A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.

 


Leave a comment

Musique Cordiale #4: Siegfried and the Wolf

IMG_0838

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.

 

 


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Musique Cordiale diary #2: Amor interruptus

IMG_0764

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.


1 Comment

Life, the universe and everything

The troops were gathered, the weapons tuned. The general stood, ready for action, in front of the battalions. The flag went up then BOOM. Battle commenced.

david-robertson-gallery-preview-1200x650Mahler’s third Symphony is an epic battle between life and death, hope and despair, from a man who knew all these things intimately. That he could make such a fervent case for life and hope considering his life, so brutally pock-marked with tragedy, is amazing. That he could make this enormous, unwieldy, nutty chunk of musical philosophy a gripping journey of constantly unfolding wonders is nigh on miraculous.

The challenge for the combined forces of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Sydney Children’s Choir was to navigate their way through this epic work with pace and coherence, and they did. Even at the moments of chaos, through the dull, forbidding roar of low timpani, past the gibbering winds, there was an enduring sense of direction, a reaching out towards the ultimate triumph of light over dark. It took a while to get there, and things got scary at times, but there were never any thoughts of turning back. Not with artistic director and chief conductor, David Robertson, leading the charge, and Andrew Haveron, concertmaster, as valiant knight.

This really was a you-have-to-be-there performance: three pairs of cymbals clashing together is just a racket on the radio, but on stage you see six great golden plates doing their synchronised swing. Likewise, the bells-up clarinet doesn’t just sound louder; it looks loud, it looks rude and threatening, like a gun aimed squarely at you, yes, you. And seeing the serried ranks of the Sydney Children’s Choir, heads nodding as they counted their bars rest, breathing as one before firing off volleys of ‘bim, bam!’ bells was compelling.

Much to see. Much to hear. Much to understand. Whether or not one grasped Mahler’s vastness of vision, it was nicely enacted through the arrangement of the orchestra: first and second violins were arranged antiphonally, and further divided into front and back desks, so that they seemed to be isolated voices calling to each other across the expanse of the stage; the basses and cellos were on stage right, the bass drum centre back, and the  tuba and bass trombones stage left, their rusty growls surrounding the orchestra; and off in the distance was patient, loving humanity, in the guise of the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

And then there was Susan Graham. Graham was last in Sydney two years ago, singing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Now she’s here for two weeks with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, appearing in Ravel’s Sheherezade and this, Mahler’s Third. Her “O Mensch, gib Acht!” was like a revelation, focussed but never hard, brave but questioning, the still centre of the symphony.

If Graham was the still centre, Robertson was the lightning conductor, catalysing and directing the roiling, explosive energy contained in the huge array of instruments before him. It’s a massive symphony but, under his direction, it never felt chaotic: in those exquisite moments of other-worldly violins and glittery harp-pings the world suddenly, for a few fragile moments, made sense; then, in the final movement the eight horns roared, the trumpets blazed, and the final movement played out in all its majestic, radiant, wait-for-it wait-for-it, just-a-bit-more, yes, glory. Yes.

Yes.

You can catch another performance (and if you can, you should) this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will also be broadcast on Saturday 29 July at noon on ABC Classic FM, (but you’ll have to imagine the cymbals). 

 

 


Leave a comment

Angels and Demons

ebb94e9213bbd23d4b2e0811a7099945The relative speed of light and sound has always fascinated me. The way that, on the cricket pitch, you see the batsman swing and follow through a good second before you hear the tock of willow on leather. Or, in the concert hall, how the conductor’s baton goes down and nothing happens for a split second, then this great noise wells out from the stage, even as the stick is rebounding for the next note. That gap between sight and sound is tantalising: eyes open, the orchestra looks like it’s not playing on the conductor’s beat, but eyes closed, it sounds tight as a drum. When you also consider that the wind, brass and percussion are themselves factoring in the sound lag, playing micro-seconds ahead of the beat, which is microseconds ahead of the strings, to achieve the desired ensemble, the complexity of relationships between players, conductor and audience becomes quite mind-blowing. As the Doctor would say,   it’s “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”.

There was plenty of timey wimey stuff on Friday night. American conductor James Gaffigan did his thing, the orchestra did theirs and, as if by magic — but actually by a whole heap of skill and little bit of physics — it all came together. The lilt and swagger of the Kodaly’s Hungarian csardas, the wistful lingerings of Rachmaninov’s waltz, the unforgiving perpetual motion of the finale… The Sydney Symphony were on fine form, soloists from within the ranks shining through exhilarating tuttis.

26753-275-prom_21_bach_alina_ibragimova_chris_christodoulou_resizedBartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 dances to a different kind of time, simultaneously strange but familiar. Soloist Alina Ibragimova brought a punchy, physical toughness to the unrelenting virtuosity of the first movement, riding the orchestral tuttis like an extreme surfer. All that changed, however, in the second movement, where the solo line floated, as if without effort, across the crystal sheen of high strings and harp. The finale was fraught, taut, terrifying. Brilliant.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for inviting me to this concert, and I hope to hear Ibragimova again, soon. In the meantime, the orchestra welcomes back its chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, next week for the Big One – Mahler 3. If they play like they played on Friday, it’ll be fab.

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my book project, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now at Unbound. You can buy advance copies and pledge for a range of rewards including coming to a concert with me, music criticism workshops, or the opportunity to work with me on telling your story in music and words