Archive for the ‘history’ category

Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?

January 17, 2011

Anyone who works in opera dreads the moment when a non-operatic person says ‘I know a good story…’ and it always turns out to be the one about the time when Tosca did her suicide leap from the battlements at the end of Puccini’s opera, only to reappear to the audience’s sight as she bounced up again on a trampoline.

This is re-told in so many books of musical and operatic anecdotes, without attribution, that one naturally assumes it is an urban legend (along with the elephants falling through the stage in Aïda, or that awful pidgin-English synopsis of Carmen).

However… the other day, I met a distinguished gentleman (while waiting for the long-delayed start of the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House – but that’s another story).  He started telling me his Tosca story, and my heart sank… until he said he had actually been there.  Heaven knows when it was – 1950s, I’d guess – but it was at the Vienna State Opera, the Tosca in question was soprano Ljuba Welitsch (‘not a small lady’) and the conductor was Herbert von Karajan (‘who was not at all amused’).  Whether it was a natural bounce or some disaffected person had substituted a trampoline for the regular pile of mattresses, history does not relate.

So now you know.  Next time someone starts telling you the old Tosca story, you can say, ‘Yes, I know.  It was…’

For remembrance: Forever Young, a song for Wootton Bassett

November 10, 2010

Wootton Bassett is a small town in Wiltshire, England, which happens to be near the military airfield where British solders killed in Afghanistan are flown home.

A tradition has arisen among the townspeople of turning out to line the streets in respectful silence as the coffins are driven past.

Here is a video of a song written in celebration of this spontaneous expression of appreciation.

On this Remembrance Day, may we remember all victims of war, past and present.

The song and video have been created to raise money for the charity Afghan Heroes.  For more information and to make a contribution, follow this link:

 
Thank you.
 
 

 

for Remembrance Day

November 11, 2009

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Wilfred Owen:  Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

for Remembrance Day

November 9, 2008

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Andrew Motion read this poem on BBC Radio 3 this morning.

Lest we forget.

Wilfred Owen — The Send-off


Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

picture from newmilton.org photo archive — thanks

King’s Theatre, Southsea

July 13, 2008

 A couple of weekends ago, I was privileged to be involved in a gig at the King’s Theatre, Southsea – with thanks to the indefatigable Jonathan Barry and his amazing shoestring opera company, Vox Lirika.

 

The King’s Theatre is a beautiful little gem, designed by Frank Matcham, doyen of theatre architects at the beginning of the 20th century – responsible for the Buxton Opera House, the Grand Opera House, Belfast, the Hackney Empire, the London Coliseum, and many others, each with its own atmosphere and decorative ‘theme’, and every one a satisfying masterpiece in its own right.

 

There must be a book on Frank Matcham and his theatres?  If not, someone should write one!

 

The King’s Theatre is built on a very unpromising triangular corner site:  entrance is through a small door, Tardis-like,  in the sharp end of the ‘wedge of cheese’, backstage spaces are tight and oddly-shaped, but the auditorium itself is a miracle of cramming the maximum possible number of seats into the minimum space.  The effect is a cosy and welcoming little dark red crucible where great theatrical experiences can happen.

 

Nonetheless, the stage is a decent size and there’s even a biggish orchestra pit (well, Wagner would be a bit of a squeeze…).  And the foyer, bars and front-of-house areas are lively and welcoming.

 

 

Whereas the London Coliseum’s decorative scheme is an idiosyncratic mix of ‘ancient Roman’ and ‘ancient Egyptian’, the King’s Theatre goes for ‘Italian Renaissance’ angels and cherubs, and very sweet it is too – much red velvet, marble and swags, with a big oval ceiling piece like an 18th-century drawing room.

 

Parts of the theatre have been helpfully restored, others are in an endearing state of crumbling quaintness…  The burghers of Portsmouth and Southsea are a cultured lot, and they welcome the busy schedule of things to be seen at their local theatre.  For example, I spotted Sondheim’s Passion coming up – which I would have loved to get to.

 

More power to them.  There is more fascinating history and information on their website:

http://www.kings-southsea.com/main/history.html

 

Many thanks too to the backstage staff for going out of their way to make my job seem easy.  And to Bob and Di for their hospitality!  I’ll be back…

 

…and what’s on the other side…

May 5, 2008

Cuckmere Haven

Well… sorry about all those deadlines I was supposed to be meeting today – but I couldn’t face being stuck indoors (it was a public holiday).  Having checked the weather forecast and discovered it had upgraded from ‘probably rainy’ to ‘mostly fine’ in the South-East, I hopped in the car (which also welcomed the chance to stretch its legs) and whizzed down to Sussex for my favourite walk, up and over Seaford Head, with the fabulous view of the Seven Sisters on the other side.

The thinnest of cloud and the lightest of breezes ensured the sun was not too blazing hot.  I travelled light – no jacket or sweater, no bag, no camera, just my phone.  I was well rewarded;  it was a glorious day, Seaford very quiet, a classic Monsieur Hulot-ish slightly eccentric unfashionable seaside resort.  Not many people about, apart from a coach load of Italian kids, singing, on a guided tour (when they weren’t singing they were being earnestly lectured by a tall gent in a long red coat, looking oddly like an escaped Cardinal.  But I digress).

Up on the clifftop path I was assailed by multitudes of flying insects.  No rabbits though (but plenty of evidence that they were about).  Rooks and seagulls everywhere, even sparrows (a rare sight these days), and some very pretty slim beige and brown bird which obligingly perched on the cliff edge before flying off and revealing a fetching white bum;  the bird book in the back of the car suggests it’s a Wheatear (female and/or in winter plumage).  I feel honoured. 

And the skylarks!  They are supposed to be a vanishing species too, but fortunately no one has told these chaps, who were singing their little hearts out ‘in profuse strains of unpremeditated art’, as Shelley described it.  I watched one skylark take off, and followed its soaring, singing flight until my neck ached and I began to think passers-by would think I looked like an idiot.  But as I walked on I could still hear it, hundreds of feet above me, for several minutes, until its song was lost among half a dozen others.

At the far end of the walk, instead of going down to the rather grubby beach (which I gather is called Hope Gap), I turned inland a bit, looking (in vain) for a viewpoint from which to see the sinuous curves and oxbows of the Cuckmere River.  My eye was caught by a triangular cairn I’d never noted before.  It turned out to be a war memorial, complete with faded poppies and crosses.  A plaque described how a company of Canadian soldiers in World War 2 had camped out in the valley, heedless of warnings that they were under the flight path of German bombers.  The next morning, sure enough, two Messerschmitts destroyed them all.  The Captain was shaving in one of the coastguard cottages, and was killed instantly ‘when a bomb came through the wall that held his mirror’.  A sad bit of history.

War memorial, Cuckmere

More details here, with the text of the plaque – the writer has had the same experience as I have just had!

a poem for St George’s Day by Brian Patten

April 23, 2008

 

Today, 23 April, is St George’s Day, a day which the English are notoriously bad at celebrating;  in order to kick-start patriotic interest in England’s Patron Saint, English Heritage have commissioned Liverpool poet Brian Patten to write a poem.
 
When I heard it on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, read by the inimitable Scouse-voiced poet himself, I knew I had to share it with you.  (I had a devil of a job finding it on line, but that’s another story.  Sort of QED – how much the English care about St George’s Day or poetry or the arts, or anything much at all really. Anyway…)
 
Brian Patten pointed out that 23 April is also Shakespeare’s birthday.  (Well, we don’t actually know when Shakespeare’s birthday is, but traditionally it’s celebrated today.)  You’re supposed to wear an English rose on St George’s day, but of course it’s the wrong time of year, as they’re not out yet.  Well, I’ll put a picture of one on here instead. 

 

THE TRUE DRAGON

 St George was out walking
He met a dragon on a hill,
It was wise and wonderful
Too glorious to kill
 
It slept amongst the wild thyme
Where the oxlips and violets grow
Its skin was a luminous fire
That made the English landscape glow
 
Its tears were England’s crystal rivers
Its breath the mist on England’s moors
Its larder was England’s orchards,
Its house was without doors
 
St George was in awe of it
It was a thing apart
He hid the sleeping dragon
Inside every English heart
 
So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight
 
Let’s celebrate St George’s Day,
The dragon in repose;
The brilliant lark ascending,
The yew, the oak, the rose
 
© Brian Patten 2008

 

English rose in my garden, oh no actually it's a French one!

You can hear the item from the Today programme — including Brian Patten reading his poem — by clicking on this link:

Radio 4 podcast — poems for St George’s Day

The Most Beautiful Car of All Time (Part 2)

March 23, 2008

AstonFurther to my previous post on ‘What’s the Most Beautiful Car of All Time?’, The (London) Telegraph has finally published the results of its survey.  Click HERE to read, and view their Top 100.

It also asks for nominations for ‘The Ugliest Cars of All Time’, but I really don’t think I want to go there…yeucch!

 

 

Oddly, the bottom end of their Top 100 ‘Most Beautiful’ seem to be in reverse alphabetical order, so I suspect a lot of lumping together rather than actual counting of votes.

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Needless to say I am devastated and disappointed that NO HONDAS made it into the top 100!  Pah!  Or that Renault Floride.

And no vintage Bentley?? vintagebentley.jpg

Still, it’s good to see many of the ones I fancied, including Facel Vega, Cord 810, and various iconic Aston Martins

Plus the Lancia Stratos, a little gem I’d forgotten about. 

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And I was delighted to see the Citroen DS at No. 2 (The Telegraph comments:  ‘Did we expect to find a family saloon breaking the sports car stranglehold at the top of the list? None bar this.’

 citroends2.jpg

And at Number One… the E-type Jaguar!  Of course.  What else?

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pictures stolen from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ and various other unackowledged sources — sorry!

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, Sunday 13 January 2008

January 17, 2008

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Another concert, another nice old church…

The church of St-Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap in the City of London, is hidden away down a side alley, landlocked and invisible among other buildings (not to mention impenetrable – as they forgot to unbolt the doors until five minutes before the concert!).  Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, it lost its box pews and much of its beautiful woodwork in a disastrous fire in 1988, but has been magnificently restored, with a bright, clean and uncluttered interior.  Resonant yet intimate, it makes a lovely concert venue for a small orchestra (strings 9.8.6.6.2, for those who care about such things) and a small audience.

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1966, and has been a guiding light of my life (and many other people’s lives) ever since.  In past decades I have been privileged to play with them on a number of occasions:  now chances are rare, apart from the annual phone call from Brynly which goes – ‘Jo, I’ve messed up my diary.  Can you do HCO for me on…?’  Sadly, because of my own crazy diary, the answer is nearly always ‘no’ (the last time I managed it was in 1999 – a great experience). 

The orchestra has worked with many distinguished conductors and soloists (an early revelation to me was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony conducted by a very young Andrew Davis), and on Sunday it was directed from the leader’s desk and/or solo position by Paul Barritt, who was evidently enjoying himself as much as they were, hot-foot from gigs in Belgium and Tring.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture (The Hebrides) – sonorous, energetic, un-muddy and a delight (notwithstanding Paul Barritt’s cheeky viola joke in his introductory words).  I became aware of details I’d never heard before – always a good sign – such as the single oboe note that is held throughout the chugging harmonic sequence which may or may not, as Paul suggested, represent the sound of the paddle-wheel on Mendelssohn’s Hebridean ferry.

Then came Haydn’s all too rarely heard Sinfonia Concertante (more…)

Phoenix concert (and also John Lill and The Soldier’s Tale)

December 6, 2007

Very quick one.  I wouldn’t normally write up a concert I was playing in (see previous post) – bad form, and difficult to tell what it’s like from inside – but various people have asked me to, so I will!

Phoenix Orchestra‘s leader Catherine Lindley was indisposed, and we were grateful to James Widden for stepping in at the last minute.

St Andrew’s, Holborn, perched on the end of Holborn Viaduct, is a very nice building to play in – yet another squareish 18th-century church like St Johns, Smith Square and St James, Piccadilly.  Very resonant, but flattering rather than muddying, as far as we could tell.  A small church, cosy enough to feel nicely full with an audience of mostly friends and relations.

No carpet to soak up the bassoon sound!  Hard black-and-white tiles instead (actually lino, though looking like marble).  The helpfully stepped floor made for good sight lines for us, and presumably ‘hearing lines’ for the audience as well.  The horns and brass sounded loud but not overpoweringly blarey.

The ‘rush-hour concert’ idea is a very good one.  Not too much sheer volume of stuff to slog through at rehearsals;  start at  6.30, in the pub by 8 (Ye Olde Mitre in Ely Place:  that’s another story…).

The Berlioz overture (Beatrice and Benedict, or ‘Bill and Ben’ as it’s known in the trade) went like a little rocket, Lev’s ‘safe’ opening tempo imperceptibly zizzing up until it was really exciting.  We were pretty precise, I’m glad to say, and it sounded to me as if there was some very nice woodwind playing going on, as well as crisp brass.

Then the Borodin ‘Steppes of Central Asia’, which was short and lovely – very atmospheric.  Smashing playing from Sue (flute) and Emma (cor anglais).

And finally (no interval), Dvořák’s 7th Symphony.   Speaking for myself, the ravages of the afternoon rehearsal eventually began to take their toll on lips and brain, but not until the last movement.  It’s a tremendous and underrated work (see my earlier comments) and we felt proud to be having a really good crack at it.

‘Crack’ being absolutely the wrong word for Duncan’s glorious horn solo in the slow moment – which he particularly asked me to mention here in contrast to his previous showing (again, see my earlier comments).

So – a great (short) evening, to which these comments don’t begin to do justice.

The same goes for two other recent musical experiences, which I didn’t write up on here (more…)