Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Watty's nearly up to date:

Prom 13

Context is everything. Prom 13 was about John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, but to treat that piece apart from the rest of the programme is to do it a great disservice. The evening was designed to provide a setting for the final work, and it did so admirably. Firstly, a nicely played 'Trauer' symphony - it does have a sense of melancholy and mourning, and that sense was made evident without losing the drive and purpose which keeps the music flowing - conductor Adams clearly enjoying the experience. This followed by a coruscating reading of the Bartok third piano concerto from Héléne Grimaud - her playing really giving the clear sense of raging against the dying of the light, and setting us up nicely for what followed.

John Adams (I presume) had chosen to prefix his contemplation of the tragedy of New York with Aaron Copland's Quiet City, a subtle and charming view of the same city - not without its problems, but a place to celebrate nevertheless - with glorious solos on trumpet and cor anglais. It left me with a clear sense of the city before the tragedy, and Transmigration was intended to give the sense of the aftermath; the loss, the pain, the determination in some way to move on. It begins and ends with footsteps and a roll call of names, and layers together a kind of musical rage and dismay with sorrow and loss; the voices articulating the only emotions available in such a time - the simple truths of love and loss, often in a manner which recalled the simplicities of plainchant. The repeated 'I love you' was moving, but the phrase which leapt out at me was 'I see buildings and water' - although presented in context, in that this cannot help but be a work about September 11 2001, it also spoke to me of hope and confidence in the future of New York; a kind of 'we're still here' statement. Whether this work survives in the repertoire is largely irrelevant; it exists in the here and now, and relates to an event which touched all our lives in some way, therefore it is art to celebrate, and use as art should be used - to provide a place to consider one's own reactions.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Watty's catching up:

Good grief, a week's gone by.

I have two Proms to review, and - well, maybe some other stuff, too.

Prom 11 - Blue Peter Prom

Taking a 5 year old to his first Prom is an experience I recommend to everyone. Every small part of the experience takes on a new significance when seen through the eyes of a child. The Hall looks bigger, redder; the audience more excitable. No, wait - the audience are more excitable. And with reason. Looking at this through the eyes of a child, I find it difficult to imagine how it could be improved. We shivered to 'Sleigh Ride', we marveled at Julian Bliss, we whistled along with the Great Escape, we laughed at the programme notes, and we oohed and aahed at the lighting. And then we were simply bowled over by Stomp. I can't imagine a better way to teach children about rhythm, and the use of three folding chairs to demonstrate how a Canon works was simply perfect. From there it was all orchestral majesty, and Pomp and Circumstance. Oh, and balloons. You can't do this kind of thing without balloons.

We're doing that again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Watty's been feeling a bit odd all day:

I mean, it's not every day you pass a dead body on your way to work, is it? Just a mundane traffic accident, in truth; a large Land Rover-type vehicle parked perpendicular to the road, front end in a hedge, two police cars, and an ambulance. I sat in a short queue behind it all, idly wondering what had happened, then the line of cars moved, and we crawled past the scene; the usual group of onlookers milling around and paramedics and police officers doing what they do in those situations. As I pass the Land Rover, I realise that there is someone lying in the road, and that they are covered up, with no one paying particular attention to them. I am past before I realise the implications of this, and it's sat uneasily in my subconscious for the rest of the day. On the way home tonight, I see a Police sign appealing for information, and a forlorn bunch of flowers on the verge.

And however much it's bothered me today, it's nothing compared to what those involved are going through tonight. I have no way of knowing who they are, but nevertheless, I spare them a thought as I sit here listening to my radio, and getting on with my life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Watty's been all cultural:

Two different Tates in three days. This may be some kind of record - well, for me, anyway. Firstly, Tate Modern on Sunday.

It's probably my favourite building in London, and I go there more than I go to any other place when I'm in town, which is not often these days. The Albert Hall in Proms season doesn't count. Well, OK, it does, but.

I'll start again. Thanks to being a member of Tate, I was able to stroll into the Cruel and Tender exhibition without queueing, or indeed, paying, and I recommend it if you're in the neighbourhood. The Tate's first full-scale photography retrospective, it takes as its theme 'the real in 20th Century photography'. It's an interesting and eclectic mix of photographers, and the contrasts were intriguing. I found, to my surprise, that the landscapes - mainly detailing the impact of mankind on the land - were more engaging than the portrait-style pictures of people, which seemed as a rule disengaged from their subjects. I make an exception for Diane Arbus, but a lot of the others seemed to depend on odd camera angles and lighting for effect, while the Bechers' industrial close ups are stark and strangely moving. a special mention, too, to Andras Gursky's 99 cent, which is overwhelmingly huge, and somehow soothing. Most interesting.

And then last night, I went to Tate Britain for a 'supporters evening' viewing of the Bridget Riley exhibition. Now, I know she's not for everyone, but you need to put aside your preconceptions about migraines, and properly look at these paintings. At some level, all painting is about lines, curves and colours, but Riley distills this into something which transcends mere painting. The earlier works, in particular, are alive with movement, and given the right amount of concentration, you really can feel yourself being almost physically drawn into them. One in oarticular, Arrest 2 is hung in such a way that I found myself looking along the surface to check that the canvas really was flat. The exhibition is arranged broadly chronologically, and it is fascinating to trace her development, from the stark black and white stripes of the early years to the recent riots of colour and form. One room is given over to an exploration of the creative process. Here are all those famous imges, painstakingly traced out on graph paper, and minutely annotated with lines, numbers and instructions. A terrific show, and a wonderful experience to be there 'after hours', as it were.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Watty's been travelling:

Well, that was a strange day. On the face of it, get up early, travel to meeting, have successful meeting, have lunch, go for short walk, travel home again sounds pretty mundane. However, yesterday, the meeting was in Prague. A short travelogue is in order, then:

The best thing about being up at 5 in the morning is that Christmas Day-like lack of traffic. Even late in the evening there is still a reasonable weight of traffic, but at that time in the morning, I can make it to Heathrow in half an hour. Cheerfully taking the wrong turning (hey, I'm not awake yet) I have to do a half circuit of the perimiter road to get to the car park. This affords me the opportunity to hear the 'Radio 4 UK Theme', which is played at 0530 every day, apparently. A lushly scored, sub-Percy Grainger amalgamation of Rule Britannia, Men of Harlech, Londonderry Air and so on, it caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, the English tunes are Greensleeves and What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?; and secondly, I don't hear a Scottish element. Later in the day, however, I find myself humming 'Scotland the Brave', so presumably I just missed it whilst avoiding a bus. Parking at Heathrow takes forever, of course, and I'm only just in time for the check in. Fortunately, travelling 'hand luggage only' is pretty much painless, and I am checked in for the return flight at the same time - which just might come in very handy at the other end of the day.

I have flown Czech Airlines before, and they are perfectly pleasant, but clearly without the muscle of BA. We don't seem to be late in boarding, but have to wait half an hour before pushing back. Slots are at a premium at that time in the morning, and something tells me that the planes with the Union Jack on the tail get priority. Intriguingly, Iain Duncan Smith is going to Prague today, too - I bet he's on BA, though. Once airborne, am struck by the fact that I was reading the night before about flying Spitfires over this same part of Kent; I try to imagine what is must have been like - visibility probably not much better that you get through the perspex window of a 737, but a sight colder. We hurtle on towards central Europe, fortified by an airline breakfast. The scenery below changes so gradually that I scarcely notice it, and it's not until we are letting down into Prague that it's obvious. The heavily wooded ravines, red pantiles and round churches are just so Bohemian. Although I was here for only a few days 5 years ago, it's oddly good to be back. Everything is going well, if a little late, until we reach Passport Control.

The exiting passengers are faced with a long blue wall, set into which are a number of doors. Behind these doors sit uniformed Police officers, doing the dullest job in the world, and comensating for the boredom by looking fierce and occasionally interrogating someone for an unreasonable amount of time. Something like 6 flights have all arrived at around the same time, so there are about 600 people to process, and - naturally - not enough doors. We form into unruly queues, but some of the queues are tucked around the corner, and so are not obvious when you first arrive. Therefore everyone piles into the first three queues - one which is not moving at all, and two which are inching forward painfully slowly. To improve the entertainment factor, one of the flights appears to be an entire Scottish football team and their supporters, who are well-behaved, but very obviously in a big gang together. After an hour - I'm not making this up - my queue has reached the line at the front. I stand there, passport poised, hoping that my lift hasn't given up and gone home, when they shut the doors. Lunchtime, apparently. We merge politely with the queue next to us, ignoring the choice Scottish insults being lobbed at us - I pretend to be Italian, but I doubt it fools anyone.

Eventually, passport scowled at, I emerge, blinking into the Prague daylight. My lift has not given up, although he's quite tricky to track down, and we head off in to town. The Ferrero Cz offices are in Wenceslas Square, which is better than some faceless industrial park, but does not lend itself to rapid transport. Very quickly, we come upon the most obvious sign of change in the past 5 years - a traffic jam. Solid, M25-like traffic as far as the eye can see. We detour heroically, and I get to see all sorts of intriguing Prague suburbs. Some of them look quite smart and modern; some of them look distinctly Cold War era. Eventually, we reach the centre and, after a few more amusing minutes spent in search of parking, we troop into a wonderfully typical Prague building, festooned with pillars and intricate stonework. Inside, we negotiate the concierge, and find ourselves in a wonderful central European stairwell, complete with Soviet lift, all Cyrillic lettering, and distinctly ropy mechanism. We use the lift on the way up, but I notice that we walk back down.

I shall spare you the meeting - sufficient to say that it was more than satisfactory - and proceed straight to a rather late lunch. We walked past the National Gallery (next time...) and into a cavernous, and very typically Czech-looking restaurant. Almost every place I have eaten in Prague has been underground, and this is no exception. Thankfully, there are more steps at the back, and we come up into a very pleasant beer garden, where I am made to drink my daily ration of pivo ("Every Czech, from babies to grandmothers, drinks three beers a day"), and I volunteer to be fed typical Czech cuisine. Grandmother's potato soup is wonderful, and the duck is pretty good, although could possibly have done with fewer dumplings. At least I was going to sleep on the way home. After a debate about whether strudel is actually a Czech dish, and much amusements at my attempts to say 'Thank You' (I got it, but I needed to see it written down. Oh the shame - and me a linguist, too), it was proposed that I might like a stroll round Wenceslas Square, which I accept happily.

It hasn't changed much, really - possibly there are even more tourists than before, but the bookshops are still there, and the ridiculously cheap tat they want to sell me ("Oh, Prague is very expensive; you should come out into the country") I buy T shirts for the boys, and get change from 500 Crowns, and we soak up the sunshine and avoid the travelling Hare Krishna band on our way back to the traffic. As we sit in more jams, dodging trams, I reflect on how odd it is, for someone of my generation, to be able to come to Prague for the day, and buy software. There is still a big part of me which doesn't accept that there is no Iron Curtain any more, and that the Czech Republic is full of Audis and BMWs, advertising and Western goods; the airport is full of Boeings; and all these young people with green passports are Czechs on their way somewhere, not tourists on their way in. But one day, I'm going to go there, and really see the city.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Watty's seeing camels:

Yup - real, honest-to-goodness camels. Grazing in a field by the side of the road. I don't imagine my day will improve after that.

It's something to do with a Circus. I'm not seeing things. I'm not.