Inter alia

Aug. 20th, 2017 04:46 pm
qatsi: (sewell)
I had a short-list for filling time in the afternoons prior to the Proms, quite literally for a rainy day. The forecast for Thursday wasn't good though it turned out fine in the end. The Bank of England Museum is only open during the week, so I haven't generally had the opportunity to visit it, but it's not far from work. I generally avoided the interactive exhibits, though from what I could hear, there weren't many budding economists among the younger visitors trying them out. Nonetheless the story of the Bank is well laid out with some interesting prints and artefacts, and I did try out lifting and holding the carefully monitored gold bar (value somewhere around £400,000) - as well as the novelty value, it makes the point that at 13kg it can't simply be thrown around the way it often has been in crime films.

Conversely, Friday's forecast kept changing and in the end it was a wise move to spend time indoors, so I headed to The Queen's Gallery Canaletto exhibition. This was quite busy, but the ghost of Alan Coren can be assured that it did convey the feeling of being in Waitrose rather than Sainsbury's. There are works by a range of artists in the exhibition, which celebrates the collection purchased by George III from Joseph Smith in 1762. The highlight of the exhibition is the room containing the twelve views of the Grand Canal, Venice, as well as a series of views of Rome, but there are also pencil drawings (some of them quite rough in style, attractive but different to Canaletto's well-known style), capricci fictions, and sketches for the stage.
qatsi: (proms)
I was surprised to find myself second in the queue for Prom 42 on Wednesday for the first of a pair of concerts featuring Saint-Saëns among others. In fact, although I had expected to recognise some of the pieces without knowing them by name, it was a concert, themed around French evocations of the near and far east, of music almost all new to me. Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth began with Saint-Saëns' overture from La princesse jaune: an opera a few years earlier than The Mikado but sharing the fascination of the time for all things Japanese, though in this case the opera is more about the fascination itself, rather than being a story of Japan. Next, ballet music from Delibes' Lakmé, which I had expected to recognise at some point, but in fact it seems the suite doesn't touch upon any of the really well-known themes.

Les Siècles is a period-instrument orchestra, and for this concert they were playing on late nineteenth-century instruments. It was, therefore, appropriate that the piano wheeled on to the stage was not the usual Royal Albert Hall Steinway, but instead a late nineteenth-century Bechstein. Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist for Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian), another work I'd expected to be more familiar than it turned out. This seemed a bit of an oddity, with multiple styles; the name refers to the sections in the slow movement, but the last movement looks forward to ragtime. I hesitate to use the word "timeless", but I mean it rather literally, because overall the piece pulls in so many different directions it seems ancient and modern all at once. There was no doubting Tiberghien's skill, though; and he rounded off the first half with an encore of Debussy's prelude La Puerta del Vino.

Unusually, the piano remained on stage, as the second half began with another piano-orchestral piece, Franck's Les Djinns, which had a more conventional sound although a less conventional form. The remainder of the concert was orchestral only: more theatre music with excerpts from Lalo's Namouna, before finishing with the one piece I actually did recognise: Saint-Saëns' Bacchanal from Samson and Delilah. If you're the castanets player in the orchestra, this is your big chance. Of course it went down a storm. Conductor François-Xavier Roth insisted on a short speech, about the exploration of other cultures and the folly of building walls, and the concert concluded with one of the more unusual encores I have seen: an arrangement of Daft Punk's Get Lucky, or so the BBC Proms Twitter feed tells me.

I antipated a longer queue on Thursday, and I was right, although I still found myself in the second row for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's concert with Charles Dutoit. This time the theme was French and Spanish, beginning with Falla's El amor brujo. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d'Oustrac certainly gave an earthy cantaora voice to the songs; among the orchestral numbers was the well-known Ritual Fire Dance. Joshua Bell was the violinist for Lalo's Symphony espagnole, a concerto in all but name; another new piece for me, and well-received in the hall. Unusually, orchestra and soloist joined forces for an encore at the end of the first half: the Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet. It obviously destroys any illusion of spontaneity, but combining the available musicians in this way is a nice touch.

The second half of the concert began with a presentation of the Royal Philharmonic Society (unrelated to the orchestra) Medal to Dutoit, before moving on to Saint-Saëns' Symphony No 3 (Organ), with organist Cameron Carpenter. Unlike the Lalo, this really is more symphonic, although the organ is important when it's heard. I enjoyed the performance, although somehow the timekeeping had gone awry and the concert finished fifteen minutes late, enough for me to miss my anticipated train home (I had no plans to stay for the late night Prom).

Friday's concert was again popular: a performance of Mahler's Symphony No 2 (Resurrection). The BBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Sakari Oramo, and joined by soprano Elizabeth Watts and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, and the Bach Choir and BBC Symphony Chorus. Oramo announced that the performance would be dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former chief conductor of the orchestra who died earlier this year. Oramo was animated and demonstrative throughout. Technically, there were one or two wobbles in the early stages, but they didn't mar the drama of the first movement. I did feel, however, that the pace of the remainder of the symphony, and the final movement in particular, was on the slow side, and consequently it often lacked energy. Maybe some of that was me: I was promming for the third consecutive night, and it appears I also felt the last movement was on the slow side in 2006; however, the concert finished 10-15 minutes later than expected, so I don't think it was just me. But even so, if Mahler 9 will always be modern music, then I think Mahler 2 will always be dramatic and exciting music.
qatsi: (gatherer)
Book Review: The Wangs vs The World, by Jade Chang
I had this on my to-read list when I found it in the work book sale, but it's taken time to get round to it. I found the first few chapters a bit tricky to get into, but after that, the book flowed quite well and entertainingly. Charles Wang is a self-made millionaire who has lived the American Dream, building a cosmetics supply chain empire since buying a plane ticket from Taiwan. But it's 2008, and he has overstretched himself: giving his home as security for a hubristic loan, the inevitable has happened, and he is bankrupted. This is the story of his trip from California across America, with his second wife Barbra, to collect youngest daughter Grace from boarding school (unpaid), son Andrew from college (car repossessed), and to arrive in upstate New York to visit his eldest daughter Saina (an artist who, by virtue of her age, has received millions from her father which may - or may not - be beyond reach of his creditors). Ultimately he is seeking to reclaim land in China which he believes was owned by his prestigious ancestors prior to the Communist revolution.

The book triggers mixed feelings for the characters: they're all lovingly dysfunctional in their own ways, the children never having had to struggle for anything and the reality slowly dawning on Grace in particular. Of course things don't go according to plan, and the family are taken down acerbically, notch by notch. The number of characters gives ample opportunity to focus on one character's perspective for a few chapters, then to switch to another. Interestingly, bankers do feature in Charles Wang's back-story, but they are hardly demonised: rather, they act prudently, initially refusing the loan, only accepting it reluctantly with the additional security of property, and later, as the business began to fail, they recommended restructuring to protect his assets - all of which heightens Charles' anger, as there is no-one else to blame. As for the book's title, do the Wangs win? Of course not - but although the book draws to a clear conclusion, it also leaves scope to reopen the story in sequel or spin-off form.

Proms 101

Aug. 14th, 2017 08:40 pm
qatsi: (proms)
I knew the Proms yesterday would be popular, with an all-Rachmaninov evening concert followed by a late-night Prom of his All-Night Vigil. Even so, I was a bit surprised that, arriving around mid-day, my raffle ticket was 101.

To make best use of the intervening time, I headed off to Dulwich Picture Gallery for their Sargent exhibition. The exhibitions at Dulwich aren't blockbuster-scale, but they can get quite crowded; fortunately, although popular, there was plenty of space to move around. Indeed, I wondered whether there were more people in the restaurant and cafe, and in the park grounds, than in the gallery itself. Most of the pieces in this watercolour exhibition are from Sargent's trips to Europe: Venice in particular, but also other locations in Italy, France and Spain; there are a few pieces from the Near and Middle East, and the US as well. I found the landscapes and cityscapes more appealing than the final room on portraiture. Among my favourites were: the Spanish Fountain; The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice; Constantinople; the desecrated Gates of a Chateau, Ransart; the sultry Siena; and the ethereal San Vigilio.

I was back in good time for the concert. After an unusual hiatus to allow season ticket holders to enter at an increased rate, I still found myself about a third of the way towards the front. Occasions like this make me realise how fortunate I am when I'm further forward. But even such adversity can have advantages: stewards asked us to make way, as the concert began with a procession through the centre of the Arena by the Latvian Radio Choir with their first liturgical chant; beginning in the infinite distance beyond the entrance to the stalls, they passed through the interior of the Arena before disappearing below the stage. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Thomas Dausgaard and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk were already on stage, and launched straight into Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3, reputedly one of the most difficult in the repertoire. Gavrylyuk had the piano under control, though in profile his facial expressions veered between rabbit-in-headlights and Dr Evil. I hadn't really expected him to give an encore after that, but he produced a piano version of Vocalise.

The second half began with more chant by the choir, this time up in the gallery. Again the orchestra followed immediately with Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2. It's a piece I enjoy listening to, but I find it difficult to stand listening to; combined with a misjudgement of meal-times through the day, I found myself sitting out a few passages. There are longer symphonies, and longer symphonic movements; but I think the difficulty with this one is the lack of footholds, it's difficult sometimes to know where you are. In the circumstances I don't feel able to judge the performance, but the audience reaction confirmed it was well received. The advantage of an earlier finish - I had never intended to stay for the late-night concert - was that I was able to walk across Kensington Gardens and get an earlier train back from Paddington.
qatsi: (proms)
I made it to the rail for the first time this season, and had an excellent view of the concert. For Prom 33, the BBC Philharmonic were conducted by John Storgårds in a mixed programme, with a Nordic first half and a Germanic second half.

They began with some excerpts from Peer Gynt: At the Wedding (Prelude to Act 1), The Abduction of the Bride / Ingrid's Lament (Prelude to Act 2), Morning Mood (Prelude to Act 4), Solveig's Song and Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter. It was a bit disappointing that In the Hall of the Mountain King was missing from the set, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable performance, and soprano Lise Davidsen gave a strong voice to Solveig's Song.

Davidsen returned for the next item, Sibelius' tone-poem Luonnotar, inspired by the creation myth of the Kalevala. This strange, haunting and relatively obscure work was the piece that had prompted me to select this concert, and it was good to see it in the flesh. The first half was rounded off with more Sibelius, this time the more well-known Karelia Suite. Storgårds seemed to be dancing on the podium during part of the Intermezzo, perhaps an unusually extravagant expression for a Finn, but clearly enjoying the music of his compatriot.

Concertos typically fall into the first half of a concert programme, but the balance of timings meant that Alban Gerhardt started the second half with Schumann's Cello Concerto. Both pieces in the second half were new to me, and this seemed to be quite an intense performance during the first movement, becoming calmer and warm-hearted by the end of the third movement. It was well received, but there was no time for an encore. The final piece of the concert was Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony, another composer about which I was curious though not necessarily enthusiastic. It turned out to be at the good end of my expectations: had I been told it was by Stravinsky, Respighi, Mahler or (at a pinch) Shostakovich, I could have believed it.

Had things gone a little quicker, or if I had been thinking more clearly, I would have had a more comfortable journey home; I clearly missed the 2215 but could just have jumpted on the 2218 which had just disappeared from the departure board at Paddington, had I remembered the National Rail app told me it was departing from Platform 12. As it was, I avoided the half-empty train whose doors were just about to close and I squeezed onto the smaller, busier 2221 for Bedwyn instead, though fortunately it emptied substantially at Slough.
qatsi: (proms)
After obtaining raffle tickets for Prom 29, yesterday we adjourned to the Natural History Museum, swapping one queue for another. At least the queue on the Queen's Gate side of the NHM moved quite quickly. It's several years since I have been there, and some things have changed - notably the blue whale skeleton that has replaced "Dippy" - while others have stayed the same. Charles Darwin seemed unmoved. On the whole I felt there could have been more signs saying "Museum" and fewer saying "Shop", "Cafe" or "Restaurant".

We found ourselves in the second row of the Arena for Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky worked on this opera in the last few years of his life, and it was left incomplete; various hands have, over the years, assembled versions or fragments of it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stravinsky together, and Stokowski. On this occasion, it was Shostakovich's orchestration; an interesting choice for him to work on, given that the whole plot is one of political and religious intrigue, and that the first scene features the dictation of a denunciation to a scribe; but he did produce this version during the Khrushchev thaw, so maybe its themes were in vogue, or at least officially acceptable, at the time.

Despite the surtitles - an innovation at the Proms - it wasn't easy to follow the plot. To be fair, this is intrinsic to the story; knowing more about Russian history doubtless helps. Given Mussorgsky's original work was written during Tsarist times, I assume the Tsar is Good, and therefore the Boyars are Bad. But it's not always clear-cut, everyone claims to be reforming against the other lot, and the Priest Dosifey keeps springing up out of nowhere, always with an opinion.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov did a good job; to be honest, I only recognised a few fragments, in particular Dawn on the Moscow River from Act 4; but the tragic ending was striking and spectacular. Among a hard-working cast and chorus, I'd single out mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova (Marfa) and bass Ante Jerkunica (Ivan Khovansky) for their particularly strong voices. It was a long concert, and a late journey back, but we were relatively fortunate with the Sunday evening trains.
qatsi: (baker)
Book Review: Berlin - A Literary Guide for Travellers, by Paul Sullivan and Marcel Krueger
I picked this up last year in a work book sale. It's a fairly short tour through the districts of Berlin, blending history and architecture with literature and writing, both historical and contemporary. Unsurprisingly, the chapters I found most interesting were the areas of which I'm most familiar, either from visiting Berlin on holiday or from general history: Mitte, Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg, Wannsee, and (almost) Potsdam (at least to the Glienicke Brücke). In particular, the chapter on Mitte devotes a lot of space to the Stadtschloss, currently under reconstruction following the demolition some years ago of the DDR Palast von der Republik that occupied its space. Being honest, the chapters on the seedier areas of Berlin don't give it much appeal, but it's interesting to note the cosmopolitan nature of the city, with its former heavy industrial areas having a long history as a transit zone for migrants, from early urbanisation through to the post-war Gästarbeiter. The book covers a range of writers, a few from earlier times but mostly twentieth century, including Alfred Döblin, Christopher Isherwood, Len Deighton and John le Carré.
qatsi: (baker)
Book Review: Reality is not what it seems - The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Carlo Rovelli
This is a clever and interesting book, but if you struggled with A Brief History of Time, I don't think this book is for you. Rovelli's style is at points florid and pretentious, though this may be a feature of the translation. He first reviews the science of Ancient Greece, before proceeding through Newton and Einstein. After discussing quantum mechanics, it's on to the fundamental purpose of this book: how to resolve the approaches of general relativity and quantum mechanics in describing the universe. They are both experimentally verified to very high standards, yet are incompatible. Rovelli makes the argument (for me, not wholly convincingly) that time does not exist as a fundamental entity; like temperature, or "up" and "down", it is a property that emerges at a macroscopic layer.

There were some new discoveries for me in this book: Rovelli's explanation that spacetime is the field of gravity (rather than that the field of gravity permeates spacetime) is good, and goes beyond many popular science books which simply explain that gravity is "different" when it comes to unifying the fundamental forces. Yet, there is a missed opportunity here: the presented self-referential nature of spacetime and gravity ought to trigger the word "Gödel", but it doesn't, possibly because of a fear that would cause the end of physics, just as it might have been feared to cause the end of mathematics. One would also expect some mention of quantum entanglement, and this is also missing, although in the chapter on information the concept rears its head, unspoken, and again the opportunity is left untaken. Overall I am left with the feeling that this is a good and useful book, but that given its depth it nevertheless has some unexpected limitations.
qatsi: (dascoyne)
Book Review: The Geneva Trap, by Stella Rimington
Rounding up a backlog of reviews, I found this in the Mortimer station book swap - I was curious about the author, without any great expectations. As such it's been on my "to read" pile for a while, and I got through it in two or three days, aided by some time waiting for the Proms. This is several novels in to the series of the character Liz Carlyle, and concerns a Russian diplomat in Geneva who has information that a "Third Country" has infiltrated a top-secret US/UK encryption programme. The book is somewhere between the cerebral world of John Le Carré (with political machinations between MI5, MI6, and various international counterparts) and an action thriller (rapidly jumping between London, Geneva, Marseilles and elsewhere), which may go some way to explaining the variety of opinions I've seen on Goodreads in not entirely satisfying either of those positions. Some technical details bothered me: the lack of technical understanding among some of the managerial characters combined with their complacency is caricature, but sadly plausible. Call me old-fashioned, but if you require separation of two computer networks and you're serious about security, then you will have two physically separate networks; having only a logical separation and sharing the hardware is, well, asking for trouble. Weaving Carlyle's domestic life as a parallel strand worked quite well and gave some extra dimensions to the story. On the whole, I enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I would actively seek out other books in the series.
qatsi: (bach)
Book Review: Hallelujah Junction - Composing an American Life, by John Adams
I picked this up a while ago in a work book sale, but it sat on the shelves waiting for the right moment. I decided, with Adams' music featuring in the First Night of the Proms, that it was now time.

It makes for an interesting read. Adams traces his roots back to the dance hall Winnipesaukee Gardens, in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, where his maternal grandparents had a troubled relationship; his parents ended up in modest circumstances and his childhood was comfortable but basic. From an early age he was interested in music and played the clarinet, showing enough talent to take lessons and eventually play orchestral parts. He also liked the idea of conducting in particular. Conventional classical music training in the eastern US in the mid twentieth-century was focused very much on twelve-tone serialism, which did not much appeal to Adams, who was steeped in jazz and interested in rock and roll as much as classical music. Despite offers of further tuition, he eventually decided to spread his wings (or at least, a rickety Volkswagen camper-van) and head west.

Through the seventies Adams made a career mostly as a conductor and concert organiser; a few of his own works, such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium started to make his reputation. He goes on to describe the collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman that led to Nixon in China, which became one of his most successful works, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which has always been one of his most controversial. Later chapters in the book go into some depth, creatively and bureaucratically, as well as musically, on several works; Adams also ponders the creative process in general. He has an easy writing style, and acknowledges problematic works as well as success. The foreword to this edition notes the 2012 performance at the Proms of Nixon in China as one of his career highlights; I'm glad he thinks that, because, having been there myself, I agree.
qatsi: (sewell)
We'd known the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum would be popular and we'd booked in advance; just as well, as advance tickets have now sold out, and day tickets had also sold out when we arrived. There were long queues for the museum as a whole now that the bag search has become ubiquitous - having a pre-booked ticket allows you to fast-track through some elements of this, but it's still hassle. Sadly it's an arms race of security theatre - if one place does it, they all have to do it for fear of being left behind, a softer target. It's job creation all right, but I rather doubt these are quality jobs.

We had allowed plenty of time and wandered through the free, smaller exhibitions of British Watercolours, which was a mixed bag but had some interesting pieces by Paul Nash, his brother John Nash, Ravilious and others, and Pacific North America, marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Canada in a possibly rather awkward way, but at least acknowledging the indigenous culture.

The Hokusai exhibition itself was very busy, essentially a slow-moving queue from end to end, which didn't make for the best experience, but it was worth it to see the range of works, starting with the summoning of a dragon, proceeding through many views of Mount Fuji (including the Great Wave itself), but also flower and bird paintings, a few portraits, and two unusual aerial views of Japan and China. It was interesting to compare with Hiroshige's slightly later paintings of Mount Fuji; on the whole, Hokusai was more monochromatic, frequently using (the then novel) Prussian Blue for his main colour scheme. At the end of the exhibition there are also one or two works by his daughter; sometimes these were passed off as by Hokusia himself in order to increase their value.
qatsi: (proms)
Prom 8 - Film Music of John Williams - was always going to be popular; I believe it was one of the first concerts of the season to be a sell-out for seats. As I joined the queue I only saw a couple of people I recognised in front of me - there were another twenty or so who were "tourists". This can be good or bad; on this occasion they were fine, although one person in front did manage to blag their way in without a raffle ticket to join their two friends who did have tickets. Somehow I ended up in front of them; that's karma, I suppose.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, very much at home in this kind of music, were conducted by Keith Lockhart. Williams has contributed scores for more than 100 films, so it would not be possible to please everyone, but I think the concert captured a good cross-section of his most famous works; perhaps Schindler's List was the only obvious omission. The concert began with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and other well-known pieces in the first half were from Jaws, Superman, Harry Potter and ET. But there were other less well-known pieces, for me at least: Goodbye Mr Chips, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Terminal, War Horse, and The BFG. These showed another side to Williams away from the bombast; Jamal Aliyev's cello in Memoirs of a Geisha was very evocative, clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe and accordion player Mark Bousie hinted at klezmer and east European inspiration for The Terminal, and War Horse captured the English pastoralia and seemed to quote from The Lark Ascending.

The second half began in a more serious mood, with music from JFK, Munich and Amistad - the last of these featuring young voices from Haringey Vox and Music Centre London. Then, another mood shift to The Witches of Eastwick and, with Jess Gillam playing a beautifully steampunk saxophone and Alasdair Malloy on vibraphone, Catch Me If You Can. Finally, we moved on to music from Star Wars. I would really have liked the Imperial March and Cantina Band, as in the 2013 Sci-Fi Film Music Prom; but as I observed above, you can't please everybody, and it made sense to include music from the latest film in the saga, so the programmed numbers were March of the Resistance and Rey's Theme from The Force Awakens, before finishing with A New Hope - Main Title.

Encores generally fall into two categories: extravagant, showy, virtuosic or comic on the one hand, and quiet, reflective on the other. Unfortunately The Imperial March falls into neither category. But I could tell there was going to be more, and spotted the drummer sneaking in to the orchestra. The quickest way to silence the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall is for the soloist to take up position at the instrument, or for the conductor to raise the baton to the orchestra once more, and so Keith Lockhart did. Some jazzy scales began - just enough for you to wonder, "what's this?", before I remembered that the orchestral version of The Cantina Band has just enough intro to throw you off before the big tune begins. So there you have it, for the first category of encore; and a little more from Harry Potter finished off the concert in a more reflective mood.
qatsi: (proms)
Oh dear, oh dear. It's all changed this year: the queueing system has changed, an attempt to disperse people which leads to a much less social atmosphere, and there's additional security theatre (a modicum of which has a potential effect, but much of it striking me as somewhat pointless). At least some of this must have been thrust upon the Royal Albert Hall at short notice, because it has driven a coach and horses through the Proms Extra events: essentially, Promenaders who are in the front half (say) of the queue will lose their places by going to the pre-Prom talks, and I gather attendance has slumped correspondingly. I'm sure this scheduling debacle wouldn't have been designed. The other deplorable innovation is that yet another phase of building work means that the Arena Day and Season Ticket holders are being admitted through the same door in parallel, which has apparently produced some "tired and emotional" moments. There's a long-standing convention that Season Ticket holders stand in the left half of the front row, and Day prommers stand in the right half - when admitted carefully in two separate queues from opposite sides of the hall this works quite well, but with the vagaries of bag searches and ticket scanning, there is only one stream entering the arena, with correspondingly random results.

Anyhow, after the initial disorientation, I was in any case four or five rows back for Prom 5, which was the first in a pair of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. I'd picked this concert because it was full of favourite works of mine. Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 does seem a slightly odd piece with which to begin a concert, but it's a single movement work of about 20 minutes duration. It worked quite well, and I preferred Søndergård's ending in particular to the rendition by Osmo Vänskä in the Proms' Sibelius cycle a couple of years ago - holding the final chord a little longer, but not too much. As Jonathan Meades says, good is not always the same as authentic.

For the next piece, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, the orchestra was joined by pianist Bezhod Abduraimov. I found it an assured but not arrogant performance. Being a few rows back I decided on this occasion to stand on the left side, which sometimes gives you a better view of the pianists's hands; however it turned out I was in line with a couple of rather tall people and I didn't see that much detail. Søndergård gave the work indulgent tempi at a few points; but it is a late Romantic work and to be honest, I think Stephen Hough just took the piece far too fast all those years ago. On this accasion I found there was a positive chemistry between soloist and conductor, right through to the final bars. Remarkably there was no applause between movements, and Abduraimov indulged us further with a Tchaikovsky Nocturne as an encore.

After the interval, another orchestral workhorse: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. I remember reading once that Shostakovich paces the final movement of this work just right - that there's a long, but not too long, introduction. In fact I think this sentiment applies across the work; the themes shuffle around in the long first movement at just the right pace. In fact I found myself starting to fade during this long concert, but made it through to the end unscathed.

It was a late finish, and I finally arrived home at about ten to midnight. As I entered the estate, there were two Southern Electric vans parked ominously under an arc-light; even worse, two more, with a digger and a pneumatic drill closer to the house. There were no power problems in my home, but the other side of the street seemed to be off, including street lights. Although the work seemed to be going on for some time, I found my earplugs were fortunately tuned to block out the industrial noise.

Having understood the changes to the system, I planned for the following day more carefully, and this resulted in a place in the second row. The same orchestra and conductor, but a less familiar programme. In fact, I didn't know either piece in the first half - Shostakovich's symphonic poem October (a Proms first performance) and then his Violin Concerto No. 1, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. This, of course, made it a popular concert; the work is certainly virtuosic and she played it strenuously. I recognised fragments; Shostakovich frequently quoted or reused material, and there were certainly themes and passages that feature in other works such as the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and strings. Benedetti gave us an encore of a version of Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns, arranged by Petr Limonov. In the second half, we had Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, a more familiar and favourite work. The orchestra seemed to me to be a little patchy; in particular there was one chord from the brass in the scherzo that just seemed like noise. But, by the end, Søndergård had everything under control and the final "big tune" was a great success.

After an earlier finish, I was lucky with connections and made it back to Reading by about 22:20. As I walked from the station to the car park, I was rather surprised to discover the IDR had been submerged under the bridge by the station, with one or two cars helplessly marooned in the water. Clearly there had been a downpour at some point in the evening. The car park I was in was unaffected, but the road by Burghfield Bridge was awash (shallowly) from one side to the other. I'm looking forward to less eventful journeys home for the rest of the season.
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, by Jonathan Meades
When I saw this in the work book sale, I reached straight for it, no questions asked, as I knew it was already on my wish list.

Imagine, if you will, a cookbook written by Jonathan Meades. And there you have it, more or less. If you are unfamiliar with his TV programmes, the MeadesShrine YouTube channel is a good starting point, although these programmes are generally architecturally rather than gastronomically focused. An acquaintance once declaimed that Meades was best watched "with a glass of wine in one hand, and a dictionary in the other".

Meades did spend some years as a restaurant critic, and became morbidly obese for his efforts. The collection of recipes here is, for the most part, surprisingly practical, though several refer to unheard-of ingredients (many of them I believe to be cheeses) for which one might have to imagine more quotidian substitutions, and the elephant gratin is, on a detailed read of the ingredients, somewhat disappointing. Interspersed with anecdotes and musings on the question of whether anything in food is truly original, this is an audio book, albeit without an MP3. What did you expect?
qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (penguin)
Book Review: The Word Detective - Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson
One great thing about the work book sale is that you can try something different knowing that, even if it doesn't work out, it has cost very little; in many cases I suspect it's cheaper even than a secondhand charity bookshop. This one looked curious, but risky: it could be very dry. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very readable. It's part personal biography (John Simpson, not that John Simpson), part a biography of the OED itself. Simpson joined Oxford University Press in 1976 and worked his way up in the Dictionary department. Slowly the prospect of a Second Edition of the OED emerged - the first, having been completed in 1928 with an irregular series of supplements since. At the same time, technology was evolving, and Simpson sought the help of others and the budget to computerise the half million definitions contained on card indexes. It's not a political book but one can easily imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place; the impression conveyed is that OUP always did the right thing, but perhaps sometimes after exhausting some of the other options. The Second Edition combined the original with the supplements, and was available on CD-ROM as well as in print, but rapid advances pushed for a Third Edition, and an evolving online resource. Simpson brings the story to a personal conclusion with his retirement in 2013. The personal aspects of the biography are small, and focus mostly on his family life, including coping with a disabled daughter (he doesn't name any condition, but some of it sounds like severe autism). Scattered throughout, Simpson highlights words in the main text and chooses to divert into their etymology, history and current usage, which reveals his enthusiasm and helps to breathe life into his subject.
qatsi: (urquhart)
We were on holiday in Portugal when news of the Grenfell Tower fire broke. As such, we probably didn't get the wall-to-wall coverage a major incident in London would provide to a domestic audience, although we certainly gleaned the grim details and the abject failure by the Prime Minister in visiting emergency services but not victims. (In contrast, the Queen did visit; but I don't think that's especially comparable. She's explicitly not a political figure and her privilege - like it or not - stems from a different provenance. Though I do wonder whether the folk memory of the bombing of Buckingham Palace in World War 2 - and the 1992 Windsor Castle fire - might have played their part.) Blair or Cameron, or even Brown, would have done better.

May's role, however, just reminded me more and more of Francis Urquhart in The Final Cut. When it was first broadcast in 1995, I felt it was a weak final instalment of the trilogy; the contemptuous attitudes of Urquhart and his government had gone beyond satire. I re-watched it this weekend, and it no longer seems so unbelievably bitter, because we all know that life itself has gone beyond satire in the last year or so. Urquhart's undoing is the death of a schoolgirl in a shoot-out between British troops and a paramilitary group in Cyprus, in a situation brought about directly as a result of his orders to the armed forces, which in turn is indirectly intended to benefit himself financially.

Neither the poor owner of the faulty fridge-freezer nor the manufacturer can be held responsible for the resulting inferno beyond a single flat; what idiocy produced a process that allowed the building to be refurbished with the materials that were used? I imagine the local council's motivation was cost-cutting rather than malevolence (and, as I don't know the chronology, they may be able to claim they were using cladding on the basis that other councils had used it too); but it inevitably brings to mind the corruption of T Dan Smith. The council plainly had no effective plan for a major incident that required re-housing, either. Unlike Urquhart, this tragedy isn't May's fault personally; but May has played her part in creating the culture that has allowed it to happen. It seems to me that her legacy is already set: the wheels are coming off, one aspect of the country after another (security, housing, NHS) falling apart after years of austerity and weakening of safeguards.
qatsi: (penguin)
Book Review: Nice Work (If You Can Get It), by Celia Imrie
I enjoyed the recent TV series Our Friend Victoria, at least as much as one can enjoy an extended obituary: there's something about Victoria Wood's work that leaves you feeling uplifted even if the subject itself isn't cheery. I get a similar feeling from Eric Coates' music. I'd seen publicity for this book somewhere, and when I saw the book in the work book sale it was an easy decision to give it a go. I was curious to see how Imrie would fare as an author, and also to see whether it had a similar vein to Wood, and it felt like appropriate holiday reading.

I enjoyed the book, and it did feel a bit like reading something by Wood; not in an imitative way, but just in the sense that they were part of a team that obviously shared some common ground (although I have the impression that Wood was the sole writer for her TV shows). This turns out to be number two in a series by Imrie, but there is no need to have read the previous volume as the characters and their situation are explained straight away. The book is set in Bellevue-sur-Mer, a small French town somewhere near Nice (hence the book's playful title) and Cannes. Our heroes are a set of British ex-pats, who have decided to set up a restaurant in the town, mostly for the purpose of keeping themselves occupied. The story follows their trials and tribulations, through French bureaucracy, Russian oligarchs, Sardinian Mafia, and the expats' own dysfunctional friends and family, including minor and major actresses descending for the Cannes Film Festival and behaving theatrically.

Two things make the book a bit tricky: there is a relatively large cast, and it's sometimes a bit difficult to remember who is who, and what their relationship is to the core of four people setting up the restaurant. Inevitably, from time to time I imagined the characters portrayed by the cast of Wood's shows, which was a little awkward, as Duncan Preston took all the male roles. The second thing is that sometimes the plot moves on a bit jerkily, with a paragraph or two summarising quite a large leap forwards. It is perhaps the sort of thing you wouldn't really notice in a film or TV programme, but it can feel a little clunky in print. But neither of these things prevented me from enjoying the book and confidently adding its predecessor to my to-read list.
qatsi: (baker)
I was hesitant about booking a holiday in Portugal in mid-June, but was persuaded to go ahead. We had a good time - eventually - although, really, much of it was too hot for me; generally into the 30s and possibly hitting 40°C in Lisbon yesterday.

Things didn't get off to a good start, when we tried to check in on Thursday evening, 12 hours beforehand; BA's website just gave us an error message and told us to go to the airport. So we waited for the exit poll, raised our eyebrows, and went to bed, getting up the following morning at ridiculous-o'clock. There was an unexpected queue at 5:30 in the morning at the entrance to Purple Parking, but the airport wasn't too busy.

Unfortunately, we were told, BA had overbooked the flight. We were given standby boarding passes and told to wait. Later, we were told to take everything airside. This didn't seem entirely correct, but it was a new experience, so we did exactly as we were told. Security, however, insisted that our hold baggage had to go back to the drop-off desk; so, we did that, returned, and ended up having to run through Heathrow Terminal 3's delightful "retail experience".

We made it onto our flight, but our checked baggage did not. Though we both had suspicions, we weren't informed of this until a semi-decipherable tannoy announcement at Lisbon told us to go to the baggage enquiries desk. Many years ago I had a colleague to whom this happened, and I knew his luggage had been couriered to his hotel by the evening, so I had hopes this was a standard process. It seemed to be so; but BA promised the luggage would be on the afternoon flight, and it wasn't. Our hotel was informed that it would be on the overnight flight, and it did indeed turn up by the following morning, but it didn't make for the most relaxing of starts.

Fri 9th: Arrival, somewhat discombobulated. The Metro appears to be straightforward to navigate and we head to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which houses a considerable collection, including some interesting Persian carpets and Turkish ceramics. We walk across the Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, a survivor of Lisbon's 1755 earthquake.

Lisbon - Aqueduct

Sat 10th: After reacquainting ourselves with our possessions, we head off to explore the city centre - Baixa and Chiado. It comes quickly to our attention that there are many people wandering around the streets more-or-less openly offering drugs; one assumes that the police don't care much.

Lisbon - Elevator

Later in the day we head over to the Castle. As well as taking in the building and museum, we pause to listen to the tango band rehearsing on an outdoor stage in the gardens.

Lisbon - Castle

Sun 11th: We take a tram to Belém. By this point it is becoming apparent that the Vivagem cards for public transport (basically like Oyster in London) aren't of the greatest quality (they're made of cardboard) and are prone to failure. Although the card only costs 50 cents it's quite annoying that you have to be so careful with them. The tram is packed and Belém is even busier; it's about a half hour queue in baking sunlight to get in to the Mosteiro doe Jerónimos, which is very ornate but otherwise not especially spectacular. The queue for the Tower on the riverfront is shorter, though not trivial.

Lisbon - Tower of Belém

Mon 12th: We head out to Sintra. The train from Rossio station is straightforward, but once there, the Rough Guide map isn't entirely clear and the text doesn't explain strongly enough that you should get the bus to the palace at Pena. Naïvely I reckon it's about a kilometre, but I haven't allowed for poor signage. We do eventually make it on foot, but our patience is tried. Fortunately, it's worth it. We return via the Moorish Castle.

Sintra - Pena Palace

Sintra - Moors' Castle

Tues 13th: Another trip to Sintra, this time for the Palácio Nacional and the Quinta da Regaleira. Though I've only visited the house at West Wycombe Park, the cave system in the grounds at Regaleira suggests to me the Hell-Fire Caves; the Initiation Well seems like an inside-out Tower of Babel.

Sintra - Initiation Well

Wed 14th: We wake up to the news of the Grenfell Tower fire; after the attack in Borough Market and the coalition of crackpots, it adds to the stream of disturbing UK news. We spend the day in Lisbon, firstly in the Alfama district, visiting the Paneão Nacional (Pantheon), São Vicente de Fora, and the Water Museum at Barbadinhos. Although there's an exhibition we're really there for the steampunk of the preserved pumping station.

Lisbon - Barbadinhos Steam Pumping Station

Later we trek out to Estrela; the basilica is disappointing, but the nearby park is pleasant and a granizado is refreshing.

Thurs 15th: More museums. There's a queue of about 15 minutes just to use the automated ticket machines at Cais do Sodré station, but once we get to Alcântara, the streets are quiet. The Museu do Oriente is excellent, but sadly it's almost deserted. After lunch we go to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which has a respectable number of visitors but is far from busy.

Lisbon - Musical Instruments of the Chinese Opera at Museo do Oriente

Fri 16th: We take a long-distance trip to Porto. We're a bit pressed for time, given the hilly nature of the city, so we don't venture too far from the centre, and don't make it to Vila Nova da Gaia, where the wine lodges are. But we do experience a Franceshina for lunch, and see the famous Lello bookshop.

Porto - Bridges across the Douro

Porto - Lello Bookshop

Sat 17th: It turns out the botanical garden is closed, so we skip that part of the plan and move on to the Decorative arts museum. After lunch we take in the small Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves. Although Lisbon Airport is chaotic and the check-in machine tells us to go to gate "undefined", the flight home is smoother. I notice smoke on the ground as we ascend from Lisbon Airport and wonder if it's a wildfire; we are oblivious to the catastrophe going on a few hundred kilometers away, though the train to Porto passed through Coimbra. On return, only about half of the electronic passport gates are in use for some reason, and Purple Parking's IVR is awkward and unforgiving, hanging up rather than repeating a question when you didn't hear it clearly the first time.

Lisbon was busy, but it didn't strike me as particularly commercial: the metro doesn't start until 6:30 in the morning, and there are often long intervals between trains. Likewise, the local trains were patchy - good for Sintra, but not so good in the direction of Cascais. Food was good though sometimes slow, and the hawking waiters in the city centre were even worse than the drug-dealers and selfie-stick sellers.

Lisbon - Trams

qatsi: (dascoyne)
Book Review: The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, by Robert Sellers
The work book sale is a charity sale; but unlike browsing through a second-hand or charity bookshop, the books are completely unsorted (with the exception of children's books, and large-format volumes, which are filed to one side), so you have to look through everything. This provides scope for serendipity, such as this one, which I doubt I'd ever have discovered otherwise. The book covers the period from the late 1930s, when Michael Balcon took over, through to the late 1950s, when it was sold. It's very clear that Balcon was the controlling mind of the studio throughout; in the war years, he was determined to play his part in the domestic war effort, and after the war it was very much his view of Britain that was portrayed in Ealing's films.

The book aims to record personal experiences, so there are many first-hand interviews with people who worked in all sorts of back-stage roles. The picture that emerges from them could almost form the plot of an Ealing film itself: most (but not all) people felt there was a close family atmosphere (certainly "who you knew" was often a factor in getting through the door); there was a lack of rank in some aspects (but a clear class distinction in others), and general consensus with occasional artistic differences. In the era before health and safety there were near misses from time to time, which can be told quasi-comically now, but were no doubt sometimes more serious. Another theme that emerges from the book is the intransigence of trades unions at the time, doing what would be considered nowadays far more in the area of restrictive practices than could be justified by protecting their members' interests. Indeed, it's implied that Peter Sellers' observations of Ealing technicians while working on The Ladykillers was put to full use later in I'm All Right Jack.

After the war years and the comedic post-war heights of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the studio slowly declined in the 1950s; to some extent this was probably due to its small scale operation, but also to Balcon's limited vision in being prepared to face the future. The site was sold to the BBC and the company was absorbed into MGM. However, after an uncertain period from the 1990s, it's good to note that the studio has survived into the twenty-first century.