A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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A Day in the Life

It’s the last night at Dartington Summer School week 2, and I’m typing this as I listen to the sounds of the Ceilidh in the Great Hall. (Ceilidh. Brilliant solution to all those middle-aged “I don’t disco” loonies who still like to shake their wobbly bits.) Given that I’m heading for the real world tomorrow, thought I’d jot down a day in the Dartington Summer School life…

6.30am Alarm goes off. Yes off. (Why was it ever on?)

7.55am Bugger. Fell asleep. Time to get up.

8.00am Tai Chi with Joe on the lawn. Spend ten minutes thinking ‘Why am I waving my arms pretending to fly like a pigeon?’ and another 20 minutes thinking, ‘Wow, this is so relaxing, I have found the secret of life, the universe and everything…’

8.30am Breakfast. The smell of floor polish and burnt toast is like Proust’s madeleine to me. Vow to eat more fruit and less bacon tomorrow.

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Writing colleagues waiting for the key to the Playhouse. An idyllic writing retreat if ever there was one…

9.00am Gather stuff for first class of the day, Crime Writing with James Runcie. Not your average Summer School class, it has to be said. There’s six of us in the Playhouse, discussing the finer points of character and motive. Actually, to be honest, mostly talking about how interesting people are, how strange we are, and how it could be a great story…

10.45am Coffee

11am  Hike to Aller Park with violin. I swear it was about 2 miles when I was younger. It’s now about 2 metres. The biggest obstacle is the gate into the field, which is not big enough to get through if you have a viola and a backpack. (It’s OK. We rescued her eventually.)

IMG_3482Chamber music at the Summer School can be hit and miss, but that’s part of the fun. You might be the best, you might be the worst, you might end up playing obscure piano trios by little-known-for-good-reason composers. Happily for me, this week’s group has been outstanding: we all share the keep-going-at-all-costs ethos, and we all play in tune. Dochnanyi, Shostakovich, Elgar – it’s a feast!

12.45 Lunch.

2pm. Naptime.

 

2.05pm  Recorder ensembles begin. Naptime ends. A walk in the garden, a few words written.

5.15pm The early concert – sometimes a student group, more often a brief showcase from teachers or visiting artists. I sneak into the private garden and listen from outside.

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6pm Dinner

7.30pm Time to bag a seat for the main concert. Tonight it was the end of week jamboree, the Big Choir and Baroque Orchestra performing Handel’s Samson. It’s a choir of allcomers but the director, Laurence Cummings has whipped them into shape for a genuinely gripping performance.IMG_0851

10.30pm Drinks at the White Hart. Hugging and passionate farewelling begins.

11pm Ceilidh in the Great Hall. 100 revellers creating the closest thing to tropical heat you can get in Devon in summer.

12 midnight Retire wounded. Consider setting an alarm. Fall asleep.

 


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Last words

It’s Baroque week at Dartington. As I type, there are three guys in jeans and t-shirts playing natural trumpets and horns on the ramparts. As you do. Elsewhere, recorder music billows out of every other room, with the spiky twang of harpsichords clattering away in the background.

I’m more at home with 440 hz, so this week I’m spending time playing my other instrument, the imagination. James Runcie, writer, director, curator of ideas, is giving a course in crime-writing and I’m on it. Every morning we meet at the Playhouse, a ludicrously cute cottage in the gardens with a thatched roof and leadlight windows and talk about MURDER; who, where, how and, most importantly, why.

 

Last night, James Runcie talked death in a different way, in a meditation on last words, the end of life, and what we leave behind. Poet John Keats, philosopher David Hume and writer Virginia Woolf knew all too clearly that they were about to die. For Keats and Hume, they were aware of the illnesses taking over their body. For Woolf, it was the illness taking over her mind.

Runcie read their letters to loved ones and, in the case of Hume, part of a succinct but profound life summary, written over the course of a few hours in the days before his death. It goes without saying that they were intense and moving.

In addition to these trenchant words, we also had music (from Joanna McGregor at the piano), playing works written contemporaneously with the words; Haydn for Hume, Beethoven for Keats and, for Woolf, Regard de la Vierge from Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen. Again, it goes without saying that the music was moving: in particular, MacGregor drew a radiant sound from the piano in the Messiaen, like big blobs of pure colour dropping into a pool of water. But more important, the music served an important purpose by giving the words we had just heard space; space for contemplation, space for resonance.

I’m still thinking.


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Tales from the Annexe

totnesGreeted at Totnes Station by blue grey skies, green fields and a welcome drop of twenty degrees in temperature. And my father, standing on the platform, all small and wonky and smiling. It’s been a year since I saw him and, as always, I scan him to see if anything’s changed. He’s perhaps a tiny bit shorter, but otherwise looking remarkably robust for 85. He insists on taking a bag as he walks me to his car, which is wedged awkwardly between the wall and a panel van with a slip of paper under the wiper.

“Apparently I scraped his wing,” says my father.

‘Apparently’ used in the sense of ‘Allegedly’.

“I didn’t feel it. I don’t believe I touched him. But the fellow in that minibus over there made me leave a message.”

I look where he’s gesturing. The local bus mafia looking after their own, his gesture says.

The minibus is just pulling away from the kerb. My father watches as the driver weaves his way out of the car park and turns onto the main road.

“Made me,” he says. Hurt.

I look at the wound, lick my finger and give the paint a quick rub. It’s just a scuff. And it’s yellow. My father’s car is blue. There is no trace of blue anywhere on the wing. I look over my shoulder and then remove the piece of paper.

“Wrong colour paint, Dad. You car’s not yellow.”

dartington-hall-gardens_large2We drive to the Hall with the quiet dignity of the falsely accused, weaving our way round parked cars (“Trippers…” says Dad) and construction vehicles. They’re digging a hole in the water meadows by the Gatehouse. It’s full of milky grey water, the colour of the sky.

“Funny place to build,” says my Dad, with a sniff. It’s a sniff laden with layers of disapproval on regret on self-knowledge. He knows better than to rail against change. He’s been embracing change all his life. But sometimes you want to hang on.

Saturday is changeover day at the Summer School. Bags and instrument cases and reunions and the solitary visitor, wondering what next. I go to a welcome drinks reception in the Private Garden, and am instantly enveloped by old friends. Judith presses a drink into my hand, saying “I’ve run out of wine glasses. Shelley told me I couldn’t serve wine in tumblers, but I said I’d serve it in a bucket if that was all I had…”

Family friends and faces I should recognise say hello, enquire politely after me, my family, my book. I deflect questions and dodge eyes. I’m not here to talk. I’m here to listen and play and write.

Then, after speeches and rattly applause, it’s time to drift in, have dinner and take our seats in the Great Hall for the first concert of the week. Summer School has begun.

 

I’m writing a book about the Summer School! Please come and view my author page at http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary and then pledge lots of money. Alternatively, send chocolate.

 


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Musique Cordiale #4: Siegfried and the Wolf

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All set up, ready to play in L’Eglise San Leger, a Romanesque Church from the 11th century. This will be my last concert in France as tomorrow I head north to Dartington. It’s been a mighty week. Old friends and new colleagues and ridiculously beautiful medieval villages and all the rose you can drink. Wish me luck holding my own in the Siegfried Idyll and Peter and the Wolf. It’s been a privilege to play in the Musique Cordiale Orchestra. I’ve enjoyed every minute, and I’m immensely grateful to the inspiring director, Pippa Pawlik and her dynamic team of assistants, volunteers, musicians, donors, singers, players, actors, chefs, drivers, stand-luggers and water-bottler hander outerers. Gros Bisous.

Now, as a mistral blows into town sweeping away the Saharan Desert air, they’ll be rehearsing for a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers later in the week. Making music, making friends. Vive la musique entente cordiale.

 

 


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Musique Cordiale #3: Melting moments

IMG_0823Another day, another 11th century Church, this time L’Eglise de Saint André in Tourettes. Thank God, literally, for thick stone walls, which provided some respite from the searing heatwave conditions outside, but there would still have been plenty of sweaty moments and sticky fingers, no doubt, for the performers.

The concert featured the ten students of the Musique Cordiale Academy 2017, young artists aged from 15-20 who work with a team of experienced professionals (lead by Levon Chilingirian) to develop individual and ensemble skills. At the end of a ten day stint they joined in with the Musique Cordiale Orchestra and also presented solo and chamber items in their own concert.

tourrettesAs ever, their endeavours were inspiring. I mean, what’s not to love about young players, full of potential, full of enthusiasm, playing at a consistently high level, with frequent  flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure. There was some spirited ensemble playing and solos ranging from brave but blustery to utterly amazing. There were also poignant moments: the audience were there with one player as she stumbled, stopped, thought about giving up, then took a deep breath and pressed on; we drank up the delight of a new work, composed that week, by one of the students; and we saw their glee at sitting right in the thick of an orchestra, alongside professional players.

The Musique Cordiale Academy is not your average music camp: it’s exclusive stuff, elite training for elite students in a bijoux festival in the South of France. But it its own small way it demonstrates the importance of the generational transfer of skills and knowledge, as cherished artists pass on their wisdom and — who knows? — perhaps refresh their own artistic lives as well.


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Musique Cordiale diary #2: Amor interruptus

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Come inside. It’s much cooler in here. The Église Saint-Étienne at Bargemon

After twelve hours of rehearsal, two concert programs learnt, one performance done and many glasses of Provencal rose drunk, I’m beginning to acclimatise to the heat and pace. It helps when you spend the middle of the day within the thick stone walls of 12th century Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Ormeau just outside Seillans, listening to Schumann.  Young German tenor Michael Mogl‘s recital included songs by Mozart, Wolf, R Strauss alongside Schumann’s Dichterliebe, with accompanist Rebecca Taylor extracting wonderful sounds from a clavinova. The generous resonance of the chapel muddied the mercurial texture of the Mozart and Wolf songs, but did not hide the handsome bloom of Mogl’s voice, with its clear, unforced top and sensuous mid-range. He became more consistent, more agile, as the recital went on, diving into the emotional maelstrom of Dichterliebe, the audience hanging on every note until disaster struck. PFFT. The lights flickered. The power went out. And with no electricity for the keyboard, the music stopped.

 
Meanwhile, back in the air-conditioned comfort of Seillans’ Salle Polyvalente, rehearsals for two orchestral concerts continued. Musique Cordiale’s Academy Strings, a group of young students who spend a week playing together and alongside professionals, joined the orchestra to play Schubert and Prokofiev. Schubert’s tricky: initially more straightforward than Prokofiev but, as conductor James Lowe explained, demanding an exquisite attention to detail in terms of attack, articulation and tempo. Not PFATT. More phwoom. Peem. Whooofve… And don’t get sidetracked by articulation into slowing down. So much to think about, but the students came out grinning.

IMG_0765The other program was an all-French affaire, with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Berlioz’s Nuit d’ete, with the radiant Isabel Pfefferkorn, and Ravel’s weird and spiky Tzigane, with soloist Jonathan Martindale. Martindale gave a searing performance, bouncing the terrifying opening cadenza off the thick stone walls of the church and tearing through the dance with fiery energy.

You’d think he’d earned his cold beer with that, but no. He returned to the stage to lead the orchestra in the Mother Goose Suite, and nearly made me cry with the delicate beauty of the solo in the final movement. Good gig.


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Musique Cordiale

seillans-back-dropTrains, planes, automobiles and 48 hours of travelling, but I’m finally on the other side of the world. At least, my body is here. I think my brain is still trying to catch up. I’m here for what is becoming an annual trip to see family, do some research and, hopefully, recharge a little. This week’s recharging is brought to you by Musique Cordiale, a two week festival based in Seillans in Provence.

It’s a busman’s holiday for most of the performers, who range from principals from UK and European orchestras to young artists and an academie of students, studying with Leon Chilingirian, of the Chilingirian String Quartet. It’s a busman’s holiday for me too — I’m playing in the orchestra and writing words about music. Warning — it’ll probably be a bit impressionistic, not to say indulgent. I mean, it’s the South of France, and I’m on holiday. But I’m also thrilled to get to hear (and play with) some new voices. Just today, there was Isabel Pfefferkorn, a young mezzo-soprano who is singing Berlioz’s Nuits d’Ete, and Jonathan Martindale who, besides leading the orchestra, plays Ravel’s Tzigane and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. 

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Hope I don’t bugger it all up.