Monday, August 26, 2002

Watty enthuses:


I'll say that again.

I know that I have missed a Prom (which I'll review shortly), but I need to write this one down. It was a real spur-of-the-moment decision, prompted by the fact that the Prokofiev is possibly the greatest, certainly my favourite, piano concerto of them all. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Prom 48

It sounds like a cliché, but sometimes it takes a Russian orchestra to really play a Russian symphony.

I went to see the Prokofiev, and was mildly - disappointed isn't the right word; I enjoyed it - underwhelmed. Alexander Toradze seemed to be putting a colossal amount of effort into his performance, but, particularly in the first movement, it all seemed to be dissipating somewhere inside the piano. The initial solo entrance ought to sweep you off your feet rather in the way an express train in the small of the back would; I was convinced he'd missed his cue. Several times in the first movement, I wondered if my hearing was going as I strained to catch the nuances of Toradze's playing; perhaps I am being uncharitable - I was standing in the arena directly in front of the cellos and basses; perhaps the deep resonances of the low strings was affecting what I could hear. Also, to be fair, the delicate touch suited the second movement very well, and the third seemed to be back on track - or perhaps I had become a little more attuned to it. And the applause at the end of the first movement seemed genuine enough; not simply prompted by the soloist becoming airborne at the end.

So maybe it was me. Certainly, I was hoping to see something a bit special in the second half to make up for it. And, boy did I get something a bit special.

Shostakovich's 4th symphony remains a controversial work. Suppressed for 25 years because of its overt criticism of the Stalinist regime, and not exactly a staple of the repertoire since, it is a work which I was almost entirely unfamiliar. It spoke to me in the hall last night as only one piece of music has before (Mahler 2, in case you were wondering). Gergiev having been mostly obscured by the piano in the first half, I was slightly surprised to see this tortured soul take the stand dressed like a trendy anglican vicar. But as soon as he raised the baton everything fell into place. The orchestra, despite it being their third major work in just over 24 hours, were precise and controlled where required; free and full of expression in other places, and positively swung through the ending of the second movement. People sometimes ask me how a piece of music can say anything, to which I can only reply that you haven't really been listening - I defy anyone not to have been swept along with the impotent rage of the third movement; order and chaos vying for supremacy until the titanic finale squeezes the last breath from the lungs, and slowly ebbs away. leaving the despairing rythym of the strings, and the plaintive few notes of the celesta. Gergiev's control was complete - he took us to the edge and left us peering into the abyss as he slowly slipped away into the night. It's an ending which demands a moment of silence from the audience, and it got somewhere in the region of 20 seconds, during which I swear no-one breathed. I know I didn't. Then, uproar. Gergiev called back again and again, finally, having got a curtain call from every last member of the orchestra, offering us the score - the cheer rattled the glass in the dome. Magnificent.

It's another one for the long list of things I need to own. *sigh*

Monday, August 19, 2002

Watty's been watching television:

There's an element of cultural snobbery at work here, I'm sure of it - I review books quite regularly, and films occasionally, but hardly ever television. This is partly because I no longer watch very much television, but it doesn't, somehow, feel as valid as reviewing a novel (which I'm aware I haven't done for some time now...). Well, all that notwithstanding, I watched the final three episodes of Season 2 of ' The West Wing' over the weekend, and I'm moved to comment:

Let's get the awkward stuff out of the weay first, shall we? 'The West Wing' is concerned with protecting the quasi-mythical status of the office of US President. It does this in all the insufferably arrogant ways you might imagine - it can actually be discomfiting watching this programme as a non-US citizen; do they really think it's all so damned important? But yes, they do, and it's the universe in which the programme is set, so we'd all better get used to it.

In truth, of course, the writing and acting overcome all these objections with room to spare, and the net result is intelligent television with impeccable credentials, and when it works, it really, really works...

So there's a season finale to work up to, and there's a major plot development to set up, and there are about a dozen storylines to take care of, including the sudden, shocking death of one of the regular cast; there's emotional crisis; there's a pretty fundamental issue going to the heart of the Presidency - what is almost certainly going to be judged as a cover-up on a massive scale - and there's been some kind of military coup in Haiti. Oh, and there are things falling out of the sky, and a tropical storm, and a funeral, and a crisis of faith, and an emotionally resonant flashback, and... You get the idea. All this in 3 hours (less ad breaks) of television. Did it work? Oh, yes. Was it mawkish, as such things tend to be? Not at all - President Bartlet's crisis of faith in the aisle of National Cathedral was as powerful and affecting piece of work as you could ever expect to see on the 'serious' stage, never mind prime time television. Was it confusing? Not even slightly - it's so tightly plotted, and so well written that nothing is missed, and the rhythm of the thing is the dominant force throughout. Could it have been improved? No. Not by one word, gesture or rainstorm. There was a ghost at the end - or that televisual device which stands for ghosts - and although we were looking at it, we knew it was internal dialogue. But the cutaway to the empty chair still made me gasp. And the last five minutes was played out underneath Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, and it actually bloody worked.

Two illustrative moments - why this is great television. One from an earlier episode: the President has gone to see his Counsel. There has been an elaborate setup with a rogue recording device in the counsel's office which won't stop recording, and the appropriate joke has been made: "Yeah, like that's never been a problem before". We are past the light relief moment, and prepared for the serious stuff - there's going to be some crackerjack dramatic moment into the opening credits. The President makes his confession - "I need you to tell me if I have perpetrated a fraud and a conspiracy to decieve" or some such. There is a heartbeat - the moment for the music to start and the credits to roll. Nothing. Then the counsel picks up his ceremonial gavel, and pounds his tape recorder into a million pieces. Then the credits roll. I cannot remember a more effective use of humour as a subverter of expectations - I still laugh out loud about it now, whenever I think about it.
The other piece of genius is a living metaphor. Like all real-life presidencies, this one has opinion polls as its lifeblood - everything takes place in a vacuum until it can be verified with the public. The favoured, most trusted, pollster is deaf. In a world where the spoken word is everything, the presidential staff have to find other ways to communicate with their one link to the outside world. A more perfect metaphor for the relationship between a president and his people I cannot imagine.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Watty is inspired:

I've just read a short story by Patrick Marber called 'Peter Shelley'. Marber is my near-contemporary, and he writes about being 14 years old at almost the exact time that I was 14 years old, which is what drew me to the story in the first place. Now here's an interesting thing. The story is close to perfect - you can almost smell and taste the things that happen - and has that elusive killer short story payoff: the end which leaves you imagining, rather than wanting to know for sure, what happens next. (Too many short stories, in my opinion, are written as elaborate lead-ins to weak punchlines, rather than trying to tell an encapsulated story.) The thing is, if he can write that well, so can I - in my own mind at least - which is the opposite reaction to the one I have when reading Carver or John Irving short stories, when I generally lay the book down with heavy heart, sighing: 'I'll never be able to write like that...'

Friday, August 16, 2002

Watty still hasn't caught up:

I thought this was a place for my ruminations on life and so on, rather than a holiday diary. Never mind, there are only a few bits to fill in:

A trip to the Leighton Buzzard Railway with the boys; a Prom which needs a review:

Prom 24:

An unexpected pleasure, this - I only decided to go for certain about two hours before, and the whole thing could have been dull and uninspiring, and I'd still have enjoyed it thanks to the suddenness of it all.

But it was far from uninspiring - in fact, it may turn out to be the best Prom I see this year (I shall explain about Mahler 8 in a moment.) A quick, jolly Gimenez Zarzuela, followed by a John Harle sandwich. The outsides being two of Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain - transcribed for soprano sax, rather than the familiar trumpet. The playing was impeccable, but there was a nagging sense that the edginess of the trumpet sound was missing - perhaps that's only due to the over-familiar nature of Miles Davis' originals; I don't know.
But the filling in the sandwich was magnificent. The world premier of Harle's own Little Death Machine for soprano and sopranino saxophone, synthesiser and orchestra. A recipe, one might reasonably suppose, for self-indulgent noodling. Not a bit of it - the synthesised sounds, drawing on nearly forty years of radiophonic-style creations (including more than a nod in the direction of Delia Derbyshire), were perfectly entwined into the piece - indeed, some of the upper register stuff on the sopranino sax merged into the artificially-created soundscape, creating the kind of sounds I had certainly never heard in the concert hall before. All the while, Harle's score was light and accessible, full of playful jazz riffs, and more than a touch of Michael Nyman. All this and a full performance of Falla's El Amor Brujo complete with the most astonishing flamenco voice, courtesy of Ginesa Ortega. A wonderful late summer's evening.

Then we went to Kent for a few days, via Hever Castle. Oh, you need to go to Hever. The boys and I marched confidently to the centre of the maze (there's something about mazes which fails to baffle me, but they're still fun) and had to lead about thirty or so confused souls back out again. We stayed with friends near Tunbridge Wells, and pottered around a corner of England which I really don't know that well. We went to Underwater World in Hastings, and gasped at the stingrays and sharks; we went up England's steepest funicular railway; we threw stones into the sea at Bexhill (and peered quizzically at the de la Warr Pavillion - I must go back there); we dodged rainclouds on the Friday, and managed to have a lovely time on the Bluebell Railway. Then we went fruit-picking, and came home with more strawberries and plums than even we could eat...

Depression Index:

But I won't remember our holiday with much fondness, because I managed to drive myself into a thoroughly avoidable depression, thanks to being a little pig-headed about going to the Mahler 8 on the Sunday night. Without going into too much detail, I got myself into a position where I would have been unable to enjoy it, and didn't go - probably the right decision, but I'm still quite surprisingly upset about it. I learned this, however - the most likely trigger is still conflict caused by my blinkered refusal to see that my self-centred (I won't say selfish, though that's what I think) plans might be causing discomfort or dismay to someone else. As soon as it is gently pointed out to me that my idea of a fun Sunday has implications for others, I simply go to pieces. I clearly still have a lot of work to do here - no amount of caffiene-free diet is going to prevent that kind of thing. But writing about it helps - whether obliquely, like this, or more directly to those who understand, and I have come round much more quickly than I expected - I'm still not back to equilibrium, but I'm calm and reasonably happy, which is positive.

So there we are. Almost up to date. There was another Prom last Wednesday, which I'll review shortly, and then I'll try to keep this blog a bit more succinct.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

What Watty did on his holidays:

I never did catch up, did I? Ah, well. What you missed was:

A trip to Whipsnade Zoo, which is just along the road. It was remarkable for the elephants: late on in the day, we were walking back to the exit when one of the boys yelled "look, elephants!" Two of the elephants were being taken for a walk; they passed within two or three feet of us, ambling along quite happily. Two things to note - elephants scuff their feet: each step produces a gentle hissing sound as the foot is not quite raised from the ground; and I was not-quite overawed by the experience: what I felt, I think, was a clear sense of the power and grace of these animals, but not an overpowering feeling of whatever it was I thought I might feel being up close and personal with an elephant. Interesting.

Then I went away for a couple of days - I drove to Brighton, got wet looking for second-hand bookshops (they seem to have diminished in number somewhat); I went to Shoreham and found a very good bookshop (Bookworms of Shoreham, it's right on the High Street); I went to Arundel because I knew about the Arundel Bookshop (it's on that page somewhere); I went to the Tangmere Museum which was mildly interesting; not as good as I had been led to believe; I went to Selsey Bill, and rather wished I hadn't; I gave up at this point and stopped for the day.

Next morning, I set off for Hengistbury Head, determined to do more walking and thinking during the day. I then trundled through Bournemouth and Poole, crossed the Sandbanks ferry, walked for a bit on Studland beach - it was actually sunny by this time - went up to Swanage, pillaged their bookshop, wandered cross country to Durdle Door and walked for miles on the pebbles; drove to Lyme Regis and surprisingly enough, visited their second hand bookshop. On the Monday, I pottered around Bristol (including a visit to Beware of the Leopard) and Bath, which is still full of tourists but much better in terms of shopping and facilities than when last I visited. Yes, there were bookshops. I was also accosted by Jane Austen...

After that, I went home. There's more, but it will have to wait.

Friday, August 02, 2002

Watty hurriedly explains:

'Me' time:

It's to do with the depression, as many things are. When I was first diagnosed (if, indeed, I ever was), I sought counselling. The counsellor convinced me that I needed to make time for myself - to go away from all the normal stuff in my life and just think. It worked. In fact, it worked to a degree I couldn't have anticipated. Since then, I have made time about once a year to go away and be me (or, in a way, be 'not-me': I do the things I never do now: walk aimlessly; hunt for second-hand books; visit things that only I am interested in...) It's a bit of a pressure valve, and I am almost able to do it now without feeling guilty about it - in fact, that's one of the things I'm most hoping to be able to do this weekend - not worry about not being at home, pulling my weight.

I may post things during the weekend; I may not - we'll see. Wish me well.