Thursday 28 May 2015

Meeting Mike Leigh

I hoped, but hardly dared to believe, that one of my great heroes would show up for a pre-performance talk in which I was participating at English National Opera. Mike Leigh's film work has been carved into the consciousness of (most of) my generation, at least in the UK. It even seems from what my goddaughter Rosie May told me that a whole new fanbase is popping up among students for the evergreen Abigail's Party many years after Alison Steadman's Bev first tottered around serving up 1970s party snacks and asking a male guest flirtatiously 'Do you like Demis [Roussos]?': Rosie had heard of a production in which the cast drank in 'real time' so they really were pissed as the show wore on, and she'd seen it onstage elsewhere.

Since then, as well as having a good laugh, I've been touched at various levels by Nuts in May, High Hopes, Naked, Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake - and the surprise hit of Leigh's biopic on Gilbert and Sullivan at the time of staging The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy. The stage work less so. I thought Mr Turner was a total masterpiece - DVD review here - and I'd put it up there with Des hommes et des dieux (about the French monks in Algeria kidnapped and murdered by terrorists) and La grande bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino's ambiguous hymn to Rome as one of the three films I've seen over the past five years to have had the greatest impact.All three I imagine I could see again and again.

News that ENO had hooked Leigh to direct The Pirates of Penzance (production photos here by Tristram Kenton; talk snaps by Charlotte van Berckel from ENO's technical department) made me nervous. Would it work? It did, and I felt relieved to be able to praise it very genuinely on The Arts Desk, though maybe you have to be in sympathy with the razor-sharp G&S idiom and how that might most sympathetically be served to 'get' it. Like it or not - I loved it and laughed very loud very often - there was no doubt that time and effort had been put into every move, every grouping. Much surer-footed throughout, in short, than Terry Gilliam's Berlioz, though that had flashes of genius.

The work that had gone into a very polished show with a superlative cast (above, the wondrous Claudia Boyle as Mabel with Jonathan Lemalu as the Chief of Police and his deadpan men) became the more apparent following Mike's arrival the other Wednesday, five minutes before we were due to start, for the talk (by the way, the likely choice had been staff director Elaine Tyler-Hall, which would have meant a necessary woman in the group. But you can't sniff at the company that did materialise).

Christopher Cook, the absolute doyen of animateurs in my opinion and pictured on the right in the top shot, had mapped out a format familiar to these well-planned 45-minute events, which he always steers to perfection: he'd ask me questions for 10 or so minutes about the background and the music, then turn to Mike about the show, then the cover Major-General, Adrian Powter (top shot left), accompanied by vital repetiteur Chris Hopkins, would sing the patter song (Andrew Shore as Stanley Mark One with Joshua Bloom's equally impressive Pirate King pictured here),

and finally there'd be a general discussion and questions. But Mike took control, not at all in an unpleasant way, the minute he arrived, and decided it would be interactive from the start. It was impressive if slightly scary to see his stage management, but reassuring to see how he gave everyone credit (nice nod to the pianist, for example, and no sense of exclusive ego, though you've got to have one well adjusted to the world to do what he does).

So we batted the ball to and fro, I loved every minute, and you can hear the results on this podcast.

After the official business was over, we carried on chatting enthusiastically about G&S shows we'd seen going back some way, what we'd liked and what we hadn't (you'll hear on the podcast how it was a Finborough Theatre production of The Grand Duke which made that ML's first choice for ENO - but he couldn't get the collaborators he wanted to be equally enthusiastic). Needless to say, I'm going back to the ENO Pirates before the end of the run.

And while it's All About Me, and Great British Opera/operetta, here's the film Garsington finally released of the Death in Venice insight evening with Steuart Bedford and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks. The Gondoliers it ain't, though I love Britten and G&S equally. You could say that the Savoy operas are tied to my childhood, Britten to my very slow coming out starting in my late teens.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Proud Europeans

Here are two reasons to be cheerful and proud about Europe in the week following the shock of the Conservatives' election win. On 8 May, actually just before Europe Day, the annual concert in St John's Smith Square with members of the European Union Youth Orchestra and singers from the Liverpool-based European Opera Centre celebrated Latvia's first Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It's also 25 years to the month since Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union/Russia.Violinist Kristīne Balanas, featured in the second photo above, was only four days old when that happened, but what a magnificent symbol she is of the musical values which are still so strong - stronger than ever, if possible - in that Baltic country. All images of St John's and the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House over the way by the excellent Jamie Smith.

Four days after the concert, one of the very best exhibitions ever to have graced the 12 Star Gallery opened in style. I think you can see that German artist Thomas Ganter is a delightful chap from the top shot above and the one below; everyone tells me so, and I have the pleasure of finding out for myself next week. He told J he had worked for a year on the portraits for UNKNOWNS, the show co-hosted by the European Commission Representation in the UK and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, thrilled at the prospect of what the venue stood for.

And the true Mensch he is can be summed up in two large-scale portraits which satisfy hugely on the aesthetic, moral and social levels. Man with a Plaid Blanket, a portrait of a homeless windscreen cleaner for which Ganter won the 25th annual BP Portrait Award, isn't in the show; it's currently in Wales and belongs to the Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

I long to see it in the flesh, as it were, because reproduction can only give a small idea of the scale and the finish, and the way the subjects in the pictures I saw come out of the canvas. I did see and wonder at the large (off-)centrepiece in the 12 Star Gallery, The Unknown Health Worker commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and contributed to The Art of Saving a Life. I presume Ganter wrote the text accompanying its reproduction in the booklet:

This painting represents those women and men in every country who do their best to reach families and offer life-saving services including immunization. The portrait is inspired by a photograph of a health worker in eastern Nepal, who was in the midst of climbing up and down steep hillsides in the Himalayas to reach all children with measles, rubella and polio vaccines. She carries the vaccines in the cold box slung on her shoulder. It can be considered a 'monument' for the unknown health worker, to appreciate their hard work and their importance for all of us.

I wonder how and where she is now.

On the same wall are seven smaller portraits of citizens Ganter invited in off the street to sit for him: a street worker, a nanny, a lumberjack, a gipsy, a twin, a chemist and a clown.

Another wall has family portraits, including Ganter himself in uncharacteristically fierce, Viking mode (see further up), while round the corner is an ink jet printed collection of heads from Ganter's sketchbooks,

a rather different work, Still Life with Fur, and the head and limbs of a man wearing a silver bracelet.

I couldn't attend the opening - I went to see the pictures last Friday, and will go again tomorrow, which is, alas, the last day - but I know those people below. That's the great Andrew Logan of Alternative Miss World fame, down for the 12 Star's 10th anniversary exhibition, and our Sophie Sarin back from Mali and shivering as I write in a basement prison cell for the sake of exhibiting her MaliMali fabrics at the House of Reform, part of Clerkenwell Design Week (more below). Sophie, incidentally, was the very first artist to exhibit at the gallery when the EU Representation lived in Storey's Gate.

This man is familiar, too: Vasily Petrenko in St John's Footstall after the 8 May concert, with three admiring graces. I guess he was partly there because of the Liverpool connection, but he also, of course, conducted the EUYO in one of the best concerts I've ever heard, at last year's Proms.

The concert got off to a spirited start with Suzy Digby conducting choristers of the London Youth Chamber Choir up in the right gallery in Artūrs Maskats' Midsummer Song for voices and percussion.

Could have done with more of them, but that was delicious. Balanas made a fine impression with fellow Latvian Ainārs Rubiķis conducting in Sibelius's light Op. 117 Suite for violin and string orchestra, but suggested incipient perfection duetting with soulful accordionist Māris Rozenfelds in Maskats' Midnight in Riga: such tone, such intonation! And it was fun to see them finally visibly warming, even smiling, to each other. Piazolla's swooning Oblivion rounded off that gem-like sequence. Shame there's not a shot of the two Latvians together, but here's Rozenfelds.

The young opera singers gave us the first scene of Sibelius's The Maiden in the Tower - wish we could have had it all - and a sequence from Rossini's Eduardo e Cristina, woven into the programme on the slender context that Sweden is its setting and Baltic countries were the theme. The pastiche opera with music from Ermione seemed more remarkable, on this evidence, for its cor anglais solo than for the vocal writing, but in the first aria the poised Héloïse Mas showed surprising contralto tones, very useful in Rossini.

I dare say that last year's Greek programme made for a more enthralling unity, but only because it was the best of a series at the very highest level. And of course we stood on both occasions, with some pride, for the 'Ode to Joy' theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Addendum: I seem to have given poor Sue a turn to think that our Sophie might have been locked up. She's been reassured below, but I might as well add a photo with the observation that while walls make a prison - the original use of the House of Reform in which Clerkenwell's Platform is housed - decoration makes a temporary home, despite the damp. Goddaughter Rosie May and I dropped in yesterday afternoon on our way to the ENO Carmen and I took pics, ostensibly for La Sarina's Facebook and Twitter pages, but I can't see those, so here's one of the better results of an ad hoc photoshoot commandeered by MaliMali's originator,  surrounded by her fabrics and with a super photo behind her of Dembele by the Bani river.

Worth repeating: all 12 Star Gallery and St John's Smith Square images by Jamie Smith.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Sicily '48

In Leonardo Sciascia's 1958 quartet of novellas/short stories Sicilian Uncles, the year could be 1848 or 1948. We make for ourselves the connection between a boy witnessing the advent of the Americans in Sicily, a dogged adherent of Stalin whose delusions are followed through to the Beloved Leader and Teacher's death in 1953, another boy living through the upheavals that led to Garibaldi's arrival and a poor villager going straight from the mines to fight in Spain in the name of fascism, to whom enlightenment comes as a sort of bittersweet apotheosis for the entire book.

I don't know why I didn't read Sciascia for so long. The name somehow smacked to me of a florid Italian philosopher; the style is anything but. Sciascia's writing is crisp, often ironical and so compressed that he usually leaves you wanting more. 'Forty-Eight', its title taken from a Sicilian phrase which since the events of that momentous 19th century year has become synonymous with 'to cause or profit from confusion', could have been the ideal novel-length equal of  Lampedusa's The Leopard; indeed, as it stands at 60 or so pages, it is absolutely perfect in its own right. As in The Leopard (the book, not the often inept film), most of the fighting like that outside the Duomo in Palermo pictured below takes place 'offstage'.

You just want to go on reading about the capricious, casually corrupt and chameleonic Baron Garziano as viewed through the eyes of the son of the estate gardener, about his cronies in the church and the liberals who spend their time between a local bar and prison. The essential message is that everything just goes on as normal after each upheaval, and 'normal' in Sicily isn't good, it's just a case of plus ça change (do the Italians have a similar phrase, I wonder?)

The American Aunt of the first story undergoes an alarming transformation from the magical, mythical figure over the seas to an all-controlling manipulator when she comes to Sicily. The first few pages are a magnificently etched picture of the moment in the Second World War when the Americans arrive; it's so vivid that you know Sciascia is describing from experience. Presumably he also knew a communist who held on to his rosy view of Stalin. But so vivid is the first-person narration in 'Forty-Eight' that you forget the author wasn't alive at that time.

As for Antimony, the name given by the sulphur miners of Sciascia's native Racalmuto to the substance (pictured above) which burns the protagonist's father, the description of fighting in the Spanish Civil War also feels like autobiography, but can't be. As ordinary men whose philosophy has been forged in horror, the narrator and his maverick companion Ventura, who simply yearns to join up with the Americans, do most of the summary reflection for the four stories. Our hero has already understood the nature of Sicilian faith in his village, in contrast to the death-justifying God created by the Falangists: our faith, it's only the good things that count. God doesn't come into the sufferings; it's destiny which brings them. We have a good Sunday, there's soup and meat, and my mother says we must thank God. They bring my father home, burned by antimony, and my mother says it's a vile destiny that's burned him...I'd like to have my mother here, and show her that, here in Spain, God and destiny have one and the same face.

Bitter experience and injury send him home, where the villagers don't want to hear what he's had to say. But there is a kind of transcendence:

The war had condemned my body. But when a man has understood that he is an image of dignity, you can even reduce him to a stump, lacerate him all over, and he will still be the greatest thing God has created. When fresh troops arrive on a front and have been thrown into battle, the generals and journalists say, 'They've had their baptism of fire'  - one of the many solemn and stupid phrases thrown out about the bestiality of war: but from the war in Spain, and the fire of the war there, I really do feel I have had a baptism: a sign of liberation in my heart; a sign of consciousness and of justice.

Of course justice cannot thrive in Sicily, or it couldn't when Sciascia was writing (born in 1912, he died in 1989, before any kind of true dawn); I wonder how far the campaign to resist paying protection money, its stickers all over shops in Palermo, has got. I wrote about it here, but no harm in displaying the 'addiopizzo' sticker again.

Sciascia's short thrillers tend to be about cases which can't be solved, even when you have the evidence, because of the Mafia's tentacles reaching to the highest echelons of the government in Rome (as we now know from the true history of 'Il Divo' Andreotti), despite big businessmen and local worthies' insistence that no such thing exists.

In The Day of the Owl, written shortly after Sicilian Uncles, the honest, just Captain Bellodi from Emilia Romagna is determined to do the right thing in Sicily. He knows how it works when he talks to a group under suspicion:

Now let's say that nine out of ten contractors accept or ask for protection. It would be a poor sort of association - and you know what association I refer to - if it were to limit itself to the functions and pay of night watchmen. The protection offered by the association is on a much vaster scale. It obtains private contracts for you, I mean for the firms which toe the line and accept protection. It gives you valuable tips if you want to submit a tender for public works, it supports you when the final inspection comes up, it saves trouble with your workmen...Obviously, if nine companies out of ten have accepted protection thus forming a kind of union, the tenth which refuses is the black sheep. It can't do much harm, of course, but its very existence is a challenge and a bad example. So, by fair means or foul, it must be forced to come into the fold or be wiped out once and for all.

He knows, too, the approach of the big cheese:

One fine day, a person 'worthy of respect', as you would say, comes to have a little talk...what he says might mean anything and nothing, allusive, blurred as the back of a piece of embroidery, a tangle of knots and threads with the pattern on the other side...

Nor is The Day of the Owl a merely schematic exposure of how things work, or don't, in Sicily. There's a brilliant piece of characterisation when the informer of the piece - no major spoiler here, since Sciascia anticipates it almost from the moment the personage is introduced - is shot on his doorstep:

The man had left this life with one final denunciation, the most accurate and explosive one he had ever made...It was not the importance of the denunciation which made such an impression on the captain, but the agony, the despair which had provoked it. Those 'regards' made him feel brotherly compassion and anguished distress, the compassion and distress of one who under appearances classified, defined and rejected, suddenly discovers the naked human heart. By his death, by his last farewell, the informer had come into a closer, more human relationship; this might be unpleasant, vexatious; but in the feelings and thoughts of the man who shared them they brought a response of sympathy, of spiritual sympathy. 

Suddenly this state of mind gave way to rage. The captain felt a wave of resentment at the narrow limits in which the law compelled him to act...

Bellodi thinks that one through too, and dismisses it. The standard Sciascian paradigm is one of unearthing, then being forced to shovel the earth back over the discovery.

How Sciascia would enjoy, albeit grimly, targeting the plans of the present government. Within a week we've had auguries of tyranny: worst, the rewriting of the European Human Rights Act to suit the 'British constitution' (opting out would make us pariahs alongside Belarus. Well, exactly). We'll see what that entails, but an act so laboured over, not least by Churchill, should not be open to negotiation - and a healthy response, from the cause-fighting 38 Degrees, is pictured below.

We've had threats of a petty vendetta with the BBC. We've had the delightful Theresa May - the only MP to insist on being driven up to No. 10 Downing Street on the first day in her limo and the one who first raised the spectre of the rights rewrite, now taken over by her even lovelier arch-enemy Michael Gove - saying that the immigrants, thousands of whom have drowned on perilous boat journeys from Africa to Europe (first point of entry, dead or alive, usually Sicily or one of the islands off it) should be sent back home and that we won't join the European agreement to take some in; and on a small scale, the ridiculous move to reinstate fox-hunting.

Fortunately there's a healthy opposition to most of the measures threatened, and the new SNP members are already making themselves felt (Scotland and Northern Ireland too, it seems, have the constitutional right to block the scrapping of the Human Rights Act as it stands, and many Tory backbenchers are against it, too). It's still a democracy, even if sometimes one wonders.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Maytime rus in urbe

Come into the garden, folk, for the black bat Cam has soared and many of us need a bit of floral escapism, no doubt shared quite equably with plenty of his supporters. Yesterday, in true pathetic-fallacy style, was grey and a little bit rainy, but 10 days ago the weeks of pure spring sunshine came to an end with an afternoon of exceptional clarity, which happened to coincide with my meeting old university friend Jo at the Chelsea Physic Garden. By Saturday, when three of us took a bracing walk across Richmond Park to the Isabella Plantation and back, the murk was beginning to take over, but the grey skies offset the lime greens of leafing oaks, birches and beeches rather well.

Never have I seen the Physic Garden so riotous with high-spring bloom, though I know that other profusion will take over in the weeks to come. Chief wonder was my favourite blossom, that of the Judas Tree, which thrives above a meadow of bluebells with the mulberry just coming into leaf in front of it.

Not noticed this before, though: that the blossom grows immediately on the trunk's offshoots, a weird and rather wonderful effect.

As I'd hoped, the lovely Pia, our good friend and graphic designer at the CPG, walked past our lunch table in the sunshine; I was intending to go to the office and ask for her. She's just helped to produce the new guide, divided into colour-banded sections each led by an illustration from Gerard's Herbal of 1597. There were plenty of facts I hadn't absorbed before, such as the precise details of how the garden survived - first and foremost by Sir Hans Sloane's ingenious Deed of Covenant whereby he rented the garden, part of the Manor of Chelsea which he bought in 1722, to - and I cannot put it better than the guidebook, so I quote - 'the Apothecaries who had trained perpetuity for a peppercorn [how appropriate!] rent of £5 per year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants today'.

Sloane, by the way, came from Ireland as apprentice and later made his fortune by returning to London from Jamaica with the yields of two trees, Cinchona pubescens and Theobroma cacao - respectively quinine and drinking chocolate. A copy of his statue still stands in front of what you may just make out as the flowering handkerchief or ghost tree.

I also didn't realise how close the CPG came to closure in the 19th century, which also saw its biggest changes. I had no idea that the Pond Rockery, an island oddly surmounted by fly-eating pitcher plants, is a Grade II listed structure, probably the oldest of its kind in Europe, and incorporates black basalt used to ballast Joseph Banks's ship on his voyage to Iceland as well as clam shells which travelled from Tahiti on Captain Cook's Endeavour.

My main concern on previous visits before I finally renewed my membership was with the initially ugly new educational gardens constructed in the south east corner. Now that the plants growing up make them look less stark, I can sort of see the point, though I miss what was lost. Still, there's one curvy path left round the back of the Garden of Useful Plants which takes you under the Chinese Paulownia lilacina, in flower last week.

The other paths that used to lead you past tree and herbaceous peonies have gone, but the peony collection at the north end of the Dicotyledon order beds is fine and I was surprised to find so many specimens already in flower, providing pollen for the garden's bee population (I'm hoping there's enough honey from the hives this year - the vintage I tasted was supremely floral, second only to jars from the Asco valley in Corsica in my experience).

Adonis aestivalis, the red ranunculus, is a close relative to blue love-in-a-mist, but rather more startling: the colour really did stand out as in the photo.

Otherwise the most conspicuous colour in these order beds was the yellow of Ferula communis, which looks like a special type of fennel but isn't actually categorised as such. Interesting to read that Prometheus was supposed to have brought fire to man in its stalk, and the ancient name 'narthex' leads me to suppose that the stalk was also a wand for the Bacchae.

Time ran out as usual but I had time to pay a quick homage to the glasshouse of mostly scented pelargoniums, a staple of the Physic Garden for more than 300 years. This, I think, is 'Ardens'

while in Glasshouse 4 to the south Ageratum corymbosum from Mexico was in full spate.

I left with only the most exquisite of tiny sempervivums but the next day I cycled to Rassell's nursery and picked up, inter alia, a promising specimen of the peony 'Buckeye Belle'. And on Saturday we dropped in on the Petersham Nurseries on the way back from Richmond Park. Despite the threat of rain, which didn't materialise until the evening, we had a bracing walk through copses and meadows, with oak trees in various stage of leaf,

to the Isabella Plantation, which I think I can't have visited since I was a child. This secluded wonderland was established in the 1830s and enriched by 50 kurume azaleas introduced from Japan in the 1920s by plant collector Ernest Wilson, now part of the National Collection. Although our friend Tilly rages at how they've hacked it back, I still imagined myself in far eastern wilds and was amazed by the riot of azaleas and rhododendrons not far from the entrance

The three-tier effect is unique to this time of year, of having bright splashes of colour in the middle between unfurling fronds

and gunnera

and the lime-green trees above. There were still plenty of magic corners and glades, as in this one where a grand old beech is foil to a uniquely coloured rhodedendron,

here, where another handkerchief tree can be more clearly discerned

and here, where another huge rhodie is foreground to more tree-leafing,

while by the end of the central stream heathers are thriving.

Next stop: friend Deborah's garden 'rooms' in Lacock, which should be in their prime.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Just do it. Vote.

Plenty of queueing early this morning inside our polling station - and my centre for teaching concert-related classes - St Andrew's Fulham Fields. Following on from the agitprop, you-know-it-makes-sense footnote to the Georgia Brown post below, I fondly imagine the majority of local people will want Charing Cross Hospital saved, and now that Andy Slaughter's website has confirmed Labour's promise to stop its demolition going ahead - at least while a fuller report is conducted - the NHS manifesto with which he's now leading is the only one which adds up (not that I've seen anything of our Green or Lib Dem candidates). Clever of him to provide alternative voting cards which reached us yesterday afternoon - though I still used the straight version because I wanted to keep this one.

So is it really as simple as I see it, that voting Conservative or Labour is a choice between self-interest and a wider sense of community?

Actually I still say vote, no matter what your convictions - unless you're still blockhead enough not to see Ukip for what it is. I was at least a tiny bit pleased to see that a neighbour whom I rather like but who used to work for that party was sporting a blue rosette outside the church.

While I don't know what to believe about plans for a Tory coup in the confusion that is fairly certain to follow the results, I cry shame on the dirty war of the right wing press - I felt unclean holding my free copy of the London Evening Standard when I saw it was telling me how to vote, which of course it would as the plaything of a Russian oligarch's son - and all the panicmongering about Labour's possible pact with the SNP; shame on Miliband for ruling out any possibility, too. These have been unhappy elements in a generally low-key and not very inspiring campaign which just happens to be vital on the major issues (though the bigger ones about Europe and the wider world have not been raised).

Anyway, it's a lovely day after high winds and rain, so that should get the voters out. And was it a sign and a symbol that the flower most flourishing in the sensitive new replanting of the beds around the church was the bright red Papaver commosum?*

Most wished-for moment of the results as they come in tonight/tomorrow morning, apart from the unlikelihood of a cleaer win: being able to roll around on the floor with insane delight when Farage loses his bid for South Thanet. Please God.

*Correction made thanks to that omniscient horticulturalist Deborah van der Beek in her comment to the post above this one.