Tuesday, 28 July 2009


The family feline has died - yesterday aged 13. He is interred under the ceanothus by the beech hedge.

Willum (not to be confused with grandson "William") was not, I am sad to say, blessed with a personality that endeared itself to me. He graduated from captivating kitten - here photographed at his Hampshire birthplace on the day some of us fell for him - to curmudgeonly cat, a dominant presence, but not a particularly loving one, at least until his final transformation to pathetic pussy. Perhaps he found Gloucestershire rather infra dig, as might a cricket enthusiast forced to move to a county captained by Tom Graveney having been used to A.C.D. Ingleby-Mackenzie.

Having said this, Willum is missed.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

"A farm for the future"?

Last night, we were at another string quartet recital. Very different from any of our Cheltenham experiences, the Brodsky Quartet's recital took place in the idyllic setting of Guiting Power Village Hall as part of the 39th music festival held there. I remember attending what must have been one of the first, the village's great benefactor Raymond Cochrane making a rather hesitant speech of welcome.

We came expecting to hear a rare programme of Italian music, but preparation time for this had been lost. "I had an accident cutting up the chorizo," violist, Paul Cassidy explained. We could hardly complain at the substitution of Wolf's Italian Serenade and Beethoven Op. 132.

On the narrow road up to Guiting we made way for a huge lorry and trailer loaded with straw bales: my photograph, taken at 9 o'clock during the concert interval, shows - across the cricket ground for which the Village Hall acts as pavilion - a similar vehicle: the harvesting continued even as we drove away from the village an hour later. I wondered what the prognosis was for such hugely carbon-intensive operations, in the light of watching Rebecca Hosking's wonderful BBC2 film, "A farm for the future." You can still catch it in segments on YouTube: start here. Well worth the trouble!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

"Never again..."

For today's meeting of the Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network, we travelled to Wallsworth Hall as guests of Nature in Art. Simon Trapnell, its Director, joined us for part of our discussion.

What a vision! To take on that vast building (set in the middle of nowhere at the end of a long drive) and to establish within it a vibrant collection of works depicting things bright and beautiful, and in particular all creatures great and small!

So as to mark the second anniversary of the dire flooding in this part of Gloucestershire, we read together familiar words from the Book of Genesis about Noah, "a man of integrity among his contemporaries." God's covenant (made after the flood subsided) was: "Never again will I curse the earth because of man... Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done. As long as earth lasts, sowing and reaping, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall cease no more."

In these days many prophesy the end of humanity as a consequence of human greed. In his latest encyclical, Pope Benedict says that if people destroy their environment, they will also destroy their own life source. No complacency in virtue of Genesis 8!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

"... considerably advances global warming"

Last week, I enthused about Christianne Stotijn's recital in the Cheltenham Music Festival. Earlier this year, I now learn, a Times reporter described her as "in a class apart... delivers her songs with a lyrical glow that considerably advances global warming."

I had been reflecting since the Festival on its likely carbon footprint. Has any attempt been made to calculate this I wonder? In particular in terms of the transport of audience members and performers - like Ms. Stotijn, from Holland - to and from Cheltenham. Are international festivals sustainable in terms of climate change and peak oil? On the analagous issue of holidays abroad, I shall be listening to the Moral Maze tonight with some interest. Incidentally, hands up, my photograph was taken in Nicosia!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Festival finale

Although the Cheltenham Music Festival doesn't end till tomorrow night, I've been to my last event now - a performance by the Australian String Quartet this morning: they put across their compatriot, Peter Sculthorpe's Quartet no 8 well - an interesting piece - but overall did not appear quite to be in the medal category from where I was sitting. The competition has however been fierce in Cheltenham, these last 14 days. Perhaps they were a bit handicapped by playing with a guest cellist.

Last night there were a couple of hiccoughs at the end of Christianne Stotijn's recital, with Julius Drake, but overall that was definitely a medal performance: this 31-year-old mezzo certainly deserves to be going places: the opera stage, I'd hope, with a voice so full of drama and power to colour the phrases. "Das Mädchen fing zu weinen an," she sang in Mahler's celebrated Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen - and we could have wept too I guess, at that and also at other moments during the evening. Great stuff, and great too to be reminded of how difficult it is to sustain a recital of this intensity by the young singer's reluctantly-admitted frailty.

So, a big thank you to Meurig Bowen and to all those who have been responsible for providing us with such a musical feast during this year's Festival!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The art of the quartet

Cheltenham Music Festival is certainly celebrating quartets this year: eight ensembles from round the world are playing for us, and superannuated instruments that have no doubt made up string quartets in the past have been painted for a special exhibition - most of it to be seen in the Summerfield Gallery, part of the University of Gloucestershire's Pittville Campus in Albert Road - round the corner from the Pump Room where the musicians perform.

The brainchild of Festival Director Meurig Bowen, the decorated fiddles and cellos make an appropriate accompaniment for the hilarious Hoffnung cartoons, which form the main show in the Gallery. Some surprising artists have taken up the challenge, including our local MP, Martin Horwood. My illustration shows Bob Devereux's violin on the left, Peter Granville-Edmunds's next to it (his illustration compares the wrecked instrument with a bombed out facade in I think Dresden), and then Mila Judge-Furstova's splendidly adorned cello - even painted on the inside.

But Meurig has run into some flak from the The Strad - see his blog. An interesting question, whether or not painted violins are art! They will be auctioned for charity next year - which doesn't necessarily make them art of course. I would never buy one myself, but they are fun to see exhibited, especally alongside many hundreds of painted violin cutouts, on show in the centre of town in various locations - part of another of the Festival's enterprising education projects.

Yesterday Quatuor Diotima gave the UK premiere of Matthias Pintscher's Study IV for Treatise on the Veil, the most curious work I have heard for a long while: not a single note of music as we know it! In the composer's programme note, he writes intriguingly: "I often find myself wishing that I was able to draw directly onto the sound of the instruments like a painter."

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Sing East, Sing West

So taken up was I with Elizabeth Watts' excellent recital yesterday morning that I forgot to mention a splendid schools project - part of our Music Festival's education programme - which came to fruition on Monday evening in Cheltenham Town Hall. 250 or so primary school children packed the stage to listen to and give us an hour of music celebrating the Jewish Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, along with Judeo-Arabic songs and klezmer-influenced American music. A joyous occasion for all, including the parents in the audience, who took their own singing lesson (at the end of the concert) with due seriousness!

And yesterday evening, for something completely different, we listened to the sublime Angela Hewitt, one of those who make strong men weep.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

"Sweet little bell"

Elizabeth Watts was the soloist in a delightful lieder recital at the Pittville Pump Room this morning, the first of this year's Cheltenham Festival. Her voice is indeed bell-like, perfectly suited to the "Spring" songs of Schubert which she put together to form a cycle filling the first half of her programme. She reminded me of the young Margaret Price - indeeds she even looks a little bit the same.

After the interval, Elizabeth sang Barber's Hermit Songs and six of Britten's folksongs. It was the Barber that hit the spot for me, the often naive words being brought wittily and poignantly to life by this fine young singer.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Poles together

A splendid innovation at this year's Cheltenham Music Festival concerts at Pittville is an additional central aisle between the seating. With my long legs, I have felt myself lucky to get a place beside it nearly every time. The view, in one of the most beautiful chamber music venues anywhere (not just my opinion), is as good as it gets from where I have been sitting.

One rather disconcerting feature, however, is the way in which the large, central chandelier sways slightly from side to side - a cross between the huge Botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (I hope to see it one day) and an outsize metronome. The fact that the swaying does not happen in time with the music may or may not put off those on the platform: it certainly didn't seem to do so this morning, when we were treated to what for me was one of the best recitals in this Festival to date.

After hearing American, Russian and Finnish Quartets, today I listened to the Royal Quartet from Poland performing their compatriot, Szymanowski (the second of his two quartets), together with early Mendelssohn and Mozart's sublime Clarinet Quintet. It all seemed just right, particularly the Szymanowski - quite new to me. Emma Johnson stood between the seated strings, playing her part from memory. Having struggled to learn to play the clarinet at school, I have an inkling how hard it is to play so sweetly.

And sweetest of all was their encore, a quintet arrangement of the Mozart Ave verum corpus. A Royal occasion indeed!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

One & other

Six weeks having elapsed from my bike accident, I have at last been released from wearing the Big Boot Cheltenham Hospital gave me to protect my broken foot. So, to celebrate, I took my new bike with me on the train to London yesterday. And I couldn't resist a detour to Trafalgar Square, to see for myself - rather than via the webcam - what One & other was all about.

Shortly before the accident, when I was cycling through Yorkshire, I visited Harewood House, where I found myself almost alone inside while viewing great portraits by the likes of Titian and Veronese. Outside, however, the crowds were thickly gathered - in the bird garden! The twittering and tweeting of our feathered friends behind netting was clearly of much wider interest to the general public than acclaimed likenesses of great historical figures. And so it seems to be in Trafalgar Square since One & other started life last Monday: the crowds around the 4th Plinth no doubt comfortably exceed those looking at any of the celebrated portraits in the National Gallery a few yards away. Those on the plinth all seem to be tweeting on Twitter, whilst we on the other side of the netting shout encouragement - just as we do to get the Harewood penguins to flap their wings - or our abuse.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Out of order at the Festival

I've been reading Pope Benedict's new "social" encyclical - rather appropriate given that today is the feast of St Benedict. "It is good for people to realise," he writes, "that purchasing is always a moral - and not simply economic - act." Well, I can't claim any very high-minded motive for declining to purchase a £9 Music Festival programme (or even the £1 throw-away sheets) when I've attended this Festival's concerts. I came to realise at a certain stage a few years ago that the house - or rather the attic - was already too full of old concert and theatre programmes, and that I just had to stop buying them. Anyway the Festival provides a perfectly adequate advance booking brochure, setting out what we are to hear.

Perfectly adequate? Yes, for the most part, but this week there have been two irritating occasions when the order of the pieces performed has not been as set out in the advance brochure - and I and those others in the same boat were not given prior notice of this. While most of those of us left in the dark could probably tell after the first couple of bars that it was Beethoven not Shostakovich that the Borodin Quartet were playing in the middle of their recital programme, it was not at all obvious yesterday evening that Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih were launching into Schumann instead of Mendelssohn after their opener. So, a little more consideration please, Meurig "Hedgehog" Bowen, if the order is to be changed in future - particularly as you were up there on the stage, chatting away to us anyway before the concert, with your roving mike.

Having got that off my chest, I will say immediately that there was absolutely nothing out of order about the playing last night. It was a delight to hear two performers so much in sympathy with one another, and with a passionate shared commitment to the work of those two composers. OK, the "new" variations spurieuses - Thomas Ades's description, we were told - by Mendelssohn were perhaps a bit boring; but the second half of the recital took fire in no uncertain terms. This, anyway, seemed to be the post-performance consensus over supper - one of those present being particularly hungry having (aged 75) bicycled 12 or so miles to the concert.

Meta4 (pictured here before their rushed exit to catch their flights home to Helsinki) and the dynamic Ingrid Fliter likewise took fire yesterday morning, in the same hall, playing more Schumann - his great Piano Quintet: why is it so much less celebrated than Schubert's Trout? Perhaps because it doesn't have a nickname.

Before their interval, Meta4 had - with all the fearlessness of youth - launched into Beethoven Op 130, with the Grosse Fuge thrown in. We were in Cornwall last week, and I marvelled at the beauty of the waves, for surfing; but also at how perilous was the undertow. I was reminded of this during parts of that great fuge, where the playing rolls along, but can so easily come adrift: happily the quartet, 3/4 of whom played standing up (on their surfboards), all ended together eventually. A brave performance.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

"Remnants of our time"

Cheltenham's caryatids are a familiar and much-loved feature of the Montpellier shopping area. However, we now have - temporarily - a rival collection, albeit undraped, at Pittville. Josie Spencer is exhibiting there a dozen or so lifesize figurative works (not all armless) under the title "Remnants of our time": bronze and clay - green, blue, brown, grey, ochre - and all in different positions.

Visiting the show when there weren't many people about, I found the presences somewhat disconcerting; but then that would seem to be the artist's intention. Anyway, the Pump Room colonnade makes a superb display place for them.

Part of the proceeds of any sales will go to support the Music Festival. I hope to write about a third of this year's stimulating exhibitions another day.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Europa fits the bill

Scott Ellaway is an ambitious young man. Only 26 still, he founded Orchestra Europa all of three years ago: tonight they performed together a matchingly ambitious programme at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream overture; Tchaikovsky's violin concerto (Nicola Benedetti as soloist) and Schubert's Great C Major symphony. Not surprisingly, the Town Hall was packed for such popular fare. (The 6 o'clock start time was a further factor making it a gift for the corporate entertainers, who were out in force: solicitors, accountants, surveyors, headmistresses, past High Sherrifs - why, I even saw the Chief Constable there.)

What did we think of the big screens? Personally, I felt they were brilliant; but I seemed to be in a minority in our group - even though we were at the back of the hall, amongst those most likely to take advantage of them. Time will tell. Anything to distract attention from the lugubrious statues of Kings Edward VII and George V has to be an advantage in my book.

And the music? Well, the Mendelssohn was a bit heavy perhaps; and the orchestral accompaniment to the concerto soloist rather too prominent, but Benedetti gave it welly, and looks the part, if one can say such a thing these days. For me, the Schubert was the evening's highlight: OK, perhaps some of the brass might have thought they were playing Janáček rather than Schubert (especially in the 2nd movement), but I put that down to youthful enthusiasm. The tempi were on the whole just right, which is all-important in so long a work - so long indeed that we had to call on the Town Hall's first aider to revive one of our party. A dramatic end to the evening.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Borodin sound

A legend in its field, the Borodin String Quartet has been playing to a packed Pittville Pump Room this evening. The Quartet's formation during the latter years of World War II coincided with our first Cheltenham Music Festival. The present four are inheritors of a great tradition: you could tell it - even from the back of the hall - from their first appearance. But the playing too was distinctive: a sedate, oddly humourless Haydn ("the Bird"), monumental early Beethoven (Op 18(1): what a first movement that has!), and some memorable Shostakovich - if that's your bag: I'm afraid it's not mine, at least when it comes to Quartet no 3. Perhaps it was the glass of wine I had in the interval.

Coming home towards 10 p.m., after all the rain we had a still-bright sky behind us and steely greyness ahead. The white terraced fronts of All Saints Road took on a spooky look: Alfred Hitchcock would have loved it.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Hoffnung at Pittville

Visiting galleries, I am inclined to be oppressed by the earnestness of the experience: public libraries no longer seem to require silence, so why should visitors to art galleries need to be so reverential?

What was lovely about popping into the Hoffnung exhibition yesterday (on at the University of Gloucestershire's Pittville Campus till 18th) was the chorus of chuckles that rippled round the room. I had always been rather sniffy about Gerard Hoffnung, but this show is a revelation, covering the huge range of his work from its earliest beginnings - his political cartoons flirting with danger, in pre-WW2 Germany.

Such richness of imagination! A treasure store not merely for the music-lover: go!

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The 65th Cheltenham Festival of Music

John Manduell - who ran our music festival for many years - used to contact local Air Force bases in advance, to ensure there would be no low-flying planes to provide unwelcome obbligati during concerts. His meticulous successor, Meurig Bowen, was confronted by a different source of extraneous sound during tonight's Smith Quartet recital: a firework display - marking end of term festivities at Cheltenham Ladies' College, one gathers. The College, not content with adding to the warming of the planet and burning money, marred our enjoyment of Philip Glass's concentrated 5th Quartet. (Their display would have been better timed for rather earlier in the evening when Handel's Royal Fireworks music was performed in the same building.)

This apart, the Smith Quartet galvanised the audience with exhilarating renderings of George Crumb's Black Angels and Steve Reich's Different Trains. A pity we couldn't hear them in a better space, though: the Pillar Room's sightlines are appalling; the acoustic lacks resonance and we all sweltered in the heat.

Earlier, I had visited Pittville and glimpsed the Festival's Fiesta in the Park: as you can see from my photograph, a good time was being had by all - or all who turned out: the Park deserved to be packed on a sunny Saturday afternoon, given the effort the organisers had put into the occasion. (I hope to write more about what's on display at Pittville shortly.)