Monday, 21 April 2008

Berlin Zoo

We did get to the zoo in Berlin, by the way. If you're interested, you can see some of my photos (and some from a past visit) here.

Sunnier Skies

The sun came out at last for more than five minutes today, as I was on my way back from a (rare) trip out with work. I was heading back from York to Newcastle on the train, sheltered from the chilly wind. Passing sights like Durham Cathedral, it looked, at least, a beautiful evening. I was listening to music on my little Sony MP3 walkman, a nice gadget that looks like a cigarette lighter and recently survived being washed (!) in one of my shirts. This is no doubt because it's "solid state" and has no hard disc. 2GB of music is enough for me while I'm on the move, and I don't need a fragile HD device that would no doubt break if dropped, or rattled around in a washing machine! I know Sony are a nasty multinational but I've always found Apple's claims for its equipment overblown, so I wouldn't consider buying an iPod. It's just a pity that Sony now seem to have dropped this design and only make bulkier, less elegant-looking MP3 players.

Anyway, to get off my hobby horse, the piece of music was Herbert Howells' Harp Prelude. I particularly liked the story in the CD sleeve notes of a young harpist playing the piece to Howells in old age, and of him having no memory of it. Although I'm not a Christian, I like to think of him going to Heaven when he died, hearing his own piece being played on a cloud somewhere and asking "What is that music?"...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Winter Chill

I'm in grumpy old man mode today, and have to ask what on Earth is the matter with the weather? In this part of the country, we haven't had a mild day (that is, with the temperatures in double figures) for nearly a month. It's 5.30pm and, once again, my outside thermometers are showing 6 degrees celsius - yes, the sort of temperature you might expect in February, not mid-April. What's worse, the long range forecast on the BBC say's there's not much prospect of things improving in the next four weeks. In April it's not unusual for it to rain nearly every day (as it has done). But, when the temperature is stubbornly three or four degrees below the average for weeks, and you look at last year's abysmal summer, you couldn't be blamed for believing the horror stories of global warming and the prospect of the Gulf Stream failing and plunging the UK into a much colder climate...

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Curate's Egg

On Wednesday I went to another Northern Sinfonia Concert at the Sage Gateshead with John. The first half (Bernstein's Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, Copland's Music for the Theatre and Barber's Adagio) was great. To my surprise, the piece I enjoyed most was the Barber. I've tended to think of this as a bit worn out through overexposure (and, indeed, the Northern Sinfonia included it in a concert only a month ago). However, the playing was exemplary - the performers really sounded as if they meant it, and the result was genuinely moving.

The second half (Dvořák's Cello Concerto) exhibited all the qualities I dislike in "classical" music - to me it was stuffy, old-fashioned, stylised and full of 19th century musical clichés. The cello can be a beautiful instrument but, here, it simply wasn't. Every time it had a chance to shine, it seemed Dvořák undermined it by adding something distracting or downright tasteless (such as a saccharine flute accompaniment) in the background orchestration. This was only emphasised by Ralph Kirshbaum's encore, a Bach Partita (we think) for solo cello that really showed what the instrument can do.

The people I spoke to all seemed to enjoy either the first half or the second half, but not both.

This makes me question (not for the first time) the logic of the Sage's programming: why couple such widely diverging music together? Incidentally, I have written to Simon Clugston, the classical music programme compiler for the Sage, suggesting that the repertoires need a shake-up and that they should play more twentieth-century music like Debussy, Holst and (of course) Villa-Lobos. He didn't reply.