Saturday, 27 February 2016

But even the very middle of my heart…

In limbo (I feel that I am nowhere now)
For Gilly, Graeme, and Rose…

I am not dying
     (except in the usual gentle way)
And am only old
     (to those whose adventures are over brave)
Between these two states
     (a permanent purgatory of sorts

     where devilish disease with virtue sports)
Such circumstance grates
     (marking but not able to heed the grave)
Thus no longer bold
     (snatching at clouds brandishing words of clay)
I am but sighing
I am not living
     (with the clear significance of just men)
Though inanimate
     (a mirrored model of most needful toil)
Stagnant but not still
     (oppressed by judicious expectation

     and circumscribed with patent frustration)
Lacking want nor will
     (aspiration shall replace all shook foil)
Hence to demonstrate
     (however abject yet ever driven)
I am forgiving

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Let joy be unconfined…!

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –

It seems such a long time ago (although it is only a few months) since I turned up at a concert without having first overloaded the musical compartment of my brain with scores, and having researched the pieces to be performed (and in quite some detail). However, tempted by repeat incitements on Twitter – and having been stuck at home with a miserable migraine for the past few days… – I popped onto the Malvern Theatres website; found quite a few suitable seats free; and, before I had time to draw breath, there I was, back in one of my favourite venues. [In a previous life, I was a supporter of the English Symphony Orchestra, under the wonderful William Boughton – a superb interpreter of Elgar and Brahms; and a lovely man… – as well as a long-term member of the Elgar-founded Malvern Concert Club: and the Forum Theatre was therefore a major component of my live musical existence. (The last time I was there was to see Peter Donohoe – as always… – and Martin Roscoe. I can’t actually remember what they played – each other, maybe; pianos, possibly… – but I do remember lots of laughter – as always…!)]

The core of last night’s concert was to be two guitar concertos. However, despite my mum owning almost everything recorded by John Williams and demigod Julian Bream, it was only a chance meeting with the enthusiastic and witty Stephen Dodgson (another “lovely man” – and an inspiration…) at grammar school that ‘got me into’ classical guitar music – starting, of course, with recordings of the great man’s own works. Thus my introduction to the famous Rodrigo “Concerto de Orange Juice”; along with a whole host of other pieces.

This performance was therefore refreshing in many ways. An encounter with music not heard for a while. Revisiting that “favourite venue”. Even managing to sit in my favourite location, halfway up the tiered seating! And, of course, everything that David Curtis and Orchestra of the Swan do together “refreshes the parts other [musicians] cannot reach”.

The concert began with three movements of the Suite Española, by Albeniz. Originally for solo piano (and, according to the programme notes, “known today predominantly in the classical guitar arrangements which, ironically, are not by Albeniz!”), this “first-ever string orchestra arrangement” had been commissioned by the Friends of Orchestra of the Swan [FOOOTS…?! – is this to do with Curtis’ sock fetish…?!] from Mark Chivers – who just so happens to be a “core Viola Player in OOTS”. His knowledge of string techniques – and of OOTS’ superb abilities, pellucidness, and indestructible joie de vivre – certainly showed: this was orchestration of great intelligence, employing all the players’ strengths. The final movement, in particular, was one of subtle showmanship, with some magical contrasts: and made me wish we had also experienced the three ‘absent’ ones.

What also struck me – even though I was sat much further away from the stage than I would have been in Stratford ArtsHouse – was the clarity and power of the sound. The acoustics, here, suited OOTS so much more… – I felt as if (for me) they had finally come home. I just hope Curtis’ post-interval exhortation – to “Bring a Friend Free” [as of publishing, I have yet to discover a link for this offer…] to the other concerts in this Prestigious Double Concerto Series with… – helps fill the hall, next time (with yer man Donohoe); and gives them the recognition they so clearly and dearly deserve. [Please note, by the way, that I have yet to hear them in Birmingham Town Hall. Just to say, though, that if Sir Simon really is struggling for a decent concert hall, then the Midlands has a few… – obviously, with his previous base, the Symphony Hall being (possibly globally) the crème de la crème.]

Next, that Concierto de Aranjuéz, by Rodrigo, with Craig Ogden on guitar. It is so hard to make something so familiar sound fresh; appear new – but Ogden did from the outset (aided and abetted by Curtis and company); and, what’s more, made it seem almost effortless. His opening, salutary pronouncement was both crisp and dynamically astounding. This was a statement of intent that was continuously delivered on – and his (amplified) sound was perfectly balanced with that of the orchestra’s.

The famous second movement – the Adagio – was a thing of wonderment; of transcendent beauty. Curtis, here, just (appeared to) let the music flow, with the most delicate of touches: and was rewarded with some ravishing playing – especially from the woodwind and horns. The resulting tears were still damp on my face when I exited the theatre for the interval… – even though the last notes of the final Allegro gentile left me chortling with happiness: such was the delighted precision exhibited by all involved. Just stunning – even after the earlier blow-your-socks-off orchestral entry following the mesmerizing cadenza… – and a demonstration of what can be achieved by such happy, professional, collaborative musicians. Grins all round!

Ogden is a new name to me – but, after tonight, one I will certainly keep an eye (and both ears) out for. His musicianship was that rare (although not in this company…) combination of technique, emotion and inclusiveness. He obviously thoroughly enjoyed his time with Curtis and OOTS; and his return to the stage, after the interval, for Vivaldi’s D major Guitar Concerto, was another utter delight!

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another conventional piece of classical music – but there were subtleties, and harmonic and melodic gems, by the bucketful; and the outer movements, with the solo guitar (originally written for a lute – although I cared not one jot…!) accompanied by the skilful and gorgeous continuo work of cellist Nick Stringfellow, readily kept the pre-break smile on my face.

For the second movement, marked Largo, Curtis let Ogden have the floor – generosity that was repaid manyfold. His guitar sang purely – in marked contrast to the often-percussive textures of the Rodrigo – and the strings’ accompaniment was gentle, comforting, supportive and utterly limpid. Curtis conducted this with telepathic genius: stood silently in contemplation until the closing notes. If “the music flowed” in the Rodrigo second movement, here it seeped, steeped, and then sweeped… – not only to that alluring ending; but into my veins.

The jaunty final movement – with “something of a tarantella feel” – went by too, too quickly. In fact, had I sat through this whole concert two or three times, I would still have asked for it all to be repeated. Even more joy; and a hope that the partnership with Ogden will grow from these auspicious beginnings into something even more fruitful and meaningful. His repeated calls back to the stage for applause were more than deserved. Here is a musician who communicates beautifully, and with great insight.

Although Curtis had instructed us, before the music began, to dream of wine and olives… – as Albeniz wrote –

…there are… a few things that are not completely worthless. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more colour, sunlight and the flavour of olives…

…and be moved by this wonderful music to the warm Mediterranean (it was minus three Celsius, when I returned home…) – it was to delight that he and OOTS permanently transported us. This was an evening of repeated joy. And he had obviously instructed the orchestra that, on the downbeat of his baton for the final work of the evening – Mendelssohn’s fantastic ‘Italian’ Symphony (for me, everything Mendelssohn wrote was “fantastic”…) – they were to unleash every single iota of exultation that they could muster!

It was like being hit in the heart with huge heaps of instant happiness – which, despite the composer’s best attempts to cool things down: with a march, followed by an “uncharacteristic stately dance” – never stopped. Curtis’ smile was infectious: spreading quickly through the orchestra and on into the audience. As a result, I could have skipped home, easily, across the border to Warwickshire, under that moonlight… – “the serious moonlight”. On with the dance!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Foretelling spring…

The trick with many a National Trust property (if not all…) – whether or not you want to nip into the restaurant for a sneaky coffee and breakfast flapjack (which I did…) – is to get there early. At Charlecote Park, this morning, just after opening time, there were definitely more gardeners than walkers; and most other visitors were confined (sensibly) to the Orangery: which was doing a steady trade in warming drinks.

Out on the paths, the few fellow hardy souls I encountered – weathering the chill wind; wishing for the uncertain sun to stumble through the scudding greyness – were far between: a brace of well-insulated toddlers, with their dad, viewing the heavily-pregnant Jacob sheep with awe, before pouncing through the frequent puddles to collect freshly-fallen twigs; and a couple of sensibly-dressed folk with walking sticks, making light work of the soggy trails through West Park (so damp that the frequent imprints of cloven hooves were remarkably deep and distinct – see photograph – with only the occasional evidence of a surprised skid). Even those responsible fallow deer were somewhat somnolent; and the journeys there and back were also notable for their curious (rapturous) insufficiency of traffic – which enabled me to slow down, just a tad, momentarily, to observe the mini-murmuration of starlings that currently flows between Oxhill and Lower Tysoe.

Such quietude, of course, is my delight: and I was able to meander around the extensive parkland at my own, slow, pace; relishing the peace, and the resultant almost-springtime alertness of the wildlife around me – obviously unafraid of the solitary, plumped-up, quilted figure concealed by bush-hat, dark glasses, and fleece-lined trousers; my dirty boots the perfect camouflage!

On the edge of the Wilderness, a solitary, slender robin – the front of its folded wings painted with a fine streak of almost-white – called sporadically from one of the rungs of a zinc-coloured garden obelisk. Only after a few minutes – and a wary, querying stare that probed my very soul – did it then hop up onto the finial to carry on its territorial (or perhaps lovelorn) conversation with an echo from across the Avon.

The river, too, although still coloured with silt, flowed less ferociously than the last few weeks’ torrents – the only evidence of which (apart from the spongelike squelch of the lower ground) was a continuous contour of broken reeds, wooden splinters and miscellaneous dreck, strewn sinuously along the grass (and most noticeable in Place’s Meadow: whose two inhabitant swans sat within necking distance, lazily tugging at the circle of moist, green blades within a beak’s easy reach).

Later, in West Park, sadly – whilst having a one-sided conversation with the deer (mostly sat, ruminating; and mostly unbothered by me: only the youngest scurrying for shelter under the nearby lime trees) – I disturbed a kestrel (perhaps the one I had witnessed earlier, wafting above the Avon, on the other side of the house?) from its stump-of-a-dead-tree perch: but even this normally guarded falcon only flapped sluggishly to the nearest hanging branch, its beadiness now focused on this rude intruder, rather than hunting for its lunch.

So I wandered on. Past the tag-playing rooks, chatting and chauntering; occasionally flapping short distances en masse for no reason I could fathom, before resuming their prattle. And my incidental stealth was thus rewarded with a sight that still stops my breath: the gentle bobbing of a green woodpecker (my eye caught by its startling red mohican and glowing underbelly, as well as that signature, inverted arc), swinging low across the river, before finding a suitable branch for rest. The heron, rigid beneath, glanced momentarily at this harmless interloper – fish-spear of a beak temporarily raised in salute – then resumed its fluvial gaze, deep into waters that were opaque to my eyes.

A good day for wildlife, then – especially for espying birds of all sizes (frequent paired blackbirds; the exasperated mallards on the Dene; an overheard wren shrilling from inside a hedge; blue and great tits feeding on the few remaining nuts by the hide…) – and a feeling that a week of prophesied sunshine may well herald a new season (as well as the wearing of lighter clothes).

The hazel-blooms, in threads of crimson hue,
Peep through the swelling buds, foretelling Spring,
Ere yet a white-thorn leaf appears in view,
Or March finds throstles pleased enough to sing.
To the old touchwood tree woodpeckers cling
A moment, and their harsh-toned notes renew;
In happier mood, the stockdove claps his wing;
The squirrel sputters up the powdered oak,
With tail cocked o’er his head, and ears erect,
Startled to hear the woodman’s understroke;
And with the courage which his fears collect,
He hisses fierce half malice, and half glee –
Leaping from branch to branch about the tree,
In winter’s foliage, moss and lichens, drest.
– John Clare: First sight of Spring

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Sentenced to life…

I feel that I am nowhere now
For the Giraffe who Has Nothing and the Rider who Writes…

I am not dying
     (except in the usual gentle way)
And am only old
     (to those whose adventures are over brave)
Between these two states
     (a permanent purgatory of sorts

     where devilish disease with virtue sports)
Such circumstance grates
     (marking but not able to heed the grave)
Thus no longer bold
     (snatching at clouds brandishing words of clay)
I am but sighing

It felt like chiselling candy floss, getting the right words. Try reading it backwards, line by line; or even missing the bracketed bits out. Or both. And, if you want more of the same – but better written, of course – try this.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Matchless perfection…

Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

At the end of my first review of Doctor Faustus, I wrote that…

I can therefore, now… identify with (Marlowe’s and Ryan’s) Faustus. Sometimes, the temptation – maybe not for instant gratification; but certainly for pleasure (for the power) to relieve, to distract from, a life of pain, a life of uncertainty… – is just too great.

In fact, I was in so much agony, today, that I would quite easily have given “both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis” – the latter having already (seemingly) plunged his knife deep within my neck… – in return for “four-and-twenty-years” of letting me live without hurt of any kind (although I would have asked for a further twenty years remission for earned good behaviour – and steadfast endurance – of course…).

It strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear the quick to hell.
O soul, be changed into small waterdrops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!
O, mercy, heaven, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not, Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books. O, Mephistophilis!

O, that ending….

As always, though, the distraction of great drama worked its (sadly, temporary) wonders – it was more than worth the effort… – and I wasn’t even disappointed in the slightest that I was again to witness the captivating Oliver Ryan as Faustus (although I still long – and would also consider an exchange of souls – for Sandy Grierson to play the rôle whilst I am in the audience. Just once would do, please – out of, now, a possible seven viewings (although most shows – and it runs until August – are, if not already so, on the verge of being sold out…)).

Ryan inhabits every single syllable. It is almost impossible to take your eyes off him… – but not to do so would mean that you would miss many miracles. (Obversely: keep them fixed there, on that electric being; and witness constant supremacy and insistent genius – body and face permanently communicative.)

Yes, it is that good. It is a thing, in truth, of profound beauty. And last night’s was the best, the most fluent, of the three shows I have seen: so wonderful, I think it fair to say that the run has now truly gotten into its stride; having jumped over the nervous previews; hopped past press-night worries; and is now cantering through the relaxed fields far from sight of the finishing line. (My two companions were also hooked; and were both astonished at how quickly the two hours had flown by. (Like a bowler-hatted bat out of hell…?))

It is so very “good”, indeed, that the shocks and surprises that so pulled me in, initially, have matured into steadfast delights (attractions both dark and light); and I am now able to appreciate not only the whole ‘story’, but absorb those significant little details – Sandy Grierson’s feline haunting of the stage (and of Faustus (and, perhaps, the audience, too)); his communicative, sly glances; the musical leitmotivs; the genius of the “cut up” text; the manipulation of bodies and objects; the push and pull of reflected power… – that render (over and above the subtle, adroit acting – and from all on stage…) repeated viewings increasingly enjoyable (if that is the right word for something so tenebrous…).

If you can, get a ticket; get a dozen…! Please don’t kill for one, though (as tempting as that may be…) – maybe just make a teensy-weensy compact with that guy with the blackened feet…? Trust me: you’re worth it.

Her lips suck forth my soul. See where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

What will be, shall be…

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike;
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

It’s perhaps surprising just how much an audience can make or break a performance. Not only was the Swan seemingly filled with patients on a night out from the sanatorium – there was interminable coughing from all quarters of the theatre – but the gentleman to my left fidgeted in his seat constantly; and must have glanced (what I mean is “stared longingly”) at his watch every two or three minutes; and right from the start (“for where we are is hell, And where hell is must we ever be”). I therefore found it immensely difficult to maintain the concentration I had kept so very easily on Thursday, at the press night. As a result, if this had been my only visit to see The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, I am sure that my review would not have been quite so enthusiastic.

I also noticed – having previously been at the front; but now sat several rows further back – how the music (“a mixture of the seductive and repulsive”) sometimes overwhelmed the speech. Maybe it is my hearing aids’ inability to balance these sounds correctly; but – as much as I believe this “is integral to the production” (and is wonderfully performed) – I do wonder (again) what reasons a director can possibly give for making the actors compete in this way. It certainly does not aid comprehension (even when you are beginning to reach the stage of being able to recite the text along with the cast)!

One of the (manifold) wonderful things about this production, however, is the absence of obvious technology. Special effects are few and far between – and mainly use projection (video designed by Nathan Parker) – and the play is as reliant on human interaction and effort as it would have been in Marlowe’s day. I think this is why the end result is so utterly visceral. Everything is just so very physical (blood, sweat and rending tears).

Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

I had bumped into Sandy Grierson (who, again, tonight, played Mephistophilis) on a walk to Holy Trinity and back, to stretch my legs before the show: and had prayed that this was some sort of omen. But I was proven wrong, of course – perhaps I should have exchanged my soul…? – although I could never be disappointed one iota, witnessing Oliver Ryan’s mesmerizing portrayal of “the said John Faustus”. (“Wretch, what hast thou done?”) He inhabits every word; and grows increasingly manically possessed by the powers he has summoned (as well as regret). The final act – despite the infernal attempts of those around me to distract (with the “pain, that tortures others”) – therefore held me rapt again in its shocking embraces.

O my God, I would weep, but the devil draws in my tears. Gush forth blood instead of tears, yea, life and soul. O, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold ’em, they hold ’em.

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

Friday, 12 February 2016

And mere oblivion…

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) and Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

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; it is utterly remarkable (and could, I think, only have been directed by the amazing Maria Aberg); it features two actors at the very top of their joint game; is engrossing from start to finish; and left me wandering the dark streets of Stratford-upon-Avon feeling as if I had been scoured thoroughly from the inside to within a millimetre of my flesh. I was, quite literally, stunned. (Even if you hated it – as I suspect some will… – I doubt if you could say that it lacked significance, or power; that its reverberations did not stay with you for a long time afterwards….)

It therefore took a massive amount of effort to prise my shell from my front-row seat (eyeball-to-eyeball with the intensity of it all); and it was only the knowledge that I will be seeing it three more times (which may not be quite enough…) that motivated me, eventually, to walk away from the RSC; from darkness towards the light….

So, whilst I rebuild myself, molecule by molecule, let me try, at least, to explain why I was there in the first place….

If there is one character I genuinely relate to (even identify with) in Shakespeare’s plays – and there is, of course (and no, it is not Holofernes, thank you very much…) – it is “good Monsieur Melancholy”, Jaques. (I am not witty enough to be Touchstone; nor phlegmatic and grounded enough to be Corin.)

Jaques is… a man who affects melancholy and whose name sounds the same as another word for ‘chamberpot’. He seeks out excuses for his melancholic outlook, whether it be asking for more depressing music or looking at a wounded deer…. Affected though it may be, and proud of it though he may be, his melancholy takes a serious turn at the end of the play when he chooses not to join in the revelling companions’ restoration to their fortunes, voluntarily excluding himself from happiness….

One of the main reasons I so empathize with Jaques is that I have always found him to be a little misunderstood (and not just amongst his compatriots): especially – like so many rôles that bear the burden of some of Bill’s best-known lines – as his sudden transformation from the Forest of Arden’s genius loci – its conscience – to great speech-maker, can seem forced. However, the RSC’s breathtaking 2013 production of As You Like It – directed by Aberg (now there’s a coincidence!) – featured Oliver Ryan as Jaques: and, as much as I fell in love with the rest of the supreme cast (so easily done), it was his thoughtful, seemingly impromptu, poignant, but-well-isn’t-it really-outstandingly-obvious-to-someone-like-me, quasi-conversational response (and with that beautiful Welsh lilt), which set my heart on fire (and every single one of the three times I witnessed it).

Duke Senior
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

                              All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…

There was no declaiming; no grandstanding – this was simply one man’s chance to synthesize his philosophy, unimpeded; gaining in confidence; understanding that he could – had been invited to – be listened to (and, for once, not mocked for his unconventional introversion). The narrative arc, built so subtly, describing, interrogating his own life; pondering on the perils of old Adam’s age, perhaps; considering the challenges of Everyman… was musical and heartfelt. It was a gentle exposition; a compassionate release. Each night, therefore, it engraved itself upon my soul. Not only was Ryan’s Jaques the perfect essence of flawed, faithful humanity; he became the still, small voice of pathos around which the action whirled and twirled to its conclusion. It was almost as if his absence (and he has nearly a tenth of the play’s lines) would have rendered the resultant joy of the other characters meaningless – the contrast of emotion was essential as a foundation on which exultancy was built.

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus/Mephistophilis) and Sandy Grierson (Doctor Faustus/Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

Imagine my delight, then, to discover that Ryan would be returning to the RSC, this season: alternating the lead parts (with Sandy Grierson) of Faustus and Mephistophilis in Doctor Faustus. More Marlowe! More Aberg! More Ryan! (In fact, I am struggling, at the moment, to think of a play more suited to his talents.)

So I immediately booked tickets to those four performances – commencing with yesterday’s Press Night – hoping to see him in both rôles. However…

The way the two actors will decide which character they will undertake will be by both lighting a match at the start of the show on stage. With the one burning out the quickest always taking the same role [Faustus]. Therefore we will be unable to tell you which actor will play the role until the show has begun.
     So you may get two shows the same or may get a change depending on luck….
     Something a bit different for the RSC….
– Natalie King, House Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company [personal correspondence]

The lady sat next to me had seen Grierson play Faustus twice, already – and this was to be her last visit. I, also, (obviously) wished to see Ryan’s interpretation first. Neither of us, therefore, breathed, or trembled eyelids, for the first couple of minutes – it seemed an eternity… – until all that was left was the flicker of orange flame on Grierson’s face, contrasted with the smoke already curling from Ryan’s hand.

Until that moment, they had appeared as twins; broken-mirrored mimics; one soul indivisible. But this was the cue for Ryan to dig deep into one of the most immersive, destructive, obsessive, mobile, performances I have ever witnessed. This was something new (to me, anyway). Whoever inhabits this tortured rôle of Doctor John Faustus must undergo physical and emotional torment of the most savage kind – and Ryan never once waned. (In fact, at one point, he visibly grew – the veins and muscles of his arms, neck and torso steadily bulging: increasing an already almighty stage presence.)

That is not to say that Grierson had it easy. His ironic, deceptive, treacherous, cheeky Mephistopholis was a masterclass in understatement and manipulative wit. As much as I was taken with Ryan’s portrayal, I am now praying that I will witness the volte-face at least once (and hopefully next time – when I will write in more detail).

As much as I love Shakespeare, I find reading – as well as obviously watching – Marlowe irresistible, engrossing, and utterly poetic. His language flows from the page; and his short span (only 29 years) always saddens me. If these – Tamburlaine the Great, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta – were his ‘early’ works: what potential greatness have we so tragically been deprived of?

It could be said that Aberg takes great liberties with his text (two versions of which are extant): but, in removing unnecessary diversions, I believe she has produced a storyline that not only flows more cohesively, but is as tight and focused as a laser. If the opening, entrancing scene lasted aeons; the next hundred minutes flew by – with wonderful, punchy, changes of pace and pathos. (There is no interval.)

To be honest, I am not utterly certain (repeated viewings, I am sure, will help…) that every idea succeeds. But the overwhelming result is tremendously triumphant (albeit as tragedy) – and reminds us, constantly (and coherently) that, as Mephistophilis says very early on, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Although Nicholas Lumley’s deeply thoughtful and caring Wagner frames Faustus’ transgression from frustrated reality to ambivalent sovereignty, from distrustful faith to growing doubt, it never marks any escape from earthbound Erebus for either audience or players.

Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis), centre; with company – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

There are moments of extended, balletic beauty – Mephistophilis’ mouthing of Faustus’ “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships…”, in particular, a thing of crystal, sorrowful, grief-stricken perfection. There are also instances of (almost Rocky Horror Show-style) travesty. But I never once suspected gimmickry; nor deviation from a single-minded narrative view.

Additionally, the music – by Orlando Gough – is integral to the production; as is Ayse Tashkiran’s choreography. (I do feel sorry for the techs, though, having to ‘recreate’ the pristine design – by Naomi Dawson – each time. This is not a show that pulls punches in any department; in any direction. Not only was I wrecked; but so was the stage.)

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

Coming full circle, then… – I recently explained to someone how I cope with my deafness and disability:

Admittedly, with the [reward] comes punishment. I will be knackered – emotionally and physically – for days, sometimes, weeks, after the effort made to go out – to walk, to listen [at a concert], to see a play. But I refuse to be either defined or limited by what other people – or my body – expect me to be capable of! (And I am more than willing, now, to pay the price.)

I can therefore, now, (on a micro level) also identify with (Marlowe’s and Ryan’s) Faustus. Sometimes, the temptation – maybe not for instant gratification; but certainly for pleasure (for the power) to relieve, to distract from, a life of pain, a life of uncertainty… – is just too great.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Och, av sinnit worrse…

It was one of those typical, lowland Scottish summer days. Yesterday, I was stripped to the waist, ruddy as the tilled earth, basking in the physical labour, smell of fresh manure, and sweat-stuck with chaff from the harvest. Today, though, peering from the milking shed, just after dawn, listening to the Agincourt-like barrage constantly beating the corrugated roof, piercing the silence, churning those fields to slush, it was time to bring in the coos. My yellow, rubberized cagoule was as much use as muslin in that gale; my socks already sponging in my boots. And that’s when Robbie uttered those immortal words: “Och, av sinnit worrse!” So out we went. It was quite bracing, really. And I actually love the rain. (Or I did when I was young. Today my arthritic neck is not so fond – unless it is warm wetness.)

Although it was a beautiful day, to begin with, following the track of the Avon, yesterday, readily ushered forth Robbie’s exclamation, over and over again, in my head. Although the river had gently overflowed, it was nowhere near as bad as Autumn 2012 (when the Greenway appeared a little like Lyme Regis’ famous Cobb – twisted and isolated above the newly-formed lakes and tributaries); and those buffers – such as the Rec and the fields beyond Seven Meadows Road; as well as the scrub behind the Holiday Inn – although readily saturated, had done their job as flood plains, and helped protect the main town. (We are so fortunate that these areas have not been built on; and that Stratford’s ‘centre’ is all on one side, above the river.)

I had watched the gauge peak overnight; and thought I would explore – especially as I had a mild migraine that had not responded to bed nor med. I thought the chilly breeze might help. There is also a deep beauty to be found observing nature (although probably egged on by man’s atmospheric pollution) reclaiming the land; frolicking beyond its usual bounds – especially at the confluence with the troublemaking Stour. (Although I do feel sorry for the farmers’ flooded fields; and the owners of properties suffering yet again.)

However, a short walk – like the river itself – evolved into a longer meander: with none of my usual crossing places readily accessible. (I should have known better, and worn wellingtons – and not my wonted walking boots.) Even the footbridge beyond Holy Trinity was isolated: water flowing steadily past each end of its steps. Continuous lines of wrack showed that the water, thankfully, was already in retreat (and has further dropped a couple of feet in the last day).

It was good distraction, though – yet no cure – and, hopefully, the resulting tiredness will bring well-earned sleep. (It didn’t.)

Monday, 8 February 2016

Roll Over Beethoven…

Note: originally written for – and published on – The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog: 8 February 2016.

I inherited my musicianship and my love of music from my mum. Many of her first musical memories are religious – as are mine. Hers include pumping the bellows for the organist at the Methodist church in Yorkshire where my grandad was a lay-preacher. Mine, sitting astonished in the congregation of Blackburn Cathedral – then still a building site – waiting for my audition for the choir: wondering if this amazing noise was also what filled heaven. (I was never religious, in any sense: but the compositions and architecture inspired by all faiths will never cease to amaze and inspire me.) I was four.

Forty years later, I also inherited my mum’s deafness – although mine has been accelerated, and deepened, by other medical issues. After a lifetime of singing, playing, composing, conducting, listening… in some ways the loss of music was worse than the main disability which accompanied it. I felt bereft, and grieved for a very long time. Even the familiar works on my music server (which has over 20,000 tracks on it – ranging from plainchant to punk; serialism to soul) could not console me. For several years, music was something I accidentally bumped into; never actively sought out; and always came away from more disappointed than before.

When I obtained my first hearing aids (properly called hearing instruments), a very talented and patient audiologist spent an afternoon with me at home cycling through some of those many pieces, in many different genres, adjusting these little life-savers over and over again until one of their four programmes was specifically set up for listening to music. However, not all harmonies are born equal – there is a reason iPods come with so many equalizer settings, I discovered – and, eventually, I realized that I needed to know the music note for note (often helped by a score resting on my lap) for it to make ‘sense’ to me. It also helped if the composition was sparsely scored. (Thank goodness for chamber music – especially Bartók’s magnificent six string quartets – which I now have so many different recordings of, I have lost count!)

As my hearing rapidly worsened, the technology could not keep pace. Concerts were always painful – and listening to the piano (my own instrument) always sounded especially dissonant: the clash of harmonics confusing the processing of both my digital hearing aids and my analogue brain.

However, I kept reading about improvements to hearing technology; and, as my first set of ‘instruments’ were no longer powerful enough, late last year I was granted a new pair. Initial technical and customer care problems rendered them almost useless. However, thanks to another thoughtful audiologist, I am now progressing well on my return to the musical world, with a much wider and deeper soundscape. (It takes a while to get the fine-tuning right with these things: but I feel that I am more than halfway back to the best the sound can be for me. And what we have achieved is already a massive leap forward.)

It is so long since I played (the family Bechstein upright now resides with my son: another keen musician – those genes are obviously dominant); composed (my Mac, with all my part-finished digital manuscripts, is in storage – along with multiple backups, of course); and I am no longer fit enough (physically or aurally) to conduct: so I simply assumed that any future I had with music would be passive – although immensely enjoyable – as a ‘mere’ listener.

I had, though, started writing reviews of the plays I regularly attended at the RSC – aided enormously by the access provision there: including captioned performances. These were posted on my blog: which had initially been about life in my remote Warwickshire village, both scenic and politic; but which had expanded eclectically to cover more wider culture; as well as life from my slightly warped point of view. And, although I was writing mainly for myself, and happy just to be occupied in some sort of creative act, it really had not occurred to me at all that my previous experience as an amateur musician could similarly be applied.

However, ever since we moved to this area of the world, we have been on the mailing list of the inspirational Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), also based in Stratford-upon-Avon. And, encouraged by my partner, over the last few months, I have attended quite a few of their concerts. This was an extremely tentative – and somewhat daunting – exercise, at first: but, as I have grown accustomed to my new instruments (which, at first, were bass-heavy and treble-light: my hearing loss has a large neurological component, which is not easily adjusted for), I felt compelled to write about my experience, dubbing it “this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on”. This was something I needed to do, it seemed – especially as it brought together the things I loved. And it was helped by the fact that OOTS is a small ensemble – as is Eboracum Baroque: who I accidentally discovered on my trek – both of whose sound is tremendously transparent.

Of course, as with the plays’ scripts, re-reading, re-learning the scores, has helped tremendously – although I have not yet had the temerity to experiment with referring to them during a concert: despite never meeting with resistance to this as a student; nor, nearly four years ago, when I followed The Dream of Gerontius – a work I know better than most; but at a time when my hearing had failed badly – on my iPad in the grand tier of Birmingham’s wondrous Symphony Hall. (In fact, many other enthusiastic Elgarians told me that it gave them the courage to try something similar: so I probably will return to this practice in the future – although I worry that it may detract from my usual somewhat immediate, emotional response.) Such familiarity also helps; and I am fortunate that, once absorbed, the musical notation often floats through my head whilst listening: bringing me improved clarity.

As with the listening, though, so with the resultant writing. Much professional music – and drama – criticism leaves me cold; does not give me what I crave from not being there (basically, regret…); does not enlighten the mind nor accelerate the heart. But, as I was – I believed – writing for myself, I hesitantly attempted to rectify these faults by producing the sort of review I would like to read myself – not yet aware that there were those in the wider world who had similar feelings (principal amongst them, of course, this blog’s generous host, Frances).

I was therefore surprised by the reception: not just from other concert-goers – but from musicians (and others) who I admired. (Special mention must go here to David Curtis, artistic director of OOTS: who not only welcomed my different approach, but embraced it with his habitual enthusiasm; and who continues to encourage and help me re-immerse myself in this refreshed world of constant magic.)

After writing a very thorough (i.e. customarily lengthy, detailed and discursive) critique of one of David’s concerts with the (non-professional-but-most-awesome) Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – not a small ensemble, at all: not for Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (and with my hero, Peter Donohoe), and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony… – I was still gobsmacked to find the number of hits on the review increasing almost before my eyes: rapidly gaining more viewings and feedback than any other post I had authored. It seemed that I had, unwittingly, serendipitously, hit some sort of target, some sort of nerve: fulfilling a similar need to my own, but, moreover, for many others.

This took a while to sink in – and, me being me, the only way I could deal with it was to write about it. I therefore penned an article on my motivations: what music criticism means to me; what I think it should be; but, principally, what drives me to write in the way I do – and why it is so different to what others (might) produce.

To be honest, I published it assuming I would be condemned (not that I truly minded) for my amateurishness; for treading on the toes of those more ‘qualified’ to produce such writings (although I do have a background in professional journalism – albeit covering technology…). But, again, the positive feedback opened my eyes: and I feel not only have I found some sort of vocation (and one that I enjoy); but that music – as it frequently does – has started to connect me with those who, with much more expertise and experience than me, too wish to promote it in their own inclusive, collegiate, enthusiastic way.

This is only the beginning, though. Not only do I believe that there is a wider audience to be reached by writing with my own, peculiar brand of passion – as do others – additionally, I hope that my experience can encourage and help those who may have also ‘lost the music’ in their lives (for whatever reason) to try and find a way back in for themselves. Without making light of it, my deafness now helps me appreciate music so much more. I therefore hope that I have also inherited my mum’s longevity.