The Odd Couple

Prom 6 was definitely a concert of two halves. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sakari Oramo began with Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a jazzy, easy-listening piece which was light and enjoyable. To be honest it doesn’t make me think of Paris, but it does of America – and of Tom and Jerry. During the interval, not only did we have the obligatory cry of Heave-Ho! as the piano was manoeuvred to the front of the stage, but also celesta, keyed glockenspiel and ondes Martenot. In the second half, a rather less-easy-listening piece: Messiaen’s TurangalĂ®la Symphony, with Angela Hewitt on the piano and Cynthia Millar on the ondes Maretnot. As with Galaxy Quest, it was very exciting to see a master at the controls: in the second row of the arena the early electronic instrument was loud, but at least I could see when to expect sound. It certainly produced quite a range of sounds, from ethereal Theremin-like infusions to revving motorbike basses. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Messiaen’s music: it’s chaotic and dissonant, but it does have a strange and driving energy, and there were some tuneful sections as well as recurrent and menacing brass chorales. Though I can’t find a reference to it in the programme notes, there’s clearly a section not quite half-way in that either quotes Gershwin’s piece, or that shares with it a common origin, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed that but for this pairing; it makes me wonder whether there are references to other works in there.

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The “Leningrad”, at last

Monday was my first Prom of the season; the queuing arrangements were the same as last year, which works for me in fitting in with work, but is not so good from the social side. Nevertheless, there was a brief opportunity to refresh acquaintance with old friends, and come the concert, I got a place in the second row of the arena. The BBC Philharmonic were conducted by Juanjo Mena and joined in the first half by clarinettist Mark Simpson for Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto. After a promising lyrical opening I enjoyed about half the music; unfortunately that was spliced through with unintelligible cacophony. Simpson himself certainly put himself wholeheartedly into the work.

The reason for choosing this concert, though, was the second half, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad). Why revisit a work I’ve seen before, in 2006 and 2010? Well, I had mixed feelings; with performances spoiled by sirens or helicopters, I had come to wonder whether it was a work more suited to the clinical recording studio than a central London concert hall. But I decided this year to give it another go, and from the off, I found this an interesting performance. I’m not sure quite what it was, but something in the strings sounded a bit different in the opening bars – as the work progressed I noticed there was only quite sparing use of vibrato, and I wonder if that’s what it was. Anyhow, the long march in the first movement was thankfully uninterrupted by noises off, though I wasn’t sure it always had much feeling. The orchestra did show some tenderness in the inner movements, and the finale worked well, with a Shostakovich trademark faux triumph – or perhaps, a genuine triumph combined with the realisation of the return of a previous foe. A good start to the season.

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Caveat lector

Book Review: Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future, by Harry Leslie Smith
I’d already added this to my to-read list when it turned up in the work book sale. I was curious, though I’d been warned that if you’re a regular reader of his writing in The Guardian you may find there’s only a single theme that gets repeated ad infinitum.

That flaw is, to some extent, true. It often reads as though everything can be blamed on the austerity of British governments in the 1920s and 1930s, which just seems to lack imagination. Smith’s childhood was not short on tragedy, losing a sibling to tuberculosis, watching a parental relationship fall apart due ultimately to workplace injury, and frequently moving on in order to avoid landlords and bailiffs. In some ways this might have been a better book if Smith stuck solely to the facts, because he tells his harrowing early life story well and it is a story worth hearing, but he can’t resist returning to a one-dimensional layer of cause and effect. I’m not disputing that government policy bears some responsibility, but there is an over-emphasis on that single cause, because it fits Smith’s agenda to complain about austerity today, which again may be causing much damage, but is not the sole driver of everything.

Smith lauds Corbyn on several occasions in the book. Smith is also vehemently anti-Brexit. Curiously these two positions never seem to be in conflict, which seems stereotypical and for me poses challenges of credibility.

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Finland awakes

Book Review: Come to Finland! Paradise calling, by Magnus Londen
I enjoyed my visit to the Ateneum in Helsinki, and although thie pocket book relates to a previous exhibition at the National Museum of Finland I didn’t see, I’m glad I picked it up in the gift shop. The written word is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but with a book like this, we’re here for the pictures, which are excellent, spanning the period from the 1920s through to the 1960s, with some additional works from contemporary travel poster competitions. Some favourites below.

Harry Hudson Rodmell, 1920s

Aukusti Tuhka, 1937

This pair reminds me of M C Escher. Per-Olof Nyström, 1961

Lasse Hietala, 1960s

Come to Finland Poster Competition, Jaco & Aline Hubregtse, 2017

Come to Finland Poster Competition, Rina Kusaga, 2017

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Food, Glorious Food

Book Review: The Gastronomical Me, by M F K Fisher
This was a random selection from the work book sale; I had never heard of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher before. First published in 1943, this is generically though not strictly autobiographical in nature, and covers about the first half of her life. There are early reminiscences about food preparation at home, and at boarding school in California, before further study in Chicago, and then marriage and travel with her first husband to Europe (mostly France, but also Switzerland and Italy). The European section is the bulk and highlight of the book; this is travel writing, and it’s food writing, but it’s really people writing, about the characters and situations she encounters. To some extent it reads uncomfortably today, as she plainly had a privileged upbringing and is frequently quite snobbish, but it seems to be done unconsciously and without ill intent; and it’s not as if the French academic colleagues of her husband considered her a few steps down from their social level, either. The story becomes darker as her husband falls ill, she begins an affair, and Europe descends towards war; in the golden age of ocean liners she documents the attitudes of ocean-crossing Germans in particular in the 1930s, and there is some reportage about an escaped prisoner on a train in Italy that would be harrowing (it clearly disturbed Fisher at the time) were it not for the foreknowledge that much worse was to come. The last section, following the death of her husband, describes a trip to Mexico in 1941; it doesn’t connect so well with the rest of the book, but it’s obviously describing changed circumstances.

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A Period Piece

Book Review: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
I picked this up in the work book sale on the basis of my enjoyment of a previous work by the same author, Red Plenty. It turns out that this is Spufford’s first novel, and perhaps it should be no surprise that he has chosen to be inventive.

The story is set in New York in 1746, when Mr Smith disembarks from a ship and proceeds to a banking house, where he presents a bill for one thousand pounds, on sixty days’ notice. The banker is suspicious, and Mr Smith is himself economical with the truth of the purpose of his visit and the source of his funds. In the mean time, he attempts to settle in to the society in which he finds himself, with mixed results. New York is, on the surface, a civilised place, but it is a colony full of political intrigue, and also readily apparent that it is vulnerable to social disquiet in much the same way as the archetypal London mob. Smith’s reluctance to adhere to convention places him in frequent self-inflicted difficulty, and he makes friends and enemies, sometimes of the same people, regularly. The trials and tribulations of the book’s characters, and the way they are described, are apparently contemporary to novels of the period, and I suspect people with a deeper historical or literary grounding will find much in the way of allusions to enjoy from it. Although I found one or two sections tedious, as a whole I enjoyed it.

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Reassuringly disillusioned

Book Review: Wish Lanterns – Young Lives in New China, by Alec Ash
I picked this up a while ago in the work book sale. A little like Born in the GDR, the author has interviewed six Chinese millennials to discover their life stories, aspirations and reality, in contemporary China. The author, who studied in China and remained there, describes Beijing “as if Hieronymous Bosch and Lenin had joined forces as urban planners”. Though the people are drawn geographically from across China, there can’t be a claim to be particularly representative; they all made it to university, but perhaps with one academic exception, none of them are high flyers either. One has difficulty with internet gaming addiction; another proceeds through a series of TV contests in an attempt to pursue a musical career. Politics is discussed infrequently – the attitudes to the Chinese system are mostly indifferent; they have knowledge of democracy, but any enthusiasm for it is tempered by reports of inequality and instability. The picture that emerges is one of struggle with basic housing, parental pressure for marriage, unfulfilled dreams and resultant mediocrity.

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