Monday, 4 May 2015

Seen and heard April 2015

Messiah at the Foundling Hospital – BBC documentary. A familiar story, but nicely told, with Tom Service covering the music and Amanda Vickery the social history. In this telling at least, Handel rescued the Foundling Hospital, and the Foundling Hospital rescued Handel, whose career was in decline following the turn in fashion against Italian opera.

Monteverdi in Mantua: The Genius of the Vespers – BBC documentary, introduced by Simon Russell Beale, with The Sixteen performing extracts from the 1610 Vespers in the locations where Monteverdi’s early music was performed. Polymnia, the choir in which I sing, is planning a trip to Mantua next Spring, and hopefully we will sing in some of the same locations and pay homage to Monteverdi’s memory – even if he wasn’t really happy there; the Vespers was his portfolio piece in his efforts to land a better and more reliably-paying job elsewhere, and the world is so much the better for it. Ave Maris Stella!

Easter Vigil – at Turvey Abbey. Starting with a bonfire at 4:30 am and lighting each other’s tapers, and carrying the light into the chapel for Mass, finishing as the birds are singing and the sun is coming up. Something very primal about this; New Age is all very well, but the Catholics got there first.

Homage to Manet – exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition was rather disappointing; very little actual Manet and rather a lot of his contemporaries, such as Walter Sickert, with decidedly dodgy (at best) attitudes to women. The Museum itself, though, is still as lovely as when I last visited it at least twenty years ago. It’s hugely child-friendly, with the soaring exhibition space of the castle keep and very impressive wildlife diaramas; my wife finds them creepy, but kids seem to love them, even in these days of easily-available digital resources – something about seeing a polar bear, even if stuffed, towering over you, or a wading bird scavanging in the mud an arm’s length away. One thing sums it up for me: the way the castle's well, instead of being treated as a hazard and roped and chained away, is turned into a feature, with a glass cover and illumination down the shaft – because of course what kids want to do is to climb up and sit on it and stare into the depths.

Polymnia concert in King’s Lynn Minster – a lovely accoustic in which to sing, though one of the coldest buildings in which I’ve ever performed (at every rehearsal break, we left the minster to stand outside, because it was several degrees warmer out there). We sang again (better, this time!) the Morten Lauridsen 'Les chansons des roses', to poems by Maria Raine Rilke, and (accompanied by cellist John Heley) Richard Rodney Bennett’s 'A Farewell to Arms', setting a rather moving poem by the sixteenth-century George Peele about growing old: “His helmet now shall make a hive for bees ... / A man-at-arms serves must now serve on his knees // Godess, allow this aged man his right / To be your beadsman now that was your knight.”

Did Douglas get it right – BBC Radio 4 programme, with Mitch Benn revisiting the technology predictions made by Douglas Adams in a 2001 programme recorded shortly before his death. The short answer: basically, he did, especially (3’20”) on the internet's effect on the music, publishing and broadcasting industries being like the effect of the Atlantic ocean on the Amazon, Missisippi and Congo rivers. Interesting discussions too on (6’30”) how Adams considered technology only working properly at the point where it doesn’t have an instruction manual, the way a chair doesn’t have an instruction manual, and (19’00”) how he correctly spotted that the word “interactivity” (all the rage in 2001) was only needed because of the dominance of non-interactive media (phonographs, cinema, radio, TV) during much of the twentieth century. The only odd note was (16’40”) the passage on Adams’ aphorism that anything invented before you were born being just stuff, anything invented before you’re 35 being new and revolutionary, and anything invented after you’re 35 being against the natural order of things. A commentator thought it didn’t apply now, because the current generation has grown up with constantly changing technology. Hmmm… more so than any previous generation? I wonder how today’s hipsters will cope with the new and transformative technologies which arrive when they’re in their seventies.

Ursula Le Guin at 85 – BBC Radio 4 programme, presented by Naomi Alderman, interviewing the much-loved and much-respected SF and Fantasy author, with contributions from literary fans David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman. No surprises for me, being thoroughly familiar with her work and views, but it was lovely to hear her talk, and give a deadpan rendition of “I am a man”.

AA: America’s Gift to the World – BBC Radio 4 programme, presented by A L Kennedy, marking 80 years of Alcoholics Anonymous. Interesting to hear the contemporary (or more contemporary) accounts of the founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, but the milestones were familiar: conceptualising alcoholism as a disease, so that the only realistic goal is to be an alcoholic who does not drink; the peer-support model of alcoholics talking to each other, the only entry requirement being the desire to stop drinking; the underlying ethos of spiritual renewal, borrowed from the earlier “Oxford Groups” but without the specifically Christian framework. But it’s still a mystery to me how and why the decentralised organisation and the 12-step formula have been so successful and so long-lasting.

Dance 'Til Dawn – new dance show from Flavia (Cacace) and Vincent (Simone) off Strictly. Not quite as stunning as their Midnight Tango, but great value all the same, with a greater variety of dance styles and more ensemble pieces, and a breath-taking stunt in which Flavia falls backwards from 10 foot up to be caught by the male troupe.

Dreamfall Chapters: Book 2 – Rebels. At last, part two, and the plot’s picking up now, the first part having been largely devoted to exposition, and the choices made are starting to have consequences – some of them fatal. I’m warming to Kian, nicely and sardonically voice-acted by Nicholas Boulton. And the towns of Marcuria (medieval fantasy) and Europolis (futuristic dystopia) are beautiful to walk around, while you’re trying to work out how to solve the next puzzle.

The Blackwell Legacy – adventure game from 2006 (new edition 2011), which I started after reading a glowing review of the fifth and final game in the sequence, the advice to newcomers being to start at the beginning. I can see why the game has become celebrated: characterful scripting and great voice acting compensating for what now look like dated graphics, and a poignant theme. I’m looking forward to the further adventures of Rosa (young aspiring writer) and Joey (the ghost private eye who haunts her as he haunted her aunt and grandmother) as they help unhappy ghosts to spiritual resolution.

The Left Hand of Darkness - BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Ursula Le Guin’s classic 1969 novel. A lovely adaptation, by a writer who really respects the original, and understands how to go back to the essence and reconstruct the whole for a new medium, rather than trying to adapt it scene by scene. We start in the heart of the book, the still centre (though it occurs towards the end of the narrative sequence), with Genly Ai and Estraven in their tent on the ice: together, alone. He is the First Envoy, the ambassador sent to invite the people of the winter-planet Gethen to join the Ekumen; s/he (the people of Gethen are un-gendered, except for a few days each month when they become either male or female) is the exiled First Minister of feudal Karhide, and the one person on Gethen who trusted Ai from the start while also being the one person he refused to trust. This is the point in the story at which the breakages are mended and the world made whole again. Just writing about it now, I hear the sound of the wind blowing snow against the wall of the tent…

Vera - new season of the ITV crime drama. We like Vera, oh we do like Vera. Her new sergeant is working out nicely too.

Jazz, Blues and Moore - album by the Dudley Moore Trio. Reading a newspaper piece about Dudley Moore's piano playing reminded me how much I loved the Dudley Moore Trio back in the early seventies. This album is just as much fun as I remember it! Somehow very much of its period (the old jazz trio sound), but at this distance somehow timeless. Classy and cool

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting. An exercise at the Turvey Enneagram Group - choosing an animal to represent our Holy Virtue - made me think of the stormy petrel who finds Tommy Stubbins alone on his raft after the shipwreck: "To this petrel, a frail little thing of feathers, much smaller and weaker than I, the Sea could do anything she liked, it seemed, and his only answer was a lazy, saucy flip of the wing!... Come raging gale, come sunlit calm, this wilderness of water was his home." And then Tommy compares the Doctor himself to the petrel: "The vast strange knowledge which he had gained from his speech and friendship with animals had brought him the power to do things which no other human being would dare to try. Like the petrel, he could apparently play with the Sea in all her moods. It was no wonder that many of the ignorant savage peoples among whom he passed in his voyages made statues of him showing him as half a fish, half a bird, and half a man. And ridiculous though it was, I could quite understand what Miranda [the bird of paradise] meant when she said she firmly believed that he could never die."

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