Monday 31 August 2020

Damant's last stand

Regular readers (if such there be) will have noted the regular clashes, joshes and occasional agreements I've had in the comments section with the chap I often call Sir David. 'Damant,' as he always announced himself when he phoned up ('Damant here - now, dear boy...') was found at home in Stamford, dead of a heart attack at 83. For such a bon viveur, he made a remarkably good innings, and one can't imagine him fading away slowly, so it was in a way good for him. A shock to those of us, though, who held him as a very dear friend: maddening, provocative, with the carapace of a Tory but the soul of the best kind of liberal, robustly gay, above all incredibly kind. He never spoke ill of people, taking as his motto 'all God's chillun got wings'. He could bang on about the same thing over and over again, as he often did in the comments here, and then come out with something fresh and thoughtful.

There aren't enough pictures of him, so I limit myself to a shot up top taken at the Sussex home of our mutual friends Eben and Themy Hamilton (J, my partner, has, on request, had to be excised), and one more of him at one of the 12 Star Gallery events, in company with the splendid Andrew Logan.

It's not my intention to provide any kind of obit here, but I must reproduce a discovery which made us laugh through tears, since it came to life, as it were, some weeks after his death when J was searching through references and tributes. We'd known nothing about it, but it's so absolutely characteristic. I take the liberty of reproducing from the Stamford Mercury of 31 July.

Classical music fan denied permission to broadcast songs from St Michael's Churchyard in Stamford 

By Steve Cresswell

A classical music fan is the latest to be refused permission to put on entertainment in a Stamford graveyard.

David Damant, 83, was hoping to play videos of classical music through a television and speakers in St Michael's Churchyard to enrich the High Street shopping experience. 

But members of Stamford Town Council voted by majority to deny the request during a meeting on Tuesday (29 July).

St Michael's Churchyard in Stamford 

They stressed the area was meant for 'quiet contmeplation' while also raising concerns about crowds and social distancing.

Coun Elaine Hoope (Ind) added: 'We should also have respect for the people buried there.' ...

Mr Damant said he was relatively new to the town and was not aware the churchyard was meant to be an oasis of calm.

He said: 'As I am a new boy in Stamford - only three years - I have not been aware of the ins and outs of this splendid town.

'Obviously if that space next to St Michael's Church is for quiet contemplation it would hardly be suitable for me to have the Queen of the Night exclaiming away!'

A former key player in the world of international finance and accounting, his place was to show 21 videos while delivering the occasional commentary. Artists included the late Vera Lynn, the 'Forces Sweetheart,' who passed away in June.

'My aim was to have a jolly really,' said Mr Damant, who lives at Torkington Gardens. 'I'm always thinking of things to amuse me.

'I also think that everyone should be passionate about classical music. Composers like Mozart and Bach are like Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Rembrands - the greatest achievements of the human race.'

Asked if he was disappointed by the council's decision, Mr Damant replied: 'My dear boy, I don't have emotions about these things. I'm a stoic and rather detached.'

With the situation in Spain and Manchester, he said he had decided to put the plan on hold until the right time. At that point he may apply to 'perform' on the High Street.

'I won't do it until we are in a position to have an outdoor crowd,' he said. 'Who knows when that might be though. It's all quite a nuisance'. 

Who knows when we will be able to hold a 'jolly' at his beloved Garrick Club? Without a doubt it must include some of those top artists who always enjoyed performing for him, including Sue Bullock, Jean Rigby, Iestyn Davies and Robert Hayward. His idea of the absolute zenith of music-drama was the scene where Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore. That will be a cornerstone. Otherwise, still no news on a service of any kind. I'll keep you posted. UPDATE: See Father Andrew Hammond's comment below with details of a Thursday service online. FOOTNOTE: I just revisited this post about on Brexit, the EU and disinformation and found one of Sir David's most sagacious comments below.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Return to the Walled Garden of Eden

Fulham Palace's splendid grounds, encased by Bishop's Park, themselves enfold a treasure of reconstruction, the walled garden dating from the mid-18th century and incorporating a Tudor wall with gateway. The whole enclosure was shut down not long after Kew Gardens during quarantine, and reopened a while after Kew.  I went there at the first opportunity, on 3 July. First sight once past the main gate - hollyhocks near the Tudor facade of the palace,

and then the gingko just to the right of the Tudor gateway, with the tower of All Saints' Fulham visible beyond the south wall. 

I've already written extensively on rediscovering this paradise years after it had fallen into rack and ruin, with photos to match, but no harm in an update. It's always been free of charge, but now volunteers sit near the gateway collecting £2 donations. I joined the Friends on the spot, since the place has given me so much delight already (and I did volunteer to garden an afternoon a week, but they already have more folk than they need). The project, splendidly overseen by head gardener Lucy Hart, is evolving; last week I saw for the first time her work on bringing back some of the plants from the Americas which Bishop Compton had introduced, before his successor dug them up in favour of produce (as she shows, it's now possible to have both). Lovely as the fringe of dahlias following the wall certainly was, the turning of the north-east wall, or at least half of it, into a proper herbaceous border is very welcome, 

and who doesn't love a  giant echium?

The bees from the nearby hives

certainly do, and quite a few peacock butterflies were landing on Verbena bonariensis

or settling on the wall (at this small size, you can just make one out to the right of the hollyhock).

The time of the 100-year-old-plus wisteria's main blossoming was past, but it was still putting out a few flowers.

We're now heading to a time of mellow fruitfulness, and pears were already promising.

Still, on that first visit the keenly-anticipated cart with produce from the vegetable gardens was not on display. It has been more recently, and I'll end with the second of four visits. Meanwhile, other favourite haunts of the lockdown time occasionally yielded what Fulham Palace did not. Delphiniums, for example, in Regent's Park, where we met our friend Isabel in the Rose Garden for afternoon tea two days later.

The grand formality of the walks on the eastern side of the parks was at ite best, too.

I walked my bike this way in search of a repair shop on or just off Great Portland Street. The options I'd hoped for were closed, but - oh, wonder - an Evans store provided the solution, very unexpectedly at 4.30pm on a Sunday afternoon. All very well ordered, too, a sign of reassurance that if our government couldn't organise anything, individual stores could, and have. 

Order was eventually restored in a strange spectacle below the beautiful bridge of Chiswick House Gardens. In a previous post, I charted the moorhen's motherhood saga. Looking down on the nest, I was perplexed to see a mallard with her two chicks on the next. So what was that behind her?

Turned out to be a growing moorhen child. Five minutes later, there was a divebombing, almighty birdshrieks, and the duck was off with her fledglings to the safety of the bank. So the usurpation was very short-lived.

Bird life in the back yard was at this time centred on the weeping mulberry and its abundant fruits. The blackbird family had disappeared for a while, and of course has now gone off to moult somewhere, but I was alerted by some very peculiar squawking, and saw Junior in the transitional phase from speckled brown to black (tailfeathers first). He's larger than dad. I just missed the moment where dad popped a mulberry into his big boy's maw.

Hadn't had sight nor sound of the dunnock for some time either, until I saw a group of four. This is presumably alpha male aloft the blackberry.

Ring-necked parakeets are now everywhere along the Thames - as well as in neighbouring squares but not our own central gardens - but I've not seen them doing the lovebirds act until I cycled back to Battersea Park on 28 July.

I had three ports of call, including the Children's Zoo, where you can see ring-tailed lemur activity from outside the gate,

and the garden run by Thrive, the therapeutic charity, excellent for tips on bee-friendly plants. Eryngia are perfect, offsetting with their startling blue the yellow both of other flowers in the general colour-scheme

and of the insects which love them. Can anyone identify this one?

There's another good eryngia display in Holland Park, in those endlessly well-tended and changed beds around the pond where a heron loves to preen on the central fountain.

Here's one (heron) in flight near Hammersmith Bridge.

The third resource within Battersea Park has only just reopened - the English Garden with its perfect waterlilies

and artichoke flowers, another delight for bees.

A clump is the remaining glory of the rose garden in front of Chiswick House's camellia conservatory.

And so back on 30 July, via Fulham Palace, looking good after work on its brick facade, 

to the Walled Garden, where on a blazing sunny day fruit and vegetable sales were in full swing. Such swift changes even in a couple of weeks.

The herbaceous border was flourishing still more

and gladioli were in full swing around the borders of the vegetable beds.

Dame Edna's favourites make a fine addition to the bunches of flowers on sale, or did for the short time of their flourishing. Here's a display with other trophies - a range of tomatoes from the glass houses, each variety with its own distinct flavour, beans and beetroots.

Friday 14 August 2020

More on Thomas Cromwell

Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, resplendent conclusion to the Wolf Hall trilogy, was the perfect long, slow read during the early days of lockdown, requiring absolute concentration but never in a bad way. Turning to Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cromwell: A Life meant an even slower read which took so much longer than I'd anticipated. Unversed in reading detailed, heavily footnoted historical biographies - even though I've written the first volume of a musical one myself - I'd usually manage a few pages at bedtime before falling asleep. 

So months passed, I eventually started skim-reading the more earthbound pages dealing with parliamentary bills, and of course it all livened up again towards the end. None of the earlier tedium is MacCulloch's fault, since his style is clear and often lively, not without wit. It's just that as an historian, he has to justify the fruits of his research. And no doubt many of Cromwell's bureaucratic duties were dull. Where MacCulloch excels is in underlining his role in the Reformation, the far-reaching effects of his careful leaguing with what is called here the 'Evangelical' cause (previously a perjorative term in my books). And the surreal co-existence of sober normality with the hideous consequences of religious differences is even more marked here than in Mantel's novels. MacCulloch also throws into sharper relief the greed of Cromwell and the nobility which he eventually joined for acquiring estates, a primary factor in the Dissolution of the Monasteries - the overall complexity of which is well covered, too - and the sheer nepotism exemplified by teenage son Gregory's elevation (what was that sexual indiscretion which had to be hushed up, shortly before Cromwell's demise?)

Even if you don't feel the need to acquire this 'life' to amplify Mantel's novels of genius, the final chapter, 'Futures', is essential reading. It underlines the endless capriciousness of Henry VIII, how in a matter of months he might have pardoned his Lord Privy Seal. Certainly, despite a spate of other immediate executions, the reactionary coup which saw Cromwell's demise did not mean an end to the fantastical balancing act of evangelicals and traditionalists. Nor was the family disgraced, as Anne Boleyn's had been; Gregory became a Baron, and others in Cromwell's retinue did well - was this a result of the king's guilty conscience? Most fascinating as a tale of survival is the (eventually) twice-widowed Elizabeth Seymour, an Ughtred, then a Cromwell, and finally Paulet: a biography of how she kept her wits about her over decades would surely make a good read. I should only add that MacCulloch's biography is a joy to handle and beautifully illustrated.

Though I moved a little faster through the last one hundred pages, I felt released from captivity when I could finally turn to the proof of Elena Ferrante's latest, due to be published in its English translation in September as The Lying Life of Adults. My lips are not so far sealed that I can't declare it as much a masterpiece as its predecessors (and anyway, it's been around in Italian for some time, though my reading abilities would not have been up to that, to say the least). Then it was on to Alberto Moravia, having discovered the equally great writer to whom he was married for 20 years, Elsa Morante, through Ferrante, and The Conformist.  

What a compelling style, in Angus Davidson's English translation, ruthless in its uncovering of self-deception and the character-study of a repressed melancholic - ill, as an observant antagonist observes, with the symptom of austerity, who seems incapable of entirely getting to the truth of what he was and is. The curious mix of solid reality and almost surreal flights of plot development creates a unique type of dream-novel. Marcello, so desperate to seem conventional following a traumatic childhood encounter with a pedophile who may have detected his own sexual longings, yet psychologically unsuited to his role as Fascist functionary ('he was quite aware that, amongst the many possible standards of behaviour, he had not chosen the Christian standard which forbids man to kill, but another, entirely different one, political and of recent introduction, which had no objection to bloodshed').

You can't hate the protagonist; you're fascinated, horrified at times but spellbound, and that's part of the page-turner quality in which Moravia excels. I haven't seen the Bertolucci film, but I'm grateful for its existence, which would probably not have come into being for English-speaking readers without the long out-of-print Prion Film Ink series in which this translation was included.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Zooming from Kamarinskaya to The Firebird*

*Prefatory update (28/9) - having thrashed out new plans for a seven-week term between this and the Soviet music course, I've shunted The Firebird to the start of the 1900-17 sessions. So it's strictly From Glinka to Rachmaninov now. See revised schedule below.
So my last non-operatic Zoom class has run the symphonic gamut from Haydn to Adams, and I'm very proud of what we achieved - not least the participation of spectacular special guests each week, which waxed as lockdown dragged on. Just for the record, we had Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page on Haydn, Mark Wigglesworth and Jonathan again on Beethoven 3, Nick Collon on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Catherine Larsen-Maguire on Schumann 2, Brahms 1 and Adams' Harmonielehre (and much more from her as regular visitor to the other classes), Vladimir Jurowski on Brahms 4 and Tchaikovsky 6, Paavo Järvi on Mahler 3, Vasily Petrenko on Mahler 9 and Elgar 2, Kristiina Poska and Andres Kaljuste on Sibelius 5, Andres again on Nielsen 5, Mark Elder on Vaughan Williams 6, Elizabeth Wilson and Peter Manning on Shostakovich 15.  Friend and sometime student Juliette made an artist's impression of the Brahms/Tchaikovsky class; probably wasn't paying full attention but I'm amused to see this. 'Vlad' is in the centre of the bottom row (!) Click to enlarge if you really want to see the grisly details - and if you were there and on the second 'page', think yourself lucky to have escaped.

In that ripe time, Madama Butterfly on the Opera Course was also enriched by three major exponents joining us for three full two-hour sessions: Ermonela Jaho, Antonio Pappano and Mark Elder. A glorious complement indeed to Susan Bullock's presence throughout our Elektra classes.

Opera in Depth will resume with ten Monday afternoons on Götterdämmerung, starting late September and concluding our three-year survey of Wagner's Ring (any excuse to feature another of Anselm Kiefer's majestic apocalyptic visions from one of two White Cube exhibitions which knocked me for six, pictured below). It will remain on Zoom, as though Pushkin House is re-opening on a limited basis, I doubt if many students will want to return. I'm nearly halfway through Siegfried for the Wagner Society of Scotland, regretful at not returning to the woods of Gartmore this year; in September 2021 we'll probably embark on Tristan und Isolde.

At the same time I didn't want to disappoint the enthusiasm of the surprisingly big following for the symphony course - plus of course I need to be employed during this difficult summer, and I'm lucky that it can be on something I love - so this coming Thursday afternoon (6 August) I'll undertake a survey of Russian music from Glinka's Kamarinskaya to Stravinsky's The Firebird. If that's successful, we'll press on to the Soviet era in a second course.

For the outline, I only have to repeat what I wrote before beginning the symphony course.Below are the plans for all 10 classes, just so that I have them in something I can link to rather than just on an attachment. Message me if you'd like to join for all or some: it's a bargain (I halved the usual fees because I don't have room hire expenses and Zoom is, after all, not live with great equipment to hand, so it's £10 a class, ie £5 an hour. We meet on Thursday afternoons (exact time to be confirmed - one student suggested we start at 2.30pm rather than 3.30) tomorrow, 3.30-5.50pm. and if anyone misses a class or has connection/sound issues their end, I can send on a recording of the whole thing. Send me a message with your email and I won't publish it, but I'll be sure to get back to you.

Special guests TBC (though there will be fewer of them than during strict quarantine time...). Pictured up top: Glinka by Repin (detail), The Firebird by Bakst. The three illustrations below are by the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, starting with the scene where Pushkin's Ruslan meets the giant head.

1: Glinka: Russian acorns  6 August
The indisputable father of distinctively Russian music, his operatic predecessors and his two major works for the stage: the nationalist-history opera A Life for the Tsar and the fairy-tale opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, the first of many to be based on a work by Alexander Pushkin.

2: To 'the Five' and beyond 1: national style  13 August
Glinka again kicked off with his short orchestral fantasia on two folksongs Kamarinskaya. It had, as Tchaikovsky noted, a huge impact on all Russian composers, not least those whom Balakirev briefly gathered round him to take up the legacy of a truly Russian style - Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Musorgsky and Cesar Cui.

3: To 'the Five' and beyond 2: the influence of the east  20 August
Composers, like poets, travelled far and wide, especially around the fringes of the Russian Empire, and absorbed Persian and eastern music into a new 'exotic' style. Again, Glinka paved the way with the dances at Chernomor's fantasy eastern castle in Ruslan and Lyudmila.

4: 'The intonations of native speech': a new kind of opera  27 August
Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, based on Pushkin's original take on the Don Juan legend, pointed a way forward in the speech-melodic setting of verse. Musorgsky took it one step forward in the prose scene of Boris Godunov and his unfinished Gogol opera The Marriage.

5: The symphony: from Rubinstein to Tchaikovsky  10 September
Was there an element of anti-Semitism in Balakirev and co's rejection of symphonies by Anton Rubinstein? At any rate. the great achievements in the form did not come until the Second Symphony of Borodin and Tchaikovsky's experimentation with form.

6: Characterisation and style, opera and piano music 1 3 September
More on Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, aligned with his piano epic Pictures at an Exhibition. Pianist Samson Tsoy takes us through the piano work, with a later contribution from Pavel Kolesnikov.

7: The great Tchaikovsky ballets  17 September
Inspired by Delibes, Tchaikovsky took the art of piquant orchestration and original melody to supreme heights in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.
8: Characterisation and style, opera and piano music 2  24 September
Tchaikovsky's characteristic romants style in Eugene Onegin, the songs and his piano cycle The Seasons. Pavel Kolesnikov joins us again to talk about Tchaikovsky's piano writing.

9: New paths in chamber music   1 October
The formation of chamber music circles and the advent of a supremely gifted composer in the form, Sergey Taneyev, brought big steps forward from the 1890s onwards.

10: Tchaikovsky's natural successor   8 October
Rachmaninov made his mark on the world of Russian music as a teenager with his C sharp minor Prelude and the one-act opera Aleko. We look at his specifically Russian works for both piano and orchestra. With special guest Kirill Gerstein.

UPDATE: latest thoughts are to carry The Firebird over to the first of seven classes starting at the end of October, dealing with Russian music in the seven years leading up to the Revolution. So one class apiece on The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, looking around and across at other related works, one on Rachmaninov's Vespers in the context of the Orthodox musical revival, the next on his Choral Symphony The Bells, a class on Scriabin and a last session on developments up to 1917, including the music of the young Prokofiev.