Messing about in boats 

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I don’t go to classical concerts as often as I should. Perhaps that’s why the etiquette can sometimes seem incongruous. After eighty-odd minutes of convulsive energy and despair, we stumbled, dazed, to the end of Mahler’s Sixth – one of my very favourite pieces of music – at the Festival Hall.  Those famous hammer blows of Fate came crashing down, and then what? A long, long, deathly pause, as Paavo Järvi stood immobile at the podium. Then the applause began to flow. Smiles and handshakes all round as each section of the NHK Symphony Orchestra took a well-deserved bow. And yet it somehow seemed an inadequate way of ending a performance that takes you to the spiritual brink and beyond. Shouldn’t there be some other way of rounding off an experience as gruelling – and, sometimes, uplifting – as that. Or is the ritual of shaking hands and smiling simply the sensible way of allowing the emotions to settle? Maybe. But someone, somewhere, must have a better idea. I don’t have any specific suggestions on how classical concerts should be staged, although I can’t help being distracted – even though I try not to be – by the archaic dress and the over-bright lighting. Personally, I would prefer to sit in darkness as if I were at the cinema. But I assume there are good reasons why that doesn’t happen. I don’t want to give the impression I’m complaining. I’m really not. It was a totally absorbing evening. As soon as the final movement ended, I just wanted the whole thing to start again. (The Times and Arts Desk reviews are here and here, btw.) Last time I heard the piece live, the scherzo came after the andante, which may be correct (the arguments have raged for years) but just felt wrong. And the music aside, it was fascinating to watch the way Järvi responded so physically. I couldn’t help thinking of the caricature – reproduced in Norman Lebrecht’s “Mahler Remembered” – comparing Mahler to the much more sedate Richard Strauss. One man conducts, the other is possessed.

mahler strauss

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In the Golden Hall there was always electricity in the air. One could feel the current flowing through the temples of those who had been summoned, making them quiver. Everyone knew the source of that current: the little bag of finest lambskin. People would approach His Benevolent Highness by turns, saying why they needed money. His Majesty would listen and ask questions. Here I must admit that His Highness was most meticulous about financial matters. Any expenditure, anywhere in the Empire, of more than ten dollars required his personal approval, and if a minister came to ask approval for spending only one dollar, he would be praised. To repair a minister’s car – the Emperor’s approval is needed. To replace a leaking pipe in the city – the Emperor’s approval is needed. To buy sheets for a hotel – the Emperor must approve it.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor”.

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Cock Marsh, Cookham


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The new Trump is the old Trump

“This speech contained whoppers.” A lot of the pundits may be raving about that State of the Union speech, but James Fallows is unimpressed.

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Is Moonlight really the best film of the year?

It’s years since I wanted to rush out to see a film just because it won Best Picture at the Oscars – I’ve been burnt far too many times. So I went along to “Moonlight” telling myself not to fall for the hype, not to expect too much. But even after lowering my expectations I came away disappointed. It’s a slow –  very, very slow – and crushingly one-dimensional study of homophobia and thwarted passion. (The Chiron-Kevin relationship reminded me a little of the adolescent longing in Gore Vidal’s ground-breaking gay novel “The City and the Pillar”.) When you have a central character who is so unrelentingly passive and inarticulate you really do need a script that generates some kind of dramatic momentum: frenetic, not to say headache-inducing camerawork just isn’t enough. Instead we trudge from one downbeat scene to another. The acting is decent enough, but there really isn’t a single performance that rises above the level of your average mid-budget TV production. I like the idea of seeing Miami from a different demographic point of view – there are barely any. white faces on the screen. But I have this horrible feeling that the Oscar is yet another of Hollywood’s well-meaning acts of condescension. One last point before I forget. Towards the end, out of nowhere, there’s a beautiful thirty-second clip of one of my favourite Caetano Veloso recordings, “Cucurrucucú Paloma”. The surprisingly understated soundtrack is a definite asset, in fact.

PS: Armond White really hated it.

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The circus brothers


My Times review of Truevine, Beth Macy’s account of the lives of the black albino brothers, George and Willie Muse, star turns in American freak shows:

As minor celebrities they appeared in the pages of The New Yorker — usually accompanied by the most patronising of racial terms — and in 1928 they sailed the Atlantic to perform in London. Audiences here, apparently were not wildly enthusiastic, partly because, as one observer noted, the brothers seemed to be mentally handicapped. It was a point often made about them. Others disagreed, arguing that the claims of a low IQ were a mistaken response to their poor eyesight, a common affliction among albinos. (The Times, it seems, took a dim view of the freak phenomenon in general: “We are tired,” wrote its correspondent, “of gaping at those of our fellow creatures who occupy sideshows; we are anxious to understand them instead.”)

[…] Their story came to the attention of Macy, a local journalist and author of Factory Man, an acclaimed account of the struggles of an Appalachian furniture company. Intrigued, she began digging away, teasing information out of the brothers’ great-niece, a no-nonsense restaurant owner who had little time for white journalists, even well-meaning liberal ones. Piece by piece, however, Macy begins to assemble scraps of detail, rummaging through archives and interviewing the survivors of a vanishing world of circus entertainers and hangers-on.

The photographs that she has unearthed are astonishingly evocative time capsules; the narrative turns out to be a lot less satisfying, zigzagging through a good deal of superfluous social history. With the prose studded with so many “maybes”, “it isn’t clear” and other speculative phrases, even the most basic facts remain hazy. Other passages have a jarringly novelistic flavour. Amid all the sociological padding, George and Willie remain ghostly figures glimpsed from a distance. We learn next to nothing about their daily routines or their inner lives, and their final decades hurtle past in a few cursory pages.

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As it was, I had in 1939 decided to dedicate my life to Haydn, of whose music there was, in those days, no collected edition; indeed, only one-tenth had ever been published at all. Yet I always considered Mozart something quite alone and beyond any other music, including Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. I ought to say that this view was then considered not merely eccentric, but almost lunatic. I could hardly attribute to a thirteen-year-old schoolboy a special prescience concerning Mozart and the fact that, one day in England, at least, he would become the most popular composer in the concert hall, topping Beethoven’s pre-eminence (which had lasted for a generation). But I did sense that there was a curiously unsettling ambivalence  in Mozart’s musical language which I found at once compelling and of immense emotional satisfaction.

H.C. Robbins Landon, “1791: Mozart’s Last Year”.

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Nightlife, Soho


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From the far left to the far right

David Horowitz’s journey. Odd to think a man who wrote a book as perceptive as the 60s memoir “Radical Son” seems content to be a mouthpiece for someone as crude as Donald Trump.

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