Wednesday, 8 June 2011


During half term, the wife and daughter house-sit for a relative in Sussex for four days. They leave me in front of the telly, but as soon as they are gone, I hop on a plane to Canada, interview the conductor Kent Nagano and chief exec, Madeleine Careau, of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, attend a performance of Das Rheingold, inspect their new 260 million dollar concert hall, wonder whether it will be finished in time, eat elk, visit the 1976 Olympic Stadium now mostly redundant, and was back in front of the telly before they return.

I watch the film Temple Grandin on the plane and am moved to tears. The teenager next to me watches end-to-end shoot-em-ups and bites his nails. The hostess shows concern and gives me a spare chicken bap at tea time or breakfast time or whatever it is chasing the sun over the Atlantic. Temple Grandin, played by Claire Danes, is an autistic woman who understands animals. She notices that horses point their ears towards what they are looking at and that cattle herd in circles. She doesn’t enjoy human company much and cannot bear to be touched. She derives pleasure from clamping herself between wooden boards, however. It’s a true story. Despite misogyny and scepticism, she goes on to revolutionise farming practices in the US. I want the wife and daughter to see it, but cannot find a screening anywhere that isn’t an Air Canada flight. 

There's time to fit in a recently-made documentary about Glenn Gould. He cuckolded the composer Lukas Foss, who didn't seem too bothered. Foss knew his wife and kids would come back in the end and they did. None of this was in Otto Friedrich's biography as far as I recall. I'm sure I'd have remembered so significant a detail. The previous idea was that Gould was too nutty and eccentric to have been anything but a virgin. The Canadian journalist Colin Eatock is soon to publish a book of interviews about the pianist. Claire Foss, he tells me, assured him Gould was 'the most heterosexual person she ever met'.    


Monday, 6 June 2011

Sapporo Sorrow

Several times during a French lesson I am disturbed by a high pitched whistle.

‘Who’s making that noise?’ I ask itrritably. No confession is forthcoming.

It recurs. Someone is asking for it. I halt the lesson and ask again, ‘Who is making that high-pitched whistling noise?’ Still nothing.

A voice in the front row pipes up. ‘You’re not supposed to be able to hear it, Sir.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’ I press, now very annoyed.

‘Old people can’t hear it,’ volunteers another. ‘Only young people can. Shopkeepers use them to get rid of teenagers.’

Ha! They think I’m an old codger and I’m not at all! I can hear their dog-whistles. How lovely it is to be young. 

I have the same experience in the evening at the concert given by the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra of northern Japan at the Royal Festival Hall. Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind begins with an ultra-high, long-held, icy violin tone. It makes the teenagers in the audience look uncomfortable as if they were being repelled from a shopping mall, but I hear nothing to shun me, only the bleak, melancholy appeal of an empty landscape. The subsequent slow pentatonic melody has funereal solemnity under Tadaaki Otaka;’s restraining baton. They are giving the concert and its box-office takings for the benefit of their countrymen and women who died in the earthquake and tsunami in March.

The hall is humbled. The Japanese star Akiko Suwanai plays from memory Bruch’s Violin Concerto No1 on her Stradivarius ‘Dolphin’, built in 1714 and previously owned by Heifetz. It is effortlessly warm, powerful and eloquent in the persuasive rhetoric that Bruch was never able to repeat though he tried. Suwanai’s sylph-like lines leave a spoor in the air. The Adagio is as heavy and polished as a coffin lid while the Finale is skittish without being insincere, like a loving send-off. It is sobering to hear the sounds Heifetz made, like hearing an ancient bell ring out across a valley, unchanged down the centuries.

The meat of the concert is Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the so-called ‘Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’. The grief in the opening plunges is  raw while the turn into the sombre second subject on its palpitating chum-chacha-chum rhythm is a gentle flow of steady weeping. Otaka maintains decorum and does not allow the music to gush. The crowd is stoic. There was no looting the abandoned shops as there has been in other places. The double-basses pizzicato like archers and the glockenspiel’s final chromatic ascent has an alleviating, cathartic effect.

The second movement dances as cheekily as a Mahlerian waltz and the third is coloured by the deep mourning of the grey violas. Bitterness pervades the finale with the xylophone cackling among the first violins and the doh-soh timpani pounding out the menace of the approaching wave of violence – whether human or natural is immaterial. The brutal conclusion is awesome and Otaka stands for a moment immobile, bowed by grief and visibly moved, while relieving applause rains down. He announces an encore. Elgar’s Nimrod reaches out and is at once both compliment to the host and expression of the deepest sorrow. It seems almost unfair to criticise such a concert, but it is at such moments that music is at its most necessary and meaningful. A sense of propitiation came upon the exiting crowd and a sense of having taken part in a public act of commemoration.