What a pleasure to hear the John Wilson Orchestra in their Rodgers and Hammerstein Prom, which I heard on television. John Wilson’s arrangements are simply spellbinding. His hand-picked orchestra, with many individually distinguished musicians playing in it, reminded me of the old joke that ‘the ideal orchestra would have Jascha Heifetz as its leader.’ ‘No, it wouldn’t’, comes the response. ‘The ideal orchestra would have Jascha Heifetz sitting on the back desk of the second violins, because everyone else would be better!’
This time last year I was in ecstasies about John Wilson’s MGM Musicals Prom, and if I wasn’t quite so bowled over this year it was only because the repertoire was restricted to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which doesn’t strike me as quite so inventive. How can I say that, when their partnership was the most successful in the history of American musical theatre? Their songs are loved and have been effortlessly memorised by half the world. And yet to me the songs which Rodgers wrote with lyricist Lorenz Hart are more delicious and piquant than his work with Oscar Hammerstein. Rodgers and Hammerstein play with a straight bat, I feel. I like them for it, but occasionally I miss a bit of musical topspin.
I was in Italy last week and was lucky enough to be in Siena on the day the fragile mosaics of the cathedral floor were uncovered, as they are each summer for a short period. My photo shows one of the central mosaics, King David who was also a musician.
The cathedral was full of people quietly moving about, enjoying their opportunity to gaze at the intricately patterned floor. Yet though there was no more than a gentle murmur of appreciation, we were subjected every few minutes to a forceful announcement, ordering us to be silent. It blared out at incredible volume from loudspeakers on high, making everyone jump and destroying the very silence it was demanding.
It reminded me of my visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. When I picture that day, I still see us all cringing at the deafening exhortations to keep quiet. I love Italy and would go there every year if I could, but I can’t understand the Italian attitude to making people behave ‘with respect’, especially in places where they are already doing so instinctively.
I’ve been struggling to get rid of what the Germans call an ‘Ohrwurm’, a catchy tune that goes round and round in your head whether you want it to or not. My Ohrwurm is an early-20th-century Argentine tango, El Choclo, ‘the ear of corn’, which I heard played on the accordion by Pete Rosser in an evening of tangos I took part in recently. Since then it has played itself about 8 million times in my head. I’ve also listened to many versions of it on the internet, enjoying especially the older historical recordings with their wonderful atmosphere.
Searching for old Argentine tangos, I came across the heritage of Carlos Gardel, the ‘king of tango’ whom I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about before. On his Wikipedia page (which is fascinating in itself) there’s a sound clip of his 1935 tango ‘Por una Cabeza’. It instantly transports me far from present-day suburban London. It’s from a time and a culture quite different to mine, but through the power of music and Gardel’s enchanting voice I feel completely immersed as I listen.
Went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which was packed with visitors. The technical standard of painting in many of the portraits was astonishing. Skin, hair, eyelashes, veins were depicted with stunning realism and skill. In quite a few cases, visitors were leaning close to the frames and peering at the surface of the portraits to assure themselves that it was painting and not photography. I kept hearing people say, ‘I really thought this one was a photo.’
Seeing many such portraits gave me a slightly sad feeling, as if the artists had set themselves the goal of outdoing digital photography, of showing that the paintbrush is fully the equal of the zoom lens. It felt almost as if this quest had supplanted the wish to explore deeper, hidden aspects of the sitters. Many of the explanatory labels said that the artists ‘wanted to show’ that their subject was this or that, but for me there was a cool, blank feeling about many of the portraits, as though the immaculately painted surface was a barrier.
Walking over Waterloo Bridge the other evening I decided to pop into the Festival Hall. A very good Afro-Brazilian band was playing in the foyer and a large multi-cultural crowd, people of all ages, had gathered to listen. Many of the audience seemed to be South American and were gently dancing to the music. London feels good at such moments, with people from many places all gathered in a good mood to enjoy live music.
At the same time I always feel a surge of jealousy because you rarely see this kind of crowd gathered to listen to classical music. I can’t help feeling that the absence of amplification in classical music has something to do with it. Somehow, when music is quiet and played acoustically, people feel intimidated by having to be quiet themselves in order to hear it. When music is hugely amplified – as the foyer band was – people seem to relax and feel that they can move about and talk without distracting or competing with the musicians. To me there’s something perverse in feeling liberated by very loud music, but I realise I’m in the minority. I have never tried playing amplified classical music and would quite like to have the experience, to see what the effect would be on me and my listeners.