

It always amazes me how talent pours out upon the current musical stage, partly due to the fabulous training in the London drama schools. Ascribe to that the note-perfect Julie of Gemma Sutton, emphasising the girl's singularity simply by her stillness and implicit strength, and Vicki Lee Taylor's lovely Carrie. And welcome a great new voice to the stage, Joel Montague's rich baritone as Enoch Snow.

Howard Keel's film performance as Billy - it was supposed to be Frank Sinatra, who even got as far as recording his songs - leads me to expect the same timbre from our lead.

Not so. Tim Rogers, looking just a bit like fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman when he swept so many of us off our feet as Oklahoma's Curly at the National, has a slightly worn tenor voice. But such was his intensity and conviction that high points like the great Soliloquy always hit the mark. Did I weep at 'You'll never walk alone'? You bet, but especially because the intimacy of the space allowed Amanda Minihan's freshly interpreted Nettie (centre below) to sing it as a soft lullaby with Julie held close.

Splendid company work, too - exceptionally good dancing, strong choruses, as I've already intimated, and everything  filled with convincing business under Luke Fredericks' expert hand. Impressive how the New England coastal setting can be conjured by the evocative text alone when the imagination has to work overtime. Careful handling meant more tears for the finale: less, in the form of a cappella harmony, was more, when it came to emotional truthfulness, than the big Hollywood/Broadway treatment. The five-piece orchestra emphasised the delicacy and grace of so much in the score, dominated by the sound of Alex Thomas's harp. And look, listen, no miking: Menier Chocolate Factory and others, please pay attention. It just isn't necessary in venues like this.

Yet how amazing that there are so many of them serving musical theatre so well: the Arcola in the north, and that constellation of South Bank gems the Union, the Menier and the Southwark Playhouse. A golden age indeed for off-West End dazzle. You have until Saturday to catch this unique Carousel; my apologies, but Titus has already crept into his unholy grave, and Lucy Bailey has moved on to a very peculiar-sounding Importance of Being Earnest. I'll find out for myself how she deals with a veteran Jack and Algernon tomorrow night.

Friday 11 July 2014

City, country

Midsummer weekend was one of extraordinary contrasts. That Saturday afternoon I joined a rainbow of humanity - veterans, babies, folk of all colours and creeds (or none) - around Shoreditch's Arnold Circus for the 'happening' of Pulitzer prize-winning composer David Lang's Crowd Out! for 1,000 local performers (in the end it was more like 600, but in future it could fill Wembley Stadium). Among those snapped by official photographer James Berry was our dear friend Julie (far right in top pic, with nephew Rowan third from right), down from Scotland to stay with us and  see another show in the Spitalfields Festival which by total coincidence I happened to be attending anyway.

For the Sunday I'd decided - and persuaded the diplo-mate, who came very reluctantly but exited happy enough - to brave the braying plutocrats of Garsington Opera: partly because I hadn't seen its new home on the Wormsley Estate, chiefly because I thought that underrated director Daniel Slater might have an interesting take on Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen.

He did - the utterly compelling Claire Booth as Vixen Sharpears with her Fox, Victoria Simmonds, pictured above by Clive Barda, a shot I had permission to crop to landscape for the Arts Desk review - and though many in the crowd were coming up with the usual absurdities ('I think I heard a tune at the very end'), the site is vast enough to escape and have, in our case, an entire formal garden to yourselves.

Two people had quite separately told me that the Wormsley cricket pitch is 'the most beautiful in the world'. I scoffed: how could the humble Chilterns envelop anything as lovely as a pitch on much higher ground? But I have to admit that as we got off the punters' bus at the pavilion, what spread out before us in a substantial valley, with hills on the other side and behind us, was picture-perfect. This shot doesn't catch the amazing green chessboard squares to the side.

Tea in one of the marquees overlooking it was enough to pre-empt a pricey supper under the aegis of the Jamie Oliver empire (we hadn't brought a picnic). The very friendly Clare Adams, one vital bulwark of the Garsington experience, offered to give us filled rolls and cookies for the interval: our solitude consuming it in the formal garden, with only very loud birds and the distant sound of the children in the opera playing football over the hedge, couldn't have been lovelier. And, as in the old garden to the side of the former Garsington marquee, there were still peonies.

We also got on a fine vintage bus - the smell of leather and plastic is so evocative - to stroll around the walled garden, actually only about ten minutes' walk away, as it happened.

This was peak season for philadelphus - mock orange with its heady scent - and delphiniums delighted in by innumerable bees,

foxgloves integrated into the formal planning

and poppies (though just wait until I get round to documenting the walled garden at Cambo House in the East Neuk, albeit - being cameraless - dependent upon the photography of others).

A few more peonies were flourishing by a flint wall

and the rose garden was at its height too.

Outside the gate

a bird of prey hovered overhead

and on the other side, a beech wood leading up the slope evoked Hukvaldy, where Janáček began and in effect ended his life: in fact the territory is even closer to that beloved, rolling homeland than Glyndebourne.

The Opera Pavilion of steel, timber and fabric, designed by Robin Snell with cues from Japanese kabuki buildings, deserves all the awards it's received, chiefly from RIBA.

Inside it's spacious - plenty of leg room, wide seats, unlike the old provisional marquee - and acoustically wonderful: maybe the back wall helps, but I could hear every orchestral texture. Fewer strings certainly helped. And there's just enough of a view of the profuse garden to the right, as there was of course at Garsington Manor. The punters? Well, J is right, of course: tax the rich more and you could afford another opera house truly for the people.

Yet I like what Douglas Boyd is doing on the artistic front: I wrote the notes for a weekend of talks, readings of recently unearthed poems by Siegfried Sassoon - who of course had connections with the old Garsington and Lady Ottoline Morrell -  and concerts (Beethoven, Schoenberg, Bridge) called Peace in Our Time, which I wish I could have attended. Next year there are new productions of Strauss's Intermezzo, which wasn't taken seriously enough at the old house, and Britten's Death in Venice. Now what will the tuneseekers make of that?

I'd been surprised to find myself among the green at the previous day's Spitalfields Festival join-together. I knew I had to head up from Spitalfields to St Leonard's Shoreditch, the church which featured in the superlative television comedy Rev. But I had no idea that just behind it is a bandstand (and a fixed ping-pong table) in a beautifully planted central garden.

This is Arnold Circus, centre of London's first big social housing project. In 1890 the East End rookeries were swept away by the London County Council under a new Housing Act. "So conveniently situated and nicely laid out is the Boundary Estate', writes Harold P Clunn in the only comprehensive volume of the many I possess on London, 'that many people would doubtless prefer it to Fulham or Barnsbury as a place of residence'.

That day in the East End did make me wonder. Sure, no big park is in striking distance, but I further sensed what I'd felt at a Huguenot Festival last year, that there's a really diverse community here, and that even the new money sweeping in from the City is going to obliterate entirely the old pockets of character. And how hip did I feel when, as we hit a nearby Shoreditch cafe on the estate, I was hailed by none other than super-cool Brazilian Henrique Paiva, leading former habitue of Sophie's salons, and his girlfriend Yasmin. He got Rowan to photograph us against embossed wall art just over the road.

Then it was back to Toynbee Hall - which, as a place of good works by Oxford graduates since 1884, is another slice of social history - to hear the first third of the music-theatre triple bill I'd missed the previous evening.

More inner-city regeneration a week and a bit later on with an invitation to attend the opening of the House of Illustration at the back of Kings Cross. First came Kings Place, and I remember scoffing when one of its movers and shakers declared that the whole area would become a thriving civic centre in a few years. It's well on the way, and with St Martin's College of Art and Design now occupying the warehouses going to rack and ruin some time back, and the square in front deckchaired and big screened for Wimbledon it felt like a very pleasant place to be on a warm summer evening. The standing figure in the picture is godson Alexander, down for a big celebration the night before, about which more anon.

And this is us walking down the newly opened pedestrian tunnel to Kings Cross tube. I just found out more about it: it's called Pipette and was created by Miriam Sleeman and Tom Sloan. The length of this 'LED integrated lightwall' breaks a record, apparently, at 90 metres. Hope no-one messes it up.

The exhibition opening couldn't have been blither: is there anyone who doesn't love the illustrations of Quentin Blake? The exhibition opened my eyes to so much more than his work for Roald Dahl - oh, those Twits! - including drawings for Candide, which I wanted to buy for Alexander but couldn't, a fascinating Russell Hoban story and Michael Rosen's Sad Book, a way of trying to come to terms with the death of the author's 18 year old son. That I did manage to buy on the spot. These are the pages that break my heart.

Blake, a very sprightly 81 in his trademark white shoes, made a lovely, natural speech, as fine in its way as the extraordinary motivational rhetoric of Joanna Lumley.

Another city/country 'only connect: before a stupendous Owen Wingrave at the Aldeburgh Festival, smoked salmon sandwiches with the divine Maggi Hambling and ever-affectionate Tory Lawrence just down the road. Danger - artist(s) at work (though when isn't Maggi, love her to bits, slightly dangerous?)

Of course I curse myself for having left the camera which contained photos of studio work on the platform at Watford Junction the other week, where it was not, alas, handed in. So I'm reliant on the few shots J took on his iPhone, including the above and just one - with Maggi's immortal scallop all too distant, as am I photographing it in vain - of Aldeburgh beach on a splendid birthday.

The camera loss was the infuriating end to a lovely afternoon. I'd promised to take my young friends Ed and Kristaps to see the Queen Beech, the gigantic result of endless pollarding, on the forested common above Berkhamstead. We'd even fixed the date when a National Trust lady left a comment on my blog about the first, Mabey-inspired expedition, telling me that the great tree had finally given up the ghost after hundreds of years. Its life is to be celebrated and in a sense - as Mabey would be the first to say - it takes on a new existence as home to fresh fauna, fungi and birds. Awe-inspiring as it once was - a reminder here -

there was something splendid about its fall, the orangey-red bark and the pollarded globules inspectable on an easy clamber. Which Ed and Kristaps, keen barefoot walkers and tree climbers, were keen to do. Here's one of the few shots Ed took, relying on me only to be let down.

And this is where I draw the line. Our young, barefooted nature-lovers were soon shinning up a standing beech nearby and twigging that the platform would be a perfectly good place to spend the night. I was content to study the bracket fungus on its trunk.

And all this chimes nicely with a new bout of reading more Robert Macfarlane, being struck afresh by how he spoke as he writes at an extra-musical event of the East Neuk Festival. Which ought to be the next stop but one here.