Friday, 30 August 2013

Cutting bureaucracy at the BBC

I notice that BBC director general Tony Hall has committed to cutting bureaucracy.

Top of the agenda, apparently, is to tackle the BBC’s meeting culture – halving the number of boards and steering groups. “We spend far too long agonising over decisions that other organisations have learned to make much more efficiently,” says Hall.

Sounds like a good start.

A useful follow-up would be to light a bushfire under the forest of processes and procedures, rules and regulations, that were set up, one by one, on the basis that they would increase control, reduce risk and facilitate progress, but actually just get in the way.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A midsummer murder

To be honest, it didn’t sound very promising. Would we like to go to see a murder mystery about bee-keeping beside the Oxford Canal - Beyond the Veil: Hives... Honey... Homicide? What’s more it looked like rain. Our friend Kate had heard about it from a friend.

In the event it turned out to be a really joyful evening. The company, Mikron, had arrived (by narrowboat, of course), and moored at The Pig Place. So we ate sausage baps drowned in fried onions and ketchup – quite delicious – and settled down on straw bales.

The writing was crisp and witty. The four actors, each with several roles requiring instant changes, bright and funny. Each seemed to be able to play multiple instruments and sing well, individually and in harmony. The rain held off. And we learned not only whodunit, but also lots of fascinating stuff about beekeeping and the plight of the bee population.

Mikron has been touring now for forty years, always based on the boat, a different venue, nearly always under the stars, each evening.

Quite a discovery.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Lifelong learning at Glyndebourne

With the final performance (today) of the 2013 festival, Vladimir Jurowski has now completed his last season as musical director at Glyndebourne, the wonderful country house opera in the Sussex downs.  

His thirteen seasons there started when he was in his early 30s, and he has personally conducted eighteen different operas over that period, introducing two major Wagner works to their repertoire (Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), two of the Verdi/Shakespeare operas (Macbeth and Falstaff), operetta (Die Fledermaus), two Russians (Prokofiev’s Betrothal in the Monastery and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), and a world première in the form of Eötvös’s Love and Other Demons.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to him seven or eight years ago and, discovering a mutual interest in original performing styles, I offered to send him from time to time some of the earliest recordings of great singers performing arias from operas which he was to conduct. He took me up on this, and so for several seasons I would send him a bespoke CD – Wagner, Verdi and Tchaikovsky are the ones I most recall. And, perhaps from other sources, he was also listening to the earliest recordings of orchestral works.

I was thrilled. My previous experience of conductors (and singers) is that they rely principally on the score, on their own judgement, and on their training at conservatoire as to how music should be performed, not bothering with ancient, sometimes murky recordings.

Jurowski, however, is quite different. He is a true lifelong learner, endlessly trying to understand how it was done then in order to help him appreciate how to do it now. In an interview in 2008 he talked about how he had known Tchaikovsky’s music intimately since he was a small child, watching his father rehearse and conduct at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

And yet, he wrote: “In the last year, I started listening with different ears and much more attention to detail to the very old recordings of Tchaikovsky’s music.” He concluded that “… they sounded less flashy and less showy, but there was something else in the performance of the music. There was this fragility which is missing in almost all of the performances today.” 

In the meantime, the massive growth of YouTube, and the fact that so many of the finest early performers who recorded are now much more easily accessed, means that this experience is available to all musicians and singers. I wonder how many of them take up that opportunity in an open-minded way?

So, listen to Lilli Lehmann (born in 1848, she was in the first performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876) singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde in 1907 from the only surviving test pressing.

Monday, 19 August 2013

As You Don’t Like It

In the years leading up to the building of Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside in London, the great motor force behind the project, Sam Wanamaker, used regularly to declare that actors would have to learn again how to act in this new space.

With no sound amplification and no roof, the challenge at the Globe would be how to project to such a substantial amphitheatre without loss of naturalness and relationship.

In reflection, I think it’s a clue as to why I was disappointed in the recent production of As You Like It in the enclosed main house at Stratford. Although they were in close proximity to each other, so many of the actors simply shouted. 

I thought we’d left all that behind us.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Postcards from the chaos

Discussing blogs with a fellow-blogger, he naturally felt slighted when I told him that, for me, most blogposts are far too long, the product of unrestrained verbal incontinence. For indeed his posts are anything but short.

“But yours are worthy of the New Yorker,” I responded (quite truthfully). “Whereas mine are just… just postcards.”

I do try to keep them as brief as possible. One issue at a time. Out of the somewhat chaotic life I lead.

But I don’t tweet…

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Not a word to be used to Princes

It’s good to be reminded (by David Nice in a piece on artsdesk) of Queen Elizabeth’s response in 1603 to her leading minister, Robert Cecil:

Must is not a word to be used to Princes.

Cecil had been encouraging the old queen to go to bed during her final illness. Bess was not amused. But her response was the natural one to unsolicited imperatives, and not just because she was a “prince”.

“Must” so often stimulates a negative feeling, whatever one’s station in life. As do “should” and “ought”.

Encouraging Russian musicians to oppose the anti-gay laws in that country, David Nice headlines his article “When artists could speak out.”

“Could.” So much more likely to gain assent than “must”.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

When I think, I must speak

To Stratford for their current As You Like It.

A feminist production that seemed to be the offspring of 1960s Hair (I was there then), including the smoking of dope.

It was ironic that the biggest laugh came when Rosalind declared: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”

Not very PC, Will. But a magical play.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Does Putin have a Fool?

So often leaders, especially strong leaders, surround themselves with yes-men (and yes-women). This can seem helpful to teamwork and a sense of direction.

But it can be extraordinarily valuable for the strong leader to include in the court a Fool. Someone who regularly sees things from completely different perspectives, without illusion, and who is empowered to speak up, saying the unsayable.

Shakespeare has Fools in so many of his plays – Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream among them. But the best model for our modern leader is the Fool in King Lear.

The Fool uses song as well as speech to give the king feedback. He is the only one permitted to challenge head on, to say to the aging Lear that he’s deluded and stupid. And yet Lear treats him as his friend.

There’s a long traditional of Fools in Russian literature, not least in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov.

I wonder if Vladimir Putin has a Fool? Not that he’d last long, one senses.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Feeding the many

Walking in the sun through the ripening fields of wheat, beans and rape here on the Northamptonshire/Oxfordshire border. Closing on harvest-time. Heaven on earth.

It had me thinking about the miracle of food production that has taken place over the past century.

Although we hear continuously about food shortages in various parts of the world, and the supposedly calamitous effect of population growth, nevertheless billions more mouths are fed now compared with a hundred years ago – the result of continuous innovation in all aspects of farming.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Writing: one-two-three

In conversation with my old English teacher from school, Gordon Braddy, we agreed that there are usually three distinct steps in the process of writing:

1.      Getting the idea.

2.      Doing a first draft.

3.      Polishing.

Of course, the first of these usually happens in an instant. For me it’s important to make a note of the idea at that time. Otherwise I sometimes have to wait weeks or even months for it to surface again.

The second is the hardest, the most daunting. Is the idea any good? What shape will it take?

The third is the one that occupies the most time. Endlessly improving communication and style. In fact, it can be a never-ending process, so at some stage it’s important to call a truce.