Thursday 30 March 2017

24 hours in Oslo 1: Munch's temple of learning

Well, not exactly Munch's: the Aula of Oslo University, built in 1911 for the establishment's centenary, is in a rather conservative neoclassical style, the central part of the old campus at the north-west end of the city's main drag, Karl Johans Gate. Munch transformed it into something else, a pagan edifice with the sun as its god (the Sarastro scenes of Mozart's The Magic Flute would fit even more perfectly in here than in the main assembly room of Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden). Thus I beheld the exterior on the sunny but very cold morning after the first concert I've heard there, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra's Mozart sandwich with Leif Ove Andsnes directing two of the greatest piano concertos, K466 in D minor and K487 in E flat major, from the piano.

Somehow Munch's ambitious scheme of 11 oil paintings accords with the main hall perfectly. Needless to say, the abundance of young nakedness didn't go down too well among the greybeards of the university after the competition which Munch won. But he was in no mood for sobriety in his new-found confidence after leaving the Copenhagen clinic where he was treated for mental illness in 1908-9. The pictures were eventually installed in 1916. As I mentioned in the Arts Desk piece about the concert, I knew of the existence of the amazing sun from the cover of a sumptuous Philips boxed set featuring Ozawa's Boston recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. And here it is, up close, shedding its rays on a recognisably Norwegian stretch of coast, complete with rocky islets.

It glints at you from a distance as you walk through the coffered antechamber.

As you approach the last of the pillars, a triptych is revealed,

with, on the left wall, a long panel symbolising 'History' with an old man reading to a young boy,

and, on the right, a rather less successful execution of a woman breastfeeding and raising a family, as 'Alma Mater'.

This entry from the University gives you a 360 degree view, with titles for all 11 paintings. That helps me identify, to the left of the sun here and moving away from it, 'Awakening Men in the Lightstream', 'Women Turned Towards the Sun' and 'New Rays'.

On the right here is 'Men Turned Towards the Sun'

and, looking past the Mozart scores on the stands here, 'Harvesting Women'.

After the concert, out onto the campus

and so to bed. Earlyish to rise, to make the most of my full day before the flight back to London the following evening. I had either side of an interview with NCO leader/motivator-in-chief Terje T√łnnesen in the NCO offices at lunchtime, so first I retraced familiar steps, examining the Holberg statue group at the side of the National Theatre, seen here from behind looking towards the Aula,

snapped again the great theatre with the Ibsen statue on its left side - happy memories of the superlative Peer Gynt I saw there -

and then walked around the magnificently detailed, essentially 1930s City Hall, which I went inside on a first visit to Oslo,

down to the central harbour - the statues, I'm assuming since I can't find the information anywhere, are by the ubiquitous Gustav Vigeland -

and up steps past a statue of Roosevelt, erected in 1950 in gratitude for America's help to Norway during and after World War 2,  currently missing his nose (it should be replaced, properly restored, in the summer)

to the Akershus Fortress,

the heart of old Christiania as transformed from its medieval origins by Christian IV.

Last spent time here in heavy snow, which made everything as silent as the grave. Now, in the sunshine, quite a few tourists were out and about, while the soldiers carried on their duties between chats (having two together and a third posted elsewhere makes it a bit sociable, at least).

Down via the Old Town Hall

and some of the few remaining old buildings in the architectural mess that is Oslo today

to Sentralen, Oslo's new arts centre and workshop space, converted from the 1901 headquarters of the Christiania Savings Bank. granitic giant with fanciful Venetian touches.

Here, it seems, many of Oslo's major artistic institutions have their office space. The NCO has more spontaneous concerts than those at the Aula - here in a smaller hall there's a bar at the back where drinks can be purchased during the performance.

Strange reference to Auden's 'Stop all the clocks' in a hallway frescoing, though of course I'm always glad to see those lines.

Traces of the old bank remain, like the doors to what was once the safe, maintaining their insignia even though there's more workshop space behind.

So to a delightful lunch round the corner with the NCO's Information and Marketing Manager, Euishin Kim. What happened in the afternoon as I walked to the formerly industrial zone of the city's north eas, previously untrodden territory for me, on my way to the Munch Museum will have to wait until another blog entry.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Marching for togetherness, with optimism

I've never been on such a good-natured processional (in fact I haven't been on nearly enough protests in my lifetime, but I'm beginning to catch up). You could argue this one was about many things: a celebration of 60 years of peace in most of Europe, on a significant birthday for the EU; about remembering what happened close to the end of the route on Wednesday, and showing what the undaunted spirit of those who came from all round the country for the occasion is all about; certainly about our anger at the Brexit railroading of May and Co, with attendant ingenuity in the more indignant banners. But one thing's for sure - our experience of it was wholly positive, including the delight in walking the closed-off thoroughfares of the West End.

We were lucky to turn up at Hyde Park Corner about 40 minutes after the official start; nothing had moved, and we were ushered to what turned out to be the front of the march. All these pics were taken on J's phone, as my beloved camera had crashed to the ground while I was trying to photograph Bunyan's tomb a couple of weeks ago, and is in for an expensive repair to the zoom lens.

And so round into Piccadilly

where the rise gave a good view backwards

and down towards St James's Palace, where a good shot of J in his yellow waistcoat can't be used here, alas, though this one of three ladies will do,

then along to Trafalgar Square. We hadn't been able to meet up with my goddog Ted and his owners, who as it turned out had gone home after waiting for an hour and a half at the start, but it was good to see so many canines present or represented - note the banners to the left, including 'this cavapoo is pro-EU'.

Funny how few folk we met whom we knew - just a couple we'd become acquainted with last Saturday over Ted's owners' first 'Shakshuka Club' lunch, just after this heading into Whitehall

where although the space for walking became much more generous, we could still see the procession behind stretching back as far as the eye could see, and led by this most vocal of groups

and forward to Parliament Square,

where, securing a place on a traffic island rather than in the Square itself, we heard a policeman saying that the tail-end of the march was only just leaving Hyde Park Corner. And oh, the hosts of golden daffodils, such a nice touch on a glorious spring day.

Couldn't hear the speeches, starting with Alastair Campbell, and from memory of the last lot, they didn't promise to be too inspiring - and very short on the diversity/women front - though Nick Clegg, by all accounts, did a good job. In any case, we had to head off to the National Film Theatre cafe to meet our friends Nats and Danni, who'd come up specially from Bournemouth. Glorious to sit in the sun; happy thereafter and in one's sleep to thrive on the memories of a togetherness which will survive whatever happens next. Estimates of attendance range between 100,000 and 500,000: not bad. We are Europeans first, citizens of the world second, Brits third, and nothing's going to change that. Fingers crossed for the French and German elections - it's looking hopeful.

29/03 The Day of Wrath is here. What better to counter the sending of Article 50 than this magnificent one and a half minutes of what Europe stands for?

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Under and over the Thames

It started as a very special 'exclusive': an invitation to see the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's sound and video work in the enormous Bascule Chamber of Tower Bridge, 100 steps down beneath the Thames (main installation photos by Paul Cochrane, courtesy of GSMD). The bonus was just as good: a chance to join the tourists and look down from the walkways originally constructed as a Victorian wonder for pedestrians until too many people started throwing themselves off (it's all now very much enclosed, but you still get the views). Rounded off, moreover, by the sexiest machinery I've ever seen: the Industrial Age as a thing of beauty.

Of which Tower Bridge as a whole, constructed between 1886 and 1894 at a cost of £1,500,000, is the best representative I can imagine - and now that I know what it can reveal, I'd make sure any visitor put the paying part of it on a top five list of London sights (the Tower of London, with which I've been mildly obsessed since childhood, has to be number one).The one part the public doesn't usually get to see, other than on one day of the year (I assume during Architecture Open Weekend) or on specially-ordered private tours (which I'd recommend), is the Bascule Chamber, the operational area that houses the massive counterweights lowered when the two bascules are raised to allow big shipping through (which still happens regularly). The two towers clad in stone of Gothic design have a steel frame to support the heavy bascules, each weighing about a thousand tons.

The counterweights, if I remember what we were told correctly, amount to a couple of hundred tons, so it was quite a frisson to think of them, as well as the river water, hovering above our heads once we'd made the descent 'Down the Rabbit Hole', as the first part of the Guildhall School's live and installed work was called. Photos were allowed on the way up, so here are a couple I took, one of the dramatically lit staircases

and another of the big boiler? engine? towards the bottom. Very cold and dank down there. You could feel the temperature dropping as you descended.

The work was carried out by students from the GS's BA in Video Design for Live Performance and BA in Performance and Creative Enterprise degree courses. And a remarkable job they made of the 'happening'. We lucky few sat and donned headphones with a lively collage of music and quotations from films - most of them identifiable - while the images played with the sense of space. Back to Paul Cochrane for the next three pics.

Inevitably they were of variable quality, coming from so many different sources, but made up an imaginative journey which evoked cinematic travels to the centre of the earth with tumbling rocks, rainbows, spinning London landmarks and a projection of the underground map,

underwater sequences and giant faces.

Did the results achieve their stated objective as 'an imaginative and visual transformation of the space'? Absolutely, though it was also good to be allowed to linger and see the brickwork at closer quarters after the adventure.

As I exited, I saw tourists coming out of the lift that runs up one of the towers. and asked if I could go upwards, having been down. The staff couldn't have been more charming: a jovial Welshman escorted me up, and a nice girl I met at the top in the steel-encased upper part of the tower

told me how much she loved working there and watching people's reactions. My own was, why on earth have I never done this before? First I strolled along the east walkway, from which David Piper, in my first and still favourite big guide to London writes how 'the quintessential Thames opens up, the widening waters claim the sky and reject any further construction by bridges'.

The warehouse ghosts he writes of, though, have now been replaced by mostly undistinguished luxury housing all the way to Greenwich - and then, of course, there's Canary Wharf, undreamed of when the book was published in 1964.

Kids loved lying and taking selfies on the glass which gives way to views of the bridge and Thames below (it was half-term week and the hot, stuffy enclosure was rank with schoolroom smells).

And the information is good throughout, though there are rather too many photobooths and naff refreshments machines; whatever it takes to get extra money out of the visitors, I guess.

On the west walkway there's so much to see, familiar and yet not from this height or angle: the City Hall 'Armadillo' and the Shard,

the skyline along to St Paul's and beyond

with zoom shots of Wren's dome

and the Monument, which is higher but still surpassed by this for interest.

And of course, at the end of the walkway, there's the splendid Tower below

with a view of Traitor's Gate that's very unfamiliar

and Billingsgate Fish Market a bit further along.

I descended by the steps until I had to take a lift.

Having had my curiosity piqued by the electric machinery for the bascules which replaced the original in 1976,

I wanted to see the original hydraulic works by Armstrong-Mitchell Ltd, and was very kindly 'connected' to the last stop by another incredibly friendly attendant. I asked him if the employees had been offered a special showing of the Bascular spectacular. They hadn't; I wrote to the management to ask if that could be arranged, but never got a reply. Anyway, the glistening, repainted machinery is all worth seeing just from the aesthetic point of view. As I have no knowledge of what was pumping and turning for what (or would have been, were it still in use), I'll leave it at a parade of images.

It was one of those February days which give promise of spring, and of course the sunset was spectacular as I cycled homewards over Westminster Bridge*

with a Chinese wedding on the other side of the road.

The tourist closest to the bride has the staggered look of the bedraggled lady at the New York socialites arriving at the Met in one of Weegee's most famous images.

I decided to leave the cycle path in Hyde Park and walk with my bike along the Serpentine

where swan activity was strong, but peaceable

and a solitary Crested Grebe's head caught the last of the sun.

At times like this I enjoy both being a tourist and taking a proprietary pride in my inexhaustible city.

*23/03 Coincidental that I posted this a day before the attack. The last words above hold true more than ever.