Monday, 30 June 2014

A wild Mozartean ride at Glyndebourne

The truth is that I’d had mixed feelings about going to Mozart’s La finta giardiniera at Glyndebourne. Early Mozart operas can be a somewhat tedious procession of recitativo alternating with aria, the latter usually of the ‘stand and deliver’ variety.

What’s more, it was to be produced by a young director with virtually no track record either on the opera stage or in the theatre, Frederic Wake-Walker. Would it turn out to be another tiresome travesty, the goings-on on stage apparently unrelated to the work and its universe?

Of course, in the event it was one of the most exciting productions seen at the house in some 45 years of Glyndebourne visits. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Glyndebourne’s new musical director Robin Ticciati, were, as expected, on top form, producing scintillating sounds. And the seven who took the principal roles (Christiane Karg, Rachel Frenkel, Joélle Harvey, Nicole Heaston, Joel Prieto, Gyula Orendt and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) were all outstanding, both as actors and singers. So far, so good.

But it was the production itself that was an extraordinary revelation. First, the director Wake-Walker and his designer (Antony McDonald) had actually located the action (at least initially) in the Rococo period. Quite a shock in itself. And the performers had clearly studied art of that time, at least sufficiently to reproduce credible Rococo gesture (see above).

As time went by – I seemed to be holding my breath for long periods – the production took on a wild, improvisatory life, one that clearly took a bewitched audience on a theatrical ride that all seemed to spring from character and situation – and from the music.

Who knew that nineteen year-old Mozart could be so breath-taking?

Friday, 27 June 2014

The rocky road from prodigy to star

One of those Australian pianist pupils of Leschetizsky, Fritz Müller, particularly aroused my curiosity.
Raised in Melbourne in an immigrant German-Australian home, his early years followed the usual path – fêted child prodigy at eleven in 1899; a committee of the great and good formed to fund his further development in Europe; and he left for Berlin, where he was heard later that same year by the great Australian diva Nellie Melba, who was bowled over by his talent, writing to her sister in Melbourne: ‘I don’t wonder you rave about him. He is a wonder.’

By this time young Fritz was under the wing of the conservatoire head, one of the greatest violinists of the era, Joseph Joachim. All predicted a glittering future for the boy.

But what then? Following a return to Melbourne to raise further funding and a move back to Vienna to finish his studies with Leschetizky – virtually nothing. I even came to the tentative conclusion that he might have been killed in the First World War (in which he did in fact serve in the German Army).

But not so. Eventually I found some answers in Patricia Fullerton’s biography of the Australian artist Hugh Ramsay. The Ramsays and the Müllers were close friends in Melbourne. To the disappointment of his Melbourne siblings, who had made great sacrifices to support his career, it seems that Fritz never made much of a splash on the concert platform in Europe, being content to earn a living playing in the hotels of Munich.

Perhaps Melba had had an intuition that he might not make the expected grade, noticing that he was ‘rather like a butterfly’. And another contemporary, the pianist-composer Percy Grainger commented that Fritz lacked ‘a strong mother behind his career.’

Are those factors still the secret to success in making the transition from prodigy to stardom – driven focus and a strong mother?
The ghastly Dance Moms on current TV suggests that they might still represent a potent cocktail.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Grandchildren of Leschetizky

I notice that the wonderful pianist who came to play for us with the Soloists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Sunday, Sam Haywood, is not only a pupil of the renowned Austrian Paul Badura-Skoda, but also of someone less well known to the general public, Maria Curcio.

Italian-born Curcio was an astoundingly successful teacher her pupils including many of the finest pianists of the past half century, including Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Leon Fleisher and Peter Frankl. She herself was the last pupil of the great Artur Schnabel himself one of the later pupils of the great piano pedagogue of the late nineteenth century, Theodor Leschetizky.

Budding young pianists came from all over the world to study at Leschetizky’s piano school in Vienna, among these a steady stream of pupils from Australia – and it is these that I have particularly been researching in recent times. It seems that, if you were a promising player in that country, you would seek to study with the finest teacher in Europe – and for many that was Leschetizky.

His name became firmly established in Australian consciousness as a result of concert tours there made by two of his most famous pupils – Mark Hambourg (several times from 1895) and Ignacy Jan Paderewski in 1904, plus Jan Cherniavsky with his two brothers, who formed the Cherniavsky Trio, who made six extensive tours.

In all some ten Australians found their way to Leschetizky’s school, the earliest in 1897 being Yvonne Leverrier from Sydney. She was followed the next year by another Sydney-based pianist, Frederick Barron Morley. Then came Laurence Godfrey Smith, Violet Balmain, a mysterious ‘Miss Lewis’, Fritz Müller (who gained the support of Dame Nellie Melba), Florence Taylor, Maude Puddy, Rita Hope and Emily Dyason.

Although many of them were regarded as child prodigies, none of these pianists became famous as performing artists. Many returned to Australia, where they gave occasional concerts, but mostly earned their livelihoods as teachers.

So my speculation is that the country will now have dozens, maybe hundreds, of pedagogical grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Leschetizky. I wonder how many of them are aware of this, and if any of the great pedagogue’s teachings survive there? I think this must be so. Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of 1989, Maestro, is based around a fictional pupil of Leschetizky (and as such treated with awe), who teaches in Darwin. 

I briefly thought about all this as Sam Haywood played Schubert so persuasively in King’s Sutton last Sunday.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Paxo and the passionate intensity of Russell Brand

Jeremy Paxman, master of the sarcastic aside, who retired from BBC2’s Newsnight this week, was rarely bested in interview. I’m not alone in thinking that Russell Brand acquitted himself very well with him.

And said things rarely heard on British television.

Have you seen it? It’s worth the effort.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Birthday Bash with OAE

I used to have a birthday party every ten years. My fortieth was in Sydney, with the fiftieth at a half-built Shakespeare’s Globe in London (Endymion playing Mozart and Krommer), and since then they have been held in our village on the Northamptonshire-Oxfordshire border, King’s Sutton.
But, as time seems to be truncating (see welcome guest Julian Barbour’s The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics), I’ve been having one every five years.
This time around, we were lucky enough to get the Soloists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing Schubert (the Trout Quintet and his earlier Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F), plus Hummel’s Piano Quintet in E flat minor. This last was the great discovery for many.
The church was filled with an appreciative audience, its acoustic near perfect, our 1870 Broadwood piano well-tuned, the players – a mix of wonderful old friends and brilliant young ones – in top form, with virtuoso double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku (above) at her most animated.
All this followed by a convivial tea party in the garden at home with family and friends – efficient waitress-service provided by daughter Dora and BFFs. Deep joy all round.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Flitting from flower to flower in adland

I went to see my cousin and godfather, L Graham Browne  ‘Uncle Bill’ in the Birmingham office of his ad agency, to ask him to give me a job. I was nineteen, in awe of him, and fundamentally unemployable in the opinion of both me and my father.

‘You need to leave home,’ he told me. ‘Go to London. If you really want to work in advertising, I’ll give you the addresses of the leading agencies there. You’ll need to apply for the mailroom.’

A few weeks later I found myself in an interview with the head of traffic control at J Walter Thompson in Berkeley Square, Harry Garnell. It seemed to be going quite well.

‘Do you have any questions?’ he asked me.

‘What do you particularly have to have, to be successful in advertising?’ I enquired.

‘Well, you need more than anything to have a butterfly mind,’ he responded, ‘able to shift from one thing to another in an instant.’

How right he was.


Thursday, 12 June 2014

What’s the most important invention in history?

I often ask groups in innovation teams to nominate the most important invention in the history of mankind. The ‘usual suspects’, the ones that come up most frequently, are the wheel, printing and the internet.

But how about paper? Twenty years ago, I used to hear so much about the impending arrival of the 'paperless office'. That never looked close to happening. And in more recent times it’s been the supposed death of newspapers and books.

But still paper remains central to our lives.

So when was it invented – and by whom?

It seems to have been born in China, sometime around 100AD, and has been ascribed to a eunuch in the Han court called Cai Lun. In its earliest incarnations, paper was made from hemp waste, but over time this was mixed with other plant materials – tree bark, bamboo etc.

Over the following centuries, paper-making spread throughout Asia, arriving in Europe and North Africa around the 12th century, gradually replacing parchment and vellum.

The arrival of printing in Europe in the 14th century led to a massive growth in its usage.

Its uses nowadays remain so many and varied – from packaging to Post-it notes, from banknotes to bodily waste. And in the office.


Monday, 9 June 2014

Other buildings of King's Sutton

There has been a gap of forty years between editions of the Northamptonshire Buildings of England. Bridget Cherry was Nikolaus Pevsner’s partner in 1973, but the newly-published one has been the work of Bruce Bailey.

And while the book has roughly doubled in size, the entry concerning our village, King’s Sutton, remains virtually untouched at a little less than two pages, over half of it devoted to the parish church, plus (briefly) two other churches and two houses (the Manor and its near neighbour the Court House).
Mr Bailey perhaps came here on a wet Tuesday.

Buildings that might have made their presence felt by now could include the Neo-Gothic Old School House of 1847 and the Lutyens-style St Rumbolds of 1922; a number of interesting 18th century dwellings (Lovells and the Bell House in The Square); some 17th century cottages of character (Monks Cottages, also in The Square, Q Cottage in Wales Street – yes, really, Q-shaped – and the Old Lace House in Astrop Road). Also, up towards nearby Astrop, the 18th century Gate House with its interesting semi-circular gable end, College Farm and the mysterious Grey Court and its various subsidiary buildings of note.

An interesting discovery of recent times at the parish church, not noticed by Mr Bailey, are the sculptured forms of St Peter and St Paul, high up on the west face of the tower. They were first noticed by a visiting Australian chorister from Oxford, and they appear to the naked eye to be far earlier than the fourteenth century building of the tower – perhaps saved from a previous building campaign.   

Maybe, a further forty years from now, another edition will appear with some of the above included. Just a thought.     

Friday, 6 June 2014

Remembering Uncle Bill

Thinking today of all those soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in the D-Day landings in Normandy, and of all who lost their lives in that great battle – British, American, Canadian, French and German.

Thinking especially today of my cousin, Captain L Graham Browne MC, “Uncle Bill”, after whom I was named, who landed that day with the Dorsets on Gold Beach. Soldier, advertising man, rally driver, champion cyclist.
He represented for me throughout my childhood a beacon of what might be achieved in life.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Pasternak on failure

Speaking of ‘failure’, as I was, I particularly like what Boris Pasternak has Zhivago say on the subject to Lara:

I don’t think I could love you so much if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.

What a great novel is Doctor Zhivago, one of the very best of the twentieth century, I feel somewhat underrated now. Time to read it again...

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The value of failure

Recent highlighting of the value of failure includes a book by Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, and coincidentally the opening in Edinburgh of the world’s first Library of Mistakes.

In engineering, it’s usually possible to try things out, learn from failure and adapt quite quickly. In developing a successful light bulb, Thomas Edison did hundreds, even thousands, of iterations in developing a filament that would both provide good illumination and last a decent length of time, with a multitude of failures along the path.

Science is rather different, as major new theories sometimes have to wait for years before they can be either validated or discarded.

The new library in Edinburgh records a litany of financial disasters. I wonder if anyone at RBS (or any of the other banks that ran themselves into the rocks) will be paying it a visit?