Thursday, 9 July 2009

This is our last week at this primary school where Tycho started school back in January 1995 followed by Edith in 1997, Leo joining the nursery in 1998 and Agatha in 2001. Agatha sent us off in good style by taking the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

We are feeling very proud of all our children:

Thursday, 2 July 2009

lotsa op'ra

Suddenly lots of opera. First I take Edith to the Gate Cinema to see the live relay of La Traviata from Covent Garden. Renee Fleming glorious, Richard Eyre's production just amazing.
Then it's off to Garsington yesterday...on a madly hot day, to see a sparky and witty modern setting of Rossini's La Cenerentola.
What a pity the average age of opera audiences is so high.

Monday, 6 April 2009

St Matthew Passion; The Barbican Hall Palm Sunday 2009

This was the big one, the one I had really been looking forward to.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra cond Riccardo Chailly
St Thomas's Boys Choir
Toelz Boys Choir

Sybill Rubens soprano replacing Christina Landshamer
Marie-Claude Chappuis mezzo soprano
Johannes Chum tenor - Evangelist
Maximilian Schmitt tenor
Thomas Quasthoff bass-bar
Hanno Mueller-Brachman bass-bar Christ
Kaus Haeger bass Pilate/Peter/Judas

After much to-ing and fro-ing we gave our 2 spare tickets to the daughters, who didn't mind so much in the end as they did not have to sit with us and risk being embarrassed by our enthusiastic clapping. Everyone we contacted to offer the tickets were either going already or were away.

Note to self: remember it takes about an hour and ten minutes to get to Barbican by car if you want to allow for the ring road nightmare. Not fifty minutes. The car journey was awful, there was actually a bit of violence and it wasn't Dan dishing it out...and we got there just in time...settling down just in time to spot Mr and Mrs H and Mr and Mrs F in the audience.
Fashion note: Mrs H in flowing purple, very elegant. Audience unusually well-dressed, probably because a large proportion may have been (a) German or (b) parents of the choirboys or (c) both.

First impressions: The St Thomas's choir are so sweet in their little sailor collar jackets. Since they have no standard haircut but some have quite long hair a la 1973, the effect is very Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus band is high on women and has lots of young faces.
Further fashion note: you know, I'm not sure the white tie and tail coat thing is going to last much longer. TQ has ditched it completely, going for the Andre Previn/trendy vicar white-rollneck effect instead. As a result the other guys look fussed, hot and fat.
Anyway...oh heck, it was sublime. I don't really know how to start writing about this piece so I will have to stick with thinking about what people were wearing, because just starting to think about the whole emotional and musical experience is too much. Dan was almost in tears in the first half and I was nearly in tears in the second, at "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" which TQ took exactly as I would have wanted, with passion and conviction. Now I can die. I do not understand the Catholic Herald critic Michael White who thinks TQ's singing "lacks something".
The mezzo was marvellous. A bit quiet from where we were because of the sizeable conductor blocking the sound but the girls, who were on the other side, found her wonderful to watch as well as to hear.
During her last aria however I noticed two little boys in the St Thomas's Choir who suddenly, as little boys often do after 2 hours of sitting very still and being very, very good, found something - I don't know what - irresistibly funny and got the giggles. For the rest of the piece these two - a small blond one and a taller brown-haired one - kept stealing glances at each other and trying not to laugh (unsuccessfully). I think it's a sign of the beauty of the whole evening that I really, really didn't mind, even though the snickering carried on through Mache Dich.., which I'd been waiting for all my life, because in a way these two little rascals simply reminded me of the joy of God's love and how precious children are. In fact, hearing TQ singing that song of sorrow, hope and determination with these two giggly cherubs in the chorus behind him actually made me feel extraordinary happy.
I was quite a bit older than them when I found myself moved to tears by the story of the Passion of Christ and already an adult when I first heard this piece live. I have been afraid that it would lose its impact as I get older and as the atheists get louder and louder, but in fact, the more you focus on it as a story, the more impact it gets year after year. Suddenly these words of passion (literally) and faith become as true as ever they were.

I remember one Palm Sunday going to hear it at the Royal Festival Hall with Robert Tear leading; I remember him doing a fair amount of swaying and emoting to the music - since TQ did a lot of that last night I wonder if perhaps it is a privilege of the most distinguished singer of the evening. TQ also sings along with the chorales.

Final fashion note: thank you to the violinist near the front of the stage whose gorgeous georgette sleeves simply added to the beauty of the moment!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Impassioned speech by Mark Elder

There is a theme developing at the moment, first Tom Service's article now this speech by Mark Elder for which I am indebted to Jessica Duchen.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Tom Service has written a very sobering and very intelligent piece for the Guardian about the decline of classical music in Britain and how this is essentially down to the schools. One point he makes: the Government likes to enthuse about "elite athletes" but isn't so keen on "elite musicians".

Friday, 27 March 2009

Edith's directorial debut

Edith has been slaving away, with a band of very loyal and committed fellow students, at a production of The Real Inspector Hound by Sir Tom Stoppard for the past 6 months. She founded the sixth form drama club in the autumn and this is the result. They opened last night to an ecstatic audience, second (and last) performance is tonight.

Brilliant and efficient direction, very funny acting and everyone pulling out all the stops 100%. There was a palpable sense of co-operation, warmth and team effort such as Sir Alan Sugar will never see on his stupid TV show. What a talented bunch of students Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School has - and what a lovely daughter we have.

The cast and credits as detailed in the programme (design by Isabella Chakiris, and very nice too)

Moon: Daniel Laking
Birdboot: Liam Steward-George
Mrs Drudge: Ailish Coghlan
Radio Announcer: Alison Cryan
Simon: Patrick D'Arcy
Felicity: Edith Nnotum
Cynthia: Sophie Platts-Martin
Magnus: John Crowley
Inspector Hound: Michael Galea
Corpse: Gabrielle Deehan

Director: Edith Johnson
Producers: Anne Le Fur and Alexandra Sayers
Assistant Producers: Georgia Ford, Eleanor Hingley, Ann O'Malley, Anna Godinho
Stage Managers: Alison Cryan and Maya Malarski
Publicity: Isabella Chakiris
Costumes: Barbara Ryan
Hair and Make up: Ximene Weaver
Design Team: Edward Abedian, Connal Harper, Freya Anderson (Thanks to Ben Payne and Alex Sayers)
Sound and Lighting: Joe Childs, Sophie Boles and Eleanor Hingley (thanks to Andrew Hingley)
Filming and Photography: Becky Johnson and Tom Warren

Special thanks also went to Mr Cooney, Ms Muhammed and Ms O'Connell (but actually the kids did all the work!)

Special thanks also should go to Sir Tom Stoppard for sending Edith a very encouraging email just when she was getting close to despair!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Gorgeous male singers

Dan is away for the weekend, so I am taking mild revenge by collecting gorgeous male singers. Jonas Kaufmann is a good place to start:

What a dream. I think this one of Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a bit of a laugh but he's not bad, is he, considering he's obviously wondering if his flies are undone:

A classical music Youtuber has posted a very good beauty contest for beautiful male singers. Both these guys score well but everybody's favourite is always the Placido.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

And the kids came too

I had been very much looking forward to last night's concert at the Barbican Hall. First it was Thomas Quasthoff and the Berliner Barock Solisten playing Bach and Handel. Secondly we were going to a press reception so we wouldn't have to buy our own drinks or queue at the bar. Afterwards there was even a teensy chance we might meet the great man himself at another reception later on, if we could hang about. Thirdly, as (I've said before) we first heard TQ 20 years ago when we were just married, there were happy feelings around the whole evening, and it was going to be a relaxed grown up DATE.

Then I looked at the tickets. In some moment of utter madness, Daniel had bought four adult tickets and one under-sixteen one.

It was unthinkable to allow the kids to duck out of coming, the idea of having empty seats right under Quasthoff's nose was shaming. So first the job of persuading the kids to come. Then the panic about feeding them, stopping them having all out blazing rows in the middle of the concert hall...and there was of course no question of hanging about to meet Quasthoff because Certain People have to go to bed.

It's the year 2001 and Aggie is 3. We take her to a daytime folk concert at the Wigmore Hall. In the middle she stands up and says, "This is so boring" in a loud voice. There is nothing so unstoppable as a 3 year old who wants to say something. my date is shot to pieces. I feel incredibly angry with Dan, and I feel even more angry with myself for feeling so uncharitable to my dear darlings. And I feel profound disappointment.

In the end the kids were sweet, loving, patient and kind to their grumpy mother. The music and TQ's performance were heavenly and thanks to a bribe of £10, Aggie was silent, relaxed and attentive throughout the performance. Leo was exemplary (and had NOT been bribed), and of course Edith is an old hand at this, plus she added much-needed grace and ornament to the press reception.
And oh well, so what if we didn't get to meet Quasthoff. I'd have probably made a fool of myself.


For one thing, there is the dilemma on being introduced to Thomas Quasthoff: to go down on one knee, or to bow? By far the preferable option is obviously to go down on one knee. Bending over is bad for the back, looks terrible and also would give the great man an unrequested and unwanted view of wrinkly middle-aged cleavage. Quasthoff has a certain undeniable charm...a woman does not want to look a complete idiot. Not even at my age.

I notice from news footage that the lovely and youthful Mrs Quasthoff has perfected an elegant running genuflexion: there is a film on Youtube of her smoothly dipping, rising and dipping again (for a quick snog) with ease. Obviously the kneeling option is the expert's choice. You are immediately on a level and you are able to maintain good posture while talking.

But what one might term the "Claudia Quasthoff running bob" presents certain problems for those of us not quite so limber. My big fear would be not being able to get back up again without aid, especially while wearing high heels. I have a scary vision of myself flailing about helplessly on the empty acres of the Barbican concourse, still trying to get up long after everyone has gone home.... And another thing. Some of my trousers get a bit tense around the bum in that position: what if there was a terrible ripping sound? Worse still, some of Dan's suits are very old: they might not stand up to the strain.

I suppose it's back to the gym...

But for now back to the concert.

The Berliner Barock Solisten are just wonderful and if they come to London again I want to hear them play again. Most of them play standing up, like management consultants who have been on a management training course about stand-up meetings. They don't have a conductor - their Stradivarius-wielding leader, Rainer Kussmaul (what a name) kind of looks over at the band all the time sending thought waves. So they are a very big small band...and they have a theorbo! There was a big cellist in my way and I could not see it being played, though I could see it sticking up behind the cellists' heads like a crane. It's f-ing huge!
TQ was in really fine voice, or so I thought, of course I know nothing about music. I don't feel I'm hearing exactly the dark golden honey which knocked me sideways all those years ago in Passau - but the voice is still velvety rich. Very appropriate that we were promised "hot chocolate cocktails" after the concert.
Now here's the shocking thing. Exactly as Ben Heppner had to do last month TQ had to begin the concert by announcing that the programme had been printed wrongly, missing out a whole Brandenburg Concerto from the list. "So you will get even more for your money," he joked.
Yep, every time I've been to a concert in the last 2 months something has been wrong with the programme. My suspicion is cutbacks and over-use of inexperienced unpaid interns instead of professionals.

Favourite bits? Hard to say. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the Brandenburg C, the BBS's bite and rhythm and sense of galloping along succeeded in conquering the strange feeling one has, on hearing this music, that one is on hold. It is great to hear a BC live instead of tinnily down a telephone receiver.
I adored the six part Ricercar. Bach wrote this to persuade Frederich II of Prussia to pay his son CPE properly. I don't get the logic of this; surely Frederich must have gone away with his lovely Ricercar thinking, "Wow, it's easy to get free stuff out of these Bachs"?
Quasthoff sang with great brilliance and I especially adored "The people that walked" from the Messiah and the aria "O First in Wisdom" from Joshua.
For an encore he sang an intense and moving moment from the St Matthew Passion. It was magical.
Quasthoff complained on regaining the stage at one point that "the stairs are more work than to sing".

Fashion note: Everyone in casual matt black, no ties, black or white. Some of the BBS should bear in mind that black fades with time. TQ in classic musician's black silk roll-neck. I want to get one for Dan.
Audience downright scruffy.
My daughter Edith looked exquisite, of course, and my daughter Agatha looked as exquisite as is possible wearing a hoody with pasta sauce down the front and sheepskin boots.


Cantat, BWV 42 - Sinfonia
Cantata, BWV 57 - Ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen
Musical Offering, BWV1079 - Six-part Ricercar
Cantata, BWV 73 - Ach, unser Wille Bleibt verkehrt; Herr, so du willt, so schicks mit mir
Third Brandenburg Concerto
Cantata, BWV 82 - Mein Gott! Wann kommt das schoene Nun!; Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod

Messiah, HWV 56 - Overture; For behold; The people that walked
Concerto grosso, Op 3 No 2 (HWV 313)
Joshua, HWV 64 - Oh Joshua, both to rule; O First in Wisdom; Sinfonia; The walls are levell'd; See the raging flames

Friday, 6 March 2009

W11 Opera to be at Riverside Studios again

Hooray! Our amazing, energetic Company Manager has secured the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith for this year's W11 Opera production.
We think it might be a proscenium set-up this time instead of performing in the round as last year.
We loved being at the Riverside Studios last year so THANK YOU Riverside!
This is my first year as a trustee of W11 Opera...I am getting quite nervous hoping I can do justice to the honour.
We have a new commission - of course we do, we have a new commission every year, that's what W11 Opera does - from MARTIN WARD and PHIL PORTER and it's called (at present) THE WHALE SAVERS. Guess what it's about...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Gurrelieder (and nearly flies off the podium)

For a moment during the last seconds of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Royal Festival Hall last night I thought Esa-Pekka (crazy name, crazy guy) was about to achieve lift off as he exhorted his 400 strong orchestra and choir with the ultimate physical expressions of the idea of "onward and upward", his knees quivering and bouncing, and his toes only just managing to remain on the podium.

The real star of this piece is the orchestra, rather than the 6 singers or even the electrifying "Sprecher" (actually a Sprecherin, ) as the music is so bright and colourful and solid you can almost reach out and touch it. Basically Dan and I had a brilliant time and were among the first to jump up at the end and encourage a lengthly standing ovation. (Also the seats at the RFH are a nightmare. My back was killing me.)

Written mostly when Schoenberg was pretty young, and the last bit ten years later, it is so evocative of Mahler, with a bit of Wagner too, that I suppose it was inevitable he'd want to branch out into stuff I can't listen to. The final chorus about the sun coming up is fabulous and ought, Dan said rather strangely, to be a Classic FM favourite. Why that would be good for it I really can't tell.

Barbara Sukowa, the Sprecher, was scintillating. The Waldtaube, Monica Groop, was also marvellous. It was only afterwards that I learned the heroine Tove is murdered by Waldemar's wife. So she's a homebreaker and a hussy and got what she deserved. Pah!

The one slight, very slight disappointment was that Stig Andersen's voice wasn't not quite strong enough to top the volume of such a large orchestra, though for people sitting in front of him it was probably OK. We were near the front-right, and right by the double basses so we got a strange sound mix all in all.

The RFH is really going down hill. We nearly got stuck in a queue to enter the carpark - no full sign. There were only 2 people serving millions at the bar in the 20 minute interval. The management even f***ed up the programmes. They were supposed to have the words in an insert but lots of them didn't have the insert. Dan found a crowd of furious people haranguing a programme seller. I bought a programme with the insert easily at half time...from a programme seller sitting with nobody buying his programmes. We had our CD programme notes with us and the words were projected in English onto a screen above the orchestra throughout, so it didn't matter hugely. The projected words were rather a nuisance, very distracting. And "Extraordinary Tove" is a useless translation for "wunderschoene Tove". "What an extraordinary young woman," he seems to be saying.

I think they wanted to discourage noisy page-turning - it was being recorded for Radio 3.

Audience behaviour: well, not too bad actually, and no phones, but right in the middle of the sunrise chorus two old people - one on each side of the stalls, decided "ah, a noisy bit, I can go home now and no one will notice" and just walked out. Unbelievable. These were people in their 70s - surely a generation which knows how to behave? Evidently not.

Fashion note. Why do the male singers wear white tie and tails while Essa-Pekka is in a more contemporary outfit (black nehru collar number)? Can't they co-ordinate? The women had got it together and were in evening dress of comparable formality. Everyone would think it odd if one of the women singers was in a low cut evening dress and the other in a suit and blouse, wouldn't they?

Another fashion note. My new comfortable high heeled shoes (yes! it can be done!) are wonderful and make me feel tall and sexy, And my scarlet cardigan from Coast with the chiffon bow is great.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Benjamin Button

We didn't go but the kids did including Aggie (it's a 12A). Cost nearly 40 quid to send them all to Odeon Kensington which is closing down soon.
Verdict: Sad but way too long. It's 166 minutes. After 80 minutes, Edith said, you'd got the point. He gets younger while getting older.
Edith said: "It's about getting old, and about getting old as a tragedy."
I suppose for Hollywood stars getting old is a tragedy so this theme was the saddest thing they can think of.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Ben Heppner at the Barbican Hall

Ben Heppner is a very big Canadian with a good big heldentenor voice. It's not my favourite type of voice in the world but it can thoroughly fill the Barbican Hall and is especially good when belting. Piano: Thomas Muraco.

The Barbican did not handle this event terribly well. He announced a change in the song order for the Strauss songs, and said he'd asked the Barbican to change the programme weeks ago but they hadn't done it so he had to tell the audience in advance what order the songs were so they would not get confused following the translations. Later in the shop we found not a single one of his recordings. Actually I noticed (though I didn't look carefully) that the shop didn't have any Quasthoff recordings either - or any copies of his autobiography - even though his face is on every wall you look.
Maybe it is time someone with a genuine interest in the programme started running the bookshop. They would do it differently in America.

In this recital he sang a very interesting mixture of songs in German, English, French and Italian. The Schubert songs were all about God, a fact that the programme writer clearly found very uncomfortable. Time and time again I see the religious faith of composers and writers of the nineteenth century and before either explained away, ignored or somehow downgraded.

The four songs by Richard Strauss ended with a setting of a poem by Dehmel: Befreit (Freed) which is a man speaking to his dying wife, which I loved.

There were three Benjamin Britten songs, one a setting of a powerful poem by John Donne about faith and chastity and the other two really wonderful Hardy poems about country life - the Choirmaster's Funeral - which Heppner characterised and dramatised - and Songsters. I especially loved the poem about the birds who only a few months ago were grains and seeds:

The thrushes sing as the sun is going
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths' growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of gran,
And earth and air and rain.

I wasn't so interested by the Duparc songs in French though Dan liked them, but the recital finished with four Italian songs by four operatic composers - one each by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. They were all absolutely humdingers and I adored them.

Heppner sang 3 encores. The audience was not by any means all old people - there were quite a lot of young folk - probably an accurate cross section of the population....the old man next to hme had an annoying habit of rubbing his hands during a song, making a horribly crepey papery sound.

Fashion note: Lounge suits. Muraco was sporting a very natty waistcoat in embroidered Chinese silk in kingfisher blue. Ben Heppner sports a curious hair colour: Ben, it's okay to grey.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Movie day and Tycho's birthday

Tycho's 19th birthday. I took him, Edith and Leo to see The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. Dan didn't want to see The Wrestler but wanted very much to see Valkyrie, and Aggie was too young to see The Wrestler, so those two went to see Valkyrie.
The Wrestler was good, the story was a little too simple for me but it was well told. Tycho adored it especially all the technical data about wrestling.
Aggie was gripped by Valkyrie and Dan was impressed by it, it was accurate, created huge sympathy for the Stauffenberg plotters and clearly got a better thumbs up from Dan than The Reader would.
In the morning we heard Thomas Quasthoff on the radio doing Desert Island Discs. He's a lot more left wing than we'd expected :-) but sounded absolutely adorable and charming, especially when talking about his wife and stepdaughter "I am surrounded by women and my job is just to make them happy" he crowed. He claims he's cutting back his singing engagements to spend more time with "my two ladies" so I'm glad I live in London as even a cut back schedule has to include London.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Opening of Quasthoff residency at Barbican

10 January 2009
Dan acted on impulse and got us 2 tickets to Haydn's Creation at the Barbican. Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, RIAS Chamber Choir, Rene Jacobs conductor, soloists Thomas Quasthoff, Maximilian Schmitt, Julia Kleiter.

Dan has now bought tickets to ALL the concerts in Quasthoff's Barbican residency series. This makes up for the fact that every time he's been in London we either didn't know or I was doing something else, and to cut a long story short I haven't heard him sing live since that magical evening in 1989 in Passau.

The programme promised an "elementally thrilling" moment at the words "let there be light" but actually it didn't happen like that at all. I didn't think the choir were half as alive as the soloists especially the incomparable TQ who seems to inhabit every note and every word, and make it come alive as well as exploring his fabulous range with humour and charm. Reviewers often note his ability to make contact with the whole audience and we weren't disappointed. He injects personality into the whole performance without being showbizzy.

The Adam/Eve duet was lovely, v tender. I noticed that reviews of this concert were pretty sniffy about the orchestra and direction though not about the singers.

I have to say I do find a little Haydn goes a long way.

Fashion note: the RIAS ladies have to wear hideous brown lurex dressing gowns over their black dresses. The soprano looked charming in a very pretty white strapless gown with a lovely swooshy skirt. Quasthoff looked exactly like himself of course though he does look older... We met some friends in the interval who said they'd heard he'd been ill. I do hope he's not going to fall by the wayside this year as we have booked four more concerts!
The tenor Maximilian Schmitt is perhaps a protege of TQ?

The evening in Passau: it was a chance thing, we were staying there on holiday with Dan's parents and decided to go to hear a Bach concert in a church. Then this extraordinary young man came in. A body cruelly wrecked by the greed and carelessness of a big pharmaceutical company (who eventually paid a pathetic sum in compensation to German victims). A heartbreaking contrast with that rather handsome, sensitive face and the powerful chest. He hopped up on a stool with tremendous self-assurance, and opened his mouth... and my insides just melted! I'd never heard a voice like it. We all knew we were in the presence of a divine talent. Even my father in law was deeply moved and said afterwards, "It's as though God said to this man, 'I'm taking everything from you but leaving you with this one great thing'."

But it wasn't God who took Quasthoff's arms and legs: it was the arrogance of human science ("we've tested Thalidomide quite take your pills, girl and don't worry your pretty head about the consequences for your baby" and the greed of human nature: ("a pill for morning sickness! Bonanza! Quick, get it on the market!"). God gave him the voice, if you like, and his intelligence and musicality, to make up for the crime of humanity.

So we can say very smugly, we knew all about Quasthoff before anyone in the UK, because this must have been only a few months after he won the 1988 ARD music competition which set him off on his career. Also it was only a few months after we married and so this artist is bound up with important memories for us. Plus he has very nice twinkly brown eyes. I suspect he is a good flirt.

After the concert Dan went to the shop and bought me 2 of TQ's recent albums, Die Stimme and Watch What Happens which is a very syrupy collection of ballads like "I've grown accustomed to her face" and "What are you doing the rest of your life". I like being a soppy middle-aged person.

I've decided to make this my "Learn to Love Lieder" year and I'm listening to tons of Schubert and Schumann on my Zen.