Monday, 28 December 2015

Concert Highlights for 2015

My ticket stubs tell me that I went to 62 performances during 2015, of which 15 were in Berlin, 9 in Manchester and most of the rest in London.  By what may no longer be merely coincidence I also went to 62 performances in each of 2014 and 2013.
I saw a large range of fantastic performances in 2015, mostly with the company of great friends.  What sticks in my mind from the year most includes:
  • Hildur Gudnadottir playing a solo set on her electric cello – Hildur creates with her playing an enclosed and rather magical world that sucks you in as you listen. If you don't know her music I recommend her various CDs. (24.02 Café Oto, London)
  •  Wagner’s Tannhauser, played by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with staging by Sasha Waltz.    While I find Waltz’s choreography in its own right a bit pedestrian, and Wagner a bit overbearing and slow, the combination of the two unexpectedly made something rather perfect. (02.04 Staatsoper, Berlin)
  • Joe Phibbs’ Quartet No 1, played by the Piatti String Quartet.  Joe’s compositions are very beautiful.  Most reviewers compare his music to Britten, but I think he makes much more modernist soundspaces than that, and if anything his songs are like Schubert Lieder.  On the strength of hearing this quartet, I have commissioned him to write some piano solos!  (26.04 Conway Hall, London)
  • Tree of Codes at the Manchester International Festival – a collaboration between Wayne McGregor (choreography) Olafur Eliasson (design) Jamie XX (music) and soloists from the Paris Opera Ballet – was visually stunning.  In particular a solo dance by Marie-Agnès Gillot, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, to trance like dub music from Jamie XX achieved a rare moment of transcendence.  I liked it so much I saw it twice in its two week run. (July, Manchester International Festival)
  • Sunn O))) – drone metal band from Seattle playing the loudest music I have ever heard, reverberating through my body for 2 hours.  Despite wearing earplugs it still took months for my hearing fully to recover afterwards.  So I shan’t see them again without industrial ear protectors, but it was truly unforgettable and stirring.  (08.09 Neukoln, Berlin)
  • Iliad Overnight, by the National Theatre of Wales – a performance based on Christopher Logue’s poem “War Music” that started at 18:00 on a Saturday evening and finished at 06:00 the next day.   Utterly gripping rendition that had me rushing to read every poem Logue had ever written – once I had caught up on my sleep!  The reviews were equally fulsome, the Guardian calling it the “Theatrical Event of the Year” (03.10 The Ffwrnes, Llanelli, Wales)
  • Nederlands Dans Theater showing Shoot the Moon and Stop-Motion by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, and Solo Echo by Crystal Pite.   Great dancers, and the Pite piece in particular has all the sublime abstraction that keeps me going back to more and more contemporary dance.  My new favourtite dance company! (31.10, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin)
  • Annual concert performance for the charity “Awards for Young Musicians” at which some incredibly talented young people played, including a stand out pianist, Laura Newey, who played Chopin’s Preludes 1-5 with precocious passion and grace.  (09.11 Charterhouse, London)
  • Cédric Tiberghien, playing a programme of piano pieces by Bartók  and Boulez.  One of the most intelligently thought out concerts I have heard in a long time, Tiberghien alternated the composers to show us the connections between them.   A real education, and beautiful playing. (24.11 Wigmore Hall, London)

 As a footnote, the 2015 events included:
22  classical concerts (ie written before about 1960)
18 contemporary classical music concerts
16 contemporary dance performances
6  plays
The concerts included
21 Chamber recitals
9 Ensemble performances
8 Orchestral concerts
4 Operas
The most visited London venues were:
8 at the Southbank    (16 in 2014)
9 at the Wigmore Hall  (8 in 2014)
7 at Sadler’s Wells (6 in 2014)
2 at the Barbican (3 in 2014)
3 at Royal Opera House  (2 in 2014)

Saturday, 17 October 2015


I'm happy to see the Economist (October 16th 2015) coming out firmly in favour of the UK staying in the EU, arguing strongly against the view it might be in the UK's economic benefit to leave the EU.

I am however still puzzled by the absence of the moral argument in the public debate. Whatever the narrow advantage or disadvantage to the UK of EU membership, surely the point is that it is moving  in the right direction to reduce the importance of nation states, in whose name we have managed to create so much strife and unhappiness in the past.

What's the EU for?

The politicians who created the thing that turned into the European Union weren’t inventing a Union from nothing; they were building on this historical and cultural commonality of all European people.  The motivation to create binding political ties across Europe came from the desire to avoid yet another generation of carnage and loss through warfare.  And it has worked, brilliantly.  The historically warring states of France, Germany and Britain have been at peace for 70 years.

French and German people understand this.  The European Union, and its euro currency, are not economic projects, they are a social political project to make sure that the next generation of children don’t have to kill each other in yet another futile war.

Greek, Spanish and Portuguese people understand this.  The majority of adults in these countries have lived under dictatorships. Greece and Portugal were military dictatorship until 1974, and Spain until 1975. The European Union is one of the mechanisms that now preserve these democracies.

Polish, Bulgarian, Czech people understand this.  The European Union created the counterpoint to the tyranny of communism.

What's up with the British?

British people don’t understand this.  The UK joined the EEC (forerunner to the EU) in 1973, and in a subsequent 1975 referendum 67% of the UK voters endorsed this choice.   At the time Britain was almost bankrupt, and had to be rescued by the IMF in 1976.  So economic issues loomed large, both in the minds of the voters, and in the arguments made by the politicians in favour of joining and then staying in the EEC.

The effect of this has been for the last 40 years to make the British think of the EU as a purely economic mechanism – the debate in the media is about “value for money”  - ie the cost to Britain versus the economic benefit to Britain of being in the EU.    The arguments for remaining in the EU are based on the jobs that would be lost by leaving; the arguments for leaving are based on the money that would be saved by not being part of the Union, on preventing immigration, and on some spurious notion of sovereignty.

These seem to me the wrong questions.  The right questions are things like:  “what will happen to France, Germany etc if Britain leaves the EU”; “how much is it worth spending to make sure my children don’t fight in world war III (answer is obviously “everything”); “how can Britain contribute to European and world peace and culture” etc.

The British have a proud history of acting selflessly to help others.  Now is not the time for us to delude ourselves that we can independently determine our future in a globalised world; it is the time to recognise that our membership of the EU is the opportunity to take an active part in helping human civilisation mature into something better. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Science Fiction

My youthful relation to science fiction was I now see rather the equivalent of the current generation’s obsessive use of the Internet.   As a teenager I used science fiction to escape the mundane.  With a torch under my duvet I would devour books in the middle of the night.  All those spaceships, aliens, fighting and so on.

Largely I moved on to highbrow contemporary fiction, poetry and non-fiction. I’d explain the sci-fi books to the quizzical by pointing out that one can enjoy beer as well as fine wine.

A few years ago, eventually slightly embarrassed by the glittery gold writing on the spines of so many books in our overflowing bookcases I put most of them into storage. More than 20 crates of first edition hardbacks, of well worn and now collapsing paperbacks, even the odd copy of Astounding Science Fiction 1960s magazines given to me by mother.

There was a shelf of books I did not – could not – store.  Books I knew I would read again. A more mature sort of book exploring the complexity of human reactions to alien ontologies. I’m looking at them now and realising almost all of them are by female authors.  I imagine about 90% of science fiction books are by men, like almost all those that now rest quietly in Ready Steady Store.

First among these, both chronologically and literarily, must be Ursula le Guin. Her books have an almost contemplative nature – small windows on lives in a vast universe. It was in her books I first encountered themes of androgeny, of polyamory, and the emotional regret of distance in time and space leavened only by her invention of the Ansible – allowing instantaneous communication across the universe, copied by so many other subsequent writiers.

Notable other occupants are Nicola Griffith, whose books have quite a strong Sapphic context;  and Karen Lord (I particularly admire her “The Best of All Possible Worlds”).  Dan Simmons’ The Hyperion Cantos put images in my mind 20 years ago that I still can’t escape – if you have read it you will probably know what I mean. The Shrike.

Finally, this ramble has been prompted by putting into the bookcase the third of a trilogy just finished – Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy by Ann Leckie.  In one sense a classic space opera with fighting, aliens, AI etc.  But in another an extraordinary internally focused trilogy, involving a lot of sitting round drinking tea, love, misunderstood feelings.  The aliens she imagines are really other, largely only hinted at, truly incomprehensible.  I would love to read more about them and perhaps she will write that in the future.