Sunday 31 August 2014

Roaring our heads off

...for these two, Nina Stemme and Donald Runnicles (which also means the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra), in a shatteringly great Proms Salome. No need to add much to the rave over on The Arts Desk but I wanted to include a few more of Chris Christodoulou's photos, which arrived as usual punktlich not long after I got back from the Albert Hall last night.

The above came from him after I'd asked for a landscape of Nina, preferably with Donald, to lead. Before he fired them back, I'd already cropped the money shot, and unless he objects don't want to replace it. Hence the second home. There were also others I couldn't use over there. Doris Soffel, having made little impression on us as the Countess in the Zurich Queen of Spades, really had a ball with Herodias, and Runnicles let her hold on to her top A at 'schweigen!' for what seemed like an infinity. Here she is with Stemme.

I mentioned the shame about the slight dependence on scores and music stands from most of the men - Samuel Youn's Jokanaan honourably excepted - but this shows that character tenor Burkhard Ulrich wasn't beyond acting it out as Herod.

Cheers, too, for the Narraboth, Belgian Thomas Blondelle

and Ronnita Miller from St Petersburg, Florida, now a Deutsche Oper principal, as a lustrous 'Page'.

It was a company show, no doubt about it: what a team Runnicles has in Berlin. But ultimately it had to be Nina's night. Doesn't she look, in relaxed mode, like our own intense non-singing (as far as I know) actress Olivia Colman?

Oh, and if you're curious to know who the boors were behind us, shouting 'sit down!' when I rose unhesitatingly to my feet after the shield-crushing, I'll go so far as to say that the only one of them I recognised - and they were all obnoxious in their self-expression before the invisible curtain rose - was a distinguished and, by all accounts, Mensch-like singer who must have welcomed a few standing ovations himself in his time. Shame on them.

1/10 As outlined in a comment below, this was everything the following (last) night's Elektra was not. Ed Seckerson expresses everything I felt in his review for The Arts Desk, not least so eloquently nailing the problem of Christine Goerke's upper register. And he's also right to say that Felicity Palmer's Clytemnestra was the star of the evening. What's the caption here? 'Yes, I'm still better than you, my girl, even at 70'?

Even so, in an ideal dramatic world, Clytemnestra shouldn't be either so old or so visibly raddled. After all, she's the mother of a 20 year old girl, and her decay is inner. Which is why you'll never see a better portrayal than Waltraud Meier's in the great Patrice Chereau's last stand. In fact this is one of the most riveting opera DVDs ever made, and Evelyn Herlitzius - slight of frame, searing of voice - IS Elektra as far as I'm concerned. For some reason my BBC Music Mag five-star review isn't up on the erratic website, but need I say more here? Don't waste time on the iPlayer broadcast of the Prom; buy the DVD.

Friday 29 August 2014

Perugino's home town

Among the many casualties of a chaotic two-day flying visit to the Incontri in Terra di Siena festival was quality time in one of the loveliest and most pleasant hill towns I've ever seen in Italy (and I've seen a lot now), Città della Pieve in Umbria, just over the 'border' from our base in Tuscany. Still, a glimpse was enough to whet the appetite. I blush to say I'd never heard the name, but quite apart from the fact that in a country less overwhelmed by treasures it would be a major destination for tourists - not so many come here - it also has the honour of being the place where Pietro Vannucci, detto il Perugino (1446-1523), was born and died (Peruginesque view over the Tuscan hills from the town above).

Our somewhat loose-limbed little band arrived early in the evening for a reception and a concert in the exquisite Teatro degli Avvaloranti, to be met where we parked by the local youth practising their drumming routines for an imminent festivity along the lines of Siena's Palio. Cicerona couldn't find reception venue; after much milling around outside the theatre, my touristic hunger took over and, gathering up the polymathic and equally keen Harry Eyres of Horatian and FT fame (read his Slow Lane take on the festival here), I decided to hunt out the Peruginos in the Duomo. Sniffing our way uphill did the trick within minutes. We came at it from the side street with the big Romanesque-Gothic bell tower before us, picturesquely counterpointed by one of the Renaissance palaces ahead in the main drag.

The bulk of the building on the site now was begun in 1600, when cathedral status was granted, with models including Rome's Gesù and Sala Clementina. So the two towers are in very different styles, though the mixture of brick and sandstone is typical of the town as a whole.

With no guidebook or leaflet anywhere in the church, and my Tuscany Blue Guide quite useless, of course, for Umbria, we had to make informed guesses about the Peruginos before moving towards the information plaques. Both paintings date from the 1510s. The altarpiece with its town flags glowing from a distance, and the rich colours suggesting recent restoration, seemed a likely candidate, though another painting on the apse's south wall seemed even more Peruginesque; it turned out to be by another imitator of Raphael. Harry proved sharper than me in hunches, rightly pointing out that the apse fresco, a rare survival from an earthquake, must be at least half a century later (it's by another local boy, Antonio Circignani).

So it's the Virgin enthroned with Saints Gervasio and Protasio (the cathedral's own pair), Peter and Paul, which is Perugino's work

as is the Baptism of Christ in a chapel to the left near the entrance, with a copy of Perugino's self-portrait on the wall to the right. The original of that is now in Milan (featured in a Wiki shot way below).

Perugino's Baptism took on a mysterious hue in what filtered through of the early evening light - seemed to me as fine as Perugino's several other versions of the scene.

What do we know about the man? Vasari can't be trusted. Vannucci was born in Città della Pieve, not Perugia; his father was a wealthy man, and he grew up in anything but 'misery and want'. This much in Vasari is probably true:

He was apprenticed to a painter of Perugia, who, though he was not very good at his trade, held in great veneration art and the men who excelled in it. He did nothing but impress upon Pietro what an honour and advantage painting was to those who practised it well, relating the glory of ancient and modern painters, by which he kindled in Pietro the desire to become one of them. So he used to be always asking where men could prepare themselves for the trade best, and his master always answered in the same way, that it was in Florence more than anywhere else that men grew perfect in all the arts, especially painting. 

For in that city men are spurred by three things: First there are many there ready to find fault, the air of the place making men independent in mind and not easily contented with mediocre works. Secondly, if a man wished to live there he must be industrious, for Florence, not having a large and fertile country, could not provide for the wants of those who dwelt there at little expense. And thirdly, there is the desire of glory and honour, which the air excites to a high degree in men of every profession, so that no man who has any spirit will consent to be only like others, much less be left behind. 

The biggest commission came in the 1480s to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel; only several scenes remain. The east wall was painted over by Michelangelo, of course, with his Last Judgment. That querulous genius called Perugino a 'bungler in art' (goffo nell' arte) - which he was not, but he did paint stereotypically in later years - so Perugino sued for defamation, and lost.  Later decades were spent in Perugia and Città della Pieve.

Perugino's real gem here is the Adoration of the Magi in the tiny Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi, worth picturing in another Wikimedia image but closed by the time we arrived; the ITS students had been taken there as part of their education, following a lecture by Maxim Vengerov's art-historian wife Olga Gringolts. Lucky them, but no matter: will return with J, possibly staying in town.

We did at least get the most moving concert possible in the wonderful civic theatre named after the local Accademia degli Avvaloranti (not a word I knew: it means 'corroborators', but in what apart from the arts I'm not sure). It seats 300 max, at a guess, though I'm terribly bad at estimating these things). Lingerers after the concert pictured below.

The handsome restoration of the 1834 neoclassical interior was begun in 2003; the exterior gives no hint of its splendours. If I understand correctly, the ceiling dates from 1870 and was restored even more recently. Perugino is somewhere up there, alongside Raphael.

I know from our friends the Principesse Giulia and Stefania Pignatelli (good namedropping, huh?) in the Marche what a wealth of beautiful small theatres that region especially boasts, and the situation here seems similar. Not least in the failure of departments to meet: the restoration work is done by architectural organisations, but then the musical ones don't co-ordinate to fill the gems with worthy events (we heard a local band rehearsing in Ascoli Piceno, which is fine so long as that's not it, and it was).

We got the ball rolling around Ascoli by contacting Martin Randall Travel to bring over Ian Page's splendid Classical Opera Company and attendant British audience, but the initiative needs to come from Italy. At least our treasurable La Foce musicians made sure there was something more than worthy of the place that magical night. A final shot, then, of the young musicians from Nazareth and Los Angeles in the square outside the theatre after the concert. On the left, cellist Yedidya Shaliv is shown his portrait in action by Larisa Pilinsky, vivacious artist wife of my very humorous Los Angelene colleague on the trip Laurence Vittes.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Munro and Gråbøl: the conquest of fear

It wouldn't really be right to try to sell Rona Munro's wonderful trilogy The James Plays with the above publicity image (one of two from James McMillian) of James III's Danish wife Margaret. People would say that the Edinburgh Festival was cashing in on Sofie Gråbøl*, best known in the UK - until these past few weeks - as complicated detective Sarah Lund in surprise telly hit The Killing, but already a classical actress of note in Copenhagen, and now we know why; she's absolutely charming but also a tower of strength. The three Jameses of the new production shared between the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain - James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives (possibly the least nuanced of the three) - are all sexy and charismatic, but they don't tell the whole story either, even if they have to be on the main poster.

No, the real dynamic that drives the dynastic drama, as one might expect from Munro, comes from the women, and that's why the second part of my heading would, I fancy, be a suitable subtitle: they symbolise, though not in any abstract way, the shift from fear driving policy to confidence offering more democratic possibilities. Am I over-intellectualising in seeing a parallel between The James Plays and Aeschylus's Oresteia, in a kind of shift from primitive blood-grudge to a more enlightened society, however precarious -  a developing drama in which the Furies become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones?

There's another key actress who fulfils that specific function, the equally fine Blythe Duff, pictured above in one of Eoin Carey's rehearsal pictures. Duff's Isabella Stewart, wife of regent Murdac and presumptive queen until James I returns from prison to claim his birthright, is an unscrupulous, if sharp and amusing, powermonger, doomed to become a vengeful wraith in chains bewailing the murder of her husband and her three sons.

Isabella makes her exit half way through the second play, having wrought her spell on the young James II, and in the third Duff metamorphoses into an older version of that king's wistful sister Annabella. So the actress plays her part in the trajectory whereby the first queen, English Joan, uses her fear to force the first James, who loves her but isn't loved in return, to a bloody oathbreaking, while the second, French Mary of Guelders, seems fearless until an event that would shock anyone shatters her incorruptibility (the same actress - Stephanie Hyam, a little underpowered - plays both roles and is pictured below as Joan with McArdle's James I in one of Manuel Harlan's production photographs).

These first two queens have others of their sex to back them up - the vivacious, devoted Meg (Sarah Higgins, strong and likeable) and, in Mary's case, young Annabella (Rona Morison, another sympathetic performance). But it's only when Margaret appears upon the scene, hailing as she finally puts it 'from a rational nation with reasonable people', that a truly dominant trio can emerge, Gråbøl's Queen well offset by Duff's older, resigned Annabella and Morison now playing the part of 15 year old Phemy. The culminating speech  sets the seal, balancing James I's showstopper in one of many symmetries both subtle and obvious. I have to quote some of the text, to give you a sample of Munro's basic style, which is to exchange Shakespearean blank verse for simple but not unpoetic prose, best when getting to the essence of things as here. Margaret has just spilled her jewels over the floor before the Scottish Parliament, her capricious and jealous estranged husband having walked out on the ministers.

I am your Queen and these are yours.

The comfort of community is warmer and softer than cold gold could ever be. I'm sorry that it's taken me nearly fifteen years to understand that, to understand how to be your Queen. I'm sorry I never told you any of this. I should have known that the only way to let you understand how much I care, was to tell you exactly what I think of you.

I've seen the worst of you, and you're murderous, miserable men. You've seen the worst of me, I've been a proud, overdressed, self-centred woman. But the best in you pulls me above that, and the best in you, with my help, can sustain this parliament and this nation.

So it takes an outsider to make us in the audience think, hey, a Yes vote might not be such a bad thing. That's the power of theatre and if the above looks plain on the page, believe me it's not when you've got someone like Gråbøl delivering it at the very zenith of the drama. It reminded me of Prime Minister Birgitte's tear-jerking turn-it-around speeches in Borgen, with a similar sense of absolute rightness and naturalness coming from the actress in question (there, the equally wonderful Sidse Babette Knudsen). Let's have a production shot of Gråbøl's Margaret seduced, as she so often is, by the most sensual of the Jameses as played by Jamie Sives, who also features as a not very clear-speaking Henry V of England at the start of the saga.

But if the last big speech is one radiant keynote - buying at least a few years' peace, as Annabella will tell us when the action fast-forwards beyond Margaret's death - there are darker climaxes, too. Folk have complained about James II being the weakest of the three plays. I don't think the opening nightmare of young James need be quite as messy as Laurie Sansom's very uneven direction makes it - and the music is just dreadful throughout - though I didn't mind his idea of a puppet to play the king's even younger self (pictured below, Andrew Rothney as the second James, complete with the birthmark he doesn't sport in the publicity. It did nothing to diminish his attractiveness in my eyes. NB: dry ice, always a bad sign in any production as far as I'm concerned).

But after the nightmares temporarily give way to reality, there is a series of great scenes. Almost unwatchable in the right sense is the one where Balvenie, now Earl of Douglas, has grown from a whiner who wants a plot of land into a territorial monster, bashing his son into repetition of the names of the estates which make up the land separating Scotland from England.

Very proud of Peter Forbes here (pictured above in rehearsal with Cameron Barnes as Big James Stewart), always the Actor Most Likely To when I was in the Edinburgh University Theatre Company (he was a superlative Malvolio and Herr Schultz in Cabaret, pictured in an earlier anniversary bout of nostalgia about 'the Bedlam'). Required to provide more light and shade, Mark Rowley as his son and the cousin who gives most succour to the young James rises to the most tense and finely-paced stretch in any of the dramas, the scene in which William baits the king who's set him at arm's length, with tragic results. I wept here, and Rothney certainly played his part in making the confrontation unbearably moving. The earlier homoerotics are beautifully suggested, too, and two goodlooking actors certainly help the frisson (below, Rothney and Rowley in rehearsal).

What else stands out? The unruly second act supper of James I (pictured below, Duff as Isabella seated left), the anything-goes football game in the December idyll of James II, the astonishing mirror scenes of James III (Margaret, confronted with herself: 'I like this woman! Look at her! She's ready for a laugh, isn't she? I'd love to get drinking with this woman! I really like the look of her. Is that really me?'), James III's capricious rejection of his son. And finally, making it all temporarily right and tying up the strands, the epilogue where Annabella decks out James IV-to-be in jewels of past significance.

Some have found the writing superficial, but I marvel at how Munro can say so much with so little - unspoken echoes, tactless reminders changing the mood - and how at the existential heart of it all lies the 'is that all there is?' of those characters - William, James III especially - who know there is a richer, lovelier, more adorned world beyond Scotland. Time for another final chunk: this is William telling the untravelled James II what he saw as Papal Envoy to Rome:

There's a house, not a rich man's house, a wine merchant's house, an ordinary shop man's house you ride past on your way into town.

It has paintings of angels on its walls that look like a window into the next world.

It has peacocks in the yard. I'm not joking. The wine merchant's kids are kicking peacocks' eggs around his garden in Rome.

With angels watching them.

And I come home and I'm supposed to feel like a rich man because I've got another hundred wet sheep?

What's the point? Tell me? What's the point of that?

And yet even the malcontents, like Margaret and us, love the best of Scotland. This is one to make film and television, and hopefully in a decade or less there will be a production truly worthy of the text. I'm glad and emotional to have seen it, though, over three festival nights, with time to think about it in the days between. Try for returns when it comes to London in a couple of weeks' time.

Coda: just finished watching a much longer epic, Breaking Bad. Hyperbole has been labelling it the best TV series ever. Well, there are superb performances, virtuoso camerawork and scenes of great truthfulness, but while the family tensions were always gripping, the premise on the gangster/violence front has never quite had me suspending my disbelief. They really seemed to be stringing it out in the last series: it could have ended two episodes earlier, with two vintage twists, but then I guess we wouldn't have got the poetics of the grand finale. Suffice it to say that while Skyler's breakdown moved me very much, I couldn't quite get involved with our Walter once he'd gone beyond the pale. An exceptional man who did great evil: who can ultimately can care for his redemption? Maybe you did; I didn't.

*Stop press: wonderful in-depth interview with great Gråbøl by Jasper Rees on The Arts Desk. What a wonderful woman, truthful and funny. 

Sunday 17 August 2014

The Origos' villa with a view

This captures, I hope, the big moment in the garden of the Villa La Foce where the travertine path through the fountain and lemon tree gardens comes to an end at a balcony and the formal garden of scallop-shaped box hedges below opens out for the first time. In the distance are the rather less verdant fields on the other side of the Val d'Orcia below the highest peak in Tuscany, the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata. It gave me the requisite goosebumps, of course. I was being led on an extremely privileged tour by the current chatelaine, Benedetta Origo, whose marriage to the Menuhin protege Alberto Lysy has turned an Origo strain to the most musicianly imaginable: their son Antonio Lysy, a superb cellist, has been running the Incontri in Terra di Siena Festival since 1989, bringing with him students from the University of California, Los Angeles where he teaches.

One thing led to another, and this year's festival, to which I was invited, featured an even more significant augmentation of youth and mentoring. But details of all that are to be found in the two TAD articles in which I sang for several suppers: an interview with the wonderful Ashkar brothers of Nazareth, and a piece on the festival itself with a bit in passing about the superb Tuscan and Umbrian locations.

What I didn't have time to expand on was the garden tour given exclusively to lucky me by Benedetta, pictured above heading down the first of many travertine paths. The first building we passed on our way out from the main wing was the osteria built in 1498 for pilgrims and merchants travelling the Via Francigena, a branch of the road from northern Europe to Rome. It's thought - though never verified - that Sansovino had a hand in the project, commissioned by the wealthiest landowner, Siena's Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Coats of arms of families like the Piccolomini and Chigi on the side of the building reveal sources of its riches.

Chastening to think that, just as Goths had wiped out the Roman farms and settlements long before the osteria's foundation, devastation came to the Val d'Orcia again shortly after its construction as Cosimo de' Medici lay waste the area in Florence's war with Siena. Iris and Antonio Origo came here in 1924, just after their wedding; less than two decades later, death and destruction returned, as Iris describes in her most famous book, War in Val d'Orcia.

Back in the 1920s, it was a kind of love at first sight. 'We only knew at once,' wrote Iris in her very selective autobiography Images and Shadows, 'that this vast, lonely and uncompromising landscape fascinated and compelled us. To live in the shadow of that mysterious mountain [Amiata], to arrest the erosion of those steep ridges, to turn this bare clay into wheatfields, to rebuild these farms and see prosperity return to its inhabitants, to restore the greenness of these mutilated woods...that, we were sure, was the life we wanted'.

Benedetta is no great fan of the main English-language biography of Iris, by Caroline Moorehead; she feels that Antonio is too shadowy a figure in it, just as Iris seemed to ensure - possibly out of respect for her husband's privacy - and that if another book were to be written, it should be about him. Certainly there are problems about telling the story of the early years at La Foce, though I think Moorehead does it even-handedly and clearly; it seems like an admirable piece of work to me, though very poorly proofed.

Having promised a progressive social reform which would favour the poor, Mussolini gave huge subsidies to the gentlemen landowners to maintain the status quo in the country; the Origos were among the most enlightened, building a school and a hospital among other amenities which still survive in one form or another, but theirs remained a patriarchal society for all that. And while Iris and Antonio gave courageous, dangerous support to partisans and escaped soldiers throughout the Second World War, he remained a conservative aristocrat the evolution of whose views on Mussolini still remain unclear.

Iris, on the other hand, moved from a 'blank vagueness' about politics to a very late realisation of the horrors Mussolini had inflicted on her adoptive country. It does seem rather surprising to us that throughout the late 1920s and much of the 1930s she ignored the murders and exiles of opponents, the suppression of a free press, the annexation of Abyssinia (to which the United Nations reacted with sanctions much as we do with Putin today; astonishing how all of Mussolini's moves seem to be echoed in everything that other would-be totalitarian leader does). In effect, while Antonio managed the estate, she cultivated her garden with the help of the English architect Cecil Ross Pinsent, whose work Iris knew well from the Berensons' Villa I Tatti and his landscaping of her mother's nearby garden at the Villa Medici in Fiesole.

He carried out his work over 12 years, from the garden near the new wing in 1927 to the stupendous lower garden pictured up top in 1939. Slowly Iris came to understand what would and wouldn't work in this climate: English style borders could be only selectively planted, roses did briefly flourish but no longer. The wisteria arbour must be a glory of the late-ish spring; lavender flourishes in abundance.

But the formality remains; it is not a 'deep' garden, planting wise. The chief virtue is the setting, of course, and the way that Pinsent's longest travertine path runs round the edge of the hill and out from formality into the woods: the Renaissance ideal of balancing manicured perfection with wilderness beyond.

The Villa La Foce is more of a hive of creativity now than it was before, despite the distinguished visitors. Two of them were Diana and Yehudi Menuhin, introducing the Origos to a brilliant violinist protege, Alberto Lysy, who became Benedetta's husband, in spite of Iris's disapproval. Here's the gracious and very natural Benedetta, somewhat in shadow, on the travertine path overlooking the lower garden.

One of her daughters, Giovanna Lysy, is a remarkable sculptor who has a studio and a wonderful exhibition space among the olive presses.

She works in travertine - remembering its heat on her bare feet as she walked the paths of La Foce as a child - as well as iron and glass.

The light is everything, and it works perfectly in this space.

I especially admired this image of an explosion - at its centre an instrument of war Giovanna found in the grounds.

A quick whizz round the dreamspace, and then Giovanna drove me to the station at Chieti - so often a changing-point, but never yet visited, an omission we must remedy next time - in the company of her daughter Allegra, off to Japan very shortly. And my festival taster was serendipitously rounded off by meeting on the train that most enthusiastic of communicators as violinist and musicologist Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet, his wife Yeesun Kim who's the cellist in the quartet, and their son Christopher, who was fascinated by the Proust wordrose on my watch. Nicholas gave me a taste of his interest in the detailed dynamic markings of Beethoven's manuscripts - he has four categories below piano, for instance - and we exchanged ideas. I think they had a good day out in Florence: they'd not been able to pinpoint the Masaccios they'd seen in a book, so I told them how to get to the Brancacci Chapel, my favourite spot in the city.

But perhaps I ought to finish with the man they all left out - Antonio Origo. The Tuscan scene most often reproduced on postcards is the one of a zigzagging road up a hill dotted with cypress trees.

It was, in fact, one of Antonio's constructions, part of the 10-point plan he read out to the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence in 1936. Perhaps this shadowy figure should have the last word, as eloquent as his wife's measured, sometimes (to me) slightly chilly prose. I conflate two passages from different contexts:

It is a vast and solemn landscape, where precipitous crete [Senesi, the low clay hillocks resembling craters of the moon] alternate with fertile oases and stretches of barren land, and in its silent immensity the spirit lays itself down and rests. The powerful spirit of a lost mythology hovers in the air above the valley, and an eternal sense of expectation reigns...I am not a specialist, nor a scholar. I am simply a keen amateur farmer, who at a given point in his life - perhaps the most romantic one, coinciding as it did with marriage - felt...the eternal fascination of the country and decided to make it, and the people who cling to it for their livelihood, the main purpose of my life.

Saturday 9 August 2014

A Babel of hope and possibility

The phrase is not mine but my bright young colleague Alexandra Coghlan's on The Arts Desk, penned about Berio's Sinfonia, which preceded a shattering but nuanced interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony at Tuesday night's Prom. I choose to apply it to the superlative team which gave one of the best Proms I've ever heard, our already-beloved European Union Youth Orchestra, and further, to the even younger members of nine British youth orchestras they mentored in an inspiring workshop featuring 180 young musicians on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall the morning after the EUYO triumph.

All photos here by the wonderful Chris Christodoulou, with whom I managed to have a good chat as the players lined up on the steps in front of the hall's south side. Above, below and in the last photo are some of them on Wednesday morning conducted by likeable young motivator Duncan Ward and playing to a small audience of friends, family and a handful of scribblers like me.

A big question which I intend to peck away at: why did the BBC not ask Chris to snap one of their most photo-friendly evenings? He tends to come to everything he can, but the press folk only ask him for so many Proms. More bizarrely, why did BBC Television choose not to film the EUYO concert for broadcast (Radio 3's transmission is on the iPlayer for the next month)? The fact that they'll be transmitting the National Youth Orchestra Prom is no excuse: it shouldn't be a case of either/or, but both. And what better to spell out the message that there IS a future for great orchestral music than the enthusiasm and commitment of these photogenic young players with their handsome young conductor, the already great Vasily Petrenko (replacing an indisposed Semyon Bychkov, who would also no doubt have trained them up to the hilt)? Was it politics or is there a less sinister explanation? Shame on you, Beeb - you should be helping to tell the world that this is what we're fighting for in Europe. True internationalist Sir Henry Wood would have thought so too. I asked Chris especially to snap this one for us.

Anyway, I was there on Tuesday evening with the diplo-mate - having to break his rule of avoiding all Proms, and he couldn't have admired it more - in the EU invitees' zone close to the stage, leaving Alexandra to write up the event for TAD. I didn't sway her beyond a very late message saying that if she didn't give it five stars, she would be exiled to an island of exclusively baroque music. There was no need: she'd already written the piece by then, and she touches on just about everything I would have done, very much in her own eloquent style, so I don't have to reduplicate here.

Just a few points of my own, then: first, that I've never heard a more detailed, coherent or intelligent performance of the baggy-monster Fourth. Petrenko, at times sexy-sinuous, at others rhythmically taut, amazingly so in the Berio, drove a line through Shostakovich's most outlandish orchestral work without ever being over-emphatic.

There was much more more lyricism than we've come to expect, more sheer fun in the concerto-for-orchestra parade of solos and groups, while never losing sight of the terrifying overall rhetoric. And what an extra layer of emotion there was in hearing a first-half work which seemed to think that 'classical' music had shattered into fragments, never to be pieced together again, and an even greater masterpiece ending in total annihilation, and finding them in the hands of a future which is as bright performer-wise as it is in the new wave of post-Darmstadt, post-modern composers who are no longer afraid of the kind of cornucopia Shostakovich loved so much.

I've written about the Inspire Workshop event over on TAD, but the BBC were slow in getting Chris's pictures over to me, which is how I can indulge in a few more here. That was fun, but the EUYO concert has burned itself on my heart as what will have to be the most extraordinary Prom this year, however much of excellence is no doubt still to come.

Young and old alike must rejoice that today is the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson's birth, a special day she shares with her Moominpapa (anyone's guess), the diplo-mate (thirtysomething, of course) and his mother Wyn (86, doing pretty well by the sea yesterday). Shot of the last two at St Leonard's from behind only due to privacy wishes.

I raise my special Hemulen mug to the great author, and like to think of her like this below in 1956 on her special island with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä and her beloved mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, the 'Grandmother' of the volume I most often gift, The Summer Book  (remember this to young Sophia, countering the child's insistence of 'a big, enormous Hell': 'You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that's the whole idea').

Tove would approve last Saturday's outing to Holland Park and Will Todd's splendid opera for children Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (or should that perhaps be 'New Adventures') with goddaughter Mirabel. I managed to sneak in a picture of her with the lovely Fflur Wyn, Alice personified, to the Arts Desk review, but felt it might be overload there to include Keel Watson's very friendly Caterpillar

and the family bear of long wear and tear, Special/Spesh, occupying the White Rabbit's cage in the opera's Grimthorpe Pet Shop.

Fortunately they all lived happily shortly after: Spesh was released to join Mirabel,  ma Edsy and auntie June for tea and scones chez nous.