Monday, June 25, 2007

Mess o'potamia

Back. Have been in Denmark, eating fish...more of that when I've copied the photos properly.

So, where were we? Well, a big thank-you to everyone who wrote in support of the Kismet feature! The Times has its own take on the thing today (my dear readers will recognise the quoted critic, which could perhaps have been attributed more precisely), and they've interviewed Luther Davis (90), the surviving member of the original team. Ho-hum, here's what he says about the Baghdad problem:

“There’s a line in the song Not Since Nineveh in which Lalume sings ‘Don’t underestimate Baghdad!’ Now we were discussing how to deal with this in the current situation. Should we get rid of it, or downplay it? No, my suggestion was to lean on it heavily, to really belt it out. In a way it reminds you that Baghdad isn’t just a war zone, it’s a place that’s been full of real human beings for millennia.”

Er, right...Read the whole thing here. The headline is good.

UPDATE, 9pm: OOOH, the fur is flying backstage!!! This is what happened while we were away...and the first preview has been put back a night...

Monday, June 18, 2007

A few essentials

I'm rather 'under the snow' at the moment, hence lack of posting, but wanted to present a few essentials while I can:

The Nigel Osborne opera I went to see in Mostar, Differences in Demolition, is absolutely wonderful: a work full of heart and soul, with hardline modernism set beside glorious lyrical melody in a way that feels entirely natural. Goran Simic's libretto - the first work he has undertaken in English - is so full of wonderful poetry that I'm thinking of framing the copy that I now have. The production is poetic too, and the singing and playing superb - amazing how many different sounds can emerge from an accordion. The work as a whole seemed to have grown out of the soil of Bosnia itself. It will be at Wilton's Music Hall, near Tower Bridge, on 10, 11 and 12 July, as part of the City of London Festival, performed by Opera Circus. Do yourself a favour: go and see it.

The Pavarotti Centre in Mostar, however, is in financial difficulty. It opened its doors in 1997 and still offers the only clinical programme of its type in the world specialising in treating war-traumatised children and PTSD. But as things stand, the entire music therapy programme may have to close due to lack of funding. As Nigel Osborne explained during our trip, this treatment is very cheap and very effective and does a huge amount of good, but it doesn't 'fit into any boxes' and bureaucratic purse-string holders simply don't understand it - even though the methods pioneered there are being applied now in many other countries. They need support, both moral and financial.

Finally, my current snowdrift involves rewriting a play - with three months to go till the premiere - and a novel in one month flat. See you soon, I hope...

Now, have a look at the sensational young Chinese bass Shen Yang, who has just scooped the Cardiff Singer of the World prize.

And gluttons for punishment can read in today's Independent what I really think about English National Opera doing Kismet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back to Mostar...

This slide-show of pictures from Mostar is unfortunately not a Jess original but lifted from YouTube. But here's much of what I saw, the place I was staying (the gorgeous Ottoman Muslibegovic House with the courtyard and carved windows is a guest house as well as a tourist attraction) and some of the kind of thing I heard: the music is a typical sevdah song performed by the famous band Mostar Sevdah Reunion, some members of which were apparently at the premiere of 'Differences in Demolitions' on Saturday, joining in the standing ovation, so I'm told. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My old friend...

I was told yesterday that an old friend and musical partner of mine from university days, Phanos Dymiotis, died in March in a car crash.

Phanos, a Greek Cypriot, was one of the brightest guys in the Cambridge music department when I got to know him. I remember him as a witty, warm, unassuming, self-contained and slightly enigmantic character; he was both an excellent composer and a brilliant violinist - the sort that's so brilliant that he could play the socks off the Saint-Saens Havanaise in a concert, but again with knobs on at the end of the post-concert party. He got a 'double first' (anyone who's survived the Cambridge music tripos will know that that takes a lot of doing), then headed for postgraduate studies at Princeton; last time I heard of him, several years ago, he was freelancing as a violinist in New York. I haven't heard any of his music for many years, but he had won a number of prizes and it sounds as if he was finally gaining the recognition I am certain he deserved.

We played the Faure A major Violin Sonata together once (a lunchtime concert at Emmanuel College), and enjoyed many of those priceless student moments with our many mutual friends - the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks and fun-fair on Midsummer Common, the Darwin College May Ball where we danced together to a Glenn Miller band at dawn, and late-night winter wanders across town from concerts/celebrations along the frosty grass on the Backs. Sadly, we lost touch after university, as too often one does, and despite many good intentions of correcting that, I never got round to it...

Phanos, a fond farewell from London. We'll never forget you.

UPDATE: Drew McManus covered this, I now discover, back when it happened in March. There is also a very moving tribute to Phanos by another friend, here. Here is the site of the Mariner String Quartet, of which he was a member. And more information at this Baltimore news site.

Phanos was the victim of a drunk driver, whose car hit his in a head-on collision and who also died at the scene along with his 19-year-old passenger. I also found a clip of a news item on Youtube. Nothing I say about tragedy, drink, irresponsibility, government bans or anything else is going to make any difference, so I shall shut up and go and cry instead.


It's The Firebird, it's the Royal Festival Hall, and I nearly fall out of my seat. It's loud. It's clear. You can hear the harp from the back row of the rear stalls. Some of the players used to describe the RFH acoustic as 'pigeon hitting wall'. Now the pigeon bites back.

The dear old place looks more or less the same inside, with some crucial differences - a bigger stage, more acoustical aids, less carpet; there's a tad more leg room in the rows and each seat is equipped with a little metal ring for holding your drink (assuming they decide to let the audience take some in). The foyers are magnificently open and glassy, the spaces giving maximum light and making the most of the river views; the bars and the new-look first-floor restaurant are sleeker and shinier; and mercifully, we're told, there are twice as many ladies' loos as before.

If there's a downside to the acoustic, it's that while every note of the celesta can be heard bright and clear, so can every cough, rustle of sweet paper, watch alarm, hearing aid and mobile phone. Two seconds into The Firebird, a mobile phone playing Mozart's 40th rang out across the double basses. Vladimir Jurowski called a halt...such is life...

Musically the evening was a mixed bag: I suspect that it was too worthy for its own financial aims. I'm mystified as to how anyone could programme world premieres by Julian Anderson and Harrison Birtwistle, load the programme up with Ligeti and Ives, and expect people to fork out £500 for a ticket. If you charge those prices, you have at least to pull some rabbits out of some hats, or at least a Gheorghiu or Terfel or Kissin or two (the biggest wigs last night were the three conductors, none of whom is a household name, though Vladimir will be soon). Maxim Vengerov was in the audience. He should have been on the platform and on the publicity. People with big money like big stars.

The Anderson will no doubt be praised to the skies (and already is in today's Independent), but it struck me as typical establishment-approved modernism with vaguely poncy establishment religious connotations ('Alleluja', all right, already) that wasn't celebratory, interesting, inspired or original and fulfilled no function greater than Parry's 'I was glad', which would have done the trick better last night. The Birtwistle was a reworking of a funeral lament that he wrote in memory of Michael Vyner (former chief of the London Sinfonietta) 18 years ago - which has its place, but surely not in a celebratory reopening concert? Birtwistle's place in our house is in the kitchen: we have a Glyndebourne fridge magnet of him. It's usually upside down, and is very useful for holding shopping lists.

Ligeti and Ives, while more interesting, still tend to scare people away from buying expensive tickets. And after imbibing as much champagne as you can swallow in 20 minutes, does anyone really want to listen to pootly Purcell? Oh dear. Still, Ravel's Bolero, played by representatives of all four resident orchestras - the LPO, the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, around 120 players, with Marin Alsop having a great time on the podium - did indeed raise the roof as the grand finale, and Richard Morrison notes in today's Times that the sound in the last movement of Beethoven 9 (given with its original words this time) made the lights flicker.

Afterwards there was an extremely glittery party in and around the ballroom, and the champagne continued to flow...It's fantastic that the arrival of the nearest thing we now have to a world-class concert hall should be seen in with such a tremendous celebration. There's no doubt that it's certainly become a world-class venue. The weeks ahead will say more about the sound.

UPDATE, 13 June 8.36am: 'Mad props' to Vanessa Thorpe from (gasp) The Guardian for linking here. She was sitting next to the owner of the errant mobile...