Wednesday, 29 October 2014

How's your German?

I am currently steeped in German Romantic poetry – in particular Schiller, Schulze, Mayrhofer, Hölty, Heine, Müller and the Schlegel brothers preparing for concerts in Oxford filled with Schubert’s settings of their work.
This brought to mind one of those forks in the road that confront us from time to time. I was working very happily for Garland-Compton in its pre-Saatchi days, running our biggest client, Rowntree.
They had recently taken over a leading competitor, Mackintosh’s, and the brilliant, glamorous young Tony Mackintosh had become leader of their merged European division.
Tony would sweep into our offices in Charlotte Street, brought there in his black-chauffeur-driven white limo, a vision, all blue jeans and fur coat. The latter he would hand immediately to our receptionist, she on the verge of meltdown, and ask for me.
It was all very 1969.
In due course, Tony summoned me to his offices – not in Halifax or Norwich or York, where the major factories and offices were (and are), but in a fine Georgian house in Park Lane, Mayfair. There he invited me to leave the agency and join his team in a senior marketing role. I was flattered, of course, but turned him down graciously, I hope.
At one point in the meeting, we discussed European languages. The plain fact is that, although I have some words and phrases in most of them, I am reasonably fluent only in English.
“How's your German?” he asked.
“Well, I’m familiar with a good deal of Romantic poetry,” I said, “but I’m not sure that the vocabulary would be very useful in marketing meetings.”
Here’s a sample, useful in recent days in Oxford: Abendstern (evening star); Einsamkeit (solitude); Abschied (farewell); Klage (lament); Weinen (tears); Heimweh (homesickness); Sehnsucht (longing); Erwartung (anticipation)…

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Hurdy-gurdy man in Oxford

To Oxford again, latest in the Schubert lieder recitals. This time it was the wonderful baritone, Sir Thomas Allen, singing the great song cycle, Die Winterreise – the Winter’s Journey.

Schubert set this tragic series of poems by his contemporary, Wilhelm Müller. Although the composer admired Müller’s work immensely, he only set one of his poems as a single song, ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’, the Shepherd on the Rock. But he set two long series by the poet which together established the song-cycle as a major form within music – Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreisse.

Curiously, although I’ve known the Winter's Journey intimately from recordings over several decades, it was the first time I’d heard it in the flesh. And what an ideal introduction this was by Thomas Allen. He brings a lifetime of experience to it, not just of singing and acting, but also of life itself.

The journey starts with a young man, disappointed in love, and ends with him observing an aged street musician, an organ-grinder:

There behind the village,
stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
with stiff fingers,
he plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice,
he staggers to and fro,
and his little plate
remains empty for ever.

No one wants to hear him,
no one looks at him,
and the dogs are growling
around the old man.

And he lets everything go on
as it will;
he turns, and his hurdy-gurdy
never stands still.

Strange old man,
shall I go with you?
Will you turn your hurdy-gurdy

to my songs?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hyperventilating with Lord Carrington

Everyone associates Saatchi & Saatchi with Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party, but in fact Garland Compton, in the days before it became Saatchis, pitched and won the business in the run-up to one or other of the previous 1974 elections. Both were effectively won by Labour, so it’s not surprising that there’s no residual memory.

But I recall the pitch. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. The great and good of the party, led by the terrifying Lord Carrington, were lined up in front of me, waiting for my words of wisdom. I hyperventilated, scarcely able to get a word out.

How on earth did we win the work? I've no idea.

Afterwards, I told one or two people what had happened to me and got consistent advice, best summed up as: ‘You’d probably be better off not doing presentations. Stick to what you’re good at, whatever that is.’

Of course, that made me determined to get better at presenting – and at dealing with my nerves in such scary situations.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Leaving Saatchi

The recent serialisation of Lord Tim Bell’s memoirs in the Daily Mail with its exposé of the ‘backstabbing, booze and screaming rows’*, put me in mind of the difficult time I had had in leaving the firm.

At thirty-one, I’d come to the conclusion that, to get experience as a CEO in the advertising business, I needed to leave Saatchi and Saatchi, the hottest agency on the planet at that time.

I had found another, smaller, agency that was looking for someone to succeed the dashing Rupert Chetwynd as MD. And they wanted me to do that.

Back at Saatchi, I was quite surprised, when I told Tim Bell of my plans, that he didn’t follow my reasoning at all. In fact they wanted me to stay. And so I found myself in the presence of the legendary Charles Saatchi.

What would it take to keep me at Saatchi’s? The offers came thick and fast. Salary increases, trains, boats, planes. Anything you like. Oh, and by the way we’d like you to be managing director.

The problem with that offer was that the agency already had a whole raft of people called chairmen, deputy chairmen, managing directors, deputy MDs and so on. I couldn’t see that becoming MD would have any reality to it. So I declined his kind offer as graciously as I could.

As I was leaving his office, Charles stopped me: “I’d just like to say one thing to you… It won’t be as easy out there.”

How right he was. In those days, winning business at Saatchi’s was a walk in the park.

But how was I to know that?


Friday, 17 October 2014

Wikipedia and Misia

Academics the world over remain sniffy about Wikipedia. Yet it is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most valuable triumphs of the internet.

What prompted this thought was a rekindling of interest in the extraordinary life of Misia Sert. Born in 1872, she was a pianist (her teacher Gabriel Fauré), who married three times. She was a close friend of the impresario Diaghilev and became the cultural arbiter in Paris for several decades.

Proust enshrined her in two ways in his In Search of Lost Time: as Princess Yourbeletieff (sponsor of the Ballets Russes) and as the gruesome Madame Verdurin.

All this one can learn from the Wikipedia entry on Misia, which I note has doubled in length and acquired a dozen footnotes since I last googled it.

Ah well. Academia has been known to give the impression of catching up with the rest of the world – sometimes at a distance of twenty years or so…

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Schubert in Oxford

How blessed we are, to live near Oxford. Smaller than London, Paris or New York, but nevertheless with so much going on.

This month the city hosts a three-week festival – all the songs of Schubert. Over 650 of them.

It’s an amazing feat, the brainchild of pianist-impresario Sholto Kynoch, who has organised (and performed in) his Oxford Lieder Festival since its inception. Most of the events are at Holywell – not a ‘concert hall’, but an intimate ‘music room’ with ideal acoustics. Opened in 1748, is it the oldest public music venue in the world?  

And the performers this year – a dazzling array of the finest singers of German song, including Sir Thomas Allen, Wolfgang Holzmair, Sarah Connolly, Angelika Kirschlager, Ian Bostridge, Robert Holl and so many more. Plus the finest pianist-accompanists.  

I caught up with it at lunchtime yesterday – a recital of Schubert’s songs to poems by the brothers Schlegel. I was looking forward to the soprano Kate Royal, who was wonderful, as expected, but the revelation was the young Swiss baritone Manuel Walser (above), a pupil of Thomas Quasthoff. What an artist!

Was this his debut in Britain? It seems so. Such a future he has before him.

And I have tickets for several more concerts in the series. Hurrah!  

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Things that just ain’t so

One of the most popular consultant visuals is the one that divides the topic in hand into things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, things we don’t know we know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. It’s a useful diagnostic tool.

Of course, there’s another category, not captured by the graph, but neatly expressed by the American cowboy Will Rogers (or was it wise Mark Twain?):

It's not the things you don't know what gets you into trouble. It's the things you do know that just ain't so.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Learning from history

Some quotes we seem condemned to repeat.

I’m thinking of course of George Santayana’s most famous line from his 1905 book Reason in Common Sense:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But hold on. Wasn’t that one of Churchill’s? Or was it John Buchan?

Actually, it was the Dublin-born philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century who wrote:

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

We happy few in Birmingham

To Symphony Hall in Birmingham for the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tour. Perfect programme, brilliantly played.

What could be more delicious than this: one of Haydn’s most scintillating symphonies, the 'Hen', written for Paris; Mozart at his most profound, his last piano concerto, beautifully played by Steven Osborne; a brand new work by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, post-Pendereckian, wonderfully atmospheric in that hall, and with the composer on stage with the band playing an amplified sitar; and Tchaikovsky at his most joyfully ecstatic, his Souvenir de Florence.

The ACO really isn’t just another chamber orchestra. They are world-class and have a very distinct character energetic yet soulful, standing to play, swaying, absolute unity, all in black. Tremendous audience reaction.

So what’s the problem? The hall was maximum 15% occupied. Maybe less. Acres of empty space.

Had the Symphony Hall marketing and publicity people gone on strike?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Not sunk in yet…

That’s golfer Jamie Donaldson’s response to having played the final winning shot for the European team at the Ryder Cup on Sunday.

‘It’s not sunk in yet…’
That’s what sportsmen and women say when they achieve some important milestone. All of them. It’s become the standard cliché. And usually in answer to the same question, ‘How does it feel…?’

But what does it really mean?

‘I’ve been working very hard and don’t know how to access my feelings at this point’?
‘I don’t have any feelings now, but I might later’?
‘That’s such a stock question, so here’s a stock answer’?

When they say it, I always wonder how it will be different when it has finally ‘sunk in’, and how they might recognise that that moment has arrived..

When it finally has 'sunk in', is the feeling usually better or worse than in the immediate aftermath? I suppose the expectation is that it will be better, but, for example with silver medal winners, research shows that it’s worse – and probably, sadly, from the outset.

How do I feel about this blogpost, now that it’s written? It’s not…