Inter alia

I had a short-list for filling time in the afternoons prior to the Proms, quite literally for a rainy day. The forecast for Thursday wasn’t good though it turned out fine in the end. The Bank of England Museum is only open during the week, so I haven’t generally had the opportunity to visit it, but it’s not far from work. I generally avoided the interactive exhibits, though from what I could hear, there weren’t many budding economists among the younger visitors trying them out. Nonetheless the story of the Bank is well laid out with some interesting prints and artefacts, and I did try out lifting and holding the carefully monitored gold bar (value somewhere around £400,000) – as well as the novelty value, it makes the point that at 13kg it can’t simply be thrown around the way it often has been in crime films.

Conversely, Friday’s forecast kept changing and in the end it was a wise move to spend time indoors, so I headed to The Queen’s Gallery Canaletto exhibition. This was quite busy, but the ghost of Alan Coren can be assured that it did convey the feeling of being in Waitrose rather than Sainsbury’s. There are works by a range of artists in the exhibition, which celebrates the collection purchased by George III from Joseph Smith in 1762. The highlight of the exhibition is the room containing the twelve views of the Grand Canal, Venice, as well as a series of views of Rome, but there are also pencil drawings (some of them quite rough in style, attractive but different to Canaletto’s well-known style), capricci fictions, and sketches for the stage.

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Just like buses

I was surprised to find myself second in the queue for Prom 42 on Wednesday for the first of a pair of concerts featuring Saint-Saëns among others. In fact, although I had expected to recognise some of the pieces without knowing them by name, it was a concert, themed around French evocations of the near and far east, of music almost all new to me. Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth began with Saint-Saëns’ overture from La princesse jaune: an opera a few years earlier than The Mikado but sharing the fascination of the time for all things Japanese, though in this case the opera is more about the fascination itself, rather than being a story of Japan. Next, ballet music from Delibes’ Lakmé, which I had expected to recognise at some point, but in fact it seems the suite doesn’t touch upon any of the really well-known themes.

Les Siècles is a period-instrument orchestra, and for this concert they were playing on late nineteenth-century instruments. It was, therefore, appropriate that the piano wheeled on to the stage was not the usual Royal Albert Hall Steinway, but instead a late nineteenth-century Bechstein. Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian), another work I’d expected to be more familiar than it turned out. This seemed a bit of an oddity, with multiple styles; the name refers to the sections in the slow movement, but the last movement looks forward to ragtime. I hesitate to use the word “timeless”, but I mean it rather literally, because overall the piece pulls in so many different directions it seems ancient and modern all at once. There was no doubting Tiberghien’s skill, though; and he rounded off the first half with an encore of Debussy’s prelude La Puerta del Vino.

Unusually, the piano remained on stage, as the second half began with another piano-orchestral piece, Franck’s Les Djinns, which had a more conventional sound although a less conventional form. The remainder of the concert was orchestral only: more theatre music with excerpts from Lalo’s Namouna, before finishing with the one piece I actually did recognise: Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanal from Samson and Delilah. If you’re the castanets player in the orchestra, this is your big chance. Of course it went down a storm. Conductor François-Xavier Roth insisted on a short speech, about the exploration of other cultures and the folly of building walls, and the concert concluded with one of the more unusual encores I have seen: an arrangement of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, or so the BBC Proms Twitter feed tells me.

I antipated a longer queue on Thursday, and I was right, although I still found myself in the second row for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert with Charles Dutoit. This time the theme was French and Spanish, beginning with Falla’s El amor brujo. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac certainly gave an earthy cantaora voice to the songs; among the orchestral numbers was the well-known Ritual Fire Dance. Joshua Bell was the violinist for Lalo’s Symphony espagnole, a concerto in all but name; another new piece for me, and well-received in the hall. Unusually, orchestra and soloist joined forces for an encore at the end of the first half: the Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet. It obviously destroys any illusion of spontaneity, but combining the available musicians in this way is a nice touch.

The second half of the concert began with a presentation of the Royal Philharmonic Society (unrelated to the orchestra) Medal to Dutoit, before moving on to Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3 (Organ), with organist Cameron Carpenter. Unlike the Lalo, this really is more symphonic, although the organ is important when it’s heard. I enjoyed the performance, although somehow the timekeeping had gone awry and the concert finished fifteen minutes late, enough for me to miss my anticipated train home (I had no plans to stay for the late night Prom).

Friday’s concert was again popular: a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection). The BBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Sakari Oramo, and joined by soprano Elizabeth Watts and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, and the Bach Choir and BBC Symphony Chorus. Oramo announced that the performance would be dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former chief conductor of the orchestra who died earlier this year. Oramo was animated and demonstrative throughout. Technically, there were one or two wobbles in the early stages, but they didn’t mar the drama of the first movement. I did feel, however, that the pace of the remainder of the symphony, and the final movement in particular, was on the slow side, and consequently it often lacked energy. Maybe some of that was me: I was promming for the third consecutive night, and it appears I also felt the last movement was on the slow side in 2006; however, the concert finished 10-15 minutes later than expected, so I don’t think it was just me. But even so, if Mahler 9 will always be modern music, then I think Mahler 2 will always be dramatic and exciting music.

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Road Trip or Car Crash?

Book Review: The Wangs vs The World, by Jade Chang
I had this on my to-read list when I found it in the work book sale, but it’s taken time to get round to it. I found the first few chapters a bit tricky to get into, but after that, the book flowed quite well and entertainingly. Charles Wang is a self-made millionaire who has lived the American Dream, building a cosmetics supply chain empire since buying a plane ticket from Taiwan. But it’s 2008, and he has overstretched himself: giving his home as security for a hubristic loan, the inevitable has happened, and he is bankrupted. This is the story of his trip from California across America, with his second wife Barbra, to collect youngest daughter Grace from boarding school (unpaid), son Andrew from college (car repossessed), and to arrive in upstate New York to visit his eldest daughter Saina (an artist who, by virtue of her age, has received millions from her father which may – or may not – be beyond reach of his creditors). Ultimately he is seeking to reclaim land in China which he believes was owned by his prestigious ancestors prior to the Communist revolution.

The book triggers mixed feelings for the characters: they’re all lovingly dysfunctional in their own ways, the children never having had to struggle for anything and the reality slowly dawning on Grace in particular. Of course things don’t go according to plan, and the family are taken down acerbically, notch by notch. The number of characters gives ample opportunity to focus on one character’s perspective for a few chapters, then to switch to another. Interestingly, bankers do feature in Charles Wang’s back-story, but they are hardly demonised: rather, they act prudently, initially refusing the loan, only accepting it reluctantly with the additional security of property, and later, as the business began to fail, they recommended restructuring to protect his assets – all of which heightens Charles’ anger, as there is no-one else to blame. As for the book’s title, do the Wangs win? Of course not – but although the book draws to a clear conclusion, it also leaves scope to reopen the story in sequel or spin-off form.

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Proms 101

I knew the Proms yesterday would be popular, with an all-Rachmaninov evening concert followed by a late-night Prom of his All-Night Vigil. Even so, I was a bit surprised that, arriving around mid-day, my raffle ticket was 101.

To make best use of the intervening time, I headed off to Dulwich Picture Gallery for their Sargent exhibition. The exhibitions at Dulwich aren’t blockbuster-scale, but they can get quite crowded; fortunately, although popular, there was plenty of space to move around. Indeed, I wondered whether there were more people in the restaurant and cafe, and in the park grounds, than in the gallery itself. Most of the pieces in this watercolour exhibition are from Sargent’s trips to Europe: Venice in particular, but also other locations in Italy, France and Spain; there are a few pieces from the Near and Middle East, and the US as well. I found the landscapes and cityscapes more appealing than the final room on portraiture. Among my favourites were: the Spanish Fountain; The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice; Constantinople; the desecrated Gates of a Chateau, Ransart; the sultry Siena; and the ethereal San Vigilio.

I was back in good time for the concert. After an unusual hiatus to allow season ticket holders to enter at an increased rate, I still found myself about a third of the way towards the front. Occasions like this make me realise how fortunate I am when I’m further forward. But even such adversity can have advantages: stewards asked us to make way, as the concert began with a procession through the centre of the Arena by the Latvian Radio Choir with their first liturgical chant; beginning in the infinite distance beyond the entrance to the stalls, they passed through the interior of the Arena before disappearing below the stage. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Thomas Dausgaard and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk were already on stage, and launched straight into Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, reputedly one of the most difficult in the repertoire. Gavrylyuk had the piano under control, though in profile his facial expressions veered between rabbit-in-headlights and Dr Evil. I hadn’t really expected him to give an encore after that, but he produced a piano version of Vocalise.

The second half began with more chant by the choir, this time up in the gallery. Again the orchestra followed immediately with Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. It’s a piece I enjoy listening to, but I find it difficult to stand listening to; combined with a misjudgement of meal-times through the day, I found myself sitting out a few passages. There are longer symphonies, and longer symphonic movements; but I think the difficulty with this one is the lack of footholds, it’s difficult sometimes to know where you are. In the circumstances I don’t feel able to judge the performance, but the audience reaction confirmed it was well received. The advantage of an earlier finish – I had never intended to stay for the late-night concert – was that I was able to walk across Kensington Gardens and get an earlier train back from Paddington.

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Our Friends in the North

I made it to the rail for the first time this season, and had an excellent view of the concert. For Prom 33, the BBC Philharmonic were conducted by John Storgårds in a mixed programme, with a Nordic first half and a Germanic second half.

They began with some excerpts from Peer Gynt: At the Wedding (Prelude to Act 1), The Abduction of the Bride / Ingrid’s Lament (Prelude to Act 2), Morning Mood (Prelude to Act 4), Solveig’s Song and Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter. It was a bit disappointing that In the Hall of the Mountain King was missing from the set, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable performance, and soprano Lise Davidsen gave a strong voice to Solveig’s Song.

Davidsen returned for the next item, Sibelius’ tone-poem Luonnotar, inspired by the creation myth of the Kalevala. This strange, haunting and relatively obscure work was the piece that had prompted me to select this concert, and it was good to see it in the flesh. The first half was rounded off with more Sibelius, this time the more well-known Karelia Suite. Storgårds seemed to be dancing on the podium during part of the Intermezzo, perhaps an unusually extravagant expression for a Finn, but clearly enjoying the music of his compatriot.

Concertos typically fall into the first half of a concert programme, but the balance of timings meant that Alban Gerhardt started the second half with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Both pieces in the second half were new to me, and this seemed to be quite an intense performance during the first movement, becoming calmer and warm-hearted by the end of the third movement. It was well received, but there was no time for an encore. The final piece of the concert was Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, another composer about which I was curious though not necessarily enthusiastic. It turned out to be at the good end of my expectations: had I been told it was by Stravinsky, Respighi, Mahler or (at a pinch) Shostakovich, I could have believed it.

Had things gone a little quicker, or if I had been thinking more clearly, I would have had a more comfortable journey home; I clearly missed the 2215 but could just have jumpted on the 2218 which had just disappeared from the departure board at Paddington, had I remembered the National Rail app told me it was departing from Platform 12. As it was, I avoided the half-empty train whose doors were just about to close and I squeezed onto the smaller, busier 2221 for Bedwyn instead, though fortunately it emptied substantially at Slough.

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It’s Complicated

After obtaining raffle tickets for Prom 29, yesterday we adjourned to the Natural History Museum, swapping one queue for another. At least the queue on the Queen’s Gate side of the NHM moved quite quickly. It’s several years since I have been there, and some things have changed – notably the blue whale skeleton that has replaced “Dippy” – while others have stayed the same. Charles Darwin seemed unmoved. On the whole I felt there could have been more signs saying “Museum” and fewer saying “Shop”, “Cafe” or “Restaurant”.

We found ourselves in the second row of the Arena for Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky worked on this opera in the last few years of his life, and it was left incomplete; various hands have, over the years, assembled versions or fragments of it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stravinsky together, and Stokowski. On this occasion, it was Shostakovich’s orchestration; an interesting choice for him to work on, given that the whole plot is one of political and religious intrigue, and that the first scene features the dictation of a denunciation to a scribe; but he did produce this version during the Khrushchev thaw, so maybe its themes were in vogue, or at least officially acceptable, at the time.

Despite the surtitles – an innovation at the Proms – it wasn’t easy to follow the plot. To be fair, this is intrinsic to the story; knowing more about Russian history doubtless helps. Given Mussorgsky’s original work was written during Tsarist times, I assume the Tsar is Good, and therefore the Boyars are Bad. But it’s not always clear-cut, everyone claims to be reforming against the other lot, and the Priest Dosifey keeps springing up out of nowhere, always with an opinion.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov did a good job; to be honest, I only recognised a few fragments, in particular Dawn on the Moscow River from Act 4; but the tragic ending was striking and spectacular. Among a hard-working cast and chorus, I’d single out mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova (Marfa) and bass Ante Jerkunica (Ivan Khovansky) for their particularly strong voices. It was a long concert, and a late journey back, but we were relatively fortunate with the Sunday evening trains.

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Travels in Reality and Hyper-Reality

Book Review: Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers, by Paul Sullivan and Marcel Krueger
I picked this up last year in a work book sale. It’s a fairly short tour through the districts of Berlin, blending history and architecture with literature and writing, both historical and contemporary. Unsurprisingly, the chapters I found most interesting were the areas of which I’m most familiar, either from visiting Berlin on holiday or from general history: Mitte, Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg, Wannsee, and (almost) Potsdam (at least to the Glienicke Brücke). In particular, the chapter on Mitte devotes a lot of space to the Stadtschloss, currently under reconstruction following the demolition some years ago of the DDR Palast von der Republik that occupied its space. Being honest, the chapters on the seedier areas of Berlin don’t give it much appeal, but it’s interesting to note the cosmopolitan nature of the city, with its former heavy industrial areas having a long history as a transit zone for migrants, from early urbanisation through to the post-war Gästarbeiter. The book covers a range of writers, a few from earlier times but mostly twentieth century, including Alfred Döblin, Christopher Isherwood, Len Deighton and John le Carré.

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