Canopis in Egypt


The Great Egyptian Hall of Mansion House in the City of London was the venue last night for a concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Edward Gardner.  The first half saw a performance of Mendelssohn’s E minor violin Concerto by Alina Ibragimova, as well as a Rossini overture.
I discerned nothing Egyptian about the Great Hall.   The decorations include various Greek statues, some in states of undress, large stained glass windows at each end of the room, and miscellaneous pottery. The hall is long and rectangular, two very tall stories high (with a gallery running around the upper story), with nine tall stone columns down each side, and all topped with cylindrical roof.   Apparently, the building is 250 years old this year.
The performers were raised only slightly above the level of the audience, and sitting at one end of the rectangle. There were about 20 rows of seats of 20 seats each, all full, so the room had about 400 people present. The placement of the seats could have been much better than it was: staggering consecutive rows may not look as nice to eyes seeking symmetry, but it allows people not to be sitting directly behind one another, and thus gives the audience a better chance of seeing the performers.  Likewise, allowing room between seats, rather than forcing all seats to touch their neighbours, allows for those of us with normal size bodies to sit beside each other.   Only a small percentage of people – those who were at least 6’6″ and very thin – would have been comfortable with this placement of seats.
Its shape and dimensions mean the Hall probably has very good acoustics for opera, or oratorio, or trumpet concertos, where performers stand facing the audience, projecting sound outwards horizontally.   Similarly, for piano concertos, at least when played on a grand piano with an open lid.  When the orchestra played alone, the sound was loud, full and direct, and was quite clear even at the back.   When the solo violinist began, however, her sound went up, not out, and disappeared into the ceiling, 60-odd-feet above us.   Sadly, the result was perhaps the least satisfying performance of Mendelssohn’s concerto I have ever experienced.   One could tell Ms Ibragimova was very good just by looking at her playing; one could not unfortunately confirm this by listening, as the sound of her instrument was so weak, overwhelmed in those passages where the orchestra played, and only ever a plaintive whisper when playing alone, like a small child trying to speak when surrounded by a party of loud-talking adults.
The third movement struck me as taken a tad too fast, with the orchestra panting to keep up with the violin.  And playing original instruments always means risks, especially for those instruments which have experienced significant technological change these last two centuries.  Thus, we should not be surprised that the horns entered this movement slightly sharp, since intonation was always (and always is) a problem for original horns.   The technological changes of modern instruments were not introduced for no reason, a view lost on those riding the original instruments landau.
In conclusion, a very fine and confident performance of the Mendelssohn concerto for everyone sitting in the first few rows.   For the rest of us, a great performance of the orchestral part, since that is what we could mostly hear.   The careers of artists are not enhanced by performances in halls with poor acoustics.   The acoustics could be improved greatly with the installation of a suitable canopy over the orchestra – a curved ceiling to catch the violinist’s sound and bounce it back out and down toward the audience.     In the meantime, memo to self:  avoid performances of violin concertos in The Great Egyptian Hall of Mansion House.
I notice that Mendelssohn himself, despite his 95 public performances in Britain, does not seem to have ever played in this room (according to the list of his UK performances in Appendix B of Eatock 2009).
UPDATE (2012-08-20):  Apparently the violin sound was fine from the double bass stand.   And presumably the FT’s reviewer was seated near the front, given his praise for the room’s acoustics.  The reviewer for The Arts Desk, in contrast, also had problems with the acoustics of the Hall and too thought the third movement of the concerto was taken too fast for the orchestra: 

The Mansion House acoustic may be fine for annual speeches from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is not a solo violin’s friend.  .  .   .  .  .
We also suffered in the concerto’s finale from a mismatch between orchestra and soloist, which Gardner, for all his alert gestures, seemed powerless to prevent. Mercurial arabesques flew from Ibragimova’s fingers, with the orchestra always a fraction behind, panting to keep up like PC Plod.  Maybe Ibragimova just wanted to get the concerto finished, for there were certainly signs here and there of a lack of interest in what Mendelssohn had to offer.  Most violinists pounce on the finale’s playful opening arpeggios as a chance to wink and scintillate.  Ibragimova left them uninflected.  “Boring, boring,” she seemed to be saying; “Now, where’s my Roslavetz?” “

 
Reference:
Colin T. Eatock [2009]:  Mendelssohn and Victorian England. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Shadows

Writer Pico Iyer tells of his life being shadowed by – followed and pre-figured by the spirit of – Graham Greene, here. I’m no fan of Greene’s writing, but the shadowing I can appreciate. Many writers have spoken of similar shadowing and even possession – William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, Hilary Mantel, for instance. Highsmith’s Ripley, she came to feel, was a real spiritual presence, existent outside her books and her imagination.

Vale: Graeme Bell

Farewell, Graeme Bell (1914-2012), legendary Australian trad jazz man. His band’s tour of Czechoslovakia in 1947 was still fondly remembered almost four decades later by patrons of JazzKlub Parnas when I first visited Prague in 1984.

English as she is spoke

From an article in The Guardian on the British monarchy.
“While I wait for that denial, I phone Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine, for the royal skinny.
“The advisers used to be these ghastly rah-rahs who were all frightfully frightfully,” she says.”

The semantics of communication

A recent incident reminded me of Nicolas Negroponte’s argument that a single wink (one bit of information) may communicate effectively between two people, and yet require a thousand words to explain to someone else.
The scene: A small group meeting of 5 people (an EC research proposal review meeting), none of whom know each other or have worked together before. The meeting chair, let’s call her Alice, wants another person, Bob, to endorse a particular outline plan of action. This plan does not entail him doing anything, but he is nonetheless resistant, and puts forward both reasonable and unreasonable justifications for not endorsing the plan. Alice tries another couple of arguments, but each of these meets similar resistance from Bob. At this point, Alice does not know what the rest of us think about her plan or Bob’s opinion of it.
Having heard the two sides, I decide that Alice is correct and that Bob should endorse the plan. But Alice, I believe, has not used the best arguments in favour of his doing so, and thus I add my voice to her side, giving a new argument to justify Bob changing his opinion. My argument fails with Bob, but leads Alice to think of a further argument, and both our arguments together have a consequence that completely rebuts Bob’s reasonable main defence for non-endorsement. When she presents this line (my argument + her argument + their joint consequence) to him, Bob wilts and agrees to endorse Alice’s plan.
However, just before Alice presents this line to Bob, she shoots me a quick look of conspiratorial deviousness, as if to say, “We got him, you and I, and in getting him, we have demonstrated our intellectual superiority and mental agility over him. Although we just met, we two have conspired effectively and enjoyably together.” It was a look of the most profound respect – a connection between equals, in the presence of someone whose persistent and unreasonable resistance to a reasonable proposal had revealed himself to be less committed to the agreed purpose of the meeting.  And receiving it was the most profound of pleasures.

Teachers

I previously listed some of my teachers and lecturers whose influence on me I was aware of, here. I thought it good to have a more complete list (as complete as memory allows), which I include here:
Robert Bartels, Marcus Bazley, Leo Birsen (1902-1992), Sr. Claver Butler RSM (d. 2009), Burgess Cameron, Sr. Clare Castle RSM (dec.), David Chant, Brenton Clarke, John Coates, John Collins, Barry Cooke (dec.), William Coppel, Rebecca Cuthbertson, Bro. Clive Davis FMS, Jeremy Davis, Tom Donaldson (1945-2006), Gary Dunbier, Sol Encel (1925-2010), Claudio Forcada, Richard Gill, Peter Hall (1951-2016), Trevor Hall (dec.), Rachel Harland, Sr. Jennifer Hartley RSM, Chip Heathcote (1931-2016), Sr. Columbanus Hennigan RSM, Ken Holloway, Algy Howe, John Hutchinson, Sleeba John, Brian Kearney (dec.), Margaret Keetles, Genevieve Lloyd, John Logan (1940-1998), Rick Loy, Joseph Lynch, Robert Marks, Grant McCall, Nancy McDougall (dec.), Colin Meale, Roger Miles, John Morgan, Lindsay Morley, Des Nicholls, Terry O’Neill, Jean-Paul Orr, Jim Penberthy (1917-1999), Bryan Pickard, J. Priestley, Malcolm Rennie (1940-1980), John Ritchie (1941-2006), Geoffrey Rossiter (1916-2004), Eugene Seneta, Gisela Soares, Neville Smythe, Brian Stacey (1946-1996), Peter Swan, Deane Terrell, Paul Thom, Frank Torpie (d. 1988), Pravin Trivedi, Neil Trudinger, David Urquhart-Jones, Martin Ward, Frederick Wedd (1890-1972), Gary Whale (1943-2019), Ted Wheelwright (1921-2007), Ian Wilkinson, Bro. Hubert Williams FMS, Paul Winer, Robert Wood, and Alkiviadis Zalavras.

Organ and trumpet at Mary le Bow


Another superb concert in a London church with an Australian connection. This was the church of St Mary le Bow, on Cheapside, which hosts a bust of Captain Arthur Philip, first Governor of NSW, as well as a memorial to the 5488 members of the Royal Australian Air Force who died in Europe in WW II. The flag of the RAAF is hung alongside the memorial, near to the only other flag in the Church, that of the Order of Australia, the Australian Honours system. One wonders why the RAAF plaque is not in St Clements Danes, the home church of the Royal Air Force, and why the OA flag is in a London church rather than an Australian one. Perhaps Australian Governments are embarrassed that the national honours system is, like all else, legally a gift of the British Monarch.
The current church is Wren’s design, although rebuilt after bomb damage in WW II. It is almost exactly a square in shape, and the walls hardly decorated. Indeed, the Australian paraphernalia comprises almost all the decoration. The ceiling is very high, and the uncluttered stone walls and columns provide a good resonance – perhaps almost 2 seconds. In short, a perfect place for such a concert, with the trumpet standing in the organ loft at the back of the church. The organ is new (2010), by Kenneth Tickell and Company, and has strong French and South German influences.
The organist was Richard Hall, senior organ scholar at King’s College London, and the trumpeter, Robert Landen, a student at the Royal Academy. Their programme comprised:

  • Jeremiah Clarke: Suite in D
  • Giuseppe Torelli: Sonata in D
  • JS Bach: Trio Sonata in E flat, BWV 525 (organ alone)
  • Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988): Toccata on “Hanover” (organ alone)
  • Petr Eben (1929-2007): Okna Windows for Trumpet and Organ

The playing was simply excellent, precisely together, extremely clear, and alive. The diversity of stops on the organ and the dynamics on both organ and trumpet were much varied, and seemingly prepared with intelligence and deliberation. Clarke’s suite includes his most famous melody and was perfect for this acoustic. The Leighton Toccata included a wonderful Mendelssohnian climb – a stretch of ever-increasing tension, with both rising pitch and volume, and then doubling back and again rising, again and again, all the time delaying resolution (as in the orchestral number that opens Elijah, or the rising wave of the Hebrides overture). Finally, parts of the Eben work reminded me of Jon Hassell’s moody and spiritual trumpet in albums such as Fascinoma (also recorded in a church).
This was a superb and inspiring performance, and a wonderful meditative excursion in the midst of a busy day. One hope these two performers could collaborate on a recording to allow us to relive this experience.
POSTCRIPT (2013-02-23):  For a limited time, organist Richard Hall can also be heard here, in a recording of Choral Evensong in the Chapel of King’s College London.

Krugman speaking truth to power

When the economic history of the Great Global Recession of 2007- ? comes eventually to be written, let it be recorded that many of us were profoundly opposed from the outset to the economic austerity policies pursued by Governments and central banks in Europe and elsewhere. Not only are these policies selfish, class-based, and unfair, they are also ineffective. Those of us who had heard of Keynes knew they would be ineffective before they were tried. In the case of the “rescue” of southern and peripheral Europe by northern European troikas, they are also being imposed undemocratically and unfairly, rewarding northern European private investors and bank shareholders at the expense of ordinary southern European citizens. (The effective interest rates on troika loans to Greece, which are much higher than current market rates, are truly rapacious.)
Only a handful of economists in this period are speaking truth to power. The most prominent of these is Paul Krugman. He has nailed the bastards again, in this oped article last week. Some excerpts:

The bad metaphor — which you’ve surely heard many times — equates the debt problems of a national economy with the debt problems of an individual family. A family that has run up too much debt, the story goes, must tighten its belt. So if Britain, as a whole, has run up too much debt — which it has, although it’s mostly private rather than public debt — shouldn’t it do the same? What’s wrong with this comparison?
The answer is that an economy is not like an indebted family. Our debt is mostly money we owe to each other; even more important, our income mostly comes from selling things to each other. Your spending is my income, and my spending is your income.”

Krugman could also have added that most families, unlike Governments, cannot increase their income by increasing their spending.

So what happens if everyone simultaneously slashes spending in an attempt to pay down debt? The answer is that everyone’s income falls — my income falls because you’re spending less, and your income falls because I’m spending less. And, as our incomes plunge, our debt problem gets worse, not better.
This isn’t a new insight. The great American economist Irving Fisher explained it all the way back in 1933, summarizing what he called “debt deflation” with the pithy slogan “the more the debtors pay, the more they owe.” Recent events, above all the austerity death spiral in Europe, have dramatically illustrated the truth of Fisher’s insight.
And there’s a clear moral to this story: When the private sector is frantically trying to pay down debt, the public sector should do the opposite, spending when the private sector can’t or won’t. By all means, let’s balance our budget once the economy has recovered — but not now. The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.
As I said, this isn’t a new insight. So why have so many politicians insisted on pursuing austerity in slump? And why won’t they change course even as experience confirms the lessons of theory and history?
Well, that’s where it gets interesting. For when you push “austerians” on the badness of their metaphor, they almost always retreat to assertions along the lines of: “But it’s essential that we shrink the size of the state.”
Now, these assertions often go along with claims that the economic crisis itself demonstrates the need to shrink government. But that’s manifestly not true. Look at the countries in Europe that have weathered the storm best, and near the top of the list you’ll find big-government nations like Sweden and Austria.
And if you look, on the other hand, at the nations conservatives admired before the crisis, you’ll find George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the country’s current economic policy, describing Ireland as “a shining example of the art of the possible.” Meanwhile, the Cato Institute was praising Iceland’s low taxes and hoping that other industrial nations “will learn from Iceland’s success.”
So the austerity drive in Britain isn’t really about debt and deficits at all; it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs. And this is, of course, exactly the same thing that has been happening in America.
In fairness to Britain’s conservatives, they aren’t quite as crude as their American counterparts. They don’t rail against the evils of deficits in one breath, then demand huge tax cuts for the wealthy in the next (although the Cameron government has, in fact, significantly cut the top tax rate). And, in general, they seem less determined than America’s right to aid the rich and punish the poor. Still, the direction of policy is the same — and so is the fundamental insincerity of the calls for austerity.
The big question here is whether the evident failure of austerity to produce an economic recovery will lead to a “Plan B.” Maybe. But my guess is that even if such a plan is announced, it won’t amount to much. For economic recovery was never the point; the drive for austerity was about using the crisis, not solving it. And it still is.”