Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hexachordum Apollinis…

I think the word I was looking for was bliss… – although any of its synonyms would probably have sufficed: ecstasy, euphoria, rapture, joy, elation, happiness, gladness, blessedness, etc. – the feeling that the opening notes of Mozart’s Serenade No.13 for Strings in G major always provoke in me: primarily, because the piece – better known as Eine kleine Nachtmusikis so fantastically blissful; but also because, last night, this appositely-named piece of music was rendered nirvana by five extremely talented members of Orchestra of the Swan. The occasion was the Friends of Orchestra of the Swan fundraising soirée; and its proceeds are to be put “towards the orchestra’s projects in local care homes” – as worthy a cause as I can think of. As Artistic Director David Curtis said, in a brief speech, “it really does make a huge difference”.

Bliss was also writ large on each of the player’s faces – David Le Page and Rebekah Allan, violins; Adrian Turner, viola; Nick Stringfellow, cello; and Stacey Watton, double-bass – along with hearty dollops of concentration and communication. But, as I’ve probably set down on these (and other) pages far too many times, if there’s anything that marks OOTS out as unequalled – however many (or few) of its players are on-stage – it is this unique combination of talent and joy, combined with a healthy dose of friendly fellowship: a camaraderie that leaps forth with every single note sounded. As I’ve probably also documented too frequently: my hearing aids seem to ‘prefer’ such chamber ensembles and the sound they produce – the transparency of tone and the clarity of line granting the music an instant comprehensibility that requires no further interpretation, no further work, from me. It is enjoyment – nay, “bliss” – pure and simple. And all the better for it.

Thankfully, Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall was packed: most of the 150 or so seats filled with happy punters – themselves filled with “Bubbly and Canapés on arrival”! And, although this sustenance may have been behind the enthusiastic intra-movement applause – not necessarily a bad thing for such a relatively informal event… – it also provoked a wonderful, spirited hubbub both before the concert; and during the interval; as well as a storming, and thoroughly well-deserved, ovation, at the end. And yet, to the audience’s credit (bar one teensy-weensy mishap – see Postscript…), this excitement somehow magically transmuted into complete and reverential silence during the music. (In other words, a typical, knowledgeable, reverential, OOTS audience.)

This is a beautiful building, by the way; and it is to my shame that I have never been inside before. I had been concerned about the acoustics – a lot of hard flat surfaces, broken up by large windows, and decorative plasterwork – but I need not have worried: the sound was clean and clear: entirely suited to such chamber forces.

And this was as perfect a rendition of Eine kleine as I think I am ever likely to experience – full of airy textures, crisp synchronization, and ravishing dynamics – the opening Allegro crammed full of refreshing delight; a wonderful, rousing way to begin the musical New Year! The succeeding Romanze was beautifully tender: its intimacy perfectly suited to the time and place; as was the Menuetto. Although, here, the gentility – so well matched to the delightful décor – seemed to demand of us all that we be in period costume, dancing happily: perhaps almost waltzing, in slower motion…! [And, no: I hadn’t had a single drop. Thank you very much.] But such reveries were quickly quenched by the final Rondo – almost stormy in impact: Stacey’s magnificent bass playing used to great effect!

But we weren’t just there for the quintessential quintet. At the end of February, “following [their] two highly successful performances of David Matthews’ Piano Concerto with the young American pianist Thomas Nickell, Orchestra of the Swan has been invited to give the American première with Thomas in New York’s Carnegie Hall”. But, as Friends Chairman Chris Wheeler stated in his opening address, not many of us will be able to travel to the States to witness this! So, instead, a small part of “New York has come to Stratford-upon-Avon” – in the form of Thomas himself!

He brought with him an essential piece of musical Americana – Gershwin’s affecting Three Preludes. I love these pieces – syncopated soundscapes, if you will… – but Thomas obviously has them flowing through his veins. From the opening con licenzia blues motif to the closing arpeggiated flourish, he exhibited impeccably-controlled emotion: wonderful, unhurried builds underwritten by flawless, unassailable technique. His touch was exquisite and sure: the virtuosity restrained but effective. There is obviously a great deal of confidence: but it is almost as if it is internalized – only the results are allowed to show. The upshot is a form of strongly-held conviction, it seems to me, rather than overtly-expressed boldness. It is also mesmerizing to see, and to hear.

The Preludes are only – sadly – short pieces; and – sadly – Gershwin only lived a short life, like Mozart. But it always astonishes me how many ideas are crammed so effortlessly into their eleven pages (as he did into that brief span); and how beautifully these ideas flow. The heavy stomping bass that follows that concise motif would later be echoed in a tour de force performance of an early twentieth-century masterpiece, closing the first half in style – but here it demonstrated Thomas’ ability to deliver tension with precision; with gusto as well as guts.

Talking of which: I thought it immensely brave of him to stand and give a short oration before playing. Perhaps he has learned from Maestro Curtis… – but such communication is exactly what classical music needs (but often lacks). Sadly – because I had chosen to sit at the back; and, it turns out, directly adjacent to the Town Hall’s incredibly rackety heating system (which, thankfully, someone put out of our misery during the interval) – my hearing aids were not up to the job of catching more than a few words: but it was obvious that he is passionate and sincere in his love for what he does.

The changes of dynamic, the presentation and development of themes, of ideas, were seamless. In particular, the gradual diminuendo of the first Prelude – a final rising scale fading from forte to piano – before a shocking final fortissimo chord (I wanted to call it a “plonk”, because of the left-hand drop…) – was outstanding. There is no showmanship; nothing for effect. All is contained… – perhaps within the heart.

The second Prelude – although still jazzy: with a wonderful, hushed, repeated ground bass in the opening and closing sections – foreshadowed the deft melodic touch Thomas would use with such lethal efficacy after the interval. Gershwin described this as “a sort of blues lullaby” – but the fascination of interwoven hands, and the perfectly regulated climax and sudden almost-silence are much more alluring than sleep (even to an insomniac, such as myself).

The final ‘movement’ is undoubtedly the funkiest: beginning with another series of thrilling stomps; and then what Thomas made feel like a conversation, a dialogue, in the right hand – sequences flickering between minor and major statements or voices. When these themes returned – after stirring syncopation that could only be Gershwin’s – Thomas developed this “dialogue” into one almighty argument: electrifying and urgent, until that final major flourish wins the day. Stupendous. And the resultant applause was just reward. It may only be six months since he made his first appearance here: but he has continued to grow musically, to learn – as it was obvious he would.

The final pair of pieces – Beauty and the Beast in contrast, if you will (of mood; of impact; of, perhaps, the two sides of the pianist himself…) – were also thoroughly spellbinding: firstly, an arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (possibly the most sumptuous, tragic music ever written); and then Henry Cowell’s lung-crunching Tides of Manaunaun.

This latter work, with its utterly astonishing, thrilling, gripping, thudding, repeated waves of tumultuous ‘tone clusters’ (breaking with the intensity of condensed avalanches) in the left hand (or, rather, arm), is as riveting as music can be. Cowell’s own commentary may go some way to explaining why:

In Irish mythology, Manaunaun was the god of motion and of the waves of the sea. And according to the mythology, at the time when the universe was being built, Manaunaun swayed all of the materials out of which the universe was being built with fine particles which were distributed everywhere through cosmos. And he kept these moving in rhythmical tides so that they should remain fresh when the time came for their use in the building of the universe.

This was delivered with aplomb: all the previous restraint launched into the sky with some serious pianistic fireworks; and substantial, righteous poundage. My goodness – what a superb way to end the first half! Thunderstruck, I headed off to find some fresh air….

Sitting in the hall, well before the concert began: content simply to absorb the atmosphere, as is my wont, I scrawled in my notebook that…

Chamber music is a tough gig for everyone involved – although, with my selective hearing loss, it is my favourite (and easiest to listen to) – not only requiring the skills of a soloist (the willingness to be exposed, musically), but necessitating a high capacity for teamwork (no conductor; but respect for leadership) – an eagle eye, as well as a moth’s ear. The members of the OOTS Quintet are past masters of this, of course (this is also not too big a step away from the world of the chamber orchestra) – but I had yet to witness Thomas in this role – although my expectations were high.
     When he had played concertos with both OOTS and the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra (both with David conducting), he had a slight tendency to look up less frequently than was perhaps required… – although perhaps his relative inexperience renders this excusable…?

I need not have worried. In fact, on last night’s evidence, not only was there a great deal more observation and communication [I told you he continued to learn, didn’t I?!], but I now wonder if, indeed chamber music might not be his forte? At least for the moment. The example I have in mind is my hero, Ian Brown, of the wondrous Nash Ensemble.

There is no doubt – both from last year’s concerts, and last night’s – that he is more than capable of producing great, involving solo performances: from ancient to modern; from Bach to Matthews. But such collegiate music-making as was now required certainly leads to more responsibility – and a crucial need to not only keep abreast of your fellow players, but to be truly engaged in what I can only describe as ‘decision-making on the fly’. In some ways, having to use this ‘sixth sense’ is a tougher task than ploughing a lone, solo furrow. Whatever his future, there is no doubt it is exceeding bright.

It is less than a year since I last heard “my favourite Mozart piano concerto” – no.12, K414played live – and by the peerless(!?) Peter Donohoe. (Who claims, incidentally, that you have to be sixty-five to understand Mozart. Not only is Peter younger than this; but Mozart only lived to be 35, of course – and composed this work when he was 26!) Thomas thus had a lot to live up to! [No pressure.]

As I wrote, then…

The closing Mozart concerto never quite lets go of this more maudlin feeling – despite being in that “golden, warm, and sunny” key of A major… – not even, I feel, “in the genial rondo finale marked Allegretto”.

…which is perhaps why it has always so resonated with me. Having it performed a quattro – as it was here, albeit with the addition of Stacey’s marvellous bass – simply added to the allure: that “transparency of tone and… clarity of line” consummating perfection; and expanding my familiarity with new levels of understanding. It was just so incredibly refreshing – and intensely moving – to hear it performed with such pellucidity; in a version of such fine fretwork: where all instruments were so well balanced, were equals.

David Le Page’s leadership – as you would expect – was subtle but precise; and the attention – to the music; to each other – that had been so evident at the beginning of the evening was now, somehow, more consolidated. And, yes, when he wasn’t concentrating on his solo passages, Thomas’ head, too was raised – frequently – reinforcing the tutti passages; signalling the end of cadenzas – a true part of the team.

The playing from all members of the sextet was sublime: the opening Allegro perfectly paced; and actually quite joyous! But it was the sublime central Andante which took my breath away… – the highlight of the night. The opening string playing – so redolent of Mozart’s quartets – was just ravishing: beauty and divine contemplation in every note. And Thomas’ entry – repeating the movement’s opening chords with the gravity of a Chopin prelude – stopped both my pulse and the time by which to measure it.

It is not easy to lend a sequence so simple such weight, and with such apparent effortlessness. That Thomas achieved this twice – in a movement that was over far, far too soon – but with judicious and subtle changes of shade – may be all the proof you need of his maturity and his continuing development (prompted by that obvious willingness to absorb lessons from those around him). This was certainly the best I have ever heard him play: and those four bars will remain etched in my mind for a very long time. Wow.

The finale – of the concerto; of the concert… – an Allegretto of exceeding happiness and conviviality (wherever did I get the idea that this music was “maudlin”…?!) – couldn’t have been more befitting. Somehow, not only was it the culmination of the evening; but it seemed to exemplify the spirit of all that had gone before: deft touches from all quarters; smiles; explicit communication; impeccable musicianship. No wonder the applause (and cheers) went on so long – warming our hands in preparation for the cold night air…! 2016 ended on several superb musical high notes; and it seems that 2017 is set to continue the trend. Happy New Year!

Not only did the heating system render some of the quieter moments of the first half reminiscent of listening to an old 78 rpm gramophone record [ask your grandparents, kids]; but, at one (quiet) point during Thomas’ last two solo pieces, someone’s phone started talking, Siri- or Cortana-style; and rather loudly. It was to Thomas’ credit – and a demonstration of his inherent professionalism – that it appeared not to break his concentration (although the audience’s heads spun as one: as if witnessing one of Andy Murray’s aces on Centre Court).

When will concert – and theatre – attendees learn that muting phones, or simply turning off their screens, simply isn’t enough? They must be turned off completely. Not only because of the possibility that some sort of noise will interrupt or distract; but because the bright screen may have a similarly disruptive effect. As I scribbled in anger during the interval of The Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC, on Thursday night:

I don’t know why the guy next to me kept looking at his phone – when the action on the stage was so gripping/involving. Why pay for a ticket and then not really get full value from it – as well as [peeing] off your neighbour, big time – who has tears streaming down his cheeks, and doesn’t want the suspension of his disbelief to come clattering to the floor because of your selfishness… – do you really not get the message? Not see what is going on in front of you? Or do you not want to…?

Friday, 13 January 2017

Labouring under the allusion…

Patrick O’Kane (Caravaggio) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
     The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

Barack Obama
I resigned from the Labour Party on Monday night – and then (convinced myself that I) comforted myself by cutting my membership card into itsy-bitsy pieces. Well, it was some form of catharsis, I suppose – if not any true kind of compensation. I had been a full member for many years; and a supporter and voter for even longer; had backed Jeremy Corbyn with joy in my heart… – but was finally floored by the following sentence in the Guardian
Jeremy Corbyn will use his first speech of 2017 to claim that Britain can be better off outside the EU and insist that the Labour party has no principled objection to ending the free movement of European workers in the UK.
I wrote in response that “I cannot support a party that does not support the free movement of people.” To me, the words “no principled objection” just came across as “no principles”; and – as a result of what feels bitterly like betrayal – I now mourn the lack of a truly socialist party whose ethos meshes with my own; and who can represent me, as well, especially, as those many others desperately in need of compassion – those deprived of moral, political and social assistance and validation. (You may call me an idealist. But I’m not the only one. And – truthfully? – being disabled soon knocks pragmatism into you more efficiently than a beating in a back alley for wearing the ‘wrong’ school tie. Or, indeed, a Work Capability Assessment.)

But why am I commencing an RSC review with such a strange, self-centred (and left-centred) tale? Well, not just because I was born and raised on Merseyside – where the play is partly set (specifically Bootle: where my dad taught a whole host of Mickey Carraghers) – although this has undoubtedly coloured my political outlook – but because this exigent need for an organization (or coalition of such) with equality and honesty at its core (and a realistic possibility of government in its grasp) also screams insistently (and rightfully) from those who inhabit the present-day scenes of Anders Lustgarten’s audacious new drama, The Seven Acts of Mercy. And, whilst those cries can be heard far and wide, they are not often willingly listened to; and certainly not readily responded to – the voices of the needy (who see “just about managing” as an unachievable social aspiration) merely echoing back from the mouldering walls of Westminster: never penetrating its windows; nor the ersatz hearts of those that rule us: who care and want for nothing but mastery, and its lardy lubricant, mammon. (“Your kind isn’t welcome here. You’re supposed to feel intimidated.”)

[Does some of this also apply to some of the audience, in some attenuated fashion? (“Because that’s what the privileged are like.”) This may not necessarily be the sort of drama many – initially including its author… – expect to see at the RSC. But if it succeeds in exposing some – “so secure in [their] bubbles” – to realities never before witnessed; if it challenges their assumptions… – and makes an impact: forcing people to rethink their “preconceptions and prejudices”… – then it has also succeeded in reinforcing the purpose of art which it so elucidates. (Next time you espy someone obviously homeless, crouched miserably in the doorway of some boarded-up shop, what will be your reaction? Disdain? Pity? Or a cup of tea and a sandwich…? Will you ask them how they are; how they came to be there – or will you take it as read that they brought it – whatever “it” may be… – upon themselves…?)]

Tom Georgeson (Leon); TJ Jones (Mickey) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
In theatre, you can entertain, and you can also say something about the world. There’s not another medium like it. You can’t fake it, you can’t commodify it.
Anders Lustgarten
Studying the text – in advance of a captioned performance – I was intrigued by the extremely direct parallels drawn between Mickey Carragher and Michelangelo Merisi [for which my iPhone proffers “Mersey”] da Caravaggio; and therefore the possible correlation of other characters inhabiting the two worlds playwright Lustgarten paints (if you will) so beautifully – aided and abetted, in production, by director Erica Whyman and designer Tom Piper; but especially lighting designer Charles Balfour and video designer Nina Dunn (superheroes, all). I was also captivated by worldly-wise granddad, Trotskyist, Toffeemen sympathizer and ideological aesthete, Leon, sometimes shackled to a wheelchair by illness and end-stage emphysema… – but only “shackled” in the way one is bound to a chariot wilfully hurtling away from Hades. Lustgarten describes the man as “A ruined castle on a hill”; and, although Tom Georgeson captures this aspect to perfection, it is the ex-union leader’s “cantankerous forcefulness” that pierces you to the quick; as well as his obvious deep love and fear for grandson Mickey (an utterly mesmerizing TJ Jones). Both performances are truly sensational: there are no hysterics, only hope and fortitude; and their reality therefore quickly becomes ours.
All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.
– Caravaggio
The pair ensure that we understand that this is a play about relationships (and therefore love) – relationships between people alive and dead, living and dying; between people and art, people and religion; between people and need, want, greed, necessity… – about the personal as much as it is the political. (“Solidarity. Solidarity under duress, not from some theory but because there’s no other choice.”) And it speaks both to art’s (and love’s) imperative, its indispensability; as much as it does to its inspirational potency – both devoured in its creation, and spewed out by its consumption. That it uses the iconography of the seven corporal works of mercy as its framework is almost incidental – unless you see those works (that labour; the labour required to accomplish them) as political (rather than religious) waypoints on the route to righteousness and some realistic form of vicarious redemption.
The whole play is taking on Caravaggio’s idea that he fights for the people and makes things better through his work. It’s a nice romantic vision, but it’s bullshit, I think.
Anders Lustgarten
But it is Caravaggio’s flawed, overwhelming masterpiece of the same name – humanity writ colossal and candid – that dominates proceedings; is literally at the centre of the action; and which guides that action. (”What’s the fucking point of art without human feeling?”) The work may not absolve its creator, or anyone else (sadly, souls aren’t as easily redeemed as Green Shield Stamps): but it goes a bloody long way to mapping out what is possible – especially when faced with today’s vicious social realities.

Patrick O’Kane (Caravaggio) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

Maybe not helped by the shock of each scene change, the parallel narratives can occasionally feel contrived. (This is, after all, a play; and my concentration on the rhetoric may have been punctured, now and then, by the presence of captions – which is why I am returning for an unfettered viewing, tonight.) However, the bonds of love which cement the whole thing together are so strong that any machinations remaining visible (however briefly) simply do not matter. And, while there are thus moments of great beauty and tenderness – of silence, of light… – there are also those (essential ones) of savagery and offensiveness (both in action and communication) – of shade…. Nonetheless, the words flow constantly with affection, knowledge, nuance, heart and humour. In the end, therefore, I believe it is the overall effect – the chiaroscuro of language and meaning; the greater truth, perhaps… – which is crucial. (“Let me rest now.”)

There are hints of (or correspondences with) I, Daniel Blake – but the play is none the worse for that. And, anyway, why wouldn’t there be such replication? The scenes in Bootle flawlessly capture the cruel reality of the millions crushed by the blatant falsehoods of austerity – benefits that don’t; housing that doesn’t; an embarrassment of food-banks… – any throwaway accusations of the writing being nothing but “agitation and political propaganda” probably emanating from the mouths of those imposing that punishing reality; or those with their vision kept deliberately blinkered. Mind you, having said that, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of valid agitprop now and then, if it’s targeted correctly, opens eyes, and transforms disdain into a cuppa and a friendly chat. (“What if ‘the people’ don’t want stories about themselves? What if they like shite about the rich and famous?”) For one moment, I could have sworn we were sat in the Everyman, in Liverpool. (And, trust me, that is A Very Good Thing… – especially in Stratford-upon-Avon.)

The only bits that really passed me by were the footballing references in the first, rip-roaring scene after the interval – my Anfield (and Ewood Park) days long gone. And yet the cascades of belly-laughs well surpassed the need to understand the detail… – yet more light emerging from the darkness. And neither did the language – which on paper, is stark – get in the way, or even jolt. It is too based in the necessities of lives hard-lived to be anything other than real.

Allison McKenzie (Lavinia) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
I see compassion may become a justice, though it be a weakness, I confess, and nearer a vice than a virtue.
– Ben Jonson: Bartholomew Fair
Utilizing the same sterling core company as The Rover and The Two Noble Kinsmen, the acting is, of course, top-notch. Not only Georgeson and Jones, but an almost unrecognizable Gyuri Sarossy: proving his range well beyond those other plays in a rendition, again, of utter perfection. (“I never could create something.”) This is a tough role to play: but Sarossy evokes just enough smarm, vulnerability, cocksureness, weakness, and humanity to ensure that we grow to sympathize, to understand his predicament; to believe him, and in him.
“He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back streets, les sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the lower orders… Following Caravaggio up to the present day, other painters – Brower, Ostade, Hogarth, Goya, Gericault, Guttuso – have painted pictures of the same social milieu. But all of them – however great – were genre pictures, painted in order to show others how the less fortunate or the more dangerous lived. With Caravaggio, however, it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one that he shares with it.
– John Berger
Patrick O’Kane as the egotistic Caravaggio is equally remarkable; as is Edmund Kingsley as the Marchese. (“I make no judgment on his character.”) But it is Allison McKenzie – amazing enough in The Rover… – who took my breath away completely: as Lavinia, holding up a mirror to the painter; giving him love where none had been before – a love he cannot understand; in the same way he does not understand the sincere friendship and admiration of his sponsor. Thus is his humanity unlocked – an act of compassion which leads to a final scene where past and present collide; an inevitable impact that found everyone in the Swan leaning in from the blackness, many with tears glistening in the half-light.

Keeping Caravaggio and Mickey on stage during each other’s scenes, as we travelled pell-mell towards that inevitability, was a stroke of genius; and I cannot say often enough how effective and magical Whyman’s directorial decisions always are; how she surrounds herself with talent to match; how transparently she shares her vision across cast, creatives… and audience. (“I’ve got something I’d like to show yer.”) True greatness.

There’ll be more, tomorrow, when I’ve gotten my breath back. All I can say, now, is that this was an evening which gnawed at every single emotion I think I’ve ever possessed; and is on a level with Doctor Faustus… – which is the highest praise I have. Watching paint dry has never been quite so enthralling – nor quite so rewardingly harrowing. Bring it on!

Monday, 9 January 2017

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream…

It was the moment first-light shape-shifted – imperceptibly transmuting from astronomical to nautical dawn – and, although my vision had long adapted to the gelid gloom, all I could discern ahead (as if insinuating myself deep into one of Dürer’s Meisterstiche…) were motionless, almost monochroic strata of indecipherable spectral shades: pitch against jet against coal, against ebony, soot and sable. And yet I sensed them, stock- and stand-still. As, assuredly, they sensed me.

Even when I tentatively stalked one step closer, my hesitant boots assaying the crisp, iron earth for constancy, no being was roused; no fear rendered flesh. Only when our distance was so fused that I could gauge each individual by age and antler; only when their aspect resolved from patient intrigue – gaze meeting mine with resolute but relaxed unconcern – only when I took that scant fatal step too far (not known until made known: the unspoken pledge synchronously sealed and severed), bewraying their sanctity; only then, as my glare intensified, did they gently, studiously, look, and then steal, away: an evanescent exequy; the substantial rendered incorporeal by developing detachment – even in dwindling darkness – melting as memories may, ensconced in a blanket of mute frost, and bound by filaments of wreathing fog. Their innate fugaciousness; or my coveted fugue?

I thus circled the second such grouping with fresh erudition: leucistic and melanistic coats now readily discerned; common and menil camouflage yet persistent; as civil dawn unmasked a greater gamut of greys, below, the embellished palette of light bruising the blue‑black, above – the firmament finally divesting its garments of deep cyclical mourning.

That each of the bescattered herd – frequently in small detachments; infrequently alone – felt invulnerable at this hour was not exceptional. This is their demesne, in space, time, and multitude; their twilight vision – far superior to ours – giving them all the more advantage. Plus, of course, the presence of curious, meddlesome lumps, beloved cameras snuggled in their begloved paws, is fairly habitual – the fawns, especially after recurring musters from the master bucks, smartly grasping which tracts of parkland have been demarcated unassailable sanctuary.

Needless to say, daybreak – however categorized – is the tocsin for many beasts: some in retreat (recent evidence of rabbit, fox and badger easily gleaned – even from the bounds of the public footpath); some in advance. The most obvious, this morning, being a parliament of rooks – uncommonly sociable at this time of year; not yet squabbling and swindling over nesting sites and materials. Their coordination – as they skimmed across the Avon, before neatly rising as one above an inexplicable unanimously-elected tree, then dropping serenely and evenly into its brumal branches (a unicoloured corvine party popper in reverse) – was astounding: a complete absence of acrobatics; and only the occasional “kaah” of agreement (or, perhaps, disgruntlement, at being relegated to a lower station).

I turned, almost silently; only the treacherous crepitation of scattered, crinkle-cut leaves, glazed with crystals of sharp ice, marking my progress, betraying my position. Unseen fallow deer – mostly older males: their palmate antlers no longer weapons for the rut, simply signifiers of seniority – emerged, trudging wearily across my path; heading to their daytime haunts beneath and beyond West Park’s avenue of stately monuments: lime trees that will outlive us all; that have watched our ancestors come and go with steadfast grace.

I would have tarried, transfixed by such stillness: the uniform white-painted wash endowed by a night’s full frost utterly beguiling; redefining the landscape; refreshing my perspective (and my ruddy cheeks…). But time weighed heavily in my agued joints; my walking stick stiffening my fingers’ sinews. My body ached for movement; for the pulse of warming blood heartened by perambulation. Perhaps – had I outstayed my welcome, and the winter weather – I too would have joined those arboreal statues forever on guard…?

So I retraced my steps, twenty minutes into this hibernal morning’s golden hour – although, here, the supposed aureity was suffused, dulled and dampened by a lingering layer of pallid haze – and chanced upon yet another cortège of young deer: heads bowed, silent, almost monastical. Were these the same I had dislodged during my (and the sun’s) timid first steps? Had the creatures simply regathered, returned to their arboreal refuge, once I had passed by; and only now – driven by whatever instinct temperature and light co-kindled within them – been moved to return to the larger host of familial comfort and assemblage? Or was I the one who somniated – ‘dawn-dreamed’ – while they simply slumbered, unaroused and unawares? Were they somnambulists yet…?

But others, now, were stirring. The herd of pregnant Jacob ewes, eager for their breakfast – as was I… – all but one (obviously too fixated on feeding her mineral addiction) lured easily by the ranger proffering armfuls of hay: her breath almost solidifying in the polar air. It was time for home….
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

– Shakespeare: The Tempest (IV.i.48–58)

Monday, 2 January 2017

The angels forget to pray for us…

It’s time that we began to laugh and cry
And cry and laugh about it all again

– Leonard Cohen: So Long, Marianne

A few days ago, I started drafting a review of what was then the current year: but didn’t really get very far (somewhere around the end of February…). And, now that my deadline has passed (because of a parallel lack of mental momentum and physical health), I was on the verge of conveying those few musty paragraphs to the overflowing dustbin that is my output’s virtual, but permanent, companion. Waking up to a dark, dank day – which quickly infused my weakened joints (and thus my resolve) – did not help. However, after too many semi-comatose, quilt-hidden, guilt-ridden hours, I awoke again to realize that this was just the sort of challenge I needed to face down if I were to survive the next twelve months: a period where tough personal decisions must be made; and where the consequences of last year’s tragic body-political ones would start to make themselves evident – neither of which I could ever justify shying away from: however painful the outcome.

I am not generally one for resolutions (plural, in the calendrical sense); but am a strong proponent of meeting head-on that which would actively defeat me with as much determination, willpower, commitment and doggedness as can possibly be mustered. So, with all the resolution (singular, and in the attitudinal sense) as can currently be found, let me take you back those “few days”: so that we can jointly, steadfastly revisit my previous, expir’d twelve months and see if there is anything contained therein worth carrying forward.

It is fairly traditional, I believe – mayhap whilst swaddling a matchless single malt – to take a comprehensive look back in languor at the departing year: one’s beaded vision transfixed on its fading form trudging through Time’s tenebrose tradesman’s exit – validating its demise; its melting into the midnight mist… – as it clears the way for its bawling, vermix-swathed successor. And yet, in the protracted process of putting up this blog, it is not a praxis I have once set my ideational mind to; nor filled my fictive quill for. Perhaps none of its progenitive trilogy was worthy of such effort; was distinct enough?

Nevertheless – as many others will no doubt also conclude (perhaps because of the seemingly inordinate, interminable passing of the inestimably illustrious; or the contumacious uncrowning of the continental status quo – mimicked by the seditious Stateside selection of the supposedly surprising…) – it truly has been an annus of the most horribilis (un)kind. And, come what did… – even though I should be tempted to expunge it (or simply let it seep) from my quaggy mind; shoulder it through the metaphysical shredder; or at least deposit it in the depths of one of the many Indiana Jones-style chests summoning dust (dissipating significance) in the incorporeal loft… – still I feel it worth erecting this unmerited memorial, this inequitable cairn of consonants and vowels, before you: praying as I do so that its shadow will not overhang its successor, pall-like; indeed, pleading that its gloom is merely the precursor of a cloudless dawn (however implausible…).

As Albert Schweitzer may once have stated: “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” I presume, therefore, that unhappiness is nothing more than bad health and a good memory. Given that I (indubitably) have the former, but not (much of) the latter, I feel I am heading into murky, ontological waters (or at least dipping my big toe into a dank puddle of epistemology).

Fortunately, being the hoopy frood I (indubitably) am, this blog is all I need to keep my (and your) delicate tootsies dry. As 2016 progressed (or regressed, depending on your viewpoint), every single word, every single wick of its digital fabric, mopped up (albeit much less regularly than usual) deep pools of freshly-created memories: retaining them with the excellent efficiency and sumptuous sensuousness of the very finest Supima cotton bath sheet. Thankfully, there are moments of delight thus retained within its looped threads; but, for the most obvious of reasons (that “bad health”: both psychological and physiological), the most part is devoted to the sadness (the “unhappiness”) which made itself known as the days began to lengthen: suffusing its structure, making its mark, like the most pernicious, spreading stain.

In such a year of constantly declining health – where supposedly routine tests (medical and political) threw up results that were anything but… – I didn’t do as much walking – nor, therefore, as much writing – as I would have liked; or as much as I should have. But many of my treks – no matter their length – were memorable: my habitual ‘night-walks’, for example; and especially my encounter with an indefatigable skylark above Lower Tysoe, in May. This was also proof that my legs still had many miles in them, despite the pain that constantly shrouds me. I just need to select my routes – and the days I choose to pursue them – extremely carefully; and be wary of my physical limitations (which seem to have moved front- and centre-stage, as the year progressed).

As most of my first lines come to me whilst out and about – swathed in, or disguised by, my “wonted hat and dark glasses, walking stick in hand, somewhere in the wilds of Warwickshire” – it should be no surprise that my poetry also suffered (as it often does) in parallel with my health: the high point being a short piece I penned early in the year (which I probably should have then left untouched, rather than try to build a mirror for). It also means that Mole, Ratty and Mouse are still stuck in Badger’s old but comfortable sett (a metaphor for my depression, if ever there was one…) – still in need of my “fictive quill” to release them from their confines. Soon, I promise. (Soon.)

My consumption of others’ creations – although waning in parallel with the year and my health – still surpassed my own productivity by quite some margin. In fact, one of this appraisal’s key stimuli was the vertiginous quality of so many of the theatrical and musical interpretations I beheld.

I believe that, last night, I witnessed the greatest Shakespearean performance of my long life… – and not just from the actor in the principal rôle (that was simply a major miracle…). We had arrived at the Royal & Derngate, in Northampton, knowing that Michael Pennington would be the supreme King Lear. What I think we were surprised by was the corresponding calibre of the company that surrounded him – some of whom were only recent graduates. We shouldn’t have been, though; we really shouldn’t…

I had begun the year surrendering to the charms of Wendy and Peter Pan – and, then, at the beginning of February, was left “feeling as if I had been scoured thoroughly from the inside to within a millimetre of my flesh” by my first visit (of nine) to see Doctor Faustus, my theatrical highlight of the year. It took me a while, however, to work out why the production spoke to me so clearly, hooked me so hard; and I miss it still. Like Mrs Shakespeare, in July, it reflected my ongoing depression (formally diagnosed around the same time I first saw Faustus) back at me in a way that helped me examine it in more detail, and analyse it with a little more objectivity.

I have no idea how to even begin to describe what I have just seen – the RSC’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, at the Swan – except to say that it is the very definition of theatre…

But it was not just the appositeness, the self-applicability, which made this play so memorable: the performances from all involved – but particularly Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (joint actors of the year) – were of a remarkably high standard: a golden touchstone by which other productions and actors would be judged; and which, remarkably, so many would go on to achieve. This was, after all, the year of that matchless, harrowing King Lear; an impossibly perfect Hamlet, starring the impossibly mesmerizing Paapa Essiedu; a gloriously riotous staging of Jonson’s The Alchemist; and, of course, Erica Whyman’s miraculous – one could even say socialist – enterprise, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – all productions where every single actor and creative was consistently at the very top of their game; where no-one was ever anything less than magnificent.

Outside, the world may have (“may have”?) been going to hell in a political, post-truth, handbasket; but, within the walls of Dionysus’ many temples – sanctuaries where we could safely hand our communal disbelief over with our coats and hats – not only were we being entertained and distracted, we were being shown alternatives, given ways of coping, handed the tools needed to respond, to fight back: the best of which were to be found in the astonishing Making Mischief festival at the RSC’s freshly re-opened The Other Place (TOP). No single component of this was anything other than devastating – but it was Joanne and especially Always Orange (which became a key component of my PTSD therapy) that hit me hardest. (The play which baptized TOP’s new Studio Theatre, in March – The Woman Hater, performed by the marvels that make up Edward’s Boys – couldn’t have been more of a contrast, though! But the quality of the portrayals was just as high.)

That I will be seeing out the old year (and seeing in the new) with two more visits to The Rover – “yet another huge dose of it-could-only-be-in-the-Swan perfection” – is a rip-roaring godsend (especially given the huge storms of disappointment conjured up by the RSC’s overambitious, vainglorious staging of The Tempest…): its high production values on a par with those listed above. I’m struggling to think of anything either funnier, or with a bigger heart.

My first concert of the year – which featured “one of the very best non-professional orchestras in the country”, my beloved Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, storming their extremely skilled way through Shostakovich’s Symphony No.3, as part of their stunning Russia: Revolution and Romance series (which also included a rare and breathtaking rendition of Prokofiev’s “unplayable” Piano Concerto No.2) – set the musical bar just as high as the theatrical one: establishing a benchmark for live performance that was somehow, quite stunningly, constantly achieved throughout the year.

Yet again – as always with Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan – this was a shrewdly-programmed concert: one with tragedy at its core. But, somehow, its overall effect was gloriously uplifting: probably because music of this quality is keenly felt and rare. We are therefore so lucky to have such inestimable talent within such easy reach.

Of course, we all select the concerts that we attend using such criteria as our knowledge of the performers, and of the music that has been scheduled – or we see pieces listed that we don’t know, or which are new, and which intrigue us… – but this is still no guarantee of such consistent excellence. I do admit, though, that I am fortunate that so many wonderful events take place within driving distance of my home. It would just be even more wonderful if my health would permit me to attend an even greater number of them.

One concert I missed more than any other featured violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Mind-bogglingly – like the Orchestra of the Swan – she just keeps on improving – heaping on yet more perfection – every time I hear her play. She is, therefore, my musician of the year.

Tamsin also took part in my concert of the year: one which marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with great thoughtfulness and beauty. My review says it all. But it was also notable in that it marked my first project as the Orchestra of the Swan’s Writer-in-Residence – which felt like being passed a gift directly from the hands of God… – interviewing the lovely Dobrinka Tabakova: whose commission, Immortal Shakespeare, formed the centrepiece of this quite remarkable event.

I may have to stop reviewing OOTS concerts soon: as I have run out of ways to explain and describe their majesty; their translucence; their ability to conquer all the peaks they face; to produce flawless radiance at the drop of a baton.

That I am now allowed(!) to write the orchestra’s programme notes; that I get to sit in on their rehearsals; that I am beginning to count members of the orchestra amongst my friends… – well, even in the darkest of despairs, these facts just go to demonstrate that there is always a light, somewhere, to follow – whether the tiniest pinprick; or the glaring beam of a flaming beacon… – you just have to look hard enough; and want (enough) to be guided by it. (In my case – and it really has led to me seeing, and hearing, the world anew – I was directed towards the purchase of a piano; and the revival of a musical love affair that started when I was barely old enough to clamber on to the stool to play!)

And, talking of my (favourite) instrument: 2016 was the year in which Thomas Nickell made his UK debut. I see a bright future for this thoughtful young man; and I look forward to making his reacquaintance in the New Year. It was also the year in which cellist Laura van der Heijden became OOTS’ Associate Artist. A seriously great musician, already – …and she’s only just started at university!

Even after all that, the year ended with a remarkable string of gloriously perfect, perfectly glorious performances: Bach, ancient and modern; then vividly-painted explorations, both oceanic and cosmic; an evening featuring “three outstanding, immensely prolific composers – all at the height of their powers”; and finally, a Messiah of amazing purity and vitality… – all demonstrating that the future of such music, as it is both made and played, is in great hands.

If only the same could be said for the world beyond those glowing, green ‘Exit’ signs…. Not that such will stop me from wishing you all the health and happiness you can muster. Just that I myself only expect it in the comfort of those I know and love; and those who can distract me with their iridescent creativity…. My best wishes to you all!

O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.

He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his scepter o’er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms; till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.

– William Blake: To Winter