In the middle of January I was in London mentoring five young composers in a scheme organised by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The programme offers emerging composers the opportunity to workshop a new piece with the orchestra's musicians across a year, leading to a public performance at a London venue, showcasing the new works.
The participant composers are mentored by a different 'senior' composer every year, and we attempt to provide some experience and guidance in a series of seminars and workshops. Each participant composes a new work of up to eight minutes, for a chamber orchestra of c. 30 musicians, comprising London Philharmonic Orchestra players.
Along with seminars for the participant composers, I'll lead a three-hour workshop in March, allowing the participants to experiment with new ideas, talk to players and receive advice and feedback in a constructive and inquisitive environment. This is followed by further workshop-rehearsals leading to the final concert performance in July. Also during the year the composers have the chance to attend concerts, observe rehearsals, meet visiting guest composers and get involved with the LPO's wider education work.
This year's composers are Lillie Harris, Karol Nepelski, Laurence Osborn, Ailie Robertson and Neil Smith. The last two are fellow Scots. It is no surprise to me that young composers from north of the border are punching above their weight and emerging into an international context as significant new voices. Another brilliant young figure in recent years has been Jay Capperauld, from New Cumnock, and all have the potential to make their creative mark in contemporary music in the years ahead.
I set a task for the current five – I asked them to scour the Liber Usualis
and Graduale Romanum
(the two most significant receptacles of Gregorian chant) and choose a melody that they liked. They are now each composing a short orchestral piece based on these which will be performed by the LPO and myself in a special concert in London in the summer. I saw their work in progress in January. Each is approaching the task in very different ways, leading to five very varied orchestral 'etudes'. These will display a snapshot of the wide range of priorities in the creative imagination of some of Britain's finest young composers.
Scots interested in this development nearer home should keep an eye, and an ear, on the composition department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland which harvests an impressive crop of young composers each year. The department has brilliant teaching staff and attracts students from around the world.
I came to the Muriel Spark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland with only a superficial knowledge of her life and work. Her books were taken like medicine in high school and at university. I found them bracing but unpleasant. The merciless world view, the cold machinations of plot, had puzzled me.
It was a snowy, driech kind of day in Edinburgh, nonetheless, and the exhibition is free, so in I went, taking my puzzlement with me. The centenary celebrations for Spark include a BBC Radio 3 series of essays on her work from Scottish writers, a dedicated website, and a glitzy Harvey Nics screening of the 1969 movie adaptation of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.'
This exhibition, running until May, is called 'The International Style of Muriel Spark.' It is visually captivating. Chronology all at play, the viewer is led to Tuscany, Edinburgh, New York, Africa, London. On display is luxury and prudence. Papers: manuscripts, correspondence with the great and the good, lists of appointments (hairdressers, French lessons). The wardrobe: a Hermes handbag, a midnight-blue velvet dress, strikingly small. I thought of Miss Jean Brodie's amber necklace which so fascinates the girls at the Marcia Blaine School, and the pivotal importance of a Schiaparelli dress in 'The Girls of Slender Means.' Peppered amongst these objects are notes on Spark's lifestyle: her unyielding work ethic, her love of clothes, the 'Spark parties' for which she gained admiration amongst her hoard of friends.
What sense of the person can be grasped? I was, at first, frustrated. The exhibition's fragmented method mimics Spark's liking for narrative games. There is a nod to this, in the displaying of a quote from 'The Driver's Seat': 'Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?' The first page of the manuscript of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' is perhaps the most telling artefact. It is a document of corrections, hesitations, second thoughts. What I had thought of as merciless is revealed here as a hard-won precision.
There is a video of an interview with Spark, for the BBC programme 'Scope', from 1971. She is mercurial: agitated, vigilant, then soft and playful. Once or twice, flirtatious. She sighs about the writing process ('it sounds easy'). She takes a skull from her bookshelf, goofs around with it to make the interviewer laugh ('Alas, poor Yorick'). She looks shyly pleased to have amused him. Even if it is all for effect, Spark is enchanting.
This exhibition is unapologetically concerned with effect, with the surface of things. Perhaps that's as it should be. Who knows her thoughts, after all? If an aim of the exhibition was to push people to read more Spark, they have succeeded in seducing us. I felt inspired to get my hands on her other books and dig deeper. Spark enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy the kitsch of it all, the expensive fashions, the telegram from Dame Maggie Smith. We newcomers can leave with a sense of enjoyable discoveries ahead.
I blame Lou Grant. The buzz of the newsroom in this 70s series, set in the offices of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune, was addictive. I wanted to be Billie, the Trib's crusading female reporter. I suppose I still do. The legacy of this love affair with Lou et al
has been an urge to see any film featuring newspapers, preferably in a pre-digital age. They may be clichés but I love the clattering typewriters, the chain-smoking editors, the grumpy subs, the coffee cups rattling on desks as the presses begin to roll – and, in this respect,' The Post' did not disappoint.
But I couldn't quite buy the main premise – that the Washington Post
publisher Katharine Graham went from a timid, vacillating socialite to a steely decision-maker in a matter of seconds. The story is now well-known: the New York Times gets hold of a cache of classified government documents revealing that successive administrations – no fewer than four US presidents, including Tricky Dicky and the saintly JFK – had lied to the public and Congress about the extent of US involvement in the Vietnam war. When the NYT is threatened with legal action, the Post, having been provided with more of the secret documents, begins publishing its own series of articles. Further legal action is threatened and publisher Graham has to make the monumental decision whether to continue to publish.
Graham (Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep) is hauled out of a party, where
she is peering at notes and making a hesitant speech, to be confronted
with her editor, Ben Bradlee (sorry, Tom Hanks, preferred the Jason
Robards' version of Bradlee in 'All the President's Men,' chiefly
because I could hear and understand him more easily than your good
self), her lawyers, and various other Post representatives. She
panics, she dithers, she demurs and then she clearly has a lightbulb
moment and declares: 'Yes, let's publish, let's publish.' And they do.
By the time of this decision, however, Graham had actually been at the
helm of the Post for eight years, following the suicide of her husband
Phil Graham (who had been handed the reins of the Post by her father,
Eugene Meyer, when he retired). She could not have been nearly as
inexperienced as the film would have us believe. Yet it really labours
this point and, for me, it didn't ring true.
But still, there were lashings of the stuff I love, including an editor having to go outside to use a payphone, spilling his coins as he endeavours to phone his deep throat. And, of course, the following year another deep throat would come into his own and another film would be made of the courageous Post taking on the establishment – and winning. There was a nod to this in the film's closing sequence when a security guard, doing his rounds, notices a door handle taped open and gets on the phone to report something amiss in the Watergate building.
So who played Graham in that film, I wondered. I racked my brains…but
couldn't remember. Turns out that Graham had no role at all in 'All the
President's Men' and she was referenced by Bradlee just once. At least
Meryl got the chance to bring Graham to the big screen…though I still
believe the subsequent Pulitzer prize-winner was seriously short-changed.
Christmas 2017 is spent with my wife's family. We are visiting a flat overlooking Wuppertal, a city to the east of Düsseldorf. My sister-in-law cooks an immaculate Christmas dinner and since the kitchen table is too small to seat eight people, we eat from plates on our knees. It's a delicious meal to relish, so by the time the dishes have been cleared away, night has come in. My niece Catriona, whose apartment this is, announces that it's time for games.
Catriona and her sister Lesley were teenagers when we met a dozen years ago, but this family ritual has not changed since then. With board games and charades promised, we are on the cusp of a hilarious performance in which the sisters carry all before them, intent on joyous mischief. They unleash a barrage of witty distractions – winks, grimaces and what seem to their bemused uncle like tactically-timed rule changes. Catriona's Bulgarian friend Ralitsa is spending the day with us. Though new to such British shenanigans, she enjoys the craziness and gives back as good as she gets. We do not stay late: these two women have to work next evening.
On Boxing Day Wuppertal Opera stages the Christmas opera 'Hänsel and Gretel,' Catriona Morison and Ralitsa Ralinova in the lead roles. As the mezzo-soprano, Catriona sings the boy's part and Ralitsa plays his sister. Their well-matched vivacity in the opening scenes brings to mind the previous evening's fun. Indeed, the German audience includes families with children and Catriona invests her role with boyish uncouthness.
Then, soaring on Wagnerian swathes of Englebert Humperdink's music, she develops Hänsel's character, letting the audience feel the boy master his unformed energy and find courage to overcome the wicked witch.
In January, Catriona gives her first concert recital at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, her professional homecoming. She returns as the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World and an honorary professor, laureate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. When she steps onto the stage, the audience surprises her with a spontaneous ovation before she has sung a note. Her delight is infectious, touches her scintillating accompanist Malcolm Martineau and reaches into the stalls.
As in her victorious performances televised from Cardiff, Catriona offers tonight both coherence and variety: a programme of songs from the romantic era diverse in mood, style and themes. Several songs draw shared amusement from singer and pianist. For example, Mahler's wry setting of 'St Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes' leaves the priest's unique congregation delighted but unreformed, while Pierre Velonne's scathing epitaphs come too late to whitewash their subjects' moral failings. In contrast, 'Mother, oh Mother! I'm hungry' (also set by Mahler) features the wailing of a child dying from starvation.
Catriona's strength is her ability to draw her listeners in as she reaches beneath the luminous sound of her glorious voice to take us to each song's emotional core. For my wife and me this concert entwines with memories of the student standing on the Teith's muddy bank and singing to bless our wedding, then as now affirming beauty's place at the centre of the thriving soul.
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