Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Saturday, 20 August 2011

George's Day

Saturday27th August
The Kenya national anthem Ee mungu nguvu yetu blows in through the tv after the nation wins gold, silver and bronze in both the women's marathon and 10,000 metres at the world athletics championships in Daegu, Korea. It's a melancholy, modal tune based on a folk melody sung by the women, appropriately enough, of the Pokomo tribe and composed, or at least harmonised, by my old friend George Senoga-Zake for Kenya's Independence in 1963. I landed myself on him and his family at the end of a gap year adventure in Africa in 1975. He was professor of music at Kenyatta University and had ten children, seven girls and three boys. It was the opposite of my own family in London which has seven boys and three girls. They're African, we're European. Philip was a journalist on the Nairobi Standard, I for the London Evening Standard. Veronica was a deejay on Kenya Radio. They put me up on a mat behind the sofa in the living room surrounded by instruments and piles of music until I could get a flight home. They fed me yams, chipatis, banana mash with groundnut sauce, and rice which we washed down with sweet martini. They introduced me to their friends who took me to the theatre, played jazz and beat me at squash. 

Friday 26th August
The 13-year-old singing cellist catches the train from Poole and I meet her at Waterloo to take her to her most lucrative engagement yet. She gets a hundred quid for a couple of hours singing at Abbey Road Studios for a French film company. Even in the rain there are tourists photographing themselves on the zebra crossing outside. On the wall, a plaque tells us that Elgar opened the place and recorded here in 1931, but it is more famous for the two-minute ballads by the Beatles. In the canteen, the organiser asks the 13-year-old to sing a solo with one other girl. I am not wanted so I disappear to swap Brahms books for a Mahler score at Barbican Library and peruse the music magazines. Gramophone's cover feature is about Abbey Road, 'From Elgar to Elton.' Outside I take a picture of the Mendelssohn Tree just as the tourists do with the pedestrian crossing. The subject is the stump of a 500-year-old beech, one of the Burnham Beeches of Buckinghamshire, which Mendelssohn was known to have sat under and which fell down in a storm in 1990. As the Corporation of London had bought the park 'for the nation' in 1910, the Barbican Horticultural Society acquired the stump and set it up on the walkway above Barbican tube station. My Mendelssohn scrap-book increased, I cycle to Southwark to try to find a venue for the Friends of Cathedral Music meeting at Southwark Cathedral next month. I'd like to use a pub and present the members with a large cost reduction because we are not using the extortionate Cathedral refectory. Back at Abbey Road, the singing cellist looks glum. The producer heard her rival and decided he didn't need to audition anyone else. 'Their loss,' I said to cheer her up as I bought her a pack of vegetarian sushi to eat on the train journey back to Poole. But it was mine too.

Thursday 25th August
Three and half hours of Baroque opera gallop through this evening. Director Robert Carsen has imagined Handel's Rinaldo as a school history lesson on the Crusades which becomes a dream infiltrated by comic sexual fantasy. The Christians are boys in blazers riding to the Holy Land on bikes. The Infidel are seductive St Trinian's girls in very short skirts led by the history teacher as a cane-wielding PVC-fetishist in vertiginous heels. It's the sort of production which can provoke howls of derision or roars of approval and in this case it's the latter. What exactly was the appeal of the exotic East to the tooled-up Western knights off on an adventure for years at a stretch? The naughty girls wear burkhas over their sexy uniforms. The success is down to the musicians, the pacey Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone who does very well to keep playing Handel's long harpsichord solo at the end of Act II with the history mistress coming at him with her cane. She, Brenda Rae, is the pick of a terrific cast with her clean, bright, laser-straight, tireless soprano. She enters on a note as high as her heels and jolts the audience into involuntary gasps. It's a terrific performance all round, very funny in parts and beuutifully performed. Nothing though, haunts me more now than the sirens' saucy song as they call irresisitibly to Rinaldo Il vostro maggio. I very nearly get up and go with them.

Tuesday 23rd August
By Prom 52 this evening, the prommers have raised only £48,000 'for musical charities'. In the last years they have stung us for a grand a night, which proves what we already know: we are poorer. Still, it's not the amount, but what you spend it on that counts. When I rang the Musicians Benevolent Fund recently, the office was empty. They had all gone to Glastonbury for the weekend. Fares to a pop concert is what your money goes on.

Prom 52 belongs to the London Symphony Orchestra under Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev. His stance is that of a skier flying off the ramp - legs stiff, body bent forward at the waist. The music seems constantly to be rushing. His right hand trembles constantly imparting a sense of nervous energy to the players. The tremolo strings in Prokofiev's Classical Symphony sound especially volatile. The winds are harsh and set a standard which pervades the concert. Their contribution to the Classical Symphony is abrasive. Someone should play it on period instruments.  

Dutilleux's L'Arbre des Songes - the tree of dreams - is a violin concerto which here under Gergiev punches hard and lacks gentleness. The soloist Leonidas Kavakos looks like Rasputin and grinds out the notes as if in a trauma. The composer is supposed to be Debussy's heir, but there was no sense of the impressionist's caress. Messiaen inhabits the tuned percussion, Stravinsky the woodwind trills, but under Gergiev we waited in vain for tenderness. The strings' cluster chords were all Dutilleux however and here at last the orchestra transported us to a steamy, overgrown dreamscape of variable gravity and exotic sounds. The cimbalom player with his hammers sat apart from the rest of the orchestra and haunted the score like a hermit admonishing society while Kavakos found a soul-mate in the cor anglais whose rich, dark, low song matched his own. We clapped but there was a sense of relief that it was over.

The orchestra's mood suits Dutilleux's Slava's Fanfare much better. It is a short, witty blast for trumpets, trombones and flutes written for Rostropovich, the dedicatee of the composer's cello concerto Tout un Monde Lointain. I had a Victoria Library copy of the score when I met Dutilleux at a concert ten years ago and asked him to sign it. I returned it to its shelf much more valuable than when I had taken it out. I must remember to go and check if it is still there.   

Monday 22nd August
John, the Leeds undergraduate, has been pointed towards the German author Erich Ebermayer for his dissertation. Books by the late author keep plopping on to the mat. I am reading one called Unter Anderem Himmel which was published in Leipzig in 1941. I wonder if he was a Nazi sympathiser, but John tells me certain of his books were burned. He was gay, apparently. As a boy, Ebermayer had attended the Thomasschule in Leipzig, perhaps as a chorister. Later he had written biographies of Goethe and Wagner. 'He was obsessed with Wagner,' John tells me.  Like everyone.

Saturday 20th August
Jose-Maria Perez says, 'As a Catholic, I am protestant'. He attends church once a month, but resents it. 'The church is too rich,' he complains. Even so, for his last night with us, I take him to St Michael's Church, Highgate, where the organist and friends is giving a charity concert for the East Africa famine. As I am paying the recommended ticket price of a tenner each plus a fiver for students (the Leeds undergraduate John is with us), Jose-Maria slaps a twenty pound note in the collection plate and says, 'is for Africa; is good'.

The organist's friends include two from the jazz world - Richard Bolton a guitarist in the Joe Pass mould, and Yazz Ahmed, a flugelhorn player who hardly comes up to the top of the Steinway, yet was a star at the recent British jazz awards. Bass player Paul Moylan gets the first impromptu clap for his solo in Stompin' at the Savoy. He brings his wife freelance flautist Susan Torke who plays Debussy Syrinx with assertive clarity, and his 12-year-old daughter who plays a Vivaldi sonata with Dad at the piano.

Tom Davidson a trumpeter, with the National Youth Orchestra, plays Gershwin, and Welsh pianist Iwan Llewellyn Jones plays Debussy's Jardins sous la Pluie with increasingly heavy splashing on the keys. Baritone Michael Peavoy, who is in Billy Elliott on the West End from next week, sings with emotive gestures two Sondheim numbers, tenor Henry moss delivers a pair of Italian ice cream arias before joining soprano Anya Sreter for the closing scene of Puccini's La Boheme.

The compere Revd Niall Weir, tenor, sang two Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers and kept his introductions to quip length. He tells us he was at a service at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford 30 years ago when, during the prayers, he looked up to the organ loft and saw the organist Michael Haslam eating breakfast. 'Who's he?' asked the vicar.

'The best sight-reader in Oxford,' cam the reply.

'How do you know?'

'He once played for Evensong without a single mistake having drunk two pints of Pim's No1 Cup the same afternoon.'

Earlier in the day, Jose-Maria and I are in town. The guide book says stars can get a table at the Ivy Restaurant without a fuss, but mere unknowns, such as Jose-Maria, have to wait months. We put this to the test and get a table immediately. Flustered, we explain we have suddenly decided against but would like to book a table for Jose and his wife for a few days time. The name goes in the book and Jose can barely contain his excitement. 'I am a star, Fuensanta is a star, Pablo and Pepe are stars,' he says, numbering off the members of his immediate family.     

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Hackney Gets Pious

Jane Austen’s last novel about a priggish goody-goody who quietly tells everyone how to behave before marrying a vicar is not rated highly even by the author’s most ardent fans, but it is the subject of Jonathan Dove’s latest opera, which opens the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre among the shattered shop fronts of Hackney. It replaces Philip Glass’ The Sound of a Voice, which cancels because the Voice is ill and has no voice. Heritage Opera however snaps up the chance to add a London date to its world premiere tour of Mansfield Park which began in Northampton on the last day of July.

Dove scores the work for piano duo and cast of ten. It is like a singsong round the Broadwood in a Victorian parlour. The finale is a part song which occurs at crucial moments in the score. The novel is not forgotten. The backcloth is a blow-up of Page One so that the characters appear to step out of the very text. Helpfully, they announce the chapters, the music breaking between each.

Alasdair Middelton’s libretto is a neatly efficient précis of the novel with the cast retaining Austen’s dialogue and the essential episodes highlighted. None is more vivid than the visit to Sotherton, a neighbouring estate with an iron gate which its future mistress, Maria played by Eloise Routledge, finds restraining. She is all spoilt spite as she enjoys a flirtation with the smarmy cad Henry, who is not to be her husband.

Pious Fanny is played by Serenna Wagner. Her tone is appropriately severe in the unrewarding acoustic. Edmund, the trainee priest sung by Thomas Eaglen, has a soft, warm, tenor suggestive of somnolent sermons. The pick of the voices is Sarah Helsby Hughes’ thrilling soprano, which cuts the air as decisively as her persona’s, Mary Crawford’s, hilarious rudeness. The older generation, Mr and Mrs Bertram, are sung by Nuala Willis with an antique veneer and John Rawnsley with caricature snobbish superiority. They lighten even further an evening that is already not only witty, but also wonderfully evocative, in a coy 21st century way, of Austen's innocent era, even if the heroine herself is one of literature's less likable lasses.

Tuesday 16 August
I give the Spaniard Jose Maria Perez a copy of Get me to the Church on Time from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady and tell him he has a week to learn it by heart. He recognises the song and tells me he can never forget it because he took his wife to see the stage version in 2004 in Madrid. On the way home they were passengers in a train crash in which ten or eleven people died and hundreds were injured. 'It's impossible,' he says meaning 'terrible'.

Wednesday 17 August
Senor Perez, the English language student who is living with us for two weeks, enjoys the couplet 'pull out the stopper / let's have a whopper' and comes out with it when he can. We take him to the quiz night at the Jolly Farmer. There is no question to which My Fair Lady is the answer but he is able to confirm that Antonio Banderas is indeed the pseudonym of Jose Antonio Dominguez Banderas. Collis comes too as it is through him that Perez is staying. Andy Glyn arrives in a Welsh rugby shirt because he was once an honorary member of the Jones Seven. He gets most of the answers.

Thursday 18 August
Jose-Maria Perez has communicated that he wants to take us to dinner at the local noodle house which has just re-opened after a long refurb. They have chucked out the tables they never used and moved the kitchen downstairs so that the food no longer arrives with a bell in the dumb waiter. Jane ordered everything in Chinese. She discovered that Tai Won Mein means Big Bowl Noodle and that its sister outlet in greenwich Tai Tip Mein is Big Plate Noodle. She is becoming impressively self-possessed. She booked herself an appointment with a cashier at the Catford branch of Barclays Bank today, because she is disgusted that Nationwide has closed all its branches in South East London. 'So you're the 13-year-old,' said Leon in wonder. She old him about her rabbits and her cello-playing and he commented that her name was Jane Haydon Jones was appropriate to a classical musician.

Friday 19th August 2011
Took old schoolteacher to the Proms. He tells me about his colleague Martin Clay who became disillusioned with the school, gave up his subject (Russian), divorced, took up with a woman at Old Palace, took an MA, and accepted an invitation to teach maths at Bournemouth Grammar.