Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The spirit of something moving

I've been downloading a fair bit of music lately from iTunes. With downloaded classical music, one does miss the sleeve notes generally provided even in cheap discs, but there is quite a variety of music available, and probably more elsewhere that I haven't got round to looking at yet.

One of the tracks I've recently bought is Elgar's "The Spirit of the Lord", an anthem from his oratorio, The Apostles, which is often sung as a stand-alone piece. It's about six and a half minutes long, for four-part choir and organ, and is one of the most beautiful anthems ever written (in my humble opinion). The opening minute or so consists of an organ introduction, reduced from the original orchestral score, and it is this which sets the tone for the whole work. According to Professor Lionel Pike, this introduction shows the spirit of God moving across the face of the waters. I'm not enough of a musician to understand how Elgar achieves this effect, but it is profoundly moving, and makes me shiver no matter how many times I listen to it.

So, given that I don't believe in God, how is this possible? It's interesting that one can be moved by music that evokes something which the composer felt strongly enough to convey - Elgar does something similar in The Dream of Gerontius, with the shattering chord that is Gerontius' one awed glance at the majesty of God, and his anguished "Take me away," having been overcome by the sight. I suppose it's the power to create such feeling which makes music, for me, the most profound and important of the arts.

Click to listen to The Spirit of the Lord (hope this works!)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not looking at all like a team

So England have lost another match. This is the cricket team, by the way, just in case you were wondering if I had any advance knowledge. It's good to see Steve Harmison again taking wickets and bowling economically, but he was badly supported by the other bowlers, who let Sri Lanka score far too fluently.

England are really not looking like a team at present. Duncan Fletcher appears to be at his wits' end to know how to fill the gaps created by injuries. This team is presently without Vaughan, Giles, Anderson, Hoggard, Jones and Flintoff, not to mention Joyce and Chapple. However, injuries don't excuse the performances. Strauss and Trescothick failed in the openers' job - to stay in - and it was left to Pietersen to try to make up the runs, which of course he couldn't manage. Like the earlier match at Lords', England bowled too many extras (Harmison was one of the guilty parties there), and the fielding could have been much better.

England certainly aren't looking like a team who could beat Australia or India at present. I only hope this changes soon.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tamburlaine stays in

I tend to buy DVDs (with a few exceptions) only when on a special offer, and I've been meaning to review the latest acquisitions for a while. So here are my thoughts on four.

Friday Night Lights
This is an American football movie, set in a small Texas town, and tells the true story (albeit with bits changed for dramatic licence) of the Permian High football team during a single season in the late 1980s. The hopes and dreams of the entire town rest on the shoulders of the players, boys of seventeen and eighteen whose only hopes of getting out of their town is to play well and get spotted. Players feel the pressure, and their coach (Billy Bob Thornton) is subtly and not so subtly threatened by townsfolk who take the word "fan" to new extremes.

This is an excellent film. It's underplayed by the actors (some of whom have a spooky likeness to their real-life counterparts), and the season's ups and downs, and its more ridiculous moments (such as the evening when a coin toss determines which of three teams will go into the play-offs for the state championship) are very sharply conveyed. You don't need to know anything about the game to enjoy this film - it's superb.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I put off buying and viewing this because I'm such a fan of the radio series - despite the plethora of other media, I consider it the best version Adams wrote. So I approached it with a degree of trepidation. And, well, it's a good film, with some stand-out bits, but still not as good as the radio version.

The cast was generally good: Sam Rockwell made a fantastically vain and self-obsessed Zaphod, and Stephen Fry was a perfect choice for the Book; Martin Freeman was occasionally excellent as Arthur, Bill Nighy wasn't quite world-weary enough for Slartibartfast, and Alan Rickman sounded more exasperated than depressed as Marvin. And why Arthur would have even thought Mos Def, as Ford Prefect, would be from Guildford, with an American accent, is beyond me!

The main problems with the film were that things were not quite the same as I'd imagined. Quirky, yes, and imaginative. But not quite as I had envisaged. So it won't be one I'll watch again.

My Summer of Love
The plot of this British film can be summed up fairly quickly: girls are bored, make friends, make love, fall out. It's something of an enigmatic film, with none of the characters' motives ever really being explained. Mona feels abandoned by her brother, Phil, (Paddy Considine, who never really convinces until the end of the film), who's found God. She meets Tamsin, who's rich and pampered and different, and the two find a friendship that deepens into something more. Mona is a very appealing character, and you warm to her: she's sincere, whereas I never felt that Tamsin, despite her protestations, was.

It's a beautifully photographed film, and the two young actresses are very good as Tamsin and Mona. The story is unusual, and affecting. Recommended.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
This is an interesting film. It was shot almost entirely on greenscreen, with the backgrounds being (lovingly) digitally rendered in full 1930s Art Deco smudginess. You need to disengage your sense of reality, because it's more like a 1930s comic in the vein of Dan Dare than anything else. Giant mechanised robots are attacking cities around the world and removing power supplies, oil refineries and metal stocks. Scientists are going missing. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) will do anything to follow the story; New York is saved from complete destruction by Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), whose array of robot-fighting gadgets are dreamed up by his sidekick Dex (an excellent Giovanni Ribisi).

The plot carries Polly and Joe across the world to the Himalayas in search of Dr Totenkopf (a name of ill-omen if ever there was one), to a rendez-vous with Joe's former fling, Commander Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie, who appeared to be having a good time producing a very spiffing English accent). There are holes galore in the plot, however, and there are moments when the actors have obviously no idea what they're meant to be looking at and reacting to. Law and Paltrow convince in their scrapping together more than you believe that they were ever involved. It's an interesting experiment in film-making, but ultimately the threat doesn't feel real or urgent enough, nor the acting solid enough to convince me that it really works better than a live background film.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Organ fanboys drool

I haven't posted much lately: too busy at work, unfortunately. I hope Talk Talk get their act together soon, because broadband at home has been ordered, it's just taking its time...

I attended an organ recital at St Anne’s church in Limehouse on Saturday. Since I don’t care for football, it didn’t matter that the concert was at 2.30 pm, when most of east London was watching England’s match against Paraguay. The church is a beautiful Hawksmoor-designed creation originally built in the eighteenth century. It’s fallen a little on hard times, as have many of these churches in East London, but attempts are underway at present to restore its superb interior.

Like many eighteenth century churches, St Anne’s is roughly rectangular in shape, with an upper balcony around three sides. The organ is at the west end. There’s no altar, and no crucifix, but a beautiful and surprisingly realistic stained glass window showing the crucifixion at the east end takes its place. The plasterwork on the ceiling is fabulous – a riot of shape and form that appears to be in good condition, mostly. However, it’s clear from just a cursory glance that the church still needs more work, with paint peeling off walls, and plaster cracking.

The restoration of the organ, built in 1851, had recently been completed, and the recital was to celebrate its completion. It’s a three manual Gray and Davidson, completed for the Great Exhibition, restored by William Drake. I don’t know a lot about organs, beyond liking the music. I can’t talk discursively about stops and pedals and open diapasons (I leave that to more knowledgeable types). The restored organ looks very good, with not too much gilding and carving: in fact, the case looks very much as it might have done in 1851.

The inaugural recital was played by Thomas Trotter, organist to the City of Birmingham, and a noted player (I have a recording of his of the complete works of Jehan Alain, which is very good). It was a varied programme, designed to show off the strengths of the organ (as well as the organist’s technique) ranging from the superb to the downright vulgar. Works included a transcription of an organ concerto by Handel, four short 16th century pieces, a Mozart Fantasia (the two organ Fantasias he wrote are very difficult to play, as Mozart wrote them for a mechanical organ!), a sonata by Mendelssohn, Andante by Smart and the first movement from Widor’s famous Organ Symphony No. 5. All were beautifully played, fully realising the potential and range of the instrument, and were warmly received by the audience. Trotter was an engaging presence, too, speaking from the balcony above the audience about the various pieces and why he’d chosen to play them at St Anne’s.

An afternoon very well spent, I thought. Just the thing on a hot summer’s day.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Yet more theatrical news, darling...

The two theatre companies which use the Emery Theatre, a small venue in Poplar (see previous post about The Mystery of Irma Vep), have just heard that their landlord has abruptly and with only about two weeks’ notice, cancelled their lease. As a result, the companies are now homeless, and all the accumulated equipment, scenery, props and costumes from twelve years’ worth of shows have to be removed from the theatre and stored elsewhere. It’s not clear why the landlord has made this decision – whether to run the theatre themselves, or to change its use to something completely different. For whatever reason, their tenants have not been treated with courtesy or consideration.

Keith and Lynn, who are in charge of staging plays at the Emery, and have invested much time, effort and money into making the place a pleasant one for both actors and audience, seem to think that the space will no longer be used for a theatre. Now their task is to find a new home for their companies and equipment, and a new venue for their plays. It would be a shame if this small but inventive crew were left abandoned and their shows left unperformed.

The Voysey Inheritance

This National Theatre revival of the play by Harley Granville-Barker is playing at present at the Lyttleton. I went to see it on Saturday with S., at a matinee. I’d never been to a production at the National before, so the steeply raked seating in the Circle came as rather a surprise, but the view was very good.

The play opens in a solicitor’s office in Lincoln’s Inn in the early years of the twentieth century. Edward Voysey (played by Dominic West), has just discovered that his father (played by Julian Glover) has for years been embezzling money from his clients and speculating. The principled (and rather priggish) Edward cannot believe how lightly his father appears to take this admission of wrong-doing, and must deliberate his whole future. Later on in the course of the play, Edward informs the rest of his (rather large) family of their father’s criminal activities, and is aghast at their acceptance of these, and by their insistence that to go on doing the same is the only thing to do. He decides what the right thing is to do, and manages to stick to doing it, honestly and without being tempted to follow his father’s path.

Despite the subject matter, the play is funny, being well-observed rather than witty. Edward’s elder brother, Booth, is one of the better comic characters, being “booming” and pompous, and their mother provides laughter by being unable to hear anyone speak. In fact, the whole play was very well-acted (though a few of the actors appeared to have problems with projection, seeming to shout rather than talk), and well-staged, with beautiful sets.

Perhaps it was a little pricey (over £30 for a ticket), but the matinee was sold out, testament to the good reviews this show has had. It’s certainly well-worth seeing.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Beauteous humanity

Our office building has a small canteen supplied with a couple of tables and several chairs where one can eat one’s lunch. Normally I eat sandwiches at my desk, but lately I’ve been going for the hot meal option and eating downstairs. There is some reading matter available, supplied, I assume, by colleagues from their old stocks, and which consists predominantly of women-lit (as opposed to chick-lit) and three-month old copies of OK! magazine (about which more later).

However, recently I’ve been reading Island, by Aldous Huxley, a copy of which someone had kindly left behind, and finished it on Tuesday. It was very interesting to read so soon after finishing Collapse (see my previous post on the subject), as Huxley had identified many of the aspects of creating a sustainable society as Diamond does in his book. Huxley also adds in a lot of Buddhism in order to explain why the islanders have adopted their lifestyle and how they can all be so well-adjusted. The novel is told from the viewpoint of an Englishman, Will Farnaby, a reporter who is inadvertently and fortuitously shipwrecked on the relatively “closed” island paradise of Pala. At first, Will is cynical and self-serving, but gradually the outlook of the islanders comes to make much more sense to him and he is finally changed enough to take their part against the outside world.

It seems quite feasible to achieve in a relatively isolated and self-sufficient island, even if the positive social conditioning that the islanders give their children is reminiscent of the negative conditioning of the children of Brave New World (which I started reading last night). In Island, however, the malcontents are painted very unsympathetically – the Rani with her bogus spiritualism and stultifying mother-love; Colonel Dipa, who could be modelled on any one of the world’s dictators; and Murugan, the Raja to be, who is egocentric, childish (even more so than any of the real children) and easily manipulated.

Anyway, it’s recommended, and started me reading Brave New World, which I’ve had on my bookshelves for a couple of years and not before read.

On to the other reading material, then. Yesterday lunchtime, having finished Island, I sank so far as to actually pick up an issue of OK!. And glance at it with a kind of horrified fascination. Are people really interested in Jordan and Peter Andre renewing their wedding vows at Disneyworld (or wherever)? Because there were pages and pages of drivel and photographs. There were people featured that I had never heard of, and seem to have no discernible talent, and columnists who stated the bloomin’ obvious over and over again.

Perhaps OK! does provide some sort of service to those who don’t have much, and who aspire to something more, or who just like reading about the rich and occasionally well-dressed. Perhaps I’m a snob (this is possible: I rarely watch TV and my magazine subscriptions are for The Economist and Private Eye) in expecting OK! and its ilk to provide anything better. It is all so trivial and meretricious. Are we so concerned with consuming things, whether these are delusions of the importance of people who will never leave a lasting mark on the world, or that all you need to be happy is a bulging wallet and being trailed by the stalkerazzi? Will we all be sucked into mass conformation and become happy little consumers?

Or am I just taking Brave New World a little too seriously?