Saturday, 23 December 2017

He knew how to keep Christmas well…

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits, in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!
– Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

Three months ago, I wrote about my inchoate struggle with food allergies. And then went perfunctorily wheesht… – especially concerning the related battles I ended up fighting as my former fine fettle fell away….

Friday, 8 December 2017

A man’s whole life can be changed by one book…

Dear Ta-Nehisi

I am truly sorry. I did not know. (And had not searched, researched, or inquired.) I did not know the burden you have always worn – and still wear. I did not know what – or how; or why – your eyes bear witness; your mind carries; your heart feels. And I apologize for being afraid – lost in the humid canyons of Richmond, Virginia – when I did not know what it was to fear.

But you loaned me your eyes; shared fragments of your soul with me. And, perhaps, I began to understand. A little, anyways. Thus, even if I make mistakes in doing so, I had to reach out to thank you – as well as apologize. To say thank you for the streams of tears; the laughed recognition of the similar and the dissimilar; the sympathy and empathy. (It is not hard to make me cry, to feel; but this was something fresh, which filled me anew.)

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Messiah: Themes and variations…

9 December 2017: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

On 9 September 1742, George Frideric Handel wrote a letter to his close friend (and greatest fan), Charles Jennens, enclosing a glowing review – by “no less than the Bishop of Elphim (A Nobleman very learned in musick)” – of the extremely successful first performance of an oratorio in Dublin. This premiere had actually taken place five months earlier, on 13 April 1742: so it seems that Handel was perhaps a little tardy in informing Jennens just “how well Your Messiah was received”.

Yes… – “Your” Messiah. For it was Jennens who not only compiled the text; but also convinced Handel of the merits of such a work in the first place. It seems, as well, that the composer trusted his collaborator’s knowledge of music, and musical forms, well enough to have asked him for feedback on the final article: as later, he would write to Jennens, asking him to “point out these passages in the Messiah which you think require altering”.

Unfortunately, Jennens doesn’t appear to have considered Messiah one of Handel’s greatest hits (an opinion also held by the first London audiences for the work) – as he wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth that…

I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.

There is no mention in either of my (extremely well-used) scores of Messiah of the librettist’s name; and it would be easy to dismiss – as many have done – its lyrical content as just a collection of random verses from the Bible loosely stitched together. Additionally – especially for those of us who need more than our hands and feet to count the number of performances we have either attended or taken part in – the words have become so utterly familiar, anyway, that we perhaps take little (if any) notice of their meaning – either as individual movements, or overall.

I would argue, though, that Jennens’ knowledge of scripture; his grasp of dramatic literature (he was the first person to produce scholarly editions of individual Shakespeare plays), and of dramatic music; all come together to produce a cohesive, intelligent, and, in many ways, a quite startling narrative. We have to remember that nothing like this had been produced before (excepting Jennens’ own text for Handel’s Saul, in 1739); and that the first edition of Alexander Cruden’s Complete Concordance To the Old and New Testaments had only just been published (in 1736). But, even then, it has to be acknowledged that Jennens must have known the 1611 King James Version of the Bible – and the versions of the psalms as printed in The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 – inside-out. Indeed, musicologist Watkins Shaw – in The story of Handel's ‘Messiah’ – asserts that the libretto “amounts to little short of a work of genius”. As a writer, I have to agree!

The storyline that Jennens weaves can be seen in more than one light, too – hence its effectiveness. As religious propaganda, it reflects his own feelings concerning religion and society. In structure, it follows the liturgical year: Part I corresponding with Advent and Christmas; Part II with Lent, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost; and Part III with the year’s end (as well as ‘The End of Days’). Of course, its main thrust is the rehearsal of the life of Jesus: from Isaiah’s prophecies of a longed-for saviour – of his birth and death – to their fulfilment (in effect, from the First Coming to the Second). However, despite its title, this “life” is only ever really implied – apart from the appearance of the angels to the shepherds (in movements 13 to 17), events are written well and truly between the work’s lines.

As you listen to Handel’s glorious music, tonight, please, therefore, pay attention to those wonderful words, as well as – perhaps more than you would normally – to their meaning, their significance and power. And remember that, to all intents and purposes, without Jennens, there would be no music to hear. Without Charles Jennens, there would be no Messiah.

My colours are as red…

It was as if they were precisely as I had left them: serene shapes bathed in blazing sodium – a tinge flattering of the redwings, particularly as they settled; although the companion fieldfares and thrushes likewise glowed with the radiance painting the village’s warmed brick chimneys (some, like ours, wisped with telltale drifts of light smoke). But now the sunken sun shone westwards – not from the west – although my suspicion was the same: that, perched as high in the skyclad oak as its topmost thin fingers would hold, these returning travellers were relishing this tepid coloration; were making the most of the new winter’s protective evanescent light, of its ebbing eight-hour span.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Anniversary (a)musings…

Just a little set of amuse-bouches – of hastily-scribbled, reasonably relevant, limericks… – to celebrate four years of blogging! (Photo courtesy of the wonderful people at Dr C P Grey Opticians.)

Read ’em and weep

The Bard of the village of Tysoe
Did wonder and worry just why so
     Few views were logged
     Of the words he had blogged
The paucity making him cry so

Hot off the press

There once was a brilliant Bard
Who typed so exceedingly hard
     That his fingers were numb
     (As was his poor bum)
And the keyboard he hammered was charred

Did Cicero say anything?

The Orchestra’s Writer-in-Residence
Loves using his words to set precedence
     With notes so unique
     They could well be in Greek
Ή ακόμα και για τους γούνιους ελέφαντες

Monday, 13 November 2017

“This section does not make sense as drafted…”

I’m sorry so little is happening on this blog at the moment: but serious issues with my health mean that other things must take priority. However, if you’re interested in the progress (or otherwise) of the “Pre-consultation draft” of the Neighbourhood Development Plan, I’d like to point you to Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s gritty response – from 31 July 2017. It may not be quite as detailed as mine – but it certainly is pithy! Thanks to Duke Senior, as always, for the heads-up!

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch II; Leaf V

Lone pilgrim…

Unlike most of the local creatures – who never ventured far from where they were born, throughout their lives – the Badger (at night) and the Water Rat (of a day) had both been keen explorers: the Badger knowing every copse, hedgerow, track, bump and lump, for miles around; and the Rat being acquainted with every inch of every stream, brook, source, and, of course, the River itself – the waters’ heights in every season; the currents that would catch others out; whether they were good to drink, swim or sail in; or just suitable for a good paddle!

The Mole, he felt, proudly, had been getting there gradually – not bad for someone who had spent most of his existence happily underground, before… – becoming an able navigator on land and by rowing boat; and being able to work his way back to most places from all the other ones: albeit sometimes by unexpected, but happy, diversions. The trees – should you spend long enough with them: learning their names, and their distinctive shapes; their histories… – were the most amenable guides: and he would often spend hours, resting against their trunks, between habituated, enfolding roots, reading; or lying flat beneath their summer shade, doing nothing much other than the occasional bit of thinking, or humming, or snoozing, of course; occasionally sketching the most distinctive ones – the pollarded willows, reinforcing the River’s banks; the stools of coppiced ash, just inside the Wild Wood; the stag-headed field-oaks – or just an individual leaf, twig, branch or fruit. “Not forgetting Badger’s small-leaved lime,” whispered the Mole, sadly.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…

My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

It seems Mrs Gump was right. The Good Lady Bard brought home such “a box of chocolates” just over three weeks ago – a generous thank-you gift… – and one of its many yummy constituents took me completely by surprise: giving me an intense allergic reaction. Two antihistamines, and two hours – plus many puffs of my blue Salbutamol inhaler – later, and I was on the way to recovery. It could have been much worse, though. The upshot being that I now take a pair of prescribed EpiPens with me – absolutely everywhere I go.

It looks like one – or some combination – of the many proteins in cow’s milk is to blame (eleven various forms of “milk”, from “Dried Whole Milk” to “Dried Whey”, were listed amongst the fifty-eight(!) ingredients): meaning that foodstuffs I have consumed all my life (and once helped to produce) are now permanently verboten. (Because of the 92% probability of cross‑reactivity, anything containing sheep’s and goat’s milk is also off the table. Mare’s – or even camel’s – milk will, in all likelihood, be just fine, though!)

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

All the remain is “Welcome”…!

Welcome to the blog of the Bard of Tysoe… – especially if this is your first visit (hopefully, of many)! If you’ve arrived here after noticing the advert in the Tysoe & District Record (right), then a big ‘thank you’ for tapping in the address of this site manually: you are indeed – as the Old English would say – a wilcuma – that is, ‘a person whose coming is pleasing’ (and from where we get the word ’welcome’ itself). Hopefully, you will find posts that similarly(?) tell you something you didn’t know before; that entertain; make you scratch your head (in deep thought; or perhaps bafflement); and – in the case of reviews – make you wish you had been at that event (that is, presuming that you weren’t…). You may nod in unanimity; or disagree deeply with what I have to say; or simply have a question, as a result… – in which case, please feel free to leave a comment (the form appears at the bottom of each post); and I will, once I’ve (moderated and) published it (if your remarks haven’t broken my scant and simple rules of decency and defamation, etc.), try and answer it (if applicable) as soon as I can. (If you’re really fortunate, you may even get a post written especially for you, in response!)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Beethoven – from page to stage (and beyond…)

As the title of this post indicates, it chronicles a journey through and around one piece of living, breathing music – in this case, the virtuosic, Mozart- and Haydn-influenced (but, nevertheless, recognizably) Beethoven’s own Second Piano Concerto. The reason for doing so is to not only study the work on paper (invaluable as that definition of its potential can be); but also to observe the involved musicians – Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis, and especially pianist Thomas Nickell (right) – as they prepare, firstly, for its performance; then, secondly, deliver the resulting collaborative interpretation live; and, finally, record it.

I know that I am extremely fortunate in having been able to follow this process. That it takes place – as catalogued here – over only a few days is, on one hand, some sort of miracle; but, on the other, completely misleading: as I obviously cannot keep up with each individual, equally-important, contributing member in their own private preparations: for example, the orchestral oboe player repeating a gritty phrase at home, over and over, until satisfied; David’s intense study of the score, analyzing structure, form, and line in minute detail; or even Thomas, setting himself the challenge of ‘conquering’ this challenging work, spending hundreds of hours at the keyboard until the notes flow willingly from his fingertips. Please remember, therefore, that what follows – still a huge amount of hard work for all of those accomplished people now gathered together; and all of it invested in making sure that what you hear and see is as startlingly great (subjectively; emotionally; objectively; technically) as it can be – really is only the tip of a very deep iceberg: one formed from talent, effort, and love.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

That band who so vauntingly swore…

I wrote (almost exactly twenty-four hours ago – although the two days cushioning this period have somehow become concatenated; or even coalesced, commingled…) that…

This is not the chamber OOTS you thought you knew; this is an overwhelming, resonant army of talented and mighty musical soldiers shocking-and-awing, marching to magnificence…

…one of my reasons for saying so not just being the “lot more chairs laid out… than perhaps was usual” consideration, but what had precipitated that augmentation – the orchestra playing outside its normal repertoire (almost as if they were in their away strip on a strangely sloping ground only the home team was supposed to have grokked; but which actually gave the proficient and passionate visitors some preternatural advantage). The conclusion, therefore, being that they should do more such things: maybe a chamber version of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (not my idea – but this post’s dedicatee’s) or Gurre-Lieder (although I may have had a partial – and temporary – lingual gena intercalation when suggesting this to artistic director David Curtis…)?!

There is a serious point to be made here, though: and that is – whatever the size of the OOTS ‘team’ on any given day; and whatever the scores laid before them – two truths will be self-evident: firstly, that every single player will be continually giving their utmost (an OOTS trademark that surpasses all other such ensembles); secondly, that you will be able to hear every single player doing so – their melodic, harmonic, leading, or supporting, lines of notes – continually. It doesn’t matter if it is a blaring fortississimo final chord, or a passage of finger-to-the-Curtis-lip, hushed pianississimo melancholy: you can guarantee that every single line of the stave dotted with notes at that time will be impeccably balanced and astoundingly audible. Just so.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream…

The first thing that would have struck you on entering Stratford ArtsHouse, last night, was that there were a lot more chairs laid out for the Orchestra of the Swan than perhaps was usual. This was to be a big concert in many ways: but the maximum volume output was perhaps the most noticeable – although David Curtis’ smile, conducting the first movement of Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from RodeoBuckaroo Holiday – wasn’t that far off from matching it. (And neither were some of his more demonstrative gestures!)

What a great piece of music to pull you away from the miserable grey wetness of a Warwickshire evening: especially when played with such verve – and truly astonishing precision! We were now on the far side of The Pond (in a ‘wild west’ where it never rains); and we would not leave America all evening – the second Rodeo movement, Corral Nocturne, truly pulling us in (if not lulling us into lovelorn dreams of our own).

Saturday Night Waltz – a self-styled “Texas minuet” – after its shockingly rude awakening – is just as beautiful (if not more so): the violins (under leader Fenella Humphreys) getting a chance to shine, before the woodwind dominate the central trio – slower and more luscious; and just as romantic.

The final movement, Hoe-Down, starts as it means to go on, though; and marks the birth of every ‘Western’ movie soundtrack ever produced. It is a thing of unmitigated joie de vivre and controlled ‘rough-and-readyness’ (albeit requiring a huge amount of concentration from its players). [“This is about cowboys,” laughed David. “It’s not sophisticated stuff!” (Neither was the too-early “bravo!” from Yours Truly: so deeply immersed in the music that I had forgotten the movement’s heffalump trap. David and OOTS – God bless them all – just grinned, and carried on. Consummate professionals all.)] And we were thus rewarded with the ride of our lives! (It’s a good job the piano had to be moved: giving us a chance to get our breath back; and me to lose some of the colour from my blushing face….)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Et in Arcadia ego… (part III)

Over the past four years – commencing with the huge amount of research I carried out to produce the Sustainable Tysoe? briefing paper (against the proposed Gladman development on Oxhill Road) – I have collated a large (digital) stack of documents dealing with various aspects of planning (specifically, neighbourhood planning) and development (not only of buildings, but of communities, of individuals, of neighbourhood resources). I have also contributed to this pile with the articles I have posted on my blog – The Bard of Tysoe – at least fifteen of which are responses to (mostly direct; although some do, admittedly, take a rather sideways glance at…) our parish’s various attempts to produce something resembling a neighbourhood (development) plan (NDP).

Great planning does not mean either “most restrictive” or “most laissez-faire”. It means creating the conditions for growth and change while maintaining a vision of the common good. It balances competing interests. It includes a grasp of the cumulative effect of individual decisions…. It can protect long-term benefits against damage from short-term profit. It has the ability to spot problems before they become crises and find a way to address them. It can review alternative approaches to an issue, such as population growth, and promote the best ones. It has clarity and consistency, so everyone knows where they stand. It has the ability to review the results of its own decisions, and learn from them. It is informed by knowledge, not guesswork. It is the result of genuine and transparent public debate.
– Rowan Moore: Boris, we agree London is a great city…

In my latest post on the subject – as it finally looked like there might be a version of the NDP submitted for examination (although not without a large amount of revision, and late-night cramming…) – I simply linked to these previous writings: as they (sadly, in the case of the ones offering constructive criticism) are still vitally relevant and pertinent (even those written three years ago). However, having all been ignored or denounced – and then summarily removed from the trail of documentary evidence that is needed to explain the evolution of the ideas captured within the Plan (as well as those so discounted) – I feel now is the time to collate (and, where needs be, summarize) their ideas in one place: not just to demonstrate how my prescience has, sadly, come to pass; but to use the inherent research and reasoning to explain, more thoroughly:

  • why I think the latest version of the NDP only narrowly fits that sobriquet or description;
  • why I (therefore) oppose it; and
  • how – had my writings (and, I suspect, others’) been heeded – residents could have contributed effectively to something more wide-ranging, more nuanced, more relevant, more complete, more useful (rather than – as with so much of the content – being paid lip-service).

Monday, 26 June 2017

Et in Arcadia ego… (part II)

As I pointed out in my previous post on the proposed Tysoe Neighbourhood Development Plan, my request for copies of the Representation Form in alternate formats for those of us who are disabled not only fell on fallow ground, but were deliberately deleted from the Tysoe Parish & Community website. As I cannot complete either the online form, or the paper one, I am therefore asserting my right – under the Equality Act 2010 – to provide my Pre-Submission Regulation 14 Consultation feedback in an alternate format – namely by way of this blog post, and all the other blog posts I have written on the subject, listed below:

Please note that should all these comments once more vanish into the ether, and not be appended as “evidence” to the version of the Neighbourhood Development Plan submitted for inspection, I shall ensure – through whatever channels are available to me – that they are put forward to the relevant bodies both as proof of long-term opposition to the Plan’s approval, methodologies and non-democratic nature; and as testimony to the fallacy of the supposed “consultation” that has been falsely promoted within the Plan itself (as most villagers would concur).

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

In equal scale weighing delight…

Sometimes, rehearsals are even (or certainly seem, at the time, to be) more exciting than the actual subsequent concert: especially when they begin with a run-through of a new work you have become rather attached to – for its occasionally quirky, but heartfelt beauty; its extremely perceptive use of the chosen source material (and thus inspiration); and its composer’s utter belief in the almost supernatural talents of its commissioners – the transcendent Orchestra of the Swan – for whom no challenge seems insurmountable: no matter how complex it appears (at first, second, and third, glance) on paper. Not only do your not-quite-set ideas about the piece quickly gel; but unsuspected textures and emphases, themes and rhythmic conjunctions, emerge – especially with the insightful oversight of David Curtis: conjuring clarity and structure from what could easily be imagined as overwhelming and difficult. (You can hear all the extended time and major hard work he has spent in preparation emerging in the thoughtful instructions and discussions; can observe his willingness to listen and assimilate others’ needs and wants and ideas; you can almost grasp his ability to comfort and reassure.)

If there had been any disquiet or nerves beforehand, not only were they (almost) invisible, they must have soon evaporated, such was the apparent aplomb – and audible wonderment – building from the first bars, rapidly, into that trademark transparency and crispness (not to mention the resulting deeply-affecting emotions). As a result, queries were resolved in an instant; enthusiasm was piled upon contagious enthusiasm; balance was sought, and then quickly found; and (for lack of better words) the music caught fire!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Et in Arcadia ego… (part I)

Surprise ballot results are all the rage, it seems: deflating arrogance; defying expectation; demonstrating the real power of real people. Being at the heart of “the Shires”, huge local majorities for Brexit and a part-time, non-resident Tory MP (more interested in property and anti-environmental, non-executive, share-bearing, board positions) are givens… – however, as with last week’s General Election, seeing (what is now called) The Neighbourhood Development Plan – rather amusingly (as it covers the years 2011–2031) entitled TYSOE – A village for the 21st Century and Beyond – through to implementation (whatever that means) may not be so simple or predictable.

A few days ago, a piece of paper entitled “Save Upper Tysoe” fell through our letterbox. Yes – another campaign against another invidious building scheme: proposing another dense housing development in another unsuitable place. No – not by one of the accustomed large property developers or house-builders… – but as outlined by that aforementioned Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP).

Yes – really.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

And the courage never to submit or yield…

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell
Pain, it appears, has no appointed programme; nor consequent sleep any scheduled assignation. Alive (afterwards) to the fact that I had spent too much of my day in writing – itself a diversion from the devouring distress of a deepening migraine, gnawing at my left eyeball like some resolute rodent after rotting fruit – it was, however, the subsequent clumsiness – born of fading concentration; my proprioception misty and maladroit (even at the best of times) – that was the crucial moment’s mainspring: an instant unwinding, a lightning strike cascading through my stricken, confounded limbs; rapidly unfurling its coercion, before reconvening all its clout, condensed, at the accustomed spot, speck… the spike where my circuits were sabotaged so very long ago.

What hath night to do with sleep?
No manner of oscitant opioid, lethargic anxiolytic, or torpid tricyclic would rid me of my wretchedness and wakefulness: an expected early night failing fast; successive struggles satisfying me that the only remedy – however short-lived – should be yet more distraction: my boots, recuperating by the front door, cajoling me, inveigling exercise and exploration; demanding to get back on my feet.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

An old friend of OOTS…

Whilst writing the programme notes for the last concert to contain a commission written for OOTS’ 21st Anniversary seasonViola and Double-Bass Take Centre Stage! – I had a brief email conversation with composer Julian Philips: who has produced an immensely beautiful work, Ballades Concertantes, for solo viola, double-bass and chamber orchestra, as a companion piece to Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Sinfonia Concertante for Double-Bass and Viola.

The words which follow are all Julian’s; the musical excerpts are the first lines of each of the four Machaut Ballades that inspired him.

Ballades Concertantes developed out of an engagement with two different historical traditions – the late-fourteenth-century Ballade of Guillaume de Machaut, and the later eighteenth-century sinfonia concertante, as developed by Haydn, Mozart or Dittersdorf. Machaut, because my recent opera The Tale of Januarie – based on Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale – had engaged with late medieval music; and the music of Machaut – who was the great figure of his day, and very much known to Chaucer – was still in the air. The sinfonia concertante, because David and the orchestra were keen to celebrate their twenty-first anniversary by reviving a form which gives solo spots to individual orchestral players. In this case, the viola and double-bass.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Aqui está encerrada el alma de .....

Yesterday was Elgar’s 160th birthday; and I was in need of a big dose of some of the big man’s big music. Fortunately (despite my friend Paolo – probably rightfully… – jokingly calling me a “traitor” for deserting the Orchestra of the Swan, serenading the so-called summer, at Armscote Manor…), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) were at Malvern, celebrating, too!

Only his Violin Concerto had been listed originally; but the concert opened with a gem-like example of his ‘smaller’ music: the wonderfully enchanting Serenade for Strings. Just a tad uncertain, to begin with – despite a perfect opening entry from the violas – this soon gathered momentum, and the required relaxation, to become a rather lovely, and involving, performance. I had forgotten – despite experiencing the CSO’s magical renditions so frequently – how thick and rich symphonic strings can sound (on their own); and was momentarily flabbergasted. (To be honest, I prefer the sparseness and openness of the OOTS string sound – which I think is more suited to this work.) But the CBSO delivered the requisite amount of charm and affection – conductor Michael Seal gently and amiably swaying in time – to put a huge ear-troubling smile on my face! It also achieved its objective of immersing us flawlessly in an Elgarian soundscape and mood… – although nothing can really prepare you for the soul-plumbing depths of his most masterly masterpiece (see below).

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Windmill Hill revelation…

The village yet damped-down beneath the oil of night; the only report, the high-pitched, mock-bark fracas of fox-cub. In the nucleus of nautical dawn, all is grey: green-grey grass; mauve-grey cloud; brown-grey stone; black-grey horizon – the world the colour of mallard, wood-pigeon, blackbird, and rook.

Leaving the Shipston road, the burble of an old valve radio being spun between stations grows with the wheat. My footsteps and stick-falls are silent, here: but still that splashing of song sooner turns trickle; soon turns stream; turns river; turns waterfall – drenching me in an incessancy of resonant comfort; drowned merry in a sea of skylarks. To my right, a crisp rustle of stalk. Then muffle of noiselessness. Only as I move on, the blades once more immobile, threat dissipated or dissolved, does the torrent of Matins restart.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The soul that sees beauty…

There is a hierarchy, it seems, to Tysoe’s with-sun-rising birds. As the first sodium-bright slash of dawn slices the horizon, the barn owl – its wings the shade of the night-mourning sky it haunts – yet circles the windmill: peeved, perhaps, that my presence has quiesced the small creatures in the verges, trembling umbellifers, ruffling daisies. The hedges here serenade me with the river-runs of goldfinch; the gossip of sparrows; the bossy robin; the caution of blackbirds. The crops, a sea of skylarks: effervescent; ubiquitous. But none yet leave their roosts. It is the raptors which rise pre-eminently on the cool air: a lone buzzard, one lazy, subtle flap of its wings propelling it yet higher. A glint-eyed kestrel shearing across my path; grasping the dead branch of a wayside oak from which to study me. There is nothing here to interest such a hunter; but yet he waits until I have passed before busy wings pull him beyond my sight.

A male pheasant, paranoid, dull-witted, staggers away from me: its drunken pose and anguished cacophonies aimed at naught; only rendering it more manifest. Thirty paces I tail this manic meandering, before remembrance of cover emerges between those frenzied eyes.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Is this now My Hill…?

As far as I am concerned, the only thing that can be achieved, when both my mind and body are suffused with deep, thick, viscous torment (echoed by repeated, random interference in both ears: stereophonic sussurations of spite…) – as I have stated so many times before – is walking. Apart from summoning lurking asthma, I know there is little worse I can subject my aching frame to. Plus, of course, my depression will ease, the further my journey. And on a morning like this – clear skies and concomitant summer balm; goldfinch twinkling in the hedges; chaffinch in the fletching oaks; buzzard and skylark floating above; sheep lazily grazing (heavy in their winter coats); and cattle uniformly resting in the shallow corrugations of ancient fields – what else am I to do? It is too generous a day to be shackled by sheets and shocking stair-rods of pain.

The first mile is hard: as if battling through stacked mattresses. But, reaching the sown fields, resistance fades, and my limbs begin to move with supernatural ease. Through my second gate, the path flowing beneath me, last week’s fresh cowpats have been grilled by the new heat, drilled by flies; but fudged treachery lies beneath the further stampede of hoof-prints, incised as the cattle migrated to new pasture. Despite the surface-split soil, moisture lurks. I wonder for how long.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Asking a shadow to dance…

Whatever you may think, or whatever others may tell you, being a classical music critic is an immensely tough gig – one that I have only taken the first few steps of an infinite journey in mastering. It presupposes a huge wealth of musical knowledge: repertoire; orchestration; history; theory; and, amongst a long list (that probably also has no conclusion), an empathy with – an understanding (and, hopefully, multi-dimensional experience) of what it means to stand in the varied shoes of – those who perform it. Should these people become your friends, then perhaps the hardest part is being critical (in the way most people would understand that word) in a less-than-positive – although desirably constructive – way.

I have touched before on some of these issues – and it may be worth your while to click on that link, before reading what follows… – but two tenets, above all, govern my attitude to such writing:

Cardus gave me two tips… One was: don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and the second was: never write out of a bad mood. I’ve tried to stick to those principles.
Michael Kennedy

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Up Hill and Down Dale; or There and Back Again…

It was always ‘The Hill’ – or even ‘My Hill’ – never given its given name. Not that such mattered. When I was trialling my resurrected skill of perambulation, it was my habituation – requiring a destination that stretched and tautened my ill-used muscles frequently, as a baker will confront his callow dough. And not just those slack sinews of leg and arm; but a locus which tantalized my cognitive tendons, too – for, if the place bore no intrigue, it bore no reward.

It was only My Hill because my excursions were timed for those hours when the dog-walkers, kite-fliers, and recalcitrant children would likely be elsewhere: awarding me a selfish kingdom of solitude; but one where I could practice my eccentricities without fear of shame or chagrin; where I could talk to those whose names were fixed, in memoriam, to benches; or to the grazing, scrubbing cattle… – or simply myself. It was only The Hill because it was the only hill: a quarry-shocked crag; a two-hundred-and-eight-metre climb above the grey flatness of urbanity to the Cotswold Way – a deterrent, a border almost, most effective to the majority of those level-pegged inhabitants of uniformity.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Solvitur ambulando…

Walking is magic. Can’t recommend it highly enough. I read that Plato and Aristotle did much of their brilliant thinking together while ambulating. The movement, the meditation, the health of the blood pumping, and the rhythm of footsteps… this is a primal way to connect with one’s deeper self.
– Paula Cole

As part of my ongoing therapy, not only am I increasingly inhooped by a rising bricolage of motivational tomes and workbooks; but I find myself engulfed in periodic upsurges of rippling diaries, forms, and tables: a flux of unsullied A4 wavelets, tiding over me as temporary succour; busying me; until, eventually – when they are progressively overlaid with my records, registers, and particoloured responses – they crystallize into frangible stepping-stones, leading me steadily ashore. Rush ahead too expeditiously, though, and these will crumble, along with my tentative betterment. Forbearance is key – especially when allied with deep trust, hard listening, and terrifying honesty: the underpinnings of hope, if not yet achievement.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave…

You have to have a lot of faith in an orchestra to open proceedings with something as challenging as Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite. This is no warm-up for what follows; there is nowhere to hide; and you therefore need an ensemble at the very top of its form from opening bar to last. So… perfect for the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, then! And they were perfect for it, too: special praise going to the athletic percussion section (who would not be allowed to even think about relaxing until the interval) and flautist Catherine Billington… – and, of course, one of the greatest brass sections this side of Brighouse. But every single player deserves as much commendation – if only for the number of tears shed throughout. (Yes, I know I am a soppy bugger: but the instant creation of such matchless atmosphere would surely have softened the sternest heart. This really was that remarkable.)

David Curtis’ whole modus operandi stands atop a steadfast foundation of trust and such faith: the attention paid to his every gesture – however subtle – shaming more complacent orchestras (and conductors). But it is from this unassailable bedrock that all the other magic grows: including the uncanny ability to transport an audience as one in space and time. Early 19th-century Pennsylvania has never sounded – or felt – so appealing.

Copland’s ballet is, for me, one of the man’s (and the American century’s) greatest accomplishments: a masterpiece of subtle portrait and landscape painting that I don’t think he ever really surpassed (although Rodeoto be played by the CSO in July – comes close for wit and bravado; but not, I think, quite the tenderness, the poignancy, found here…). And, no matter how many times I hear it, it maintains its freshness; its inventiveness. But it has to come from the heart (meaning courage and boldness; as well as emotion and compassion). Like this did….

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Faith, I’ll bear no base mind…

It is seven months and six days since I last donned my fervent walking boots and headed out of the front door in search of the spiritual nourishment only nature can provide – the act of doing so more psychologically and physiologically strenuous than I had initially envisaged. But such challenges are there for us to subjugate… if we are to be alive to our values (and alive for them). Should we let either external constraints or internally-driven apprehensions suppress (or even oppress) our compelling predilections and true-hearted desires, then surely our very identities and individualities are at risk of corruption or cessation.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Once More, with Feeling…!

Before you is something of a duality: firstly, it is one of the greatest chamber orchestras in existence; secondly, it is a group of twenty-odd people with centuries of musical experience, megatons of knowledge, and infinite willingness… all with the ability to help you achieve greatness. Trust them, respect them, communicate with them – kiss their feet, if necessary: because only rarely in your career will you be handed such wonders – and work with them. Involve them; ask them for their thoughts – and take them seriously; put their ideas into action. Let them see your shared belief in the ability to turn all those dots and lines into something capable of ripping open souls (if not vortices in the space-time continuum). Listen and learn – for if you do not, bad things will come to pass (which they did – by my standards, anyway).

Arrive on your mighty steed of arrogance, and tell them what to do… – well, being professionals of the highest calibre, that is exactly what they will do. Nothing more, nothing less. However – to them… – stupid or ridiculous, or just plain wrong, they will obey your instructions to a T. But you might – because you thought you knew best: that conductors must lay down the law, as well as the beat… rather than be an equal and collaborate… – as well have programmed a bunch of robots. You will not have access to their hearts and brains; nor will you be able to share in their bountiful wonders.

Of course, treat them like a musical instrument, with fixed gradations of volume, and lashed to a metronome… – yes, you will make music; but it will in no way be musical. (Yes, it was technically brilliant, but….) Love them as a living organism; treat them as such – not as some starved dancing bear with mange – but as human beings with emotions and flaws (just like you) – if you open yourself up to them: and only then will you be rewarded.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

There is no passion to be found playing small…

Two tantalizing prospects lured me to last night’s concert… – that of seeing and hearing the Orchestra of the Swan with a change of conductor; and witnessing that conductor – Julian Lloyd Webber – in his new element: that of (to use his own word) “accompanist”, rather than the accompanied. Having only witnessed him before as cellist (and one of the greatest) – but, luckily, been privy to his views on one of his new roles – I was rather intrigued.

There was a third element, I suppose: in that Mozart never having composed music for solo cello, this would also be the first time I would witness him immersed in this most beloved of composers (a kissed score at the end the perfect seal of this most wonderful partnership).

It was impressive – no doubt having been on the receiving end so very often… – how clear his instructions were, in rehearsal: both spoken and signed. So clear, that the dynamics (and crispness) he immediately provoked from the OOTS strings in the opening Allegro of Eine kleine Nachtmusik were incredibly and wonderfully fresh – vigorous even. He is a lithe big friendly giant of a man; and, even without a podium, loomed over the strings as if his arms would reach to the back desks. Never threateningly, though. It was almost as if he were embracing them….

This is a string section, of course – albeit with a scattering of fresh faces – more than capable of playing this work without guidance; and yet Julian quickly stamped his mark on what is always a watchful and obedient ensemble. The opening movement was therefore electrifying: pulling individual lines out for emphasis; snapping entries into place.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Weaver of moonbeams…

Ahead of his two concerts – in Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham, conducting Orchestra of the Swan with this year’s Associate Artist, cellist Laura van der Heijden – I went to meet Julian Lloyd Webber: now Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and steering it through some exciting times as it prepares to move into its purpose-designed new home.

Entering his office in the old building – sadly nearing the end of its productive life, in the centre of the city – one cannot fail to be reminded, though, of his previous career as one of his (and my) generation’s greatest, and most successful, solo cellists: with posters of some of his most memorable achievements scattered throughout the room. Indeed, above his desk – in pride of place, perhaps – he points out a large framed copy of the cover of the CD I am nervously clutching between my fingers: a recording which confirmed his status of hero for me, and for many others. But more of that later: because, as he welcomes me in, and shakes my hand, there could not be a more genial and gracious interviewee. (As I am rapidly learning – as my first year of being OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence comes to a close – the majority of classical musicians are incredibly generous people: open, willing to chat, to treat you as an equal, to spend time with you… – they just happen to be incredibly talented, too – although no mention of this will ever pass their lips.)

Monday, 20 March 2017

The greatest and most satisfying manifestations of human expression…

On Thursday, 13 April 2017, “internationally acclaimed clarinettist, recitalist, chamber musician, recording artist and lecturer” Emma Johnson will be joining OOTS for an evening of sublime 18th century music in the Forum Theatre, Malvern. Although in the middle of a busy concert schedule, Emma was kind enough to carry out the following interview, via email.

There don’t appear to be many famous classical clarinettists in the world (indeed, at any one point in time). Is this because of the lack of mainstream repertoire – especially, say, compared to that for the piano or violin?
The solo repertoire for violin and for piano is far larger than that of any of the woodwind instruments, and that is why the clarinet is usually considered an orchestral instrument. When you are nine years old and picking an instrument to play, you don’t know these things. But once it became clear I wanted to be a musician, it was naturally assumed I would try to play in an orchestra.
     However, I gradually discovered that the solo clarinet repertoire is richer than people realize: spanning from Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Schumann, to Finzi, Poulenc, Copland and many modernists; as well as playing a pivotal role in jazz. There is, in fact, ample material for a clarinet soloist; and I have expanded the repertoire, too: by making arrangements and transcriptions, and commissioning new pieces.
     In addition, winning BBC Young Musician at the age of 17 allowed me to think differently, and to develop my clarinet playing so that it had the variety and range of a solo recitalist. Because of the opportunities the competition opened up to play solo, it enabled me to realize a vision I had of how a solo clarinettist could be.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine…

Before I commence this review, a plea (or two). Firstly, that we never forget that Holst was a truly great composer; nor that 1934 was a devastating year for British music (and for Holst’s close friend, Vaughan Williams): with the simultaneous loss of three of its greatest sons. Admittedly, Elgar and Delius were old men; but Gustav Holst was only fifty-nine when he died. Considering that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony was premièred when he was seventy (and he went on to write another four…), Holst had only just gotten started. Secondly, that we search out those other ‘English geniuses’ whose names may not so readily trip from our tongues as they should: Edmund Rubbra, Alan Rawsthorne, Malcolm Arnold, Herbert Howells, Cyril Rootham… – and that’s just for starters. There are many, many, many more out there, who – for whatever reason – the mainstream repertoire ignores; but who produced some startlingly beautiful and original music.

Last night was the Orchestra of the Swan’s 21st Anniversary Concert: and it started with the suitably celebratory St Paul’s Suite by that man Holst. I think I must have just sat there with a silly grin on my face (I know my eyes were frequently closed) – this was one of those concerts where the standard of music and playing were so high, so well-matched, that it was a bit like sitting on top of your favourite mountain, gazing at your favourite view… – for this was, as was all of the evening, radiant perfection. (And, since you ask: Skiddaw.)

The final movement of this, The Dargason – especially with its first, extremely gentle rendition of Greensleeves; followed by its repeat soaring across summer wheat fields, swifts a-calling… – was, though, an utter triumph! Everything one could ever want from an English string band… and more. (Which should probably be OOTS’ slogan! Or something.)

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Now is the night one blue dew…

As Louisa May Alcott once said – or words to that effect – you should never meet your heroes; although, mostly, I have found her adage to be quite incorrect. And yesterday evening, in Cheltenham, offered up yet more glorious proof. Ever since chancing upon her divine voice, and exchanging thoughts with her keen intellect and considerate personality – all across the digital divide – April Fredrick has long been someone I have wanted to encounter in the flesh – even if only to hear that voice…

But it is that voice we must pay attention to – I want to say Heather Harper, such is the almost-mezzo evenness (even creaminess…): but this is Janet Baker as soprano… – painting pictures with each word, each note, each pertinent melisma. (April’s microscopic rubato and expression simply on the duplet of “quiet” is transcendent… – and captures in one word her persuasive, apparently guileless rendition: the enunciation of a rich sincerity. The technique is imperceptible.

…unhindered by anything but my own deficient ears.

“That voice”, is so, so pure, though, that the very molecules of air it cuts through seem proud, seem glorified by their elemental excision. It floats, too, when required (and effortlessly, too); but even its most reserved confidences have the power to carry to the Pump Room’s furthest corners (where your weeping correspondent silently sheds a private tear or twelve).

Thursday, 23 February 2017

This serious moonlight…

This review is dedicated to Paolo Pezzangora – without whom there would be much less musical magic in the world.

Whoever writes the Orchestra of the Swan’s programme notes is either a genius (doubtful); has a crystal ball – in which case: can I borrow it, please…? – or understands Artistic Director David Curtis’ winsome whimsies far too well – for they had written at the end of the (supposedly) final work of yesterday’s concert at Town Hall, Birmingham: Haydn’s 59th symphony…

Watch David closely, though, the concert – unless he rejigs the programme (again) – may not quite end when you think it does!

…and, of course, he opened with it, didn’t he?!

Mind you: I got absolutely soaked on my short hobble from Snow Hill station – ‘weather bomb’ Doris already making her bad temper known – so the ‘Feuer’ was just what was needed to drive out the damp: especially the rude interruption, in the slow movement coda, from the horns – who then excelled in the final, galloping movement! Even a member of the orchestra said he’d never enjoyed playing a Haydn symphony quite so much! And it was not just invigorating; but truly, musically, thrilling. OOTS excel at many things: but they do seem to have a special affinity with the wit and wisdom of the Father of the Symphony.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Commissions accomplished…!

As part of OOTS’ 21st Anniversary season, four composers, who have all worked with the orchestra before, were invited to write “companion pieces” to classical ‘concertante’ works – which they would then be premièred alongside – an idea conjured up by orchestra trustee Tim Richards. As David points out, “this gives our principals the opportunity to shine, as well as thanking them for their commitment”; adding that pairing music in this way “gives the orchestra, soloists, audience and composer both context and inspiration”.

Last year’s commissions – Douglas J Cuomo’s Objects in Mirror and Paul Moravec’s Nocturne – were both instant hits. (In fact, I described the Cuomo as “a cracking work: the perfect foil to the Bach that inspired it”; and reported that Moravec’s “left me with a mammoth lump in my throat, and several large somethings in both eyes”.) I am therefore certain that this year’s will follow in their winning footsteps.

Julian Philips’ composition (to be premièred in June) is for viola and double-bass. David commented that “Julian is an old friend of OOTS, and I expect something slightly more ‘traditional’. Because he knows us so well, I’m sure he will want to capitalize on our distinctive string sound.”

Asked about Joanna Lee – whose Blue Blaze – Dance Suite will be performed this month – David explained that “Joanna is relatively young: and OOTS believes in championing emerging talent.” He went on to say: “I have always been struck by her inventiveness and highly individual voice: so her work is likely to be quite challenging for audience and players – fully exploiting the characteristics of the solo instruments – but also very witty and light-hearted!”

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Anything different is good…

I didn’t know it was National Time to Talk Day until the closing moments of my assessment in Warwick Hospital’s Clinical Health Psychology department – but it seemed such a neat coincidence that my appointment (last Thursday) should have taken place on such a significant date that any doubts I had rapidly faded. By the way, it was Groundhog Day, also. However, I’m still struggling to find an apposite correlation with that….

I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It’s inspiring in a way.

My hesitancy had concerned the publication of what follows. But, if we’re going “to get talking and break the silence around mental health problems”, as I had previously done, eleven months ago – and without any real qualms – then this is what it’s going to take. Not just wearing “my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at”. But allowing those who care to have a wee peek inside: and see that “I am not what I am”.

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.

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 sh are 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.)

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.

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.