Saturday, 20 May 2017

European Literature Night: A L Kennedy on Brexit

She took us by storm the Wednesday before last, briskly and with a fabulously emphatic delivery in a 20-minute speech full of savage indignation. Surprised to find tears in my eyes so soon after their regular occurrence throughout the previous evening's Europe Day Concert. I hope you'll read the speech in full here on the Royal Society of Literature's website - the organisation had much to do with the event, as did EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture), though the host was the British Library - and that there will eventually be a podcast of the delivery, so energetic and impassioned was it (event images by Jolly Thompson). But in any case it's worth putting up the first paragraph, since it also encases a stunning quotation from Primo Levi.

So I am a citizen of Nowhere. Intellectually, culturally and as a member of my species, I am and must be a citizen of the world. This is simply logical and a matter of self-defence. As Primo Levi, one of the consciences of Europe, tells us “Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager.” To be in any sense healthy, I must be a citizen of the world. I belong to that Nowhere.

And thence Kennedy seemingly freewheeled, as if she were improvising (the transcript proves she wasn't). Yet she kept a structure, enlarging on the question, where is Nowhere? (For a writer, and a thinker, everywhere and anywhere). She made a strong attack on our lack of reading matter from other countries: 'For more most of my lifetime as a writer, less than five per cent of all our books printed in any year are translated from any language'. Cited striking examples of writers who took or borrowed from other cultures. Encapsulated what Brexit Little England may be like and why the likes of us will be OK:

It seems clear that Brexit will leave us trapped on an apparently increasingly racist island with faltering press freedom and crumbling press reliability, adrift in a shrinking culture enthusiastically rejecting real-world knowledge of all kinds. Dark money, calculated online influencers, our public discourse bought and sold… So we’ll look elsewhere for inspiration, for facts. We did anyway. Their preciousness will increase. The urgency with which we attempt to communicate will grow. We may long for news of countries that aren’t closing libraries by the hundreds, aren’t destroying their own education system and undermining English language teaching, any language teaching, for a generation.

How it will be for others who don't have our opportunities or our roots is more worrying. That was one of the questions grappled with - mostly a bit too nebulously - in a panel discussion with another very intelligent writer, Francesca Melandri, and one who presumably is very good but not, on this evidence, a nice human being, Clemens Meyer. He alienated me before he even uttered a word, his body turned away from the other speakers in haughty apartness. He made most people laugh, including his generous fellow guests,

but actually took a very long time to make a perfectly salient point (that his kind of writing thrives in a time of dissolution and uncertainty, though which time isn't?). And then there were the 'questions' from people who only really want to hear the sound of their own voices.

But back to Kennedy, whom I hope you'll read - not just the speech, which concludes with a perfect segue to William Morris's News from Nowhere - Kelmscott frontispiece seen here

 but also the novels; we have one here, the most recent, Serious Sweet, which I intend to turn to once the first half of my Waugh binge is over. The author seemed straightforwardly pleased about that as we parted;  I happened to accompany her to Kings' Cross tube, and thought: this is the sort of person I'd treasure as a friend. Anyway, we have her words to serve that purpose; one can ask no more. How rare are these people who speak so directly, crystallise so much with their choice of examples and metaphors. True authentics, present in every age but hard to find.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Parisian interiors

From the Galerie J. Kugel, its astonishing collection lavishly housed in the 19th century Hôtel Collot, No. 25 Quai Anatole France,

to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at No. 37 Quai d'Orsay

is only a few minutes' walk. But our privileged entrées to each building were separated by two days of packed activity - a leisurely hour or so on the Île Saint-Louis, supper with our friend Hélène just by Barbès - Rochechouart metro - a very different part of town - followed the next day by a major exhibition and the permanent collection at the Institut du Monde Arabe (with lunch on the roof), Snegurochka at the Paris Opera and my first inspection of the new Seine Musicale complex. So many impressions still to be digested - and at the very least I need to write up the Treasures of Islam in Africa and Picasso Primitif exhibitions (the latter we saw the day after our friend and host Laurence Auer was gonged at the Ministry).

Our tour of what has to be Paris's most spectacular private gallery - a house full of extraordinary, eccentric and valuable if not always beautiful art from the Renaissance through to the early 19th century - came courtesy of our friend Laura Kugel. We met her in the entrance hall - itself full of rich and curious furniture - and ascended the grand staircase around the above three graces clock, originally made for Charles IV of Spain and offered to Napoleon, who forced him to abdicate in 1808 and installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.

On a nearby table sit two grotesque bronzes of a witch and a wizard.

The first room on the right upstairs has a series of paintings chiefly fascinating for the musical instruments pictured within.

Next door there's a gilded cage with singing birds, made by Swiss craftsmen for the Ottoman market in 1785.

We didn't get to hear the caged birds sing, but in the big rooms overlooking the Seine, several of the famous Renaissance automata made in Augsburg were up for demonstration. How I'd love to have seen the full exhibition of 31 pieces held here last year, of which this tantalising little film cleverly utilising Ketèlbey's In a Persian Market gives a neat taster.

There's also the most beautifully produced book on the subject, a copy of which I'm delighted to own.

Its superlative photographs notwithstanding, I'm still going to press ahead with a glimpse of some of the remaining items in context. Several, including perhaps the most beautiful, the elephant clock of c. 1580-90 illustrated on the cover pictured above, as well as the classy lion and his young African tamer, his stick rising and falling as part of the action, sit on a table

in front of two very handsome busts of Roman emperors.

The masterpiece of whimsy, though, is the clock-chariot of Bacchus,

a tankard of beer in his right hand and in his left a whole chicken and a skewered sausage, a barrel on his head,

being driven  in his chariot by two elephants surmounted by pipe-playing satyrs and driven by a black coachman holding a trident.

As you see in the film, when activated Bacchus - also described as Hans Wurst or Gambrinus - rolls his eyes and the bear musicians around the base play instruments.

Further bizarre wonders unfold in other rooms and on other floors. The cabinet of curiosities is too rich to catalogue, but here are a few more favourites - a chess-set with Chinese figures,

and miniature depictions of Abraham poised to slay Isaac

and Jonah emerging from the whale's mouth.

Up another flight of stairs, early 19th century treasures have an appropriately more restrained setting

and as we drank coffee with Laura in her father's office, my eye was drawn to this very splendid backgammon set.

The afternoon sun shone against a cold wind in our subsequent promenade along the Seine, though folk found plenty of shelter along the embankment,

on the Île Saint-Louis

and on a section of the Rive Droite

with a bar in an old industrial building adding to the general liveliness. Via that walk we headed back towards the Cité metro for the ride north to Hélène's place at about 7.

She and her husband Olivier have an apartment opposite the splendid Louxor Cinema, opened in 1921, and brought back to new life in 2013 after years of dereliction.

It continued to glow in the last of the evening sun as seen from one of the apartment windows.


had also invited the warm and delightful Maxime and Claude

and I have to say I enjoyed this evening of Bacchic mirth as much as anything during our stay.

Next morning, the election leaflets were out on Laurence's big table. I've done my best here to make sure the unspeakable is half-hidden.

Laurence and Bertrand have a place in the 15th arrondissement, very bourgeois compared to Barbès - Rochechouart as Hélène observed with amused brio: I'm sure she would be happy, as I am, to be defined as Bo[hemien]Bo[ourgeois]. They may not have the Louxor opposite but the view is typically Parisian.

That morning saw us flung to the four quarters of Paris, I to the Seine Musicale to interview Laurence Equilbey a second time (here, for reference's sake, is the interview from last year). This was my first glimpse of the new concert hall as I walked towards it from the Pont de Sèvres station at the south-west end of metro line 9.

Here it is from one of the two bridges connecting the Île Seguin across the Seine

and from the other.

Later in the day we all regathered at the apartment to change for the big ceremony. Which despite the opulent surroundings was very relaxed and genial. Harlem Desir, Secretary of State in charge of European Affairs, spoke eloquently of Laurence's achievements before she took the microphone. She really is the most extraordinary person - genuinely warm and natural, yet working at the highest level, most recently as French Ambassador to Macedonia and currently as Deputy Director for (France's part in negotiations re the) European Union.

Here she is with the medal, the Order of Merit; she already has the two categories of the Legion d'Honneur. Shame J had to be cropped out of a super pic as he rejects full-frontals here.

Bertrand was official photographer, though I got some different shots as I was on the other side of the room.

Later we were given a glimpse of the holiest of holies: the deco bath

in the bathroom specially installed for George VI and the consort we always knew as the Queen Mum.

On the ground floor - here's a shot from halfway down the grand escalier -

a wry and immensely likable Major Domo ('left and right, they all went to the same schools') showed us round the grander rooms, including the one in the second-to-top picture where Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman signed the momentous Schuman Declaration on 9 May 1950 which has ensured peace in much of Europe for the past 52 years. Again, the other proud EU representative had to be cropped out of this pic of a pic.

There were other lively ceremonies just finishing downstairs, so we shared this grand council chamber with others delighted at their various ennoblings.

Then we took a short walk over the newly-restored Pont Alexandre III with its Art Nouveau river gods on the balmiest and most beautiful of April evenings

to a supper at a destination I won't disclose since it's a private club and I shouldn't have taken any indoor pics, but may be excused this one, surreptitiously snapped sans flash at the supper table with a Gobelin tapestry of an episode from Don Quixote (seen a whole set at Belvoir Castle).

It commemorates an evening meal of such deliciousness that even our spoilt French friends said they couldn't remember anything like it in years. London clubs have so much catching up to do... And so, one final interior, Bertrand driving us home at the point when the Eiffel Tower does its midnight twinkly thing. The magical side of Paris did not elude us on this visit.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Europe Day Concert 2017: depth and range

There, bang in the middle of what by common consent turned out to be the best Europe Day Concert to date, was the world premiere of a piece which went as deep and as high as anything on the programme: Stranded by Matthew Kaner, in which the solo violinist finally breaks away from the combative orchestra and walks offstage, still playing. A surprise which no-one expected and which in the programme note the composer hadn't divulged, but everyone got the point. Arriving at St John's Smith Square halfway through the afternoon rehearsal to hear the already great Benjamin Baker and conductor Jonathan Bloxham - my favourite twentysomething musicians* and I pictured at the after-concert party below -

rehearsing the new work with the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra, I was taken aback by the ravishing beauty of the sound (Matt's orchestration is a wonder) and the impact of the playing.

An email comment, one of many from friends, sums it up: 'a superb band - quite the best I've heard in its depth and range'. Photos here all by Jamie Smith, with the exception of the below, composer concentrating at the rehearsal, by me.

And it all went beautifully. People wept, and not just at the emotion of standing, as we always do, for Beethoven's Ode to Joy at the end of the concert (I have to add that the orchestral statement of the Ninth Symphony's big tune has never sounded better either, even if it had an extra kick after Macron used it two days earlier). The emotional depths were especially sounded in 'The Oak Tree' from Sibelius's peerless incidental music to The Tempest, Ariane's Farewell from Martinů's eponymous late masterpiece with Maltese soprano Nicola Said rising to divadom - how she's come on even in the year since I saw her perform the role at the Guildhall School -

and the metamorphosis/resurrection, Respighi's 'The Birth of Venus' from his Botticelli Triptych, swelling and all-enveloping.  Again, an e-mail accolade is worth reproducing: 'it was an extraordinary evening, beautiful, at times so exquisite (Martinů's aria) it actually hurt, dignified, wrenching'.

The theme was 'islands', Malta currently holding the presidency (the opening speeches, from Norman Hamilton, Maltese High Commissioner, and Christine Dalby, Acting Head of the European Commission Representation in the UK, were succinct and very much to the point). The programme looked good on paper. But in practice it went further than expected - so much could be taken as metaphor for the tragedy of the UK's imminent departure, even if it wasn't consciously planned as such. Again there was general agreement that not a piece failed to make its mark.

Even Maltese composer Charles Camilleri's 'Nocturne' from the Malta Suite - not the piece originally desired - provided a melancholy showcase for Jonathan's wonderful strings, making so much sound for the grouping and all the nimbler as a result, as the iridescent variety of Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture immediately established. Communication and flexibility, assets which Jonathan has developed amazingly quickly - he's now assistant to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - caught everyone around me, I could see, and didn't let go until over an hour later. Sounds as if I'm exaggerating but I speak the truth when I say I haven't heard a livelier or more gorgeous-sounding performance of the Mendelssohn classic.

The strings were lovely and bouncy for Mozart, too, and we had absolute top quality from two singers currently on the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Irish soprano Jennifer Davis and tenor Thomas Atkins (a Kiwi, like Ben). He took the less florid version of Idomeneo's 'Fuor del mar' but still adorned the da capo with extra flashes of brilliance; Jennifer had Ilia's tender-sad Act Three aria 'Zeffiretti lusinghieri', a neat follow-on to the natural settings of the soprano and tenor numbers from Nielsen's Springtime on Funen. That was deliciously done, too - Siri Fischer Hansen, administrator of JPYAP, attested to the excellent delivery of her native Danish - and turned out to be the favourite of quite a few folk in the audience. One spectator pointed out that it was all the more beautiful for being accompanied by the almost rustic vision of trees and sinking sun through the big window behind the orchestra.

Soprano and tenor rose to the French ardour of the Act 2 love duet for Nadir and Leila in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, too - Thomas is going to be singing Don José in the Royal Opera's Peter Brook Tragédie de Carmen, and I can hear an ideal Micaëla in Jennifer already.

I still think there's no greater demonstration of genius than Sibelius's distillation of a lifetime's experience in the Tempest music. He was such a master of the miniature, and to my mind Song II, a canny orchestral adaptation of Ariel's 'Where the bee sucks', is its epitome: two short verses, the second first abbreviated and then given a surprise extension, wryly singing on two clarinets with the lightest string bounce underneath, all in a minute. Joe Shiner, destined to be either a soloist or an outstanding principal in one of the world's best orchestras (or both), and his colleague Greg Hearle brought more subtlety to their parts than I've ever heard on recorded interpretations, and Joe's belated solo in The Hebrides, as in his performance with the London Firebird Orchestra last year, brought tears to the eyes; Jonathan let him take all the time in the world over it. Joe was also the orchestral fixer, working flat out beyond the call of duty.

Flautist Alena Lugovkina - on trial, I understand, for the Royal Opera Orchestra - also excelled, and leader Zoë Beyers got to take over from Ben at key points in Stranded. Quite apart from the beauty of seeing a group of young players really enjoying and putting across their artistry - they later said how struck they were by the quiet intensity of the audience and the ecstatic reception it gave them - they were truly representing Europe, with an Estonian violinist (Marike Kruup), a Bulgarian cellist (the outstanding Michael Petrov), a Polish harpist (Zuzanna Olbrys), a Spanish first horn (Francisco Gomez Ruiz) and other nationalities in the mix (I haven't pinpointed them all). Delighted also that the other good friend I've made from first acquaintance at the Pärnu Festival in 2015, Sophia Rahman, was the pianist.

Everything went smoothly, receptions included. Now everyone can enjoy the aftermath of a job superbly done and look forward to the CD.

*Left out one other - the prodigiously talented Ed Picton-Turbervill, formerly organ scholar at St John's Cambridge who graduated with a Double First in Music, celebrating the launch of his book on the trees of the Backs by playing the Goldberg Variations this coming Saturday. The Bach evensong following an afternoon picnic and the launch at St John's may involve him too, I don't know. Genius, anyway. Ought to include my dearly beloved godson Alexander Lambton, too, whose sax contributions to various classy bands are well above the average.