Sunday 28 March 2021

Heavenly conversations in a year of Zoom classes

Ian Page, inspirational founder of what was originally Classical Opera and now goes by the collective vocal/orchestral heading of The Mozartists, wondered if his e-mail comment wouldn't look a bit pretentious out of context when I asked him if I might quote it. I'll still do so because it expressed what I've felt about those especially magical Zoom classes where musicians who haven't seen each other for some time - or even decades - find themselves together in the class and start conversing. Ian was referring to meetings with that wonderful mezzo Jean Rigby and her husband, the director Jamie Hayes, whom he hadn't seen for a quarter of a century, then with Mark Wigglesworth and Linda Esther Gray in the last Fidelio class, and added 'I've never been a particularly religious person, but it was almost like a vision of the afterlife, being able to chat about music with loved and respected friends and colleagues in a haven of timelessness!' Above, Mark (second from the right in the bottom row) is making us laugh. Ian is at the right next row up, Linda is on the left on the row above that and of course that's me second from left at the top (click if you want a bigger image).

The other three-way (four if you count myself as interlocutor) 'heavenly conversation' that brought us so much joy was between director Richard Jones and Wagnerian sopranos Sue Bullock and Dame Anne Evans. It was originally supposed to be spotlight on Richard, to talk about Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, but Sue and Anne had said they wanted to come along to see him. Sue was ready to speak, Anne had been wondering whether Zoom was for her and had asked to be a silent observer, but the other two shouted 'C'mon, Annie', so she did - and was still there at the very end as we were still shaking from emotion at her performance in Kupfer's Bayreuth Act 2. You can get a sense of the fun that was had from the below screen shot (Richard top left, Anne with a bit of husband and distinguished writer John Lucas top right, Sue centre of the second row).

So many connections made with the great and good in what now amounts to nearly a year of Zoom classes, starting out of pure necessity, have been serendipitous and charmed. I asked Ian to the Fidelio/Leonore classes because he's just released two superb CDs of 'Sturm und Drang' music familiar and obscure, and I wanted him to comment on Pizarro's raging. He then said that he'd been thinking the night before about scores he really wanted to conduct, which he was thinking about studying with a view to that, and Fidelio was at the forefront. So he came for the next four sessions. Similarly a New Best Friend made as a result of all this, the conductor (and top bassoonist) Catherine Larsen Maguire, based in Berlin, was recommended for my fourth class on the symphony, to talk about Schumann 2 and Brahms 1, and has been with us, on and off, ever since. Sometimes one of her cats, Lily, makes an appearance, though I confess the golden shot below isn't from one of our encounters.

It seems hard to believe that coming up to a year ago, I was grappling with the implications of taking my Opera in Depth class on to Zoom (we managed to reach the top of the mountain with Siegfried at Pushkin House on 9 March 2020). I was surprised and impressed by the number of students, especially the senior members, willing to give the format a try. The first class was bedevilled by poor sound quality for the excerpts, but I got some help before the second in finding how to do it perfectly. YouTube and DVD clips fell into place at a later date. The symphony course got more takers than I'd expected - after my 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' course at Morley college ended because the BBC doesn't support private classes, it had been difficult to drum up numbers for orchestral music. I'm eternally grateful to Dale Bilsland of the Wagner Society of Scotland for suggesting that, since the usual Gartmore House Ring adventure was out of the question in September, I should repeat Siegfried on Zoom. Many of the new visitors not only joined me for Götterdämmerung but have also signed up for other operas and the Russian music course which will enter its fourth term in mid-April. so we've been hitting the 60-students mark. A special debt of thanks to Kirk Davis of Southern California, who rises at 6am to join us at 2.30pm UK time: a born giver.

And so we've reached the Easter break, going out on a high with the second of my extra classes on Prokofiev's War and Peace, which ran to three hours and 40 minutes thanks to the unstinting and ceaselessly fascinating presence of Graham Vick (now a 'Sir', knighted in January) who stayed with us as I ran scenes from his 2014 Mariinsky production. He'd also been responsible for the 1991 Kirov experiment, again with Gergiev, and so was a witness to history - the new adventure beginning in the 1990s, which I also witnessed on my first visits to Leningrad as it transitioned back to St Petersburg, the shutdown well under way by 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea and an amazingly radical production had to jump through all sorts of hoops to reach the stage (I'm still surprised it did). Graham told us, among other things, that the manager of the Louis Vuitton shop below where he was staying told him that their prices were higher than any other store in the world. The Russian kleptocrats expected to pay more. Needless to see, this found its way into the 'Frenchified', corrupt world of Helene and Anatol. What I hadn't realised was that the 'retreat from Moscow' was supposed to represent the exit of western values in 2014.

It looks like boasting, but actually the below list is just a record for my own benefit of the astonishing number of visits we had from musical stars. All were happy to feel part of something at a time when isolation was the norm.

The Symphony

Class 1: Haydn with Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page

Class 2: Mozart's 'Jupiter' and Beethoven's ‘Eroica’ with Mark Wigglesworth and Jonathan Bloxham

Class 3: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with Nicholas Collon

Class 4: Schumann's Second and Brahms's First with Catherine Larsen-Maguire

Class 5: Brahms's Fourth and Tchaikovsky's ‘Pathetique’ with Vladimir Jurowski

Class 6: Mahler's Third with Paavo Järvi

Class 7: Mahler's Ninth and Elgar's Second with Vasily Petrenko

Class 8: Sibelius's Fifth and Nielsen's Fifth with Kristiina Poska and Andres Kaljuste

Class 9: Martinů's Third, Prokofiev's Sixth and Vaughan Williams's Sixth with Mark Elder

Class 10: Shostakovich's Fifteenth with Elizabeth Wilson and Peter Manning

Class 11: Adams's Harmonielehre with Catherine Larsen-Maguire

Russian Music 1: Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Samson Tsoy; Tchaikovsky piano music with Pavel Kolesnikov

Russian Music 2: Stravinsky’s Petrushka with Gergely Madaras; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with Andrew Litton; Scriabin with Alexander Melnikov and Peter Jablonski (Peter was driving to a recording session at the time but made a beautifully produced short film from his home in Sweden).

Russian Music 3: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with Elizabeth Wilson; Prokofiev ‘War Sonatas’ and Shostakovich Second Piano Trio with Steven Osborne and Boris Giltburg; Prokofiev’s violin sonatas with Alina Ibragimova and Benjamin Baker.

Opera in Depth Summer term: Strauss’s Elektra with regular commentary from Susan Bullock, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with three separate visits from Ermonela Jaho, Antonio Pappano and Mark Elder

Wagner’s Siegfried (Wagner Society of Scotland) with John Tomlinson

Opera in Depth Autumn term: Wagner's Götterdämmerung with Susan Bullock and Richard Berkeley-Steele, John Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Richard Jones

Opera in Depth Spring term: Beethoven's Fidelio/Leonore with Elizabeth Watts, Jay Hunter Morris, Ian Page, Linda Esther Gray and Mark Wigglesworth

Prokofiev's War and Peace, two extra classes: Graham Vick

These wonderful people have all come along for the love of music. I do like to send them various thanks, preferably books. My good Estonian friend Kaupo Kikkas could be called upon to supply the book of his Ansel exhibition to three contributors I knew would appreciate it. I won't mention the third yet because it needs to be a surprise, but the first two delighted recipients were Jay Hunter Morris, mighty Met Siegfried, whose YouTube film of the amazing Souper Jenny Kindness Tour he undertook with wife, son and friends around America showed me they'd visited the big natural wonders, and Boris Giltburg, who's a talented photographer as well as a great pianist. Kaupo sent me shots of the notes and dedication - this one to JMo.

And now, time to gather forces again, and enjoy what looks like it might be a rather clement Easter break. We return on 19 April to begin the summer term of Opera in Depth with Britten's Albert Herring and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (coinciding with a new production at the Royal Opera: director Richard Jones and conductor Mark Wigglesworth have promised to visit us - hopefully together). Russian Music 4 begins with the shadow of the Zhdanov trials of 1948 on 22 April. If you'd like to join, drop me a message here with your email; I won't publish it but I shall respond.

Monday 22 March 2021

First blossoms

Getting ahead of myself now in the photochronicles of Covid-year nature; I'll need to go back and report on the blissful Fridays of 2021 so far when friend Cally and I cycled to Kew Gardens and back, drinking hot soup on various benches in temperatures as low as -2. That alone would not cover the more recent observations of flowerings elsewhere, not least in my favourite of all these west London havens, the Walled Garden of Fulham Palace. For me, loveliest of trees to date - apart from the Kew magnolias, slowly coming into full flower - is the plum which yields so much fruit among the beds which will eventually flourish That's the tower of All Saints Fulham beyond in the above picture, a seemingly rural scene. The scent is heavenly; the bees love the flowers. 

Along the north wall nearby, there's a spaliered almond tree 

and here, even a few weeks back, the bumblebees were at work.

Magnolia by the Tudor gate into the garden finally budding,

though the more spectacular specimens will have to wait for the Kew Gardens entry. I always wait for the magnolia stellata in a front garden on the nearby street to put forth its white flowers, which it had begun to do in profusion by 9 March.

There's also a good 'un in the Margravine Cemetery

but the non-Kew glory has to belong to the Chelsea Physic Garden, poplar-like in its uprightness.

Still not a great deal to be seen in CPG, though on our first visit of the year, dwarf irises in pots around the statue of Sir Hans Sloane were putting on a vivid show

and a lone grown-up in a bed near the beehives, Iris unguicularis (Algerian variety).

I've never paid much attention to hellebores below, but since being advised to pick up the drooping flowers, marvel at the markings on the flowers,

and I love them all the more knowing they're attractive to bees, out and about in CPG on 21 February.

Also in CPG, the last of the snowdrops on which the place prides itself - more for the variety than the abundance.

First blossoms I saw were on a visit to the Physic Garden on 23 February - the tree that stands in front of the big house on Swan Walk

amd a handsome Cornus mas further down the street.

Crocuses have a long life, and again the variety is something to wonder at. There are clumps among the daffodils in the walk to the side of Chiswick House Gardens

and plenty in Old Brompton Cemetery, to make up for the lack of blossom,

 while grape hyacinths now flourish

and those exquisite small blue flowers known, I think, as Chinodoxa.

First true carpet of daffodils I noticed also at Brompton Cemetery,

though they're now everywhere, and especially lovely in the green between the Walled Garden and All Saints Church.

This Friday should have been another Kew cycle, on a very bright and sunny day, but Cal had booked for the following week. No matter; we crossed to the Eyot in the middle of the Thames at low tide

to walk its length

and reeded shore

while taking in views across to the houses of Chiswick Mall

before cycling on past the Eyot beach 

and the grand house on the Mall with the big magnolia in full spate

to Chiswick House for soup on a bench in full sun and accompanied by thrashing bird activity on the long water below, before walking around the lake

and then cycling on to cross Barnes Bridge and take a walk around the Leg of Mutton, which will figure in an earlier Friday spotlight - an old reservoir, now a nature reserve, the existence of which between the river path and the main road to/from Barnes I hadn't know about until recently. Blackthorn blossom was the punctuating glory here

and there was something magical about looking from one, across the reeds, to another on the opposite side, seemingly a cloud just landed.

Normal service to Kew to be resumed next week. Meanwhile, I was immensely cheered to catch first sight of one of the blackbirds who usually hang about the back yard in the warmer months, on the very first day of spring. Looks like a young male just becoming an adult (a bit of speckliness remains on the breast).

Saturday 20 March 2021

LinkedIn fails to act

I've never signed up to Facebook or Twitter. But I did start posting and commenting on LinkedIn some years back, chiefly because I was hoping to read a single concrete reason from a Brexiter about why leaving the EU might be a good thing. I never found one. A few folk were civil enough in their delusions, but the majority turned abusive/ad hominem after a comment of two.

Certainly I've met some fine people on LI, and also used it as a shop window for my work. Now I'm stepping back simply because the system of reporting outrageous violations of the site's code of conduct isn't working. Nine times out of ten, you get the response below. This is, more or less verbatim, what I last posted there.

I reported what is obviously a deeply offensive racist comment about David Lammy's latest strong speech in the Commons (the Labour MP pictured above) by one Allan Lines: 'He needs to shut his big mouth Not even english' (sic).

LinkedIn's response:

'We’ve reviewed your report

'Here’s what happened

'Our Trust & Safety Team reviewed your report thoroughly and found this comment did not go against our Professional Community Policies.'
The same reply was given to complaints about obviously outrageous comments by climate change deniers - ie, this one from one Dragan Segedin: 'If there are climate changes - if they exist they are not because of people. So, please calm down. Changes on this planet are part of solar behavior.'  Likewise with anti-vaxxers and anti-mask-wearers.

My post is currently heading towards 9,000 views, with at least a dozen regulars telling me they also reported the comment and got the same reply. I tried addressing
LinkedIn Help; it offfered to look at the comment again, asked me various questions about my ID and the poster's, but after three days, nothing.
It's time to go. I'll pop in to check if there are any messages on the private part of the site, but that's it for the foreseeable future. Social media seems incapable of setting its house in order.

Monday 1 March 2021

The Terror novel

None could be more authentic than Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev; he lived through the earlier waves of eliminations and was imprisoned/exiled himself before French connections got him released in 1936, of all years. But a great chronicler of his times - chiefly in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, through which I introduced my first acquaintance with this literary giant and attempted to provide a potted biography - might not be guaranteed to be a great imaginative novelist. Serge undoubedly is, and in her introduction to this New York Review of Books edition (thanks to the imprint for so many discoveries), Susan Sontag explains why, in a series of questions followed by eloquently argued sentences, Serge has missed the 'master' status he deserves. Born in Belgium of Russian anti-Tsarists in exile, 'no country can fully claim him', and no 'national literature' either; he was hyperproductive, and people are suspicious of that; 'most of what he wrote does not belong to literature', and what does has been 'politicised' as a 'moral achievement'; his life was full of dualities; an embattled revolutionary to the last, he 'refused to take on the expected cargo of melancholy'.

Indeed - necessarily dark, even black as hell, as The Case of Comrade Tulayev undoubtedly is, it's constantly lit up by a cosmic perspective. The very first chapter echoes War and Peace with the title 'comets are born at night'; three members of the old guard meet in a snowy wood outside Moscow, knowing that they won't see each other again and so alive to the strange beauty around them; and in the most amazing chapter, for me, of all, 'the brink of nothing', the only one of the fall-guys to meet a triumphant fate of sorts (it is not survival) is seen at one with his overseer among a small population of Ostiaks and Old Believers at what is constantly depicted as the end of the world. He transcends fear and sees that one of his persecutors will become one of the next victims. This is prose of the highest, most poetic order, in Willard R Trask's translation from the French.

The structure of the novel is an original polyphony of voices. It both is and isn't about the fallout from the random assassination of Kirov in 1934; the height of the Terror, which fell three years later, is past and we start in 1939, end on the brink of the German invasion. Scapegoats from the not-yet-wiped-out first and second wave of revolutionaries must be wiped out. their individual fates are taken in turn. Stalin appears throught as 'the Chief'.

All the major figures are political ones, so the sweep of the Terror isn't the subject of the book. I thought it coincided well enough, though, with the near-misses that Shostakovich and Prokofiev had in the second half of the 1930s, so I urged the students on the third of my Russian music Zoom terms to read both the autobiography and the novel. We were so privileged that Elizabeth Wilson, author of the best book on Shostakovich, joined us for the class dealing with the formation of the Association of Soviet Musicians in 1932 and the Pravda attack on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, with the opera and the Fourth Symphony as the main musical focuses. I like to think that Liza and I are good friends now, so the exchanges were relaxed, but she is rigorous with the facts and shed some new light on the interrogation of Shostakovich which is the main subject of Julian Barnes's The Music of Time, on which she advised. That's Liza top far right in the screenshot below. I've lopped off the bottom of the screen because it had the time bar over the five folk there, and there are more on two other screens who only feature when they pop up to ask a question or make an observation.

Term is coming to an end with the music of the war years this coming Thursday, and the bleak time between 1948 and 1953 in the last class. For the Opera in Depth classes, we've gone from the heights of Fidelio/Leonore - and a marvellous finale which featured Linda Esther Gray, Mark Wigglesworth and Ian Page - to the depraved depths of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel (three more classes left). Then I want to offer a double one-off, as it were, with two classes on Prokofiev's War and Peace on Thursdays 18 and 25 March, 2.30pm-4.30pm UK time: anyone interested, just leave a message here with your email and I won't publish it, but I'll reply.