qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson
I hesitated over this one in the work book sale, as I wasn't sure I had the stomach for it, but in the end decided to "feel the fear and do it anyway". After all, it's a charity event, and this season's charity at work is Alzheimer's UK, so it's a good cause and no money goes to any member of the Johnson family.

In the introductory "Author's Note" it is stated that "Kompromat is, to use an old-fashioned term, An Entertainment". In other words, there is no pretence to higher literary ground. Spoilers )

Where the book does score, though, is on making you reflect on the "democratisation" of information via the Internet. Twenty years or more ago, there were a limited number of media outlets, and whilst they could provide a wide range of views and opinions, one could in general be fairly confident about the provenance of their information, and that factual errors would not go uncorrected. But when anyone can put out any story and watch it go viral from within an echo chamber to the wider world, it's inevitable that many people will exhibit confirmation bias. (I'm not suggesting that anyone is immune from confirmation bias, but I'd like to think people should in general be aware of the possibility of it and try to control for it.) Indeed, the current state of affairs seems to be that many people don't care about "truth" if what they are given fits their existing beliefs - including the closing down or drowning out of opposing points of view. The Internet is a genie that's out of the bottle, and it's not going back in. Ultimately, I suspect those who have chosen not to hear warnings about fake news will be the ones who suffer most as a result, but if fake news continues, then they will always have someone else to blame. In my darker moments, I think about that term in the Drake equation about the length of time a civilisation exists, and I wonder if opposing groups, discarding evidence and shouting their views at each other angrily without listening, is how it ends.
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: Empire of Tea - The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger
It is, apparently, almost 10 years since I read Marman Ellis' The Coffee House, which is what prompted me to add this book to my wish list. It's taken some time for a paperback edition to emerge, and then the copy I received from an Amazon seller is labelled "for sale in the Indian subcontinent only". Oh well.

After a short introduction and a section on early records of tea-drinking in China and Japan (which differ significantly from each other), the book traces the story of tea in relation to Europe from about the mid seventeenth century, when trade with China began to include quantities of this exotic leaf. It's interesting that hot drinks were a novelty in Britain, and that tea, coffee and chocolate all arrived on our shores at approximately the same time.

Unlike coffee, the story of tea in Europe isn't particularly political, being considered a domestic delicacy for the well-to-do. For some time, many European nations were involved in the trade, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Britain; only rather later did the British become dominant. Interestingly, for a long time, the trade in green tea was more important, with black tea being a minor share of the cargo. The unseen (but fairly blatant) hand of the market pushed European traders to seek more and more tea, which over time had the effect of reducing prices and increasing the availability of tea to the middle classes. Debate abounds on the virtues and vices of tea-drinking. Taxation of tea results in smuggling from other European countries, and "the destruction of the tea at Boston". Eventually William Pitt the Younger abandoned the taxation of tea in favour of increasing window tax, arguing that the adjustment would not on average negatively impact on households correctly paying for tea. This had the effect of destroying the smugglers' market from the continent, and produced British dominance in the tea trade in China. However, an increasing one-way trade was problematic for the British economy, so an attempt was made to balance the trade by supplying opium from India to the Chinese. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of this aspect of the trade were not happy.

The East India Company also sought to grow tea on land governed by the British, in India, but although indivudal plant specimens were sporadically smuggled out of China the programme was without success. Eventually it was discovered that tea was already growing in the Assam region, but was not used locally as a drink. As the price of tea fell, it became a universal staple in British households.

The book concludes with twentieth-century developments: the invention of the tea bag, which led to the use of "dust" grade tea, otherwise unsuitable; the rise of the "tea house" such as Lyons; fruit infusions and iced tea (which, in canned or bottled form, is apparently the most commonly consumed tea in America).

Like the coffee book, this is a thorough work, but it does feel incomplete. Although there is some discussion about adulteration of tea, there's no mention of Earl Grey tea; likewise, there's no mention of the Cutty Sark, perhaps one of the most famous remnants of the height of the tea trade. For a popular work by British authors these seem curious omissions, but they don't detract from the book as it stands.
qatsi: (vila)
Book Review: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
I'm behind on book reviews. This had been on my to-read list for a while when it turned up in the work book sale; when I discovered Reading Film Theatre is showing the film adaptation this term, it was queue-jumped to discover whether I would want to go and see the film. I think I probably will.

spoilers )
qatsi: (baker)
Through a variety of logical twists centred on other events, we opted for a short break in Dublin last weekend. Leaving directly from work, the flight from London City Airport was much less hassle than Heathrow, and although we didn't depart at the advertised time, there seemed to be a fair bit of padding in the schedules. Transfer from the airport at Dublin was very straightforward with the regular bus service.

We arrived at the hotel to find we'd been "upgraded" to a "suite" in the "Georgian wing". The room looked lovely, but was in fact rather noisy (poorly fitting windows looking out onto a main road) and cold (with minimal bedding, which we addressed and resolved the following morning.) We quickly established that a global search-and-replace of "English" with "Irish" had taken place: for example, "Full Irish Breakfast" and "Irish Breakfast Tea". But fair enough, I suppose. We were, after all, in Ireland.

Fri 15th: Though cold, it's bright and sunny at first, and we take in our surroundings. The Custom House is close by.

We move on to Trinity College, Dublin. The Book of Kells exhibition is expensive and badly laid out, but really it's an excuse to justify the charge to see the books and the Old Library. The books themselves are interesting, although I'm disappointed I didn't see any comparison to The Lindisfarne Gospels, especially as there's a comment in the exhibition that one of the other books (The Book of Durrow) may have come from Northumbria.

Like the Bodleian, it appears that the books are filed according to their size.

Before lunch, we fit in a visit to the Natural History Museum. It's small and quiet, but well-stocked and, compared to its correspondent in London, unreconstructed and of more concentrated interest. In the afternoon, we move on to see Dublin Castle and the cathedrals.

Sat 16th: The forecast isn't good, particularly for later on. In the morning we visit the National Gallery, which turns out to be very interesting and well-stocked, though many of the names are unknown. Some of the Irish landscapes are particularly beautiful, though there are also some scenes in which nature has ceased to be beautiful and merely looks bleak. Later on we visit the National Museum of Archaeology. This is smaller than expected and balances the day, though it is quite packed with exhibits. The bog bodies are striking, if disturbing; the Bronze Age canoe is impressive. The Viking section is interesting; the museum finds a diplomatic solution to colonisation by describing the invasion of 1169 as "Norman".

Sun 17th: It's bright again, intermittently, and we go for another walk along the Liffey before heading up to the City Gallery. There are some interesting pieces, and a lot of modern rubbish, although among the contemporary collection, Close by Elizabeth Magill and Mist by Paul Seawright stand out. By lunch time, the city is heaving with crowds for the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final, but we catch the bus back to the airport. The trains from Paddington are replaced with buses due to engineering work, so we depart from Waterloo instead; a slow train, but not a crowded one.

Food-wise Dublin was disappointing, because it seems you are expected to pre-book (no doubt by "app") everywhere. Even in a Japanese noodle bar the welcome was dampened by being told we'd have to be finished by 7:30. It was interesting that, like the UK, a significant portion of the hospitality sector is staffed by eastern Europeans.

Things conflate. The poor value of the accommodation and the impossibility of spontaneous discovery on the food front combined with the almost brainwashing-intensity signage of Irish (i.e. anti-British) history on every street corner to make me feel barely welcome. We left, taking the unused coffee sachets with us "in retaliation for the [lack of] blanket". As I observed, the lack of blanket was probably "in retaliation for the [lack of] potatoes [in the 1840s]". My overall impression was that (even allowing for the post-Brexit exchange rate) Dublin charges more-or-less London prices but doesn't deliver as much.
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane
Although I recalled being a little underwhelmed by Crane's biography of Mercator, I decided to give this one a go when I saw it in the work book sale. I'm pleased I did, because I found it quite well-matched to my expectations and also informative. Crane starts at the end of the last ice age; there's probably not much meaningful that can be said about "Britain" before that time. For some thousands of years after that, Britain was a peninsula attached to the European mainland by Doggerland. Hardy explorers were the first immigrants, moving north as the glaciers retreated. In parallel, Crane tracks the emergence of life in the Fertile Crescent, with the emergence of agriculture. It reinforces what a backwater Britain has been for most of recorded history.

Successive waves of migration brought technological developments across Europe and into Britain, with occasional evidence of structures remaining. Henges are something of an oddity, not much occurring elsewhere. Tin mining was probably the only innovation that was exported out of Britain. Solar fluctuations were a major hazard, causing little ice ages and depleting food supplies. About a third of the book is taken up with 8000 years of pre-Roman Britain.

The Romans did a lot of deforestation, but they were by no means the first. Britons were somewhat indifferent to Roman civilisation, and let it crumble (or made better use of the readily available stone) when they departed. Londinium was something of an exception, emerging without planning as a commercial centre with a bridge over the river and an adjacent port. Crane frequently uses archaic place names and reveals how they have mutated into modern ones. Angles and Saxons migrated into Britain, which declined, though outposts such as the Northumbria of Bede and Cuthbert were beacons of civilisation. The Viking period demanded more effective defence, and a return to urbanisation, sometimes too little too late. The Norman conquest overwhelmed Britain with European technology again, like the Romans had done, but there were still hazards such as plague that would cause abandonment of settlements from time to time.

The final third of the book focuses on the period from the seventeenth century to the present day, and although the Industrial Revolution occurred across the country, towards the end the book becomes increasingly London-centric. Britain again became an exporter of technology and the owner of an Empire; this period is now ending or has passed too, it seems. The book predates the Brexit Referendum, but it's not difficult to see from this book that history suggests a period of decline lies ahead.
qatsi: (capaldi)
The moon landings hadn't finished before I was born, but I am way too young to remember them. As a youngster and through my teenage years, though, there was news from time to time about the Voyager probes, and I am nostalgic for the BBC's Horizon documentaries that followed each planetary encounter. Marking the 40th anniversary of their launch is the documentary film The Farthest. It didn't appear in the listings for this term's Reading Film Theatre, so I looked for other options. Working in central London gives you the widest opportunity and I found it was showing at Picturehouse Central, by Piccadilly Circus. Billed as a "no ads" showing, I was getting a bit restless after about 20 minutes of adverts, concerned that maybe I was in fact in the wrong screen, but it turned out all right in the end.

There are some negative points to the film. The music, like some of Murray Gold's work for Doctor Who, was intrusive at times. For whatever reason, the director couldn't resist the unscientific whooshing sound in animations as the spacecraft passes by the point of view of an observer in the vacuum. There seems to be quite an emphasis on the "human-interest" aspect of the Voyager programme, which is I suppose reasonable, but dwells in particular in the early stages of the film on the Golden Record. (It's not without interest; in particular, it's good to see Nick Sagan, one of the child voices on the record, reminiscing about his father).

There is also some politics. The mission was approved by Nixon, initially to cover Jupiter and Saturn only. This was a 1-in-176 year opportunity to visit all four major planets in the outer solar system ("The last person who had the opportunity to make this decision, Mr President, was Thomas Jefferson. He blew it.") Curiously the film doesn't delve into the process whereby funding for the project was extended to Uranus and Neptune, though it does cover the scientific aspects of that decision. (Voyager 1 was given a path for a close fly-by of Titan, which precluded it venturing to the other two planets; had the results of the Titan observation justified Voyager 2 taking the same path, the mission would have ended there).

What's left, then, is the story of the science and the scientists. The many interviews that are spliced together over the course of the film are mostly - though not exclusively - now of old men, itself a sobering thought. The "technology freeze" for the mission was in 1972. The computing power of Voyager is minuscule by today's standards but was leading-edge at the time - the first spacecraft that could be re-programmed en voyage. The revelations of the Jupiter observations in 1979, including its satellites and ring, were followed by the majesty of Saturn in 1981. Problems with the motors on Voyager 2's instrument arms had to be resolved after Saturn. The flyby of Uranus in 1986 unfortunately coincided with the Challenger disaster. Although a success scientifically, the tilted planet was surprisingly bland and un-photogenic. In 1989, Neptune was more spectacular.

In 1990, Voyager 1 took the famous Pale Blue Dot picture, a frippery in scientific terms, inspired, as were many things in the programme, by Carl Sagan. It is the most distant human-produced artefact and is reckoned to have left the solar system in 2012. Both Voyager probes are still in contact with the NASA mission, with light signals taking more than 19 hours between Voyager 1 and Earth. As Lawrence Krauss observes in the film, it's almost certain that the Voyager probes will survive longer than humanity, and also almost certain that no other civilisation will ever encounter them. But there's the Golden Record, just in case.
qatsi: (baker)
I pass Old Oak Common depot on the way to work every day. Sometimes I'm getting a little extra shut-eye, but sometimes I look out of the window, and one day, a few months ago, I saw a banner advertising an open day at the depot just outside Paddington. I decided it would be something a bit different to do, and bought myself a ticket for the event, which took place yesterday. Billed as celebrating 111 years of the depot, and featuring "Legends of the Great Western", it was in fact something of an inflection, with the imminent introduction of the IET electric trains on the Great Western line, and the re-purposing of the site to function as the depot for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) trains.

The website proclaimed "We expect demand for this event to be high" and the directions for getting to the depot suggested "we expect queues to form in two directions". They weren't wrong. After catching the train in to Paddington and backtracking along the Bakerloo Line to Willesden Junction, I found myself shortly after 10am in a slowly moving queue. There were some disturbing people who knew the Up and Down speed limits as we crossed the bridge over the West Coast Main Line, which also passes nearby. There was also the guy who worked for Network Rail who observed the irony that he has to fly from London for meetings in Edinburgh because the train is too slow and expensive. All in all it was a half-hour shuffle to get through the gates.

Once inside, the main attractions were, obviously, the locomotives, mostly from the BR diesel era but with some older steam locomotives, and one, very special, visitor: 60163 Tornado.

Those who take these things more seriously were constantly jostling for photo positions, and didn't hold back from instructing others to "get out of the way". For the most part, I think it was good-natured, though obviously some would have preferred access to the site without the inconvenience of other people. At the modern end of the spectrum, there was one of the new Class 800 series, Queen Elizabeth II. I do feel there's something missing. Just painting the name on the surface feels a bit indifferent from a polished nameplate, but that's the modern rail system for you. We weren't allowed inside, so it remains a mystery for a little while longer.

All in, it was a fun few hours, and we were lucky with the weather.

qatsi: (proms)
Two last Proms, this week, completed the season's cycle of Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos (omitting the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini).

On Tuesday the Oslo Philharmonic were conducted by Vasily Petrenko. They began with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite - an abridged version of the ballet music which was effective, though perhaps one of those pieces which is better in full. Leif Ove Andsnes was the soloist for Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4, the last and most overtly modernist of his concertos. It was a popular performance though I found it difficult to tell whether it was the music or Andsnes' playing that was very percussive in style. He gave us an encore of a Romanza by Sibelius - a composer whose piano pieces aren't highly rated, but this could almost have been Chopin.

The second half of the concert was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12 ("The Year 1917"). The programme notes suggested this is in fact the "Lenin" symphony that the composer claimed for many years to be working on. The results would suggest either that he was lying, that he didn't put much effort into it, or that he completed it and sat on it, waiting for the right moment. At the time I found Petrenko's tempi a little on the fast side and the snare drum a little too insistent; but, listening to the CD I have of Barshai/WDR Cologne, I think Petrenko's tempo may have been the better after all. The middle movements weren't memorable and perhaps a bit of a disappointment, but the finale certainly produced a classic Shostakovich faux-triumph, as if he were saying to the authorities, "There, that's what you wanted, isn't it?". The concert finished with an orchestral encore of Vocalise, making it the second time I have heard a version of that this season.

On Thursday, the BBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert began with Taneyev's overture The Oresteia. Taneyev has always been an under-rated composer and this was an interesting piece, assembled from themes from his opera, though in the end being spun out into a separate work. For an overture it's quite long at around 20 minutes, rather like some of Tchaikovsky's pieces. Kirill Gerstein was the soloist for Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1. This was a successful and contrasting performance to the fourth: much more lyrical, and Gerstein seemed to apply himself to the piano with more sensitivity.

In the second half, we had Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. I'd seen this before, and although I thought it was all right, I probably wouldn't have chosen to go to see it again specifically. But, in the way that expectations sometimes have of being overturned, Bychkov really put the orchestra through its paces and produced a powerful and dramatic performance, certainly a good way to end my promming season.
qatsi: (proms)
I was uncertain how popular Prom 54 would be, and I was pleased to be twelfth in the queue, although I knew this wouldn't necessarily mean a spot on the rail. For once this summer the afternoon was pleasantly warm. The queue did fill out considerably later on.

We were due to move up at 5:15 and go in to the Royal Albert Hall at 5:30, with the concert starting at 6:30. There was a lack of progress and information, and nothing seemed to be happening. Finally, the queues were moved up to the doors, but the process stalled again. Security sensibly decided to run the first few people, including me, through the bag search, and I was then able to read the notice: the concert would be delayed by 15 minutes "due to the late arrival of the orchestra's instruments". Well, that's a new one! We assumed they must have been stuck at Heathrow (though, objectively, there's equal odds they could have been stuck at Milan).

Finally, at about 6pm, we started moving in. As we descended into the bowels of the Hall en route to the Arena, I could hear (but not quite recognise) dark, brooding, bass music. Were the orchestra still on the stage rehearsing at this late hour? It turned out they were, and as I ascended the stairs into the Arena, I finally recognised the music: We were entering the Hall to the march The Pines of the Appian Way from The Pines of Rome, the final scheduled piece of the concert. What a privilege to enter in this way, especially into this British simulacrum of the Colosseum! As a signal event, it reminded me of the "swans" flying over the Royal Albert Hall prior to the Fifth Symphony in the Sibelius cycle of 2015. As the orchestra rehearsed the music, we correspondingly rehearsed our applause, genuine but perhaps with a hint of irony. I found myself comfortably on the rail; some of the people in front must have headed for seats, or to the left-hand side of the Arena (conventionally the front row splits 50-50 between season ticket and day Prommers, but it's not always observed, and this season's changes due to building works have made it particularly unworkable).

Adhering to its revised schedule, the concert proper began with the Filarmonica della Scala Milan conducted by Riccardo Chailly and violinist Leonidas Kavakos in Brahms' Violin Concerto. It was a fair but not brilliant performance. At points the tempo was slowed right down, an interesting interpretation but one that did not add anything particular, in my opinion.

The second half programme was the reason I'd picked this concert: two of Respighi's Roman tone poems. I saw the full trilogy in 2014, just before I had a holiday in Rome, and it was good to take this opportunity to revisit The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome. Fountains has always seemed to me to be the weakest of the trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised as I found the orchestra really did bring it to life. Pines, on the other hand, has always seemed to me to be the strongest, so would the orchestra fulfil its potential? They certainly did. You always wonder whether a "native" orchestra "feels" the music of its compatriot composers better; on the evidence of this performance, I'd incline favourably to the theory. Fresh, energetic, reflective - they were all of these. The birdsong fitted seamlessly with the orchestral playing, and the recapitulation of the Appian Way was just as spectacular as the rehearsal, in this perfect venue for such brash music. I could see the orchestra had the music for the overture to La forza del destino on their stands - presumably prepared as an encore - but the delay to the start of the concert had thwarted it; it seems the curse continues.

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.