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Monday, January 29, 2007

John Adams at the Barbican

I've been a bit quiet here recently. The last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic with the build-up to my choir's AGM. Regular and eagle-eyed readers will have noted that I've now taken over as Chair of the chorus - a prospect that simultaneously fills me with fear and excitement.

Last night, we did manage to get out: to the Barbican Centre for a London Symphony Orchestra concert of music by John Adams, conducted by the composer. Adams is one of my idols, yet the main piece of the evening, On the Transmigration of Souls, remains something of a bête noir for me. It has always left me a little cold, so I was looking forward to finding out whether my first live experience of the work would change my mind.

The first of the half of the concert included two works: The Dharma at Big Sur for electric violin and orchestra, and Slonimsky's Earbox, neither of which I was familiar with. Earbox is obviously a significant work for the composer, lending its name to his official website and self-avowedly marking an important turning point in his music. In it, Adams looks towards Russian musical influences, primarily to Stravinsky, but also to a friend from his early years on the West Coast, Nicholas Slonimsky, author of a thesaurus of musical motifs and patterns. It proved to be a good choice to open the concert, its overture-like character and lightness of feeling easing the packed hall into Adams's characteristic Californian groove. This was the first time I'd heard Adams conduct the LSO, and they responded to his direction with the slick virtuosity which is the orchestra's hallmark.

The Dharma at Big Sur is a work on an altogether larger scale. Effectively a concerto in form, it mixes eastern and western musical ideas, especially in its subversion of the classical European 12-note scale, with heavy use of slides, portamento and microtones, particularly in the solo part. Leila Josefowicz stunned the audience by playing this fiendishly difficult score entirely from memory on her 6-stringed instrument, which looked rather like a futuristic prop from Star Trek, even if the amplification and mixing of the sound stage became occasionally rather overblown and muddied.

After this high-energy first half I was unfortunately vindicated in my opinion of Transmigration. Written for the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but commissioned and composed much closer to the events that it commemorates, I still feel that Adams was a victim of his own success: there had to be a commemoration piece, and there was really only one composer in the US who could be asked to write it. Adams maintains that the piece is about love, not anger (instructing the chorus at rehearsals to downplay any darker emotions), yet for me its emotional impact seems clouded and distant, maybe because of Adams's decision to use actors and reported speech for the words of the bereaved rather than face-to-face interview material. I was left feeling perplexed about the point, despite excellent performances from the London Symphony Chorus and a small but flawlessly-dictioned group from the New London Children's Choir.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I've just started to get in to Wikipedia: in the last couple of week's I've created an article on Crouch End Festival Chorus (which you can find here), and also begun to get involved in a couple of WikiProjects to improve the quality of content in the world's biggest online encyclopedia.

Anyone can get involved in the Wikepedia experience, the motto of which is "Be bold!"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Today's concert

Today, Crouch End Festival Chorus is performing Tippett's A Child of our Time and Britten's Spring Symphony at the Barbican Centre in London. I'm blogging this from the promoter's office backstage, after the afternoon rehearsal. The rehearsal went very well: in addition to the chorus and the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra, we are working with Finchley Children's Music Group who have provided a large choir for the Britten and a chamber choir for the Tippett to sing along with the spirituals, which makes them feel much more congregational and inclusive.

We had a few teething problems with platform arrangements, but thanks to the Barbican's excellent stage crew we've made some adjustments since the rehearsal finished, so that everyone will be able to see the conductor.

I've already blogged about how much I love the Tippett, so I'm looking forward to the concert immensely. We haven't put any balcony tickets on sale, so it looks like it will be a fairly full house in the stalls and circle.

Tonight's concert is being given in association with TreeHouse - the national charity for autism education. Even if you can't make it to the concert, they are a worthy charity providing a unique service to children with autism and their families, and I'm sure they would appreciate any donations you could make.

After the concert we'll be off to the Indian Ocean (the one in Holloway Road, not the one just the left of the Pacific...) for a well-earned curry and a few bottles of beer!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Art of the Twentieth Century

I've just started my next Open University course, AA318: Art of the Twentieth Century. I'm mighty peeved, though, that I still haven't received my course material, so I can't get ahead as much as I had hoped. Judging by the chat on the course conference, London students seem to be amongst the last to get their materials, so hopefully something will arrive today or tomorrow. Fortunately, there is an excellent course web site, and I've already bought the set books, so I'm making a start on some of the reading.

More books (again)

Another 10 books I've read from the list of 1001:

J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Isaac Azimov: Foundation
John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids
William Golding: The Lord of the Flies
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice
Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
J. G. Ballard: The Drowned World
John Fowles: The Collector

Saturday's concert

Last night's orchestral rehearsal for Crouch End Festival Chorus's concert at the Barbican Centre this Saturday was a strange affair. Half of the orchestra and choir were late arriving because of transport problems caused by the storms, so David Temple had to do some impromptu restructuring of the rehearsal. A few years ago the choir would have been completely thrown by the lack of certain key entries caused by missing orchestral players, but last night rose to the occasion superbly.

I'm looking forward to the concert immensely. The Tippett (A Child of our Time) in particular is a favourite of mine. Working on it for this concert reminded me of his mastery of counterpoint, both in the choral lines and also some of the exquisite orchestral writing, particularly for the woodwind. It will also be a real pleasure to sing Britten's Spring Symphony in a great concert hall. The last time we performed it was in a church in north London, the acoustic of which did no favours for the clarity of the performance.

I've just created an entry in Wikipedia about the chorus, which you can read here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More books

It's been a while since I posted any more of the 1001 books I should have read (and in fact have) before I die, so here goes:

Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace
Pat Barker: The Ghost Road
Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace
Zadie Smith: White Teeth
Yann Martel: Life of Pi
Albert Camus: The Plague
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Isaac Azimov: I, Robot
Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast

Once I've caught up on listing my backlog in a couple of days, I'll start posting my own impressions and reviews of books I'm reading now, which should make things a little more interesting.

Monday, January 15, 2007


We've started to watch 24 Day 5. Since the series moved to Sky (which we don't have), we've taken to buying it on DVD and watching it in 2 or 3 episode chunks over the course of a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the level of tension means that by the time we get to bed, it's almost impossible to sleep...

Anyway, I need to open a socket to my blog and download this to your screen...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

New members' party

Yesterday afternoon we held a party for people who have joined Crouch End Festival Chorus in the last 15 months or so. We've held these events before, but this was the first time I'd been able to go along myself. The party was at our Musical Director, David Temple's house, and was an enjoyable occasion at which we got to know so of the newer members of the chorus, particularly those who don't always go along to the pub after rehearsals on Friday evenings! I took a few photos, which I'll post on Flickr, but as my policy is to keep photos of individuals private to friends only, I'm afraid you'll only be able to see them if you are on my Flickr friends list.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Another YouTube gem

Now, if only Crouch End Festival Chorus could reach new audiences like this! The first guy is the same age as my dad...

The swan

I often think that Crouch End Festival Chorus is rather like a swan - elegant and smooth on the surface, but with a lot of feverish paddling going on below the water-line to keep everything running smoothly. January is one of those times of year when the behind-the-scenes activity is at a peak. The AGM is coming up on 26th January, and everyone on the committee is involved in getting ready. Each committee member has to write a report on their activities for the year, and the finance team are busy finishing off the accounts.

Today and tomorrow are particularly important days. Members of the chorus will know that a couple of years ago we made the decision to turn the choir into a limited company - things had just grown to be too large and complicated to continue to be best served by the informal unincorporated association which had sufficed over the last 20 years. We finally made the cutover to the new organization (which is nevertheless still a charity) on 1st January 2006. If you do the maths, this means we have not one, but two sets of accounts to deal with for the last financial year (which ended on 31st August 2006). Tonight there are 3 meetings happening (in succession). The first is of the trustees of the old charity (and the original Crouch End Festival Chorus), to approve its final set of accounts before we apply to the Charity Commission to have it struck off the register. The second meeting is a normal Management Committee meeting where we discuss the real nitty-gritty of running the Chorus: music, concerts, fundraising events and future commissions (we will be undertaking our biggest ever in 2008). The final meeting of the evening will be to approve the accounts for the new charity. Then I will be delivering both sets to the auditor tomorrow morning so that he has time to examine them and report before the AGM.

Why is all this so important? Well, I firmly believe that good governance, communication and accountability is the foundation of a successful organization. If the basics are right you can spend more time on the important stuff like furthering the artistic aims of the chorus. The AGM is a real opportunity for the trustees to communicate properly with the chorus membership, and for the members to feed back their own thoughts and feelings. This year we are looking at ways of making the financial performance of the chorus clearer for its members, and also trying to address concerns and issues that have surfaced over the last 12 months. I'm hoping that we can encourage as many members as possible to attend.

Once the AGM is out of the way, planning will continue in earnest for the next season. We've already got a pretty good idea of how the season will start in October, but I'm looking forward to discussing the remaining concerts with our Musical Director, David Temple, in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Remind Me

I just had to post this. The graphics are simply amazing...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A glut of art

I got back from Christmas and New Year to realise that a bunch of exhibitions I wanted to see were all finishing on January 7th. Fortunately we are Friends of the V&A and the Tate, so Rosemary and I set off on Sunday morning to see the excellent Holbein exhibition at the Tate Britain. He really was an excellent draughtsman and had an unprecedented ability to get inside the personalities of his subjects, although I still don't think he had got the hang of doing hands!

I went off by myself to see the Leonardo drawings show at the V&A. It was good to see some of the material that featured in my Leonardo OU course last year, although I still had to queue for an hour to get in. Whilst there, I discovered that there was a Renaissance exhibition on which also finished on Sunday, which gave me probably my only chance to see Sophonisba Anguissola's Sisters Playing Chess, which also featured in one of my courses last year. It was on loan from a gallery in Poland, so was not to be missed.

After a brief stroll around the Sixties fashion exhibition (I had no idea that there was a craze for paper dresses which only ended because so many customers wouldn't believe they were made of paper and ripped the hems in the stores to find out for themselves!) it was on to the National Gallery to see a crowded but rewarding exhibition of Cezanne's art drawn from public and private collections in England. Finally I ended up at the British Museum to take in the second installment of an excellent selection of French drawings, ranging from Watteau through to Seurat. I was fortunate enough to see his Grande Jatte on a visit to Chicago a few years ago, so it was very exciting to find a couple of his preparatory sketches for the painting in the exhibition.

I certainly won't be trying to visit so many exhibitions in one day again. It was a real effort in terms of concentration and extremely tiring, so I'll have to organize myself better in future!