Saturday, 28 January 2012

Life About Town


To the Art Workers’ Guild in Queen Square for the announcement of a new computerised device for helping student pianists sight-read. At an electric piano in the corner the appliance is being demonstrated by a small girl, grand-daughter of the inventor, Christopher Wiltshire. Fortunately she is not much good at the piano so she is a good guinea-pig. The device removes bars from the screen as they are played to prevent the player from going back. One must press on. The alternative is to accompany someone. David Mellor the former Minister of Fun arrives as guest speaker. ‘Fellow Alcoholics!’ he begins, ‘the definition of an alcoholic is someone whom you dislike but who drinks the same as you, which seems to fit!’ He tells a number of jokes about George W Bush – Mr President, the biggest problem in Africa is malaria – How do you think those Malarians will react if we send in troops? -  and then hands over to Wiltshire, a cheerful Yorkshireman who fails to live up to his promise of brevity.

Nearby is the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street where the author lived from 1837 to 1839 when he was 25. It is celebrating his bicentenary by closing down from April to December for a refurb. No one would say it doesn’t need one. They certainly need to get rid of the wood effect lino in Dickens’ bedroom on the second floor. Most of its display space is given to notice of the £3.1 million restoration project, but there is a picture of the Hamlet chapter from Great Expectations which serves my Shakespearean purpose. On the ground floor, there is notice of Dickens’ spearheading the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s campaign to raise £3000 to buy his house in Straford Upon Avon and the view that it was ‘the preservation of England’s literary heritage which lay behind his social campaigning’. The most poignant room belongs to Mary Hogarth, his 17-year-old sister-in-law who died in Dickens’ arms after a night at the theatre in May 1837 when they had seen a production of his play ‘Is She His Wife?’. It’s the real life death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

To the Royal College of Music for a meeting with Jean-Philippe Calvin, professor of contemporary music in advance of his Cage concert on Thursday 2 February. His ensemble is giving a rare performance of HPSCHD for seven harpsichords and 51 ‘tapes’ which are now on computer. ‘It would be very hard to find enough reel-to-reel tape players,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult enough getting seven harpsichords together in one place. That accounts for the rarity of performances.’ Authenticity in contemporary music is going to have to wait until all the items are in museums ironically. I attend the rehearsal of another item on the programme, Living Room Music which involves making music from household objects – a newspaper, a cup, a table. The musicians perform the second movement which is entirely spoken in rhythm. ‘Once upon a time…’ a girl begins with four quavers and a crotchet. It is like Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue which Calvin has never heard of.

To the Barbican cinema for a live relay of The Enchanted Island, a new devised work by Jeremy Sams with music by Handel, Rameau, Vivaldi and others. Danielle de Niese is on form as she warbles out a castrato aria at the climax. Placido Domingo plays a bad-tempered Neptune standing on a rock surrounded by flying mermaids as the chorus hail him with Handel’s Zadok the Priest with different words. Mr Sams and I were at school together when the English and Music masters concocted an opera called Lancelot and Guinevere using the music of Henry Purcell. Sams led the orchestra but I came on as King Arthur standing on a rock singing Warriors Strike Home from Bonduca. Could that have been the provenance?