Sunday, 1 April 2012

Man Opens Eyes During Prayers


Friday 6 April
In case you were wondering, it wasn't my phone which went off during the broadcast, live to the nation, of Radio 3's Choral Evensong featuring the Southwark Cathedral Girls' Choir on Wednesday. They'll have been slapping their thighs with delight from Land's End to the Outer Hebrides. It was during the prayers and I confess I opened my eyes to see if I could spot the culprit but saw no guilty flinching from any of the fifty or so supporters of the choir or the Radio 3 programme or both. There are some Choral Evesong groupies, admittedly only a minority, who follow the team round the country. I sang where I was supposed to and even where I wasn't, joining in the men's verse of the hymn when the congregation around me had gone silent. One wouldn't stop singing in a service so why should the magic of transmission make it different? We like gritty realism at Southwark with the trains rattling past the clerestory window into London Bridge station.  The girls had redoubled their effort since Monday's dry-run. Mr Disley put them through a two-hour rehearsal. The singing cellist was among them but her nurses don't quite appreciate what a calorie-burning exercise singing is and she had lost weight again this morning, Good Friday. They put their foot down. No more outings without weight-gain. Bang goes the hot cross bun binge.

As we are feeling sorry for ourselves about this, hugging each other in the hospital green room with its prospect onto the magnificent grounds where lunatics wander, Mrs Jones rings to say her bicycle has been stolen. I return almost immediately and as I am loading the buns onto the grill in batches of eight, an officer of the law arrives to ask, 'is this your bicycle?' Indeed it is. He explains it has been found in the underground car park at the end of the road where the local funeral directors keep their hearses. It is a truly awesome sight, if one happens to be passing on a misty morning just as the shiny black fleet is emerging from the underworld up the ramp to street level. Worthy of Dickens. Mrs Jones' bike has lost its panniers and its expensive D-lock but is otherwise intact. The officer who is in plain clothes - a green tracksuit top and jeans with handcuffs hanging from his belt as the only somewhat obvious clue to his status - says he would like to take a statement and comes in with his notebook. I wheel Mrs Jones' bike back to the shed and as I do so wave cheerily to two tracksuited women whom I take to be his colleagues standing by their unmarked police car. Only one of the two could be called this, however, as the other is the bike-thief herself, a neighbour of ours apparently, two doors up. Meanwhile the officer refuses our attempt to bribe him with a hot cross bun, but sits down at the dining room table anyway and is still there an hour later having taken an age laboriously noting down Mrs Jones's answers to no more than half a dozen obvious questions - when did you last see your bike? was the shed locked? has anything else gone? when did you say you last saw your bike? - and some unnecessary ones to test the psychological impact of the crime and to show the caring side of the new police force - how does it make you feel now about the area? The normal routine is to gorge on buns while listening to the St Matthew Passion, but I turn the CD player right down so as not to disturb the interview and we can hear only faintly the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pilate's interview and Peter's denial. I would beside my Lord, belts the tenor in the now rarely-performed English version. It takes me back to my school days and the policeman in the room disappears as I wallow in the reverie. In those days, a copper would have completed his interview in ten minutes on the doorstep and that would have been that. 'Can I read back to you what I've written?'' he says bringing me back from my trance. 'It's not Shakespeare.'  He makes up a passage about Mrs Jones returning from parking her bike in the shed and thinking no more of it and refers throughout his piece to her 'mountain bike' which it is not but it passes. Later in the evening, there is another knock at the door. This time it is forensics come to take fingerprints off the stolen velocipede. No one can say the police round here do not take even the smallest crime very seriously indeed. Apparently, it was the neighbour's sister who shopped her. In my young day, an older sibling would have seized a younger one by the ear and marched them round to apologise. Sounds like spite, ringing the police. Not to mention wasting their time. And ours. And now yours.

Thursday 5 April

The utility bill is now proof of identity. A driving licence alone is not good enough. This is what the attendant at the British Library insists on after I travel across town to renew my membership. Not even the fact that I am en expired member is good enough. She cannot re-admit me until she has seen an electricity demand in my name. This is disappointing as I am hoping to consult a particular volume of The Dickensian which only the British Library has and now I have to disappear with my tail between my legs. The volume in question contains the script of O'Tello the Irish Moor of Venice which John Dickens, the father of Charles, tried to sell as a piece of genuine Charles Dickens, when  he was once again broke. 

Monday 2 April
It's the singing cellist's birthday. She narrowly avoids the heavy nurses re-calling her to the ward for losing weight after climbing trees and having water-fights with her sleepover guests, and takes the train to London Bridge to sing Evensong at Southwark. The men are in the back row so she takes the corner girl's position under the conductor's nose. He makes the girls laugh with his new, more expressive, more expansive gestures which he has added because the men are in and everyone is to sing the live broadcast of Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 this Wednesday, a signal honour during Holy Week. The service is a rehearsal, which means the anthem has been changed to Byrd's Miserere Mei from the usual men-only Tallis Lamentations Part I. They would waddle out of the stalls and sing the masterpiece in a semicircle in front of the high altar which is decorated now for Lent with David March's astonishing Die Harder sculpture which shows Jesus screaming in agony as he is pinned to the cross by a thousand long needles through every part of him from his face to his scrotal sac. As the Mag and Nunc are Byrd's Short Service, we have the opportunity to compare the holy simplicity of his English music with the beautiful, heartfelt complexity of his Latin. Tallis' Salvator mundi invites an early entry from one of the girls and the psalm is sung to a suspension-rich chant by Howells. The succentor sings a little flat during the responses which makes the eyebrows of all sensitive listeners rise as they will her to make amends. There are a few tweaks to be made here and there, gentlemen. In the vestry, they sing happy birthday. The singing cellist rewards everyone with a box of chocolates. Later, that evening during supper in which she agrees to a second helping, she eats one of the remaining chocolates, an indulgence she hasn't allowed herself for two years. She promised she'd be different after her fourteenth birthday and so she is. 


Sunday 1 April Late Show
 It’s a risk programming no overture. You invite an expensive soloist to play the concerto but when the first movement ends, she has to wait while the latecomers file in noisily. That’s why you have overtures. How rudely Julia Fischer was treated at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s late-March gig at the Royal Festival Hall although even she had to smile at the Japanese pair who ran in, anxious not to hold things up. The rest arrived as if it were them we had been waiting for and in their day clothes too so that they didn’t even have the excuse that they were putting on make-up or couldn’t find their smart trousers. They missed a first movement of proud authority in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, its long introduction perfectly weighted at an alert, overturish pace set by Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit who had blackened his hair for the evening. His magisterial presence defied any player to come in wrongly and none did, until the second movement when the horn entry burbled. Meanwhile, Fischer unravelled the solo part like a flower opening for spring, planted dew-drops of sound on the audience’s undeserving heads and, in the cadenza, flashed lines of radiant melody seemingly from different parts of her instrument, even giving the four-note bouncing motif as much solidity, interwoven in the intricate scales, as the orchestra itself had done under Dutoit’s masterly control, his elbows pumping like bellows. Resignation coloured the Larghetto as Fischer identified Beethoven’s strong-willed acceptance of fate. She leapt into the finale with guns blazing, her black silk dress flowing with the beat, and firing sparks from its diamond buckle. She played a liitle too readily an encore, Paganini’s thirteenth Caprice. Germans, on the whole, are not a superstitious lot.

The orchestra doubled in size during the interval. There were now nine horns where there had been two, five trombones and tubas where there had been none and twice as many trumpeters as Beethoven had needed. Three of the latter left their seats and headed for the bar at one point whence to play the distant battlefield evocation in Strauss’ Heldenleben. Dutoit gave the work an old man’s start, the low entries gruff and complaining, but not even he could clarify the superfluity of business once underway, so that the overall effect for much of the time was as fuzzy as a malfunctioning hearing aid. Only occasionally did the performance come sharply into focus and that was invariably when the textures had been reduced – the twin harps punctuating the strings, the Wagner quote, the bitter dry flute, representing the carping critics. Nearby, the elderly subscribers recalled Beecham give an ‘out of this world’ performance and then proceeded to judge the world like bad-tempered Straussians. ‘I do wish they’d stop all these ruddy announcements,’ said one after Sir Ian McKellen’s sonorous automated monologue about mobile phones which is now several years old. ‘Someone’s went off anyway in the Beethoven,’ growled his companion. ‘Load of freaks about, if you ask me.’