An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 6

Yes, yes.  I know I’m behind with this diary writing business.  I knew when I started I was forging a rod for my own back, but it didn’t stop me in my enthusiasm to make a record before I forgot, before each new experience overlaid the memory of what I’d seen the day before, the hour before, just before I ate that ice cream.

It’s a couple of days since I left Edinburgh to return to the West coast, and I can’t quite believe how much I saw and experienced.  The debate about what was the best thing, the most memorable thing, the thing I wasn’t sure about at the time, but which is now the most vivid in my memory, the most fun, the most thought provoking, the thing I’ve changed my mind about the most since thinking about it, will continue for some time.

In the meantime I’ll fill you in on the last half day of my Festival which saw me back at the Queen’s Hall for a concert of works by Couperin.  I will confess my ignorance up front.  I didn’t know what to expect, other than a recital involving a harpsichord.  It was played by Christophe Rousset and his period instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyrique.  Having been to the exhibition of Vermeer paintings of musicians and instruments at the National Gallery within the last month, there was a certain synchronicity in hearing a harpsichord in concert.

Perhaps I was a little festivalled out; or perhaps the 5 hours I had spent sitting quietly concentrating first on Mozart and then on Shakespeare (in Mandarin) the day before had exhausted my sitting still quotient, or maybe I’ve got cloth ears, but once I’d admired the look of the harpsichord imagining it in a painting, wondered to whom it belonged (I’ve since discovered it’s the University of Edinburgh), and if the man tuning it was a specialist harpsichord tuner or also a piano tuner,(and how much call there would be for dedicated harpsichord tuners,) marvelled at the dexterity of the playing, and enjoyed the tinkling notes washing over me for the first few pieces, it began to all sound a little bit the same.  (Cloth ears is a distinct possibility as the Guardian music critic awarded the concert 5 stars….)

I’m still glad I went.  As I am for all of the things I saw and heard; and will be debating what the subtext of some of them was for some time to come yet.

And so my first Festival experience came to an end.  It was a fantastic experience, and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to go for the first time.

I’ll be back for sure.

I’d love to know if you’ve seen any of the same things as me, and what you thought of them.

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 1

2013-08-16 16.33.25Yesterday I had my first taste of the full Edinburgh Festival experience.  And even though it didn’t start until the middle of the afternoon when I arrived at Waverley station, as it comprised listening to blues played on a home made guitar made from an old radio in a jazz bar basement, and  experiencing the induction to a life on ‘New Earth’ at an out of town climbing centre, I think it counts as a proper initial immersion.

John Hunt does Afternoon Blues and Swing using his own home made instruments.  There was a short legged coffee table on which he stamps out his percussion section, and a first guitar made from a wooden shelf, with built in amplifier and microphone.  It’s worth descending the stairs to the underground bar on a sunny afternoon for his ingenuity alone, but he delivers his set with dry wit and a gravelly voice, mashing up his own compositions with reinterpretations of early 20th century classics like Someone to Watch over Me.

All round it was a very satisfactorily disorientating introduction to the Festival.

After refreshments, it was down to the Conference Centre to pick up the bus to Leaving Planet Earth.  The bus ride is only the first part of the experience of ‘jumping’ from Old Earth, a dying planet ravaged by war and unrest, to New Earth, a twin planet of bright colours and endless opportunities.  At the Ratho Climbing Centre, doubling as the induction centre for new arrivals on New Earth, we learnt about the great future we will share, so long as we can avoid The Pull of memories of Old Earth.  The Pull can turn people into Empties who cannot go on and who endanger the success of the project, so have to be taken on the Path.

We’ve been promised that, in return for our pledge to put the survival of the human species ahead of our own individualism, we will live a great new life on New Earth so long as we can sever all our memory and emotional ties with Old Earth.

As the show progressed, and we were led from space to space around the concrete and iron space of the climbing centre, it became clear that all may not be well in the New Earth, and that we may not have come to the better place of freedom where we can satisfy our own desires.

How sane are the leaders of the project?  Have we been dragged into a cult of personality? And  who will decide if we are to be sacrificed in the interests of an idea of a higher plan?

While some of the speeches were a little too laboured, the overall experience of the show has lingered in my memory.  It is almost that this morning the impression of the experience has improved.  The way that GridIron has used the industrial scale of the  climbing centre is very effective, and evocative  of what might be a purpose built landing point for a new colony.  The way the audience is moved around, in a choreographed and timed fashion, adds to the impression of a busy working facility.  Sometimes each of the three groups is alone, sometimes we all emerged into the central area, where we could see each other all arrayed along the various levels of the raised walkways.

The show’s literature warns that there are stairs to climb, which is true, and that there are loud noises and strobe effects, which I thought were relatively minor hazards.  What they failed to mention is that the promenade staging presents quite a challenge for anyone suffering from vertigo or a fear of heights.  I found the open grilled external walkways and stairways extremely challenging, and I was not alone in this; there was also no mention that there were no toilet breaks and no refreshments available.

It’s definitely worth seeing, but take some water, a person whose hand you can hold on the stairs, and be prepared to miss a few minutes if you need a ‘comfort break’.

All in all, not a bad start to my Festival experience…….

Two Russian Evenings at the Proms

2013-07-29 18.55.23It’s at the point where ignorance meets interest that I have most enjoyment, I think.

I don’t know a great deal about classical music, or any music really, but (and I wonder is it OK to say this about any art form) I know what I like.  Or I know what I like when I hear it, and I do try to put myself in the way of new things every now and again.

For the last few years I have usually made it to a couple of the Proms concerts each season.  The selection of which particular ones is a function of comparing my diary with that of my concert going buddy S, her preferences (she’s the one with an education in music) and the availability of tickets.

This year we went to two concerts, both on Mondays, a week apart, and both with a distinctly Russian flavour.

The first was Prom 21 , and then Prom 30;  different orchestras, different soloists and conductors, just an overlap of composers.  I can’t really tell you about the virtuosity of any of the performers, or the tone of the orchestra, nor indeed where any of the pieces stand in the context of the oeuvres of any of the composers.  What I can tell you about is the percussion.

It’s probably the low brow’s response to an orchestral concert, to watch the drama of the orchestra, to comment on the extrovert flamboyance of the leader, or the sparkliness of the evening dresses worn by the women players.  But if part of the experience wasn’t watching them, they wouldn’t be sitting on an illuminated stage, and there wouldn’t be television cameras recording for subsequent broadcast on BBC4.

My first reaction to seeing the stage is to count the percussion instruments arranged across the back, and then to count the players.  Lots of instruments and only a couple of percussionists means a variety of sounds but lots of running about for them.  If the players are numerous, then it’s going to be loud and there will be much anticipation watching them prepare and play.  It’s one of the yardsticks for my enjoyment.

Shostokovich’s Symphony Number 11 at Prom 21 was the most exciting thing I’ve seen at the Proms for a long time.  Not only is there a tremendous range of loud and soft, light and dark, folk tune and jagged sound, there were no fewer than 8 percussionists.  My attention was immediately focussed on the back row of the orchestra, and they all had a lot of work to do, especially on the timpani and the snare drum; but it was the man at the end, sitting beside the tubular bells whom I had to watch.  I thought of his as Number 8.

It’s a long symphony, almost an hour, and he spent most of it sitting back on his high stool, arms folded, knees akimbo.  He might have been asleep.  Every time my attention went to another part of the stage for any length of time, I had to keep checking back on Number 8.  If he was going to do something, I didn’t want to miss it.  The timpanist and the two people on the big gongs were dramatic and energetic, but they couldn’t keep me from worrying that if Number 8 moved and hit something, I might miss it.  Then, about 55 minutes into the piece, Number 8 put on his glasses.  At last his moment!  A peel of bells, on the tubular bells with one hand and an upturned bell with the other.  It was the perfect release for the climactic moment of the concert.

The crowd went wild (although they may not all have been as focussed on Number 8 as I was).

I’ve subsequently watched part of the concert again, as it was broadcast a week or so later, and there I am, in the shot of the close up of the conductor, in the audience, applauding, just to prove I was there.

Maybe I Was Asleep

Do you ever get the feeling that some things have just passed you by?  Those moments when other people are talking about things which were significant for them, and of which you have no memory at all?  Even, or perhaps especially, when they tell you that everyone was listening/doing/watching?

I’m not talking about the things which I knew were around, but which I chose to avoid, like Only Fools and Horses, or Little Britain; I mean those things which left no impression at all.

I’ve just watched the first hour (of well over two) of Spike Lee’s documentary Michael Jackson: BAD 25, a  track by track hagiography of an album released in 1987.  Every imaginable contributor has been interviewed and carefully spliced together, wither now or in archive tape, from Martin Scorsese and Quincy Jones to each of the session musicians, and current stars who were inspired by it.

Apparently, if this film is to be believed, pretty much everything about the album and associated short films (music videos by another name) was extraordinary; from its sales figures and the number of consecutive number 1 singles  to the fact that it gave Wesley Snipes his debut film role.

As the documentary progressed through the development, recording and performance of each of the tracks one by one, I was really surprised to realise that, with the exception of the title track (Bad), I would swear that I’d never heard any of them before.

How did that happen?  In 1987 I still listened to music radio and bought loads of records, although I might have been transitioning to CDs around about then.  I wouldn’t say I was a big Jackson fan, but I did feel I’d grown up with him.  At the house-warming party for my first house, built on the edge of a cemetery,  we had played Thriller on near continuous loop, with the windows open to the graves over the fence.

But the subsequent album completely passed me by; and now it’s gone, as the music was of its time, and having missed it first time round I have none of the nostalgia for it that all the contributors obviously share.

Do you remember it?

Another Old Shirt

I’ve spent the last couple of evenings going through old photos, and loading some of them onto my laptop so that I can use them in a couple of gifts I am contemplating making for the end of the year.  While I already knew I had lots of photographs, mainly because in the recent past I’ve always seemed to be moving the albums and boxes from one place to another, actually looking through the pages brought the message home very forcefully.

Because I had a particular purpose in mind, I tried not to spend too much time letting my mind meander around in all the memories that were unearthed; all those odd little incidents, the people with whom only a few hours were spent, but who live on in the stories I’ve told of my trips, but it was hard to keep focussed.

The clothes are a talking point in themselves.  We’re all wearing the same waterproof jackets and trousers in most of the hundreds of shots of the Lake District where, for a period of about 10 years I used to spend a week walking every May with a group of friends, so I’ve no idea which year was which; and some t-shirts and dresses seem to have lasted for several years worth of warm trips in the late 1990s.

This one in particular made me laugh out loud, even when I wasn’t looking at my hair.  It was taken in 1996 near the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu where we had sought refuge from the hoards of people visiting the main site.  I’ve still got that shirt.  In fact I still wear it quite often to my drawing classes.  I knew I’d had it a long time, but I would never had said ‘at least 16 years’ if you’d asked me; but here is the proof.  I guess you could call it a good buy.

It brought this Mary Chapin Carpenter song to mind; the story of a life lived through the memory of all the places one old shirt had been, and all the things for which it had been used.

Ian Bostridge Masterclass st LSO St Luke’s

Continuing with my occasional project to try new things in London, I’ve been to a Masterclass on Mahler songs, conducted by the tenor Ian Bostridge, run for the benefit of students at the Guildhall School, but which was open to the public.  It took place in St Luke’s, an 18th century Hawkesmoor designed church building which now houses the LSO’s educational programmes.

I’d never seen a real masterclass before; I’ve seen them portrayed in dramas on television, and in plays, where the point of the class is usually to show some power play or Machiavellian shenanigans on the part of the teacher.

This was quite the opposite.  The manner in which  Ian Bostridge conducted the session was all about the musical interpretation, and not at all about him.  He didn’t show off, didn’t show the students how it should really be done, instead he coached them in their own efforts, talking about the score and the clues and instructions left there by the composer; although in those occasional little moments when he did hum a phrase to illustrate a point, there was a hint of what a mellifluous, easy, rich voice he has.

It’s fascinating watching artists talk about the techniques they use to achieve the effects for which they’re striving, even if it’s not an art form with which I’m familiar.  So I learnt a great deal listening to their talk of intensity without increased volume, of accentuating the consonants when singing pianissimo, and using long fluid vowels for louder passages, of debating the difference between piano and pianissimo, when to take a breath, and when to smooth a phrase.

But not only did Bostridge coach each of the four singers in their singing, he talked about where they might look, and what they might be thinking about during a long introduction, to get both themselves and the audience ready for the words that are to come; and he also gave notes to the accompanist on improvements they might make.

I’d never really thought about the partnership between soloist and accompanist before, other than to think that the pianist is the solid one in the background, supporting the singer, the one taking all the risks.  But during the masterclass, as well the Q &A at the end, it became clear that it is much more of an equal partnership, that both must have an understanding of the repertoire and be working together in the service of their joint interpretation.

When I heard the class would take place in a former church, it reminded me of the Anglican church in Moscow, which had been used for many years as the recording studio for Melodia Records.  When the Queen visited Russia in the early 1990’s the Kremlin had promised to return the building to the control of the Anglican Church, but this process was far from complete when I lived in the city, and while the outside of the church looked like a substantial Victorian church which might have been found in any worthy northern English town, its interior was that of a rather elderly and uncared for studio.

St Luke’s is the polar opposite; on the outside it is elegant and plain, with a towering narrow spire, while on the inside it is a wide open space, sound proofed in clear glass, and supported by massive circular girders.  The air conditioning is vigorous and the extensive underground facilities include a café, which on a Monday morning was the meeting place of a dozen mothers with children and buggies, which were neatly lined up against the wall.

So, another success…..

Berlioz Requiem – St Paul’s Cathedral

Shame-faced confession #643: I’ve never been inside St Paul’s cathedral.

I’ve walked around it, I’ve looked up at it, admired it from across the river, given tourists directions to it, and frequently used the Tube station that bears its name; once, feeling particularly dejected, and looking for a place to sit and collect my thoughts in the days before there was a franchise coffee shop on every street corner,  I even got as far as the door, only to find they were just closing up.  But I’d never crossed the threshold, until this week.

I went to a concert arranged under the auspices of the City of London Festival, of Berlioz’s Requiem, played by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir , under the direction of Sir Colin Davies.  We were told to be there on time, as it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, here, an instruction that, inevitably, profoundly irritated me.  I’m happy to be there on time out of respect for the orchestra and choristers, and for my fellow members of the audience, but no, not for the convenience of the Beeb’s schedulers.

I’d never heard this Requiem before, and you already know that I’m not that well educated musically, and the lasting impression left with me from this experience was the sheer amount of noise human voices can make when joined together and singing at full gusto.  The acoustics of the cathedral meant that by the time the sound reached me in the middle of the nave it had already swirled around the pillars and up and down in the dome, and had acquired a fuzzy edge and a little tail end echo.  I couldn’t distinguish any individual words, but simply let the rich sound engulf me.

One the things I usually enjoy about a concert is watching the musicians at their task; the intensity of their faces, the sweep of their arms and fingers, their concentration, but this time they were all a little too far away for that, so I was left with the cathedral, the enormous pillars and the elaborate lights to study, and to surrender to the sounds of the concert, and especially the fantastic deep and sonorous tone of the bass sections of the choirs.

Some of the notes were ghostly and strange because of the building.  During the segment on which Barry Banks the tenor was singing alone, there was a single timpani beat, accompanied by what to me sounded like a human voice ‘ssssshhhhhh’; S, my much more knowledgeable friend, told me that it was cymbals.  The explanation was at the same time both satisfying in that it answered my question, but also disappointing as it  removed a little bit of mystery.

It was an extraordinary experience to feel the whole space of the cathedral filled with sound and to see every seat in the audience filled.

I’ll have to go back another day to see the cathedral in another guise.

RIP – Robin Gibb

I wouldn’t say that I was particularly a fan of the BeeGees, and I didn’t feel any immediate sense of shock when I heard of Robin Gibb’s death at the end of last month, but the press coverage of his funeral has made me feel sad.

The sight of Barry, the sole survivor of the four Gibb brothers, leaving the church was very poignant.  Being the eldest of four, he might reasonably have expected not to be the one left on his own; how bereft he must feel.  And how awful for their mother to have outlived three of her four sons.

There was a period in the mid to late 1970s when the music of the BeeGees dominated; the songs from Saturday Night Fever were the unavoidable sound track to my teenage years.  I only got around to buying any of their albums in the late 1990s, when I acquired one of the retrospective live ones.

Tracks from it pop up every now and again when I have the iPod on shuffle, and memories of awkward nights in discos in Birmingham and all those terrible television programmes made to jump on the disco band wagon arrive unbidden and in droves.  (And a quick search on google confirmed that the 1978 discomania episode of Starsky and Hutch was not a figment of an over excited imagination.)

But this weekend I spent some time listening to all the tracks I have, and I was properly reminded that between them, the BeeGees wrote a great collection of songs both for themselves and for others.  ‘Alone’ felt all too much like an encapsulation of how the surviving family members might feel.

Rufus Wainwright at the Lyceum Theatre

There were no signs outside the theatre that Rufus Wainwright would be playing there on Monday night.  It was perhaps only the complete absence of children in the crowds of adults of a certain age lining up for admission that gave any clue that we weren’t all there for a performance of The Lion King, the usual entertainment on offer at the Lyceum.  It’s such a long time since I’ve been to something that attracted the casual looking ticket touts who wander amongst the crowds of people waiting outside, speaking out of the sides of their mouths ‘want a ticket?’

Because the show was in a theatre, I hadn’t really thought that I’d have to sit through a warm up act, nor that the usual ‘sit down and stay there’ rule wouldn’t apply.  By the time Rufus did arrive on stage it was hard to tell whether it was the warm up act or the multiple plastic glasses of beer and wine that had been consumed during it.

So this was a bit like ‘Rufus does Pop’, a mixed programme of songs, but focussed around new songs with more ‘production’ than those with which I was more familiar, more electric guitar and drumming than in the winsome piano based tracks.  His set opened in darkness apart from Rufus singing unaccompanied, illuminated by only a few candles.  When the lights came up, bright and green, there he was, in tails, red sparkly shoes and sunglasses, his voice strong, hair floppy.

I’d read beforehand that his new album might represent his best chance at pop success, and a couple of times during the show he made humorous cracks about the popiness of some of the songs, but he would be unusual as a pop star in current times.  He was the sort of eccentric who achieved pop success in the 1970s, the idiosyncratic dresser with the poignant plaintive songs and great musical facility.

He danced awkwardly behind the mic when he was standing, but looked more comfortable at the piano and his voice had more complexity and strength to it than I’ve heard on the recordings I have.  I’m sorry to have to admit that I didn’t care much for the voices of the women providing the backing vocals: either too shouty or with that awful sloppy diction that leaves out all the consonants,

This was part of my programme to try new and different things; it was fun and I enjoyed it, although not enough to want to stay for the encores.

And as for the photo, it’s a fairly accurate record of what it’s possible to see from the very back of the Dress Circle in Row P.

Cesaria Evora RIP

In an odd coincidence or strange cosmic synchronicity I had thinking about writing a post about music I associate with the particular people who had introduced me to it.  Cesaria Evora is one artist that was on that list.

She has one of the great distinctive voices, once I had been introduced to it I could recognise it whenever I heard it again.  I saw her at the Royal Festival Hall about 8 years ago, leading a concert of artistes from Cape Verde, her home country.

There was no voice there to compare to hers.  She appeared on stage, barefoot, as I understand was her custom, walking as one might walk along the street, as if unaware that we were all there banked up in rows, waiting for her.  Interrupted from her usual days activities to sing to us, I could believe that she might just have come from cooking a meal or reading a book, she was a very unshowy performer, letting her voice and her band make the only splash that was needed.

I don’t understand the lyrics, but no matter, there is enough to listen to in her voice, the melodies and syncopations.

I was saddened to hear of her death.

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